Thursday, May 26, 2011

More Wisdom From Little Ones

I told my friend Chris the other day on his blog that you can’t go wrong when you write about the sincere words of little ones. Adults who don’t spend a lot of time around little kids may forget just how sage they can be. Now don’t get me wrong, there are certainly a lot of mistakes made among any group of people. But there is a kind of sincere, sweet innocence among most children. They haven’t become as jaded as the grown-ups (“grups” my old friend Marty used to say) who do a poor job of running the world. They say what they feel without the filters we often apply in "polite" conversation. Kids have the feeling of being passengers on a train that feels a little out of control. Maybe it is because I am a bit jaded, but I feel that way a lot of the time. Just look at the newspaper. Just listen to the news. Just tune in to politicians trying to lie their way into office.

Kids will tell you stuff that grups won’t, including things that you may not want to hear. Such as details of their being sick or how bad your haircut looks, or how hairy your belly looks when your shirt goes up on the playground. It just comes with the territory. They also share beautiful things that are a delight to hear, that the grups are too self-conscious to come forward with. Like how they cried at the end of the book we were reading together when they were alone, or how much they love their old dog who may not live very much longer, or how funny their little brothers and sisters are when they laugh with their mouths full. You know, the really important stuff.

And living with little ones is a constant source of delight in personal accomplishments. You would not believe how many firsts there are when you teach second grade. Not long ago my friend Bay lost her first tooth. Hooplah! In one single morning I wrote about these important firsts in the classroom. Hannah told me that she drew the absolute best flower she had ever drawn in her entire life. Surya told me that he wrote the best letter he had ever written. It was certainly his best that I had ever seen. During writing workshop while we were working on dialogue I heard, “This is the best story I ever wrote… This is the longest book I’ve ever written… I think I have an awesome story on my hands.” And while we may be prone to hyperbole, I think these are probably true. I mean these guys are young. Hannah’s little flower was awesome. Suryah’s letter was organized, friendly, neat and fun to read. These guys haven’t written that many books yet so it is entirely possible that every story is the best they have ever written. And how cool is it that I get to be here to bear witness to all of these incredible firsts?

A few weeks ago, when Madona, our student teacher, was out on a fool’s errand, we hunkered down to write her our farewell letters. The room was quiet, blues playing through the speakers (we were feeling kind of blue so it was entirely appropriate). Pencil scratching sounds, sighs, pensive looks, scratching heads, paper rustling, rereading, whispering as kids read passages of their letters to each other, more writing. It was one of those magic times. I had asked the children to think of their favorite memories with all of us as well as to give advice for a new teacher. Who would be better to give advice than someone who likes you a lot and who wants you to do your best with future kids – just like them?

Here are some choice bits of advice.
*Teach with confidence. *Be gentle with them. *Make up games. *Make up songs with them. *Read them the best books. *Write stories with them. *Make your class rules together. *Have a bunch of plants in there. *Read Holes to your students and watch the movie! *Be nice. *You want to have a lot of class pets. *Play on the recess field. Don’t just sit there like a lot of teachers. *Have at least 25 minutes for recess. *Learn to play an instrument. *Teach how magnetism works. *Be understanding. *Be playful. Read at least two times every day. *If you are teaching and someone is being inappropriate, be kind and don’t yell at them. *If you find something on the recess field like a cool rock and someone takes it from you don’t holler. *Have adventures together. *Be kind to your new class and they will behave. *You should be nice and kind in the heart. *You should treat the children good and they will show respect… *Teach everyone how to play chess… *Read enthusiastically… *Make kids laugh from their hearts… *Teach a lot about nature… *Have lots of song time… *Always have that bright ready smile on your face…

*I think to be the best teacher in the world you need to feel compassionate to your students for the ice-cream. You will need to feel their joy and happiness for the whipped cream. And last, for the cherry on top, in times when things are funny, you laugh it up with each other.

*I will miss you when you leave. I will still remember you and still be your friend.

And this last little piece of advice would be good for all grups to remember, for the world would truly be a better place.

*If somebody is being mean to you and they say that they are sorry, don’t get mad over them. Just forgive them.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Funny Feeling

Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don't mind, it doesn't matter. ~Mark Twain

You are as young as your faith, as old as your doubt; as young as your self-confidence, as old as your fear; as young as your hope, as old as your despair. ~Douglas MacArthur

I have often wondered why older musicians can’t stay very popular. There are exceptions of course. Springsteen can fill a huge hall, I’m sure. And the comeback tours of The Who, The Stones and others, prove that a few of the old greats still have staying power. Clapton still brings down the house. But I’ll bet they only sell a fraction of the recordings they used to.

Bands who were kind of popular, like the Indigo Girls (Closer to Fine), Jackson Browne (Running on Empty), Jonathan Edwards (Sunshine), Shawn Colvin (Sunny Came Home), John Fogerty (of Creedence Clearwater Revival), etc. only play to small venues these days and hardly sell any records compared to what they once did.

I’m sure there are lots of reasons. *They are not as physically attractive as they once were. *The age group who followed them when they were youngsters are not as interested in music perhaps. *The age group who followed them are dying off. *They simply don’t get the radio play (cause or effect?). *Maybe they don’t write the high quality songs they once did. *Their voices may have diminished over the years.

It’s kind of sad to me that Paul Simon just put out a new album and I am certain that I’ll never hear a song from it on the radio. It probably won’t sell many CDs or have many downloads. Let me just say that it is awesome. These songs are as powerful as any he has written. Sure his voice is not what it once was, but you sure wouldn’t know he is 70 by listening to his guitar work. His rhymes are clever; the arrangements are distinctive and complex. His voice is great. But it will never sell anywhere close to his old hits (some of which were pretty dumb as in You Can Call Me Al)

On a related note, I had the weirdest feeling the other night. Heidi and I went to hear our son Colin play in his newish band – Set Ashore. It was a benefit for victims of the tsunami and earthquake that devastated Japan. We were really excited to hear them live. We hear Colin play acoustically all the time, and he has told us about how great his bandies are. It was their first gig together and, while Colin plays drums, bass and guitar in church regularly, this is his rock band and he was singing lead.

So when we got there, right away I noticed that we were the oldest. No problem. It was at our old church, in the small sanctuary where I myself have played dozens of times. I love that room. We were going to go to the small balcony to record, so we would not be hanging out right in front of the stage with the rest of the crowd, exclusively teens.

I am usually one who likes to be up close. In church, in class, at the movies – I am always in the first few rows if not in the very front. But we stayed in the back, up top so we could videotape. It was interesting to watch the crowd from up there. I still remember vividly being 17. First girlfriends, best neighborhood pals, my friends at school. I remember having our own lingo. Back then it was far out and cool and funky and some local expressions that were all our own. Now it is dude and WTF? and whatever and I know, right!? But it was the same thing.

And I was sitting up there remembering listening to live music at my high school and following my favorite local bands and singer/songwriters. I remembered learning to play guitar and singing on the beach around campfires and at my girlfriends’ house. I remembered playing at my first little festival in my little hometown just like Colin was doing. I remembered being nervous and forgetting some of the words and the feeling of exhilaration of having a whole bunch of people paying attention to a song that I wrote. I was feeling really close to Colin as he was preparing to get up there in front of about 75 or 100 of his friends and play at his very first concert. It was far out.

Before Colin and Set Ashore began to play I had to go to the bathroom. I ducked down the stairs and began to weave my way around the young crowd to get to the door to the hallway to the bathroom.

And it was weird.

I know I’m more than twice these kids age. I know that we don’t wear the same clothes or listen to the same music (although in about 5 minutes that’s exactly what we were going to do). My beard is turning white. I must seem ancient to them. I know we are different generations and all that, but I felt like such an outsider. I used to play in this church. For 7 years. I played and sang in the contemporary service and so I watched a lot of these kids grow up from about 7 years old to the age they are now.

But most of the people I passed and squeezed by wouldn’t look at me at all. When their eyes were up, generally looking in my direction, they would not look me in the eye. I was so much smoke for them to look right through. It was as though I was invisible. And when the few people I passed did happen to catch my eye they looked away very quickly. It was bizarre. I was a stranger in crowd of people from my hometown, a crowd of my son’s contemporaries.

At some point I was probably right there where they are. I’m sure that any adult who was pro-Vietnam-war was a fool to me. I had adopted my older sibling’s politics. But I don’t remember thinking that every older person was icky. My best friend Maurice Owens when I was growing up was older than both of my parents. And now, my best friend Chris at school is about 15 years younger than me. My guitar teacher is less than half my age at 26 (I will be 54 in a couple of days). My neighbor across the street is my best neighborhood pal and he is 8 or 9 years older than me. The kids in my class are 45 years younger than me.

I know I am overanalyzing it. They were with their homies and I wasn’t part of their intimate crowd. Still, it was an odd feeling.

I guess when we’re young, we never really think we’ll be older. We have this notion that the age we are is the age we’re all supposed to be. That anyone who is a few years older than us is just old. I used to think that 20 was old. Then 30. Then 40… Now that I’m in my mid 50’s old is… well… how you feel.

I’m older than I once was and younger than I’ll be, that’s not unusual. “ Paul Simon.

"People my age have started looking gross."John Gorka

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Star, Part 3

There isn’t much more to say. The end of this part of the story is a bit of an anti-climax. Ralph cinched up the backpack and began to climb. When he got about twenty feet up, less than half way, he slowed down. It looked like he might have made it but he did a simple and very sane thing.

He looked down.

That was it. He looked down to the forest floor below and noticed what a long way it was. A cat might survive a fall like that unscathed, but probably not a human. As he started backing down the stout vine, Sue moaned loud enough for Ralph to hear.

“I’m sorry ma’am,” was all he could say. Tears filled her eyes and spilled down her cheeks.

“I knew it was a long shot,” Sue sighed. Ralph walked slowly, dejectedly back to Sue’s house where we had a few of her famous lemon bars before he took off.

It was bittersweet for me. I was so glad that Ralph retreated back down the vine. Nothing against Sue’s cat. It would be a terrible way to die – starving to death or simply get too weak to hang on and tumble to the ground, almost certainly to its death.

Time passed. I hadn’t spoken to Sue for a week or so. I figured Star was a goner. When Sue called, I was amazed by how chipper she sounded. “You won’t believe it,” she gushed. “It was so simple. I feel guilty about not thinking about it sooner.”

“What happened, Sue? Is Star OK?”

I called the fire and rescue department not really thinking they could do anything. She was so far out in the woods. No ladder could reach her anyway. But the guy who answered is a pole climber for the electric company.”


“He climbs utility poles for a living with those spiky things on his boots and a big wide belt.”

“Well, what happened? Is Star OK?” I asked impatiently.

“Hang on, hang on. The guy, his name is Tom, came over with his climbing equipment. He put a backpack on just like Ralph. Same plan. He was going to climb up, put Star in the backpack and climb back down.”

“Well?!” more impatience on my part. See, I thought the whole backpack thing wouldn’t work. I could not imagine Star, or any cat, terrified or not, allowing itself to be stuffed into a backpack, and a guy fifty or sixty feet in the air would not be in a position to chase her down a branch.

“Well, when he got up to Star he managed to grab her by the scruff of the neck.”


“Really. But then when Tom was going to put her into the backpack… she jumped. She just jumped.”

“Ouch,” I said. “That was really high up.”

“But she’s OK,” Sue almost screamed. “She was stunned for a few seconds, but do you know what she did? After falling all that way to the ground?”

“What did she do?”

“She ran away. She just got up and ran away.”

“Oh Sue. I am so glad. Unbelievable that she could survive that fall.”

“Let me just say that my prayers were answered. The thought of Star starving up there was just too much for me to handle. Now I just hope that she shows up again.”

“She will, Sue. I am really happy for you.”

Sure enough, Star did come home to Sue’s. She was skinny too. She was always a little thin but when I came over about a week later, Star was a stick-thin bag of cat bones.

Gradually, she fattened up a little. Sue had her front claws removed to make sure that she didn’t get trapped in any too-high trees. But it wasn’t long though before she was at it again.

First it was the little hardwoods in front of Sue’s house. I went out to Sue’s one evening and had to get the eight foot step ladder out of the shed to reach her and bring her down. How in the world could she do that with no front claws? I asked Sue why she even let her out. Why not just have Star as a house cat for her own good?

Well, cats need their freedom she’d said. Cats need fresh air, they need to exercise and move around to stay healthy. Sue was also under the impression that with her front claws removed, Star wouldn’t be able to climb any really tall trees any more.

After a couple months Star went missing and we never saw her again. Sue wasn’t as upset as I thought she might be. “It was her destiny,” she said on one cold winter night. It was the same thing I’d said to Ralph back in the woods. “She was a climber from the beginning and I guess she climbed to the very end.”

I pictured her out on a limb somewhere – far away from where humans could hear. I imagined her crying her cat cry until she ran out of breath, ran out of strength. Maybe her skeleton is still on a high branch of a tree in Brown County still, her skeleton bleached white, her bony claws still clinging to the bark of an ancient tree.

I have long since moved away from Greasy Creek Road in Bean Blossom, Indiana. Sue and I still exchange Christmas cards. We haven’t spoken in years. But our cards to each other are more like letters. We exchange news in brief.

And she always signs

Much love,


and the cats

kitten on fence

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Star, Part 2


When I arrived at Sue’s house out in the country there was no one there. Sue’s old salt-rusted Toyota was in the driveway along with a camo-painted Jeep. I headed into the woods.

After a five minute walk I found Sue and a short, young, muscular man dressed in camouflaged army fatigues standing under the tall pine tree. Sue had been crying. Her face was red and streaked with tears. She introduced me to Ralph. He worked out at the army base where Sue was an officer’s executive assistant. He looked tough all right. He assured us that he had climbed ropes far higher than that. Easily. I had my doubts. The branch had to be at least forty feet above the ground – maybe fifty. Where could you even find a fifty foot rope to climb? But Ralph was strong; there was no doubt about that.

He clapped his rough hands together and eyed the thick wild grape vines that reached into the dizzying tree tops. In the ground, the vines were stout and thick, covered with course bark. But they clearly got thinner the higher they stretched.

“Alls I need ma’am,” Ralph drawled, “is a backpack so’s I can stuff her in. Then I’ll just climb back down.”

“I don’t know, Ralph, do you think the vine is strong enough to support your weight?” Sue looked at me like I was a traitor to the cause.

“Shore, man. These things are really strong. I used to climb them all the time when I was a kid. It’d be strong enough to hold the both of us. You wanna come too?” He haw hawed.

“Sue, why don’t you go get the backpack. We’ll stay here and keep an eye on Star.” She headed back to her house with her head down, her shoulders slumped, a look of profound sadness clung to her like a blanket.

“Look, Ralph,” I said when Sue was out of earshot. “That’s a cat, a cat stuck in a tree, a cat stupid enough to climb up so high that it’s afraid to come down. If you risk your life and climb up there, and somehow manage to grab it, and, if you are lucky enough that it allowed you to stuff it into a backpack and climb all the way down without the vine breaking or you slipping and falling – IF you are lucky enough to survive and Star made it all the way to the ground… Do you know where Star will be next week or the week after? She’ll be right back in a tree, so high up that she can’t get down.” I took a breath. “She does it all the time. Maybe next time it’ll be so far into the forest that no one will hear her. My point is… She’s going to die in a tree. It’s her destiny. Do you think it’s worth risking your life climbing up these flimsy vines just to prolong her life? Star is a cat, man. A cat.”

I was a little breathless, because in a way I felt like I was working to save this man’s life. His reply was blunt. He wasn’t even listening to me. “I’m strong enough.”

“Hey, Ralph. I’m sure you are. But what if the vines aren’t?”

“I’m strong enough.”

“Ralph, it’s a cat. Do you want to risk your life for a cat?” He was gazing up at Star stuck on that limb. She was meowing. Only it sounded like moaning. It was eerie. It seemed to me that Star was as good as dead. I just didn’t want to see Ralph dead too.

I don’t claim to be prescient. I know I can’t see into the future. But as I watched Ralph watch that dying cat, I had a hunch, a vision, I could see in my mind’s eye him getting almost to the top, almost to the cat, reaching out and then the thin vines unraveling from the tree top. I could see the bright look of fright in his eyes. I could see him tumbling backwards, arms flailing in a futile effort to grab a hold of the falling vines. I could see him crashing onto the forest floor and then lying there completely still.

“Ralph, don’t do it man. I am begging you. That cat just isn’t worth it. Even if there’s just a tiny chance of you getting hurt, that cat just… isn’t… worth it. I love Sue. I do. I don’t want to see her sad. But you have a mom and dad, right?” He looked at me blankly. “How are they gonna feel if their beautiful son Ralph gave his life for someone’s pet?”

I could hear the crunch of leaves as Sue came toward us. I knew there wasn’t much time and I couldn’t think of anything else to say. As Sue approached holding an old rucksack, I pleaded with him with my eyes. He had to have seen my desperation. He reached out and squeezed my shoulder and looked me in the eye. “I’ll be all right,” only it sounded like all rot because of his soft southern Indiana accent.

“I hope so,” I murmured as Sue came up.


Saturday, May 7, 2011

Star, Part 1

Ralph. I think his name was Ralph. I only met him once, so it’s no wonder his name is a little unclear to me. I only really spoke with him for about five minutes, but those were among the longest five minutes of my life because – Ralph? – I thought he was going to die. Literally. Right in front of me. In those five minutes I tried to save his life. Maybe he just came to his senses.

Let me go back to the beginning.

My old friend Sue was a cat person. She probably liked dogs too, but she loved cats. During the years I knew her well, she always had six or eight cats. Some of her cats were lifers – she’d had them as kittens and they spent their entire lives with her. Others seemed to find Sue. They came from out of nowhere, stuck around for a while and took off. If they showed up at Sue’s she would feed them. They might stay for a few days or a few months and then wander off, never to be seen again.

I went to visit Sue once after one of her beloved cats died. I helped her wrap the cat in a beautiful flowered silk scarf. I dug the hole for her in the dense woods behind her house. I dug while she told me stories about the cat. She cried and spoke of how the cat had eased her loneliness. She cried as she told me about the cat’s habits. I dug. She cried.

While they stayed with Sue they got impeccable care. On her limited income those cats got visits to the vet, got spayed or neutered, the whole nine yards. She was not one of those Southern Indiana country people with a big bunch of animals that were never cared for. Her cats did not have fleas or ticks. When they got sick, they were cared for. She was a good pet owner.

One of Sue’s cats was especially close to her. Star was jet black with an irregular white spot on her chest. Sue said it looked like a star. It just looked like a white blob to me, an island of white in a sea of black.

I understand how special a cat can be. I prefer dogs myself. But I get how close humans and animals can be. Sue’s cat Star was her beloved. I’m not exaggerating. That’s how I could tell that Sue was beyond upset when she called me one afternoon in the late fall. There were tears in her voice. “It’s Star,” she cried. “She’s missing. She’s been gone for days.”

“She’s probably OK, Sue. You know how she wanders off sometimes.” It was true. Star was an adventurer. She had been gone for as long as a week before. Sue was inconsolable.

“It’s been too long, Tim. Could you help me find her?” I drove over and together we scouted her woods. After a good long time of walking farther and farther from her house, we heard a faint cry far in the distance. It sounded like a newborn baby. But Sue knew. “Star!”

We followed the soft sound deep into the woods. What we saw was frightening. In this dense forest the trees were quite tall. It was a mix of pines. One was taller than those around it. It reached at least 60 or 70 feet into the southern Indiana sky with vines trailing from the top. On the lowest branch of that tree, which was at least forty or fifty feet above the forest floor, sat Star – miserable, thin, bedraggled. Her tiny form was so high up that I was amazed any house cat could have climbed to that height.

She meowed miserably and pawed at the air when she heard Sue’s voice. We were far from any road and I couldn’t imagine any ladder high enough to reach the forest canopy.

Sue was crushed. Tears streaming down her face, she asked what we could do. Star meowed with renewed energy. It was misery hearing her yowl like that. Star was surely dying a slow, terrible death. If I could have put her out of her misery I would have. She was starving and the nights were getting frosty and cold. This wretched creature would perish within a week and her death would not be pretty.

I was most concerned with Sue’s pain. Tender-hearted and vulnerable, I knew that she would not eat or sleep until this situation was resolved and I could see no other resolution other than Star’s sad untimely death.

I urged her to go home, to carry on and to think about what we might do. She reluctantly left the forest with me, sobbing all the way back to her house.

The next day when I got home from school Sue called and said that she knew someone who was an extraordinary tree climber. She asked if I could meet her out at Star’s tree in the viney forest near her home. I got moving.