Monday, November 28, 2005

Ajax and his new window on the world. Posted by Picasa


Ajax is an unusual name for a dog, but Ajax is unusual. He is asleep under my desk, slept in the bed last night, cuddled up to whomever he could get close to on the sofa all yesterday. The cats are a bit snitty about his arrival, but Hector is taking it in grudging stride. Undoubtedly, Ajax must feel some resistance, but he seems to be tenacious about fitting in.

We took a walk this morning and when the leash brushed one ear, now partially healed 3-4 weeks after his mutilation by some mean man in (we think) a baseball cap (since he is afraid of Michael in a baseball cap), he yelped in pain. Doctor Becky says he has been patient about the treatments to his burned ears, never once nipping at her as she routinely cleaned and medicated him over the past weeks. She speculates that lighter fluid of some kind was first put on his ears, the extent of the burns was so severe and localized.

In Greek mythology, Ajax was a rival of Hector's, but then Ajax traded his belt to Hector for his sword. Unfortunately, it was this belt that was later used to drag Hector to his death, which tore up Ajax so much that he fell on his sword in fine ancient fashion. Hollywood rewrote the story (like that wasn't dramatic enough?), making Hector the one who done Ajax in, so to speak.

We will attempt to re-write the story one more time, only this time Hector and Ajax will live as comrades side-by-side, happily ever after.

and thomas sits! Posted by Picasa

four out of five -- Posted by Picasa

Saturday, November 26, 2005

just thinking

I thought about exercising today, but I didn't get rolling. I thought I woke up with a head cold, but it never really took control. I thought about reading Don Quixote, but I didn't get to it. I thought about cleaning the kitchen, but -- same story. Maybe I just needed a day to think. Or maybe the cold was in my vessels if not in my nose, turning my blood to sludge so that I couldn't move.

Tomorrow all five grandbabies will be here AND a new dog arrives. He is a charity case from Michael's sister's vet clinic. Some evildoer set his ears on fire. He is healed though somewhat fringy in the ear department and looking for a good home. Hector, our rat terrier mix, a stray I picked up at Home Depot (where else does a smart, homeless dog go to find a home?) has been missing his Boston Terrier buddy Mike since about this time last year. We have not met the new dog and are hoping for a happy, smooth transition, which hardly seems likely with 5 kids under the age of 6 in the house. Whew.

If today was a day for thinking, tomorrow looks to be a day of chaos. My Uncle Bill told me we should always rest when the battle is far away, so we have the strength to face whatever is coming. Something triggered a slow down in me today.

Now, I'm thinking maybe that was a good thing.

Thursday, November 24, 2005


I've been thinking about this word for three days. I saw it in an article in a magazine and have since composed at least three maybe decent but different poems about the word "watchful." None of these musings did I write down. All the words are now lost. Except the one I kept my eye on -- watchful. I need to write it down.

I had an email from a friend saying that she doesn't celebrate Thanksgiving because of the native American experience. Of course, she said, of course. I guess I can see that, but I LOVE this holiday. Friends and family get together, take maybe a minute to be grateful for another year on the planet. The stores shut down for a day, we actually have to talk to one another as people and not as consumers. How many cultures have harvest festivals, I wonder? Doesn't the multicultural aspect of harvest celebration make it okay? Please? The world is torn apart, gratitude is a carpet we stand on to give us solid footing when we reach for hope, that thing with feathers. So elusive.

We need to be watchful of gratitude least it slip away like an unwritten poem leaving us empty-handed.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Chapter 3 Don Quixote

I'm thinking that I don't want to make a separate blog entry for every chapter, but truly, this reading is so complex that my eyes tend to glaze over before I reach the end of the sentence. I need to incorporate comprehension strategies I've learned from strategies that Work and other books. I'm using post it notes so that I don't have to write in the margins of this fine book.

Chapter 3, zoom in on the landlord, a wag. What's a wag? It's someone who cheats widows (cold), ruins maidens (nasty), and swindles minors (takes candy from babies). He has been around and has street smarts. Naturally he is quick to pick up on the fact that Quixote is crackers, but the landlord decides to humor him and agrees to do the official dubbing, since the errant knight thinks he's a governor. In fact Quixote thinks he's hanging with royalty but in fact his fellow companions at the inn are wenches and a pig gelder. Meantime, Quixote's gear is still on the watering tank and he's wandering around in his shirt and helmet with the green ribbons (how's that for an image?). Along comes some carrier who wants to give his team of horses water, so he moves the armor off the watering tank. Quixote sees this and clocks the guy with his lance. He doesn't smite him dead, just unconscious. After this Quixote is all full of himself and when another carrier comes and commits the same crime of touching the armor, he smites him, too. The other guests start to freak out and rain stones on the half cracked knight. The landlord can't wait to get rid of this nut case and dubs him quickly and unceremoniously in a field and Quixote starts speechifying again, but the landlord can't wait to get rid of him before the rest of the guests tear the inn apart. He doesn't even charge him for the night, he just shows him the door and tells him Godspeed, which is medieval for get lost.

NCTE When Teachers Convene

When teachers convene, the subject is books. The writing, reading, sharing, politics, philosophies of books. The passing conversations in the hallways, the talk over dinner, the convention exhibitors and sessions are all about books, how to make them happen, which are the best and how do we get more people to grow into, from and through books. From poems no longer or more memorable than a sneeze to complete works that have lived through centuries, teachers come together and for what? For books.

Katie and I presented together for the first time, which was so cool. New and natural at the same time. We were so into reviewing and revising our presentation on the way from Cleveland to Pittsburgh, we missed the exit and drove to Monroeville before we realized our mistake. Loved hearing the droll humor and inspiration of Frank McCourt whose impact was not muted by the caverous room or projected images. Lots of friends to hug and new projects to discuss.

Three days in Pittsburgh at NCTE, friends, colleagues from across the country and a virtual train load of books. Quite a weekend.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Chapter 2 Don Quixote

Cervantes seems to be telling this story with a wink. Our hero is wearing a patched up helmet held on with green ribbons tied in impossible knots, can this be anything but comical? Quixote mounts his steed and leaves from the back door of his yard on the road to his first day in pursuit of his grand purpose. He's thinking though that what could be considered knightly might only be criminal if he is not officially dubbed by an official dubber. He's all worked up about this as he approaches a medieval Red Roof Inn. He sees this dump as a castle; being delusional has its advantages when it comes to touring Spain on zero dollars a day. He wants to be greeted by banners and trumpets, instead he is met by swine and strumpets, so naturally he is happy as a pig in mud. He's dead tired and starved and wants a trout, but the only thing around is troutlets and he can't eat them because of the ribbons covering his face. The "fair maidens" feed him through a reed while he claims he lives to serve them (this is a common male/female theme). His convoluted philosophies totally crack them up. The innkeeper is a pudgy old guy who welcomes him in and takes his armor (except for his shirt and helmet) and sets it on top of the watering tank. Quixote thinks that this guy is a high governor of the castle, so he hands over his gear, and continues to strut around the courtyard, still all bent out of shape about his LOD (lack of dubbing).

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Joining the ranks of struggling readers

Here's a challenge. Michael and I received a dinner invite for next April in the mail this week. Why so far in advance? There is a requirement for the dinner, we must have read Don Quixote, the original by Cervantes who, I found out in the fine print, died on the same day as Shakespeare. Just watching the movie adaptation of the Man of La Mancha won't do at all -- all 1000 pages must be read.

On the shelf, as a stoic member of the Britannica Great Books collection I inherited from my first husband, I found the text, dusted it off and last night read the first chapter of Part 1. Cervantes may be a long time dead, but the man has a bit of a sense of humor, I was pleased to find. The language is complex though, requiring me to read and reread paragraphs before I start to get it.

A lot happens in this first chapter. We learn that Don Quixote is really a mad country gentleman who is arrogant and ill-conditioned (full of himself and out of shape) but also affable and well-bred (not cranky and from a decent family). And he is also thoroughly mad, "his wits being quite gone." Anyway, he is determined to "make a knight-errant of himself, roaming the world over in full armor and on horseback in quest of adventures, righting every kind of wrong, and exposing himself to peril and danger from which, in the issue, he was to reap eternal renown and fame." He dubs himself Quixote and his horse Rocinante.

Then he thinks he needs (naturally) a lady fair, so he picks a local farm girl who he used to have a crush on, but she doesn't know he is alive. But that's okay with him, because he's nuts.

end of chapter 1. Maybe this won't be so bad. I just need to take time to digest it along the way. Rethink it in modern terms.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

this is the gig

Today started with aerobics to get the blood pumping. A short family visit, trip to the store and home to sit in a leather chair by the fire, laptop humming to work on the new book.

This is it. Days and weeks away from home for a few days like these. Ahh.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Math Tanka Posted by Picasa

McCord Junior High, Sylvania, OH

This was fun -- They broadcast my assembly presentation from McCord Junior High to two other middle schools, using all kinds of technology. In the old days, they would have bussed the other schools in, but instead they saw me on a screen. The pluses were that I could see (or be seen) by more kids. The down side was that not only did I not get to shake any hands there, I didn't feel as closely connected to the kids in the assembly at McCord. I think we are so accustomed to watching people on a screen, that more kids were watching my projected image than looking at me. And I wound up playing to a camera rather than to the live audience. I know this is the wave of the future, I'm not sure.

One thing I am sure of is that I don't want to remember McCord for their technology (which was state of the art). I was blown away by the poems the kids were writing, the ones that were posted about the building and the ones the 6th graders wrote in the two days I was there. Many thanks to Judy Bashforth for all her hard work and to the other teachers for preparing the kids so well.

The picture I'm posting is of two math Tanka poems from the hallway display. All of them were great, this just happened to be the photo that turned out the clearest.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Microsociety in Toledo

Birmingham Elementary is a Micro society school ( – the kids, the first graders, asked me about being a poet as a job. Did I set out to make money at it? Was it always just a hobby? The kids were engaged and busy working on building their community.

In the shadow of the largest flour mill in the world (second hand info) which just happens to be in Toledo, in an aging Hungarian neighborhood sits Birmingham. Its old school – really old school, with the electrical wiring running on the outside of many of the walls. But the aging physical building is not to be confused with its revolutionary approach to education. The kids get paid in Birmingham bucks for participating in their business ventures. They hold elections and produce products in cross curricular activities. I’m not much of a fan of judging kids based on test scores, but its hard to not take notice when a school’s scores jump from 25% passing to over 80%. Zowie. Attendance is up, absenteeism and discipline problems way down. There is only one other microsociety school in OH.

So, I went to the website and guess what? The program was established by a poet!

Pretty exciting stuff coming out of Clinger’s old neighborhood. Dinner was chicken paprikash take out from Tony Packo’s. Yumm.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Back home at Bay Village Middle School

This is the first time my daughter Katie and I ever did a teacher workshop together -- at her school, which was much more stressful for her than for me. What is it about presenting to our own colleagues that freaks us out so much. I remember feeling the same way when I had to do such things in the old business life.

But the four hour workshop went well -- Katie even survived me showing a slide of her in the bathtub with her sister when they were both little.

I'm a mother.

Mothers do these things.

The teachers wrote questioning poems in small groups arranged in advance by subject area. The science teachers wrote one on reproduction. All I can say is, good thing the kids weren't there. One thing you have to say about middle school teachers in general -- they are (have to be) fearless.

In between the four hour workshop and the drive to Toledo -- a long bath. Just a year ago we were up to our necks in construction dust on a new bedroom/bath addition. Glad to have that in past tense.

The wind was in a hurry and at cross purposes with the turnpike on the way to Toledo. Listening to the election returns on the radio... The voter reform initiative calling for a bi-partisian committee to oversee elections in OH went down in flames. Sometimes the winds blow in the face of all logic -- I guess the best anyone can do is try and keep it on the road.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Charlottesville, VA

Charlottesville is south of D.C. and a full day at school is followed by a long drive back to Cleveland. So many flights have been cancelled that it was impossible to get a flight that would get me back in time for my day at Bay Middle on Tuesday. Michael did the driving through wild and wonderful West Virginia. Hours added onto hours. Too much driving the last few weeks. Next week is NCTE and then most of December at home, and boy howdy, does that sound good.

I had a conversation in the hallway of the school in Charlotteville with an Indian (Eastern)/American teacher about how we both love Tagore. I keep one of his books, Creative Unity, at close hand at all times. It is like the Bible, only less violent -- open any page and find an inspiration. It is a crime that his poetry is not taught in the U.S. What a pleasure to stand in a little spot of sun on a fall day and talk poetry. Looking back on all that was Monday, at first I thought of the back killing drive. But now, rubbing the memory of the day between my fingers and forehead, I decide to remember that patch of sunlight instead.

It is a choice -- what we decide to remember.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Cincinnati, OH

The Ramada Inn is set for rennovation, but unfortunately for me, not before I pull in late Thursday night. The room smells of old smoke, ground into the dingy carpet and painted on the walls. In the bathroom is a whirlpool tub that no longer whirls and a steam apparatus that must have seemed like a good idea at the time. I’d like to walk out, but it’s too late.

On the way down, I got a phone call that began “everyone is okay, but . . .” Not what anyone wants to hear. Michael’s son Max had been in a car accident. The fact that I wrote in my blog about a car accident just this morning is downright spooky. From this date forward, I think the entire family should just stay home on November 4. I am grateful to make the Ramada Inn, dreary as it is. Lots to be grateful for.

Greener Elementary is far from dreary – a fun school that has prepared for the author visit and is (literally) hopping with excitement about writing. The principal explains her attire and that of her teachers – if they pay money, they are allowed to wear jeans on Friday. This is how they raise money for the assemblies since the parent group isn’t very well-funded. Why don’t stories like this appear on Fox news as they complain about teachers? These teachers are so intent on their kids getting a diverse experience in school, they pay for assemblies themselves.

Extended day – I drove from Cincinnati to Purcellville, VA to see Kelly & Co. on Friday after school. This is a long drive – complicated by the fact that somewhere in West Virginia I managed to get off of the Robert Byrd Appalachian Highway and on the scenic bypass – which went on and on with 15 mile per hour hair pin turns through the mountains, herds of deer ambling beside the twisting road and no cell phone service. Nada. It is undoubtedly a beautiful drive in the daylight, but it loses its charm after dark and I frankly scared myself a few times wondering what would happen if I slipped down a side bank or ran out of gas.

Got into Purcellvile about 1:30AM, very grateful. Had a great time with Benny, who is enjoying reading (mostly memorizing) Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus and Where is the Green Sheep? Danny knows all his letters, but still speaks a foreign language and Thomas can almost sit up. Michael arrived on Saturday afternoon, by plane. No detours. Smart move.

A day to celebrate

21 years ago today, Katie, Kelly and I were stopped at a traffic light in North Olmsted, OH talking about whether or not we should continue cable or cancel and save the money. When we all woke up, we were disoriented and bruised. We had been hit from behind by an absent minded speeder. I remember hesitating one split second, aware but afraid to look to my right -- did Katie remember to click her seat belt when we left the mall? Still unconcious, she had remembered the seat belt and had not gone through the windshield like a missle. Kelly was in the back seat and crumpled on the floor. She was taken from the scene on one of those scary back boards, her neck still gives her problems. I had bruised lungs from my seat belt, which is a whole lot better than massive head injuries, but has caused me to be a little short of breath ever since.

Every year I remember that November 4 is a day to celebrate that we all walked away from that terrible crash with minor injuries. I always take a few moments to be grateful.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Topeka, Indiana

This is Amish country in Indiana. At least half of the kids in this district don't watch American Idol and wear simple clothes. Whenever I have contact with the Amish community I wonder if the rest of us aren't missing something a little less hectic. The drive was golden with buggies on the periphery. The children were bussed in for the programs, which went smoothly thanks to a coordinated effort by all the title one and other teachers. It was a great day. Right across the street from the school they were harvesting. I just stood there and watched for a while, city girl that I am.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

When did it become cool to be dumb?

This is a question that has been haunting me. The attitude seems to start around middle school but it projects itself into the political arena all the time. Maybe doubting the intelligence of the world is simply a rite of passage, like the rite of passage where adults upon reaching a certain age (much older than I, of course) question why the world doesn't value the wisdom of its elders more.

I asked a group of students this question last week and one girl replied that Jessica Simpson started it. I dare say it started long before her chicken of the sea embarrassments, but it was good to know the student knew what I was talking about.

Have been working hard on two new books, many hours at the computer. Not enough time for reflection.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Westerly Elementary School

A week at Westerly -- this is the elementary school both my daughters attended. I was lucky enough to spend the week there doing writing workshops with the third and fourth grades culminating in a grand poetry jam on Friday afternoon. The auditorium was darkened, the stage set, names drawn and many poems performed to enthusiastic applause. Many thanks to Martha Fisher for her extra efforts in making the week a success.

Many many students have heard me tell the story of how I came to write "The Dog Ate My Homework." How our dog ate my daughter's report card and then the spelling book, how I had to make apologies to her teachers. What many students may not know is that that teacher is a real person and that she is still teaching after (rough estimate) 600 students have passed through her lively classroom. Her name is Mrs. Woodburn (see picture). In her cupboard she now keeps a three ring binder of homework excuses. She is a star in her students' eyes and in her profession.

Westerly's Poetry Jam Posted by Picasa

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Mrs. Woodburn and some half cracked poet with her eyes closed. Posted by Picasa

Poems from State College Posted by Picasa

State College, PA

Driving through Pennsylvania in the twilight of October is nothing if not a colorful experience! That drive was only surpassed by the fun I had visiting Mt. Nittany and Park Forest Middle School and schools in State College and meeting with all the students and teachers. Four days in the district, it's hard to pinpoint the highest point, but it might have been the visit to the class pictured below.

The teachers and libraians Kathy Billet and Dotty Delafield had the students so pumped up about poetry, their enthusiasm was in the air and on their papers as we shared our poems and even composed some new ones. Lots of poems on the walls and lining the halls. After meeting with the students, I spent a half day in-service with the teachers in grades 6-12. I wonder if the kids know what great poets their teachers are.

Many thanks to the staff, administration and especially the kids in State College. And a little thank you also to Mother Nature for sharing her pallet enroute.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

State College Poets (a few among many) Posted by Picasa

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Who are you wearing?

Once in a while a student question just sticks with me -- usually the ones I don't have answers for. Last Friday (now Sunday) following the final assembly (eighth grade, last period, we all survived) after I had reminded the kids of the rights and responsibilities of free speech, revealed personal facts about my life, joked and urged them to put their own thoughts and feelings down on paper and share them with others, I asked for questions.

"Who are you wearing?"

I had to ask for a restatement -- not what was I wearing, but who?
Is this a sign of too much time spent aside the red carpet with Joan Rivers? Over exposure to People Magazine? The world has an elevated temperature, the country has been visited by plagues of winds and floods and fire, the heads of the senate and the congress are being investigated for illegal activities, the country is a war. . . and there was no discussion about the world, the content of my poems, the content of my soul or the student's, all he wanted to know was what corporate entity was on the label of my wrapper.

At first I thought it was such an insignificant question, I didn't even pause for a response, so many hands in the air. But the more I think about it, the more important the question becomes. Had I answered the question, would that have changed the boy's view of me? Colored it? I never intended my wardrobe to provide that ah-ha moment poets search for.

I didn't have a good answer.
I still don't.
But I can't erase the question or the young man's face from my vision of myself or the world. I guess today, that student is who I am wearing and to tell you the truth, the ensemble kind of itches.

Friday, September 30, 2005

tonight's the night

And even though today started before 6AM and the game is in extra innings after 11PM, even though the school day ended with a last period assembly of eight graders on a Friday afternoon and the school was an hour's drive from home and even though I'm a month behind in my blog and they are in the attic in a plastic tub marked Christmas ornaments, tonight is the night to pull out the flannel sheets.

There just comes a time.
And this is it.
Tomorrow will be the day for updating the blog with scattered journal scratchings.
Lots of writing this past month -- just not here.

Today was a great day with friends at Olmsted Falls Middle School where the kids were well prepared and the teachers were enthused and involved. The sun was out and the air and the falling leaves were crisp. It was a day to be grateful for.

And just made for flannel sheets.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

it's all about timing

I’ve seen the Discovery specials on salmon, how they leap dramatically up waterfalls to get upstream. What they don’t show you on TV is the bonepiles of salmon that don’t make it. How they fall into piles of decay and become sushi for their canabalistic fellow travelers.

Catching salmon is about timing the tides and the runs against the fisherman’s patience and vacation time. For the salmon, timing their run into the spawning stream at high tide seems to be key in Whittier, Alaska. Time it wrong and the big ones die in shallow tide pools.

Timing, as it has always been, is life or death.

Whittier is a place out of time. The only route into town is a still functioning railroad tunnel that also functions as the longest tunnel for cars in the U.S., 2.5 miles. You might think that means the train runs beside the cars, but no. The trains and the cars take turns in a single lane tunnel, the cars rolling straight down the train tracks. The tunnel itself is more like a cave with gray, seeping bolder walls. A tall, thin tunnel, it leads to a little outpost on Prince Edward Sound. Michael fished most of today and I went back to Tucson with Hannah, thanks to a laptop and an electrical outlet in the rental car.

It was a brilliant day.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

and when you turn off the paved road

I once received directions to a school in southern Ohio that read: Take the interstate to the state route, turn onto the county road, when you get into town turn right at the stop sign. No matter what the street name, there’s only one stop sign. The last sentence began, and when you turn off the paved road . . . I actually thought myself rather adventurous taking off for that school years ago.

Today we followed similar directions to Lisa and Rick Sinnott’s cabin above Ekluka Lake, northeast of Anchorage. Rick and Lisa are friends from a previous visit – Lisa is a librarian at Wendell Middle School and Rick is the moose man of Anchorage, a biologist and wildlife specialist. They have a regular house in Anchorage with running water and a necessary room – not so in their cabin in the woods where the necessary room is 30 paces from the cabin.

After 5 straight days of rain, the sun has reintroduced itself to the sky. When we arrive at Ekluka Lake, steam is rising off of the glacier lake into the cool morning. Just as the phrase “lone wolf” is a misnomer since they actually are pack animals, the term “clear glacier lake” is also untrue. A glacier lake is in fact cloudy with silt and not full of fish like the soft drink commercials would have you believe, the water is too dark for them. So there. A quick look and then on to the cabin.

We drive part way up to the Sinnott’s cabin (way off the paved road) to where Lisa has placed a wagon across the road warning us of an impassable trail, so we park the rental car (Avis would be so happy) and trek the rest of the way around and through deep mud ruts. EVERYTHING in Alaska is vast, even its road ruts which could easily swallow feet, shoes, tires and probably small children under the age of 12. Rick is off hunting wild sheep and Lisa and Megan are at the cabin to greet us. We have some lunch, tour the one room cabin and the site of their home to be. The cabin itself is modeled after a potting shed, very Thoreauvian, all built as Lisa says, “the hard way,” by hand, even the beds and cabinets. The closet is railroad ties pounded into the wall and in the corner a small cookstove. An ideal retreat complete with stacked wood and bear stories.

Meg, Michael, Lisa and I proceed to the lake with two kayaks. Michael and Lisa hike three miles to meet Megan and I who kayaking across the lake with the wind to our backs. Then we switch with Megan and I hiking back and M and L paddling against the current of the lake. Peeking between the saddle of two mountains is a glacier in retreat. Brilliant green trees meet luminous blue water. It is a stunning hike.

After 3 hours on the lake we go back to the cabin where Rick has returned. On the other side of the mountain the hunters have harvested one female sheep. Licenses for sheep hunting are done by lottery up here. After felling the sheep, Rick and his friend Steve had to cut it in half and carry it back down the mountain on their backs. This gives new definition to the phrase “hand to mouth,” seeing the thing in pieces in a box.

As the light begins to dwindle in the cabin, we share stories beside a cast iron stove. I’m thinking in the “writer’s” section at Borders they should sell these stoves. What book on writing prompts can be half as effective as a little quiet time, no television and a crackling stove for drawing stories out of folks?

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Thunderbird Falls

Thunderbird Falls

Friday we went out fishing. Let me clarify that. Michael fished at Ship Creek and I napped in the car. After a few hours there, we went exploring north east of Anchorage around the Eagle River. We hiked up to Thunderbird Falls.

Michael was disappointed to see a “no fishing until after Sept. 15" sign posted at the Eagle River. But we went down to explore anyway. Flopping and humping over rocks, we watched a king salmon seemingly crawl upstream across the rocky creek bed. It happened too fast to grab for the camera – a “did you see that!” few moments. Alaska is full of those – whales spitting through blow holes, eagles in flight, rainbows. Spectacular memories that come from flashes, moments to remember.

Gasp. I almost said precious moments, which of course is that line of cutesy little cherub statues. Nothing about Alaska seems cutesy. It is vast and spectacular. The mountains are dark and intense. The waterways, large and roiling.

Anrchorage, Janet Allen Institutes Goodbye

And it ended with a poem

The Janet Allen Literacy Institutes, so much a part of my life for the last nine years, are now officially over. I have made life long colleagues and the skeleton staff that was here in Anchorage toasted the good learning times that we have had together. Anne wrote a narrative, detailed poem about our vagabond summers to end the last session. For me, that brings me full circle as my first invitation to an institute came as a result of one of my poems.

I suppose in a metaphorical sense, this is what I wish for my life – that one poem leads to another.

On Thursday, Michael will arrive and we have 5 days to explore. Meantime, I need to buy a jacket – the last week of August is fall in Anchorage, more like October in OH.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Friday, the last day. Debbi and I cruise some neighborhoods to look for Gran’s trailer park and the high school where Hector and Hannah go to school. We drive through some parks and decide they are a little too scrappy - Gran wouldn’t live there. Or there. Finally, we find the park. One end of it has spaces for the snowbirds, the other part is permanent housing. Each trailer has an over-hang side porch area and a small front yard, three feet deep and about 8 feet long. Gran and Sam are retired factory workers, a dying breed. This is a good place for them to live.

I spend a warm family evening with my aunt Sophie and Uncle Bill, cousins and cousins once removed. We have so much to be grateful for.

Now it is time to write.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

My picture of the wall didn't turn out -- found this one on the internet. It is 14 feet tall, very ugly rusted metal. The crosses commemorate deaths. Posted by Picasa

trash hidden in a nest under a mesquite tree in the national park Posted by Picasa

Debbi McCullough's dolls commemorating migrant deaths in the desert Posted by Picasa


Today Hannah went to court to support two Samaritans who were recently arrested for assisting 3 immigrant travelers who they found in the desert suffering bloody stools and hallucinations – late stage dehydration. After consulting with a physician by phone, they were taking the travelers to the hospital and were stopped by border guards and arrested. The travelers, who were showing signs of recovery (often false bravado after a few sips of water) were released. There wasn’t enough room for us in the courtroom, but still it was good we showed up at the arraignment to show support for the Samaritans.

From there, Deb and Ed took Hannah into Mexico to see what real poverty looks like. We drive up and down steep streets, houses hanging onto the side with improbable tenacity. The wall separating the US from Mexico is made of sheets of rusted, corrugated steel with rolled razor wire across the top. Decorating the Mexican side are crosses commemorating souls lost in transit. The eager sales people try to engage with smiles and commonalities – where you from? I know that place. Come in. Come see. You never know.”

True. You never know. But Hannah and I certainly know more than we did a few days ago about the disparities in defining the word “poor.”

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Ed leads us on a path used by migrants to cross the AZ desert and mountains Posted by Picasa

Arizona border home with razor wire around it. Posted by Picasa

Hannah meets the desert

Hannah was shocked today. The desert was alive and green. August is monsoon season and the flowers, the thick clouds and the fire ants were all out in force. I know enough about the AZ desert to know that it is not just sand and camels – but I was not prepared for all the greenery, the thickets of mesquite trees.

First we went to the border. It isn’t much. A station, some wire, guards behind glass. But on all sides it is surrounded by the wide open spaces. From there we went to walk a trail that migrants take crossing el frontero. The path is rocky, uneven and prickly. Our hiking crew was led by Ed, followed by Debbi, me, and my 84 year old aunt Sophie and Uncle Bill.

I mention my aunt and uncle’s ages here because someone would have to tell you or you wouldn’t believe it. They celebrate every day with new learning and experiences and are my heros. Ed led us on a hike along a trail through a wild life preserve and pathway to the US from the border. The border guards are evident in broncos and hummers. They patrol on horses and leave ATV tracks skidding through the washes. I felt like a criminal just walking in a national park.

Every story has two sides, of course. The migrants come here looking for a better life, as migrants have moved for all of history. But today they leave behind mounds of plastic trash, old clothes and backpacks. The litter is overwhelming, dumped on public lands and the lands of ranchers who feel overwhelmed and threatened by the increased foot traffic.

From there we went to a No More Death outpost and met the friendly, dedicated crew manning the station where I collected images and stories. Their mission is to provide relief to migrants in crisis.

Lastly, we visited with two of Debbi’s artist colleagues who are working on a sculpture installation that is magnificent. No pictures of that as it has yet to be unveiled, but see the picture of some of the haunting, incredibly detailed dolls my Debbi made to honor those who have died in the desert.

I am too tired tonight to continue writing, but I have pages filled with notes. Hannah had a big day today.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005


This trip seems somehow, weirdly, self-indulgent. I always feel guilty when leaving family at home. Always. The guilt will never go away or change – I have to just pack it with me and drag it along. An extra carry-on.

I am on this trip because I am researching a new novel.

That phrase seems so upbeat and confident on its own. If that sentence had legs, they would be rushing away at nobel or pulitzer clip. Ta Ta – must be off and all that. Could you give me a hand here, that’s it. Up and over. On the way, off we go.

Well, not with that kind of confident assurance, but I am. Researching a novel. In the novel, Hannah from Cleveland gets dropped off indefinitely with her gran in Tucson. There she gets way more involved with the local border issues than she could have foreseen.

So, in order to write the book, I am here in Tucson to take a lot of notes. Meeting me at the airport was Ed, my cousin Debbi’s husband. Guess he got the short straw. Already on the drive to their house, I am revising what I have written so far in consideration of his narrative. I need to be here, to indulge my imaginings.

Still, it IS a risky thing to declare oneself in the process of writing a novel. Isn’t it? And I can’t do this without help – now there is extra pressure, I must do well since others have invested precious time in my project. Part of me wants to bail quickly – but the cat is out. The first few chapters are out. This is it. I am researching. And according to Ray Bradbury – I should enjoy the hell out of the first draft – the nine revisions are certain to be a pain in the neck, might as well enjoy the fun part.

So, tomorrow is planned by Debbi, a travel day into the desert. Time to sleep, now. Tomorrow it begins in earnest. Through Hannah’s eyes.

Monday, August 08, 2005

New beginnings

Beginning to write a novel when you have never sold a novel is a risky venture. Admitting to others that you are attempting a novel is compounding the risk. Knowing that you cannot possibly complete said novel without the assistance of others, enlisting their help, asking them to donate time out of their lives in pursuance of a product that can only be described as speculative is downright scary. I’m traveling to Tucson to gather images to go with a story that is barely crawling at this point. Yes, I’m hoping it finds legs and strides out into print. Yes, I’m hoping that I can pull the dialogue, images and plot together. Yes I believe this will happen. But, still, it’s scary. Always this need to try new things. Without new beginnings, depression haunts me. Why?

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Is Hope transferable?

Last night Michael went to fish on a pier 20 minutes north of West Palm. I peeked over the edge of the pier and went for a walk on the beach where I was cut off by a baby sea turtle pushing its way to the water. A shell about the size of a poker chip, it wasn’t scrambling, just moving one flipper after another, seeming to push the sand aside, inching its way along. The hard sand right by the water was the fast track compared to the rolling moguls of the beach, still the creature was plodding slowly, almost hypnotically toward the water. But with the first slap in the face of sea wave, the turtle turned around and headed back. Then thinking better of it, the little life turned back toward the water and let the next wave take it. But the waves seemed to be telling the baby turtle to turn back while there was still time, the waves tried to slap it back up on the beach several times. The turtle tested out swimming, holding its nose above water and then seeing that it could hold its breath, taking its first smooth strokes beneath the surface. Then the ocean flipped it over on its back up on the shore again, feet scratching the air. About this time, I thought to reach for my camera and I considered for a hot second, putting the struggler back up on the beach and staging a photo op. But, I self corrected the aberrant thought. Who was I to interfere in this primal process? And in the second that I looked down to unhook my camera from my belt, it disappeared, sucked into the Atlantic on the adventure of a lifetime.

But what is the expectancy for a baby sea turtle’s lifetime? From up on the pier I had observed the intense traffic flow in the clear water twenty feet below. The turtle was swimming out to greet stingray, needle fish that looked like poles, snook, spanish mackerels and at least one sand shark lurking 30 feet off shore. What were the odds it would make it past the predatory reef, and after that, what were the odds it would survive the night and all the other indigenous critters looking for a snack?

I scoured the beach (camera in hand) for another. I wondered if the turtle was a pioneer from a newly opened nest or a straggler. There had to be more. I searched and then stood my ground, thinking if this was the causeway to the water, I wanted to have an overpass view of the next traveler. Two sisters from Buffalo, now tanned like true Florida natives, walked by in surprisingly transparent white stretch pants and daring V necks. “I saw a baby sea turtle!” I said. One sister answered, “not this time of night, they come out in the morning and go for the light,” she pointed east, “toward the dawn. That’s why they ask us to dim the lights at night up on the road because sometimes they come out at night and get confused. I’ve picked them up on the road up there and brought them down to the water.”

“Oh,” I said, “well, I’m from Cleveland and I’ve never seen one in the wild before, but I know it was a baby.” Which is when I found out they originally from Buffalo. That made us practically neighbors a thousand miles from home.

The one sister smiled (sort of, botox and plastic surgery are like a disease around here), and kindly said, “then you saw something special then,” as they turned to power walk north. I stood around a little longer, flip flops in one hand, camera in the other.

That was it. I’d seen something special. No re-runs. No TIVO, no on-demand. No snap shot to take home for the fridge. A one time thing. The kind nature dishes out occasionally. A sign. Sign of . . . what else could that baby turtle confronting the ocean be but a sign of hope? Odds of survival to adulthood being what they are, the turtle’s dogged tenacity was reassuring. Hopeful.

And I immediately tried to assign that sign of hope to someone I thought needed it. Maybe I saw this and it was a sign of hope for one of the grandkids, that they would go on to greatness? Was it a sign of hope that Michael’s kids would have a good year at school? A sign of hope for his triathalon next week? For my friend who needs a little hope in her life?

One other time, walking across Case Western Reserve's urban campus, an eagle or falcon landed practically at my feet and sat for a full minute looking me in the eye. A young Asian student was standing beside me. When the bird (with a wing span of a station wagon) took off with a mouse or mole in its talons, I turned to her and said, “That was a sign.” She had limited English and looked at me like I was crazy, “Bird,” she said. “Yes, but a sign,” I replied. “Bird,” she corrected. And we went back and forth like that a couple more rounds. I obsessed about that encounter for months – checking out bird books to identify it, looking up native American symbols and discovered that eagles were a sign of strength. Since I was trying to establish myself as an independent poet and extricating myself from an unhealthy relationship, nature had given me just want I needed. A bold sign of strength, out of context in the city, coming to show me how to be courageous. And I so needed it at the time.

Last night, I wasn't feeling low on hope, but no one else saw the turtle,(thankfully, not a bird of prey) so I guess the sign was meant for me. I can tuck it in my wallet, behind the pictures of loved ones, an image to be slipped out the next time I need a little hope – that baby sea turtle, inching along off schedule into a perilous future. Surviving.

Friday, August 05, 2005

West Palm Beach

I'm looking at the date of my last post and can't believe it has been that long since I made an entry. All the experiences that have gone un-noted! Shame on me. But factored into the equation was getting my taxes off to the accountant, learning power point and starting a new novel. And summer. Lots of summer outside to enjoy.

After a two week power point intensive, I was finally able to convert from overheads to a projector and arrived in West Palm sans transparencies. It crossed my mind to bring them as back up -- but I was sure if I did, I'd chicken out and use them. Good thing I was prepared -- there wasn't an overhead projector in sight at either location. I had to ask for one out of the closet to project writing exercises on the wall. Is the overhead going the way of the typewriter?

Not without some glitches, the first day with reading teachers the projected image was smaller than it should have been. But the teachers were enthusiastic and the day went great. I couldn’t believe how many of them were new to the job! Probably at least a third of the 350 or so in attendance. Many thanks to Diane Babcock and her co-workers for making the day go so smoothly for everyone. Michael jumped in at the end of the day and we ran a model slam for the folks, which was a shouting good time. Hint to future slammers, if you are up against a humble, soft spoken man with a slight african or Hatian accent reading Langston Hughes, “I’ve Known Rivers,” you don’t have a chance. Sit down and enjoy.

The second day was at a beautiful arts center here. A small breakout session in the morning to write and then a performance (the slides went much better) in a theater to die for. Guilded with velvet seats and 3 balconies, it was a sight to behold from the stage. Of the 900 or so teachers scheduled to be there, maybe half showed up, with many drifting away after the district folks stopped talking. Poetry phobic or anxious to get to their classrooms or families? Whichever, it was okay, because those who stayed were such a warm and welcoming audience it didn’t matter.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Airline Logic

Airline logic makes no sense. Beside the absurdity that a ticket from Cleveland to Buffalo costs twice the price of a ticket to London, it goes like this -- if you leave home and make two stops, okay. If you want to make 3 stops, you either pay for a very expensive one way ticket to one of those locations or fly home first. This means flying from Vegas to Seattle via Cleveland. I don't want to talk about it.

Seattle is the coolest city -- well, it truly is cool in the summer. Especially compared to the hot and dry weather we've been having in the midwest. But, it's also just plain cool. Modern, clean, a cappuccino compared to a shot and a beer town like Cleveland. Michael and I are there to present at an AAIE conference for elementary teachers of international schools. The conference opens with Bonnie Campbell Hill and her friend and mentor Sam. What a delight. Again I am reminded what motivated teachers these international school folks are. We talk education, poetry and during off hours, politics. They are unhampered by the testing fiasco that is crippling our schools here. Fifteen years of testing in Texas has resulted in the lowest SAT scores in the history of that test, and still that state holds itself out as the model. Don't get me started. Friday morning is a packed, writing talk by Regie Routman, who should be at every elementary school teacher's elbow. I suppose her books somewhat serve this purpose, but there is no substitute for hearing her speak.

Saudi Arabia, Hong Kong, Beijing, Bangkok, Delhi, ShanghaiShanghi – these teachers’ name tags read like the travel shelf at Borders. I love to hear their stories – how they went from teaching in Austin, Portland and Pittsburgh to countries I have only read about. Fascinating. Many thanks to Dick and Bonnie for the invitation.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Bright Lights, bright lights

The Las Vegas airport assaults the senses immediately. Ringing of the slots and flashing neon, soaring movie screens advertising shows, the whole place stomping to a we-will-we-will-rock-you beat. Queen returns as a stage show and I meet Michael under the woofers and tweeters. The fact that the cab driver cheats us on the way to the hotel while chatting amicably is an indication of the financial hijinx to come. We check in at the Riviera, which has seen better days, back when the place was still a desert. Tuesday is a day for exploring and we walk up and down the strip, checking out all the fancy hotels, Kelly on the phone coaching us along. Of all the places I’ve been in the world, this has town has never even been a temptation. Here this time for a conference, it is naturally worth exploring, even in (gasp) 115 degree heat. I found it loud, expensive and a pretty outrageous electricity hog. Not nearly as fun as it tries to be, like a never-ending prom. Michael has some luck with black jack and the slots, I have absolutely no luck. Those machines just eat money. My two talks at the conference are on Wednesday and go well. I always worry about presenting on the last day of a conference, especially in a distracting location such at Vegas, but the teachers are in their seats and ready to talk poetry. Quite impressive. That night we do a little more wandering, but are in bed relatively early for our long travel day on Thursday.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Happy Endings

The end of an era – not for Lexington, but for me. Almost. The second to the last Janet Allen Literacy Institute with a team of folks I’ve been working with for 9 years. A community of friends I know I’ll stay in contact with, but not the same as us all hanging out together. The trip was fragmented. I arrived late into Lexington, spoke in the afternoon and immediately left for the airport and another conference in Vegas. It seemed so anticlimactic, as if we need to have a celebration with a cake and wild dancing. A few of us will be going to Anchorage in August, but most of the team will be back in school. Hasty goodbyes to LeeAnn, Steve, Jill and Chris – too short, too quick – like short stepping over rocks, trying to hurry, not being able to slide into long strides of conversation that might actually take us somewhere familiar. I have learned so much from everyone and wouldn’t be who I am today without these institutes and my friends who offered me a sense of community in what is often a solo career. Change is necessary – good even, but hard.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Watching the sunset, flying to Lexington

The past two weeks have flown by faster than this airplane since vacation. Working in the backyard, completing a book proposal, trying lose the same ten pounds and to teach myself power point – all activities in the small confines of home. Very little television, some radio. I’ve been hesitant to let the outside world in. The tragedy in London drew me out of seclusion to watch the news, but only for a short while. Watching won’t help heal the wounds of the city, its people or the hate that’s infected the world.

I am on an airplane headed to Lexington, staring at the cursor wondering if that is a callous remark – I don’t mean it to be. Quite simply, what else can one do except live a peaceful, non-intrusive life? Or try to. Sometimes I get so wound up by listening to political arguments on the radio and television I am paralyzed. Surely that doesn’t help anyone, least of all me.

I remember 9/11 like it was last week. I was standing in the kitchen watching the Today show in the living room. Kelly called and we talked as we watched the second plane hit. A day out of surgery, the dr. had confined me to the house – I confined myself to a chair in the living room and watched urgently every new, painful revelation, crying, channel selector in hand. I don’t know how many times I watched that plane fly into that building and then the two towers melt. I had 5 or 6 surgeries that year, and that one was the longest recovery. I think that is a metaphor for something, but have never figured out what.

I don’t think that experience made me immune to tragedy, it just made me painfully aware of my human limitations. Kind of like the orange and purple stripes of a magnificent sunset.

Thursday, June 30, 2005

Wild Strawberries

Mentor is billed as the Rose Capital of the world, named well before the economies of horticulture dictated that it is cheaper to raise roses in South America and fly them up here than raise them in our own backyard. Not only is labor a whole lot less per hour, but no one is quite as finicky about DDT. So while the title still remains on a dilapidated sign on the main drag, there is virtually no sign of the nurseries that used to blanket this area.


Here and there, along the road sides, at the edges of some lawns, peeking their cheery little berry heads up between sidewalk squares, stubborn and chemical resistant are wild strawberries. Tenacious little things, barely raspberry-sized. I don't know if they are bastardized remnants from the old nurseries or from the wild prairie days. Clearly, no one planted them where they are on purpose. Since their very existence is testament to the fact that they have not been covered with poisons, this morning on my walk I decided to taste one. I rubbed the dust and the hair off, rolling it between my fingers and popped it in my mouth.

I'd like to report that the berry was sweeter than an old memory, but it was not. Not bitter, just not as juicy and flavor-full as the grocery store variety -- ill-defined, like an old sepia photograph of a bygone time. Still, I found it encouraging to find plants resistant to suburbiatosis, one of the most toxic substances to all things wild, still bearing fruit.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Q & A

What's with this word "counter-intuitive"? All of a sudden, it's all over the place. Apply it to Iraq, the schools, the environment -- everyone is explaining what might be best explained as illogical as counter intuitive.

So, yesterday (was it the day before?) I was listening to the radio and some young twenty something was explaining away all organized religion, with particular emphasis on Scientology, as being counter intuitive. Religion, in her mind, is just a bunch of stuff folks made up. She spoke with great certainty.

I think when I was 21 (or was it the year before) I used to be that certain. I remember when Katie was born, I argued with my mother-in-law that I would not have the baby baptised because it was a pagan ritual based on the premise that kids are born in sin and had to be cleansed. Rather, I took a more Wordsworthian Romantic approach, that children are born innocent and the world corrupted them, therefore I was rebelling against infant baptism. I was very certain.

It seems that the longer one lives on the planet, the less one knows for certain, that more questions than answers come with age.


Sunday, June 12, 2005

Oak Island, NC

Eight (was it nine?) hours, multiple traffic jams and pit stops later we pull up to our cottages on Oak Island, NC. Four the past 3 years we’ve been visiting the Outer Banks – and we love the place, but not the traffic. What was once a retreat is now a clogged, vinyl sprawl. We are trying a new location close to my cousin Karen’s home. Our cottages are next door to one another – old fashioned cottages with paneled walls, sand ground decks, rocking chairs and a hose connected to the outside of the house to rinse off the sand. BYO sheets, towels, and kites. Although, bare bones cottaging now includes cable television and automatic dishwashers, the beach feeling was all over us as we sniffed through our digs and claimed beds.

I hesitate to tell anyone where this place is – it is so like the Outer Banks I used to know before it was (gasp) developed. Oak Island is sparcely developed, no high rises or mega cottages that sleep 20 and cost 12,000 a week. The water is warmer, too.

Stephie (aged 4) and Benny (aged 5) learned to ride the waves in tubes this year. Frankie got the worst sunburn. Michael caught some mackerel and we ate it that night for dinner. Max was separated from his love (sigh). Danny and Scottie were wary about the water and the rest of us took turns watching toddlers and riding the waves. The bed didn’t get too sandy to sleep, no one got bug or alligator bit so I guess you could say the entire time was a roaring success.

Messages from the housesitter were that our cat, Spike, disappeared during the week leaving his sister Buffy at loose ends. But when Michael arrived home, he left the back door open for a bit and Spike, like the rest of us, finally came wandering home for a meal.

Ain’t that the way.

Tidepools are for splashing. Posted by Hello

Saturday, June 11, 2005


Two tired, traveling road poets, one nursing mom of three little ones under 5 (tired by definition), three little ones under 5, one teacher out of school for a whole day (more tiredness), two more little ones under 4, one salesman, one secret service agent, two teenagers (one in love) excused from school early, one large black dog. Four vans, bikes, kayaks, beach chairs, inflatable rings, enough food for a cruise on the trans-siberian railroad, cameras, books, puzzles, umbrellas, fishing poles, buckets and shovels. All loaded in four vans, pulling out of Kelly’s driveway in Purcellville, VA, pausing the caravan to look both ways before we turn right toward the ocean, on the radio the song now made famous again from the movie Shrek. Hallelujah, hallelujah.

Just the act of putting 17 humans (three in diapers) and one dog who thinks he’s human on the road to annual vacation is monumental and worth celebrating. Hallelujah!

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Buffy the Beetle Slayer

Living in the house we have Hector, the rat terrier who would roll over in submission for a butterfly, Spike the cat who is all white, deaf and clueless, a lizard who (I have heard) eats crickets raw (some things do not have to be seen to be believed) and Buffy, the fluffy gray and white beetle slayer.

The beetles are an inch and a half long, residents of the backyard, kin to grubs, shiny and black as my dad's old Imperial and positively prehistoric looking. They cling with velcro tenacity to carpet, socks (ohmygod) and little cat feet, which makes them fun playmates for cats, which, it is well known, like to bring their playmates home.

Before anyone considers this a sad story, please note that Buffy does not KILL the beetles. She brings them in the house and plays with them until she gets bored and then abandons them, whereupon they make an immediate beetle line for the back door, retracing Buffy's steps as if they'd dropped breadcrumbs. So far, they have turned up in the laundry room/closet, the bathroom, the bedroom and other places one might otherwise feel safe without shoes. One even attempted to set up camp on my bedside table last night along with all those books I have been meaning to read.

I want to write a letter to Dr. Phil or Redbook -- the headline on the subsequent advisement on the can-this-relationship-be-saved article would read, Can Owner Accept This Cat's New Relationship? Subhead: Will Cat's Clinging Coleoptera Break up this Happy Home?

Did you know that there are more varieties of beetles than there are plants? Why would you? Why would anyone except desperate cat owners scouring the internet at 4 in the morning for answers to a fundamental question . . .

Why do we keep pets anyway?

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

a poet on the edge

Saudi poet and novelist Ali al-Dimeeni, who has already been in jail for
a year, was sentenced on May 15 to nine years in prison for sowing
dissent, disobeying his rulers and sedition. He had written a letter to
the kingdom's de facto ruler, Crown Prince Abdullah, calling for
political, economic and social reforms - including parliamentary elections.,0,1534164,print.story?coll=sns-ap-world-headlines

One poem fragment:
"In Eilesha, I tamed my loneliness, and on its walls I wrote my verses," he wrote.

"My fellows and I have only called for justice/

Not for violence/

We only want to set up a rule of constitution/

Where men and women are treated equally/

From the dimness of the prison's cell/

My verses will spring like a garden."

I wonder what would have to happen for this to happen in this country? First, poets would have to start writing about subjects other than their own neuroses. Could it be that government oppression actually helps art? That by driving art underground, its edge grows sharper?

I'm not advocating the suppression of free expression, just wondering.

Brian is in the Secret Service, part of the Presidential Detail Emergency Response Team Posted by Hello


I have told many students and teachers about my son-in-law Brian and how he has to write as part of his job. Often kids (teachers too) dismiss poetry writing as superfulous, and I always remind them of Brian and others who never thought they would grow up to be writers, but then find themselves in jobs where they are required to write reports that say, "I saw what I saw and it looked like this." This kind of writing, capturing images and putting them down on paper is part of what poetry is all about.

Enough students has asked me follow-up questions and emails, I thought you might like to see a picture.

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Rolling Thunder

Once a year outlaws gather in the capital -- black leather on harleys, V8s on two wheels roaring down Constitution Avenue to commemorate those whose lives were changed, ended (stolen?) by the Vietnam War. This year there were a reported 300,000 bikes, thunderous to say the least. Some of these bikers carry more than logos and chrome, they carry scars from those days, now more than a generation past. A truck full of white haired nurses from the days before women carried weapons into combat joined in the parade. Men with white hair, touching the wall, tough men whose broad shoulders and chests have slipped to a swelling above the belt, teary. How did they get to be so old?

All of us who lived through those days bear scars from those days – the country, the vets, those of us who experienced the war as an unreal warm up act to Laugh In and Disney. No one came away from it without their trust in government impaired. Some scars naturally ruminate deeper than others. When I told my 30 something hairdresser about my trip to Ho Chi Minh City, she told me about her father. He came home from the war (when she was a toddler) covered in Agent Orange sores on his arms. Those and other less visible sores never healed. Sores that caused him to abuse drugs, his family. Caused a divorce. He died of cancer in his forties. Logic (but not Dupont, of course) would blame his early death on those sores, too. His name, along with so many others, never made it up on the wall – but it should have.

How did they get so old???? Those white-haired men, my peers. Michael’s son Max is studying the Vietnam war in history class. The war of my school years – all of them – is now a history lesson taught in late May. We look at the telephone thick book of 55,000 names of the dead and missing. The deaths span 19 years. If the Iraq war were to go on that long, Benny, Danny and Scottie, my toddler grandsons, two of them playing chase under the trees aside the memorial wall could be drafted to serve. Chilling thought. What we should have learned is that it is a whole lot easier to get into these conflicts than it is to end them.

DC is so crowded with war memorials, we’re running out of room to carve the names and numbers of the dead into granite. Arlington Cemetery is overflowing, too. When there is no more room, will that be the end of it? Would that were so.

Max and me at the Vietnam War memorial wall. Posted by Hello

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Listen to the Mocking Bird

“Listen to the Mockingbird” is a song I remember singing in grade school forty years ago growing up in Michigan, not a mockingbird travel destination. Arriving at Kelly’s outside of Leesburg, VA on Friday night around 11:30 PM, I heard mockingbirds for the first time. They are loud – singing their brains out at midnight. Something between a song and a shriek – the punk version of birdsong, they sounded absolutely nothing like the little tune from Mrs. Gustaphson’s class.

Kelly and I took a 2 mile walk, some of it through new areas of construction near their home. Once all this farmland is converted into foundations, walkways, driveways and swimming pools, I wonder what the mockingbirds will have to say about that?

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

flowers are for picking Posted by Hello

Getting back to basics

Like a weekend at home with Stephanie and Scottie. Katie, their mom lent them to me for Friday night. We went swimming (indoors, it's still in the 40s in OH), poked around in the garden and rode bikes. And did a little science experiment with leather and static electricity (see pic).

Harding High was my last school this year, and whether the weather has caught up with the calendar or not, I'm ready for summer. Way ready. Past ready. It is good to be back home. I worked a little in the garden where I planted some pansies (my mother's favorite flower) next to the rock (too big to swallow, small enough to hold in my stomach) that I brought home from my father's gravesite in Arlington. As I sit here typing, I'm smiling imagining them squabbling out there to one another. Of course their bickering never seemed so amusing when they both were alive.

Home and all its definitions -- could fill books. Has. I thought about writing about working in the garden but have decided to declare a personal moratorium on that subject. A seed is supposed to be the original metaphor and writers/poets have about done it to death.

So no writing from the garden.
Well, until something springs from the fertile soil of my mind. An insignificant sprout, new shoots, blossoms to be plucked for closer examination.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Truism: Leather sofas make your hair stand up. Posted by Hello

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Warren G. Harding High School

This is a big, old school in Warren, OH scheduled for rennovation. It will be cool for the kids to get a new building, but the antique lover in me feels sad that it is going down. It is the kind of building that would withstand centuries. Even the concrete floors in the restrooms are polished like a glossy dinner plate. It has a theater style auditorium and a vast wood and metal shop. Built in the early part of the last century, it is not equipped for the electrical needs of this generation. It was heartening to hear that alums have mobilized to save the facade of the grand ol' building that will somehow be attached to the new design. I met with classes in the library where we talked about how poetry could be significant in their lives.

Driving to the school down back roads I passed through Amish Country, at one point turning off the radio and opening the windows to smell the country air. It is a proven fact that you can smell better when the radio is off. Wonder why that is.

Warren G. Harding High School Posted by Hello

Friday, May 13, 2005

Bloomsburg University Reading Conference

This is a healthy, well-planned conference on the green, rolling campus of Bloomsburg State University. Lots of selections for teachers of kids of all ages.

Separate from my two presentations, I had three extensive conversations with teachers -- all on the topic of assessment and guided writing. (is there such a thing? I know there is guided reading. . .).

1. How do you guide a student into finding the poetry in what is really a three page story? The "story" the teacher was talking about sounded to me like what can most simply be called a "rant." Lots of words used to trash lots of things, the only commonality being the words have been spewed onto the same sheet of paper and for whatever reason, have put the writer in an uproar.

The written rant is a fabulous outlet. No one strikes back or has to do any major time, it lets off steam and sometimes (sometimes) helps to lead the writer to what is really bothering her. Often these rants are intensely personal and not hardly what anyone would call good writing. However, some people do call them poetry.

My advice to the teacher was to read the rant and see if there were one or more images in the mix of spew that might be the basis of a "companion" poem. Not to mark up the original rant (or even label it as such) but to use that as a basis to unearth a poem or two embedded in the blast.

2. My daughter wrote a poem that is so dark, my husband asked if I thought she needed professional help. Hey, Picasso had a blue period. Many kids will tell you that they can only write when they are upset. When they are cruising, the sun's out, surf's up, who needs poetry? I think the thing to remember is that poems are snapshots, moments caught in time, and lord knows, we all have our moments. What I thought was so cool about this story was that a teenager was writing poetry, snapshots of bumps and valleys and SHARING THE POEMS WITH HER PARENTS. This is the absolute best. Is it "good" poetry? Who cares! The poem is a springboard for discussion. Is all of the writer's life in the dumper? Probably not. But at the moment she wrote the poem it was and now that she has shared it, the parent gets to talk to the kid about the bigger picture. Teens get confined by tunnel vision, friends and school can be the entire world to them and part of our jobs as parents is to widen the vision. Poems can be great discussion starters.

3. My students are writing "victim" poetry. How do I get them out of it? Country western song writers have made entire careers out of the world done me wrong rhymes -- it's a tradition. But maybe not a tradition anyone wants to perpetuate, however, especially within a prison population, which was this teacher's classroom. My suggestion was to start the writers out with an image, maybe a poster of a lone wolf or tiger (in the wild or in captivity) and have the students begin to write about that. Writers will wind up projecting themselves into the picture. It might be a start at getting them outside of themselves.

Might be. Who knows? We are all just trying to find our ways. Students, teachers, writers alike.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Big smiles at Sunbeam School, Cleveland, OH Posted by Hello

Sunbeam School, Cleveland, OH

The first thing you notice about Sunbeam is how friendly everyone is. Not that other schools are unfriendly, it's just that EVERYONE makes an effort to shake hands and say "hi." With 2 of the four classes I talked to we wrote poems, What's So Big About Sunbeam School, where I found out the inside scoop...swimming, parties, reading, nice teachers (pretty, too), and a great library were among the assests the kids wanted to put in their poems.

Sunbeam is also a school with special facilities for students who have physical and other challenges. It is hopping with life and activities, a beautiful place to live and learn. Many thanks to media specialist Charlie Reed-Mundell for her efforts in putting together a stellar day and creating many spectacular smiles, each one a poetic image in itself.

Normandy Primary School Bay Village, OH

What's so big about Bay Village? Looks like it's the ice cream shop, the lake, the city pool, soccer and Normandy School and dozens of other places. Students at Normandy made individual pictures of what they think is big about their own town after reading What's So Big About Cleveland. Their illustrations lined the bulletin boards of the school. Since Bay Village is my town too (where I lived for over 20 years, raised my kids and wrote many of my kid poems) so it was extra special for me to visit there and see their artwork.

In the department of small worlds department, the daughter of the teacher (Mrs. Woodburn) my daughter had when our dog Molly did in fact eat the report card and then the spelling book thereby inspiring the poem and then the book The Dog Ate My Homework is now teaching at Normanday. AND, Mrs. Woodburn's grandaughter was in the audience.

It was a special pleasure to visit the same multipurpose room where we used to go for ice cream socials. Very special. And the kids were great, acting out poems for my introduction at the assemblies. Big thanks to Normandy!

What's so Big About Bay Village? Posted by Hello

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Biking in Painesville

Biking this morning around 9AM, we passed a young boy, maybe 9 years old, walking down the street presumably on his way to school. Late. No other students in sight. Trying to scratch in his open workbook flapping in the wind as he walked. Crying.

Yesterday I heard a report on CNN that high school kids do an average of 3 hours homework per week. This was joked about by the newscasters and (who else?) blamed on the teachers. Right. Like kids have time to do homework. Not when they watch 4 or 5 hours of TV every night and play an average of 20 hours a week of video games. Can anyone in their right minds blame that on teachers?

Like that miserable little boy this morning. Did the adults in his life make a quiet spot in his life or his home to complete his homework last night? Did an adult get him up in good time for school? Did he have breakfast? His day was obviously off on the wrong foot, was it his fault? Is he not performing up to potential or is it the grown-ups in his life? If he had a bad day at school today, was that the fault of his teacher? Did Painesville public schools fail this boy? Did they buy the wrong workbooks?

I hope he was greeted with some love when he got to school this morning. Having signed in at enough counters in enough school offices and seen the reception of enough kids who arrive late, I can say the chances of that are pretty slim.

But then, it's just one day out of the kid's life. Right?

Monday, May 09, 2005

Michael, Sandina and me in the "round room" at Manchester Jr./Sr. High School. Posted by Hello

Manchester Schools

That would be ALL the Manchester schools – the elementary and middle schools in the morning and the high school in the afternoon. According to my sources (the third grade) I was the first author/poet sighting at Manchester Elementary since, well, since forever, which when you are only eight isn’t that long.

While I was at the elementary, Michael was writing with kids at the high school. I sat in on one of his sessions. What impressed me the most was how tuned in the kids were. Seniors are known to tune out to school oh, about January of their last year. Kids in general start to tune into summer and out on school in May. The kids at Manchester were very tuned in. One image created in the writing workshop sticks in my mind – a girl was writing from the perspective of a humble toilet and no, it wasn’t filled with the smelly obvious. Instead, the toilet spoke with envy of the bathroom mirror, which the writer observed, gets all the attention.

Thanks to Sandina and the kids at Manchester for making us feel so welcome and for changing my prejudice against upper school visits in May.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

fishing hole, Scioto County, OH  Posted by Hello

Mother’s Day.

When your daughters become mothers, Mother’s Day takes on a whole new meaning. I am so proud of Katie and Kelly and their beautiful families I don’t even think of mother’s day in terms of myself anymore. Truly. Today is a day to celebrate family and love.

Down here in Portsmouth, away from most of our families, Michael and I spent a quiet day. A little fishing, a little exploring and one genuine bald eagle sighting.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Off road in Scioto County

Michael and I both have been ON the road so much this spring, it was a relief to go OFF road for the weekend. Since we will be visiting Manchester students on Monday, we just nestled into the country for a couple days of R&R. Sandina booked us into the Shawnee State Lodge, a beautiful place high atop a hill overlooking two lakes and (after the morning fog lifts) the mighty river. We rented canoes for some morning floating and fishing. At some point the wind kicked up, Michael headed for the dock but I was unable to maneuver my canoe in the headwind. Imagine 360s on a choppy lake, fishermen solidly anchored watching with polite amusement, ducks laughing aloud (they have no tact at all). Finally I got the canoe to the side by a trail, Michael climbed in and it took both of us paddling at maximum stroke capacity to get my canoe back to the dock as the wind kept increasing.

Note to self: must step up weight training at the gym MAJORLY if I want to assault another headwind in canoe solo. Oh, my aching biceps.

After canoeing (did I mention the bi-ceps?) we took our bikes into Portsmouth to tool around and look at The Wall. Running along the river is a concrete flood wall maybe 15 feet high, running along the length of downtown Portsmouth. Painted along its substantial length is a multi-paneled mural detailing the town’s history from its founding in the late 1700s, through its stone and marble, agricultural and industrial ages. The artist’s middle name is Holbrook. Something to research on the internet when I get home.

As we pedaled up town to the park, we kept noticing more bicyclers. More and more. Serious bikers, arms low, rears raised. By mid afternoon the whole downtown was flowing with people in spandex black shorts, walking and on wheels. Turns out that every year there is a bike hike from Columbus to Portsmouth (about 105 miles) this weekend after which the bikers eat, drink beer and turn around to head back north early Sunday. As a reported 5000 bikers descended on Portsmouth, we blew town to look for a fishing hole with a shady spot where I could sit and write and M could fish. Oh, yeah. We found the perfect spot. M pulled out 5 fish in an hour, including one (maybe) baby muskie (all promptly admired and released) and I pulled out a story possibility. Science fiction.

Not the fishing hole. That was real. The story. We’ll see. Reconfirms what I know to be true, the essential component in any writing venture is leisure time.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Down the River Road

Thursday was a travel day, from San Antonio to Atlanta, Atlanta to Akron, where Michael picked me up and we hit the road for Manchester, OH just west of Portsmouth down Rt. 52 which runs elbow to elbow with the Ohio River. Friday was a teacher workshop with the entire K-12 Manchester staff (only 66 teachers). Manchester MS/HS is but 8 years old and a beautiful building that makes you feel as if you’ve just stepped into a community college. Our hostess, Sandina Alexander is an OCTELA friend and poet full of creativity, colorful local stories and insider information about this part of the state. The area used to be teeming with industry – textile mills, steel, clothing and shoe factories, they even had a professional NFL football team at one time in Portsmouth (now the Detroit Lions). Sandina, like the area itself, bears the scars of that industry. In her case a steam burn from work on a pressing machine at a pants factory where she worked to put herself through college. The last 30 years has seen industry slowly decline around these parts and today the region lives in the shadow of its former glory. One industry that has not booked passage to another country is its winery where Sandina took us to dinner. Overlooking the river, it was a picturesque spot to eat and play catch up. My recommendation: the raspberry wine. Yum.

Before dinner Sandina took us “up home” to meet her cat, her dogs and her husband (though I’m certain there was no underlying meaning in the order of those introductions). Manchester is only 8 streets wide, each street one block on higher ground above the river. Locals measure the great floods against these streets like some measure children against notches in the kitchen doorway. The flood of ‘37 went to fifth street, the flood of ‘97 (that’s 1897) to this point, etc. All indications are that the river has been behaving itself this spring, but the legacy of its strength and power is part of the biography of every person, town and industry along here. In constant motion, it remains the area’s most prominent permanent fixture.

Down the River Road is the title of my first grade reading book. Alice and Jerry and Jip. I don't remember the plot of the book, if there was one. But I remember the pictures. I remember being excited about the concept of reading, but bored to death by Jip & Co. I'm still stuck on that stop watch concept.

Thursday, May 05, 2005



This year’s meeting of the International Reading Association had to have exceeded enrollment expectations – teachers from all over the country (and many other countries) invaded San Antonio to see Julie Andrews, Dave Berry and hundreds of other not so famous but probably more relevant presenters. I arrived on Saturday and joined Neal Shusterman, Adrianne Fogelin and Gordon Korman for a pre-conference session on YA lit. The session ran all day, from 9-4 and I can honestly say, the time just flew by. Wound around the author talks were teacher presentations detailing ways to put literature to work in the classroom. That day was a stark contrast to some of the retailers displaying their wares in the convention exhibit area – programs from worksheets to Dibles that have very little to do with putting kids in touch with books. Dibles proposes that a teacher can time first grade readers with a stop watch and predict their reading potential. A stop watch! I would have had a nervous breakdown on the spot if Mrs. Ellis had tried that on me. I’m insecure enough as it is, thankfully no one ever tried to introduce stop watches into my learning curve.

Wednesday was definitely the highlight of the week for me. Dr. Bonnie Campbell Hill put together a stunning session with three teachers from Seattle who, for the purposes of this presentation, agreed to use poetry in their classrooms for the entire year instead of just at the end of the year, as is the custom in many schools. Joining this amazing bunch was Georgia Heard, Ralph Fletcher and me. Teacher attendees came as much as three hours in advance to claim their seats and we began the session 30 minutes early since everyone was seated and the fire marshall was blocking the doorway. Georgia talked elegantly (as always) about imaginative thinking and revision, Ralph about metaphor and I spoke on using poetry as a vehicle for learning and performance. What a wonderful blend of talent and learning. But the best part for me was seeing the poems produced in the Seattle classrooms in response to literature and lessons by the three teachers on our panel.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

What's your favorite color?

“What’s your favorite color?”

Do kids really expect me to have a single answer to this question? Today I’m wearing a pink jacket, so I guess it is pink, the color that suits me today. Not red, too forceful. Not maroon, like wool, too heavy, too velvet. Not orange, too October. Pink. Yes, that’s it.

But yesterday it was lime green. Definitely lime green. A color yearning for spring to crawl out of the ground like cicadas. Needing a break from this malingering winter, choosing its favorite, most pervasive color – new green, I hoped Spring would find that color attractive and come to me. Lime green.

But last week, it was most decidedly yellow. A rebellious statement, a refusal to accept the dreary gray perpetuated by the sky, the drab, salt bleached roads, the overslept trees. Yellow was my statement, my I’ll-show-you. Of all the colors – Yellow.

Still, of all the questions in the rainbow, why do kids almost always ask me this? Other questions may be more obscure (where’s your doorknob?) More direct (are you married? Why not?) More personal (how old are you?). But this question is the most ubiquitous. What’s my favorite color, as if I should have an answer to this. As if.

I used to make up answers based on my whim d’jour. For a while I tried to be consistent for the sake of . . . well, consistency. But doesn’t that somehow fall under the “because I said so,” heading I’ve spent a lifetime rebelling against? For a while I would just answer with whatever color felt right that day. Recently, I’ve been skipping over it, “next question,” risking hurt feelings and embarrassment. I even get asked this question by student journalists from their lists of pencil smeared prepared questions copied carefully, spaced out on the page with room for written answers. Don’t they want to know my take on first amendment rights and poets? Don’t they want to continue the discussion of the peaceful art of exchanging images in an effort to find mutual understanding that we began (er...I began) in the assembly presentation? How journal and poetry writing can help us form a personal philosophy for living, words dropped like bread crumbs to help us find our way home?

Instead, I feel myself floundering in response. I want to ask (scream?) Why are you asking me this question? Not that I think any one of them would have any clearer answer than I do or that the kids who ask really want to know. Its probably no more than an excuse to raise a hand and speak aloud after they have been admonished to be respectful and polite and (by implication) QUIET. A stand out moment. A question that reveals nothing personal about the questioner like it would be if the kid asked, “did it hurt to write that poem about your mom’s drinking?” But still a question, a way to connect for a moment with the stranger in their midst. Like reaching out to touch a strange dog, it’s perilous, daring, foolhardy to ask a question at all. Often questioners get pelted by punches, woo-hooed and slapped around so much upon their asking that it is impossible for them to even hear or digest my response, assuming I have one (the color question notwithstanding) and that they wanted to know the answer to begin with.

Do you have any pets? Do you like Michigan or Ohio State? Are you a Browns fan? An Indians fan? Have you ever met Drew Carey? These are kids asking me if the person who put the words in the book that their teacher made them read is a real person. I respond to them with the same sincerity as when kids ask me to name my favorite poet, how do I know when a poem is finished, where do I get my ideas, do I revise, do I ever feel insecure? I want them to know I am real, hoping that if I wade through enough of the nonsense questions someone will also become real and venture one real question that will help us connect as writers and world community members, not just tight-lipped watchers on the sidelines, but as seers and participants. Maybe that question would spark a discussion giving us all a free souvenir thought to take home and press in our journals at the end of the day. I know these questions are asked by the risk takers, the kids who aren’t afraid to reveal that there might be something they really want to know about a grown-up, who by definition is supposed to be irrelevant to any given teen.

But, this color question has me stumped, I have to say. I want it to treat it with the respect the students deserve.

I sure wish I had a consistent, honest, clearly articulated response.

I just don’t. I can’t. And I won’t be backed into a corner on this one. The world is a carnival of color and I’m working my way through its blurs and tilts and banners one favorite at a time.
I don’t want to choose.

You can’t make me.

Friday, April 29, 2005

Hilliard Memorial Middle School

Betrayal, love triangles, friendship gone bad and one poem that began, "if the world were made of sugar." Students at Hilliard Memorial are invited to make it, shake and let it all out at a monthly open mike (see picture below). It is a come as you really are event hosted by librarian Terry Lord.

For other schools interested in a model performance poetry event that seems to really rock and not roll anyone into detention or unemployment, Hilliard has it going on. Here's how it works -- on the last Friday of every month there is an open mike poetry jam in the library, seventh and eighth grades alternate months. On Wednesday of that week, students need to register for lunch and poetry. On Friday, the poets get pizza, a soda and cookies (for $2, cost of a school lunch) and a lunch period of pure poetry.

Terry says she has never had trouble with kids being inappropriate in their poems. Poets realize if they foul out with their language, the poetry privilege will go away. Kids bring her poems they think might be in violation of school rules and defer to her judgment. It's all done on the honor system and it works. Look at the happy faces below. Just in case the kids didn't know how lucky they were that they had this incredible opportunity to express themselves, I let them know that events such as this at middle schools is R-A-R-E rare. They responded by giving Ms. Lord a standing ovation.

My visit to Hilliard was enhanced by all the performance poets in the audience and by the great job the teaching staff did preparing the kids for my visit. Very cool. Thanks to everyone.

Hilliard Memorial Middle School Lunchtime Open Mikers Posted by Hello