Thursday, January 31, 2008

Poetry to Go

I forget when I first dreamed of being a writer. I've always being a note taker. One of my earliest writing recollections was when the principal came over the loud speaker while I was in math class and announced that President Kennedy had been shot. This was before there was a TV in every classroom -- the black and white video days -- doubtful there was even a TV in the school. Instead, the principal put the radio on over the scratchy squawk box and we listened as the news went from bad to worse and the president's death was confirmed. I remember reaching into my desk and pulling out my assignment notebook and taking notes -- the girl next to me was crying, the teacher was staring up at the box on the wall, the room was still, eyes were glassy with disbelief. I no longer have these notes, but I have a clear recollection of taking them.

Still, I never thought of myself as a potential writer, despite my perverse attraction to office supplies -- a new notebook gets my heart pumping. I love the tactile feel of papers and have been known to test pens on inappropriate canvases. I used to sit at my desk, write on pink lined paper with a turquoise ball point pen with funny smelling ink and pretend I was -- a secretary. I was a girl. I had already learned the hard way that girls could not make captain in the safety patrol, they could only be lieutenants. Those were the days when jobs were listed in the newspaper under men's jobs and women's jobs and in the women's column were teachers, nurses and secretaries. The fact is, I never even dreamed I could be a writer, that was a job in the men's column of my twisted little brain. I chose to dream of becoming a secretary because of the easy access to office supplies, I guess.

So this is how I have always lived -- taking notes. And over the years some of those notes have turned into poems. Somewhere along the way I started to read about writers. Biographies, notes on their lives, birds by birds, blood on the forehead. Live and Yearn. And somewhere between Virginia Wolfe and Annie Dillard, I fell into the life I never dreamed of, yearning for the sunlit desk, sipping steaming tea by the banks of Plum Creek watching the silent snow and forming perfect words with a fountain pen, because that is what writers do -- right?

No where in all the reading I did about the writer's life (extensive) did I read anything about waiting for hotel shuttles that don't come, sleeping in a bathtub when the reservation evaporates, sleeping on airport floors, delayed flights that mean no sleep at all. Dreading snow because it means flight delays, lukewarm tea in ballrooms and pens that explode at 20,000 feet. So, whenever I meet a yearner who asks me about the writer's life -- I insist on listing some of the realities. I mean, really.

I checked into the hotel in Lexington this afternoon and dumped my purse on the bed. This is the first stop on a long trip and I'm excited and nervous at the same time. Nervous because I'm watching the reports of a "complex storm system" that threatens to derail the close connections that will enable me to meet up with Michael (brief episodes of freezing rain) and fly on to Jakarta. (We're looking at several inches and high winds, mayber 30 miles per hour). I haven't started to bite my nails yet, (temperatures should start to drop off around midnight) but that's just because my fingers are on this keyboard after thawing out from waiting for the errant shuttle. (reports of some sleet, big area of low pressure)

Tomorrow I will meet some old and new friends at the Kentucky Council of Teachers of English, (pockets of ice), give a talk, sign some books and head for the airport (storm will sweep across IL and IN and into OH) where hopefully the little prop plane (wintery mix, weather advisory, stay tuned for school closings) that brought me here will take me north to get on a big bird that can fly over the storm.

Annie, Virginia -- you never said it would be like this!

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Gambling on health care

"How much does this CAT scan cost?" I asked the lady with the clipboard.
"I have no idea. Please complete the form on both sides."
"I mean an idea. Ball park. Say if I didn't have insurance."
"Don't forget to sign and date the form. I really don't know."
"How much does this cost?" I asked the lady drawing my blood.
"Depends on what the doctor ordered."
"What did she order?"
"Standard workup."
"How much is the standard work up?"
"Don't know. Ask the lady out front."
That's the lady with the clip board, if she knows costs, she ain't tellin'.
"How much does this cost?" I asked the lady who operates the big machine that's going to take pictures of my belly in little slices.
"The machine?"
"No, this test."
"Didn't you get pre-approval?" She looked stricken.
"I guess so, I filled out the green form. I was just wondering about the cost of the scan.
"Gracious, I have no idea."

Next month my health care switches to a $2500 annual deductible, a new plan designed to lower my monthly premiums, gambling I won't encounter any health issues that require a knife, a drug or a bandaid. I'm sure the women today were honest when they said they didn't know the costs. I'm sure the costs change depending who is paying the bill. Kind of like when you go to a foreign country and they have one menu for tourists and one for locals, health care providers get a better price. In the land of diagnostics, I'm about to become a tourist fumbling with funny money and unable to read the menu. Even if I knew the language, I couldn't read the menu because it is all in the waiter's head and the prices change depending on who's paying the bill.

Michael and I got cheated at a restaurant in Almaty this way. I know this game and I don't like it.

The CAT scan was clear, the pain in my side was probably caused by tearing a muscle lifting weights (or books, or suitcases or my toothbrush, who knows about these things). It nags. But what nags me more tonight is wondering what the diagnosis cost. For real. And what I would have been charged next month. Would I have even gone for the test if no one could have told me in advance how much the bill would be? Or would I have just thrown the dice. Who wants to play those types of odds?

Friday, January 25, 2008

Abai and Aitys

"A clock is a ticking thief
stealing life daily, taking it unnoticed,
so that without love and constancy
life is nonetheless just fleeting deception."


Do you think now that (for the most part) we have taken the tick out of clocks and replaced the relentless metronome beat with a hum that we are more or less conscious of time passing? I used to have one of those clocks that dropped a slat every minute with a distinctive click. I threw it out within a week because it made me nuts, but was it the sound that made me crazy or the concept? I remember reaching into the belly of my cousin Karen's grandfather clock to stop the pendulum swing so I could sleep. Time may be passing, but I sure don't want to be reminded of it when I'm trying to sleep. Abai, Kazakhstan's most famous poetic son, lived from 1845-1904, and his writings now seem almost as ancient as the images of petroglyphs pictured above. (photo taken at a restaurant where I did in fact sample horse and camel meat and I don't want to talk about it.) He didn't much like the Russians invading, time passing or sloth. He liked summer. Who wouldn't dining on horse jerky and living in transitional housing, a yurt on the bleak steppes where temperatures nosedive below zero for more than a third of the year? His themes are universal, but his poetry is very dark.

I go down to the bottom, and thirstily drink
the venomous poison of days I've lived through . . .

Man, have I had days like that. If there is anything more wasteful than just cruising through days unmindful of the clock, it has to be savoring the poison of the past. And some days I just can't resist picking up that cup and gulping it down. This is why we invented TV and other mind numbing drugs, so our minds don't take us to belly up to that bar and overindulge on regret. Even in happy times, that cup is there, steaming, its aroma tempting the senses. Maybe this is part of what makes a poet, the nerve (or the obsession) to drain the cup, examine the tea leaves and write to tell about it. The inability to find one's way back from the past is insanity, always a constant threat.

Modern Kazakh poets compete in slam-like contests (Aitys) on television, ranting about all the same things poets rail against here -- the government, the corporations, lack of individual freedom. I didn't see it, but I did read about the poetic Aitys, which apparently the government tolerates because it is an age old tradition for poets to rant. Pretty surprising for a government that does not let anyone take photos of the post office. Rather than try and silence the poets with incarceration, apparently they buy them off with foreign cars and other rewards. Welcome to the twenty first century and the gulag of assets. For more information on the aitys:

Time hums, poets rant, and the effervescence of universal themes bubbles up across cultures.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Kazakhstan, the marketplace

At the open air market place, some vendors keep candles in their vegetable cases to keep the cucumbers from freezing. That's how cold it is. Imagine doing your marketing outdoors at minus 20F. We did visit a couple of modern malls, but couldn't afford anything there. In fact it was at the Green Market, pictured above that we found the only bargain: pomegranates for 1/2 the price we pay at home.

Shopping for spices out of bags on a table and not packaged with little hints on the side like "poultry seasoning" betrays our ignorance. In general, the food packaging was much more sparse (and sensible) than it is here. Milk was sold in vacuum sealed boxes that don't require refrigeration until the seal is broken, or in plastic bags. The local convenient store did not have aisles of bags of chips and snacks, but had fresh buns on a tray, fresh potatoes and onions and an entire wall of vodka. Although there is a minimum drinking age, no one seems too concerned about enforcing it.

I'm not sure how we got out of the market without taking pictures of the horse meat, but somehow we did. Meat just hung in large slabs, tongues and heads prominently displayed. Why not? It was freezing, nothing was about to spoil in a hurry. It would have been fun to sample some of the fare being sold in these pots; we had no idea what was in them. Dishes seemed to contain meat, but in small chunks, not the large slabs we demand here.

Tonight Michael is going to attempt to cook a lamb/beef/noodle dish we sampled for lunch the last day there. We also went to a classic Kazakh restaurant and sampled camel and horse. I didn't like the texture of the horsemeat, found it strong and stringy, but that could just have been my attitude reflected in my tastebuds.

Some of the best food we had came out of the school cafeteria. Homemade mushroom soup, lasagna, home made apple pastries that really tasted like apples and not straight sugar. It is amazing what kinds of chicken nuggets dipped in cheezewhiz garbage we feed our kids at schools. We saw them pushing in a wheelbarrow sized basked of fresh veggies into the cafeteria to be converted into lunches -- nothing pre-packaged. We could definitely learn from that lesson.

So, mostly the US dollar did not go very far in the Kazakh market, but we did manage to score some beautiful felt products. I think my favorite souvenir is a hand decorated necklace from Uzbekistan that one of the conference attendees was kind enough to hang around my neck. I've worn it every day since. While I was happy to get home to my local Heinens this AM, I wish I had had more of an opportunity to sample more of what those ladies had cooked up.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Traveling through Kazakhstan with Lenin

Alamty, Kazakhstan does not have soft edges. It is not warm and fuzzy. The sharp air that pinches the nose matches the looks from strangers pushing in line and the spike heels on the women’s boots. The straight lines of the Soviet style high rises are persistently drab in a public housing sort of way and the traffic is merciless. Tension still exists between the Russians and the Kazaks and walking around in public with Michael attracts attention -- the consensus is, he looks like Lenin. When the driver told him that we thought it was an abberation, but then it turned out to be unanimous.

The internet connections are uniformly lousy. The wireless at the hotel was so slow I wanted to slit my wrists and most people here pay for their connection per download. I’m not quite sure what that means, but I think it means you don’t just cruise around reading using your stumble browser. We are having a good time, but it is because of the people we have met at the school, not any kind of delight in the surroundings. The cold ranges from shocking to piercing and the smog is so thick that we have been able to even see the mountains since Wednesday.

Last night after the conference wrapped up, Michael and I spent some people-watching time at the mall. Imagine a mall populated by families and the usual proliferation of teenagers where a DJ sets up at 8:00PM and appears to just get rolling. Also try to imagine all these teenagers (lots) and not one single hoodie, no slouching balloon pants and all the girls in tight jeans and spike heels. The spikes are pencil thin and defy logic. Black is the uniform color rather than sweatshirt gray. None of the kids are overweight nor are the girls adorned by the characteristic American muffin top over their jeans. The kids seem affectionate to one another, girls often walking arm in arm or holding hands. There were no inappropriate displays of affection the mood and voices hushed with none of the loud posing that goes on at our local mall. This mall, that seemed so familiar in many ways, was also clearly not.

We were fresh from a dinner at an Italian restaurant where I had no hope of reading the menu and ordered what I thought was spaghetti with tomato sauce and turned out to be dark green spinach pasta with small salmon chunks, roe and a rich white sauce. What an insanely pleasant culinary surprise. And then I decided I had a taste for chocolate and attempted to buy an overpriced ice cream cone, but gave up as one person after another crammed in front of me. People here have a heritage of fighting their way to the fronts of food lines and the concept of lining up and taking turns is as foreign to them as the print on the Baskin Robbins menu was to me. I satisfied my need for chocolate at the grocery instead. The checkout girl was brusque, but at least I got waited on - even though I was traveling with Lenin.

Amaty Literacy Festival

This was a fun two days. Teachers from five locations in Central Asia were in attendance, some coming in on delayed flights and others after their bus was hung up at the border. Conference coordinator Maura Martin had requested that we bring coffee for the start of the conference. Coffee? Isn’t that a staple found on aisle six? Not here, here they have instant Nescafe. The Starbucks was was well received by the traveling teachers.

These teachers are risk takers by nature – they leave the security of home and their local grocery stores to travel to places I can’t even spell to teach children to speak English and study math, science and cultural studies all at the same time. Since it takes a kid an average of seven years to master English alone, this seems equivalent to keeping six balls in the air simultaneously, a remarkable feat of mental multitasking. I don’t know how they do it.

This area is growing so fast and the demand for English language schools is so great that one of the schools has gone from a population of 5 to 50 since September. I was humbled to be there talking to them about poetry and performance. We spoke in the cafeteria which had universal acoustic challenges of all cafeterias, and then in classrooms alive with student artwork.

In one hallway display, 9 year olds had colored in all the continents of the world in different colors, followed by a page where each drew a picture of their home country’s flag (Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and places all over) followed by another sheet where the students listed their homeland’s best food, music and native dance. At dinner we tried to guess what the native dance of the US might possibly be. Square dancing? Clogging? Break dancing?

The teachers were uniformly and enthusiastically involved and wrote like crazy in all of our workshops. In the picture above the teachers had written a group poem about the skeletal system and then performed it with much bravado, the culmination being when the gym teacher dropped to the ground to demonstrate what a person would be without a skeleton – a blob!

The finale of the two days was a poetry slam demonstration where 7 teachers read with humor and pathos. Everyone applauded the poets and wanted to hang the judges, of course. And there was lots of laughter and good spirit spilling out everywhere. Many thanks to Maura, Russ and Dan for making it all happen.

What I will remember are the intense and friendly eyes of the teachers. Probing. Smiling. People you would want to go to dinner with. People you could entrust your children to for learning. I’m so glad we came.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Arriving in Kazakhstan

Inside the airport a gray mist hovers, gathering in intensity toward the vaulted ceiling. It is -30C/-2F outside and dark outside with few lights and no moon to reflect on the snow when we land at 5:30AM. The first person we are greeted by is a fellow in a soviet style wool grey uniform with an expression to match. He has a clipboard and not even a hint of a smile as the weary passengers trundle up the unheated jet way laden with packs and overstuffed bags. Another officer tells Michael to put his camera away in the airport, no pictures permitted. Not only does the customs agent not smile, he doesn’t even look up to make eye contact as he snaps his stamp, CHUCK CHUCK, on my documents. As we round the bend toward baggage we see one smiling face, Maura Martin, the teacher who has invited us, mouthing warm hellos and waving excitedly. The bags take forever, which might have been frustrating except we know the collapse of not having them arrive at all and we are grateful all of the books (and a few clothes) have miraculously managed to follow us 12,000 miles.

The sun rises late here, not because we are that far north, but because it has to lift its light over breathtaking mountains. We take a short nap and walk to the school, a building only four years old and decorated wall to wall in all kinds of student learning art. In every classroom the windows extend to the ceiling, welcoming all the sun has to offer. And everyone at the school is welcoming with broad smiles and the first impression at the airport is lost with the early morning mist. Tonight we will try to sleep a somewhat normal schedule and tomorrow we hope to go into Almaty to poke around. The conference begins Friday morning.

Sunday, January 13, 2008


Packing the suitcases, weighing out what's most important, repacking. Taking Starbucks to the teachers in Almaty and books and more books. More books. Can I get by with two pairs of shoes? The official list posted on the fridge. We notice Max put his name there, as if we would go to Capital University, scoop him up and put him in a suitcase. I have set aside Three Cups of Tea to read on the plane. But what's really bugging me is that I don't have a knitting project secured yet. Not so much for the plane, but for the inevitable airport waits, knitting keeps me evened out. The back and forth predictability is soothing, like a mantra. Traveling means new experiences, new people, new ideas. Knitting is a way to internalize it all, to customize the real, the imagined, and the unanswered to fit in my memory. To relive and remember.

I just finished a sweater that I made from wool scored in Italy last December when we went to visit the Smiths in Croatia. I had to start three different projects to finally find one that I actually had enough yarn to finish. The sweater pictured above was finished with less than 3 yards of wool left over. The crime is, the sweater is too bulky to pack to go to chilly Kazakhstan because of all the (did I mention?) books!

So, yesterday dragged Stephie and Scottie (who were very very patient, all things considered) to two yarn stores to find wool for a sweater for Michael. But unfortunately it is late in the season and the specific yarn needed for the pattern he chose is all sold out. I considered trying to board the plane without yarn, but that prospect gave me chest pains. Obviously, I need my mantra to attempt a transcontinental flight. So, today I am off to the yarn store again to buy enough for a floppy cowl neck for me. The pattern I found is perfect, nothing tricky, straight knitting I can almost do in my sleep. Now all I have to do is fit the yarn in the with, oh yeah, BOOKS.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Ode to the Mosquito of January 2008

Oh lone mosquito
for whom love is but remote,
your translucent wings have brought you here
by some mistake.
By whose warm but
misguided invitation have you
come to visit my bedroom on
this January night?
Poised as you are beneath my light
I ponder your presence
knowing not where you are ought to be
in dead of winter.
Is it winter?
The temperature today stretched its
mercurial arms to sixty-six.
Were you fooled by the
compromised climate’s gymnastics
just this once
or are you now become a new
accomplice to winter,
replacing frost and chapstick?
Silent, you appear as stunned as I
to find yourself beside my bed.
Mosquito, were you but illusion
I could more easily find sleep tonight.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Adventures at Home

Well, not entirely at home. At Aunt Becky's. On New Year's Eve day, the entire grand-crew (minus Sara Kelly) went for a ride out to Michael's sister's barn to visit the three new sheep, the goats, the horses and the three tortoise eggs (don't touch). Becky is a vet her family has a menagerie! Steph and Ben rode the miniature draft horse around the riding arena and Dan, Thomas and Scott were content to pet the goats. The sheep were too shy to let anyone pet them. And finally, in the last photo, everyone came back to our place to clean up.

It was colder than it looked when we left home, but the snow and the scourge of little Sara Kelly's pink eye contagion held off for another couple days, which was a blessing. I put this collage together to remind me of the day and that many and most fun adventures are right at home if we just take time to seek them out.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Long Underwear and Sun Screen

No, we are not planning a trip to ski the Rockies. We are planning two trips almost back to back and now that the holidays are over, we are beginning to organize ourselves for travel. First, we are off to Kazakhstan where the temperatures are -10F. Then we are home for a week and off to Jakarta International School, Bali for four days of vacation, and then back to Jakarta, Singapore for one night (night safari at the famous Singapore Zoo) and then Michael comes home and I'm onto Kuala Lumpur for two days and home. Hence, long underwear and sun screen are on the stack with neck pillows for the plane and plenty of reading material.

The picture of the Jakarta International School I found on fliker, taken by someone who calls himself thebigdurian. As another visiter to his site noticed, it looks like all the campus needs is hammocks and outdoor fans. Very un-Cleveland.

A teacher sent me a poem written by students from the Jakarta school about their field trip to Cairo. Keep in mind, a significant field trip in Cleveland amounts to a bus trip to the zoo not a flight to the pyramids! They did such a good job of capturing the moment that I was immediately transported, inhaling the blowing desert sands and hearing the tinkling camel bells. I know we are going to have a great time writing and sharing poetry. While we are there, our friend Georgia Heard will be visiting the elementary, an extra bonus.

Because of the Chinese New Year, we will go on holiday, too! We are traveling to Bali for some relaxation, exploration and sunshine. The teachers in Jakarta have been so helpful in providing direction for this leg of the trip.

Finally, I'm visiting students in Kuala Lumpur. This was the last stop on the trip to be scheduled and truly is a bonus. Can't wait to meet the students there.

Last night I talked to the school principal in Almaty, Kazakhstan and we discussed final plans for the teacher workshop. I almost didn't pick up the phone because the caller ID showed a number beginning with 999 and I thought for sure it was a solicitor. But no! It was Maura and she sounded like she was right next door. I never fail to be amazed at the wonder of telecommunications.

Although we are going to foreign ports, we have made email friends already. Isn't amazing how you really begin to feel like you know someone from notes that pop up on the screen! Cruising blogs and fliker sites have given us a whiff of familiarity, but like a field trip in good ol' Cleveland, it is the people we will meet that will leave the most lasting impression. Can't wait.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Three Words for 2008

I'm reading Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia by Elizabeth Gilbert . I don't know if it is because of the book or because of some spotlight on ABC news last fall, but people seem to be into this three word thing. So I got to thinking about three words for 2008 -- and how I need to write them down and put them on my computer screen, the back of my hand, and on the refrigerator and everywhere else to keep my focus where it will bring me the most inner satisfaction and not feed my inner demon brat who tends to rear her ugly head at odd hours stomping around screaming like an angry punk star.

I have a computer screen roughly the size of a drive in movie screen, a gift to my eyeballs last fall. I have been utilizing this wondrous window way too much for Scrabble. That's right. Scrabble. Not writing, not blogging, not even photoshop. I suppose some argument could be made that Scrabble increases the vocabulary. but only (as Michael loves to remind me) if you really study the words and not just use them for points. Mostly the game is just that, a game. And when you get done with it, you have nothing to show for it but a score that vanishes as soon as you press "new game." Not so satisfying (although I did get a 240 point word last week, not that I remember what it was). Scrabble is one of many mind games I play with myself, some more useless than others.

Which is all to say, I think I need to narrow my word focus. So, here are my three words for 2008:
Hope, Love, Create.
Hope because I can get so discouraged by the news (economy, war, environment, hatefulness) that Hope becomes a breeze I can no longer feel. Love is about taking care of myself, surrounding myself with people and activities that I truly love. To Create is to problem solve, not problem list. It is to make something out of nothing. It depends on the other two for survival. If I don't nurture hope and a loving environment, nothing new can take root.
So those are my words.