Wednesday, January 30, 2008

remember when...

Visited Marian Sterling School here in Cleveland and worked with the 6th and 8th grade for two days this week. We wrote memoirs. Another geat bunch of kids that I got to write with!

Monday, January 28, 2008

Tanka Tough

I've taken to writing travel tankas. A tanka is kind of like a haiku on performance enhancing drugs - rather than the typical 5-7-5 syllable construction of a haiku - the tanka has two extra lines of 7 syllables each resulting in a 5-7-5-7-7 pattern.

I like the constraint of form when I am writing "on assignment" whether the assignment is levied by me or another. When writing in form – to paraphrase the poet Michael Brown – one must be sure the form is used to trim the fat from a piece of writing. The analogy here would be pouring a gallon of something into a quart container letting the extraneous run off rather than putting a pint of material in that same quart container then adding in order to fill the form.

Sometimes I string the short poems together as stanzas in a longer piece – but these three stand alone.

Taxi cab driver

Blushes with complicity

While waiter cheats us

Two days pay for beef noodles

High priced illiteracy

Smog dangles in air

Like hooked horsemeat in market

Eyes water, lungs burn

Sub zero temperatures

Fail as anesthesia

Morning walk to school

Sun veiled behind mountain range

Watch dog barks spew steam

In warm class sitting cross-legged

Students launch non sequiturs

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Have you lost weight?

Flat Stanley is a school project where kids make a paper cut out doll and send it off into the world to visit relatives and other schools etc. I ran into a poet friend of mine at a small press fair last night and she was having her picture taken with a flat Stanley that her four year old niece had sent her. Flat Stanley goes to a book fair in Cleveland…

Well after a bit of arm twisting and promising on my gender indicators, my friend put Flat Stanley in my care and he will be traveling with me and Sara to Jakarta and Bali. We leave this Friday for two weeks of teaching at the Jakarta International School and travel. Stay tuned to this bat channel for the exploits of this particular Flat Stanley – I hope he doesn't get eaten by an orangutan.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Coming out of the Lenin Closet

The following is based on true happenings - some names have been changed, timelines condensed and characters combined but everything is true.


The driver is alternately pulling at his chin, squeezing at it like the bulb of a turkey baster and pointing to me sitting in the back seat behind his right shoulder. Now he points to his face then at me again and right now at the cap I am wearing – "Lenin, Lenin", he laughs. He thinks I look like Vladimir Lenin, who am I to argue? If a cab driver in Almaty, Kazakhstan – former capital of the soviet republic which launched sputnik along with the virtual payload of the cold war in a gray plume rising from the steppes through the stratosphere - thinks I look like Lenin I'm taking his word for it. Especially since he is behind the wheel and I don't have a clue how to get back on my own. I'm laughing with him, nodding that yes -yes I am the spitting image of the bourgeois bashing Bolshevik who had Trotsky exiled then summarily offed by poisoning the former comrade's hat.

Perhaps this resemblance is why I am not having a hard time as I pass through the crowded open air barraholka marketplace. People give sway to a man who dispatches his political enemies via deadly headgear. Headgear here is not optional when the temperatures outside can only aspire to reach zero on the Fahrenheit scale. I am not on the receiving end of too many of the shoves or line cuts of which I am forewarned – then again I am not above meeting a bump with a melinky more force than which it is delivered. Moreover for the most part I am not being paid the critical eye reserved for foreigners in characteristically non tourist destinations, I like to think to myself that as long as I don't open my mouth I am passing as local. The fact that I am just another piece of the nondescript mass of bundled humanity and de-saturated landscape all fading to gray in the same atmosphere of smog, fog, breath, bureaucracy and state controlled central heating is probably closer to the truth.

Sasha flicks on the little black and white television set bolted to the dashboard of the car, it is the size of the loaves of hard dark bread that I regret not buying at Oskers grocery shop – everything here is hard in one manner or another and covered with a crust. The screen sputters as if it were fueled by diesel -rolling and reacting to the potholes in the road, shaking the antenna extended like an accusatory finger toward the back seat where I am sitting. The image settles in on a Bolshevik style soldier belly down at the crest of a small grassy hill. He looks to be about my son's age. The soldier is tripod propped on his elbows as if he were the sniper rifle strapped to his back and he is eating a sandwich while he watches through field glasses a gaggle of local girls skinny dip.

Cabs aren't hard to find here, all one has to do is hold out a hand because anyone behind the wheel is a potential hack, hitchhiking has taken on a skewed capitalistic angle in this post communistic state, jump in negotiate a price and away you go to your destination; hopefully. My driver is not one of these freelancers though, his Russian built Lada Taxi actually has a sign on top and a company logo emblazoned across the doors. The folks I'm working for managed to lease his services from a US based multinational in order to cart me downtown and back for souvenirs today. Sasha is tall and thin of local Kazak stock which appears to be an intermixing of Asian and Caucasian features resulting in a paler lanky version of American Indian. He is wearing a light blue fleece jacket nowhere near substantial enough to combat the bitter cold outside but his hat is rocking. A fur ushanka, the stereotypical head covering ubiquitous of the Soviet Socialist Republic and spy movies is like a black bear cub curled atop his skull brushing the car's nylon headliner above his seat 'til it shines like a samovar. Five'll get ya ten it cost him over a month's salary.

Outside of our vehicle folks are huddling up at bus stops, or moving down the roadside avoiding the unshoveled walks. Their overcoats splash color in an otherwise grayscale landscape. The sub-zero air is perfectly still, there is no wind whatsoever; an escaped balloon would rise straight up with guide-wired precision. This complete lack of breeze also assures that all of the pollution being emitted by the unregulated burning of leaded gasoline, diesel, straight coal, and industrial emissions is hanging in the air like the butchered horsemeat on hooks at the green market. My eyes are burning and my lungs sting from a sinister combination of jet lag and the implacable smog.

Unfortunately I make eye contact with the cop waving his orange baton at us so now Sasha is pulled over talking to the "civil servant" in rapid fire Russian. To me the language sounds like it is being spoken backwards and reminiscent of spinning vinyl records in reverse on my parent's turntable to hear secret messages – "Paul is a dead man, miss him, miss him, miss him." The driver slips the uniformed officer some cash and we are on our way again. "Bribe," Sasha says – rolling the R so that it sounds like a playing card swiping bicycle spokes. This is the only English that he speaks during our hour long ride. He points at his eyes then out the passenger window then at me vehemently shaking his head nyet. I put my hands up and nod that I get it – don't look at the cops. We pass another trap and both stare absentmindedly away from the frantically waving police officer who quickly gives up on us to try for an easier mark. Sasha looks in his rear view mirror, and breaks into a great smile – gold teeth intermixed in his grin like chess board squares. I smile back, we both enjoy getting one over on the man.

"Lenin, Lenin," – he chuckles to himself as he shifts gears rocking me back into my seat.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Pics from Almaty International School

Outside it was cold. Like 25 degrees below zero Fahrenheit cold! Inside we were toasty warm. The Almaty International School is full of color in stark contrast to the landscape outside. More about that later, meanwhile here are some pics from inside the school.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Say what you mean - mean what you say...

The electric kettle sounds like a rocket taking off miles away. Squat and round, a glass sputnik minus the appendages the water tumbles and bubbles inside 212 degrees Fahrenheit or so, outside it is still dark and probably near zero degrees, it is 5:30 am.

I'm up and awake drinking coffee just a couple hours earlier than I would be at home - we're adjusting to the 11 hour time difference between Cleveland and Almaty, Kazakhstan – should be completely acclimated just in time to turn around and head back home to take another spin at jet lag.

The teachers 'conference that we came to speak and teach at was by all accounts a rousing success. Maura, Russ, Dan, Frank and everyone involved did a stellar job. This was the first symposium of this magnitude attempted by this international school association, Quality Schools International, and it ran as true to course as the Siberian Express. Sara and I did our best to show how poetry and performance could be weaved into a curriculum as a learning tool and a jumping off point for comprehension and literacy. I think we succeeded.

The director of the school kicked off the second day by greeting everyone with an original poem he had penned the night before sausage stuffed with intentionally bad rhyme and slightly better humor but the coup de gras came when the model poetry slam we ran to end gathering was won by the physical education teacher performing Mason Williams Moose Goosers poem. The regional head of the district said that was the dollop of sour cream that sealed the deal for him – if we could get the gym teacher excited and involved in poetry there just may be some hope for the form.

Meeting teachers like the ones in attendance here at the Almaty International School this past weekend is what gives Sara and me hope - period. These folks are willing to pull up stakes and venture into the unknown to educate and instruct. International teachers are a very special breed indeed. A little bit crazy, but a good crazy. We heard stories of standing in 3 hour line delays at the Kirgizstan border crossing, attendees pulling all nighters and others camping out on gym mats on the tile floor of a kindergarten room just to be present at this conference. Not only does this illustrate the dedication and afore mentioned mania for teaching that has infected these people but these acts serve as an illustration of the undeniable worth and importance of these professional development events. These gatherings not only instruct, just as importantly they feed the spirit.

Part of the mission statement of the QSI schools is to graduate students who are kind and socially responsible as well as academically proficient. I can't think of a more noble aspiration, or one that has more significance. Better communication skills go a long way to achieving this goal. How many conflicts are the results of miscommunication? I'd venture to guess almost all. This pledge is one of main reasons we travelled here.

With just a little extra effort and more global perspective as exemplified by the curriculum here at the AIS I think we'd all be in a little better world. Somehow I managed to communicate via cell phone with a driver picking me and Sara up from downtown Almaty. The driver only spoke Russian and me only English but we figured it out. On the drive back to the school he showed us a picture of his family and we showed him photos of ours.

That was our conversation, sharing our similarities via images – a little bit like poetry.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Almaty Kazakhstan - so far

Almaty International School Kazakhstan

Kazakh Crow


We got in real early – 5am or so. I took a picture of the Welcome to Kazakhstan/Almaty sign above the passport and visa check in and immediately was told to put my camera away by a gruff uniformed man. Sasha our driver and our hostess Maura, the principle of the Almaty International School drove us to the hotel we are staying in the first three days of our visit, it was still dark the whole way. (By the way the time difference is 13 hours difference – as I type this it is 9pm back in Cleveland and 8am here.

We showered off the road dust, ate a decidely Eastern European breakfast of boiled eggs, salami, and Nescafe coffee then went over to visit the school we'll be teaching at. What a beacon of brightness in an otherwise winter gray landscape. The sunny rooms were almost as surprising as the mountains that appeared outside our room's window once the sun came up.

Here are a couple snapshots – we'll be keeping you posted.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

terminally terminal

So, i popped a couple ambian on the flight over and am still a bit groggy - it is noon here but 7am back in Cleveland. We had hoped to shoot into Amstrdam for lunch - but the concierge here at the airport lounge recommended against it,

As a rule, I ignore airport personel warnings - they are almost always too cautious, especially in Europe - but coupled with the time change and the sleeping pill induced fuddlement we're gonna just cool our jets here in the lounge and fill up on espresso and tuna wraps.

Once I've burned away some cobwebs I might go see what duty free has to offer.

Next stop the most excellent country of Kazakhstan.

Monday, January 14, 2008

motor city ditty

In Detroit – waiting for our flight to Amsterdam.

Back home the bad dog Suzi is going to Granma's house where she will be bathed in mastiff drool and seriously overfed. At our house we have a long haired socialist leaning poet house-sitting and our card carrying NRA member of a neighbor keeping an eye on things too. One of these days I'll post the story of the time he shot a possum IN my son's room.

Next dispatch from the Netherlands


Sunday, January 13, 2008

look both ways before crossing


The big bags are packed – we blow this country tomorrow afternoon for the most glorious land of Kazakhstan! A friend of mine asked me the other day where do I feel more real – on the road or at home. This question gave me pause. The two existences are so different.

I first answered by giving him some marriage advice. If you are lucky enough to share your bed with someone I have a suggestion that will guarantee to nurture and sustain your relationship: down comforters.

Notice – I am talking in the plural here, especially if you have a queen or king sized bed – equip it with two comforters so that you do not have to share with your partner. This is something we picked up while traveling in Europe years ago. I think it was in Amsterdam, or maybe Prague – the bed had two top quilts and we were able to roll up in them like stuffed cabbage at a Croatian wedding without pulling the blankets off of each other. We brought this custom home and Americanized it by supersizing up from the continental pair of twin sized to double and eventuall two queen sized comforters.

So, one of my favorite places on earth is twisted like a goose feathered croissant in my bed on a chilly winter morning another one of my favorite places is balancing on a rocky jetty in Whittier, Alaska casting for salmon which ranks right up there with riding on the back of a motor bike in Saigon - equal but different experience.

I am always amazed when we get met by old, or soon to be new, friends at an airport, train station, boat dock or churchyard at midnight sometimes tens of thousands of miles from our front stoop. The terrain we've traversed, the people we've passed, sleeping babies, German baggage handlers clicking their heels, car rental agents who think we are insane to consider driving three hundred miles in one day… But, it seems, things always work out somehow in the end – this is because quite literally, they have to.

When traveling great distances it is helpful to remember that no matter what – time will keep passing on and things will change, a smile opens opportunity and most folks do want to help the pathetic and while humbling, being pathetic every now and then is not fatal. I think this is the biggest lesson to be taken to heart when leaving the safety of a common culture and language, that one is not the center of the wheel.

I stood on the corner of an insanely busy intersection in Ho Chi Minh City outside the Sheraton conference center waiting for the light to change so that I could cross the street to get a bowl of soup. This is what I had done in every major city I had ever visited – not eaten soup that is – but waited at a corner for the light to change so that I could cross a roadway. Of course when in Britain I had to be sure I looked the "right" way before crossing because the limeys drive on the "wrong" side of the road – I knew that because I am seasoned world citizen.

So I waited, and waited, and waited. In the meantime, I began noticing other pedestrians simple stepping off the curb into the boiling traffic calmly walking to the other side as the cars, trucks, busses and motorbikes swerved around them as if they were wading across a river. The light never did change, and eventually I steeled my courage up and stepped into rushing traffic and purposefully put one foot in front of the other until I got to the other side.

I gleefully taught the skill to Sara by walking into the street with my head turned back to her away from the traffic as if I "accidently" had stepped off the curb. We had to learn a new paradigm as well as trust simply to cross the street.

Who knows what this trip is going to teach us?

Oh yeah, having a traveling companion that you get along with 98% of the time makes things a million times better in the best and worst situations – but that deserves a whole post on its own sometime and I'll get to that. Suffice it to say for now, just like in bed – it's good to be sure each other's butts are covered.

Here we go….

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

fish or cut bait


The holidays are finally past us – not finally in the "thank god it's over sense" but finally in the "now we can get to everything we said we'd get to after the holidays" way. It is so easy to stack up tasks and duties behind barricades of "the holidays" – a perfect excuse to procrastinate. In a little less than two weeks we will headed to the hinterlands – literally. Kazakhstan – which I can now spell correctly sans spell-check, is next on our oversea work schedule. We need to put together lesson plans, PowerPoint presentations for teachers, pack bags, stow away sleeping pills, diarrhea medicine, passports and I need to buy some gloves. I wonder what horse meat tastes like? Stay tuned for pics and commentary from the road. Besides preparation for this trek, we've let all kinds of other tasks slide as well – this blog entry is the last ditch effort to ignore the responsibilities fogging the windows.

Of course that is not what this post is about – this posting is about sharks!

I have spent a fair amount of time atop and in water fishing for various, well fish. These excursions have been met with differng success. That is if you measure success by the amount of fish that are removed from said body of water. Sometimes not catching anything is the perfect day and, not being caught oneself is a pretty good thing too.

When fishing from the shore in North Carolina it is rather common to pull in sharks, we're not talking Jaws here – these little guys are barely a foot long. They're leathery and rough feeling like a deflated basketball rolled into the diameter of a paper towel tube. The diminutive buggers have some pretty sharp teeth though so it's a good idea to use some long nosed pliers to get the hooks out of their bony mouths. After the initial fun of catching a shark of any size – they become a nuisance on your line. Their only redeeming quality being that they look just like their bigger cousins and I've never heard of a swimmer getting a chunk taken out of the back of their thigh by one of these demitasse denizens of the deep.

On the other hand – when out deep sea fishing I have seen sharks big enough to make your heart beat a bit faster. Six or seven feet of shark will kick in a primal flight response usually reserved for encounters with a landlord flaunting a gun. One of these brutes slashing around on a wet deck will instantaneously turn a whole boat load of Hemmingway wannabes into the chorus line from Riverdance while a deck hand chases the beast around with a baseball bat like Barry Bonds in the throes of a 'roid rage.

We have friends who have a house in the Keys. Let me digress here a bit – I used to marvel at how starving artist writers like D.H Lawrence etc. would travel all over the world with no visible means of support – and now we, not being loaded by any stretch of imagination, are not quite starving artists traveling all over the world. Having friends who are gracious enough to put a pillow under your head goes a long way to these ends. Anyway – we are visiting these friends of ours in the Florida Keys. They live in one of the middle keys – a bit more laid back than Key West and its Conch Republic drunken weirdness.

Now this couple, amazingly enough writers and artists themselves – restrict most of their fishing to bagging snapper for the grill off of their dock. I on the other hand wanted to see if there was any larger fare to be brought to the kitchen so I drove to a far side of the island where I could wade out and cast into some of the dredged out boat ways to see what might be lurking below.

I gingerly walk out maybe fifty yards into the water – it is very shallow and warm around the keys – until I am waist deep and within casting distance of one of the boat ways I mentioned. I walk carefully because I am barefoot and there are all sorts of coral and other prickly things underfoot. So I begin casting past the boat way, reeling in, slowing down so the lure dips into the channel like a wounded baitfish. The sun shining, the water is sparkling; my mind is blank as I cast and reel, cast and reel – then – I see the fin.

It pops up like some cheesy B movie – slicing through the water toward my lure. Sharks are attracted to splashing – that's what I've seen on the Discovery channel at least. A calm retreat would be most prudent so I naturally throw the rod over my shoulder, turn my back on the fish and run flailing like I was on fire, splattering water in my wake – dragging the lure twenty feet behind me in zig zags which the shark continues chasing. If the shark had wanted anything to do with me it could have caught and tasted me with very little effort – luckily the lure was more interesting this time. This fish was definitely big enough to have done damage if it had been so inclined.

I was done fishing for that day – got back in our friends' car and drove back to the safety of their house and dock. Funniest thing – I kept checking the rear view mirror to be sure the shark wasn't following me – like it might have sprung legs and would be running alongside the car with a knife and fork. Turns out the shark were not what I needed to be most afraid of. In my haste to exit the water – I ran over coral and what I think might have been some type of sea anemones so that later that evening my feet swelled up to the size of coconuts.

All praise to the makers of Benadryl.

Okay, now I have to straighten up the kitchen and start getting serious about getting to everything we put off 'til after the holidays. Happy New Year. Hope you dredge up some fish stories of your own this year.