Monday, November 28, 2011

Charlie McNarry Has a Query

Yolanda Mews has exciting news:
"Anything times zero is zero!"
The teacher nods, munches pretzel rods,
Says, "But don't think you're some kind of hero."

Beatrice Shelly has a pain in her belly.
"I need to go to the nurse!"
The teacher's head shakes, he eats his cakes,
Says, "Not until you're much, much worse!"

Charlie McNarry has a query:
"What makes the sky so blue?"
The teacher sighs and east his fries,
Says, "Does the sky ever ask about you?"

Phil Brigands has a worm in his hands:
"Look, it's so slimy and cool!"
The teacher yells, belches taco shells,
Says, "Touch it again and you're out of this school!"

A few weeks pass; teacher has gas.
"Oh, my poor poor belly is aching!"
He falls to the ground, sees a worm sitting down.
The ache makes him cry, look up at the sky.
He pleads for a hero to make the pain equal zero.

Charlie and Beatrice, Yolanda and Phil
Go down to the nurse and get him a pill.
Teacher says thank you, teacher feels great.
That night, at home, teacher stays up late.
A book lays on his lap as he falls asleep:
The Science of the Sky is one he'll keep.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Staying Burned IN

A few years ago, I became consumed with the question, how do we stay "burned in" to our work as teachers? I wanted to get a feel for what others had to say about sustaining energy, joy, and hope in a profession that carries its share of obstacles and challenges.

The result of that question was a volume to which many of the educators I most admire contributed: Burned In: Fueling the Fire to Teach.

But I see that the question of staying "burned in" is a question that applies to all of us--whether we are teachers or writers or parents or chefs or postal carriers or pool cleaners or salmon fishers or scuba diving instructors or sculptors. How do we all stay burned in?

So it was with tail-wagging glee that I read my wife, Jennifer's, latest blog: "Getting Lost in the Creativity of Work."  She includes some pretty potent wisdom, as well as two awesome YouTube clips. Well worth reading!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Alternate Mapping

It's one of those things
You can't control:
What tides bring, how sun sings.

Content to settle with clouds,
To leap from pavement,
Or lay in valleys, pool unproud.

You don't want to, anyway.
You know it's not to know,
But to live the unknown
In ways steady and new--
Dancing barefoot on soft grass,
Rain the only room around you.

Gratitude lives a life hidden.
Old habit, really.
But your knuckles at his door,
Then a warm cup of tea:
Better than knowing more,
Stronger than what you see.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Freedom That Awaits Us

(Note: Ammi-Joan Paquette is my literary agent. She's a fabulous agent AND she is a remarkable, fascinating, stunning writer.)

The odd thing about reading a book in which a teenage girl escapes the Thai prison where she was born and where she has lived her entire life: it’s you.

Even though she speaks Thai, gets stuck in the prison bars when she’s little, finds a gruff mentor in the Warden, and has a veritable treasure trove of secrets concealed from her like good counsel from George W.—it’s still you.

A.J. Paquette’s mesmerizing story of Luchi Ann—a blonde American girl born in Khon Mueang Women’s Prison—is a vivid novel that offers one journey towards an openness that is more real and more filling than all the certainty we’ve ever before known. Nowhere Girl speaks to us in powerful, profound ways. Once Paquette’s protagonist is released from prison at age 13, we read:

Emptiness, that’s all I can see right now. Roads that lead to the mountains, mountains that scrape the sky. It’s all strange and huge and wild. Of course, I have seen it all before, but that wasn’t me; that was a girl with my same name, some creature of mud and bone who had never felt the lick of true freedom on her skin.

When she shares that she has “seen it all before,” she refers to the television which she is allowed to watch in the prison—the dead colors of recorded life. But seeing life firsthand, along with the terrifying sense of freedom that accompanies Luchi Ann’s view, aptly defines our own existence, too. The bars behind which we often wait, thinking we are held beyond our own power, resemble a kind of pre-existence that we accept. The television occupies us and shows us any color we wish to find. Our lives can be full in prison: there is plenty to eat, stability, organization, clarity.

Once Luchi Ann is released—after her mother’s death—a new emptiness affords a different kind of food, however. So it is with us.

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave helps to make the case. Essentially, Plato (really Socrates talking through him) claims that we’re all in prison. We’re trapped there because we grow up seeing the world a certain way, and when some new person or perspective or event comes along to try and dissuade us of our loyalty to what we’ve always known, we freak out. Plato (Socrates) goes so far as to say we attempt to kill whoever’s is trying to break us out of the prison from which we’ve come to view the world, but I’m not sure I’d go that far—perhaps we just go to the mall and buy a latte and a new shirt to forget about the encounter?

Maybe Plato (Socrates) is on to something: the vision we learn to cling to desperately is often the same one that drags us blindly past any kind of authentic freedom. By walking outside and allowing the sky to lick us a bit, we find that a different kind of living waits. The kind that has loads of space, little certainty, but fills us nonetheless.

The kind of living that Paquette's gloriously courageous and admirable Luchi Ann learns to find.

When I was seven years old, I was terrified of vans. Any van came down Alcott Drive, and I would run, screaming wildly, back inside to my mom, claiming that the killers had come to get me. That year of my life, I watched the movie Cobra with my two older brothers. Cobra in brief: Sylvester Stallone plays a cop who must find a group of men who drive a van around town finding people, kidnapping them, then killing them up in the back of the van, then finding more people and killing them as well. In a sense, I had power as a seven year old—I had my fear. When I saw a van, I knew exactly what the people inside were going to do: kidnap me and kill me. So I ran from the vans. My running from the vans gave me a certain ability to order my life—the fear helped to provide some sense of safety.

When we cling to our fear, we feel safe. But this kind of safety is not much different than a kid who hasn’t turned in his homework claiming that the salmon took it upstream. As a thirty year old man, I am no longer afraid of vans. But I am terrified of leaving my three-year old son in the hands of a babysitter. New fears replace the old; new prisons replace the ones we’ve worn out; new visions to which we adhere loyalty rise up in the place of those we’ve outgrown.

What A.J. Paquette reveals so wonderfully in her lyrical novel, Nowhere Girl, is this: they don’t have to. Following the journey of Luchi Ann, we experience that cathartic passage from a familiarity of fear and organization to a foundation of emptiness and freedom. Safety exists, too, where colors are alive—where the sky reaches down to touch us, and we feel it fully for the very first time. Paquette’s remarkable novel shows us the freedom we long for ourselves, and which we too may find if we are willing to courageously leave the prisons we’ve so long inhabited.

Read this book, and be inspired to find your freedom as Luchi Ann finds hers.

Thursday, November 10, 2011


While only three, Tyler has taken an active role as a writer. Some days, he can scribe twenty pages. His words are always typed with enthusiasm, energy, vigor--as if his hands are daring the keyboard to reject what his brain conjures--things like "AAAghtyTT6777343890lklklAAA."

Profound stuff.

This morning, as I was finishing up some work on the computer, Tyler pushed open the door to our bedroom and said, "I want to do writing!"

We opened up a new Word Doc, and Tyler set straight to work. No hesitation. (He must have already learned the wisdom of that Chinese proverb, "He who hesitates is lost.")

And then Tyler found--for the first time in his young writing life--the apostrophe.

Ah, the Apostrophe.

I wish I could recall my first fling with the Apostrophe. But, alas, it's lost. Now I use it to conjoin words, to reflect dialect, to report time. But I wonder what I might once have used it--and a small spark of that ancient love was rekindled as Jen and I watched Tyler serenade the Apostrophe this morning.

"Apostrole! I like this Apostrole!"

And the document on the screen corroborated his claim: "AAAA''''''''''''''''Jujghfyt52111'''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''AA"

Jen and I smiled. Our little man wrote.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Dust Mites Must Die

I have always had an allergic reaction to dust mites. The dust mites themselves are infinitessimally small and infinitessimally gross. They crawl; they're alive. They make me sneeze in an ongoing succession that rivals the sound of a locomotive.

But after almost a year I was still joyfully free of allergy attacks. Perhaps there were no dust mites in York?

And then suddenly, as we hit our one year anniversary of our little experiment abroad, bam. The dust mites moved in. They must have been migrating here.

Coming to find me.

From America.

I'm no purveyor of conspiracy theories. But consider the facts: one year of dust-mite free living. Every season, no dust mites. Now, the dust mites are building paved roads in my nose. They're digging trenches and they're settling in for the long battle.

Today, as Tyler and I had a playdate, small drops of mucus continually fell from my nose--even right after I had blown it. When allergy attacks strike and I do not have a playdate, I am able to expertly stuff wads of tissue up my nose to prevent the mucus drops from exiting freely--No Skydiving Allowed. But during playdates, or any public appearances, it's hard to discern which is the worse sin: tissue wads in the nose or mucus drops.

Dust Mites love that I feel this ongoing tension. It's a fact little known about Dust Mites that, although they are infinitesimally small, they have enormous brains (comparative to their body sizes, that is). Their brains are extremely advanced, and unlike us humans, Dust Mites use all of their brain capacity.

Trust me; I know. Because I can hear the infinitesimally quiet laughter of the Dust Mites when they watch me battle impropriety.

Oh, really, your daughter is struggling with sleep as well? [mucus droplet, mucus droplet, drop, drop, droplet]

Dust Mites love this. They laugh like I'm Jerry Seinfeld doing stand-up.

To date, Dust Mites have been winning the war in the last few weeks. But they don't know some things. For instance, they don't know that I have been writing a novel entitled Dust Musts Must Die. (Dust Mites, while possessing massive brains, cannot read because they have no eyes. This works in my substantial favor as a writer.)

Dust Mites Must Die is a very serious novel about a single Dust Mite named Finley who decides to betray his clan and befriend the boy who suffers tragically at the hands of the Dust Mite Bullies with No Hearts and Surely with No Empathy (but Possessing Massive Brains).

Dust Mites Must Die could be the most amazing thing I've ever written. It could be the most amazing thing anyone, anywhere, has ever written. Because, see, the whole novel is written in Latin. (I did this just in case Dust Mites ever evolve and develop eyes and are able to read English. I want this novel to withstand the test of Time, and so even if Dust Mites learn to read, it's highly improbable that they'll learn Latin as well.)

I was recently contacted by the estate owner of Leo Tolstoy's literary property. It seems that the estate owner has been planning a new edition of Tolstoy's classic War and Peace. (New chapters have been found, albeit with small smudges across them.) The estate owner asked if I would consider including a small selection from Dust Mites Must Die in the new, revised version of War and Peace.

These were the estate owner's exact words, actually:

"Dear Sir Reynolds,

Word has come along the winds, carried no doubt on the backs of a million infinitesimally small backs of Dust Mites, that you have a novel in the works entitled Dust Mites Must Die. I would be deeply honored if you would consider including a small selection of this novel in the upcoming War and Peace. The Leo-nator, my affectionate name for Senor Tolstoy, had a lifelong vendetta against those creatures. Even when he gave away all his land to his servants, and sought to emulate the life of Christ, he could never learn to love Dust Mites. I think he would very much like knowing your novel is joined, in part, to his.


Jonathan Jon-Jon, Estate Owner"

As you can imagine, receiving a letter like this was stunning.

However, I need some time to mull it all over. After all, I still have to finish the novel (which is currently at 280,000 words, and I've only just completed the second chapter.)

If I keep going at this rate, Dust Mites may develop eyes before the work is ever complete. And that cannot happen.

So while mucus droplets still fall freely from my nose, the sneezes shout loudly and defiantly, I will not lie down.

(Because then the droplets will merely slide back into my throat, and that is disgusting.)

No, nor will I go gentle into that treacherous night. Instead, I will rage against the dying of my dignity, and I will finish Dust Mites Must Die, even if my fingers become stubs and my keyboard a mess.

I will finish, no matter what.

Dust Mites Everywhere Who Have Already Developed Eyes: consider yourselves warned.