Friday, April 7, 2017

Universal soup post #! or For the Love of Pho

I am currently reading two non-fiction books. One called Sapiens about the development and success of Homo Sapiens and another called I Contain Multitudes about the relationship between people and microorganisms.  I am also thinking about a poem I am going to write about Vietnamese soup.

So how do these three seemingly disparate texts relate to one and another? Surprisingly well if one squints a little. There are a couple points that I hope to mesh together when I finally write this poem (This little bit of prose here is to get some of the ideas straightened around in my head as to what I am going to end up with.)  I’ve made a couple starts on the piece – the whole idea started as a challenge from a 5th grader in Tanzania. I’ve had two false starts so far. Not really false starts though – just paths that I am not going to go down – writing a poem can be like playing Let’s Make a Deal – choosing what is behind door number one two three – etc. except there are innumerable doors and they keep appearing throughout the process. So, what I’ve managed to do is close off two doors – and complete whole bunch of pointless surfing of the web.

Like most (here I am assuming) readers I find something I have an affinity to in a piece of writing – especially non-fiction – and I run with it a little too hard. Sometimes I stretch the idea thanks to a confirmation bias on my part – other times I conveniently ignore contradictory ideas – sometimes my conclusions are merely an echo of a forgone belief. For example – me assuming that most readers do this as well – anyways…

The two things I have gleaned from my reading so far: I Contain Multitudes – that once you’ve entered the realm of the microorganism the laws of probability are thrown out the window because of the sheer insanity of the numbers you are now working with.   A million in one shot is going to happen thousands of time amongst a colony of bacteria for instance – of course I just pulled that number out of the air – but the gist is true and that gist is enough to have derailed the piece I was working on about Vietnamese soup – because that concept was too good not to use somewhere – so I got that going on now.

Sapiens revolves around the notion – as I see it, and I think I’m pretty close to being on  - that the reason the Homo Sapiens species was so successful – surpassing what might have been accomplished by ordinary evolutionary progress of adaptation and opportunism – was by developing the ability to believe in fictions en masse. I.e. currency, religion, monarchies etc. etc. – this allows colossal shifts of belief and distribution of intelligence, experience, wealth and labor. I.e. just the fact that a hundred thousand folks might gather in a communal spot to watch men run into each other on a Sunday afternoon – that’s an accomplishment that cannot be recreated by other complex animals such as chimpanzees – whose functional society breaks down over a hundred or so individuals. Now bees and insects gather in great numbers – but they are running on instinct not that they all believe in the same fictions – such as who winds the Super Bowl is something that really matters (at least that we know of.)
But what if they did? What kind of craziness is going on at that microbial level – power structures, religious fanaticism leading to bacterial infections – viral marketing on the actual viral level? All based on fictions – or in other words lies agreed to be believed.

So, this brings us to Pho – that delicious Vietnamese staple – my favorite food on the planet – my go-to comfort bowl of noodly warmth in any stormy port upon this globe. How does this fit in with microorganisms and shared fiction? I’m not sure but I think it has to do with the fact that the traditional method of cooking the stuff is in a giant cauldron of a iron pot and rather than ever emptying the vessel – the bone broth is simply added to – it is a veritable sourdough approach – it is quite possible that an atom – or a microorganism has remained in that pot from the very beginning – from the first day it was started – a microscopic witness to all time as far as that consommé universe was concerned.

So these are the things I’m rolling around – and this little bit of writing you’re reading right now is just a way for me to think about it. Now I’ve stretched some of these ideas I’m sure – and I’m most likely less than half right on what I’ve posited. I’m not even sure about the idea of the soup never being totally emptied from the pot – I’m petty sure I heard of it – but it fits my narrative so I’m going with it –  please don’t correct me on any of this.

It’s a fiction I need in order to move ahead.

I Contain Multitudes

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Monday, August 24, 2015

Here we go again!

Well Summer is winding down - we've already got our first school visit of the year in the books - Chardon Middle, right down the road from our house.

In the small world department - the assistant principal there is the nephew of our dear international teaching friends Diane and John Salminen who are now in Nansha, China where we have worked with them twice - as well as in Jakarta and Abu Dhabi.

So - here's our schedule so far for the coming school year - we can still add some mor visits so if you're in the need of a couple crackpot poets from Cleveland Ohio who specialize in student workshops and professional development re: writing across the curriculum, vocabulary development, public speaking , and just good old creativity drop us a line.

Sept. 7-11 Ruamrudee International School, Bangkok, Thailand

October 1-2 Grizzel Middler School Columbus, Ohio

October 20 The Writing Conference, University of Kansas

October 22-24 KSRA Pennsylvania

November 1-6 French International School Hong Kong

November 9-11 Canadian International School Hong Kong

November 16,17,18 Western International School of Shanghai

January 25-29 AISM Maputo, Mozambique
Feb 1-5 AISL The American International School of Lusaka, Zambia

Feb 8,9 ISL International School of Lusaka, Zambia 

Feb 10, 11 LICS Lusaka International Community School, Lusaka, Zambia

Feb. 12 Baobab College, Lusaka, Zambia
Feb. 13 ISAZ Conference: Independent Schools Association of Zambia - full-day workshops for independent schools in Zambia, hosted at AISL

March 21-25 ISB Belgrade Serbia

March 29-April 1 The American School of Budapest, Hungary

April 5-8 American School Warsaw, Poland

We'd love to work with you and your students - drop us a line.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Absentee landowners suck

So I live in a fairly quiet little neighborhood in  Mentor Ohio. Middle class nothing too pretentious - but we're not parking cars on blocks on our street either.

For the most part our neighbors keep up their yards and houses - like I said - there are no homeowner association police telling you what color your door has to be or measuring your lawn height.  Of course you have your eccentric here and there - the cat lady who never opens her door and has let  the trees in her place go crazy - but she occupied the house so you cut her some slack.

On the other hand - we've got one character who - I guess - bought a place on our street three years ago with the intent of flipping it and has not achieved a whole lot toward that goal. County records indicate that the owner of this property is a Russel Powell - who I believe is connected to Powell Remodeling here in Mentor.

Pretty ironic considering the most run down and dilapidated property on our street is owned by this guy. I posted the following pics to the remodeling businesses' Facebook page.

 Well this resulted in the only real movement on this property in a long time.

Of course this guy doesn't live in this place - he couldn't it's uninhabitable - but I guess that's okay because - well, he doesn't live in the place.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Getting into the flow with Johnny Ngo

It’s a thousand steps to the top of the mountain.

Just for reference – this blog is being written in a Cajun café on a side street in Ho Chi Minh City’s backpacking neighborhood.

Johnny Ngo (pronounced like No – as if he were the grandson of Sean Connery’s 1963 James Bond antagonist) shows up at our hotel at 7am. He and I are going to Ba Den Mountain – riding motorbikes the hundred or so kilometers outside of Saigon to get there.

I hop on back of the bike and we swing by Johnny’s neighborhood to pick up a second one for me and then we are off. Weaving through traffic in Saigon is a spiritual experience – one has to get into the flow of the arterial rush the pop pop popping of exhaust providing a bass backbeat to the incessant horn tooting. The horns are not so much aggressive as they are informational. “I am here – hold your line – don’t do anything stupid – I’m crossing this intersection!”

The trick to maneuvering in a undulating mass of pulsating motorbikes – and I mean a mass – a beach ball thrown atop this fray would never hit the pavement – the trick is: never look back. You are only responsible for what is ahead of you, your eyes on the riders and wheels in front – everyone tacitly agrees to this code and that’s what makes it work – you see an opening – take it – dart into that gap – scoot around that little girl with the hello kitty helmet – take the sidewalk if you have to – just be smooth. He who hesitates is lost.

After 45 minutes or so of high density commuting the throngs begin to whittle off bit by bit and the buildings begin to have spaces between them and after an hour these spaces become fields and Johnny Ngo and I are riding side by side across a rural countryside and we are happily participating in the world.

Water buffalo are a suspicious lot. I dismount the Honda and walk closer to get a better photo of the big guys. They are coated in drying mud that they have rolled in to cool off and protect themselves from insects. The dry and caking muck has an almost dark blue tint to it and I wonder if Vietnam has any mythological characters who would parallel Paul Bunyan. The biggest of the bunch snorts a little as I approach and has that look in his eye that could either mean he is going to turn and run or he is going to charge. I eye the rope looped through his nose and its length and calculate exactly how far I need to be in case he decides the latter. 

A couple pics and we’re on our way again but not before we make a new friend. A young man collecting recycling in a pedal powered cart is intrigued with the white guy hanging out with Johnny. He learns I am American and wants to practice his English on me. He decides that what he lacks in vocabulary and grammar he will make up for in volume. He shouts at me how physically fit he is and then proves it by throwing off his shirt and dropping and giving me a dozen push-ups.  I’m as bewildered with him as the water buffalo were with me. Johnny dubs him Noisy Man and we bid him fare well and zip away.

Our first official stop is for iced coffee and water for the road. This consists of two tall iced coffees with sweetened condensed milk – a pot of jasmine tea to pour over the ice once the coffee is drunk – and a couple bottles of water to take on the bikes. Total cost 23,000 dong. That’s $1.06 if you’re keeping score. Zoom zoom zoom.

Next we visit the largest Buddhist temple near Saigon – Cao Đài Temple - quite possible the biggest in Vietnam – maybe in the world -  but I know to take these claims with a grain of salt until confirmed and I have not confirmed it as of yet – but I was duly impressed.  Atop the temple sits a dragon/horse hybrid sculpture balancing on a representation of the earth.  Inside an all Seeing Eye peers from a spherical depiction of the universe – thus, the temple is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside since earth rests atop and the universe sits within. Somehow this seemed poetically justified.

Next we head to the mountain after a quick stop for a bowl of pork noodle soup to fortify us – there are 1,000 steps to climb after all.  Our lunch companions were three dogs of ascending size who patiently watched and waited for bits to be tossed their way – we did not disappoint. 

The mountain is a weekend destination and this being a Tuesday we had the place almost to ourselves. There is a cable car that goes up but we opted to take the stairs. It took us about half an hour to get to the Lady Buddha temple perched atop increasingly steep steps. I commented to Johnny how well I was doing keeping up with him since I am almost twice his age and as I was doing so, a guy with a 75-pound bag of rice across his shoulders passed us. Everything is relative.

Once we reached the end of the steps we had three options to get back down, the cable car – a twisting toboggan on wheels slide thing – and the steps. We never considered the steps and argued the pros and cons of the other two conveyances. It was decided the cable car would offer a chance for photos and that in the searing heat the concave metal track that the sleds rode down would approximate a convex cooker – we would be medium well by time we hit bottom.

The mountain in our rearview mirrors we motored to Johnny’s great uncle’s house to pick up some incense to burn at his grandfather’s grave which was in the area. I chatted with Johnny’s great uncle and his cousin – a barber whose shop was an open brick gazebo structure right out front of the house. I drank a tall glass of iced jasmine tea and Johnny was served his in a measuring cup – nothing but the best for family! We went to his grandfather’s gravesite, burnt the incense – another relation who came along left a lit cigarette and then we pointed out scooters back toward Saigon and the three hour ride.

Returning to the city was like swimming into a lit roman candle. At first the traffic is sparse like the furthest reaching sparkles of a fountain fireworks but the closer we got the more intense and concentrated the sparks became. And as sunset commenced the effect of weaving through a swarm of festively noisy fireworks intensified. I occasionally texted Sara as we journeyed back as the three hour jaunt stretched to four plus so she needn’t worry that I had ended up a flattened pancake on the roadway. But, obviously, we arrived safe and sound – returning my borrowed motorbike then hopping behind Johnny we returned to the hotel, grabbed Sara and had a nice relaxing dinner all together. 

They say every journey starts with a single step – this day we had a thousand starts and I knew enough to look ahead the whole time.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

(In and) Out of Africa


I learn geography by going there. It’s a hands-on approach. Africa is a big place. No I mean it is a really big place – just less than 12 million square miles it is four times the size of the whole United States (including Alaska) and it contains 47 countries. After this trio Sara and I have been to 6 – 46 (barring any new ones cropping up) to go.

First up on our latest jaunt into the Dark Continent was Zambia and a visit to American International School Lusaka - AISL.  Of course I had never heard of Lusaka until I knew I was headed there – blame that on my Eurocentricly instilled geographic education where we were told that there was this big land mass called Africa and pretty much left at that.

From what I saw, Zambia is a green lush place full of birds, color and sound. Much the same, AISL is a multicultural place full of color sound and learning. Our hostesses – Terry and Kelly the upper and lower school librarians respectively showed us the upmost of hospitality. 

I started my day with pre-K and finished with seniors – my favorite. I love getting to jump back and forth from elementary to high school. It keeps one on one’s toes to say the least. Along the way we did a couple assemblies, took a bike ride shopped in a local market after reuniting with a teacher friend, Dana, who we met a few years back and introduced us to her compatriot in mayhem Kathleen the math teacher.  We packed whole lot into 4 days – just enough to know we want to come back.

Next up on our tour was Khartoum in North Sudan a brand new country in the upper eastern portion of the continent. Life here seems pretty harsh. Searing heat, the temperatures climbed over 110 degrees Fahrenheit while we were there. It’s a dry oven bread baking temperature dusted with well, dust. One’s sweat just disappears as soon as it leaves ones body and you have to be careful to remain hydrated. Top this off with an authoritarian government and an economy whose back is being broken with US sanctions and you’ve got a recipe for misery. Instead, we found the Sudanese people to be welcoming, quick to share what they had and even quicker with a laugh.

Embodying the definition of oasis is the Khartoum International Community School. Jeanette, the upper school librarian and her lower school compatriot Laura invited us into the refreshing atmosphere of their school.  We worked on refrain poems with the little guys, extended metaphor with the big guys and then did a voluntary professional development session with the teachers after school one day – which ended up being packed. I like to think it was our dynamic presentation that brought out the big numbers – but I have a sneaking suspicion the free cupcakes and coffee played into the mix.

Next up Uganda!

As hot and dry as Khartoum is – Kampala, Uganda is moist and green, leaning its verdant shoulders into Lake Victoria from which the Nile flows. Noisy Ibis cackle and crack wise from the sky, music blares from all modes of vehicles and vegetable stands line the roadways from Entebbe airport to the International School of Uganda.

We squeezed a three day visit into two- first day working with teachers on writing across the curriculum and then the second with students in the upper school. Again – we only wish we had more time.

We were the happy house-guests of a humanity teacher named Matt  - who we had worked with several years ago in Hong Kong (these international teachers get around). ISU was the impetus for this whole journey – Sara had met the senior school principle, Lesley, at a conference a couple years back and the two had been plotting our visit for a while.  So – thanks to the scheming of Lesley and her librarian Cathy we pulled this one off!

After our work at the school we had just enough time to hit a couple markets, buy a few masks, eat a great dinner then up at 3am to begin our journey home. Our heads are still spinning!

This was the definition of a whirlwind spin through a bit of Africa.

Can’t wait to do it again – perhaps at a little calmer pace.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The unfriendly skies of United Scarelines


Travel to and in Africa is arduous but quite often one finds that good things do not come easily. So while this was one of our most trying treks it was also one of our most rewarding. Three countries in fourteen days – here we go:

First off, anyone who has a passing acquaintance with Sara and me knows of our love-hate (way more chits in the hate category – in fact let’s call it what it is – a hate – hate) relationship with United Airlines. They never cease to amaze in their lack of service, customer care and willingness to take responsibility for absolutely anything. It’s definitely an abusive relationship that we just can’t seem to quit – held hostage by frequent flier miles and the old days when we were Continental fliers. (Yay deregulation!)

So we get to the airport on tickets that had been bought and confirmed seven months ago – all our flights are within United’s partnerships – South African Air – Ethiopian Air etc. It should be smooth sailing.  I called confirmed seats with South African two weeks out - so what happens when we get to Cleveland Hopkins Airport? We are told Sara has no seat aboard our first flight – the only one that is actually on a United plane. Stress level factor of oh, miss your entire trip to Africa.

What happened? Who knows United will never tell you. Could have been equipment swap – might have been a time change of two minutes somewhere. Whatever sent the itinerary into the tailspin it was headed is to remain a double secret mystery and one for, which United, will never accept any responsibility. Whatever it was it sent a ripple like the mythical rainforest butterfly flap whose consequences we would feel for the rest of our journey. Every painstakingly selected seat and confirmation evaporated like an hour’s old jet contrail.  Star Alliance Gold Status perks (hazardous duty pay for flying tens and tens of thousands of miles and spending tens and tens of thousands of dollars) poof – all gone! You get nothing! – And you will LIKE IT!

At the last moment Sara gets cleared for a seat just in time to sit and wait two hours for a late arriving airplane – why was the plane late? Who knows? The weather is fine so it’s not that – but since we are United Airline’s passengers we have no right to information. We’re never told – but we do know catching our connecting flight is going to be tough. Once the plane does show – we are not allowed to store our carry-ons under our seats in order to facilitate a quicker dash to our connecting flight – which is looking iffier and iffier. They do offer to check our bags all the way through to our final destination – having a loads of experience with their baggage handling prowess we decline this proposition.

That’s okay though – since we are Star Alliance gold and platinum members they will have a cart waiting for us at the other end to make sure we don’t have to send one of us racing through Washington Dulles while the second waits and waits and waits like a character in a Becket play for the gate check bags and then having to race the ¾ mile to the international terminal dragging both bags behind them.


Good thing we didn’t allow them to check our carry-ons, because this is when they lose the rest of our bags. But hey, we’re just going to Africa – why would we need luggage?

For the first time in my life I am the very last person on the plane – drenched in sweat after galloping through the airport I come to the gate and Sara is literally straddling the air bridge door so they would not be able to leave me behind. Those extra legroom seats we are supposed to get due to our many miles flown – tada! – They disappear thanks to the unexplained and un-apologized for glitch that United has thrown into our lives.

Eventually we arrive in Zambia. We do – our bags do not. Luckily I have come to expect very little of my airline so I had an extra days change in my carry on bag remember the one that the flight attendant so wanted me to check for free! If I had taken her up on her offer I would have been royally boned – as it stood I was merely inconvenienced – which pretty much sums up being shackled to United Airlines – an inconvenience.

Throughout our journey we have to talk our way onto plane after plane – getting supervisor’s assistance to locate our tickets, which have mysteriously become translucent due to the United portion of the ticket. It poisons our whole trip like a puss filled abscessed tooth. This was of course all “fixed” when we originally checked in – in Cleveland – we were assured everything would be smooth sailing.  So, on an itinerary in which only one flight out of a dozen was actually on a United Airlines plane – they were able to gum up the whole works. Stellar ineptitude knows no boundaries.

It seems to me the standard operating procedure at United Airlines is to first deny responsibility and then do just enough to get he customer in front of you out of your face and let the next guy or gal handle the mess which you know is going to follow the hapless patron throughout their journey.

So what happens now? We will file a formal complaint – United Airlines will throw a 300-dollar voucher our way and that will be it. No skin off their butts – their scrimping of service is paying off for them in spades as noted in this open letter to the company’s CEO from Ralph Nader. Ralph effin’ Nader! You know you’re sucking big time when Ralph finds you worthy of his time.

OY – this was going to be a blog about the schools we visited with just a mention of the travel tribulations we had (travel in Africa is rough – the time tables will beat you down like you’re dragging a snow tire behind you – the airports can be undeveloped and immigration control in some places is Kafkaesque) but when I got to thinking how United was able to make what should have only been an arduous journey into a Sisyphean marathon I just got on an uphill roll.

Oh and their new pre-flight safety video? It’s the dumbest thing ever filmed at no doubt the expense of an inch of legroom. Way to go United Airlines! Thanks for the unfriendly skies.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Monday, February 16, 2015

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Anchorage City School - Louisville Kentucky

Getting lucky in Kentucky with our first school visit of 2015.

Anchorage kindergartners BEFORE poetry.
Sara and I drove down to Louisville at the invite of Mellisa Sangster to work with the K-8 building of students at the Anchorage schools.

As Sara said - it was nice to blow away the cobwebs at what is obviously a writing school. No worksheets for these students that we could see.

And we worked with just about all grade levels from K to 8. We wrote refrain poems about the playground and birds with some enthusiastic kindergartners, point of view pieces with third graders, personification with 7th and extended metaphor with eighth.

I like when we get to meet a swath of grades on a visit.

Then at the end of the second day we had a PD session with all the teachers.

A perfect way to get back into the swing of things!

AFTER poetry.