My friend Phyllis has mounted a one-woman campaign against Common Core. She posts incredibly interesting articles and snippets about why this is such a bad idea for American education. I agree with her because as a teacher, I see how high stakes testing has eroded my profession and turned our schools into cheap manufacturing facilities that aren't doing what goddess and nature intended them to do: educate children.
Today she posted a piece that commented on a recent article in The Reading Teacher. When I was employed by the public schools, I was a member of the International Reading Association, and that was my professional journal. The article in question refers to the current trend of teaching children "close reading." In terms of teaching jargon, I must admit this was a new one on me. But it refers to the way we teach students to read literature.
Let's be clear. This article was talking about teaching little kids in elementary school how to read children's books the same way college students read literature for English classes.
As a veteran reading specialist, I struggle with far more prosaic problems with children who are not good readers. For example, I am finding that the kids are not being taught the basics of word study. Phonics is another word for it, but phonics is only the tip of the iceberg. Word study addresses the patterns used in words, teaches children how to identify those patterns and then use them to break down unknown words. The kids with whom I work in an after-school program are given sheets of words printed in rectangles and those are sent home for them to use in homework assignments. The parents have no clue as to what to do with them. The teachers who have not taken the basic class in how to teach word study are likewise ignorant of their purpose.
Let me teach it to you. The rectangles are to be cut apart. The words are to be sorted into their word patterns. With enough repetition, the child will do that automatically, and then will have been taught how to apply that to unknown words encountered while reading. This is supposed to happen in the classroom with a teacher trained in this type of pedagogy.
But instead, the teachers are busy teaching the facts that will be on The Test. The teachers are busy passing out worksheets that drill the students on the information that will be on The Test. The teachers are practice testing items that will be on The Test. The teachers are administering benchmark tests that predict how the children will do on The Test.
And this, my friends, is what passes for education in this day and age. That great breeze is the dearly departed collective of reading research greats rolling in their graves: William Gray, Emmett Betts, Russell Stauffer, Edmund Henderson, Jeanne Chall. I can only guess at how they would tear this current trend to bits. These people were all about direct instruction in teaching young children the very basic building blocks of reading, based on the Piagetian concept of giving them only what they are capable of absorbing in their stages of development as little human beings.
But the Common Core people would have us teaching second and third graders things like author's purpose. These are kids for whom just getting at the words and working out the sentences are major victories. Teaching them how to pay attention to the text in order to understand it is as basic as it comes, and many of our children struggle with that. Many take it in stride and move quickly through the levels of reading. But I work with the ones who aren't at that point.
When you read for pleasure, friends, are you constantly asking yourself "what's the author's purpose?" I don't. I read all the time. I read all kinds of things. But I'm mostly reading fiction for the sheer joy of a great yarn being told in a terrific way that hits all my senses. Even in college, I dropped out of the English program because I wanted to write and I was sick of analyzing the work of others. I understood that it was what would help me be a better writer, but I feared losing my own voice.
Little kids don't have that capability because they do not have the life experiences that Common Core presumes them to have in order to explain what the author's purpose was. They do not have the developmental internal knowledge beyond what they, themselves, might be thinking about any given problem.
So, when we discussed why Marvin Redpost seemed to be going out of this way to get in trouble with his mother, they honestly had some difficulty figuring out that he was working for a delaying tactic that would keep him off a bicycle he hadn't yet learned to ride. He didn't want to be embarrassed in front of all his friends. And indeed, the friends were the ones who volunteered him for the daredevil mission of riding his new bike down Suicide Hill. They didn't have any skin in the deal, but he sure did.
My students were at varying degrees of what we call the decentering process. It's the point in a child's development when s/he can think beyond the self and be able to put her/himself into the position of another person and be able to project what that other person might be thinking or feeling. Its a huge step for some people and we all know plenty of self-absorbed types who never moved out of that stage!
But Common Core is saying that we have to teach these high school and college level comprehension techniques to little kids. And then they are tested on that stuff. They can barely understand Louis Sacher's fabulous character Marvin Redpost, yet they must be able to say what his purpose was in writing.
As a writer, I can tell you my only purpose is to tell a story. How it unfolds is how it unfolds. As a student, I used to say to Mrs. Harmon, "How do you know? What if all Emily Dickinson was doing was playing around with words? What if she had no conscious message? What if she was just amusing herself?"
But before a child can even get to the point of confounding her loving English teacher (Mrs. Harmon, was, for the record, the world's best and indulged me terrifically!), that child has to be able to read the words and know what they mean. That child has to be able to read standard English when all around them is spoken a dialect unintelligible to all but the local cognocenti. That child has a lot to overcome in the simple process of reading a third grade level chapter book, and the author's purpose can be boiled down to a very common denominator: writer's write because that is how they make a living. End of story.
You want to test that? I'd really like to read the validity and reliability of that one!
I have a pal that I drop in on every now and then, just to make sure he's okay and up to no good. Inevitably, because he sits behind his desk, his attention wanders. I'm an old teacher, so I pick up the signals like a pitcher on the mound. He's playing solitaire.
One could become offended, but he's one of those people who can probably hear better when he's slightly distracted - kind of like the people who swear they pay better attention to a sermon while they are knitting.
I discovered, recently, that I do the same thing when I'm on the phone. The act of clicking on cards keeps me tethered, instead of pacing, and my thought processes can stick with the caller a lot better.
One morning, quite early, I realized I'd fallen into a pattern of checking email, then Facebook and then would play a round of Spider. While I played, my mind was reviewing a project that I needed to think through. And, everyone who knows me well, knows that I talk to myself. So it went. I was talking my way through a thorny issue that needed to be resolved in a fair, but firm way. The card game seemed to keep me focused.
My best ideas, as you regular readers know, come while I'm soaking in a bubble bath, but if I migrate to the bubbles after a session with computer solitaire, I've discovered the badly needed breakthrough comes to the surface a lot faster.
As a reading specialist, I employ a comprehension technique known as the Directed Reading-Thinking Activity. I think that for myself I've developed the Solitaire(y) Distraction-Thinking Activity, the ultimate problem solver. Figuring out how to snip thorns while engaging in a "solitairy" activity kind of eliminated the guilty pleasure of wasting time, but to suddenly discover that it has a genuine use is pretty darn convenient!
Give it a try. Let me know if you can empty your mind and let solutions come to you in that way.
Recently, I was asked to fill a temporary position as parliamentarian for a national organization. I won't go into details on this because one must observe the rules of confidences. But there emerged an interesting situation that, for any of us who like orderly meetings and specific processes, really irked me.
The bylaws of this, and many other national organizations, require a credentialed parliamentarian, and they specify the minimum credential they are willing to accept. Members of my 50 year old Unit have eschewed this credentialing process and continue merrily along as Primary Members. One of us actually took the test many years ago, but when the organization lost her exam and told her to retake it, she told them to fuggedaboudit.
In order to become a Primary Member, we had to study 300 questions that "could" appear on our exam. 100 would be chosen from that 300, and we needed to be able to pass with a 70% score, at the minimum. I passed with 100%. If they had tested me on all 300, I still would have gotten 100%. The reason being, my Unit had helped me understand the questions. So, it wasn't a matter of just memorizing, which I simply can't do with any level of reliability. I had to actually know and understand these questions. The "why" is key to being effective as a parliamentarian.
But something I have learned over these past years is that when an organization needs the help of a parliamentarian, many times what they really need is help with organizational development, and that is an entire field which confers PhDs at its highest level. Luckily, a lot of us have a pretty solid understanding of how an organization should function for optimum results, so we can guide a group to reach this, while also teaching them the parliamentary processes that help them keep the group functioning well.
But here is where the rub comes in. Just because a person has all those parliamentary letters after his/her name does not guarantee that they are giving a group the best advice. Members of my Unit all have war stories about organizations that had been totally messed up by parliamentarians who could spout arcane passages from Robert's while leading a group to completely violate their own bylaws. These same Unit members have gone in and cleared up incredibly messy situations in which boards have become completely dysfunctional and unable to conduct business, and they all agree on one thing: sometimes those credentialed people get too comfortable and they get sloppy. Maybe that rule about politicians and diapers needing to be changed should include professional parliamentarians!
Anyway, my current project involves a key problem that is so utterly universal as to make me want to cry. They approved a bylaw to move to the one-member-one-vote model because like a lot of national organizations, conventions were becoming increasingly poorly attended. (We'll save the issue of plummeting membership numbers for another time.) However, in so doing, they did not codify how they would manage certain aspects of that.
For example, if they wished to amend a bylaw, at a convention the delegates would debate the issue and then vote. This is the central theory behind any deliberative assembly from Congress on down to a Brownie troop. But if you have no convention of delegates, how do the members debate the issue? How do they weigh in on the pros and cons of the proposed changes? Who decides which amendments make it to the ballot and by what process?
To my utter astonishment (not) the credentialed parliamentarian did not give the group their marching orders on establishing the process in their standing rules! So everyone is confused, they've made some mistakes in handling issues and to make matters worse, the organization's "professional mosquitoes" are stinging and undermining and doing all the things that they do. (If you belong to ANY group, you have them and you know what I'm talking about. If they get mad and quit, there will be another to take that vacant place, with a nice, fresh, and very sharp barb.) One of their biggest weapons is deciding that I, the temp, am "unqualified."
You know what? You try that test and then get back to me on that one. A Primary Member has demonstrated knowledge, and any one of us who has logged hours of community service in this knows what we are doing. The difference is, we don't do this as a way of making a living and because we aren't credentialed, no one has to pay us an arm and a leg for our good advice or guidance.
And that's where it is at this point. I have to counsel them that the argument over my qualifications is a petty distraction designed to keep them off balance and off task. I am guiding them to creating processes that make everything flow smoothly. They will be able to deal with members fairly and evenly, with no preferential treatment for the mosquitoes. Of course, you know that will not go over well, and that business of being "unqualified" will come into play. The sad part of it is that the members with whom I have had the pleasure of working really are grateful for the common sense approach that takes their collective humanity into consideration. The challenges ahead include getting that Board to understand that they owe it to the organization to represent the membership as a whole, not just the mosquitoes, and that when they blab board business, they ring bells that cannot be unrung.
Sooner or later, they will understand that yes, from time to time, a parliamentarian, including me, will advise them to bend or break a rule because if they do not, the organization might end up facing a far more serious situation down the road. And, hopefully, some of them will understand that until they institute processes for dealing with certain of the organization's functions, they will have standing water that breeds mosquitoes. If you want to rid yourself of them, you have to be vigilant about removing the breeding ground.
Boundaries are our friends.
So, if your group needs help, and your paid professional parliamentarian has given you the kind of advice that keeps him or her on your payroll past the expiration date, don't be afraid to call in a lowly Primary Member. We'll help you see your organization through a new lens and it might give you the perspective you need to make the changes that will render your group healthy, and hopefully growing and changing with the times. When we get it cleaned up, then you can call in a professional, and hopefully you will have saved your organization a ton of money because you won't have to pay them to do what we do, most of the time for free.
In the meantime, as The Reverend Dr. Timothy Ashton once advised me, "Puh-rocess, puh-rocess, puh-rocess."
Hah. That got your attention, didn't it? Sadly, I only have one major sin to confess, but first, a message from our sponsors, The Supremes.
It's been a busy time, and aside from the TransPacific Partnership, which is, to borrow Ross Perot's phrase, that giant sucking sound of more American jobs going overseas, our super cool President O has had a massively affirming week. The picture above was taken when he learned the Supremes validated Obamacare, or the Affordable Care Act for purists. One wag pranked Joe Biden by photoshopping him wearing a Pride flag like Superman after the Supremes validated equal rights in marriage.
And then the bit about being able to prohibit the flag of the Army of Northern Virginia from appearing on license plates. The housing protection decision wasn't as good as it could have been, but it was based on what the lawyers argued. The Supremes did the right thing with that one, too.
So, yes, we liberals have had a very good week in spite of the sorrow in Charleston and the subsequent church burnings in North Carolina.
In our town, folks rallied to decry Congressman Bob Goodlatte's refusal to convene a congressional committee to deal with the erosion of voting rights. This, in my estimation, is our next target for the big upheaval. it's one thing to pull down a symbolic flag, but it's completely another to fess up to the actual harm done by the GOP when it comes to voting rights.
Bob Goodlatte needs to face up to this, confess his party's sins and do the right thing. The restrictions on voting are regressive and harmful to the American body politic. Absolution could be his, but if he doesn't take this important step, it will likely mobilize the Democrats to find a candidate who could beat the snot out of him at the next election. His term limit could well be nigh.
And that brings up another good one from the past week or so. Pope Frankie stood up in front of [ ___ ] (insert deity of your choice - or not) and declared that climate change is sinful. Well, maybe not those exact words, but the message was clear: defile the Earth and you have sinned against our Creator who gave us this Earth. The Republicans are telling him to stick to his own business. I call that a massive case of testa deruta. Hard headedness. The Republicans do not worship a deity like us common folk....theirs is the old payola. Piss off the Kochers and lose your power. That, to them, is more important than doing the right thing for their constituents.
So, we're back to the idea of the confessional. We all have a lot for which we must atone, and the first step in that process is admitting when we've done something wrong. This is hard for people who cling so desperately to symbols, no matter how convoluted the faux history has become. How can it be wrong to worship a symbol of a bygone era of graciousness?
First of all, that graciousness came at a price for a group of people who were brought here in order to enrich a class of people who needed labor. And while their masters lived the high life in the big house, and sowed wild oats by raping their slaves, their poorer neighbors worked endlessly for very little return. Yet, in spite of the disparity, together they fought a war based on greed and an inability to admit wrongdoing. How different is that from corporate America and poor whites who vote against their own interests?
We could ask why anyone would want to cling to that, but we already know it is a sense of fear brought on by self-loathing. When the preacher only tells a congregation how sinful and bad and undeserving they are and does not preach love and forgiveness, as did Jesus, eventually those congregants will believe that. They vote for rich celebrities because they live vicariously in just about every aspect imaginable. It's how they escape the realities of their own sad existence.
Where I'm going with this today is the idea of facing up to what is hard to admit, acknowledging it, and then, in the words of Ruth Frazier, "chewing up our ghosts." We need to accept that our fellow citizens are being denied certain rights and then we need to jump in and help out. Pretending that someone else more effective can do it is wrong. Those massive shifts made by the Supremes were brought about by a simple majority vote. That's all it takes to effect societal change. But to get to that vote, there has to be a lot of work accomplished and it won't happen by Tinkerbell flinging fairy dust.
Today, hit your own confessional. But please, take time to praise, to send up gratitude, to open your heart to forgiveness and to embrace those who need your love. Be kind, even to someone who doesn't deserve it. It'll make you the better person, and if want to fight for social justice, you damn well better be setting that kind of example.
I nearly forgot. That sin I needed to confess. Well, it has to do with a sense of pride in my own work. I created a painting that was supposed to remain at my alma mater. I didn't want to do that. I thought it was going to be dated in a very few years and just had problems with leaving behind a mediocre piece of art. So, aided and abetted by the fact that my '69 Pontiac was a hardtop, and when all the windows were down, I could slide that huge thing into the car, I just strolled into the building where it hung and took it back. Yep. Stole a piece of art. An unsigned piece, come to that.
It currently resides in our storage locker because it is too large for this little box we live in. However, I've been exploring a different kind of trendy art, and the other day while Jasmine was applying potions and lotions and scrubs to my feeties and legs, I realized how I could update said purloined painting. Stay tuned. I'm hoping the art gods will forgive this one, and my sense is that by being honest about its mediocrity, they might give me a pass. Let's hope so. I really don't want to spend eternity consigned to a gallery of paintings on velvet!
My late friend, Kay Koehler, used to periodically post a comment to her Facebook page about having an earworm. She'd make a couple of pithy remarks about the annoyance, which would then elicit a number of the rest of us listing our own earworms, and the entire thing would be one hilarious complaint after another.
My earworm for the past couple of days hasn't been nearly as erudite as any of hers ever were. For that matter, I don't recall any of mine reaching the lofty heights of a Kay earworm! But it's a good one, nevertheless. If you've had the pleasure of Bette Midler's It's the Girls! album, and haven't had an earworm, I've got to wonder about you.
Mine has been One Fine Day, which was made famous by The Chiffons, and on this album it is a raucous version that I defy anyone to listen to with a poker face, much less without getting up to dance. I have to assume the pianist on this one is Randy Kerber, and I have got to tell you, his glissandos just shoot exuberance into the performance. He pounds that piano like crazy, but it's perfect for it.
That earworm also alternates with Bei Mir Bist du Schon, which is utterly cheeky if you pay attention to the back-up singers. (I know - schon needs an umlaut.) It's like the Andrews Sisters on slyness steroids. In other words, classic Midler.
On a completely unrelated topic, today it is good to be Simon. Simon is our nearly 19 year old crabby tabby, the lone survivor of a trio of kittens we brought home from the SPCA 19 years ago in September. They were boys, they were littermates, and for 15 years Barney Reid Jr. (mackerel tabby) ran things. When he crossed the rainbow bridge, the Alpha designation went to Charlie Byrd Sawtelle (tuxedo), much to Simon's shock and dismay. Charlie crossed the bridge last year in October, and Simon has basked in his position as the spoiled brat with no competition.
He's not well, he's rickety, he's demanding (that has been his trademark!), he's still affectionate and we cater to his every whim. This includes letting him out on the screened porch to patrol his perimeter as soon as he's polished off a dollop of Fancy Feast.
This morning there was a battle royal waging among some birds in the vitex tree, which is at the corner of the porch. I went out to see what the ruckus was about, and Simon was sound asleep in his chair. Only my moving around close to him caused him to open one eye. But the racket got his attention, and by the time I came back in with my little birdhouse in hand (the winds had broken off its hanger loop), he was eyeballing that vitex with murder in his feline brain. He jumped down from his chair, tossed a threatening yeowl over his shoulder and went inside for a drink of water. The birds went silent.
I've no doubt his return to his chair and the more subdued avian discussions have given him a deep sense of his own superiority and power over his dominion. Right now he has to be feeling like President Obama over the recent Supreme Court rulings.
And finally, this just in: The Supreme are batting three for three on social issues. As of today, my gay sisters and brothers have the Constitutional right to marry in the United States of America! I have chills, tears of joy and relief and I don't know what all else. Remember when Bette Midler got her start singing in the gay bath houses in New York? Did she ever think this would happen?
Baby, it's you...sha la la la...baby, it's you...
Today we grieve the loss of lives in yet another hate crime. A kid, armed and brimming with hatred against people who'd done nothing to him, showed up at a historic African Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston, South Carolina. He sat among good people who were there for a prayer meeting, and amidst their humble prayers, killed innocent people.
Even our president, ever the pragmatist, voiced his despair at our inability to overcome paralysis when it comes to passing legislation that would protect our people. Dependence on the amounts of filthy lucre it takes to become elected trumps the safety of constituents.
Paranoia has torpedoed the sales of "smart guns," that would render firearms inactive without the identity of the lawful owner in range.
A young person posts to a friend's timeline, "I always carry my sidearm," as if to declare his bravery. He fails to see what we see: a young person looking for a reason to use his toy. Looking for a reason to exercise his superiority, all the while broadcasting his inner fears and jumpiness.
As I've stated before, I've no quibble with hunters, unless of course they are on "safari" where they shoot animals that are corralled or caged for their convenience. That's not sport. That's a complete lack of character. Hunters who put wild game in the freezer for food, and hunters who happily donate their game to food banks, just don't need to be criticized. Hunting isn't for all of us, but for those who do relish the wee hours spent in discomfort while they stalk game, it is a grand activity. My dad and his buddies did it and I learned early on to respect that.
But it's handguns that bother me. My cousin's great-great-uncle James B. Hickok carried pistols to keep order when he was Marshall of Abilene, Kansas. He was also shot by a pistol while playing poker in Deadwood. It was an act of retribution, plain and simple, and in all these years since, nothing much has changed about people who, armed with handguns, set out to prove something.
Today my African American friends are posting some heart wrenching things that tell me we are at the tipping point. Our nation is in trouble and there is no doubt in my mind the fears of my friends need to be my fears as well. Today, all over our country, people are praying for a reprieve from this violence and the injustice that precedes it.
God, you want to prove your existence to the millions of doubters? Step in. Give our lawmakers the cojones to show up in Congress and pass a bipartisan bill - unanimously - that puts an end to this kind of wholesale insanity. Make them think it through very, very carefully. Make them vote for it even though the gun nuts and the NRA and the neo-cons get a bad case of hives over it. Remind Rush that he's only steps away from a similar crazy parking a round in that empty skull of his over his brand of foaming hatred. And most of all, awaken the consciences of those who harbor resentment and desire retribution.
The ancestors of my friends laid the foundations for our country. They didn't ask for that kind of employment. It was forced on them. You'd think that after all we've been through as a country that injustice would be something we've closed the book on, but rather it seems to be gearing up for another great upheaval.
I know we can't fix stupid. But right about now, the stupid ones are armed to the teeth and the smart ones are standing around feeling a lot of pain and frustration. I'd draw another picture that involves a hand and genitals, but you get the idea.
How many more innocent people must become martyrs before our elected officials demonstrate that they truly are men and women of God, and that God isn't spelled NRA?
People who make stuff know the implications of that seemingly innocent question. We think up something cool to make and we see it ever so clearly in our creative little minds, and then we set out to make that thing. That's when the trouble starts!
Last year I was embroiled in a task that seemed simple enough on the surface, but then POOF! it got complicated. The job was to relocate my garden fairy's home. Miss Mary is nothing if not a tyrant, and the fact that she had Suzy and Scott, my niece and nephew, in her corner was enough to cause a rather uncomfortable case of "diaper rash" for me. I mean, when the kids are involved, you have to deliver, right?
So, dirty pool aside, I decided to make it happen. I mulled the situation all winter, and then in the spring when I was outside cleaning up the dregs of winter's activities, I got a brainstorm. Making Miss Mary's new house was no sweat. It was the location that caused all the trouble. And, as my pal Egon would declare, location, location, location! She was threatening to move out, so yeah, location WAS a big deal for Miss Mary. It turned out to be a very big deal for me, too.
The upshot was a completely renovated Detectives' Garden, minus the noxious weeds, and a place of honor for Miss Mary. So far, so good, right? Yeah, well not so fast, my friends, not so fast. Spring came along and the noxious weeds are back. Sadly, they are in and amongst the plants, so poison - even with my sneaky method - is out of the question. The next issue is that I made the mistake of promising Miss Mary a bocce court. She was very into that, and I had every intention of having it installed before she returned from her winter home in the locker.
Didn't happen. Oops. Worse, when I was tidying up her yard, I realized how tatty her door and windows looked. And, dear me, the purple roof needs another coat of Rust-o-leum. The bocce court would have to wait. The painting began.
The woodsy door and windows are now hydrangea blue with bright yellow trim. The flowers in the purple windowboxes are a riot of hot colors - pinks, orange, red. The purple can of paint has come out and the roof spritzed. And while the paint dried, I made a set of bocce balls from Sculpey III.
Let's talk about balls. Balls should be perfectly spherical so that they roll properly. How hard could it be to make perfect little balls of red and green Sculpey, with one tiny cream colored one? Plenty hard. Even with my OCD propensity for tinkering and fiddling around, I could not get them perfect. I now understand the reason beadmakers invest in those expensive forms! If Miss Mary wants to buy me one, I'll redo the balls, but I'm not forking out for a set!
Okay, now that the balls are made (and there was a lively discussion raging on Facebook that involved one of my feminist hot button issues to while away the baking time), it was time to fill the planter and measure the basswood strips I bought for the bumpers. Uh-oh. Not only was I going to need to cut the stuff for the end pieces, but the length was also going to require trimming. After the required amount of creative profanity was spewed, I messaged my expert on wood - my lawyer. Yeah, Bubba is a handy guy with tools for electronics, wood and what have you. He's made some pretty clever stuff over the years and he has a warped mind, so I knew if I said, hey, how do I cut basswood for a fairy's bocce court, he wouldn't bat an eye. (It helps that he knows about my creative spurts.) And he didn't. Told me what to use. Trouble is, we don't have wood working stuff around here. We have stuff for electricity, water, gas and painting.
There was nothing for it but to ask if he'd make the cuts for me. (He might. We'll see. I'm still waiting for a special shelf for Little Chicago that he promised me, but that's another story.)
So, the bocce court that was to be so simple is a work in progress and with any luck, the last coats of paint on the shutters and windows will dry enough that I'll be able to spray on a clear coat of sealer. Let's just hope that Miss Mary doesn't eyeball that hydrangea blue and start muttering about planting poison ivy when I'm not looking!
I commented on Facebook that the car was packed with the door prizes for the Italian Club's Christmas party and one of my wisegal pals made a comment about doors as prizes. This reminded me of a story involving the late Bill Vernon, the voice of bluegrass here in the Blue Ridge, and Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers.
Hot Rize, the parent band of Red Knuckles, was appearing in a long-awaited and eagerly anticipated concert in Charlottesville. The sponsor was The Prism Coffeehouse, presided over by Fred Boyce. As with any bluegrass act, the emcee for the evening was Bill Vernon.
Bill was a dear friend, who spent Christmas day with us, charming the sox off Big Kitty's Gran Ruth and anyone else who came by. He was, in his own words, the perfect guest. We loved having him around and we still miss him terribly. He was a great friend.
When it came time for Hot Rize to take a break and Red Knuckles to take the stage, Bill announced there would be an intermission, so folks flocked to the lobby to stock up on CDs, tee shirts and fly swatters. At the end of the break, Bill would need to conduct the door prize drawing. There was a door propped up in the back and there was a lot of joking going around backstage about who'd win the door.
Bill went onstage to make the announcements regarding the upcoming shows and what not, and that's when he announced it was time for the door prize. He was occupied with that, when to his left appeared Slade and Waldo Otto (Charles Sawtelle and Nick Forster, respectively), carrying the aforementioned door!
The audience broke up and Bill, momentarily taken aback, looked up only to find the two trouping to the microphone. Always quick with the wisecracks, he resumed the quips about the door as a prize with the two muttering things like, "Well, we thought this was what you wanted...we can take it back..."
The audience had been thoroughly enthralled with Hot Rize, but if that was any indication, the segment when Red and the boys got to perform was guaranteed to be a hit. The laughter never stopped from the minute the door came out until Red, Wendell Mercantile, Waldo and Slade took their final bows. (And the music was stellar, to be sure!)
Big Kitty and I were sitting with one of Bill's many fans, a lady named Clara who husband didn't like bluegrass. Clara started grinning the minute the show started and she didn't stop smiling until later that week (so she said)! So much of the fun of that performance was watching her enjoying the show!
The sad side note to this story is that is was the last tour for Charles Sawtelle/Slade, the guitar player and one prince of a man. He had been diagnosed with leukemia and went on to become a part of the angel band not long afterward. Thanks to his preference for black apparel and our tuxedo kitty's musical purr, we added onto his name in memory of two late, great guitar players: Charlie Byrd Sawtelle.
And that, my friends, was a true tale. The door prize that momentarily left Bill Vernon speechless.
The times are a little confusing here at the Sprawl. We find ourselves trying to keep a modicum of order, decency and old-fashioned common sense as we muddle our way through the "ifs" that surround the health issues of loved ones.
My brother-in-law, who barely survived a horrific accident some years back, has had a number of health problems that have decided to pile on like those old cartoon images of a football pile-up with Popeye and Bluto.
He has had a degenerating back for many, many years and would never take off the time from work to have it dealt with. Perhaps he feared he'd never be able to work again, or perhaps he was just being stubborn. Who knows. But then, there he was, high above a secondary highway in a bucket, working on a traffic signal light, when a semi driver ignored the orange cones, drove under the bucket and knocked him out of it. Hanging upside down in the safety harness, he was bumped along the length of the trailer. When we got to the hospital, up the Shenandoah Valley, his left eye looked like a nice, ripe red plum. His left side had been wrecked, and especially his hand and wrist. He lost his ability to smell, thus his ability to taste.
Poor judgment meant the settlement was a pittance compared to the eventuality of total disability, and that was that. Being the kind of person he is, he got back to work as soon as he could. Then, one day, reaching inside an electrical box, he was bitten by a brown recluse spider on his dominant wrist.
He never regained his dexterity to the point where he could work, his back was killing him, and he became unemployable. Add to this a whole host of redneck drama regarding his lovelife and you have the recipe for a man on the edge. It didn't help that his true love was a clear distilled spirit, and his second love came in packages of 20.
COPD, a degenerating back, and - whoops - a disease contracted mysteriously... and now, what appears to be a stroke. The family is at that stage where my old boyfriend, The Baloney King, would have said they didn't know whether to shit or go blind.
Another friend's elder brother is in hospice. Yet another friend's older brother has just gone on to his great reward. And here we are with the younger brother, hanging on.
It's causing me to wonder what's in the water!
But as I reflected on all of this sadness that we and our beloved friends have been weathering, I am reminded of the words of St. Julian of Norwich:
All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.
It is at times like these when we need to pull together, be there for each other - even if it's just in a quick email to send a note of encouragement or a joke - and remind each other that we do not walk this path alone. We have to continue to practice mindfulness in terms of asking for the help we need. That's a hard one. Most of us don't ask for help, even when we are desperate. We tend to try to muddle through on our own. There is no trophy for that. We're pack animals for a reason. We're supposed to offer that help, and we're supposed to ask for it. And then we say thank you.
Family is how we, ourselves, define it and create it. Yes, there are the blood relatives, but then there are all those we gather close to us because we care about them. We have to remind ourselves that it's a two way street - they care about us. So we need to keep the lines open and keep each other informed. We can't offer love and encouragement if we don't know what the heck is going on!
No matter the outcome with this latest family mishegaas (Yiddish has the best blanket terms!), I'm glad I reached out. The support has been overwhelming and I've got a lot of IOUs out there. That is perfectly fine by me. When we share our experiences and knowledge, we contribute to the well-being of our circle. And that's why, in the final analysis, we know St. Julian was right.
Creative people don't work by the clock, they work by the idea.
A native of The Land of Lincoln, the author currently makes her home in The Star City of the South, where she can utter the word y'all with impunity.