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Monday, July 26, 2010

Remembering Karl Watt

Those of us who play in bands joke about "musicians' paranoia." But on a certain day in 2005 when a Canadian drummer named Karl Watt felt worried, it was no joke.

By "musicians' paranoia" we refer to aspects of the profession like our common compulsions to be critical of ourselves no matter how well we play, to fret about what a band leader might be thinking when he looks at us, or to worry whether or not we'll get that next gig. But Karl's situation was a lot more serious.

Karl played in many bands, but on that certain day, he and my husband Dave were both in the rhythm section of the Louisiana Joymakers. After a set of music during which this most talented drummer seemed to be having a little trouble doing his job, he took Dave aside and showed him the weird thing going on with the muscles in one of his legs; they jumped around involuntarily. Karl didn't want anyone else to know. He just wanted to be able to play music without messing it up, and he worried that if he did, it would affect the whole band. Karl asked Dave, "What do you think? What could cause this?"

That question would haunt all of us for a while. Karl wondered if it could be MS or some kind of nerve damage. He decided to try an all-organic diet. He tried everything but nothing helped, and early test results gave no answers. It became more and more difficult for him to play drums, and that upset and depressed Karl because he loved drumming more than anything and had since he was a kid.

After years of making a name for himself in rock and roll, Karl discovered traditional jazz through two wonderful friends and musical mentors, Bob Erwig and Simon Stribling. Soon he amazed everyone with his ability to quickly grasp, and joyfully execute, a totally different style. He studied old recordings they suggested, captured every nuance of the sound, and gave every band he played with a lift and drive with that solid, tasteful beat of his. The future looked bright for Karl Watt. Or it did, that is, until a diagnosis three words long took his dreams away: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. ALS. Lou Gehrig's Disease.

We saw Karl at a jazz festival where he watched from a wheel chair while the band played, and it broke our hearts. We knew how much he wanted to be back up there on stage with the rest of the guys, to know again that indescribable thrill of being the heart of a rhythm section all perfectly in sync, flying forward, skimming along on the groove, controlled but on fire, setting the front line free to go wild. It took courage for him to show up at all, and he would need a lot more courage to get to the end of his ordeal after 4 1/2 years.

My husband still has his emails from Karl, whose sense of humor remained as healthy as ever. The jokes flew back and forth between his house in British Columbia, and ours in Tacoma, then finally began to slow down, until one day in November of 2009, this message came: "Don't know how much longer I'll be able to type. Thank you all for being my friends."

I've wondered whether or not, at the end, Karl still dreamed about drumming. There in bed at the age of 44, with his hands and feet stilled, his musician's soul trapped in a body that would no longer work, it ended up that his own heartbeat was the only rhythm he could play. At 1:55 am on July 20, 2010, even that last solo came to an end, and Karl Stephano Watt was finally set free. We will never, ever, forget this wonderful man, his loving and loyal friendship, his sense of fun and joy in living, his smile, his laugh, and the way he could play those drums!

Karl, dear friend, you'll always rock.

Please take a few minutes to listen to Karl Watt play drums with Simon Stribling's Society Seven jazz band, in this video. You'll be glad you did.

MORE MUSIC! This addition example of Karl on drums has just been posted on YouTube by Bob Erwig.

Donations can be made to the ALS Society or the Karl Watt Trust Fund, through the Friends of Karl Watt. A celebration of his life will take place on Wednesday, July 28, 2010, at the Yale, 1300 Granville St., Vancouver, B.C. Tickets are $40 and proceeds go to ALS research.

Contents of this blog post are copyrighted by Candace J. Brown 2010
Photo courtesy of Nancy Honeywell

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Five Free Ways to Savor a Summer Day

I hate to break the news, but summer is half over, and except for a few brief warm spells, it just arrived. Waking up here in Tacoma to another morning of fog and fifty degrees, in mid-July, just isn't right. But now it sounds like maybe summer's really here at last. How do you plan to savor it?

Summer should be like a cat stretched out full-length on a sunny porch: long, warm, and lazy. I could be wrong, but it seemed like my childhood summers on Vashon Island were all three of those things. Every year I try to recapture that feeling of summer, a kind of permission to let go, to slow down, to read more, to fill the house with flowers, to sit just sit on that sunny porch and pet the cat.

If you think back on your own memories of a perfect summer day, it's always the little things that come to mind. So here are a few reminders of the kinds of moments that make the magic and how you can enjoy them before they are gone.

1.) Begin your day right. Take a walk, or at least open a window and listen to the birds. Really listen. These are your neighbors so get to know them. If you want to learn who's singing what out there, look at the website for Cornell University's Lab of Ornithology. That resource alone, could keep you entertained for the rest of the season.

2. Enjoy flowers. Harvest some lavender. Visit the gardens at Point Defiance Park, where the hydrangeas are now in their glory along with many other colorful blooms. Even the roses still look and smell wonderful, thanks to the cool weather. If you haven't visited the park's rose garden, don't you think it's about time? It's been there for over a century.

3.)Eat local and eat well. Those fresh berries won't be around forever. Check out the 2010 Puget Sound Farm Guide for locations and hours of local farms, farmers markets, and U-picks. Eating local makes me think of produce, but a friend of mine coming "home" to Vashon from Hawaii on vacation this summer, asked where he could get fresh, local EDIBLE JELLY FISH. Sorry, but I can't help you on that one. I must admit, though, that when I was a kid waiting for my turn to jump off the float at Dockton Park during swimming lessons, some of those stinging blobs of slime did look a little like raw eggs. There's a reason why Vashon has a "Strawberry Festival" and not a "Jellyfish Festival." Good grief. He's been away too long.

4.) Appreciate the beauty around you. Take a walk this evening, maybe down on the waterfront. Breathe in the marine air, listen to the seagulls, and let all your concerns ease away. Nature soothes like nothing else

5.) Chill out.

All photos and text copyrighted by Candace Brown 2010

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Lessons in Patience

I'm finally back. Did you wonder what happened to Good Life Northwest? During the weeks since my last post, at the end of April, life's circumstances conspired to remind me of a few truths.

One is that there are some things you can't change. We will all lose loved ones, or see others we love suffer accidents or illnesses that shake up their lives. Or we might experience them in our own. Things can go along fine for a long time before everything seems to hit us at once.

Another truth is that there are some things you can't hurry, like recovering from surgery, as my son and I are both doing right now. You can't hurry grief either. It will take a long time for me to quit thinking I can pick up the phone and call my Dad, ask him a question about his life, or tell him I love him.

There's no way to put in a rush order for the maturity that comes with years of living, the skill it takes to play a musical instrument, or make a quilt. Babies take nine months to be born and about two decades to complete childhood. And the love and concern that is part of being a parent never ends. Bread must rise. Seeds will sprout on their own schedule. You can't hurry summer in the Pacific Northwest or even expect it to arrive on time. It's always a long haul, any way you look at it. Life takes patience.

Now, with July half over, the sun finally shines through the window of my Tacoma home. I sit in its welcome warmth and light, piecing a quilt by hand. My shoulder aches from the morning's physical therapy. I worked hard during my appointment, pushing myself just a bit beyond what I thought I could do, pushing past the pain. I can't change the fact that my shoulder needed repair, and now I must wait for the healing. I still have a long way to go, but I'll make it. As with the pieces of my quilt, day by day, my efforts add up.

I walk in the evening, and from a high hill I can see Vashon Island, my birthplace, my heart's true home. Over and beyond its forested horizon, the sight of Seattle's skyscrapers to the north never fails to amaze me by looking so nearby. In that neighboring city, my son marks a milestone this week. He'll get the stitches removed from the long incision through which a metal plate and screws became part of his knee forever. He can't put any weight on that leg for three months, and the total recovery will take much longer. He's learning a hard lesson in patience too, even as we all feel grateful for that fact that he will heal in time. It could have been worse.

A yellow butterfly flutters through my line of sight, and I wonder if the caterpillar had the concept of patience when it spun a cocoon. Down below, near the front steps, one of my favorite roses basks in its time of glory. I've waited all year just to see those tiny pink buds appear among the half-inch leaves during a period of bloom as beautiful and brief as youth. I could replace it with a different variety, but it rewards my wait with its unique charms, if only for a while. Someday, the quilt that keeps my hands busy now will be done. Then every time I see it I will remember these quiet moments on a summer day, when I pondered the value of patience.

I've heard it said that when you're learning to tie fishing flies, the first 1,000 are just a warm-up drill. I wonder how many fumbling stitches it took for me to learn to quilt. In the case of becoming a writer, I'd say it takes a mere lifetime of reading good literature and a driving passion to play with, ponder, consider, choose, reject, and rejoice in billions of words. I'm still practicing. Thank you for your patience.