Thursday, March 31, 2005

Motorbikes in Ho Chi Minh - notice the little girl in front bike on left - we saw families of 4 on these things. Posted by Hello

A Lexus and a women on bicycle in Ho Chi Minh Posted by Hello

Coming in for a landing

"You are missing a lot of great stuff out there." Michael to me as we taxied across the airport grounds of Ho Chi Minh airport, me with my head resolutely stuck in my book. Concrete, bunker type hangers lined up are not big enough for commercial jets, presumably for fighter jets. Rows of them. Part of me wants to look, part of me is afraid. This is Vietnam, which in my life is a metaphor for war, not to mention my first foray into a communist country. Michael gives me the kind of look that only couples can interpret, to me it says "get over it," to the rest of the world it looks like a slightly wrinkled brow. And I know he's right -- thirty years is surely enough time to get over it. I close the book and peer out into the blazing sun and think of Robin Williams in Good Morning Vietnam describing the word hot. We are after all going to a teacher conference in a modern hotel, something I do at least on a monthly basis. This can't be that different from KSRA or IRC or OCTELA, right?

Riding in from the airport in a hotel shuttle tells me this is way different. It is obviously a much smaller city than Bangkok, fewer street vendors selling food, but shop after narrow shop of goods from modern furniture to oil paintings to basketware lining and spilling out onto the street. And what's with the traffic?!! We are seated right behind the driver and everywhere there are motorbikes, beside us, cutting across in front of us, COMING STRAIGHT AT US, only to veer at the last second. The guidebook has warned us that Vietnam cops are not to be trifled with, but they obviously are not monitoring the traffic, which in a word is sheer mayhem. Traffic lights are almost non-existent even at what look to be pretty major intersections. It's just a free for all and crossing the street has its own protocol we learn later. Just walk into the traffic and the motorbikes and taxis that flow with the constancy of corpuscles will go around you. Don't run or stop, that just throws them off and you'll get hit -- step off the curb into what you are sure will be sudden death and keep on walking. Never will your faith in your fellow man be more accutely tested.

The first night we attend an opening reception at the top of the Sheraton. It is open air, breezy but hot. The food is incredible, avocado mousse, petifores and grilled shrimp toothpick spiked to a board like wallpaper, just to name a paltry few offerings. Okay, it's not like PA or IL Reading, but I'm pretty much getting into the groove. There's no war going on, this will be fine, and I see a vaguely familiar face. Ohmygod. It is Peter Yarrow, who appears to be there without the rest of his trio, Paul and Mary, but I recognize him anyway. He is to be the keynote the next day (why didn't I look at the program more carefully?). We are introduced and I can't help being a bit star struck. I tell him the last time I saw him in person was at the Moratorium March on Washington. He says, "you were there? In November of 1969, you were there?" I nod. He nods and kisses my cheek. No more to be said.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Good and bad

Tuesday we are scheduled to take a bike trip through another part of town, but the trip doesn’t start until 1PM. Because of jet lag (or is it jet start?) we are out of bed at 5 AM, go for a swim and hit the streets. This trip begins miles from our hotel and we first cab to a central area where we will later be able to pick up the high speed commuter train suspended above the chaos of the city. Out of the cab, we must look gawkish standing on a busy corner and a well dressed man motions to us to follow him to cross the street through a maze of motor bikes and cabs. Once on the other side, he smiles, and introduces himself, saying he works at the nearby hospital. The designer clothes indicate he is not an orderly there. He asks us what we intend to see while in Bangkok, do we need directions. We say we are shopping for souvenirs for kids in the family and he tells us just where to go, “not this area,” he says, “too expensive.” He also asks if we want something for ourselves. Maybe. And he tells us where to go for that too. Then he hails a cab and puts us in it, negotiating with the driver for a fare that is a fraction of what we have been paying, which we thought was cheap to begin with. Whether he is a ringer for the place we later arrive at or whether he in fact worked at the local hospital doesn’t matter because we arrive at a lovely little back alley store where we do indeed score some precious silk, crocodile and cashmere for a fraction of what it would have cost in the other area and which we could never have afforded in the US. Michael has a jacket custom tailored, it is delivered 10 hours later to our hotel, it fits perfectly. I try on some silk slacks and don’t like the pleats. No problem, they will custom make and deliver to our hotel. And they do. Then we go to the mall – a six or seven story stack of shops carrying everything from Gucci to cheap knockoffs and score some T shirts and Hello Kitty gear for the kids back home.

The afternoon bike ride is awful. Truly dreadful. The guide is very disrespectful of the Thai people and their culture, calling one temple the “disco” temple because of its mirror mosaics. We bike through a mostly muslim neighborhood where I feel very self conscious about my bare legs and the people are still friendly, but there is an obvious difference in their attitudes which we attribute more to him than to the folks we are driving past. Most of the trip is on sidewalks suspended 6 feet above water, which does a nerve wracking mental trip on us both, but me in particular since my fall the day before. To fall off of one of these walkways would be to break something. The bikes are not well maintained, I only have brakes on one side and we must repeatedly portage over steep stairs and busy highways. It was an endurance nightmare made bearable by our tourguide’s Thai assistant, George, who is cheery and well informed. The tour director appears to know little about the area or landmarks. But, we made it through and at the end, after I have checked in the dangerous bike, wiping sweat from my face, I walk (or attempt to walk) through a doorway not made for Westerners and am flattened after striking my head into the stubborn concrete. Head wounds being what they are, it bleeds worse than it is. George leads us immediately down the block to a small walk in clinic where I am stitched up while Michael lets me squeeze the life out of his hands and George massages my legs. By the way, cost for stitches, antibiotics, pain killers and an anti-inflamatory – $18US. Since they actually sewed a cotton wad onto the top of my head and it has to stay there for 5-7 days, our next stop is for silk scarves to match several outfits because on Wednesday we are scheduled to leave for Vietnam and the teacher’s conference that is the real purpose of our trip.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

more biking in Bangkok Posted by Hello

Biking in Bangkok Posted by Hello

Biking through Bangkok

Monday morning we cab to the offices of our bike tour. The heat is enough to make your eyeballs sweat and I wonder how we can possibly bike through this thick weather. Andre, our guide is from Holland, his wife and assistant, Thai. Both are welcoming and reassuring, this will be fun. The bikes are familiar mountain style and we are joined by 6 others, all from Holland, parents, their two daughters and their husbands and we are off, single file down an alley, around a corner and into a world separate from the elegance of our hotel. Amazingly, as soon as we start rolling, the heat seems to disappear in a breeze. Throughout the day, the heat only becomes oppressive when we stop. Andre stops us occasionally to explain what we are about to encounter.

One of the first stops he explains we are entering a slum. The quarters are very close, in some cases our concrete or wood path will take us through people’s homes. While this may make us uncomfortable, we are to be assured it does not bother the people living there (how can this be?), there is a different standard of communal living in Thailand. Back on the bikes and we ride out of the blazing sun into the hushed, shaded dank. Almost immediately children and adults come out of no where, “hello, hello,” they smile and wave, the children reaching out to touch our hands. No one asks a thing from us, they just reach out to be hospitable, to touch a foreigner. Around and through we travel. There are no windows on the homes, often no doors. Occasionally we hear a television on in the background or a radio, but a gentle quiet is the norm. Mostly women and children, often older women watching children a couple generations removed. I have one strong image of a woman, thin, hobbled with age, gently pushing a hammock and baby no more than 5 feet from our path, inside her home made of wood and roofed by tarps. Nothing goes wasted in this neighborhood, what to us might look like trash, a discarded piece of tin, a old plastic poster, are recycled as walls and roofing. Riding down tight paths where we can easily reach out our arms out and touch houses on both sides, I am overwhelmed by the humble homes, people sleeping on straw mats or on bare wooden floors, one man, fresh from a bath comes to the open doorway wrapped in a towel to say “hello.” Occasionally we encounter a motorcycle going the other direction and dismount to pass by, smiling, making adjustments, passing without any animosity. Definitely, we are not in Kansas, or any other place in the US. Often there are women preparing food for sale, small cafes and what might be called a Thai convenient shop with cold drinks and snacks. Every hour we stop for bottled water. The entire neighborhood hovers above water, built on stilts, precarious and permanent at the same time. Lunch is noodles and broth at an open cafĂ©. Twice we load the bikes into boats to traverse open areas. At one point we are riding on sidewalks suspended about a foot above a swamp, weaving in and around and I brake too quickly, don’t make a turn and fall off the walk way into the water. Drenched, but unhurt, I’m pulled from the slim and hosed off by Andre and some cheery builders working on a new single dwelling. Wherever we see workers, whether building houses or high rises, they seem to be bare for or wearing flip flops – and as ever, the now familiar, peaceful Thai smile. The end of our trip, 5 hours later, comes so quickly we can’t believe we have been biking that long, say goodbye to our host, his wife and our traveling companions with unforgettable images flashing through our minds. Cost for the day? $25US per person.

Monday, March 28, 2005

Oh, the humanity!

I remember thinking that Tokyo was NYCity if it were clean and organized. Bangkok is like NY, crowded and bustling, except everyone (EVERYONE) is nice. We are staying in the Sukhothai Hotel, a five star study in elegance and art. Two days here and already my mind is a sea of contrasting images. The traffic is just nuts with cars, buses, motorcycles and motorcycle cabs all vying for road space. Lane markers are just guidelines and no way intended to limit one vehicle to a lane. Street vendors are standing almost elbow to elbow in business/shopping areas and even a frequent encounter in slum neighborhoods. Anyone with a wok and a cart is a chef. Tonight was a fabulous meal of coconut calamari and crab rice. Yum! But the hightlight of our day was a bike trip that took us from city dust to the rich smells and warm smiles of the slums to a concrete path through a jungle, farm area where I took a slight detour into the swamp. Yuk. We took two boat rides and saw too much to try and describe. While the students are on holiday this week, we did see one school open, a pre-school subsidized by our tour guide, Andre. Beautiful kids, all smiles. My only regret was that I did not have the books and candies I had brought to share with them since we had no luggage. When we arrived back at the hotel, voila! Somehow the bags had made their way here, leaving me to wonder at how reassured I was to have all my "stuff" and how well we had done without it.

Sunday, March 27, 2005


Flight delays, changed planes, lost luggage and a missing hotel reservation have all been made bearable by the cheery people here. Not much to report, except we are excited and must hit the weekend market to shop for baby suits and knickers. (see earlier post for translation).
How's that for an excuse to shop
More later,

Thursday, March 24, 2005


I have trouble packing to go to Toledo. Tomorrow Michael (my partner in life and poetry) and I head to Bangkok, Vietnam and Sumatra. Here it is snowing, there it will be in the 90s. Guess I won't need those mittens. One day will be lost in transition. Someone will be living that day somewhere, but those of us on the plane will skip over it. I will be taking a laptop for communication, a great improvement over the telephone given the 13 hour time difference. But what else to take? My bedroom looks like hurricane central and my office is in little stacks. How many books do I need for such a long flight? That's the question most pressing today. I took four with me for an overnight to Toledo, I'll be gone two weeks. Exponentially, that's too many books to carry, but what if I run out of reading material? What if I am not in the mood to read the books I chose? I'm moody when it comes to books. Below is a partial list of books I've enjoyed reading so far this year:

And If I Perish by Evelyn Monahan, Rosemary Neidel-greenlee. This is the story of WWII nurses sent to the front lines in gingham and saddle shoes, landing on the beaches with soldiers in Africa. I read it with total fascination knowing my father had been tended by such brave women when he was a tank commander in Africa and Europe. The book is fascinating, the only mystery is how come it took so long to come about.

The Known World by Edward P. Jones. This is a work of fiction you would swear is fact, it is so well told with detailed flash forwards where we learn which character will ultimately have a grandchild who becomes a judge, which character will wind up free and living up north. Set in pre-civil war Virginia, it describes a community which was founded and functions on the backs of slaves – a time when even some freed blacks owned slaves, a fictional world so real as to now feel “known” by the reader.

The Center of Everything by Laura Moriarty. Loved the young adult voice in this book. The voice was a careful observer, not terribly judgmental, just watching and muddling through. If there is a female counterpart to Catcher in the Rye, this may be it. Book was given to me by a teacher at Colorado Academy when I was there and it made my trip home on the airplane fly by (did I just say that?). Evelyn’s two best friends fall in love with each other and make a life changing choice that leaves her alone with her dreams. At the end of the book, I wasn’t exactly sure where Evelyn would wind up, but I figured she would get to where she wanted to be. Over the course of 300 or so pages, she had really become somebody.

On the Death of Childhood and the Destruction of Public Schools : The Folly of Today's Education Policies and Practices by Gerald W. Bracey. This is a book every parent should read. While many of us wonder about the benefits of the recent testing craze, Bracey has the data to back up his belief that these tests (while a reality) are not doing our kids much good at all and in fact are helping to make them more docile and less curious. US students as it turns out read better than kids in other developed nations except Finland (which btw does not support retention as a motivational strategy). He points out that while our math scores may lag behind a few other countries, our scientists win more Nobel Prizes, a fact he accredits to an interactive educational system as opposed to one where kids are just on the receiving end of a fire hose of facts.

That’s it for now – I think I did a pretty good job of putting off the cyclone in the bedroom. Guess I have to face up to it now.

Today, Cleveland. Tomorrow, the inside of an airplane. Saturday missing in space. Sunday, Bangkok.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Oakdale Elementary, Toledo, OH

Teacher Karen McNaughton wrote two grants to fund my visit and books for all the 5th graders, telling the kids, "this is what happens when you learn to write, you can get what you want." What a great advertisement for writing skills! The school is in a temporary location while "cigarette money" builds them a new facility. Teachers have to be entrpreneurial in such an environment, housed for two years in an abandoned office building that surprisingly lends itself quite well to classroom use. The kids who live in Clinger's (from Mash) old neighborhood, the ethnic east side of Toledo, were enthusiastic and eager. More disturbing than the setting or the time-worn neighborhood was the fact that the library is staffed only by volunteer parents, no aide, no secretary, only a librarian sent from the district office 1/2 day every other week. This is common throughout the district. The library computers were on windows 95 and unable to call up much of what is on the internet, the unabridged dictionary available to kids was published in 1967 and doesn't even contain the word "internet." The library clearly suffered from a lack of new titles, revealing a book budget cut to the bone. I couldn't help making a mental comparison to the Olentangy district I visited earlier this year in the northern suburbs of Columbus where the libraries were throbbing with new books, kids, state of the art computers and were staffed with parent volunteers under the direction of a degreed librarian and a full time secretary/aide. I suppose in some legislator's mind the two weeks of expensive testing the students had just completed is intended to correct such disparities, but for the life of me, I can't follow that logic.

I continue to be buoyed by teachers who have a "how can we make this work?" mindset in the face of incredible odds.

Friday, March 18, 2005

Vachel Lindsay

The home of Vachel Lindsay sits atop a rise next door to the governor’s mansion on Fifth Street in Springfield and does not look like the residence of an itinerant, penniless poet. It looks like what it was, the home of a successful town doctor, father of a penniless poet. The booklet distributed to the tourists of his bedroom and childhood blocks describes him as a spiritual minstrel who chanted his poems and traded booklets of verse for lodging while tramping across the countyside. I remember his name among poets once thrust upon me in school like prune juice. “Take this, it’s good for you.” Poets I tasted with twisted-mouth suspicion and spit out right after the test. If I thought anything at all about Gen. Booth entering heaven, it may have been “quaint.” I wonder if foreseeing such classroom scenarios may have played some part in his drinking a bottle of Lysol and choosing to end it all at 51. When he finally got the recognition we all want, audiences wanted him to perform his early work over and over and he apparently lacked that Jerry Garcia gene that eases repetition. Visiting Lindsay’s home, climbing his stairs, examining prints of his artwork and exiting from his front door left me feeling melancholy for some reason. Another poet suffers death by words. Hardly original, been done before.

But part of it was disappointment that I never really knew or understood his passion for making the world a better place with his poetry. Maybe the rhymes do read a little like gingerbread embellishments on a century home, maybe even a little politically incorrect. But seeing his space, looking through his windows I glimpsed his conviction that no poem or the performance of a poem is an end in itself, but rather should be a fulcrum for societal change. That ain’t quaint at all, it’s positively revolutionary.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

IRC Springfield, IL

I walk for exercise, each mile a bargaining chip to be traded impulsively for french fries and ice cream. No exertion stays in escrow very long. This morning I walked out from the hotel onto Monroe Street and fixed my stride on the dome of the Capitol building several blocks away. I would circle and return to the hotel tower, from one archetectural peak to another, slim chance of getting lost and fat chance of getting slim. Story of my life. The sun bright and warm, I walked 5 blocks or so and crossed a railroad track. The thing about an unfamiliar town is, you really don't know which is the right or wrong side of the tracks. On one side was the Hilton which aside from Paris, comes with pretty respectable references. But on the other side, the locker room for governmental all-stars. Marble columns, granite, tall windows and a statue on every side. Lincoln and Douglas are still there, in case you were wondering, pedestaled in permanent stony debate. I wonder if they know (or knew) if they landed for perpetuity on the right or wrong side of the tracks?

Monday, March 14, 2005

Kelly Benny and Danny Posted by Hello


'Ginia is my daughter Kelly's son Benny's word for where he lives...Virginia. Young kids always seem to provide the family with an entire new lexicon for communication. For a few weeks in her second summer my daughter Katie's daughter Stephie pronounced bathing suit, "baby suit." Now, everytime we go to the gym, we all make sure we have our baby suits. Her mother once substituted the word "decided" for "excited." Now, when we all go swimming in our baby suits we get very decided. Benny not only renamed Virgina, he also, as the first born grandchild, got the job of naming me...granananananana, now abbreviated to Granana. I don't think of this as baby talk, more like family talk. In the community of our family, these words are clearly defined. Octavio Paz says that community does not create language, but rather language creates community. This talk is part of what holds us together.

Saturday night Benny and I were making up a story before bed. I picked up a stuffed frog who became the protagonist, hopping from rock to rock in the swamp. Every once in a while I would pause allowing Benny to fill in the blanks, thereby directing the story. I began, "Once upon a time there was a green frog and he lived . . ."
"In the swamp!" Benny offered. And so on.

Turned out as the story developed that the frog had everything he needed in that slimy swamp except a best friend. Finally, he met up with another frog who had the same too long legs in the back and too short legs in the front, perfect dimensions for a best friend. Only one problem, the frog spoke a different language. So, our protagonist (we didn't name him, who needs a name in a swamp when you have no friends?) counted to three in spanish (thank you Sesame Street and Dora) and that made the prospective friend, Pedro, so happy, he confessed that not only did he speak Spanish, he also spoke English and they hopped off and were friends ever after.

Books and reading are important -- goes without saying. But I hope that stories do not go the way of poetry, where if we don't find one in a book, we somehow think that our stories are less important. Stories, the ones we experience and the ones we make up, uno, dos, tres, expanding the family lexicon while drawing us together.

Friday, March 11, 2005

Canfield, OH

Canfield is about as close to Pennsylvania as you can get without entering. First I visited Woodside Elementary which has a very cool principal, Tony Russo -- I could tell he was a special guy right away. He sat through both of my assemblies, very welcome but unusual behavior for a principal! I wonder if those kids know how lucky they are to have a principal that involved in their day-to-day activities? The kids were full of giggles and had just the right attitude for poetry. I could tell that right off too. Turned out that they had been up to their necks in proficiency tests all week and my visit was their treat for a job well done. How about that for making me feel special? Had I known in advance, I would have brought a cake or something to really make it a party.

After the school visit I met with 80 teachers at a local IRA meeting hosted by incoming president Gerry Coates. I know that many kids have no idea that their teachers have lives outside of school and think that they in fact sleep in their bottom desk drawers. But, teachers do have free time (however limited by school responsibilities) and many of them occasionally spend a few of these free hours learning. I gave a little talk at their meeting after which some went home with miniature daffodils as door prizes. I went to bed dreaming yellow dreams, of blossoms and sunshine announcing the arrival of spring.

But Spring seemed like a far-away dream indeed when I woke up to three inches of fluffy snow this morning. Oh, well. When the time is right, I expect Spring will finally show her true colors.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Carthage TX

March 8, 2005
Today I visited the Bulldogs at Carthage Jr. High in Carthage TX. The kids there were so cool and had great questions about writing and poetry. I think this is because they had all read some of my poems before I got there and many had written their own poetry. Even though everybody (and I mean EVERYBODY) had to choose of one my poems and write an essay in response, they didn’t act mad at me for being the root cause of their homework hand cramps, for which I was VERY grateful. Mrs. Johnson took me to lunch at a homey little restaurant called the Texas Tea Room that had homecooked food. I think if I stayed in Carthage very long I would gain weight for sure.

Basically, I worry about gaining weight all the time. I don’t know if this is pressure from TV or magazines or just some sort of bad habit I picked up early in life and decided to drag into my adult life like I didn’t have enough other stuff to worry about. Please note, while this worry makes me do illogical things like wash brownies down with diet soda, it does not make me eat less. Go figure.

To one of the girls who came up to show me poems at the end of the writing workshop, you know who you are: Sweetie, you have been on my mind all day. Please, if there is anything else you want to discuss about your poem, write to me. Or if you don’t write to me, talk to some other grown up. Some worries are no joking matter and too big to drag around by yourself into adulthood.

Monday, March 07, 2005

On the road again

March 7, 2005
Today was a race around travel day that took me from Cleveland to Cincinnati to Shreveport, LA and then Carthage, TX. The man next to me on the airplane from Cleveland to Cincinnati was quiet while we were in the air, looking out the window. Then as we taxied to the gate, he blurted out that he had been in Cleveland to visit his sister who has cancer. He was older, had grey hair and was wearing one of those padded plaid shirts that you see more often working outdoors than on airplanes. I asked how she was doing and he said,"not so good." I said I was sorry. What else was there to say? He was obviously in pain and he just wanted to get it off his chest. I wonder what it is that invites people to spill out their inner feelings into the darkness of an airplane to a total stranger? Maybe it’s that there is a freedom in talking to strangers because they won’t remind you of what you said the next day. You can just say it and let it be.

In Carthage, TX, I had dinner with Lynda Johnson who took me to a restaurant that specialized in catfish. I ate two new food items – marinated green tomatoes (yum) and something called boiled water corn bread, made from pouring boiling water onto corn meal, shaping the gook into balls and frying it. It was kind of crusty hard, but very tasty. Then Lynda dropped me off at a little bed and breakfast cottage to spend the night. It was charming, cozy, plaid bedspread with comfy chairs, painted mostly bright white. Only problem, one other occupant had checked in ahead of me – a wasp the size of a sparrow. I thought about attacking it with a rolled up magazine or hair spray, but since it wasn’t bothering me, I didn’t bother it. We got along okay just ignoring one another.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

First Post

I am so excited to be setting up this blog. Already I wish I had done this years (and hundreds of schools) ago. This is the place where I can keep notes about all my poetry travels and hopefully, some of the students I meet can post their reflections. Writing about events make them more real to me.

So, welcome to my blog and thanks in advance for your responses.