Monday, October 27, 2008

Sometimes you just want to...

we're getting our act together little by little to get out of town. I have the collected stories of Eudora Welty - but the travel time all totaled is around 22 hours so I decided to pick up some back up reading.

There are a few books that I always say were watershed moments in my literary career when asked. Most of them I do not remember though - I just know they made a big impression - so I have decided to start re-reading some of these tomes.

Sara and I stopped in at the local Barnes and Noble.

Do you have Celine's Death on the Installment Plan?

Not in stock no, I could order it for you.

No I don't have time, what about Journey to the End of the Night - same author.

No sorry

Okay, how about The Trial, by Kafka?

Let me check, how do you spell the author's name?

You would have been proud of me gentle reader. I did not rip the clerk a new one - did not say EXCUSE ME? You work in a bookstore and you're asking me how to spell Kafka? I just calmly spelled it out for her.


Saturday, October 25, 2008

What Sphynx in here?


Our next overseas adventure is waiting in the wings like an antique bathtub (sans overflow escape) filling down the hall. I can hear the water running, the sound changing pitch as it gets closer and closer to the brim but I am stuck on an important phone call and the cord won’t reach into the tile floored bathroom.

I can’t hang up, but I can’t ignore the looming flood and now the cat just ran by with a still alive chipmunk in its maw and there’s a kid in full marching band regalia straining with boxes of smoked almonds at the front door.

So much to do that it’s easier to ignore it all and post a blog.

This coming Thursday we head to Egypt! Sara and I are teaching at the Cairo American College for a week and then we are going on a three day cruise (sit right back and you’ll hear a tale…) down the Nile! We’re taking my younger son Franklin with us. He will be enrolling in the school we are teaching during the day and volunteering at a Sudanese refugee school afternoons – this should put a different perspective on some things for the young man

I’d be even more excited if we hadn’t crammed our every hour of the week before we leave with gigs and obligations. This is the rip the band aid off in one quick pull approach to overseas travel.

I am confident that muscle memory experience will pull us though this one – once we whip out our passports at the ticket counter we will transform and mesh into lean mean traveling machines. Shuffling forward in lines of humanity, dragging our Sisyphysian bags, eating whatever is provided in compartmentalized plastic platters by smiling flight attendants ‘cause ya don’t know when you’re gonna be fed again, boarding passes being the one constant as the surrounding environs become more and more foreign.

Yep – less than a week to go and we’ll be rocking in the cradle of civilization – but first, I’ve got to take my shirts to the cleaner.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

could be worse - it could be Newark - wait, it is Newark!

a quick one.

Sitting in Newark now waiting on a plane. It's gonna be one of those little jet prop egg beaters similar to the one I just took here from DC. My kidneys haven't had a workout like this since I quit drinking...

Been a good couple days.

Keystone State Reading Association conference in Philly followed by a day spent with daughter in law and kids in Virginia that included a pee wee football game - which I got some great action shots of to be posted later.

Working at Playhouse Square Ideacenter tomorrow with their Fall into the Arts program - this is sort of a speed dating approach to professional development - five twenty minute sessions with groups of teachers - wham bam here's your plan...

6:44 and it's dark out

Friday, October 17, 2008

Telephone Survey

The phone rings
I answer before I finish swallowing
I am choking on my lunch
As I gasp I imagine
Dropping the receiver
The recorded message continuing efficiently on
My skull careening off the kitchen counter
Like the first bounce of a cue ball
Tossed down a flight of concrete steps
I will instinctively and ever so momentarily
Regain my balance
Then slowly spinning on my left heel
As a pastoral paddock gate
Silently swings in an early spring breeze
I list then fall onto the white tiled floor
Eyes as wide as a hoot owl
The color washing from my flushed cheeks
I begin to turn blue
My dogs sit side by side in the doorway
Cocking their heads in mummed amazement
While my hands become the feet of a chicken
Hanging in Chinatown butcher’s window
My right leg kicks as if electrically stimulated
Upsetting the cat’s water dish
I convulse like an automobile running out of gas
Then become exquisitely still

My dogs simultaneously cock their heads in the other direction
The larger of the two ventures forward
Sniffing as if he is reading the smells around my body
The other
Jumps onto the counter
And finishes the macaroni and cheese

Monday, October 13, 2008


My Grandma kept everything.
Below is a combination of the pics from my first newspaper feature back in 1987 (found in one of Grandma's trunks) and another from a month or so ago.

Sara asked me if I'd give the kid sitting next to me the time of day.
I'm still thinking about it.

Extra points to anyone who can guess the allusion in the title.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Spring Woods High School - Houston

What a great week I had at Spring Woods High School in Houston. The kids, staff and administration I worked with couldn’t have been more accommodating.

Every school I go to has a personality. The teachers and students may or may not be aware of this – the old forest for the trees analogy – because they are so close to the situation. If I had to describe Spring Woods in one word I would have to say kindness. Not in a sappy doe eyed kinda way, but more like a basic respect for each other’s dignity.

Don’t get me wrong, the kids were no way above some good natured ragging on each other but it was obvious these barbs were free of spite. They weren’t perfectly quiet while I was teaching but they were engaged. They weren’t a bunch of goodie two shoes, they were a bunch of real teens and they were all willing to give me a chance, and I don’t ask for any more than that. I really think we made some connections this week. Kudos to the pupils and staff I got to know. I want to give a special shout out to the ESL crew, you taught me well.

P.I.P.E.S - in Spanish!

Working on Memoir


Yes, Texas football players can write poetry.

Poetry in motion.

The ESL posse.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Fits like a glove

day left in the residency I am doing in Houston. This has been a good one. The kids in this high school have been great and the teachers pretty top notch. The queen bee of the crew that I am working with is a tall bespectacled young woman with curly hair that looks like it might want to get a bit wild but knows better. There’s a nice confidence about the staff. If I were to be cliché I might say that the crew is big picture people – but since I am never cliché I won’t.

One of the five classes that I have been teaching is an ESL (English as Second Language) group. I’ve gained an affinity for ESL kids. Maybe it’s all the international travel the last couple years – I know all too well what it is like to be a somewhat intelligent and passably articulate person rendered beyond functionally illiterate by circumstance.

There was the time I was momentarily and most disconcertingly lost in Shanghai.

One of the joys of working with international schools is one immediately has an advocate in a new and foreign place. The teachers working there have got all the scoops on restaurants, sightseeing, bargains and local specialties - all that good stuff and they enjoy sharing this hard earned data with visiting authors. Shanghai has an incredible fabric market.

Imagine the biggest farmer’s market you have ever seen. Think of that layout stall after stall after stall. Now instead of fresh vegetables the stalls are packed with fabric – all kinds of material on bolts and spools, half finished jackets, skirts, blouses, boxes of buttons and snaps and men and women with cloth tape measures draped around their necks like sauna towels. Now remember, you were thinking of the biggest farmer’s market you had ever seen? Now multiply the size by at least a factor of twelve, okay now make this entity eight stories tall and recall the feel of the 1982 movie Blade Runner. Now you’re getting the idea. You don’t shop at the Shanghai fabric market, you assimilate with it.

We got turned on to the fabric market by a student’s mother who visibly began to vibrate when I asked her if the story I had heard about the affordability of having clothing tailor made in the city was true. “You want clothes made?” She was beaming – “Sweetie, you asked the right person.” And we had. This mom took us to and safely inside the death star sized Shanghai Fabric Market and introduced me to her husband’s tailor then she and Sara disappeared.

I got measured for and ordered two jackets – both a cashmere tweed material, one darker one lighter, that I picked from spools in the cubicle – then I picked the silky lining material. The tailor promised that the jackets would be ready for a fitting in three days and I think I paid something like fifty bucks apiece for them. Not bad for completely tailored sport jackets. I called Sara and the mom with the cell phone provided by the school and we joined forces again.

Three days later true to promise my jackets were ready. Sara and I were on different schedules and she had already finished her day and was at the fabric market with some other teachers picking up some stuff she had made and enjoying browsing around without me not understanding what the difference was between this hound’s-tooth and that. The plan was for me to take a cab there after school and meet up with them.

So, I ask the guy at the desk where we are staying to write a note for me to give to a cabbie instructing the hack to take me to the fabric market. He says Okie Dokie and fills a half piece of notepaper with Chinese characters and hands it to me with both hands smiling and a little bow. To this day I have absolutely no idea what was written on that paper.

At the time that we were in China one could ride a cab seemingly for hours and the fare would amount to about a buck twenty five. The ride from the hotel near the school to the fabric market was going to be almost an hour. I handed the cabbie the note the concierge had given me and looked at him like – “does this make sense to ya pal?” He gave me an affirmative grunt and I blithely leaned back in my seat and took in the scenery as we whizzed along. For all I know the note included instructions for the minimum amount of miles between the separate bridges my head and torso were to be dropped from.

We ride along for about an hour and a half and I am starting to get a little worried. I’m trying to mime to the rearview mirror anything that might approximate - Are we there yet? The cabbie smiles and nods nonchalantly passing cars via the sidewalk. Twenty minutes later we pull up to a hulking building that I do not recognize. I rationalize that we may be on a different end of the giant market. Had I any sense I would have asked the driver to circle the entity. Instead I made a fatal traveling faux pas; I paid the dollar and a half fare then got out of the safety of my cab without being absolutely certain where I was with nobody I knew in sight.

I wandered into the building and while it did bear a bit of resemblance to the fabric market it just didn’t feel right. There were stalls filled with fabric on the ground floor but there were also floors with electrical goods, window mount air conditioners stacked like firewood. Another floor, the size of the bargain basement at Macy’s was full of live finches sounding like a test facility for doggie toys – I think I would have remembered that floor. So there I was – lost in Shanghai, a city whose population equals that of the entire state of Ohio. I can barely operate the cell phone, pretty much relinquished to dialing one of the three numbers programmed into it and nobody is answering. I wander out onto the street and head to a corner it seemed like the thing to do. I stood around and watched people go by and looked around for maybe a place to grab something to eat. Strangers are always more friendly if you are spending money in their midst.

Then my phone rang!
“Where are you?”
“Are you in a cab?”
“Why’d you get out of the cab?”
“Because I’m an idiot.”
“Hang on.”

I can hear the conversation going on amongst the folks on the other end. He’s lost – Did he get out of the cab – why’d he get out of the cab – he shouldn’ta got out of the cab. A new voice comes over the phone.

“Michael, get into a cab and hit re-dial on your phone, give the phone to your driver and I’ll have my tailor talk to him.”
“How do you flag a cab?”
“You’re gonna have to figure it out.”
“Okay, bye.”

I scan the streets – there isn’t a cab in sight as far as I can tell. There are whole bunches of slick haired hipster looking young men lounging about on various makes, models and vintage of motorbikes though. In Vietnam there are many entrepreneurial motorbike pilots who operate as gypsy taxis. They are he quickest way around in the over congested streets albeit not for the faint of heart. I walk up to one of the Vespa hepcats pointing at his bike and blurt “Taxi?”

He looks at me, points over my shoulder and replies, “No, that’s a taxi.”

Sure enough over my shoulder is a checker cab that could have been dropped via black hole from Lakeshore Boulevard in Chicago. I jump in the backseat – the driver looks a little startled – I think he was off duty having his lunch. He’s an older guy, bald and liver spotted with wisps of white hair around his incredibly large ears. I dial the phone, hand it to the driver and soon he and the tailor are laughing heartily giving me a good view of his missing and nicotine browned teeth. He talks to the tailor and scopes me in the rear mirror – talks a bit more – laughs one more time – then he clips the phone shut like he was a lobster snipping his claw - hands it back to me followed by a thumbs up.

One learns a bit of humility when one doesn’t speak the language.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Get your kicks...

in the St. Louis airport waiting to fly back home.

We had a really good time at the conference in Springfield. The Missouri State arm of the International Reading Association is certainly a gracious host. True to their state moniker the attendees sat back a bit and waited to see what two semi sane performance poets had to say to a ballroom full of professional teachers. Luckily, they seemed to like what we presented in both our keynote and our individual sessions. The organizers and attendees all were effusive with praise and were really appreciative of the work we did.

We also got to have dinner with our editor at Heinemann the super smart and shiny Harvey “Smokey” Daniels – perhaps you have seen his posters around, wearing the ranger hat – you know “Only YOU can prevent illiteracy?” Okay, I made up the poster bit – but Smokey is a really tops in the field and I appreciate time spent with him. Between hanging with him and the teachers at the conference I feel rejuvenated and ready to hit the classrooms this school year.

It’s been a rough couple weeks piled onto a rough year as it was going so I take a deep breath and hope this is the harbinger of better things ahead.

Flying into Springfield was exorbitantly expensive ( $159.00 vs over $800.00) so we flew into St. Louis and drove 3.5 hours to the gig. This allowed us to trace the path formerly blazed by Route 66. The best I could figure out that historic road has been replaced with Interstate 44 in this part of Missouri, but some of the tributary attractions are still around. I also took this opportunity below the Mason Dixon to swing off the highway in Cuba, MO to partake in some barbecue. People in the know – know that southern barbecue is completely different than what we call barbecue up north. I do like myself some pulled pork.

So I’m home for a day then off to Houston where I am doing a week long residency in a high school that I have been looking forward to.

Up, up and away!

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Lightning the load

So today I got struck by lightning – literally.

I was in a plane headed to St. Louis Missouri to speak at a teacher’s conference. As the plane was taxiing toward the runway to take off we heard a loud thump. The same sound I imagine a potato would make if hurled by a big league pitcher against the fuselage. I figured something fell over in the cargo hold or maybe the pilot was drunk and slipped out of his chair in the cabin. Couple folks looked up but nobody seemed too concerned and we continued on and took off into the wild blue yonder.

Well, about fifteen minutes into the flight the captain crackled over the loudspeaker and informed us that while we were sitting on the runway, with barely a cloud in the sky, no rain at all, we were struck by a rogue bolt of lightening. He let us know that planes are designed to take such hits but as a precautionary measure we were returning to Cleveland Hopkins to swap this newly hit by lightening plane with on that had not been so christened.

What are the odds?

Funny you should ask.

The odds of being struck by lightning in a given year are 1 in 576,000 – now I don’t know for sure what effect the fact that everyone else on the plane was involved as well has to do with this actuarial table – does that make the odds go down divided by the number of folks or does it make the odds go up?

So right now let’s just say I got hit by lightning a 1 in 576,000 chance.

What other occurrences hover in and around that realm of likelihoods?

Winning an Olympic gold medal - 662,000 to 1
Drowning in a bathtub – 685,000 to 1
Dying in terrorist attack while visiting a foreign country 650,000 to 1
Chance of dying by choking on food 377,000 to 1

And a couple random odds

Being audited by the IRS - 175 to 1
Being considered possessed by Satan - 7,000 to 1
Catching a ball at a major league ballgame - 563 to 1
Meteor landing on your house - 182,138,880,000,000 to 1

So – this year’s travel season starts quite factually, with a bang.