Thursday, November 11, 2010

What's Wrong with this Picture?

Is it true that the wisemen brought pumpkins to honor the infant?
Is that the Holy Ghost dressed up as a scarecrow for Halloween?
Does this image beg the question: How was it that the parable of the scarecrow-as-cheerleader was somehow omitted from my Sunday School lessons?
Why do most passion plays eschew the pom poms?

These and other pressing questions occupy my mind as I walk the dogs around the block. Whatever this display represents, it scares the persistent barking out of Lili. In her mind, any scarecrow suspended and presiding over a cradled infant cannot be good.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

To the Young Poet Standing

To the Young Poet Standing

“Failure drives a Nissan Cube.”
Your opening line is succinct.
Neither made up in a slather of cosmetic adjectives
or itching to shake off an entanglement of adverbs.
Personification plain and simple.
You have written to your audience.
Read the lines with clarity and intonation.
Everything that was asked of you.

Since Failure has not enlightened you
to the vertigo induced by hunger,
the clinging stench of falling face first
into a cold hallway ripe with urine,
or introduced you to those
who remain uncompensated for stolen trust
or whose fast track to success was barricaded by
some unrepaired cleft . . .

Given that Failure has never taken
your straight-toothed, winning smile for a tour
of a refugee camp in its ninth season,
or even the other side of town.
Hasn’t pointed out where
it had the snot beat out of it as a kid,
where it broke its teeth on the curb
after being pushed down by minimum wage,
or pointed out the exact sidewalk square
where it gave up trying . . .

That you cannot see that Failure
has limited the lessons
taught in this brick building
to what is fitting for your neighborhood,
and knowing that under that T shirt logo
label you may wish for something else,
but at thirteen-years-old
you don’t know what. . .

Mindful of all of the above,
I leave this lesson contemplating

Sunday, November 07, 2010

End of Daylight Savings Time

While reading the news online this morning, I found a cache of poems allegedly about the end of daylight savings time. (click here) I'm not sure these poems were all written for this purpose, or indeed if any poem has a purpose. Most honored poets seem to be all mournful about the death of summer, anticipating rebirth, following classic poetic lines of thinking (some to the point of exhaustion on the parts of readers). I don't know if I've just been spending too much time in the company of oppositional middle schoolers or at grooming the dogs' shedding coats off of the animals and my clothing, but I'm (famous last words) ready to be transported out of autumn. I think the trees are with me in this.

Ahead of Time

I walk the dogs at 7:46 on a Sunday,
beside trees ankle deep in confetti.
Not the least bit forlorn,
they seem ecstatic to be shed of their
shady responsibilities.
Masts fully trimmed,
they bolt from their roots
and reach freely
into the wind
with jazz hands,
ready for the icy voyage,
begging for adventure,
cheered on by puddles,
generally so unassuming,
now glittery with excitement.
I receive this advance notice
in a quick sniff,
grateful that this morning,
this one morning,
I am ahead of time.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Gatekeepers Through the Ages

Once upon a time in the long long ago, parents were the gatekeepers of knowledge for kids. Sharp knives and matches were dispensed to kids on a need to know basis by grown-ups.

Over many generations, that dribble of knowledge begot kids doing their own thinking and writing books which begot libraries. Libraries begot gatekeepers called librarians who could say things like “ask your parents,” when kids wanted to check out bomb-making instruction manuals.

Then the little bomb-makers grew up and begot television which blew up a lot of gatekeeper duties until that medium begot the FCC which also gatekept things like movies and music which begot a lot of frustration among the next generation of bomb-makers. So they begot HBO and kids suddenly had full frontal answers to all their questions. This begot parent controls about the same time the Internet was being begot (begotten?) and that begot file sharing and blogging and that exploded old gatekeeping traditions such as editors and editorial standards and that begot a lot of nervous parents who rushed to their school boards who begot sheets of educational standards designed to limit the fire hose of knowledge streaming into the brains of our kids.

These school boards begot a lot of regulations limiting what teachers and textbooks could discuss with kids. But then the Internet begot knowledge gold-mines such as Google, Amazon, and the Discovery Channel. Of course the Internet also begot a lot of fool’s gold, so often when kids of all ages are doing research they have to act as their own gatekeepers in ascertaining if information contained therein has any merit beyond the perimeters of the Land of Urban Myth.

Which brings us to today where the Texas School Board has begot regulations dictating the number of times the word “Islam” is mentioned in a text book hoping this will limit kids learning about Muslims and begot the removal of udders from cows in textbook pictures to limit kids' HOLY COW knowledge of natural functions. A school district in OH can claim victory after winning their court case to limit teachers from deviating from the dictates of her school board and for letting kids read and discuss in a structured setting fiction that students could easily find themselves through a “if you liked this, you might like this” search on Amazon, whereupon that same student might buy the novel to be downloaded onto his/her phone and read or listen to it on the (gasp) school bus, without the guidance of a grown-up (a teacher, with Dancing with the Stars on, what parent has time for novels?) helping said student sift through the words to find what's true.

This outcome might beget frenetic knee-slapping, jester jumping hilarity if it weren’t so pathetic.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

English Companion Ning

Michael found this and I am pasting it right in here because we are THIS excited about our book club discussion about our new book on the English Companion Ning. If you are teacher and you haven't seen all the great resources available on this ning go there adn check it out! Developed by Jim Burke and some very dedicated teachers such as my friends Lee Ann Spillane and Gary Anderson, it is the best place to get answers, support and ideas for classroom teachers.

Vocabulary instruction out of the box! Notice how the creator of this video (Michael's son Frank) shows what the word is and does and also what it does not do.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

I took this picture with my cellphone about a week ago beside the driveway. It was the first week of October and this stubborn little dandelion wasn't being shy at all about crashing fall. Not a bit. And I've been wracking my brain to find this poem about dandelions standing around on street corners like rebellious kids and I can't find it on the internet. On my shelf. In my brain.

I found that Ray Bradbury sold newspapers on streetcorners and Yeats has a line in a play about a fool blowing a dandelion to tell time. Roughly a gazillion people liken writing ideas to behave like dandelion seeds (note to self, never use THAT metaphor).

So, I asked Salinger passing down the hall -- trying to find this poem, I tell him. Do you know it? "No," he says. "Give me a minute and I'll write one for you." Sure he could. So could I. But I'm sure the one I'm remembering is better. It is sterling. It captures the rebelliousness of the dandelion perfectly. Vachal Lindsey was into dandelions before he got into drinking Lysol and May Swenson had me noticing their little lion heads, but lost me at calling them sweet. I have now spent 2 hours looking for this perfect dandelion poem.

The dream of perfection pushing me beyond logic -- kinda like a dandelion blooming in October.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Where were you on 10/10/10?

Where were you on 10/10/10? This seems like an important date, and I almost missed it. I mean, I was here, but where was I? In computer update limbo. Kicking with my software. Holed up in front of this blinking cursor. What kind of a memory is that?

A big date like this should be like a cornerstone in which we lay memorabilia, photos, reflections, artifacts evidencing the way things are today, on this day, on 10/10/10.

My grandmother used to tell me (and I heard this story SO many times and wish I could hear it just one more) that she turned 19 on the 19th day of October in 1919. She wore a white dress with lace on the sleeves. It was a big day.

Yesterday I wore khaki pants and a grey T shirt. What kind of an image is that to pass along to the grandkids? Surely there were songs sung, poems written, pictures drawn, stories crafted to commemorate this milestone? Balloons of fancy rose somewhere. Happiness squirmed. Where? How? Who?

I need some images to put in my memory bank to override this mess.


Saturday, October 09, 2010

Found Poem

The Great Recession
The Great Depression?
To just one does not all credit go.
Great Recession has affected way in which we live.
finding words
that describe goals,
We want jobs now.

I'm not usually into these things, but this one kind of jumped off the pages of the Lake County Herald.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

The Garden's Fall

The Garden's Fall

So this is what
it comes to
after all.
The promise of spring now
stacked sticks,
twisted vines,
faded blossoms,
all cracking up over lost suppleness.
Past the point of usefulness.
After all those phases of the moon,
the sun and rain,
the hosings and the horse manure.
Most of its fruit
has simply been digested.
Still some of the garden’s flesh
hangs on, wrinkled and scarred.
This is what is left.
One last supper
and the rest stuffed into
a bag for collection.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

A Question of Mushrooms

Mushrooms in the garden?

Mushrooms in the grass?

Mushrooms in the trees?

Is this too much to ask?


Stop raining?


And those pictures are just from one half-mile walk around the block. Cleveland! Gotta love it.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010


is a 3 lb 8 oz dog
shivering with righteous fury,
tethered by a thread,
ears at attention,
chin extended into
a relentless chain of scalp-tightening yelps,
stands up to the back side of
an overstuffed cable man,
head under the tent of his truck,
before returning home to
release one more
harbored huff of indignation
as she settles in
by the heat hole with her
stuffed bear.

Friday, September 17, 2010

High Definition Vocabulary

Four years in the writing, more in the research. So much time and yes, fun, in the making. Finally!

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Teaching Kindness?

Book smart = street dumb

This thinking is ubiquitous in too many of our upper schools. Smart is stupid, dumb is good. To mark the depth of this river, all you need to do is walk in the door. Ivory towers. Sissies. Nerds. Society just doesn’t give that much respect to the pocket protector sub-group, treating them more like a sub-species until they get out of school and star in a movie elevating the underdog to greatness or invent something that even bone heads can use, like an I Touch.

In an environment where weakness can get you teased and bullied, why risk showing off your book smarts? Bullies are often the most insecure of cowards and they can smell easy meat. Somewhere around 6th grade kids start to learn this and too many begin to stop learning in school. What’s the utility of engaging in a practice that’s going to get you socially ostracized? Nothing drains the enthusiasm out of a classroom faster than the skinny-eyed stare of the kid a silent majority has voted most likely to slam you into the lockers. My experience with adolescents is that it isn’t so hard to get them to buy into the lesson, it’s getting past the fact that they don’t want to show that they are interested. It’s hard on a teacher, but for some kids, it’s a life or death choice.

Nowhere is this worse than in my home district, Mentor High School. It’s been in the news lately since that rough patch couple years back, a two-year period in which five (5) students committed suicide due, at least in part, to bullying. Now a second set of bereaved parents has filed suit. They had complained, talked to the administration, withdrawn their daughter (a recent Croatian immigrant), and even hospitalized her for depression due to the abuse she was receiving daily at school. Like the gay boy before her and the three other children (children) in Mentor schools, she was the victim of what one commentator has labeled an atmosphere of “aggressive conformity.”

Are we teaching the wrong stuff? Is the increased pressure on schools to teach by the book toward measurable outcomes not only making teachers nuts, but driving kids crazy too? By increasing the pressure through testing, are we doubling down on the wrong things? I picked this list up from a cheery piece of reading you might want to add to the stack on your bedside table (you nerd you) entitled On the Death of Childhood and the Destruction of Public Schools by Gerald W. Bracey, Heinemann 2003.

Critical thinking
Sense of beauty
Sense of wonder

This is a list of what proficiency tests do NOT measure. Isn’t it also a list of characteristics you would want in a neighbor, parent, or co-worker? Characteristics of a successful person?

I’m not sure all of these qualities (motivation? kindness?) can be taught, but I think we can do a better job of not discouraging those traits by handing over control of our school communities to muscle-headed and spike-heeled bullies, ignoring the human needs of children.

So, I would suggest the following if asked (I decidedly was not asked being a poet, which makes me bottom-line suspect from jump). First, make it a legislative imperative that teachers report when a student is being abused by another student in the same way they must report if a child is being abused at home. Teachers can lose their licenses for not reporting abuse at home, why not the abuse on the stairs?

Second, make school more interactive with small learning groups where kids have to rely on one another instead of the prevailing competitive, every kid for him/herself paradigm. I don’t care what the test scores say, if kids are killing themselves or overdosing (oh, yeah, there were 5 of those this year, too) the school is failing.

If a school fails one of its own, the group who enabled the abuser with their collective silence needs to pay a price. If it is the jocks with the thick necks and the girls competing fiercely to hang from them who are perpetuating this terrorism, how about cancelling a few football games? Suspend the cheerleading squad? Oh, not fair to the athletes vying for scholarships? How about the nerds vying for scholarships who are afraid to participate in class because they might get teased to death? Let’s work to level that playing field.

One good thing kids glean from sports is that you don’t let the rest of the team down. They can also learn it from band, plays, poetry readings or their chem. lab group. But in order to succeed in the workplace, kids need to learn it, whether or not they can throw a ball.

Finally, suspending the abusers individually is not a remedy. Doesn’t work. Just causes more kids to feel isolated and angry. We need to listen to kids. Give them a forum to talk (I recommend poetry performance, naturally) and listen. Give them an audience. One of the most powerful moments in my teaching experience was when a mentally challenged student read a poem to a warm around the collars group gathered in a Michigan middle school library about what it was like for her to be chased to and from her locker every day. It made a difference. The talking and the listening. We all learned something that day.

Street smarts. The hand-on-a-hot-stove kind of learning that doesn’t come out of a book, but is both meaningful and memorable. The kind we get from talking to one another. We need more of that.

Saturday, September 04, 2010


When doing a poetry reading, it is always best NOT to take yourself too seriously. Prepare, yes. Have your papers in order, yes. Rehearse a little. Know your audience. But all of us who read our words aloud have grown to appreciate nobel prize winner Wislawa Szymborska's sentiment:

Poetry Reading

To be a boxer, or not to be there
at all. O Muse, where are our teeming crowds?
Twelve people in the room, eight seats to spare
it's time to start this cultural affair.
Half came inside because it started raining,
the rest are relatives. O Muse.
The women here would love to rant and rave,
but that's for boxing. Here they must behave.
Dante's Infemo is ringside nowadays.
Likewise his Paradise. O Muse.

Oh, not to be a boxer but a poet,
one sentenced to hard shelleying for life,
for lack of muscles forced to show the world
the sonnet that may make the high-school reading lists
with luck. O Muse,
O bobtailed angel, Pegasus.

In the first row, a sweet old man's soft snore:
he dreams his wife's alive again. What's more,
she's making him that tart she used to bake.
Aflame, but carefully-don't burn his cake!
we start to read. O Muse.

Okay, so I did Vertigo Xi'an Xavier's Canton First Friday! The Poetry Spectacular last night. Beautiful night, fun arts event for families and galleries. Highly recommended. Don't wait for a written invitation. The streets were hopping. It wasn't raining at all and some of the crowd even came inside for the poetry reading.

In the theater, the opening act was the local HS forensics team. They wept, screamed, and scratched their skin through three performances. The audience clapped politely as one watched her kids drown on the Titanic, one drank bleach, and one (even more frighteningly) attempted humor. Then they all stood up with their entourages and noisily discussed how well they did as they departed and as I was being introduced. Michael mentioned to a couple of them that my poems have been used to win several state forensic oral interp competitions. Perhaps one kid shrugged.

Then a young woman came to the stage as I was putting my folder on the music stand.
"What time is the open mic?"
"After the feature," answered Vertigo, the emcee (who is working overtime to build this event and sincerely seems to be a great guy).
"What time is that?" She asked.
"Are you leaving?" He asked.
"Yes. I’ll come back to read. I’m first on the open mic."
"You should stay for the feature," he nodded to me, standing at his elbow.
She looked me straight in the eye and said, “most poetry bores me, no offense.”

How could I take offense?

The rest of the evening went much better and we were treated to energetic performances by Mary Turzillo and Geoff Landis among others. Will the poetry gods forgive me for cutting out for the first poet in the open mic and then returning for the rest of the evening?

As I departed, the young woman (who had returned to chat her way through the last couple of my poems and take cell phone pictures of her friend) called to me, “you’re leaving? I’m crushed.”

My reply, “no offense.”

(cross-posted at cleveland poetics)

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Orwell in Bed

I read Animal Farm as a kid, maybe third grade or so. It was on the bookshelf by my bed. I remember slipping the slim, green volume in and out surreptitiously to read with a flashlight in bed. Mom didn’t know I was reading this book without pictures in which pigs talked, which definitely made it more attractive. I’m not sure if mom would have censored the book from me if she had known.

Mom would have arranged the shelves in the bookcase to look nice, not as some kind of plot to expand my mind. Besides being fiercely intelligent, she liked things to look nice, not like those ratty looking children’s books with the torn covers that she sent to the Goodwill as soon as I learned to read. In fact, she trashed the book jackets on all books. Messy looking. I’m not sure it even occurred to her that I might be reading those Book-of-the-Month Club selections carefully aligned by height and color. That I didn’t truly understand the meaning of Animal Farm, the story within the story, didn’t matter. I liked the book and the words weren’t too hard.

This narrow bookcase sits in my office today; it holds a disorderly mishmash of my ragged old journals. I’ve kept it around, just like my love of reading in bed after the lights go down. This habit has been greatly enhanced by being able to read from my back lit little ITouch. The words are newspaper column-width and just as exciting or disappointing as they would be on the page. Yes, I still like books with covers, but under the covers, I love my ITouch enabling me to read in the dark.

Surreptitiously? Not so much.

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese is my latest read. It is a rich book set in Ethiopia in which some of the descriptions are so graphic that the words on the screen seem to bleed (the main characters are surgeons). In fact, I’ve had to self-censor a few passages. Though, like Animal Farm, the book doesn't contain pictures, some of the images are powerful and fully capable of causing nightmares. Humble compliments to the author.

This book was recommended to me by my friends at Amazon who know I like books set in foreign places. You think elephants have a memory? Amazon never forgets. They know every item I have looked at from school bus tents for Thomas to books on stalking/window peepers (eight years ago I ordered a paperback on this topic to help understand the mentality of these people, it’s a long story), to those little ankle high boots I thought I couldn’t get through the winter without and which now follow me onto every single site I visit on the internet, scrolling across the top, flashing at the side. Amazon remembers such things. Forever, it seems. And sometimes they are spot on. I like this book, in fact.

In Cutting for Stone I found this little story within the story that I liked. The story was about a miserly Baghdad merchant who had a battered pair of slippers everyone teased him about. He finally decided to get rid of them, threw them out a window, they landed on the head of a pregnant woman, she miscarried, and he went to jail. The second attempt to get rid of the slippers he dropped them into a canal, they choked up the drain, and again off to jail. A listener to the story observes, “He might as well build a room for his slippers. Why try to lose them? He will never escape.” All kinds of cool inferences can be drawn from this little story, an imbedded mini lesson. Everything in your experience (the slippers) becomes part of who you are. The author sums it up saying, “the key to happiness is to own your slippers.” Love it.

Loved it so much I tapped the passage with my finger and up jumped a little window on my ITouch that said, “1247 people also liked this passage.”

How Orwellian is that?

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Deal with it.

‎"Finish every day and be done with it. You have done what you could; some blunders and absurdities crept in. Forget about them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day; you shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense." – Emerson

Obviously, Emerson never had fruit flies.

I woke up to yesterday all over the kitchen, stray basil leaves and scraps of chopped pepper from cooking tomato sauce, leftovers that I didn’t sweep up before bed. Did Emerson always sweep the kitchen floor before bed? I don’t think so. Oh and yes, don’t forget the cloud of fruit flies darkening a bowl tomato trimmings that didn’t get taken out to the compost.

Let me ask you, did Emerson compost? If he did he would never make such a statement. This is, I mean, this statement is so smugly 19th century. What did ol' Mr. Leisuretime do to combat global climate change caused by (hello) Yesterday.

Did Emerson ever wake to 37 emails that penetrated the spam filter over the night like fruit flies through window screens, or wherever fruit flies and offers of wealth and health fly in from. Did he never eat out and two weeks later find a styrofoam container growing like a science experiment in the back of the fridge or a preposition dangling at the end of a sentence he had written? Eh?

He probably never filed an extension on his taxes, either, so he could have the water-torture joy of waking to unfinished homework for five months every year. A milk crate full of receipts moaning like caged zombies under the desk. Unopened financial statements that made him regret he never got an advanced degree in accounting. And don’t forget the 187 pieces of correspondence populating his inbox that really should be answered.

Oh. And who do you suppose was the “high spirit” he woke up with every morning? No one who has ever lived with another human being for longer than a week expects to be greeted with sunny smiles every dang day. Sounds a little lascivious, Ralph Waldo. If the Reverend and his “spirit” woke up high, isn’t that just evidence they didn’t sleep long enough? Bet his two wives (the ones who probably swept the kitchen for the "individualist") loved THAT story.

Okay. I’m willing to admit that even though I have some questions about Emerson’s philosophy, I do not have all the answers. I’m going to slap a label on the coffee pot, rename it “serenity,” slug down a couple of cups, make a wide sweep of all the “yeah, buts” off my desk with the back of my arm, and start the day over.

Here’s where I should conclude this philosophical rant with a summary statement about fruit flies, but what more can really be said? They exist. Deal with them.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

August Reflections

August light turns in by eight
and night comes early in the forest
by crickets' chorus,
shrilly sung crescendos
by a choir that no one sees.

A piece of poem.
Don't know when I wrote it, but when ripened tomatoes start to sag on drying vines and shadows begin to lengthen in late afternoon, it floats through my mind, looking for a place to go.

Last week Danny, Scotty, Sara and Thomas and I went creeking. I've talked to many teacher groups about this creek. How on one frosty Easter morning I used my walking stick to roll one rock on top of another so I could tip toe across and not get my feet wet.

I asked my friend, is that fair? To move the rock like that? Maybe we should just play them as they lay. "I don't know," she answered, "if I were a rock, I wouldn't want to stay in the same place for the rest of my life."

I went home and asked my daughter Kelly what she thought. Was it fair to move the rock? She reminded me that there were organisms living under that rock. Move the rock and you have disturbed the habitat. So I asked her football/golfer boyfriend (soon to be husband) Brian, and he said definitely, no. You move the rock, you take the sport out of it.

So, on this hot August day, no frost to be found, I visit the same creek with two of their sons, Dan and Thomas. We talk about whether to take the high road or the low road beside the creek. We confer with Scotty and Sara. And we all manage to round the bend and follow the creek with (mostly) dry feet, even though the mud DID try to suck the shoe off of Dan's foot during one rock maneuver. Life, like the creek, is constantly moving on.

Back then I also asked my friend Sharon Draper in an email, what did she think about moving the rock and she quick shot back an answer, "Jackie Robinson moved a rock and everyone has been following in his footsteps ever after."

Good answer. I asked other friends. I asked Father Ned, who answered, "We are co-creators in this universe, move the rock." That turned out to be my favorite answer. We are co-creators. And while it is up to each of us to make our own way, It sure helps to have friends and family to talk over the possibilities.

About which rocks can be moved and which we need to climb over.

A few weeks ago a teacher from TN wrote and asked me for the poem about the creek. Like the August poem, it is just a little piece of poem. Never fully developed. Just a little story, a memory to savor like the tongue-burst of backyard, sun-ripened tomatoes.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Zombies! The Making of the Video

First impressions are important. As an author, the good thing about making a trailer for your new book is that you get the opportunity to introduce the book to friends in your own words, your own vision. Like introducing one friend to another, the introducer gets to help with the first impression. You can say things like, "I want you to meet XXX. You may think at first this kid is a little over the top, but you are going to love the way he stands on chairs wearing a sombrero and sings at the top of his lungs."

A good introduction can go a long way toward making a positive first impression.

I was so excited when I saw the drawings Karen made to go with my poems. They seemed to be dancing all over the page. I wasn't sure about the music they were dancing to until I taught myself Garage Band. I played around with sound effects and music clips, cutting and pasting until I thought the beat matched the movements. It took me all kinds of hours to learn the program, but I had a crash, bam, boom, foot-tapping time experimenting.

At the same time, I taught myself to use the program I Movie. That process took a few days and several large containers of popcorn just to get me into the proper mind for movie making.

I didn't have a script to begin with. Just some vague thoughts about how important it is to daydream and then my eyes landed on Karen's picture of Susan Todd singing her heart out. And I thought, that's it. I want kids to know that this book will help them find their voices through poetry. So that became the plot of the video.

Hope you enjoy the video, the book, the poems, the pictures, and that the writing tips put you over the top just a little.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

God Bless You, Mob

Singing "kookaburra sits in the old gum tree-ee" makes a whole lot more sense if you have heard the mouthy bird and understand that a gum tree is a sweet smelling eucalyptus. The "baaa necessities" become more clearly defined when you learn that Aussies drop most r's, don't run the heat when no one is at school, wear locally grown wool for warmth instead of layers of useless manmade fibers and elect local officials based on their environmental policies. Also, knowing that a mob is a herd of kangaroos and not criminals with machine guns helps to make the school chaplain's blessing a bit less startling at second period tea time, crumpets optional (but who can resist?)

We started our visit in Australia with a couple of bus hopping, ferry riding, opera house touring, zoo visiting days in Sydney. The winter here is mild and incredibly sunny compared the kneedeep wind chills we are accustomed to in Cleveland. Not unpleasant at all. Much more to see. Would love to return.

The opera house is truly stunning and we were lucky enough to score tickets for a cabaret performance in one of the theaters. It is covered with tiles that reflect the color of the sky, a site that really can't be captured with a camera.

After a smooth bus ride to Canberra, ACT (the Washington, DC of Australia) we were collected by our trusted friend and host, Dan Ferri. He not only put up with us but put us up for a week and a half while we toured Canberra (pronounced Can-baha, see above) and Radford College.

Before we began our residency at Radford, we took about an 8-kilometer walk to the national Australian Museum. Since I don’t know a kilometer from a mile and we didn’t have a map of the city, we didn’t exactly know what we were in for that day, but it turned out to be a clear blue sky, sunny day and a fascinating museum where the modern is mixed up with the ancient to give you a picture of just about everything Aussie. The War Memorial was particularly fascinating as they had a C plane there that I think is what my Uncle Bill flew in the South Pacific. Somehow it was not part of my history lesson that Australia was bombed and Japanese subs were in Sydney Harbor during the WWII, "let's move on, we have a lot to cover" being the hasty mantra of all my social studies teachers 1-12).

Everyone knows a true sign of becoming old is that you go to a museum and see one of your prized memories of childhood behind glass. But how about going to a museum and seeing the original jerseys of one of your grandchildren’s idols enshrined for posterity?

Yep. The Wiggles. Hanging alongside pith helmets, Darwin’s notepad, and aboriginal masks. Oh, well. No worries, mate. One of a couple of handy phrases I picked up and reckon to remember along with the mobs of meat pies and kangaroos, smiling students and pleasant teachers we came in contact with while down under. My absolute favorite, below.

But the real business of our trip began when we went to school. First we did a short drive by visit to a public school, Ainslie School where Karen took us all around. The place was alive with writing and word walls, artwork and bulging classroom libraries at all grade levels. Here I learned that a perimeter is always closed, never open and not a muddle. Principal Jo Padgham was away the day we visited, but her imprint and vision is clearly evident all over the school, a very happening place.

The next day we began a five-day residency at Radford College. In Australia all schools are colleges, post high school schools are called universities. We visited with the elementary kids, a few year 12s (seniors) but spent a great deal of our time with the seventh grade. The sixth graders wrote about their recent walkabouts to visit local dams and ecosystems. I learned about the hazards of desalination from one sixth grade poet and about all kinds of other fascinating creatures, plants, and rivers (few of which I could spell in the group-writes much to the amusement of the kids).

Many many thanks to Claire, Peggy, Louise, Dylan, and the rest of the mob for making our visit a learning experience for all. And special thanks to Dan Ferri for the invitation and for all his generous hospitality.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

IRA World Congress Auckland, NZ

New Zealand, where the air is clear and the pies are steamy, the people are friendly and the internet is expensive, sparse and achingly slow. Michael and I came downunder for the IRA World Congress, a multi-national literacy conference that convenes every other year. We had a few days to take in some sights and sites, but not nearly enough time to explore.

The center of Auckland is this Sky Tower, which the guidebook describes as looking like a "hypodermic needle giving a fix to the sky." Don't know about that, but people sure seem to get off on jumping off the thing (strings attached) and harnessing up to crabcrawl around the little ledge at the top. NZ is the bungee capital of the world. Who knew? Michael is still bugging me about not taking advantage of the two for one winter special for a death defying leap from this thing. He called that a bargain. I called it insanity. One of the teachers I met at the conference who was leading a group of Virginia grad students reminded them that while the health insurance would not cover injuries from bungee jumping, it would pay to have their remains repatriated to the U.S.

One of the first things you notice walking down the street is that Auckland truly is an international city. In fact, the area around out hotel was predominately populated by Korean nationals. One of Korea's biggest exports seems to be its people. There are little convenient stores around, each with a different ethnic band -- middle eastern, chinese, korean. The country itself has three languages, English, Maori, and signing.

We took in the Auckland Museum to get some history and background on the indigenous Maori people and customs. The Maori are credited with being premier navigators, traveling as far as South America in what look to be pretty primitive craft. Most notable is their Haka dance of strength and intimidation. But their carvings and art are stunning and unique.

In our ongoing quest to visit every aquarium around the globe, we visited Auckland's designed by visionary resident wacko Kelly Tarton out of what used to be a sewage disposal facility. Here you climb into a little disney-like ride to get up close and personal with the penguins and other exciting creatures.

In the closest we got to trekking, we took a ferry out to Rangitoto Island, which arrived via volcano overnight a few hundred years ago. The beaches and all surrounds are black volcanic rock with tea trees growing all over. A tractor pulled up part way up and then we followed this path into the sky (see those distant little blue patches?) to reach the breathtaking summit. The road were built by convicts in the 20s and 30s who unfortunately didn't have the foresight to also lay fiberoptic cable.

The conference itself was terrific and we felt welcomed learning and sharing our learning. A great introduction to NZ. Hardly enough to last a lifetime. Hopefully we can come back for more out of the city exploration.

Friday, June 04, 2010

"We don't have polio any longer."

So my question to the wise women writers I have dinner with now and then was: Do you think that every generation, when people get to a certain age, they just think the world is going to hell, or do you think the world really is going south this time?

And alternately, we each added to the list of the world’s woes. My own list included the oil volcano in the Gulf, the disappearing wet lands, the special that’s coming up on the chemicals in our fresh foods, chemicals with side benefits like cancer and autism, the Texas Board of Education is trying to limit learning, Gaza stripped, too big to fail, nuclear headed weapons, how I just liked a group on facebook about how the introduction of corn syrup into baby formula is giving kids obesity and diabetes and to top it all off, Tipper and Al Gore are calling it quits. I feel about their divorce as I would have had I watched a precious antique piece of furniture fall off the back of a truck and get smashed. 40 years? They don’t make marriages like that anymore.

This is a brilliant group of writing women brought together by Sarah Willis
Kristin Ohlson, Karen Sandstrom, Thrity Umrigar, Loung Ung, and Paula McClain . I love not only our exchanges about writing and publishing but their well-traveled, intelligent take on the world. I always have leftovers after these meals -- something to bring home that won't just go bad in the back of the fridge. We don't get together very often and rarely all at the same time due to travel and other conflicts, so this week was a real treat.

So what did they think? Does every generation grow to think that change is ruining the world? Wasn't this the cry when society industrialized itself? Freeways, factories, fashion (those falling down pants hobbling our young men, are you kidding me?), each new generation flips off the former and chooses new paths -- hence the inevitability of grumpy old men (and women).

Is what is happening today and how discouraging it sometimes feels just the natural march toward the future or have humans really messed things up beyond repair? We bounced the question around -- united in our mourning over the horrors of oil mixing with water, but while nobody particularly relishes seeing boys with their boxers exposed, we all agreed we need to fight any tendency to become more conservative with age.

"I'm happy to be living today," said Thrity. I wanted to say, "really?" Not that kind of Saturday Night Live "reeeeeallly" that has lately (annoyingly) permeated conversation (see what I mean about the grumpiness?), but really? "Yes. Fifty years ago could we have all accomplished what we have? Would Loung and I even be here? Look. We don't have polio any more."

And there it was. My take home idea. Something to hang onto while watching news hour images of dying pelicans and gasping dolphins.

One bad habit I have unfortunately nurtured over the years is stacking up the bad stuff. I'm good at it. I gather outrages and images using resentment as mortar to give bad stuff more substance. And when the stack starts to waver, I search around (under the desk, on the Internet, in the gutters) for more bad stuff to prop up the stack, all of which -- the late night searches, the rearranging, the tumbling and rebuilding -- tends (big surprise) to weigh me down. There's lots of bad stuff out there.

And Thrity reminds me. Once again. Finding inner peace comes back to gratitude. Not losing all sense of empathy or outrage, these can be powerful motivators. But we (I) also need some inner peace since that's what eases us along as we continue to seek solutions to all of the above. Besides, no inner peace means no sleep which makes it hard to deal with the crisis of a broken pencil let alone a broken oil well.

At least we don't have polio any longer.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

I should be walking

When life becomes a blur, about the only thing to do is buckle your seatbelt and wait for the ride to stop. That's when you stagger away, slightly dizzy, searching for a focus point.

Since my last post I visited Shanghai, North Dakota, Texas, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Virginia, Florida, Connecticut and various points in OH.

I met great kids, poet of all ages -- pre-school and up, up, up.

wrote with them,

celebrated their images, words, and performances,

had a new puppy born into the family, (video starring Lili, cameo by Suzi, videography and production by Michael) made new friends, tested the limits of old friends, and finished the page proofs on two new books. The third set of page proofs is arriving by mail next week. I argued strenuously but self-consciously about cover art and what would print to fit in the books. The struggle to balance what I feel is right and remain likable thrashes within me like those submerged plumes of oil in the Gulf, immeasurable, deep, and not easily dispersed.

This past week was my Sunday. I rested. I biked a little. Gardened a little. Walked a little. Started a rag rug out of old T shirts and didn't think much at all.

I did not drive a car (grocery, bank, post office all easily accessed by my bike) and spent too much time listening in horror to news about the oil volcano in the Gulf.

I'm so far behind in this blog, I don't even know where to start with catching it up. My lap top was stolen a couple of weeks ago and there went most of my pictures from Korea and Shanghai along with all of my teacher presentations and one picture book in process. Sigh.

I sit here trying to reconnect with my writing, blog, friends and think, I should be walking since I eat too much when I'm stressed. Which means that this past spring cost me four pounds.

The grandkids are screaming next door, birds are grousing about it, and puppy Lili is growling in her sleep under my desk, Michael is in his biking gear. Enough with the resting. Time for that walk.