Archive for November, 2009


I Haven’t Opened a Book Since I Graduated from High School

November 30, 2009

Yesterday, I wrote about building personal vocabulary and forgot to emphasize that plain old reading for fun and pleasure is an excellent way to learn new words. I know, though, that for struggling readers—and many folks who are attending colleges and universities and trade schools are struggling readers—it may seem ludicrous for me to suggest that anyone who doesn’t read very well might want to read for fun. Ditto for the folks who just plain don’t like to read. (Notice how I slipped ludicrous in there? I especially like using it here since its root—ludis, for play or sport—is also the source of the word ludic, as in ludic reading, or reading for fun. Yes, I am an uberwordgeek!)

Reading equals misery for many people, bringing back memories of being assigned to reading groups in elementary school where everybody knew what being in the Crows or the Robins or the Pigeons really meant, and of dreading being called on to read out loud in in middle and high school. I’ve talked to many adult students whose biggest hurdle in returning to school is facing the reality that they will have to read and read a lot for their classes. I’ve heard numerous versions of this comment from one of my advisees who told me, “Zinn, I haven’t opened a book since I graduated from high school.“ I’ve also heard plenty of confessions from students who really never read any book during high school, but instead finely-honed their skills of pretend reading. It’s almost impossible to fake your way through your reading in higher education, but even if you could, it would be a bad idea. Much better is to begin to develop the skills you avoided because you struggled with them in your K-12 education.

Before I became a teacher, worked with adult literacy. Dr. Frank Laubach, founder of Literacy Volunteers of America, was a family friend as I was growing up, and hearing him talk about his work as a missionary who focused on adult literacy as a way to fight poverty and empower people was inspiring to me. He took the name of his mission to liberate people through literacy from a phrase that has its origins in slavery in the United States, Each One, Teach One, a reference to the duty of a slave who learned to read despite being denied education to teach another. I learned a lot from Dr. Laubach about working with adult readers–and non-readers.

Most struggling readers who are participating in higher education have mastered some essential skills of reading. They understand how to hear and identify individual sounds in spoken words. This is known as “phonemic awareness.“ Most of them also know how to use phonics skills to connect the sounds of spoken language to the letters of written language. This is what happens in school when students sound out words. Students who don’t have these skills are likely to need tutoring to help them get up to speed. Since becoming a teacher, I’ve worked with several adults who lacked even these basic skills and although it took work and personal determination, they were able to develop them quickly. If you know that you are struggling with reading skills, I definitely recommend seeking assistance at your school. There is a big difference between learning to read and reading to learn, and you need to master the first before you move on to reading to learn, something many college students are challenged by.

Much of the reading aloud in school is done to help students improve their fluency, or the ability to read quickly and accurately. Teachers also do it to check on whether or not students have the basic reading skills related to phonics and to sight words (the words a person knows how to read because s/he‘s seen them so many times, they’re familiar). The problem is that reading quickly and pronouncing the words correctly does not necessarily mean that the student understands what s/he is reading. Unfortunately, many written standardized tests also require speedy responses. I have known a number of extremely bright and gifted people who read slowly and deliberately and thus do poorly on measures that also test their speed of comprehension.

My friend Pam is a member of Mensa, a group whose only qualification for membership is a high IQ. She reads slowly and remembers just about every word, but has always been frustrated by expectations that she read quickly. Pam also has an outstanding vocabulary, and this is another essential literacy skill, one that must be deliberately developed in order to be a successful reader. There’s not much point in being able to sound out a word if it’s meaningless. In addition, students must be able to do more than simply read the words on the page and know what the individual words mean. They need to be able to understand the words in the context of the reading. This seems pretty obvious, doesn’t it? But think about this: How many times have you finished a page in a textbook and can’t remember a single thing you’ve read? Or you can remember some of it, but don’t know what it meant. This has happened to me many times. I’ve finished reading something and realized that the words have gone in one eye and out the other! I read once that Albert Einstein’s mother said she could read and understand all the individual words in what he wrote, but still couldn’t understand his theories. Comprehension requires deliberate attention and sometimes a lack of distractions too. There are lots of students who claim that that they can multitask and study a textbook while texting, for example, but often comprehension suffers. Be honest with yourself about this.

Reading for fun includes lots of things, not just books: websites, magazines, technical manuals (you would be surprised how many self-identified non-readers have no problem reading, understanding, and using the manuals that come with new technology), recipes, and craft project instructions, for instance. But be sure that you’re doing some aspirational reading too—reading that’s a bit above your reading level and that challenges you to develop your skills. A good way to find this kind of material is to determine a topic you want to know more about and find related reading. One of my students who was a dancer had a reading breakthrough when she discovered a fascinating yet difficult-to-read biography of Isadora Duncan, a dancer who died tragically when a scarf she was wearing became entangled in a wheel of her moving automobile and she was flung from the car and strangled.

Write a brief reading history for yourself. How do you feel about reading? What kinds of printed materials do you like—or dislike—reading? What kinds of reading do you understand easily and what kinds do you struggle with? What can you do to improve your reading skills? Note: Even your professors have to work on their reading skills. My challenge is reading and understanding things that are not in my areas of expertise. It takes me much longer and I must read much more carefully, going back over things to make sure that I understand before I move on.

I have often reflected upon the new vistas that reading opened to me. I knew right there in prison that reading had changed forever the course of my life. As I see it today, the ability to read awoke inside me some long dormant craving to be mentally alive.
• Malcolm X


When I Wear High Heels, I Have a Great Vocabulary

November 29, 2009

Nope, that’s not me talking in the title. I never wear high heels, preferring Converse and other comfortable footwear. That’s the actor, Meg Ryan. She continues, saying that she speaks in paragraphs when she’s wearing heels and is more eloquent. She plans, she says, to wear high heels more often. I don’t wear fancy shoes, but I do work on my vocabulary. As I write, I think about the words I’m using and whether any of them are too difficult for some of my target audience.

Since I’m writing about student success, I know that I must be cognizant—see how easily these fancy words slip in?—of the vocabulary I use. I also realize that while I don’t want my posts to be filled with such density of difficulty that no one would want to read them, much less be able to understand what I’m saying, I also don’t want to dumb them down by removing words it might be good for someone to be reminded of. In my posts of November 26 and 27, there are some possible vocabulary words I left in deliberately, knowing they would be very familiar to some folks and not so much so to others. If you don’t know them, I recommend looking them up. There are also some there that can be challenging to spell, including one, inundated, that is a personal spelling bugaboo of mine. I always want to spell it with a double n at the beginning:

siren voices
(a reference to Greek mythology)
(a word with more than one meaning, used as a verb in the post)

Some vocabulary is acquired by osmosis. One of my students, a science teacher-in-training, didn’t know that this scientific term referring to the movement of molecules through a semipermeable membrane can also be used to refer to things that enter the human brain from the environment, picked up from conversations and pleasure reading and television and movies, for example. Here are five “vocabulary words” I wrote down as I watched the children‘s movie, Chicken Little: gibberish, intentions, overreaction, confusion, confounding. A child encountering them in the context of the movie may well understand them and perhaps even add them to her or his vocabulary. Much vocabulary acquisition happens deliberately, though, and requires conscious effort, especially when you’re studying a textbook.

It isn’t just textbooks that provide opportunities to build vocabulary. I tested this recently when I picked a book at random from a shopping cart filled with ten-cent books at a thrift store in Ohio. The book I grabbed was Jonnie Jacobs‘ (2005, 2007) mystery, The Only Suspect (New York: Pinnacle Books). Again at random, I opened the book and went to the start of the nearest chapter. In Chapter 22, on pages 170-174, I found the following words:



As I glanced at the first page of the next chapter, I saw disdainful. These are all useful words for someone to know and be able to use. Reading a chapter and picking out possible vocabularly words is a great exercise to do with a chapter in a textbook or a novel, alone or with a group. Read over a section and determine words that need clarification or definition in order to understand the meaning. Look them up and make sure you understand everything before you start studying.

Another hint that will help you improve your vocabulary is to actually look unfamiliar words up and write them—and their definitions—in a vocabulary journal. This sounds a little silly, but it can help you add them to your working words. Sometimes it’s okay to simply get the gist (a great word that I see misspelled often, meaning the main point) of what you are reading, but sometimes you only think you know. It’s so easy to look up a word, especially when you’re reading something online, that there isn’t much of an excuse not to.

One of the things I find most striking about the work of inexperienced writers is their impoverished vocabulary. Students who don‘t have the necessary words to express their thoughts, or are uncertain about the meaning of particular words, are less likely to be able to say what they mean. Just as challenging is students‘ use of words that are not quite right or whose meaning they think they understand, but really don’t. My advice is to be very careful about using the thesaurus feature on the computer. Because English is a language with many words borrowed from other languages, it is also a language with many shades of meaning and one word cannot always be substituted for another even if the thesaurus suggests it.

And a final hint: subscribe to a word of the day email. I love since I learn new words from it just about every week. Sometimes I know all of the words, but I’m surprised by how often the word of the day is one I’m unfamiliar with. This week I learned doggo, an adverb meaning still and quiet. I don’t know when I’ll use it, but I sure do like it. And here’s a vocabularly word for you: stiletto, meaning high heel, named after the stiletto dagger and its long thin blade. Bet you didn’t think I’d ever get back to Meg Ryan, did you?

Make a list of at least five words—with definitions—that you’d like to add to your speaking and writing vocabulary so that you can use them with confidence. These might be words that you are not sure how to pronounce, or whose meaning you are a bit fuzzy about, or just ones you think would be fun to know. Do this weekly, making a deliberate effort to use your new words in your everyday life in and out of school.

Words are things, and a small drop of ink falling like dew upon a thought produces that which makes thousands and perhaps millions think.
• Lord Byron


Please, Someone, Get Me a Subscription to the Bacon-of-the-Month Club

November 28, 2009

I’m not sure this even counts as writing something because I got nuthin‘ here but the plaintive plea of my title. [Note: I wrote this sentence and then I started saying nothing and as you will quickly see, I had much more to say than I imagined. Thus, another purpose of this particular post is quickly evident. Almost anything can be a fascinating topic, but if you have to write, you need to get started somewhere.]

I wrote yesterday about all those useless things that are possible purchases that the wise student will avoid if s/he wants to keep the budget intact. I was tempted by very few of the things I listed except the robots. I am a sucker for robots. Space ships too. But that’s another topic and I want to talk pork here because I picked up another shopping guide yesterday and there in the top righthand corner of the page I saw it:

“Bacon of the Month 12-Month Membership“

There’s been a certain piggyness to several of my posts lately and I was entranced by the possibility of regional pork products arriving monthly at our abode. I don’t care if I get to eat it. Just smelling it sizzling in the pan is enough. There’s something about the smell of bacon cooking that evokes childhood and grandma’s kitchen for me. We didn’t have much bacon that I remember, but there always seemed to be lots of bacon grease from which my grandma made scrumptiously creamy milk gravy for her biscuits. Yum!

The description from where you can order this full year of pig products promises all sorts of bacon swag too. Bacon swag! Bacon is in right now. You can get its simulated greasiness imprinted on everything from wallets to BandAids©. There are bacon-flavored candies and gum. Bacon air freshener (now there’s an idea I wish I’d thought of!). Mr. Bacon, the action figure, who battles, I understand, Monsieur Tofu. And, from the pinnacle of porky purveyors, Archie McPhee, you can get most of these things as well as bacon soap, a bacon watch and/or belt, and bacon lip balm. Plus Archie also sells the piece de resistance of faux pig: Uncle Oinker’s Bacon-Scented Bacon Print Tuxedo for only $99.95. Imagine the following you’d get at a party if you looked and smelled like bacon.

British middle-distance runner, Doug Larson, a gold medal winner at the 1924 Olympic games in Paris must have been tempted by pork since he observed that life expectancy would grow by leaps and bounds if green vegetables smelled as good as bacon. So true. Several summers ago, I distributed pig-themed ArtSeed recipe cards at the SPAMFest celebration in Shady Cove, Oregon. In addition to Spamsicles (ah, Spam, another post for sure), I featured a recipe for deep-fried bacon, something I could fix every month if only my holiday wish regarding monthly meat were granted:

Deep-Fried Bacon

3 eggs
½ c. milk
1 lb. thick sliced bacon, strips cut in half
3 c. all-purpose flour
Salt, pepper to taste
2 c. vegetable oil

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Beat together the eggs and milk in a bowl until smooth. Separate the bacon strips and let them soak in this mixture for a half hour.

Heat the oil in a deep frying pan to 375 degrees.

Season the flour with salt and pepper. Toss individual slices one at a time to coat them with the flour mixture. Use a paper bag or a bowl.

Fry three to five slices at a time until golden brown, about four minutes, turning as necessary. Drain on paper towels.

Once all the bacon is cooked, transfer it to a baking sheet that’s been covered with aluminum foil and bake at 350 degrees about seven minutes or until crispy.

SPAMFest recipe cards also featured many quotations related to the pig. Here are just a few:

I was raised on pork, and believe me, I’m healthy.
• Tina Turner

When faced with an absolutely impossible ingredient, the best thing to do is wrap it up in something and fry it. [Note: Bacon is a natural for wrapping stuff.]
• Chef Mario Battali, TV Food Network

I had rather be shut up in a very modest cottage with my books, my family and a few old friends, dining on simple bacon, and letting the world roll on as it liked, than to occupy the most splendid post, which any human power can give.
• Thomas Jefferson

How about a donut burger with cheese and bacon on a sliced Krispy Kreme glazed donut?
• Stephen Colbert on The Colbert Report

You’re probably wondering how—or if—I can bring this all back to success in school. I can. Bookstores are just waiting to ambush innocent students who come to purchase textbooks and leave with cute, quirky, and completely unnecessary stuff—bacon-scented and otherwise—that’s stocked to entice the book weary, providing a boost of fun in an otherwise dreary life. Don’t be tempted. Unless it’s a robot. Then get one and think of me every time you bask in its adorableness.

What useless stuff do you have to have because you just like it?

I’ve long said that if I were about to be executed and were given a choice of my last meal, it would be bacon and eggs.
• James Beard

Addendum: Yikes! I just realized how many spiffy robots I could get for the $315.00 that twelve months of bacon would cost, especially since you can get lovely ones for less than twenty dollars, and some are even under ten. Bacon is fleeting (except on the hips). Robots are an ongoing joy.


Dear Santa, I Really NEED a Baby Coffee Plant!

November 27, 2009

It’s Black Friday and I didn’t wait outside a store at 3 a.m. hoping to get a 79-inch television for $23.00 (Quantities limited!). Today is a tradition representing cultural acquisitiveness clothed in patriotic duty—“give a boost to the economy!”—a fiesta of bargains, filled with frantic brouhaha about how much we’ll all save if we shop early and shop smart. We’ll miss out if we don’t act now. It’s our last chance for savings, our first opportunity to buy at deeply discounted prices that may never be this low again. Plus we need this stuff! It will make our lives richer, better, and more fulfilled.

If you’re a student, you had best not be listening to these siren voices. There’s a lot of sacrifice involved in going to school unless you’re independently wealthy. Separating genuine needs from wants is a difficult business at any time, but it’s especially important when you’re in school and time and money are limited, not to mention the stress that’s added to an already stressful life by buying the unnecessary or by—horrors—adding to credit card debt that just keeps growing.

I sit here looking through one of the many shopping guides I’m inundated with in this jolly season, and I’ve compiled a very quick list of things you, they, or someone else may want, but probably doesn’t need:

Goldfish-shaped measuring spoons.

Goldfish-shaped computer mouse. (No, there’s not a theme developing here.)

Hand-grenade shaped pillows. (“The ultimate weapon for your next pillow fight.”) Guns too.

Another wind-up robot. Wait. This is definitely something I personally need. Please do not mock the wonder of metal robots, wind-up or not. They rock.

Good Dog, the barking jar for doggy treats.

Bowls. (“You can never have enough cute little bowls lying around.”) Yes. You. Can.

Cadaver ornaments. (Cadaver-shaped ornaments? Ornaments for your cadaver? It’s not clear. I must check this sometime since either is quite appealing.)

Baby onesies that make political statements. (Do you truly want to use your baby—or someone else’s—as a billboard? If so, why? This might be a fruitful area for reflection sometime.)

Baby coffee plant. There is an explanation that if given proper care, this plant may produce beans in three or four years, a long time to wait for a cuppajoe.

And then I spot it: “Give the gift of love this season.” This is a good idea I think, regardless of what holiday you’re celebrating and even if you aren’t celebrating any holiday at all, except that these folks mean that you should purchase their fancy cocktail ingredients for your friends and family. Hmmm.

If you’d like to feel virtuous in this season of endless purchasing temptation, start a list of all the things you’d like to have but are passing up because you know their satisfactions will be fleeting. Save your list. Make another next year. They’re the grown-up equivalent of letters to Santa, and when you’re done with school you’ll have a concrete reminder of all the things you passed up to accomplish your goals. And you won’t have to move the baby coffee plant that still hasn’t given you any brew.

What bargains have tempted you recently?

Oh, I wish that God had not given me what I prayed for. It was not so good as I had thought.
• Johanna Spyri, author of


Big Pink Pig at a Picnic Table

November 26, 2009

There are many things I’m thankful for, but today I want to celebrate the folks who, thanks to their quirkiness, make me smile. Chief among these on my recent trip to the midwest are the people who sat a large pink pig at a table in their otherwise very conventional back yard. I don’t know what the pig was made of. I don’t know anything about it except that it was not alive and I’m pretty sure it was sitting on a chair at the table. Trains move fast and I spotted the pig from the window. Was it eating? Pork chops and bacon, perhaps? I hope not. I’d prefer to think I wasn’t witnessing hamibalism. Not when I enjoyed it so much. There aren’t enough pink pigs in the world.

I loved this pig, but I wasn’t quite sure where I might be going with it until I had a dream last night. When I can remember them, I write my dreams down in an ongoing series of dream journals, although if I don’t act quickly, they evaporate and even as I am writing, parts of them disappear. Sometimes I can save quite a bit especially when they’re as vivid as this one was (a note about me: I often remember conversations in dreams as well as things that I read):

I am talking to a cohort of teachers-in-training about their clothing and many of them are angry. They misunderstand me and are taking what I say as personal criticism. I begin speaking to them, saying, “I see a man in a skirt. I don’t care. I see a woman in a dress that looks like it comes from the 1700s. I don’t care. I see a woman in a tutu. I don’t care. Man in a tall hat? I don’t care. Man and woman in matching yellow and black checked pants (BIG checks, may be three-inches square). I don’t care. Immodest garb? I do care. Pants cut out to show the buttocks. I do care. Nipples clearly visible? I do care. Skirt so short you can’t sit down? I care. I care.”

Nevertheless, they are angry, yelling at me and pelting me with cranberries and pomegranate seeds (I get this part—it’s Thanksgiving eve). And another note: this has absolutely nothing to do with the students with whom I’m currently working. They do not dress inappropriately. In my dream, it was as though I was working with a troupe of Cirque de Soleil performers who’d decided to become teachers and it was my job to help them learn to dress in “teacher clothes” without antagonizing them. It wasn’t working. Their anger was palpable. Yet even as I tried to deal with it, I admired what they were wearing.

There was a blue-faced man whose yellow mouth and bright orange hair matched the gigantic stripes and polka dots of his green shirt and purple pants. It all went together in a weird way. The pants were very narrow at the ankles and very billowy above. The shirt was tight at the wrists and in the body and had huge tightly gathered sleeves. He wore long pointy-toed shoes of blue leather with curled toes that ended in dangling gold bells that chimed as he walked. Their chorus was joined by tiny bells attached to each of the orange porcupine quills of his hair and by the chandeliers of bells he wore on his ears.

I remember only a few of these folks although I know I talked to most of them, trying to convince them that I loved their getups, but that their outfits would probably hamper them as teachers. I also remember the woman in the tutu. It was pink tulle and each layer that stuck out around her was about four feet long, making her unapproachable. On her legs, she wore grey and lavender horizontally-striped tights and on her feet, pink satin toe shoes with large purple roses on the toes. Her tutu was immense, layer upon layer of variously colored tulle, mostly pink with shades varying from the palest to shockingly bright with occasional layers of purple and lavender and even bright red. Above this immense skirt, she was encased in tight-fitting satin of the palest pink, dotted with aurora borealis jewels that caught the light and shot off sparkles of fire as the sun hit them.

The sleeves of satin covered her fingers and the top continued in a tight-fitting hood over her head, leaving only the oval of her face open. It was covered with jewels as well, sparkly stones that flashed as she spoke carefully so as not to crack her makeup. Atop her head? A gigantic crimson rose. She was beautiful and I’d love to have been her and twirled in the spotlight. Jewels trimmed each layer of her skirt and I could imagine how lovely she would look as she danced. “You don’t like me,” she said, and I tried to explain how much I did, but how hard it would be to teach wearing the tutu and the jewels that made it almost impossible to talk.

I awoke remembering more details of people I spoke to, but mostly only dreamwisps remain: a tall yellow stovepipe hat, crooked and leaning to the side, at least four feet tall, with words written on it. I read them although I can’t remember them. Green shoes, their skinny ankles and calves laced with red and their soles as wide as tennis rackets, edged with what looked like red rubber balls cut in half and attached to the soles cut side down. Painted faces. Impossibly colorful plaids and patterns. Costumes risqué and outrageous. And among them, sad looking people neatly attired in shades of black and grey. None of them smiling. “Is this what you want?” one of them asked. Of course, it wasn’t, and I tried to explain. I woke up and began to write this down before I forgot.

I remember one more man. He was very, very, very tall, and extremely thin, covered in vines and leaves of various shades of green. The strangest thing about him was the bugs I could see crawling in and out all over—purple, yellow, red, blue—sort of like ladybugs, but a little larger, about the size of a dime. I think they were bugs, but I couldn’t tell for sure. They never flew, but crawled about among the oddly-shaped leaves. I only remember the teapot- and airplane-shaped ones. His face, hands, platform shoes, all green.

And one last thing I remember: gloved hands, the fingers several feet long, stuffed and wired, splayed and twisted at impossible angles. The woman whose hands they are on insists that they represent her soul, reaching out to the world, twisted and seeking. She is dressed completely in a deep chestnut brown, some sort of stretchy tight-fitting material, and covered from head to toe except for her face. A tree-like extension of green tops her head and I see that her fingers—and her toes—are meant to represent roots. Oddly, her face is not made up at all. I notice this and remember this costume because it seemed so strange to me. It was the trigger that brought her back right now.

These people were all beautiful and idiosyncratic and took delight in how they were dressed. The ones who were trying to please me were unhappy shadows. There is a land in-between these two extremes where those of us who work within systems must live. It’s a land where big pink pigs can still sit at picnic tables in back yards but their owners don’t need to dress like their porky pals to show their iconoclastic spirits. Each of us has to find our own way there and I am thankful most of all for the others who do.

How do you show your big pink pig spirit to the world?

Creativity is more than just being different. Anybody can play weird; that’s easy. What’s hard is to be as simple as Bach. Making the simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity.
• Charles Mingus, jazz musician, composer, and activist


Think Spaghetti!

November 26, 2009

I began this post on the train somewhere in Montana and finished it at my son’s place in Seattle. It is Wednesday, November 25, 2009, so I am unsure why it says November 26 on the post and a bit frustrated by this. What will it say tomorrow? Why can’t I control technology? This is messing up my carefully-caculated plans. ARGH!

I’ve been wearing a button that says “Think Spaghetti.” I bought it at a thrift store for a quarter. It’s what I call an “evocateur,” meant to evoke response and start conversations. It’s working. I’ve been asked about it lots of times by folks curious about its meaning. I’m collecting their stories. Why? Why not? Part of the fun of traveling is talking to strangers, but it can be awkward to get a conversation started. Asking them to “think spaghetti” helps. Here’s a sampling:

• My fiancé and I went to Italy and he had me take his picture next to a lifesize picture of Sophia Loren. He said she’s his ideal woman. If that’s true, I wonder why he likes me. This was said jokingly and it’s obvious she isn’t worried. (Note: Sophia Loren once said about her figure: “Everything you see, I owe to spaghetti.”)

Lady and the Tramp. Noodle-eating together.

• My favorite food. I especially loved spaghetti in a can when I was little. It was a big treat. We got it whenever my parents went out. It kept us quiet for the babysitter since my brothers and I knew that if we weren’t good, no Chef Boyardee© for us.

• Don’t eat spaghetti on a date, that’s my advice. My husband still reminds me of how messy I was on our first date. I remind him that he was the one who picked the restaurant. He reminds me that I could have ordered ravioli. And so it goes!

• Old Spaghetti Warehouse, someone else says, and I (W-OZ) remember that my husband and I ate our first meal as a married couple at an OSW in Underground Atlanta with my sister, who also spent our wedding night in the same bedroom with us since our budget didn’t extend to two rooms that night. She kept telling us that if we’d give her quarters for the vibrating bed, she’d go to sleep.

• The man at the Amtrak ticket window in Cincinnati tells me about regular spaghetti dinners he’s been attending at a church since he was little and how delicious everything is. I have the details, but I’ve packed them in my suitcase. Incidentally, his name is Tom Holley and he is NOT the person who was rude to us at the train station there. He’s a delight. Helpful and fun to talk with. In fact, everyone we encountered on our Amtrak voyage was wonderful. I definitely recommend taking the train.

• “Save a turkey; eat spaghetti!” someone tells me and I remember why I actually began this post and what it has to do with success in school. It’s too late to give you this advice for tomorrow, but the season of high expectations is upon us, so here it is anyway. Whatever the holiday, when you’re in school, it can be helpful to give up your expectations for what you ought to do to celebrate and instead relax, doing what is easiest and what will give you the most time to spend with people you care about. Tacos or pizza or soup or toasted cheese sandwiches or spaghetti are perfectly fine holiday meals and a lot easier to clean up!

How can you create less holiday stress for yourself and those you love?

As far as food goes, I’m pretty easy. I love Japanese food. I love meatloaf and mashed potatoes. I love spaghetti. I’m easy.
• Frank Oz


Are You a Poet? How Will We Know?

November 25, 2009

For Tuesday, November 24, 2009, written in Chicago’s Union Station

You will find poetry nowhere unless you bring some of it with you.
• Joseph Joubert

I met another poet in the Cincinnati train station on Sunday night. His name is Marcus Clark and he’s in eighth grade. I’m excited about this. I think a lot about how difficult it is to find other poets when you’re traveling. My husband has no trouble finding fellow baseball fans, but poets? They’re in hiding. Sigmund Freud said, “Everywhere I go I find a poet has been there before me.” If Freud had been traveling the U.S. of A. instead of the highways of the psyche, he might have found things quite a bit different. If poets are out there, they’re keeping quiet about their craft in the midst of daily life.

No one’s sharing limericks in the line waiting for the train or comparing freshly-written sonnets in the lounge car of the train. There’s no Hall of Fame for fans to visit anywhere I know of, no hometown stadiums built to celebrate the art, no kids gathered in corner lots tossing rhymes at one another that I’ve seen. The only poetry section in most stores is the aisle where the greeting cards are found. There’s no poetry in the daily newspaper, no place where I can catch up on what I’ve missed, and see how the local, national, and international versifiers are doing. No poetry report on the nightly news.

When someone I meet on the train asks what I do, I try saying I’m a poet. It’s better than saying I’m a teacher and hearing what’s wrong with that world, especially right now, and much better than telling them I’m a recovering English teacher who now teaches teachers. When I do say I’m a poet, most people politely say “that’s nice,” or ask if I make any money writing poems or tell me how much they hated poetry in school when they had to memorize something or explicate something else: “We did a little poetry in school, but mostly it was just “The Raven,” one woman tells me, adding, “Poe was crazy, you know.”

No one volunteers that she or he is a poet too. But I’m sure some of them are. And I met one of them, Marcus. He shared a poem with me from the composition book he’s writing in as we wait for the train in Cincinnati. (I was writing in one too—it’s partly how we found each other.) His poem is meant to evoke the feelings of being a soldier in World War II:

A Captured Heart
by Marcus Clark

Walking down a lonely path through this dreadful night
envisioning the girl who always seems to catch my sight.
Thinking of her night and day even as I lay. . .in this hole
Explosions go off by my head.
Everyone in this hole
but me lies here dead. The
thought of seeing the one I love quickly floats to
the clouds above thoughts of
life slowly slips away
and thoughts of death pour in all
day. Praying to god to help me
get out of hell’s way. Wishing I could
see my love my heart one more
time before we part as days pass
I’m still cheating death knowing
In two hours I’ll take my last
breath. The aroma of her perfume
lingers beneath my nose it makes me warm
I close my eyes and all of
a sudden I’m being taken
by storm. A prisoner of war
being held captive knowing my
love for her will always
be active in two weeks they
set me free on long trip
out to sea back home to
see her face when I get
there I felt my hands on her
waist and tell her how much
she means to me my baby
really fills my heart with

Marcus is thinking of a future that includes architecture, football, and the Air Force. At least that’s his plan right now. He and his mom and sisters are moving to California and I hope he finds a place in his world for poetry. I hope he finds some other poets too. I wrote a poem about this on the Fun-in-Learning-Tour:

Are You a Poet?
by W-OZ

Lean in a little closer to the page.
I have a question for you and I don’t
to see:
Are you a poet?

If you aren’t, it’s fine,
although I hope you’ll try a verse or two,
perhaps start with a couplet or even a haiku
just five seven five
yes, syllables not even
sentences or say–


What are you thinking when you look at
an autumn leaf?
An onion?
A pair of cowboy boots?

But if you are a poet,
how will I know you on the street?
Do words hang from your pockets?
Do they float around your head?
Or are they falling from your fingers,
dropping to the ground
so you can shuffle through them?

Or will I find you at the library
running your hands slowly
along the spines of books,
eyes closed,
dreamily drawing into your self
the pent-up words so you can pen them out again.

And so I ask:
Are you a poet?

How will I know?

As for you, what is the poetry of your life? What or who are you that you keep hidden from others? Who might like to know? And how can you integrate your poetry—whatever it is–into your studies in college? (A note for the literal-minded: poetry is used here as a metaphor and could include any number of things from collecting old can openers to making art from American cheese.)

Breathe-in experience, breathe-out poetry.
• Muriel Rukeyser