Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Now the real work begins

The editor sent an email today that she's sending edits on Informally Yours. This book was such fun to write. Two years ago Allan Wolf and I thought of the idea on the plane home from IRA -- a book of boy/girl love poems. We had known one another since the 1995 National Poetry Slam where his team beat my team to take first place because I went overtime and we lost by .6. Not that I dwell on such petty trivia, you understand, I barely remember it. Right. It was like missing a lay up in the final moments of a championship game.

Anyway, Allan and I have been friends ever since. Not calling friends, but speaking when we see one another and respectful, feel free to call for advice friends. Now, after writing this book, we REALLY know each other. In order to write our adolescent love poems, we had to talk about all the geeky, paralyzing, heart stopping memories stored in our own experience databanks. Confessions. Revelations. OMG, you've got to be kidding me stories. Like the time I was sitting in the movies with a date and he passed me the sweet tarts and his hand brushed my knee and I almost threw up. I don't think I've ever eaten a sweet-tart since. The first line of the resulting poem is: Do not bolt screaming, clutching all your stuff.

That's the thing about memories. You think you put them to bed and the pesky things keep crawling back down the stairs. Bunch of intruders, memories. Like the time I went overtime on the stage of the National Poetry Slam and . . . STOP IT. GO TO YOUR ROOM!

I'm sitting here waiting for Allan to call so we can discuss the pictures for the book. This is the first time I've sold a book with the artwork. These are photos that Allan and I took and I doctored up on photoshop. The editor said she has made her comments on the manuscript. It's time for the editing to begin. This is the work of writing. The weighing, tossing, pruning, straightening. Something to look forward to.

And the truth about that sweet tart story? I had been widowed once and divorced and was out on my first date and it suddenly occurred to me that there weren't parents at home to set the boundaries. Who said adolescence ends at 18, or 16 or whenever it is supposed to be over?

Maybe adolesence is like the past. It's never really over. Not in my line of work, anyway. It's listening on the staircase, making sure I get it right.

I wonder if the phone will EVER ring?

Friday, August 24, 2007

safer, smafer

In Florida they have a law named for Jessica Lunsford, the poor girl attacked and killed by a neighbor, a repeat offender, a kind of scum lower than whale poop. In response to this attack (which did not take place on school grounds during a busy school day by a school contractor, let's remember) the Florida legislature has created a law requiring anyone who is paid to come to a school to be fingerprinted and have a background check.

Okay, so far. Sounds fair. Sex criminals shouldn't hang with kids. Makes sense.

Except these fingerprints have to be taken in the county where the work is to be done or a certified location elsewhere. Oh, there is NOT ONE certified place to have fingerprints taken in OH and sent to FL. PA either. TX has one, but only in Dallas. And the background checks are country specific, meaning you can't get statewide permission to visit schools, it's on a county by country basis. $85 a print.

Besides, getting a background check in OH is useless since OH can only check OH offenders and FL can only check FL offenders and never the twain databases shall talk to one another. Wasn't Homeland security supposed to do something about this? Pedophiles never move, presumably, to do their dirty work? Oh, there's a federal database, but that only tracks federal crimes, which pedophilia is not (unless the offender crosses state lines with the kid AND gets caught).

And this law only applies to paid contractors of the school. This means if you come in to repair the copy machine or (just say) provide a poetry assembly, you need to have the background check. If you volunteer in the library or to chaperon an overnight trip, you do not.


A person could volunteer to spend the night with a group of kids on a field trip and NOT get a background check, but a different person needs one to do an assembly for 400 kids?

Now every school district has had to hire a full-time person to monitor these background checks on the paid contractors. These employees must have the patience of an acorn or limitless refills on their meds to put up with irate contractors calling to try and figure out complex systems designed by the wonderful folks who brought you the tax laws, complete with commensurate sections and sub-sections. One more salary not going to educate kids.

The good news is that other state legislatures are so worried about being viewed as negligent in protecting kids from dangerous (say) poets who come to deliver programs to large groups of kids that they are in fact racing to put their own state-specific, non-comprehensive background check laws on the books.

None of which would have saved Jessica.

These laws mirror the complex entry systems designed and sold to schools that harried school secretaries bypass with a little buzzer. Think about it. Other than the Chechnyan rebels, has there ever been a school shooting perpetrated by anyone who would have not been buzzed in?

The fact is, danger for kids most often lurks among those they know. A fact that has never stopped private enterprise from making a killing off of systems purchased by nervous institutions. Gee, I'm feeling safer already.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Summer Reading

I was all over the place this summer in books -- Africa, Pakistan, Peru, Chile, colonial America and perhaps the most frightening land of all -- adolescence. I didn't have a summer reading list and I'm not facing a quiz. I can't figure out if this is an advantage to being out of school or a loss because I only read what I want to.

A Long Way Gone, Memoir of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah -- This is an amazing account of a boy recruited into the army in Sierra Leone and his subsequent return to civilization after UNICEF bought him out at 15. The imagery is so strong and the writing poetic -- it's hard to believe it was written by a second language speaker. They kept the boys fighting by getting them addicted to blood and speed. Asked in an interview on the Daily Show if it was harder for him to become a killer or harder to rejoin society and he said the rejoining. Several books I read this summer served as reminders of the violence that lurks under the skin of us all.

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini -- This is by the same author who wrote The Kite Runner and is just as spell binding, visual and haunting. It is a girl's story this time. Two young Afghan women overcoming cruelty and death to find friendship. Last year I read three or four books about Afghanistan and finally had to take a break -- the situation there is so desperate, particularly for women and children. What made this novel memorable for me is the intricate descriptions of the places and cultural detail.

Left To Tell by Immaculee Ilibagiza Did not like this book. I'm afraid to say that as it is about the Rowandan genocide and the author's survival. By saying I didn't like it I run the risk of sounding pro-genocide. Maybe it was the endorsement by Wayne Dyer. He has this industry of books and tapes which all say "visualize it, pray for it, and it happens." When heartless "other" publishers didn't pick up her story, he did. And he provided her with a translator (whose work was horrendous, putting her story into American slang) who saw to it to inject his "visualize,pray and it happens" philosophy throughout. Frankly, I just saw the book as a vehicle for him to promote his own stuff.

Twisted by Laurie Halsey Anderson I liked this one okay, but I wanted to love it as I did Speak and that didn't happen. This is a young adult novel in a boy's voice and I never quite suspended by disbelief that this was really a guy talking and not Anderson talking like a guy. There are plenty of positive reviews floating around and it wasn't awful, I was just disappointed. I thought it was a little too neat how the protagonist snaps at his abusive dad, dad says "oh sorry I was such a dick for your entire life," and then they are immediately okay. Where are the years of therapy?

Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War by Nathanial Philbrick Why wasn't my history book in school as engaging as this guy? I don't usually read heavy non-fiction like this -- and this book is heavy in detail, but what a lot to learn about the stubborn souls who chose to venture and stick it out in a brutal environment. This book didn't help my cynicism about human nature one bit. The settlers had arrogance and modern weaponry on their side (along with small pox). Not very appealing to claim as relatives. But the native americans had some ego problems too -- leaders who sold each other out with designs on one another's territories. This book has more detail than you can imagine -- did you know there were two dogs on the Mayflower? A spaniel and a "slobbering mastif." Since Michael's mom raises mastifs, this descriptor made me laugh. That was about the only laugh in the book, but it was a muddy, bloody, sad but glorious read. It makes you wonder what like could have been like for all if alliances were kept and the native people honored, faiths and spirits united to bring community wealth instead of wealth to a few.

Shabanu, Daughter of the Wind by Suzanne Fisher Staples This is also a young adult novel, but one of those that should not just be relegated to school libraries. It follows a young desert girl in Pakistan whose love of freedom, the desert and her camels must be tempered as she learns to obey. There is no neat ending to this one, she is tamed and forced to marry the older man her family has chosen for her. I loved Fisher Staples book Under the Persimmon Tree and this one did not disappoint. Although Shabanu has been out for almost 20 years, it increases in relavancy due to political situations. Now I need to quickly read the sequel Haveli so that I am ready when the third book in the trilogy comes out next month.

Ines of my Soul by Isabel Allende I just love Allende. I love plunging into the mystery and spirit world of her stories. What a story teller she is. But this book really charts new ground for her as she follows the true story of a woman who helped to establish the first spanish settlements in Chile. It begins in Spain, moves to Peru and then across the desert and mountains into Chile. The cruelty to the indigenous peoples is documented in horrific detail right along with the intimate details of her relationships with serial lovers. I remember hearing Allende speak one time in Chicago where she said as she advance in years she has come to regret every man or desert that she passed up. In this book, she passes up nothing. It is fantastic.

Cesar's Way, The Natural, Everyday Guide to Understanding and Correcting Common Dog Problems by Cesar Millan. This is really a spring book that I bought to help in house training Suzi. It didn't help with that, but I loved this book and think that every teacher should read it to help with classroom management. He notes that only humans will follow a neurotic, unstable leader. In the dog world such a leader would be deposed immediately and probably killed. Lesson there. I love the way he describes the "calm, assertive" leader. Every pack needs a leader or they go a little nuts, the idea is to establish yourself as the leader and take the anxiety out of the pack. Now, what teacher couldn't benefit from a reminder on that score? Loved it.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Driving through Somerset County

Coming home from visiting Kelly and family today we hopped off the turnpike to take winding route 30 through PA. Coal country. Laurel Highlands. 2909 elevations. Towns too small to make the map. Whoever heard of Shanksville? That is before September 11 when Flight 93 dropped out of the sky into a field there. At the Coal Miners Tavern we picked up a Somerset County Visitors Guide with a yellow-eyed eagle on the cover. In fact it is titled the Flight 93 Somerset County Visitors Guide, the rest of the sites in the country having been parsed into eight pages in the 32 page booklet. That's what happens when planes fall on your side of the mountain.

I learned from the booklet that flight 93 took off 42 minutes late on that day. I studied the list of names and tried to picture flight attendant Lorraine Bay in her uniform. Wondered how old Andrew was or Honor Elizabeth and who was missing them on this perfect August day -- a day not unlike that day weather wise.

We also passed a fellow walking for peace from Chicago to D.C. The road was narrow and we were passed him before fully absorbing who or what had just whizzed past. Since then we've found the young man on YouTube -- Mario Penalver http://www.funnytv.us/Mario-Penalver--Peace-Walker__bhQoeGuZ6HM.html
Michael said at the time we should turn around and give him some money for his trip, but regrettably we did not test the turning radius of the car and the alertness of oncoming drivers and stop on the narrow road.

Why do we turn off of main highways? To see something different? To get away from it all?

But there is no getting away, is there? Not really. There it all was in Somerset County, somewhere left of nowheresville. Pieces of the whole mess. The downed airplane. The puffed up patriotic eagle brochure asking for donations for a monument. The details, the names, the memories. And the young man walking to end the subsequent war unjustly blamed on the events of September 11. And how many sons and daughters of coal miners are over there now?

That crater in a corn field is as wide as the planet and as deep as a mother's pain -- but instead of healing, it just seems to keep on growing.

Friday, August 17, 2007

This Can't Happen

This cave in, this hurricane, this almond-sized explosive device found in the breast of my daughter Kelly. This can't happen. That's what I said when I heard about the lump, what I said on the phone, what I said to friends, and what I continued to say until 3AM on the morning of her surgery when for one agonizing hour my tired mind wrestled with the possibility that maybe it could happen. Tragedies happen.

But this tragedy did not happen. The surgery was quick and slick as an oil change without the efforts to upsell an air filter and winter wipers. The pathologist called before we got home to tell us that the lump was free of cancer.

The burden of worry that I wouldn't allow to happen was lightened in stages yesterday rather than in one swoosh. The sun kept getting brighter, the music of the day a little more bouncy until relaxing by the swings with the kids last night a moth fluttered by pulling the last of it into the twilight.


Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Nothing but fun

What could bring 3 generations of chicks together for a fun night along with a gender, age, race, economic diverse audience of great music and smiles, dancing in the aisles, albeit somewhat pricey -- joy?

American Idol comes to Cleveland in concert. Okay, okay, I know. But as an event to take a wide-eyed six-year-old (Stephanie) to, it sure beat the skates off Disney on Ice. We sang, we danced in our seats, on the floor, and (in our imaginations) on the big stage. Maybe that's the difference between an Idol concert and say a Bob Seger concert (which may be the last big concert I attended). I think the audience pictures themselves as being part of the act, you can see it in their eyes and smiles.

It has all the trappings of other concerts, products at inflated prices and gold plated popcorn, but it is one of the few events you can take a kid to and know there will be something for everyone. Latisha sang a version of I'll Always Love You that should make Whitney Houston go hide under the bed. Blake nailed Shot Through the Heart and tried to teach everyone how to beat box. Yes, there was Sanjaya. Dressed in white coat and red pants he moonwalked to a Michael Jackson tune, as usual, his personality far outshining his voice. Melinda recreated the magic of Motown for a new generation with Natural Woman and Jordan just can't possibly be only 17 -- what a voice.

A whole new rendition of "This is Entertainment."

Monday, August 13, 2007

National Poetry Slam 2007

Austin is hot -- once again. I mean the thermostat in the car read 108 one day. That's hotter than a match head, as the saying goes.

For the first time in a few years, Cleveland sent a team. They are a young team with lots to learn about reading the audience, but they performed well the first night taking their bout. They took a third place in the second bout, but that was enough to get them into the semi-finals since the new rules allow 25 teams to compete instead of the old 16. Unfortunately, that's where they ended their Slam experience, but everyone was hugging and smiling. I think they'll be back.

For me, there were three poems that made the event worthwhile. Titles are never announced, but the gist of the pieces was this -- Buddy Unicorn's piece about the death of his mother that can be heard here: (rated adult for language and content) http://profile.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=user.viewprofile&friendID=88280051
From the same team (NYC Louder Arts) Rachel's piece about being (obviously) pregnant in an uncertain world and her commitment to go down fighting and finally Denver. This is the Denver team that won last year and in my mind had THE most memorable group piece, If you see something, Say Something about immigration. Very powerful. But this year's piece for five voices was even better -- a prayer, a plea to God, voices begging please let it be negative, help me, some humorous, some hideous, all painfully personal. Perfectly executed and choreographed, it was the highlight of the entire 80 team, 400 poet event for me. (not that I saw everyone, no one could have).

Here's the truth. I didn't even go to the indi finals following this match. These pieces moved me so much that I was emotionally spent.

Last year I was featured as a legend at the Slam, this year I just went to listen. Listening is good. Hopeful. No matter how dark the poet's piece is -- some THING has happened to that writer and he/she/they've recorded the happening and are still standing to deliver. That is hopeful.

Monday, August 06, 2007


I was browsing blogs, putting off working on taxes and the evil treadmill and I came across this phrase: "Michael Vick and the hideous dog fighting scandal" and thought, great word! Hideous. You don't hear that word so much anymore. The irony here is that there's so much that is hideous in this world. But then the word implies feeling -- and aren't we beyond all that?

Special effects in horror movies have caused many to build up an immunity to blood and gore, maybe we don't need the word anymore. A head explodes, a hand's cut off, skin melts and the audience isn't even supposed to flinch. If we don't feel revulsion, what's the use in a word like hideous except to inject it into something relatively benign? Say, Cher's face.

So along comes real blood and gore. What's more hideous than war? I watched a clip from The Guardian about Iraq -- the U.S. soldiers are clearly being driven mad by their deployment, shooting at everyone/thing that moves. I would, too if snipers were shooting at me. There was a shot of an Iraqi man who'd had his feet blown off, sitting and screaming, frantically looking around for help, his feet, a hand out of the mess. Not reality T.V., but reality. It was too gruesome for the U.S. news. I put in a link to the video above, but brace yourself, it is indeed hideous. Are we too conditioned to horror to flinch, weep, scream?

Hideous: the word itself works on the psyche like a flesh eating disease, ripping away the protective layer to reveal raw emotion. It provokes bad images, but it is a good word. One we need to have in the pocket to pass around to remind us that somethings are beyond acceptable and refuse to be satisfied by a simple shrug.

To quote that AV sage Dr. Phil, you can't change what you don't acknowledge. Hideous is a word of acknowledgment, a feeling word not only standing up to the un-feeling, but backhanding it across its botoxed face.