Friday, March 28, 2014

Three Wheeling Through Dhaka

The rickshaw drivers were just laughing at me. “I’ll give you 500 taka for your bell” I was saying to varying degrees of understanding to the skinny men perched on their bicycle seats.


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Dhaka, Bangladesh has some of the worse traffic I have ever experienced. The roads are dusty and moon cratered with potholes and oftentimes a street that one would assume was designed for two opposing lanes of traffic would instead be host to four or five. The busses all look as if they have been rolled sideways down a proverbial steep embankment then righted to their wheels and sent back onto the roadway. For the most part, traffic in Dhaka is a hot steaming mess.

 

Thus, one of the most efficient and economical ways to get around the city is via the bicycle rickshaw. These three-wheeled contraptions can barely fit two people sitting in the passenger section and are piloted up front by impossibly lean men (I never saw a female rickshaw operator – I’m not saying that they don’t exist, but I never saw one). Men whose BMI would be approaching negative numbers. 


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Now while the rickshaw more or less comfortably sat a single passenger, one could squeeze in for an intimate ride with a companion and many did, it is not uncommon in fact, to see three young men piled into the back of one of these things as well – all being pedaled along by a single sinewy pilot standing on the pedals, pumping them up and down as if he were climbing a ladder.

 

The rickshaws themselves are rolling pieces of art painted and decorated in garish colors, some festooned with flags and fringe, many though are mere faded reminders of past glory, their paint peeled, hues muted, gold fringe now a dust incrusted gray. The bells on their handlebars, about the size of half an orange, minus all but a few flakes of chrome the rest being the same dirty brown one would achieve by mixing soil into a drinking glass of water.


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The ringing of these bells punctuates the streets of Dhaka. And it was while I was lying in bed one evening listening to them cricket calling into the night that I decided I needed one as a souvenir of my visit.

 

For the most part the rickshaws only operate on the smaller side streets; they are not permitted on the major thoroughfares of the city. They may not even cross some of these bigger roads so they will cue up at these intersections hoping to solicit customers. This is where I first went bell shopping – amongst the couple dozen rickshaws hanging out at one of the crossings.


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Most drivers do not own the rickshaws that they pedal around town; they rent them from an owner for about 200 taka a day (one hundred taka equals about twelve US dollars). Now, the amount pone pays for a ride with these guys isn’t really written down anywhere and the prices vary not only by time and distance but by whom the passenger is. A local will always pay less than an out of towner, something like fifty to hundred taka for a twenty minute ride while I would be expected to pay at least the hundred and most likely two. But it’s all relative; I mean we are talking the difference between one and two dollars. 

 

I had done a bit of research and I learned that a new bell would run around 300 taka. I didn’t want a new one, I wanted and old used one, a bell that had some miles on it, a bell that had stories to tell. So I offered what I thought would be an exorbitant amount of money for one, 500 taka. At first the guys thought that I meant I wanted them to ring the hell out of their bells while they gave me a ride to wherever I was going. Pushed on their levers, each trying to show me that they had the best sounding bell. Eventually I got my mission understood though, and this simply assured all involved of my insanity.


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The drivers thought this was the funniest thing they had heard all day. Number one, the rickshaws most likely were not heirs, they had no right to sell pieces from it and secondly, the bells were an essential piece of equipment for the “safe” operation of the vehicle. I might as well be walking up to people in the states idling at a stoplight and offering them a couple thousand dollars for their steering wheels.  I returned to my room bell-less.

 

The next day I had a better idea. 

 

I perused the bells on the rickshaws parked near the entrance and found one with an exquisite pedigree, patina perfect, a couple flakes of chrome still clinging to its melodic dome. I then enlisted the help of the hotel’s two doormen who between them spoke just enough English that I was able to include them as accomplices in my plot. I promised to give the driver 300 taka for a new bell, but he had to drive me to the shop where he was going to buy it, install it on this rickshaw, give me his old bell and drive me back.

 

I climbed into the rickshaw and we were off.


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We slid down back alleys, through narrow streets just barely wide enough for us to navigate. We passed kids playing cricket and rickshaw bone yards, a row of burn out automobiles neighborhoods constructed of corrugated metal, goats, chickens, and machine shops for about twenty five minutes until finally we pulled up to a little shop with tires hanging outside of it. I gave my driver 300 taka and he bought TWO new bells. We borrowed a screwdriver from the shop and he took off the old one, gave it to me and installed his twin ringer dingers and we were headed back.

 

The new bells rang piercingly clear and at double volume while my new friend employed them with great abandon. I think he was feeling a bit invincible because I am pretty sure we took a few more risky moves than on the way out. The sonic umbrella of our duel bells protected us from automobile, busses and livestock the whole way back while we pushed our luck, taking chances that one without such fine ringers would never dream of attempting.


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On the way through security, at the airport as I was headed back to the States my bell showed up on the x-ray and the officer asked to see what it was. I pulled it out and gave it a ring. He smiled and I smiled back. It was seeing me safely home.


Thursday, March 27, 2014

A New Poem

So I am working with a new blog editor on my Mac. It’s supposed to be the best one usable for a Mac and it is sorely inferior to the Windows Live Editor - not even close. Nonetheless I am gonna slog through and try and get caught up with all the posting I missed on our last trip. In the meantime here’s a new piece I am working on:


Schoolbuss

 

The Big Bang

 

I am carrying plastic thermoses of tea 

on the dusty backstreets of Dhaka 

before the sun climbs hazy orange into sky.

I am selling knock off headphones in Hong Kong's lady market.

I am pulling noodles Lanzhou style 

folding and stretching elastic dough in a small Halal shop in Shanghai. 

I am herding ducks in Vietnam,

Driving a cab in Singapore,

Walking a tightrope as entertainment for tourists

in a folk village outside of Seoul, Korea.

I am just like you.

I am taking offerings to temple in Bali.

I am showing you my deformities 

tapping with a pale fingernail on your taxi’s window in Delhi.

I gather palm oil nuts into a burlap bag in Duri, Sumatra. 

I lunch on Wall Street,

Shine shoes at LAX,

Sleep in a yurt on the steppes, 

my horse pawing the frozen earth with a front hoof.

I am just like you.

I am waiting to be found out, 

called onto the carpet, 

my rib cage rendered open,

and exposed as a fraud.

Just like you,

I have no idea how I got here.

Just like you,

I am everywhere.

I inhale atoms over thirteen billion years old 

in order to talk about the weather

with someone next to me,

and whom I will never know.

I close my eyes nearly every night

and, in doing so,

forget that I exist.

Sometimes I need an alarm clock to wake up

and I wake up

confused.

 

I am just like you.

I am making it up as I go along

michael salinger

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Insomnia

 

So we are snowed in on the North Coast of the nation here in Cleveland once gain and even down in the heart of the heart of it all, balmy Columbus Ohio they are shivering and hunkering down.

Now – not wanting to bail on his weekly reading series, all around poetry maven Scott Woods decided to hold his Writer’s Block reading online with folks either cutting and pasting their poems into a Facebook thread or linking videos.

Here’s the one I put together for the gig:

Monday, February 3, 2014

Look what I found!

So Sara and I were visiting our grandkids in Virginia and took in a peewee hockey game.

I’ve got to say these little fourth grade dudes move out – a world of difference from when our guy first started out and it was 50-50 proposition whether or not they would do a face plant upon entering the rink.

Being the good step grand dad I am I was shooting pictures like I was being paid for it. While doing so I got a shot of this sign:

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Fair warning one could say – but it put me in mind to a couple of the exercises Sara and I have in our newest teacher resource – High Impact Wiring Clinics – The found Poem and the Summary Poem.

So – I found this piece plastered to the Plexiglas separating the fans from the little bladed demons scooting around the ice like bugs in a  frying pan.  That’s the found part – the warning almost reads as a poem in itself – but Sara and I always teach that poetry is precise and concise so I looked at this notice and tried to pick out the most important words and phrases.

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There they are – so now I end up with a grocery list of words which still retain the main thought of the poster.

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And this could almost stand as a poem itself. All the critical information is still there. This type of choosing the most important part of a piece is  good practice for reading comprehension and for interpreting the main idea from a piece of text. Also, by using a shorter text such as this warning sign it allows the students to perform this skill in microcosm. If this is your goal for the lesson  you might and can end the exercise here.

Now - if our objective is to produce a more polished poem we have a short piece of text into which we can begin weaving poetic elements. It seems that sometimes with kids they think the goal is the poetic elements –whether it be rhyme, alliteration, simile – whatever. In actuality – the poetic elements are there to augment the story and imagery of the piece. So now that we have stripped this down to what we call a poem skeleton – it’s time to add a bit of connective tissue. Here’s what I ended up with:

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And here is the piece deconstructed for poetic elements:

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Have fun and keep your eyes open – there’s poetry whizzing all around like hockey pucks.

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Saturday, January 18, 2014

Judson Independent Schools–San Antonio

 

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Sara and I have just returned from a four day visit to a couple elementary schools in the Judson School district just on the outskirts of San Antonio. I like to say that the smarter I get he younger the student I can work with. I’d love to challenge any of my MFA teaching colleagues to step into a classroom of five year olds keep their attention while teaching a literacy lesson using poetry.

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I will admit though, doing so at either Crestview or Coronado Elementary school would make the task a bit easier. 

Sara and I found engaged students and teachers, vibrant colorful classrooms and supportive administrators in both schools. It was like coming upon an expat hang out overseas. That enclave where everyone speaks your native tongue. I am not talking about English in this case – lots of the students here speak English as a second language, I am talking about pedagogical language.

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It is obvious that both schools have high expectations for both their students and their staff and it showed in the work they were willing to tackle. We wrote poems highlighting compare and contrast, refrain, personification and narrative structure. We wrote about ourselves, the Alamo, Helen Keller, the playground (did you know the first grade duel language classroom at Coronado like to do the Conga at recess?) and went for word hunts in our classrooms.

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We pre-wrote, wrote – rewrote, summarized, simile-ed, and refrained our way to writing about ourselves and our lessons. And while doing so I learned a thing or two from the kids and teachers – mostly how students will rise to the challenge when the challenge is presented with the expectation of success.

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We did get a little goofy too.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Where America Shops – (Or not.)

searsDo you want a software engineer or hedge fund manager removing your appendix, filing your taxes, or fixing the brakes on your car? If you don’t want to wake up dead or incarcerated, probably not.

But we still give credence to the education “reform” movement spearheaded by folks who have never stepped into a classroom. There seems to be this idea that if a person makes billions of dollars in one industry their talent seamlessly can be used to “fix” education.

We need to run schools more like a business, we need to be data driven, we need more technology we need competition. Sara and I like to ask – exactly what business are you referring to? Enron?

The above tenets don't even work in business at times.

Sears CEO, (and hedge fund manager with no prior retail experience) Eddie Lampert gave some ideas that should sound familiar to the school reformist a spin with one of America’s most recognizable brands.

He pitted store managers against each other so that they competed for resources based on performance reviews.

He spied on and goaded his employees.

He became obsessed with technology and data collection – squandering resources on apps while his stores infrastructure crumbled.

So how did this work out for Mr. Lampert?

Sears has lost half its value in five years.

Tools that may have worked for him in his prior profession as a hedge fund manager did not translate into success when he became a retailer.

But we are expected to implement these very same steps in our schools and succeed?

We need to foster a feeling of cooperation and collaboration I the education world – not one where high stake test scores are published without context in order to scare and shame teachers into compliance. Hanging that sword of Damocles over our educator’s heads provides a disincentive for teamwork. The teacher can end up feeling that it is them against the world, why should they share best practices with the teacher down the hall aiding and abetting the competition?

This didn’t work with Sears – and it’s not going to work in school.

Requiring every lesson plan to cite a standard or worse yet that every teacher follow a script that is checked up on from some unseen terminal not only comes across as spying but infers to the educator that they cannot be trusted – that they need to be checked up on constantly. This not only infers that the teacher is inadequate it fosters mistrust between the classroom and the administration.

Didn’t work with Sears – not going to work in school.

The blind allegiance to technology and data collection while ignoring the root causes impeding robust instruction such as poverty, transience, infrastructure and curriculum not only breed failure but becomes an impetus for data manipulation. Technology has its place – but a strong inquiry based curriculum where the teacher, with parents, sets goals based on the student’s needs not on how well they will stack up against kids in the same grade level on the other side of the country is much more important than any iPad app.

Didn’t work with Sears – not going to work in school.

Now Sara and I fully understand that there must be some sort of assessment and that the implementation of standards is not inherently evil. (We’ve linked the applicable standards to all the lessons in our new teacher resource.) We just believe the execution be left up to teachers and their principals – not someone with no real world education experience.

So no, I don’t want some software engineer tuning up my car, putting a filling in my tooth, or writing my will – nor do I want one setting my school’s education policy.

Do you?

Thursday, December 12, 2013

It’s a Sausage party!

prisonerI am in an abusive relationship and I just can’t quit it.

United Airlines is the bane of my travel existence. I used to be a Continental kinda guy, a big wig at Cleveland Hopkins Airport – one of the airline’s hubs. I got upgrades, preferential seating all that good stuff that comes with flitting about the sky for a hundred thousand or so miles a year will bring. Sort of like hardship pay for all the time I spent with my butt in those blue upholstered seats.

Then all that changed one fateful day when the friendly skies over Cleveland darkened, ominously grumbling, then erupting with a boom as United Airlines swooped in like a lumbering albatross diving into a squadron of squid indiscriminately splashing and gnashing with its thick hooked bill.

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Gone were those heady days of being treated like a human – a big fish in a little pond getting first dibs at the crumbs and perks tossed in my direction. Today I am but just a dead eyed anchovy greased with olive oil and wedged into a tin.

Nowadays – if I have the audacity to accept an upgrade within an itinerary I can expect the rest of my subsequent flights to be fed into a jet engine and incinerated on the tarmac. Eighteen hour flight from Singapore – how about we make your reservation disappear so that you have to beg for a seat at the gate – here ya go – a middle seat within the buoyancy bladder deep in the belly of the plane – hope ya don’t plan on going pee!

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Oh you like those frequent flier miles? Tell ya what – we’re gonna take them away from you for no apparent reason other than we arbitrarily changed your ticket status after we accidently deleted your trip for the fifth time this year! You don’t mind spending a couple hours listening to the opening measures of Rhapsody in Blue do ya? Imagine Al Pacino shouting Boohya! right here.

But – every now and then even the most frustrating fiasco has a serendipitous silver lining.

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A couple years back United was late in getting us to Newark for a mid-December overseas flight and we missed our connection with Air France (the only major airline with worse customer service on the planet). Because of this we ended up taking a later flight missing the rest of our connectors and spending an unscheduled night in Frankfurt.

As is the policy when the missed flight is the airlines fault they put us up in a hotel and got us booked out the nest morning. As we checked in to the Steigenberger Hotel we asked if there was anything to do that evening. “Well, there is the Christmas Market,” was the reply. Sara and I figured it would be a little folksy kinda thing. But instead we found city block after city block of food and festivities – a whole section of the town was a yuletide wonderland fueled by sausage and chocolate.

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So this time when we found ourselves connecting through Frankfurt on our way home from Kazakhstan we built in an extra day so that we could hit the market again.

So thanks United – if you weren’t such a mess we would never have known the joy that is a five sausage sampler plate with sauerkraut and potatoes while a brightly lit carrousel spins in holiday cheer over our shoulders.

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Keep up the bad work – as long as it is sprinkled with fortuitous happenstance every now and then I’ll resist taking out a restraining order.

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Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Imagine…

A Lennon with a different spelling than the one pictured here asked us to do just that – Imagine.

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One thing that Sara and I couldn’t ever have imagined ten years ago was that we would be bopping around the globe spreading poetry as a literacy tool as our way of keeping our dog’s food bowls full. We are just back from our second trip to Kazakhstan – we could hardly believe that we would ever go there in the first place – much less a second time. But there we were on the windblown steppe home of yurts and borscht.

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Sara and I feel so lucky to be working in the International School world. It’s comparable to one giant district with folks moving around the globe like backgammon pieces hopping back and forth. We’ve worked with the same educators in multiple venues thousands of miles apart, manifold time and temperate zones, schools big and small.

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The international educators community is a subculture unto its own – comprised of people with a little adventure in their DNA – a trait that Sara and I share. Within this subculture are subsets of differing interests and avocations that overlap here and there slicing into almond slivers of varying thickness ala Venn diagrams. You’ve got your tech folks, your music folks, your zombie aficionados, your arts folks and my personal favorite – your bicycle folks.

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It has been my pleasure to hook up with riders across the planet riding in jungles, through city streets, on elevated paths over rice fields, through bleak Chinese industrial wastelands, amongst thatched hut African villages, through mud thick and heavy as wood putty and coasting downhill from the top of a volcano.

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Most recently in Atyrau Kazakhstan I had the opportunity to ride with my buddy Brent Fullerton who I first met in the rain forests of Borneo where he and his clan of mountain bikers - the mud hogs -attempted to grind me into the humid rich tropical soil. Well here we attacked the thick mudded Kazakh steppe and the paved and dirt pathways around the Ural River. Brent is the tech coordinator and jack of all trades teacher at the Dostyk International School, a boutique sized school for Chevron employees’ kids where teachers wear many hats. (Brent is also a lunatic – a mountain climber – trekker – and all around adventurer/explorer.)

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We went out on the bike twice while I was visiting – once to the bleak and gray industrial edge of the steppe where wheel stopping mud turned us back and then again on a group ride called in commemoration of one of the members moving away from KZ.

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In this group were mixed folks from the school, Chevron and from Shell. Dutch, Irish, Canadian, Americans and Australians a veritable hodgepodge whose overlap in this case was cycling. I was informed that the two camps, Chevron and Shell rarely if ever mixed – except in tis cycling group. As we toasted the man of honor while having breakfast at a riverside pub I was grateful for the camaraderie that a couple of pedal powered wheels were able to provide. This little spandex dressed subculture that cut across corporate loyalties and personal politics was my entryway into a sense of belonging half a globe away from my home.

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Imagine that.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Dostyk American International School

Okay we are talking about seventy degrees of separation – Fahrenheit that is.
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My friend, all around adventurer, teacher  and tech guru, Brent Fullerton was the instigator behind Sara and my visit to the international school in Atayrau, Kazakhstan. The last time I saw him we were in Balikpapan Borneo – half a globe away and whole lot warmer.
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I should qualify that – the outside temperature may have been warmer but our reception here on the edge of the steppes couldn’t have been more kindhearted. Sara and I felt welcomed and appreciated by the whole staff and student body. What DAIS may lack in size of enrollment (around 80 kids grades pre-K to 8) it more than makes up with a sense of inclusion in this close knit community.
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We opted for a home stay instead of spending the week in a hotel – bunking with the Parkers – Konna (rhymes with Donna) and the super hero alias sharing Peter. He middle school language arts and history, she science and math. Good call – we laughed and chatted and made a couple of new friends before the week was out. We also became pals with the Parker’s Husky – Tashi. I did learn though that Tashi has decided that his main job in the household it to guard the laundry drying rack which he does with no small amount of fierceness.
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At school we worked mostly from our new book High Impact Writing Clinics and visited each classroom twice from the little pre-K guys through the eighth grade. We ended the residency with the kids performing the work we coproduced in the classroom for the whole student body and their parents and teachers.
Principal Raul and his wife Patsy made sure we were comfortable every step of the way and the aforementioned Brent and his indefatigable better (and I mean way better) half Cheryl were responsible for bike rides, dinners, and accompaniment on hat buying trios to the market.
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sara and peter conferring during class

This was our second trip to Kazakhstan and after the experience we had this time we sure hope it won’t be our last. Now, I wouldn’t mind the next time being during the spring – but even this wind swept steppe of a visit left us toasty inside.

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Monday, November 25, 2013

NCTE 2013

This is my favorite conference. It may not be in the exotic locations globally as some of the others Sara and I attend and speak at 0- but this one is where we get to see so many of our friends.Boston progressively got chillier while we were there – but the camaraderie and ideas just kept heating up.

We did a session with our dear friend Nancy Johnson, attended a couple other sessions, had coffee with Michael Clark from Singapore American School, had lunch with Jane Yolen and Heidi, signed our new book at the Corwin booth – I was going to sign books at Scholastic but since I don’t have anything published by them they got a bit snooty when I whipped out my Sharpie at their booth.

We attended cocktail parties at the top of the conference hotel with the Corwin team chatting with Smokey and Elaine Daniels and meeting our new favorite fledgling editor Francesca while watching Corwin publicist Maura almost vibrate into invisibility as her brain spun like a centrifuge with details and we laughed with Steph Harvey and Vicki the next evening at Heinemann's shmancy soiree at the Gardner Museum.

An amazing Moroccan dinner capped off our last night with a whole slew of teacher fiends from all over the globe and then it was time to come home.  I could name drop forever all the keen folks we ran into - some for a fleeting hug, some for a snippet of conversation, Georgia, Lester, Ellin, Steve, Nancy, Paul, Lee Ann, Christine, Lee, Beth, Larry, Jack, Lynn, Lisa, Ralph, and on and on - the list would forever be incomplete so I will just stop here.

Thanks to the teachers, the presenters and the vendors that gel into my favorite conference.

ADDENDUM: I am sad to report that the disk in my camera has somehow become corrupted and the pictures on it are inaccessible. This year’s conference will have to remain in my brain – a sketchy dwelling to say the least. So I leave you with the only pic I have from the conference – Sara, Heidi and Jane.  (What is it with authors and the color black?)

SHJ

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