Friday, November 30, 2007

Kazakhstan Travel Plans

Kazakhstan lies in the north of the central Asian republics and is bounded by Russia in the north, China in the east, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan in the south, and the Caspian Sea and part of Turkmenistan in the west. It has almost 1,177 mi (1,894 km) of coastline on the Caspian Sea. Kazakhstan is about four times the size of Texas. The territory is mostly steppe land with hilly plains and plateaus.

In January, Michael and I are traveling to Almaty, Kazakhstan to visit The Almaty International School and speak at a teacher's conference. Already I am impressed by the school and its philosophy which leads with an emphasis on kindness. Kindness is not a word that gets airtime in US school goals. How do you develop a standardized test for kindness? If you go to the website, be sure and check out the online student newspaper which is very informative and the little video.

Airline tickets all booked and new down coat purchased, we are ready to go to the cold cold steppes -- in January (did I mention?) The trip will be long -- what the travel agent calls an "over over." Overnight to Amsterdam, get on another plane, and overnight to Almaty. The flip side of the world.

So, naturally we are looking for some background reading material to help activate and assess our prior knowledge (which amounts to zip) of this area to help increase our comprehension. Unfortunately, Lonely Planet does not have a guide. Neither does Fodor's or Frommer's. Mmmmm.

So when we went for our visa pictures at AAA and (just thought I'd ask) I asked the travel agent there if she had any brochures or travel information for Kazakhstan, she replied, "What country is that in?" Mmmmmm.

We politely informed her that Kazakhstan IS a country -- in fact the 8th largest country in the world. Casting a suspicious eye on both of us, she informed us she only had information about Europe, which looks to be only a launch pad for this trip.

Filling out the VISA application, I notice that the word for NO (as is "have you ever visited Kazakhstan before?") is OK. OK means NO? That'll make your number two pencil turn backflips. Mmmmmm.

Our contacts at the school have been warm and inviting -- in direct contrast to online descriptions we have read about the geography in January. Lonely Planet online has this caution: If you do decide to battle the winter, be aware that many domestic flights are grounded and finding food can be a problem since lots of eateries close for the season. Mmmmmmm.

But then there are the rich descriptions of the food, the hospitality, the friendliness -- all in direct contrast to the weather. Just now, I was back on the site looking at the buildings and the faces of the students, getting excited.

So, here's my today thought to ponder: Is January considered winter in a land when OK means NO?

Sunday, November 25, 2007


And there we are. Left to right: Scottie (aka Scooter), Stephie, Thomas, Sara Kelly, Sara Ellen, Danny, Ben. Ready -- Swing! A little unsure. Holding on. A lot to be thankful for this year.

I've read a lot of articles about people boycotting thanksgiving because of the dastardly acts the settlers committed against indigenous peoples, but I like the idea of taking a day of the year to be thankful. It's the outdated textbooks and folklore that we need to leave behind, not the extra helping of gratitude. A day to celebrate the harvest of another year. This year I'm thankful for the above, for all my extended functioning dysfunctional family, for a warm home to come home to with running water and lights. I'm truly fortunate and pausing to be grateful is important for every reason I can think of, including a way to stave off the blues that often drag in on the skirts of winter. Something to keep us all laughing and hanging on.

Monday, November 19, 2007

NCTE Middle School Mosaic

Thirteen minutes. That's the time Kylene Beers allotted for poetry during the 2.5 hour event at NCTE in NYC this year. Thirteen and a guillotine was to descend at 14. I can't explain how much I obsessed about this time limit. I made power point slides for a read along. I deleted them. I added more. Deleted. I celebrated by not sleeping the night before so that I arrived 1.5 hours early with cotton candy for brains.

I downloaded photoshop brushes. Emailed just the right font to moderator and Goddess of YA literature, Teri Lesesne. Let me just stop for a moment and say, in case you were wondering, that this is THE best read person not only in YA lit, but probably in the galaxy. I lurk on her blog occasionally, but too often and it makes me depressed that I don't read more at traffic lights. I have no idea how she reads as much as she does. Go here to fact check:

Once the mosaic began, I relaxed into listening to Christopher Paul Curtis and Pam Ryan, Jeff Wilhelm and Janet Allen and others. A whole lot of talent was packed into that hotel ballroom, much of it carried into the room in canvas bags on the weary shoulders of teachers. It was a great afternoon and those 2.5 hours flew by. When it came time for my 13 minutes, I jumped up and raced through the whole thing in 10 minutes. Zip zip. And back to enjoying hearing others talk about their passions.

I started on the performance poetry circuit (could this be?) 16 years ago and I know that people assume I am beyond being nervous. But not true. Believe it or not, I get more nervous to deliver a poem for a small audience, say a dinner table of folks, than a ballroom. That I've known forever. But now I know that I can get EXTREMELY twisted over 13 minutes, when an hour is a breeze. Who understands these things?

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Things to do to avoid writing . . .

Get a snack. This is a long list.
Starting with: Get a snack. Walk the dog. Stare out the window. Play solitaire. Knit something that is destined to fit no one. Crochet a cover to fit a tennis ball. Mend socks. Swim. Read a magazine about something you already know or don't care about. Feed the dogs, the family, the worms (another story), the plants, yourself (nothing healthy, see above). Clean off desk by putting everything in neat stacks and then shuffle the papers up again. Do taxes (only works once a year, but provides weeks of obsessive hand wringing). Answer email. Read the news anxiously as if reading can change the world and as if in not reading every little announcement, you have abandoned the world and in its last final gasp, everyone will blame you. Write blog entries. Sweep under the dining room table without moving the chairs, no use overdoing it. Get to the airport too early or too late, both are distractions, but the late option messes with your blood pressure longer. Reboot. Run a virus check on the computer. Call the kids so you can say, well, that's it, I really didn't have anything to say. Check the time on the clock on the kitchen stove, the one in the office isn't good enough. More solitaire. File nails. Search for just the right pen. Take a finger shriveling bath long enough to knock off a Tolstoy or a couple of Shakespeares. Count the pores in your nose. Remove a kitchen wall (deadlines require extreme measures). Walk the beach and collect glass. Put the dogs out in the backyard, it's been hours (days) since walking them last. Clean out that little catch basin in the car where three pennies are fused to the plastic by a month old coffee spill. Plan a trip. A long trip. A trip requiring visas and multiple calls to travel agents and visits to cranky websites. Read other people's books that have been sent to you and marvel at how they ever got them done. Wow. Watch a rerun and to see if it turns out the same way it did the last time. Rewash the load of laundry you left in the machine a couple days ago and is beginning to smell like sauerkraut. Satisfy your desperate need to go by vitamins to make you think clearer. While you are out, go to Home Depot and buy any project that requires installation and tools you can't find. Gather up last seasons clothes and put them in tubs all over the bedroom. Belly crawl under the bed looking for stray socks. Attempt to learn photoshop. Do this without classes or a book that would make the process go smoothly. Use hours, days, weeks wandering art sites on line and downloading brushes.
In fact, if you really get into the photoshop thing --just hand the dog a leash and tell him/her to take a hike, because Photoshop will eat your entire day, days on end. No problem. Photoshop is the best time sucker there is.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Democracy: the votes are in

Carolyn Bucey finished off her slimy opponent Bill Snow with a knock out punch of truth and we won. Not only that council seat, but two others, also. It was a sweep of local proportions.

A commenter on my last post suggested I name names, so here we go. Our neighborhood was unhappy with our councilman Bill Snow for failing to stand up for us against the over development of a former school property by Junior Properties, ltd. Junior's daddy, the Big Shot, Osborne, gave a pile of money to the financially crippled school district, earmarked solely for the football stadium. Period. No books, no AP teachers hired back, no computers or classroom remodels. Football. In exchange for this "contribution" he was gifted Center Street Elementary School and surrounding properties for development by good ol' Junior, who has proposed squeezing in 50-60-70 (depends what day you ask) condos onto the former playground.

Why is our council representative so important? It is council who will decide how many units go onto that land. In our minds, rubber stampers need not apply. And rubber stampers who have a whole lot of unexplained cash in their election campaign accounts should get lost.

Most people think the Osbornes bought Center Street School for the fire sale price of $700,000, but that's unclear. Nothing was ever recorded. Did the district gave it to them as swag for the gift to the football team? Who knows. Very fishy. And Mr. Snow and the rest of council just kept smiling and rubber stamping approvals. Keep in mind that this neighborhood is still reeling from 2003 when 63% of the town voted to stop developers from plugging a different development (Newell Creek) into our limited green space. The developers took the case to court and a judge OVERTURNED the popular vote. To say the neighborhood is a little skeptical of sincerity of developers is an understatement.

And now this new Junior Properties development at Center Street School threatens to overwhelm our ancient sewers, threaten our trees, and increase our population density and traffic flow at one of the busiest intersections in town beyond the point of safety. We've already sacrificed the playground I used to walk to with my grandkids and the ball diamond that throbbed with T ballers on any given summer evening. And guess what? Osborn also owns the bank that is doing the financing and owns the gas company which is also drilling (with council approval) at more and more sites in this semi-urban neighborhood. Could it be that Osborn rhymes with Halliburton?

Carolyn Bucey was party to a lawsuit against the Newell Creek developers and in fact she and her husband received a small settlement for loss of value to their home due to the Newell Creek development. So, wasn't it a surprise to all when a glossy, four color copy of her confidential settlement check was mailed first class to the entire Ward along with an implication that she was taking payoffs? How did Snow get a copy of that check? Who paid for the expense of mailing? Who would want such a person as Mr. Snow to represent them after he did such a thing?

Well, guess what. The majority of voters do NOT trust Mr. Snow to represent them anymore. Here's the best part about grass roots efforts, Bucey's committee was able to xerox a simple letter explaining that the copy of the check was obtained underhandedly, that the check was NOT a payoff but a perfectly legal settlement, and get that info hand delivered to the entire ward, 1/4 of Mentor inside of two days. The majority of voters decided.

And that is what democracy looks like.

Monday, November 05, 2007

This is what democracy looks like

It's people meeting at one house in the neighborhood at 9:00AM on a Saturday morning to pass out literature. The smell of coffee from one of those 30 cup stainless towers. A plate of coffee cake cut in 2 inch squares. It's pulling your scarf up over your mouth and snugging on a hat and gloves because the morning frost has finally caught up with the calendar. It's talking to your neighbors about the polls, the rumors, the fact that the republican party has paid for a first class mailing, a glossy, four color smear campaign (all untrue) and robo calls, over $20,000 for a measly, supposedly non-partisan city council seat in a mid-sized suburb. Why? Whose corporate interests are they protecting this time? Is it the SOB (son of a big shot) who is trying to overdevelop the neighborhood? Are they planning to develop the wild lagoon wetlands again? This council seat only pays a few thousand a year; who in their right minds would spend that kind of money on such a campaign?

It's shaking your head and reaching for a stack of literature and a list of addresses to hit the streets. It's mentioning that you will be out of town for the election and having your neighbors take the literature out of your hand and telling you to get your number 2 pencil to the board of elections and vote early because (new policy) they are open on Saturday for early voters and this election is SO small that every vote, every single pencil mark, counts. There will always be more little guys than big guys in this country, but we have to make our marks.

And the best part about voting early, we actually were able to make a mark on a paper rather than a touch screen that swallows votes and doesn't spit them out again, which is an whole other issue.

Too many of us are inclined to complain about a loss of democratic rights and not actively involved in the democratic rites -- like standing on street corners and passing out literature, trying to engage neighbors in real conversation. I'm just as bad. I'm spotty in my involvement in this mud-wrestling match called democracy. But every time I put myself up out of my chair and away from my computer and TV where pundits shout their opinions, every time I get around to expressing mine by jumping into the process, this time only by showing up at my neighbor's house to be sent away to vote early, I am grateful for the experience. It all seems so reasonable. It makes me hopeful.

Neighbors actually talking to one another. It's a great concept.