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Saturday, December 6, 2008

Steven Rios trial...

As I sit in the courtroom waiting on the verdict in the Steven Rios case, I’m considering all that’s happened during this grueling week. Jurors pushed to the brink of exhaustion, attorneys passionate to the point of anger, spectators drained from the rollercoaster testimony of key players. Waiting, listening, watching as jurors request evidence, exhibits, photos…the anticipation is like sitting in the dentist chair with the drill hovering over a pried open mouth.

And it occurs to me…no matter the verdict, the victims will still be victims. Linda will still have lost a son. Libby lost her husband. A son lost his father, whether temporary or terminal. And a city lost its virtue. No matter the outcome, Columbians will be divided, torn by the certainty that their opinion is right. But the truth is, only two people on this planet know what happened on the morning of June 5, 2004, and one of them is dead. With all the facts, the opinions, the judgments, the homophobia, one key detail must be kept central. Jesse Valencia died that morning. He paid with his life, for whatever reason, and no matter his sexual orientation, his indiscretions, and his personal habits, he didn’t deserve to be brutally murdered. Focus is often lost in the heat of battle, but one must never forget what started the war.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Technology in the Classroom

As I sit in the National Writing Project listening to teachers discuss how to implement technology, it occurs to me just how important it is for teachers to reach out to kids through cyberspace.

I think I’m a prime example of what writing and teaching in the digital age has become. My teaching evolves around using Wikis, blogs, Blackboard, and Nings. As an author, I’m currently writing a multi-genre YA novel (a sequel to Dregs) using blogs, chat rooms, IMs, and text messages. It isn’t centered on just that, but it’s about teens, so it wouldn’t be an authentic representation of them if it didn’t incorporate that on some level. To reach my intended audience, I have to enter their world, and a huge part of their world exists in cyber space. We can’t use age-old strategies for teenagers now, because they’ll feel we can’t relate to them. As an author, I want them to read my work, and say, “Man, she gets it…” As a teacher, I want them to listen to what I’m saying, especially since I’m teaching future teachers how to teach. That listening needs to morph into believing, and the only way to truly convince young people I understand their world is to be part of it. As teachers and authors, we’re role models, and we can exist in those virtual worlds just as we do in the real one. (It begs the issue that teaching via virtual reality also allows the less-interactive kids to interact more openly, where limitations can be breached. Shy kids step out of their box, because they can assume an avatar/persona that gives them anonymity.)

When education embraces the world students/teens spend their evening hours immersed in, we might meet on a middle, common ground that allows learning to abound. And my guess is, kids won’t be the only ones learning.

Friday, November 7, 2008

What It Means to Be an American

If you list all the hats you wear in your life…wife, teacher, author, mother…where does American fall? For many of us, it’s near the top of the list. I do this activity with various writer’s group, and inevitably, I find American somewhere fifth, sixth, sometimes seventh on that list. Right now, it hovers closer to the top, because the election always reminds me how lucky I am to have the right to vote, to have a say in what happens in my country. When writers list all the roles they assume throughout the day, the week, the month, their life, somewhere down that list, we all come around to it eventually. Why? Because we know what people who don’t live here don’t…being an American, though sometimes taken for granted, rocks. Freedom of speech, of religion, to chase that elusive dream. We have it all, no matter the downside. But how many of us, on that list, put down Republican? Or Democrat? We don’t, because both McCain and Obama said it Tuesday, in their various speeches. Once this election ended, we must come together, forget our differences, and remember, we’re not red America and we’re not blue America. We’re the United States of America, for better or worse.

If you’re patriotic – whether you hang out on the left, the right, or try to straddle somewhere in the middle – you recognize that when it’s all said and done, we have to remember that one of those labels we embrace everyday is American. If you ever doubt it, watch this video of 6-8 year olds singing our National Anthem at a Texas Tech basketball game last year. It’s one of the most amazing performances I’ve ever heard, and should send that surge through you… Man, I wouldn’t wanna live anywhere else.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

My State of the Nation Address…

Yesterday, I read about the shooting at an Arkansas college, and this morning, I just saw where a little 8-year old boy was at a gun show with his dad, along with an instructor. Christopher Bizilj was allowed to fire an Uzi, and when he lost control, he shot himself in the head and died. It’s a miracle no one else died as well. My issue isn’t with the father or the instructor, and not even with Christopher. We’re fascinated with guns, all of us, or shows like CSI and The Unit wouldn’t so consistently be among Nielsen’s top rated. I’m not a Charlton Heston hater, and I’m not opposed to Americans being entitled to owning guns. Clearly, there’s no merit to the ownership of guns equating to violence. In Canada, until about two years ago, they owned more handguns per person than the U.S., yet their crime rate was profoundly lower than ours. And they’ve had one school shooting to date. One. We’ve had literally thousands now, and it escalates to the point that we barely notice them. There have been over twenty already this year. Isolated incidents, maybe only one person shot, maybe no one hurt, just shots fired. The point is, people can own guns. But what purpose do these automatic weapons serve?

I’ve fired an AK-47 while doing research for a novel. Captain Tom Dresner took me shooting, let me shoot it as a semi- then as a fully automatic. It’s legal, and it’s a rush. But the only place I ever see a use for these weapons is in the military. Christopher Bizilj was not in the military. People who go to gun shows aren’t arming themselves to go to Iraq or Afghanistan. Those who end up with these guns, statistically, are gangs and militia groups. So as manufacturers crank them out, they have to know that these weapons are designed for illegal activity, unless they have a contract with the government.

At some point in this country, we’re going to stop dead in our tracks and think, my god, what has happened to us. If you haven’t already. With the economy in its worst state since World War II, us fighting a war most of us don’t even think about during our day-to-day, they only add to crime, drugs, gangs, and unemployment completely out of control. The media uses fear mongering to keep us worried, afraid, but for all the wrong reasons. We should be afraid of losing ourselves, because it’s happening before our very eyes.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Inspired on my B'day

A friend in class last night talked about a writer she'd seen in Atlanta...and that speaker gave a talk about writing as a gas, liquid, and solid. Wow, did that get my brain going.

The idea being: when we have ideas, they're like gas. We can barely see them, they're with us, but vapor-like and have no shape. When we begin writing, they're shapeless, like water. We can put them in different containers (short stories, novels, romance, mystery, etc.) But it is still forming, lacks anything we can quite hold onto. Then it becomes a solid, a complete piece that we can look at, pick up, and begin to wonder what it will take to chisel it to a polished piece... This reminds us that even when we think we're finished, there is always polishing to do.

It begs the question: How many times do I let the gas slip through my fingers and not get it to the liquid stage, much less the solid?

So why am I blogging when there are gases out there just waiting, aspiring to be water?

Friday, October 3, 2008

Difficult Times

The National Book Festival had a different flavor this year, primarily because DC was centered on the bailout talks. Visiting the Holocaust Museum impacted me much as last year’s trip to the Vietnam Memorial did. I think I carried away a different feeling because of the state of our economy.

Republican vs. Democrat aside, we’re in difficult times now, and we run the risk of repeating the 1930s. And then it begs the question – what role did the world’s economic weakness play in Hitler’s rise to power? The Holocaust is a horrific, singular event that is still a black mark on our world’s history, but it isn’t unique in its genocidal scope. Rwanda, Bosnia, and most recently Darfur…it still happens, so perhaps the state of the world is irrelevant. Yet our weakness, being a nation hated by so many others, makes it – and us – vulnerable. It should frighten us. All of it should frighten us. We’re down, and the rest of the world has steel-toed boots. We need to unite, pass the bailout, or we’ll realize we’re nowhere near the bottom yet.

We don’t like the role of being the world’s police, and when we can’t take care of business at home, we can’t even pretend to play it. What then? Darfur needs help, but until we clean up the mess in our own house, it’s hard to see beyond our own front yard.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Help me put on the map!

I’ve been abducted! Yes, it’s true…I’m currently without my middle initial, because the guy who built my website, Blake Theiss, owns me and I can’t find him…Blake, if you’re out there, email me ( )! I need me back!! But the result is that my old website, with that pesky middle initial, is currently out-of-order…so in the meantime, PLEASE visit my brand new site at and get that puppy on the Google map! The more hits it gets, the easier it will be to sidestep the old one. In December, I should own me again. But in the meantime, if you see me wandering aimlessly down the street, help me get where I need to go (that’s a dangerous statement to make, isn’t it?) So as I head off to D.C. for the National Book Festival , I’m hoping everybody who googles me will find me!

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Opinions Matter...

Well, I've successfully finished the first week into a new school year, and ended that week with hate mail from a writer friend. I watch the hate-mongering in the media, listen to all sides of the political world attack one another, and every news outlet in the U.S. chooses this tactic because, to be honest, hatred and anger evoke a response. As long as we're frightened of things, we embrace what "they" tell us. School violence is a prime example. Our nation is one of the only that ever has school shootings. Rare instances occur in other countries, but it's so common here now, most people don't even realize there have been several acts of deadly school violence already this school year in America. If it's not of Virginia Tech or Columbine magnitude, it barely breaks a below-the-fold headline. We fear, we attack, and we stay on guard. Until recently, Canadians had more handguns per person than any other nation, yet had one of the lowest crime rates of the Western world...why? Because if it bleeds it DOESN'T lead. They don't give media coverage to violent offenders...they don't get their 15 minutes, and rightly so.

That being said, I ranted about how much ALL these politicians scare me, and yes, I did speak out that Palin scared me with wanting to make abortion illegal. I don't want the government controlling my body. I'm not an abortion advocate. But I'm also not represented at the federal level. No one there is like me... a middle class female who wants a much higher quality education for our youth, a heavier hand against drug use and possession, lower crime, active resistance against gangs, and equal rights for everyone. I would prefer someone moderate who could share the beliefs of a true majority instead of radicals on both ends, but honestly, no one is running who represents those who don't want to swing way out to the right or left. There is no longer a middle America. And we are a reactive, hateful people. When the Dixie Chicks received death threats, I marveled how much hatred Christians can muster. The values we're supposed to possess in dealing with our fellow human beings is apparently only applicable if the opinions expressed are shared. We recite "judge not lest ye be judged' but few live by the creed. If we all took out mirrors instead of magnifying glasses, it would be a much nicer place to live. As it is, I've discovered opinions matter only if they are what peole want to hear. But we can't all agree on everything. If only it were that easy.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Political Rant...

Okay, so I hover somewhere closer to the left of middle as far as politics are concerned (I'm a teacher, I'm female, and other assorted issues and quite honestly, No Child Left Behind is the stupidest thing that ever happened to education) anyway. I'm reading about McCain's family values and listening to him talk. It's hard not to like him, being a POW and all. Then I start reading about his 14 year marriage that didn't end until 1980. And he met his new wife Cindy and started a relationship in 1979... My math isn't great, but clearly, he is seeing Cindy while wife one (I believe her name started with a C also) is still legally his wife. Within mere months of the divorce, he and Cindy marry. Okay, so that happens all the time. I can accept a man valuing a new family over the old one, especially when she's 18 years younger than he is.

Then we move on to Gov. Palin...Ms. I-wanna-overturn-Roe v. Wade...if that doesn't terrify every woman on the planet, then you don't deserve a womb. I'm not a huge proponent of abortion, but I don't want butcher alley abortions for those who do want them and need them. I've watched 13-year old girls have babies and learn how to work the welfare system, and trust me, the cycle doesn't end. Every junior high and high school teacher on the planet has seen it. As much as we want them to put babies up for adoption, the culture they're raised in doesn't often promote it. But I digress... Sarah Palin stands for everything that scares me about politics. She preaches Roe v. Wade and family values with a 17-year old pregnant daughter. Now perhaps this was an immaculate conception, or most likely, her daughter didn't practice safe sex. Whatever the reason, I can't fathom someone standing on a pedastal ranting how she can facilitate change and help run this country, when clearly she hasn't done well at home. Mistakes happen, even to good, righteous families. But for a woman to sit in our White House, I'd like to think she can manage her own home better than allowing her 17-year old to get pregnant. I have friends who got pregnant young and have seen more recent friends have daughters get pregnant, and every time, it was a breakdown of some sort in the family structure.

Why people have made the word Liberal a dirty word, I have no idea. To most in education, it means open-mindedness and willingness to embrace change. Are you better off than you were 8 years ago? Not likely. Unemployment is higher than it's ever been, foreclosures are at an alarming rate, homelessness is worse than ever, gas prices at an all-time high over the past year. And to elect the oldest persident ever? That's not change, that's more of the same... He voted with President Bush on 91% of all proposals this past term. what the heck is he gonna change???

Fear mongering is central to the American way (our media has been doing it for decades), so they try to scare us that Obama has Muslim background. Well, I have German background. Does that make me a Nazi? No. If we want to turn around everything the last 8 years has done in damage, we need REAL change. I'd prefer to elect a moderate (Rudy Guiliani would've been perfect...a candidate who's been both Democrat and Republican, who stands for middle class values, and god forbid, is a balance of liberal and conservative).

I'm not opposed to some Conservative values and I embrace some Liberal...I'm a Christian, and as a teacher, I can tell you that our kids need us to speak their language and lead by example. We need to put it all in perspective. Crime, drugs,'s all out of control, and preaching isn't changing a thing. Kids learn by doing, by watching, by emulating. And what they've learned from us drove them to do what they doing now. It's not working, so driving the same car down the same street at the same pace isn't going to change it.

"Progress always involves risks. You can't steal second base and keep your foot on first." ~Frederick B. Wilcox

It's time to try new tactics.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Voices That Need To Be Heard…

Classes have gotten back underway, and as always, life flips into overdrive. We’re busy, we lose track of those around us, and worse, we lose track of ourselves. In the crazy hectic world, sometimes things are thrown in our path that make us stop and pay attention. This one did it to me… Columbia’s Second Chance, an animal shelter that rescues literally thousands of dogs, cats, and other animals a year, depends almost entirely on donations and fundraisers. And now they’re struggling…big time. Reading articles about the dilemma, the philanthropic organization refuses to close its doors on needy animals (thank god!), but likewise is threatened with the possibility of losing its tenuous role as savior to all these animals. Without them, pets would be dumped, thousands would simply die from abuse and neglect, and as much as the Humane Society can help, they don’t reach nearly the wide range of territory as Second Chance.

I teach at MU while working on my PhD and writing books…I know what kids spend on shoes, clothes, video games, etc. I also know what people blow eating out, buying gadgets (I’m as guilty as the next person), and spending a night at a club. To give up just one evening out, if all of us would do it, thousands of animals’ lives could be saved. If you saw the face of an abused or neglected puppy and knew $20 would save his life, you’d donate it, but just because you can’t see his face, know that he’s still there…

Please consider what you can do to help. Drop off a bag of dog food or donate a little cash instead of getting a pizza tonight. Every little bit we do matters…we all say we want to do more, so here’s a great way to prove it.

To donate, visit:

To read more about the crisis:

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Inspiration Squared

This week, between going to see Melissa Etheridge and watching the Olympics, I’m busting with inspiration. If you’ve never see Melissa in concert, you should. Having beaten breast cancer and seeing the silver lining of it, Melissa is nothing short of inspirational. In an era of me-me-me, she proves that her song “I Run for Life” can impact millions of people, and that celebrity status can be for perpetuating good-will and positive energy, and not just a paycheck. And then being absorbed by the historical implications of Michael Phelps and May-Treanor & Walsh, it is truly a privileged time to be alive.

We often look back on our history’s past and wonder Man, it had to be cool to be alive then…

Now is one of those “thens” and with people like our Olympians and someone as dedicated to the betterment of humankind as Melissa Etheridge, I tip my hat and realize that not everything about today’s society is negative media fodder. If only the sports world could’ve handled the Brett Favre saga with as much grace.

Melissa’s message, and that of many Olympians, is simple: be a better person, and we’ll create a better tomorrow.

Well said and easily done. One person at a time… Let’s start right now.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Vacations are eternal...

The silver lining of vacations are the paths you cross. Hawaii exceeded all expectations: swimming with sea turtles, discovering dolphins, and chasing sunsets. The families you meet, the couples you feel at home around, the faces that become familiar, if only for a brief stint. Pat/Candi/Mallory/Greta/Grace from Hershey, PA remind me that the beach isn’t the only destination worthy of a trip… Harvey and Jackie from Alaska inspire me to travel north, that it might just be beautiful enough to weather the cold…

More trips line the horizon, more people to scratch off the stranger list, more possibilities that make me giddy with anticipation. Hawaii may be headed into my rearview, but it was lighted paths to new places not yet on my list. For that, I have my vacation friends to thank!

Monday, June 23, 2008


To move away, draw back, recoil…in war, it’s for safety and signifies giving up ground. But the blessed word has a new meaning for me.

I gave the word new meaning when I went on a Writer’s Retreat last weekend in northwest Missouri, at Conception Abbey, and a retreat, it was. The Prairie Lands Writing Project hosted the event, and the fine-tuned schedule gave way to blocks of time to start a new novel. Writing for hours at a time with no phone, no email, no texts, no dogs, no doorbell, no interruptions at all. Bliss, is what we should rename it.

Every writer should try one…every author should embrace the silence and solitude of a monastery and experience the sheer inspiration that occurs because of it. I intend to find all the retreats in my area and replicate this feeling as much as possible! For now, I’ll answer my email and my phone, but I’ll feel the pull to move away, to leave when the next retreat comes my way.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Family Evolution...

At different stages in our lives, it takes on a whole different meaning. As kids, our parents care for us, wipe our mouths, our bottoms, and ready the world for us and us for the world. That function has evolved over the past generation, and the pros and cons of parenting today vs. twenty years ago is a hot debate. What happens once kids leave home and begin lives of their own starts a cycle of change.

At some point in the grand scheme of things, the roles reverse. It’s often so subtle, we don’t realize it has happened. And then it’s just the way it is. What is disheartening is that in this country, so many of our elderly are not well cared for, nor does our society treat them with the respect they’ve earned and deserve. This is something we could take from the Asian and African-American cultures: treat with reverence those who’ve brought you into this world, because as they leave it, we are made better by their time with us. When we shove our parents and grandparents into nursing homes and forget about them, we are only perpetuating that mentality with our children. What then? Are we ready to be the next victim? Do we want to be the ones on the hidden cameras being abused by unhappy nursing home workers, taking their life’s frustrations out on those who can’t defend themselves? Much like people who hurt animals and babies, those who abuse the elderly deserve nothing less than the exact same treatment. If we truly subscribed to the mentality of an eye for an eye, many would think before they acted. As it is now, we’re simply digressing into a society so plagued by violence, we don’t even see the severity and totality of it. As Gandhi once said, “An eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind.” So the message is to do unto others as we’d like them to do unto us. If you haven’t talked to your parents or grandparents lately, call them. Tell them you love them…better yet, go visit them. Life is short, and before you know it, visiting will only happen when you pass through the Pearly Gates. If you pass through the Pearly Gates. Perhaps the best message is that the love, respect, and compassion you show now gets you a ticket in line at those Gates. If more people had faith in that, it truly would be a better world to live in.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Cold in May...

I've decided Mother Nature must be just completely ticked at us...why else is the weather completely bizarre? As I sit and write, I marvel that in late May, I'm COLD! Yes, that's right...COLD! Usually in mid-Missouri, late May is the lead-in to 90 degree days, tanning, and getting the pool warm enough to swim in. But no, after the hardest winter in well over a decade, the spring has been complete with enough rain to fill the pool without need of a hose, and now, the cold front moving through sparks my belief that the world might just be ending.

Thunder snow, ice storms, tsunamis, earthquakes, landslides, wild fires, tornadoes, floods...and I'm sure droughts are on the horizon. If this isn't punishment for all our humanly destruction of rain forests and everything put on earth to help us live, then what is it?

We've treated our resources the way we do everything else: to fulfill immediate gratification without regard for our future. And why not? We won't be around to suffer the consequences.

That mindset has worked SO well for us so far...

Monday, May 19, 2008

Wow Moments...

Wow Moments…

This weekend, I participated in the Kansas City Literary Festival. Reading excerpts from Dregs always means a lot to me, to share insights into what it might take to stop school violence, and I feel every person I touch might help. The weekend was a success, and I feel humbled to have been part of a wonderful literary event.

Highlights for me started Friday night when I got to see the original copies of books by Sir Isaac Newton, Copernicus, Charles Darwin, and Galileo. It puts everything in perspective… And then only an hour later, I met the last U.S. astronaut to walk on our moon, Harrison “Jack” Schmitt. What an amazing man! His wife, Theresa, was just as amazing and interesting to talk to. After chatting with him and getting his autograph, I realized that exploration and constant evolution is what keeps this country alive. So when I got home and had an email sending me to a moving video by Lizzie Palmer called Remember Me, I watched it.

Humbled again, I wanted to share and be part of the generation that says, “I may not believe in the war, but it doesn’t mean I don’t believe in the warriors.” Men and women fight for our country, they do what they’re told, and they do it without hesitation. And for that, we sit in our homes without fear of foreign countries barging in.

To all the men and women who fight for our nation, to all the pioneers who strive to better our world, thank you.

Monday, May 12, 2008

The Blank Page

When I see a blank page, like Donald Murray, I see the promise of what could be…

I live in an era not of erasers or trashcans but of delete buttons and recycle bins, but the goal and triumph is universal. To write something beautiful, eloquent, readable, entertaining, inspiring…is nothing short of amazing every time I attempt it. I, too, am not sure if I’ve completed anything deserving of accolades, of that point in which you stop and think My god, I’ve done it. I never feel finished.

No matter at what stage I’m in with a project, I could continue to edit, revise, elaborate… when I pick up a copy of one of my novels in a bookstore, I don’t actually read the lines or I’m afraid I’d want to take out a pencil. However, the rush of emotion as I gaze at the product is overwhelming. The product itself never satisfying, it’s the journey that evokes the sense of wonder, of completion, of a sheer euphoria only experienced while writing. Many hobbies satisfy, exhilarate, even intoxicate me, but none elicits the response of writing something I feel worthy of reading aloud. First to myself, then to my dogs, then to my best friend. If it survives the triad, I surge ahead with edits, revision, and the ultimate goal of finding where it fits: a blog, a chapter, an essay… That component may signify the end of the journey for the child I’ve created, but for me, it’s the point in time at which I created it that exudes the memories. Isn't that what conception truly is? I think so.

Monday, May 5, 2008

6-word memoirs

In honor of the 6-word memoir trend (thank you, Ernest Heminway for your powerful: for sale, baby shoes, never used), I have dabbled with these for myself...

Glass half full, cracked but functional.
Pen to paper is my oxygen.
To love is everything to me.
Apathy only abated by enthusiastic innovation.
Fame matters only to get read.

If you try this and come up with some really powerful ones, share!!

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

April 16, 2008

One-year anniversary of young lives abbreviated, cut short by anger
I pause, reflecting
Who am I to be so busy I can’t take a breath, absorb the now, abstain from the next
They can’t
I will
As we walk the roads, choosing the intersections, hurrying through them, oblivious of the deeper meaning, we forget to stop and say hi, to contemplate the birds twittering on a branch, territorial and basic

I pause, reflecting
Who am I to be so selfish that I can’t take a moment to understand the implications of what the day means to so many
Not just the families but to kids, to teenagers, to teachers who let it linger in the backs of their minds…
What if it happened here?

I pause, reflecting
Who am I to be so absent-minded that I can’t take a shot at making a difference, that I have the pen to impact, the platform to if not erase, ease the depth of the wounds inflicted.
Names matter, remembering matters, nurturing matters, dealing matters, avoiding an encore matters
If we can’t stop it, can’t put an off-ramp on that cyclical road of hate, of feeling cornered, of no-other-way-out-but-with-a-gun mentality, then we have to consider destroying the road
Just because we think our way of learning, of teaching works, it doesn’t. Not for everyone
We need to touch everyone

I pause, reflecting
Schools synonymous with a new era, of places we thank god we weren’t, and then I realize
We were there
We were all there
And I pray we can stay away from the next place

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Walter Williams Major Work Award

I'm on cloud nine!!

This weekend the Missouri Writers' Guild gave out its annual awards, from Best Fiction to Best Magazine article, but the ultimate is the Walter Williams Major Work Award, named after the gentleman who was founding dean of the J-School at MU back in the early 1900s.

The good news? My young adult novel Dregs won 2nd place in the Walter Williams Award, ahead of several major authors! :-) The winner is none other than Ellen Gray Massey, my sophomore English teacher! The conference was a wonderful success, and Naomi Shihab Nye was nothing less than amazingly inspirational!

Friday, March 28, 2008

The Evolution of Spring Break

I wonder when the idea of spring break morphed from being a necessary respite after hard winters and the demands of school into a drunk fest in a beach town? It’s become vogue to travel somewhere exotic, have wild tales of extraordinary adventures to share. So then students return exhausted, too tired to attend classes for at least another week, though their body my actually be in a chair in the classroom. Perhaps the latter is more applicable to college students, but the travel has broadened to include all student ages. Maybe the Vitamin D is more important than rest, but I’m staking my claim for a walk on the MKT Trail, sleeping in, afternoon movies, and no grading for at least four consecutive days. Rest, relaxation, and re-energizing. That’s my goal.

Perhaps because I travel during the summer and on Christmas break, I don’t feel compelled to battle thousands of half-naked drunks who’ll regret 80% of what they did come the Monday after…

Oh, God, I think I just became my mother.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Brett Dennen's "Ain't No Reason"

If you haven’t heard Brett Dennen’s new song “Ain’t No Reason” you need to…much like Kid Rock’s “Amen,” it illustrates so much of what’s wrong in America, but offers hope of how perhaps to fix it. We can turn a blind eye, we can claim not to be able to change any of the problems spiraling out of control, but if we all felt that way, where would that leave us?

We have voices…blogs…websites…what kind of revolution could we incite? A revolution of hope, of promise, and what could be and not what once was. I look up at a horizon and not down at the mud puddles; I blink into the sun, but use an umbrella to shield myself from the rain. If we can teach that, embrace possibilities and not moan the roadblocks, then the promise of a new generation can open doors, eliminate barriers, and build new bridges. Brett Dennen and John Lennon (a parallel in names?) expose the wires, but it’s up to us to coat them, to re-connect, to reroute the current. My money is on a visionary who plans to seize the moment of our world and have a dream, someone who will guide us to ask not what our country can do for us, someone who has a hand up and not a hand out. If there is more than one, if we have the luxury of embracing change and challenges, then it’s just a matter of keeping our eyes open. Better to need sunglasses than umbrellas.

Brett Dennen's "Ain

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Victims of Violence

School violence has many victims. Those shot, those wounded, those who survive. Last week, an 18- year old boy in Alabama went to school with a gun. He stood in the gym, fired a shot into the ceiling to get the attention of nearly 150 classmates, then shot himself while they watched. He died. They didn’t. But how many will have nightmares, unable to erase the sound, the smell, the sight of a violent death right in front of them.

School violence has many victims. Those who recall things they might’ve said or done to him, maybe things they didn’t say or do for him. In an era when being a teenager is harder than ever, to witness such a horror is to know tragedy in a way most can never grasp. To say being a teenager today is tough is cliché. To know there must be a solution is naïve. To want answers and a way to smooth the way is idealistic. But to not try is to condone the daily apathy – and cruelty – we see in so many of our youth.

Today’s kids worry about fitting in, avoiding the bully who’s picked on them since third grade, and what to wear that won’t get them teased. Top that off with the stressors of drugs, gangs, and sex, they can’t even get to the issue of homework and making good grades. Kids who’re lucky enough to avoid many of these pitfalls have their own worries. And even what doesn’t happen in their world, because our media is obsessed with instilling fear in our nationwide audience, will leak into their sheltered world.

School violence has many victims, and the reality is, the American psyche is one of them.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Read Across America

The National Education Association launched Read Across America on Monday, and the “Read-In” began in Atlanta. I took part in it on Tuesday at West Junior High School in Columbia, MO, and I can tell you, the power of reading to teenagers is underrated.

Over 100 teenagers sat rapt while I read a story about kids like them… I shared an excerpt of my young adult novel Dregs, a chapter leading up to a jock on the verge of a meltdown. The most powerful image, for me, was of a girl who nodded her head while I was reading a scene of a freshman picking on a 7th grader. That said enough to me: she’d seen it with her own eyes. It validated what I’d written and why I write. For every author in America, validation from readers, especially young readers, measures higher than sales, recognition, even awards.

Reaching people…that’s what teachers strive to do. As an author, achieving that is on a different level. We get feedback, hear from readers what they liked and even didn’t. As a teacher, we seldom know our impact until years later. I have some students who stay in touch with me, and because they tell me what an inspiration I was, I know how I touched them. But so often, I’ll hear that a former student of mine has gone into education to be an English teacher or has gone into Journalism or has published something. A little smile creeps across my face, because I’d like to think it had just a little to do with me and my class. I might be wrong, but there’s nothing mistaken about a listener nodding her head like she knows exactly what I’m talking about. That’s direct and immediate feedback, and for many of us, it’s what motivates us to keep writing! I think I’ll start a new YA novel right now.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Kindred Spirit

It isn't very often that we meet/see someone who possesses the same mindset as ourselves. Cynics don't disagree about the same plights, optimists are hopeful about varying degrees of issues, but every once in a while, we might a kindred spirit. Okay, so I didn't meet mine, but I saw her in concert on Sunday night. Martina McBride...though I'm not a huge country music fan (I'm a Kid Rock/Nickelback/Beatles/Melissa Etheridge sorta girl)...but her song "Do It Anyway" has been my anthem since it came out. I always told my students, "I'm not just a glass-half-full person...I'm just happy to have a glass." The theory there is I could have a paper cup or nothing at all, and I'm grateful for the little things. That song summed up a lot about me.

After seeing Martina McBride in concert, I realize that's really who she is. Down-to-earth, grateful for the small things, and seizing life by the moment. She even used a key phrase I say often, "I'm lucky to be living my dream."

So hopefully I can find more of us out there...and we can spread optimism the way many spread their cynicism. Why not? It's not like we have anything to lose...

Monday, February 18, 2008

One Degree of Separation

If I were Kevin Bacon, I’d now only have one degree of separation from one of my all-time idols – Stephen King. Or Steve, as Ridley Pearson refers to him. After spending the weekend at the Write to Learn conference in Osage Beach, I got to introduce an author I’ve admired for over a decade. If that wasn’t enough, hearing Ridley talk about playing in his band, The Rock Bottom Remainders, I had a serious case of author envy. Ridley’s current YA book (he has published mostly thrillers until he and Dave Barry decided to answer the questions never explained in Peter Pan) spent 47 weeks on the NY Times Bestseller List. When I intro’d him, I suggested he loan me a week. I’d even do a minute or two, though that might not be long enough to call my mom and my friends…

What I learned this weekend is that as long as authors stay “real,” fans will always stay loyal. It makes you wonder what Britney, Paris, and Lindsay are thinking. What Ridley proved is that great success happens to normal, nice, and inherently good people. Movies, TV shows, Bestseller lists…it took him nearly a decade to achieve it, so with all the success I’ve enjoyed so far, I think I’ve been lucky…plus, I have six years to go to start fretting over the movie and TV thing.

Hmmmm, in 8 Days, I’ll have Brad Pitt play Jake, Al Pacino would be a perfect Tony Andrews, Matthew McConaughey could be Dusty…as for Slipping, Ed Norton is my only choice for Seth, Mark Wahlberg is Mikie, and Danna Scanlon? That’s easy…Jodi Foster needs to reverse age. And in Dregs, let’s see…

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

My Sign of the Chinese Zodiac

Being a dragon has a mystique about it…I have visions of Wesley Snipes’ movies and New Years celebrations with dragon tails slinking and rising behind the beastly head. It says I’m eccentric, complex, and passionate. This couldn’t describe me better, though at first I balked at the description of being eccentric. Then I looked it up, the literal meaning, and realized I am eccentric.

“Unconventional and strange”…yes, that’s me. To fit nicely into a little hole would be boring and limiting. Instead, I do push convention, I do feel the need to erase the lines of the box, not just step outside it. Life wasn’t meant to be lived inside a box. We’re pioneers, in every since of the word. We’ve discovered most corners of the known world, so we’ve ventured into outer space and now find ourselves exploring inner space – cyber space.

As a dragon, I want to lead the charge in finding new and more interesting ways to live outside our conventions, our boxes, the limitations we place on ourselves and each other. What a boring life it would be if we all paid attention to rules and abided by its confines. Not me, I want to rename roads, reroute pathways, and reorganize the way people think about things. Living my life won’t do it, but writing about other lives might… To create worlds is the ultimate satisfaction – it has no bounds.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008


Sometimes the idea of freewriting overwhelms because there are so many things I want to write, need to write. My brain jams with all the possibilities…do I write something new? Work on something I have a deadline for? Compose a new blog? Actually finish a project I've stuffed in a drawer waiting for a time when I can write anything I absolutely want to?

And then the parameter of turning it in…it changes my mindset. To meander thoughtfully on a page like walking a path in the woods. Turn left, no look at that tree straight ahead, but what about way over there, isn't that a fence? Oooh, I have to cross the fence, go where I probably shouldn't, because that's how my brain works. And then to consider all the things to touch, to look at, to explore deeper. If I stay on the more worn path, I'm left with a Frost-like philosophy, What if I missed something I could show to the world, a new idea, a new plot, a new concept no one has ever thought of before? The writer-envy wants a Walden experience in an urban world. Can I have that? Live in the big-middle of the world and find a utopian spot where only I can see all the intricacies of a story no one has yet told? The idea gives me chills. To discover, to explore, to generate thoughts that might open eyes to something brand new or a new twist on something age-old. isn't that what every writer dreams of? It’s a quandary for me to think I might not come up with anything special: Conroy's Beach Music, Capote's In Cold Blood, Mitchell's Gone with the Wind, Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath…the books that need no summary, need no introduction, that a first line whispered is often enough to evoke the memory of having read it. With the things I've written, I haven't achieved that. I yearn for it, ache to create that Oprah-admired instant classic that people will oooh and ahhh over and say, "Wow, I knew she had it in her, but I never dreamed it would be this wonderful."

God, a girl can dream…

Monday, January 28, 2008

Nice is Out...

We live in a day and age in which 'being nice' is out. People second-guess motives, don't trust a random comment, outright believe that something a person says is an effort to manipulate or hurt them. What has happened to our society?

Sometimes I wish I lived in the 50s, when being nice was not only in, it was expected. Instead, no one believes it's possible today. Everybody wants something from somebody. But do they really? I don't think so. I believe we can chat with people without expecting something in return, that we can say thank you and mean it, that we can say you're sorry for someone's loss or hurting and truly believe it. But paranoia is a more normal emotion than compassion. Fear replaces empathy, and too close behind is apathy and anger.

This week, at least for a few days, think before you react. Take a deep breath before you assume something you're perceiving isn't what it seems. Give people the benefit of the doubt. Remember to take out your mirror before getting out your magnifying glass.

As a writer, it's hard to imagine a world without conflict…all stories revolve around it. But the nature of our world signals that if something doesn't reverse or take a serious turn soon, we're going to self-destruct. I, for one, often do things for no other reason than to be nice. And I know many people do. But the focus for many is on the self-serving belief that people are out to hurt them. The most important adage for most Americans is to understand that not everything is about them. We're a self-indulgent, self-absorbed, self-obsessed society. Being nice takes too much time, too much effort, and isn't the kind of attention many people want.

Imagine, though, the reaction of a person when they think they're going to get a ticket but they discover someone dropped fifty cents into their meter? You might not get credit, but you made someone's day. Leave a good book on the counter at the laundromat, pick up a stranger's tab at lunch, or simply offer a smile to someone today and tell them, "You look great today." The results beat the heck out of the effort.

Yep, being nice may not be vogue, but I prefer a world out of style than one with so much anger and hatred that you dread encounters with people immersed in it.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

What is the secret to the U.S. equaling Asian’s education success?

If I could answer that, I’d be rich. I can tell you one of our number one mistakes has been letting politicians mandate what goes on in the classroom, instead of schools and those trained for it orchestrating the framework for learning.

When President Bush got the NCLB bandwagon rolling, no one understood the full concept. It sounds good—No Child Left Behind. However, as harsh as it sounds, teachers can only move forward with the kids who want to move forward. Someone will be left behind, because in this country, nearly 7% of our kids want to drop out of school. If we focus too much time and energy on those who don’t want help, what’s happening to everyone else in the meantime? The bottom 7% will wander off into the sunset to work at McDonald’s or suck the marrow out of the welfare system, and in the meantime, we’ll be letting a new 7% flounder…Bush’s plan is to keep that average up. Think about that for a moment. Let’s increase the average, matter of fact, let’s keep all kids ABOVE average… Did President Bush take math? I’ve seen him blunder statements about fool him once, shame on him, etc. So perhaps someone should tip him that an average is created by numbers above and BELOW it… Teachers understand the reality: we will leave some kids behind. Not because we want to, but because it’s the nature of education…in America.

However, the idealism of NCLB works in Asia. Have you seen Shift Happens? If you haven’t, you should. Because as we face the stressors of keeping American children motivated, other countries are leaving us to eat their dust. The difference? Families. Homes. Respect. Expectations.

I have friends in the PhD program with me who are from China, Korea, Taiwan. Their children don’t talk back to them. Their children don’t expect to be entertained 24/7 by XBoxes, iPods, or teachers. They spend nearly 10 hours a day learning, and their common language? English. They understand that to fail in school is to let their families down. Drugs are for gangbangers and criminals, not casual use on a Friday night. What have these countries done that we haven’t? If we don’t find out soon, America won’t be the leading innovator in anything, not even the highest percentage of English speaking citizens. We’ve taken the melting pot concept to an all-time high. It’s projected that by 2015, the most prominent language in our country will be Spanish, while China and India will be 100% English speaking (as a first or second language). The most startling fact is that our percentage of those living in poverty or supported by the state will exceed those who, well, aren’t. While we’re focusing on how to keep our kids off the streets, off drugs, and out of gangs, Asian countries will be figuring out how to get all American products outsourced to them. They’re well on their way.

To break this cycle, we must address the other number one mistake we’ve made – parents need to step up and remember they are their kids first teacher. We’ll have to decide: Am I going to be politically correct and reason with my child or be a parent and raise my child?

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

My Own Bucket List

After seeing the movie on Friday, I think Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman have tapped into something inspiring. If you haven't seen it, The Bucket List, the basic message is to live life to its fullest before you die. Therefore, make a list of all the things you'd like to do before you kick the bucket.

I was inspired enough to start my own "Bucket List" and it got me thinking…in the words of Tim McGraw, we should all "live like we were dying." Instead, what we do is live to exist, to pay the bills, work for the weekend, don't pass go until Friday… But life isn't just from Friday at 5:00 until Monday morning. It doesn't pause for the stress of the work-week, for early bedtimes and higher stress, it doesn't say anywhere that you should only grill in the summer and only go out on the weekends. One thing I've learned is to catch a movie on a Wednesday night or play cards on a Monday. Nothing erases the stressors of work faster than play. And adults forget how cleansing play can be.

My New Year's Resolution is always to work out more, to make time to get in shape. As a former college athlete, it's a no-brainer. But this year, I'm going to wrap that in a different package. My resolution is to play more, spend more time laughing, focus on what's really important: living.

Monday, January 7, 2008

A New Civil Rights Movement…

I was born in a decade of civil unrest. Riots, anger, supremist mentality…despite the summer of love, the sixties echoed with turmoil and hatred. Rising in the time were brave voices, strong resistors, people who fought for what they believed in without fists or bloodshed. Where are the Martins and Bobbys now? Who would step up and fill Rosa's shoes, advocate with Medger, lead with JFK? Turbulent times called for calm leadership, and someone always stepped up.

After a visit to Memphis, I'm left wondering who could step forward now. With the rising youth movement of gang mentality, a sense of entitlement from most under the age of twenty, a dropout rate soaring…we need a Martin Luther King, Jr. Someone to stand up and open the eyes of a generation blind to the realities of the world they're ignoring. Are we leaving that to the idols of today? Eminem? Allen Iverson? Michael Vick?

There are saviors, but too many of us pay little attention to what matters. Movements center on the environment, politics, religion…while these rank high on the importance list, nothing outweighs the future of our youth.

I was in junior high during the late seventies -- skyrocketing gas during the energy crisis, hostages in Iran, a peanut farmer's down-home attitude in the White House. Being a teenager was tough, times were tough, but nothing like the Civil Rights era. And now…years after most nations have long-since had female and minority leaders, the U.S. continues to battle issues spawned by racism and classism. We've gotten nowhere, except in the midst of an overly obsessed era of political correctness. Coupled with the spiral down a drug-gang toilet, we've succeeded in preserving all the worst components of past decades. My generation saw to that.

Violence has been a central theme in our nation since its inception. Good for us…at least we have some nostalgia for our past. It's time for someone to step up, to impose a positive spin on a generation in dire need of help, of leadership, of hope.

We can only pray people will listen.