Put Some Pizzaz in your Pockets

Imagine big red coat, aged. Faded. Sleeves sport house paint. Imagine a jacket good for yard work – in the back yard onl

y, a jacket great for embarrassing your family. Now you’ve it – Ugly Coat.

Ugly Coat

Ugly Coat

 Ugly Coat and I are out with Handy-Guy Mike, changing the back-up batteries on the smoke alarm systems in a duplex. I pocket the old batteries – some have been in the smoke alarm two or three years. They back up a system that is wired into the building. But we change them even though they are not dead. Not even chirping yet. Don’t want a backup system that fails, right?

 Mike and I follow this battery excursion with some bathtub caulking, some kitchen plumbing-rust-blow-out, and then outdoor clean up, yard debris recycling and moss reduction on the stairs. Now you know how Ugly Coat became ugly.

 But Coat is so outrageously ugly that even Handy Guy asks about its age.

“This venerable husk?” I say. “This integument? This membrane?  Age? Greater than yours, Handy.”

 He eyes it, then, speechless, moves to the next mossy step, trowel in hand.

 And again, I have put off those who would demean this Bargain Find, this Economical Coverage, this Cheap Crust.

 Our work done, my coat and I take off for home which needs its own plumbing-rust-blow-out and moss reduction.

 Late in the day, I put my hand in my pocket, thinking to put the batteries in the recycling bag.

 My hand pops back out and directly into my mouth. Yipes! Hot, like Microwave Hot when the below-surface boil explodes. I dash for the ice cubes while tossing batteries on the floor and shucking Ugly Coat. That’s when I notice the black hole. Whole galaxies could disappear in this black pocket hole.

I study the floored batteries. Separately benign. Together, a flaming menace. But how?

“Well,” explains my electrical engineer son-in-law. “They weren’t dead. Plus, these batteries have positive and negative on the same end. All other types have positive and negative on opposite ends.”

Burning Up

Burning Up

 “You mean the ends connected between two batteries?”

 “No, the ones that might have connected that way would just have equalized the amount of energy between the two of them and nothing more would have happened.

But these — the positive and negative finials on your batteries merely had to touch the metallic side of another battery. Energy began flowing and since some of the batteries still had quite a bit of life left, energy flowed for a long time.”

 “What if I had hung that coat in the mud room, next to other coats?”

 “Potential house fire.”

 “I suppose I can’t put them together in the battery recycling bag.”

“Best not.”

 I call Handy-Guy Mike to warn him. He has some of these batteries in his pocket as well.

 “I know,” he says. “I was sitting here watching basketball with my fellows. I felt my pocket getting warmer and warmer, and I’m thinking ‘This is kind of embarrassing’ and I decide to sit still and then make some excuse to go to the bathroom. Then all of a sudden I can’t stand the heat and I jump up and stuff my hand down my pocket and yank out these blazing batteries and I’m jumping around and . . .and . . . and Yes it was embarrassing. But thank you for calling. An hour sooner would have been good, ‘cause, I gotta say, my reputation rises in moments like this.”

 So, my Handy-Guy is feeling burnt, and my Ugly Coat is pocket-less on the interior of one side.

Rowlf checking out the burnt pocket smell

Rowlf checking out the burnt pocket smell

 But the coat is not on its way to the landfill. What a wonderful life lesson it provides. (Here, read, “What a fine new coat to wear while doing my job — the job of embarrassing my children!”)

 The batteries? They lie separately on the mantel, an inch between and all facing the same



direction. I’ve already tested their ability to start a fire individually. If I put a piece of tinfoil on one battery so that it touches both the positive and negative finials . . . Pouf!

 My semi-spent batteries await the warm summer day when I can take them out to the driveway. I’ll start a kindling fire with whatever energy is left in them, because, not only do I love old and ugly coats, I also love discovering a new way to do campfires that the family boy scouts won’t have considered.

 That is, I’ll be using something short of a blow torch.


Lightning Follows Me

Recently, I nearly wiped out, or was wiped out in a storm. There are dangers in a Virginia battlefield that have nothing to do with sharpshooters and cannons.
My husband, Woody, and I were in The Great State of Virginia — he to help teach ethics to fellow actuaries, me for research on our nation’s history.
We both visited the great battlefield at Gettysburg and came away with understanding how the high terrain offers advantages. We learned about strategies of the battle-field generals of that time.

But during our visit, sadness grew on us. So many men feared, sweat, starved, and died in such bloody and mundane little fields and groves; so many were mown down in that final charge across what amounts to two football fields in corn and wheat; and so many stood firm only to lose their lives, when others ran.
The day after our Gettysburg visit, the sun created radiant possibilities for life. I wanted to be somewhere in Virginia with nature as the focus. Virginia can be beautiful, a beauty not entirely obscured by the deaths of the Civil War.
However, on the maps, I found no park, arboretum or even rose garden within distance for the time available, but I did find a small memorial battlefield about twenty miles IMG_1179from our hotel. On the map, I notice a stream running next to the park, and what appeared to be the close lines indicating a bluff on the battlefield side of the map. Across the stream, farmland.
I decided to go, and think of it as a day in the woods, not in history.
So, I bid goodbye to Woody and his ethics class. I climbed into our rented car, and with the aid of a GPS sporting an incongruously bubbly voice, I drove past shopping malls toward the north. The day grew bright. The air warm and the sun on the wet pines made iridescent sparkles. Virginia in its rain and sun season can be lovely.

On my entrance into the park, I discovered a completely empty parking lot. No other historic site we’d visited had been this devoid of human activity, or lacking gift materials for sale. At Ball’s Bluff, there was nothing but the path and the signs.

A curious robin followed my moves, chirruping and hopping, swooping and eyeing me. I may have threatened her nest. She determined to see me out.

I have no familial connections to this or any other battle field in Virginia. Both of my father’s grandfathers, the Williams and the Wheeler grandfathers, fought battles further south. The big grandfather Chester A. Williams, rode as a cavalry officer for the Union under General Sherman. The little grandfather, Albert Wheeler, was a blacksmith for the Army of the Confederacy. They had been, and later again were neighbors, across a road from each other. The war history of my mother’s Stamps and Chaplain grandfathers in Arkansas, is less known.

So, though I did not search for roots in my battlefield visit, I did search for perspective. At Gettysburg, I gained awareness of the horrific stupidity when proud generals send hundreds across an open field in the slim hope that numbers will overwhelm large-bore, well-aimed guns. At Ball’s Bluff, I began to see the great losses caused by what some think is courage, but appears more like impetuous lack of communication and lack of planning.

As I entered, the park, Ball’s Bluff Battlefield, settled into quiet save for my footsteps and the robin’s angst. The battle here was small, but significant – and an accident. This is a Virginia forest, open spaces, a mix of birch, catalpa and pine trees – wet, sunny wildness after yesterdays’ downpour.

Another bird welcomed me with whippoorwill softness. Robin continues to urge me onward.

I begin to follow what happened here in that fall of 1861. Reading signs that poke above the underbrush, I soon leave the sad whippoorwill behind. I see where Confederates camped to rest over there on the meadow. I imagine the night, the tents, the campfires kept low because the soldiers know that the Union has troops across the stream, the Potomac River.

Here, Confederates are within thirty miles of Washington D.C. and in the no-man’s land contested by both armies. Several times during this war, the Army of the Confederate States threatened the Union capital. This small Confederate contingent is poking in that direction again, perhaps the vanguard, or maybe the rearguard of a larger force. The Union soldiers aren’t sure which.

At the same time, the Union’s U.S. Army of Northern Virginia, if they cross the Potomac, might capture Leesburg, Virginia, an important crossroads for the Confederate. Only these sixteen hundred Confederates lie between the Union troops and Leesburg.

Leesburg is to the west. Between Confederate and Union troops lies the Potomac River and a very steep bluff, about fifty feet of difficult climb up from the river. Confederate guards, and probably over there on the far side of the river, Union guards, watch the riverbank for any activity.

The robin who first greeted me hops from branch to branch as I approach the bluff and the depression in which the guards made themselves safe on this side from snipers of the other persuasion. The energy of the robin’s chirruping belies the memory of these woods.

Downstream and around a bend, the Union leaders sent a reconnaissance of a few boats and several dozen troops. The bluff is less steep around the bend, the waters, slower. The scouts discerned an opportunity and sent back for more troops.

The attack on the Confederate camp came through here, from the northeast, taking the few guards by surprise and catching the main confederate group in their tents. But soon the guards along the stream rallied and gave the others a chance to arm and get into action.

Here died a Union leader and U.S. Senator from Oregon, Edward Baker – Oregon’s first senator and a friend of President Abraham Lincoln. There died a Confederate guard. Over there, several Union men lay in the underbrush, raking the camp with rifle fire before the Confederates were able to escape and regroup.

The camped confederates were out-numbered by the Union, and surprise had almost won in the initial moments. I walked down into the hollow where the Union mass entered the area. Now my following robin seems more curious than angry at my intrusion.

I see where, in the dark, the Union soldiers could not tell they were on the low ground in a long path worn into the land by the occasional overflow creek of flood times. Yesterday’s rain has left this hollow a soggy waterway.

During that night of invasion, when the Confederates escaped the light of their own fires and the strafing fire of the invaders, they were on the high ground above this small depression. Confederates were a mere seven or so feet higher than the Union men, but enough to have the advantage. Plus, they had camped here for three days, and so knew the hollow and the soggy ground that caught at boots and slowed attack or escape.

The surprise by the Union lasted maybe twenty minutes, and then, the greater knowledge of the land and the greater numbers resulted in death, here in the bog, over there in the copse of trees. Escape back to the Potomac River, meant tumbling down the bluff, or stumbling north, retreating in darkness to the boats still moored around the bend.

Behind that boulder, lay a Confederate sharp shooter. Death to the man who had shiny metal upon him in the dark. Within four hours, the remnant of the Union sortie had stumbled back to the boats, or was lost or captured in that general direction. But a Union contingent of seven hundred out of the three thousand original group, had scrambled down or fallen to the narrow land, the crumbling river bank at the bottom of the bluff. They held out down there, hiding behind rocks and scraggly trees, but their remnant spent the rest of the war in the same prisoner of war camp as my Williams great-grandfather – Andersonville.

I follow the men running north, and then turn back to learn more about what happened to the Union troops in the bluff area. About a thousand Union men died in this route, and around one hundred fifty Confederate soldiers.
All alone, I had calm my anger at imbecilic leadership. I recognize the regrowth of a gun-shattered land, and I understand the mistakes of night and of difficult communication.

At that moment, the sound of the robin stops suddenly. The robin who has accompanied me in my wanderings through this underbrush, flashes away with a rush. Her wings thump the air and then stop.

I feel a change I can’t identify – a cold moment on my neck, a tightening of my scalp. I know I must get out of here, though why, I cannot explain to myself. And I am about a half mile from my car. I run, nearly tripping on tree roots, avoiding the low-land bog which makes my escape a ragged zigzag.

I don’t look back, I just flat out run. I pass the markers of Union and Confederate death, I pass the birches, the boulders, the pine trees. I race to my car, keys in hand, beeping the driver’s door. I slam inside, pull the door after me and lock it. I start the motor and at that moment, lightning strikes the parking lot twenty feet away, between where I am

photo credit: Steve took it via photopin cc

photo credit: Steve took it via photopin cc

and where I was. Clouds roar into the Potomac Valley, covering the sun. Rain sheets down.

After a sweating, fear-filled minute, I back out of my lonely space, head for the entrance and glance behind me at another flash of lightning.

Forty minutes later, I have followed the brake lights of a line of cars, the only thing one can see in the heavy waves of rain. At last, I am parked in the hotel lot. The rain and wind continue to whip the trees, but the lightning seems to be behind me, back in the direction of the battlefield and the shopping malls.

I decide to brave the rain, and race from car to hotel. Once inside, I text my husband, who is teaching. “I am in the hotel and safe.”
Woody texts back, “Tornado winds expected, we’ve been moved away from windows and into the interior bar. Come down to level B.”
Level B. Such a modern phrase to wrench me from the past to the present.
Facts of the Event at Ball’s Bluff, (Other Names: Harrison’s Landing, Leesburg)
Location: Loudoun County
Campaign: McClellan’s Operations in Northern Virginia (October-December 1861)
Date(s): October 21, 1861
Principal Commanders: Brig. Gen. Charles P. Stone and Col. Edward Baker [US]; Brig. Gen. Nathan G. Evans [CS]
Forces Engaged: 3,600 total (US 2,000; CS 1,600)
Estimated Casualties: 1,070 total (US 921; CS 149)
Description: Confederate Brig. Gen. Nathan “Shanks” Evans stopped a badly coordinated attempt by Union forces under Brig. Gen. Charles P. Stone to cross the Potomac at Harrison’s Island and capture Leesburg. A timely Confederate counterattack drove the Federals over the bluff and into the river. More than 700 Federals were captured. Col. Edward D. Baker (a U.S. Senator from Oregon) was killed. This Union rout had severe political ramifications in Washington and led to the establishment of the Congressional Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War.

Laughland by Ken Byers



By Ken Byers

Ken Byers creates unforgettable characters and sets them against extraordinary moral and physical conflict. In Laughland, Byers is in top storytelling form.
Laughland begins with one day of strafing and Napalm in 1967 at Bong Sat Viet Nam. The evil done on that day by Nathan Ferry, one very rich and powerful American, puts the survivors, Matt Eliot, Marcus Steerman and Bill Tagnut, in great danger for the rest of their lives.
While Ferry’s men hunt down Matt Eliot and his platoon, even the survivors’ families suffer, including the child, Amos Eliot. In order to live at all, Amos, born two weeks before the fateful event, grows up learning how to hide and hit at the Ferry Empire, and its untouchable King Nathan with swift, well-planned and dramatic effect.
This is a page turner, available from Lloyd Court Press through Amazon as a hold-in your-hand book or and e-book. A great, fast read.

Mountain Climbing – Research for Uncharted Territory

One of the first question people ask me after they read Uncharted Territory, is “How do you know so much about climbing mountains?”Uncharted Territory

The answer is, I don’t know as much as is in the book. I have climbed mountains, but much of what is in Uncharted Territory is new climbing technique and the newer environmental practices of climbers. What’s in the book is research distilled, so what I learn comes out only when Jack and his friends need it.

That’s the trick for all writers. Research in depth. Know a lot, but don’t spout what you know unless the story needs it.

So, how did I do the research? Books and people. Books and people, followed by first readers who climb now.

My climbing was done in my youth. My climbing stopped because I developed an inability to see depth and then, of course, a fear of heights. Moreover, I developed a fear of watching my eldest son catapult himself off a cliff because he never moved slowly and he never (until age 20 or so) believed that gravity applied to him. Even a hike with that kid left me a pretzel of mothering arms and rising stomach contents. Climb mountains with him? No thank you.

But living with my eye problems and my immortal son have made it possible for me to write about fear. It is, I guess you could say, a part of my research.

By the time I began writing Uncharted Territory, I was out of the climbing game, but I remembered vivid incidents and particular land and ice forms from many mountains in the Northwest, and a few in my birth state of Colorado. However, climbers’ techniques had metamorphosed since my last adventure through whistling marmots and tumbling rock.

Climbing ClimbingFor research, I opened with a return to A Climber’s Guide to Oregon, written by Nicholas A. Dodge and produced by the Mazamas in 1968. The Guide once was my climbing go-to book. By writing and research time, it had become valuable for the historic names involved in its production and for the quirky descriptions of routes, sometimes involving ancient trees that may or may not survive to help mark the trail.

But, the Guide is worth a lot for its very detailed drawings of the routes up specific rocks and mountains. If you can find a used copy and want to write about climbing, those drawings and route descriptions are worth a lot. Of course, some trees have died, some pillars have become part of the detritus at the bottom of a cliff, and the mountains and spires covered only exist in Oregon. Still, the types of problems met in any climb will be among the examples of A Climber’s Guide to Oregon.

At the time of the publication, the Guide says “This guide is written for the experienced climber who is assumed to know about proper equipment and techniques. Such information may be obtained in universities or colleges or from the many local climbing groups throughout the state.”

In 1968, REI was still a small co-operative endeavor, just beginning the move to the giant co-op it has become. The publication of Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills, edited by Don Graydon and Kurt Hanson had not had its first coming out party. Thank goodness Mountaineering now frequently produces an updated edition. It proved the best for checking my memory of tools, knots, and especially of rapelling techniques and problem solving for too short ropes.

Non-fiction books about mountain climbs helped my fear of heights gain a vocabulary. The climb of climbs, the 1953 British Expedition when Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary summited, sparked articles and books about the climb for many years. As a child, I read any of these I could find, especially Hillary’s 1955 book High Adventure.

In Uncharted Territory, Uncle Jackson’s altitude sickness was inspired by the subsequent expedition of Sir Edmund Hillary in the 1962 edition of High in the Thin Cold Air by Hillary and Desmond Doig. Books like Everest, the West Ridge, by Thomas Hornbein provided insight into the relationships and working of groups of climbers. Most of that insight remained in my head, sneaking out in a word here or there and appearing only briefly in a scene described by Uncle Jackson. The Climb Up to Hell by Jack Olsen 1962 (reissued 1998) is a wonder of characters and rescue skill.

Joe Simpson’s Touching the Void provided insight into the view from both sides of a near disaster, and also into the move-forward in-spite-of-it-all attitude that is the only way possible to save oneself on some occasions. Jack’s Dad, Mallory, is that kind of climber and can’t be faulted for wanting to impose his solution to danger on Jack’s illness. It is what Mallory knows that works.

Pavalache Stelian, Dreamtimefree

Pavalache Stelian, Dreamtimefree

My first readers included my husband, Woody Richen, who climbed long after I stopped. He helped our sons and daughter understand gravity, mortality and the need for careful planning, practice and follow-through. Scott Light is our son’s good friend, and the closest we come to a third son in our family. Scott’s knowledge of mountain climbing gear and mountain rescue practices was invaluable as I began research, and his willingness to read and re-read the climbing scenes made Uncharted Territory the kind of book where readers ask “How did you know so much?”

Good to have such resources and such readers.

(see also the blog of interview with para-rescue mountain climber Scott Light.)

The Burgess Boys

The Burgess Boys      By Elizabeth Strout     Review by Rae Richen

The Burgess Boys Strout cover lg

Is alliteration the only reason for a familial title that doesn’t include the sister? Thus, did the Burgess boys’ sister have to be the least interesting character in an otherwise character peppered story? Does Zach, the most interesting character in the story, have to solve his problems alone, without even the help of the author? Elizabeth Strout, you are better than this. Olive Kittredge was a lot more believable, and deserving of two reads at least.

Strout puts her fictional Burgess family in so much hot water, that only a miracle could pull them out of the stew. And a miracle is all she offers. Skinny, awkward son and nephew Zach, runs off to Dad in Sweden and nobody gets to watch what makes him come back as a solid, growing human being, and more aware of loving his family. All of Zach’s good stuff happens off stage.

The Burgess Boys is a good effort to show small town stress over immigration and the influx of people we don’t yet understand. The novel is a good effort to show the fracture lines among the immigrant groups and also within one damaged family, but too much of what happens is precipitated by coincidence and not by the characters themselves – with the exception of the self-destruction of Jim Burgess. His reconstruction, if it will happen, happens after the last page and in the imagination of his family. We sure don’t get to see any of the hard stuff occur within the story as told.

Hunting for Real Dialogue

Children’s author, Julie Blair, Woody Richen and I took the Middle School Writing Club to Colonyhouse in June. Colonyhouse is a lovely John Steiner log home that belongs to Oregon Writers Colony. OWC sponsored our weekend adventures.20140628_152933
One of our excursions was into the downtown of bustling Rockaway Beach, Oregon. I expected a few tourists and the usual contingent of Rockaway town’s people, but it turned out that “our fair city” really was in bustle mode that weekend.
Before we left Colonyhouse for our excursion, we reviewed the difference between Conversation and Dialogue. As one student summed it up, “Conversation is ordinary talk, where there is no conflict, a lot of ummm and ahhh, and nothing new gets said.”
Dialogue, on the other hand is fictional conversation where every phrase moves the story forward in some way. Either the conflict ratchets up, new information gets dropped accidentally or on purpose, or one of the characters learns something significant and revealing about another, or even about herself. The result of dialogue is an aha! or a smack in the gut for one of the participants, or, as in Shakespeare, for the surreptitious listener hiding behind the arras.
The assignment of the day was to listen to ordinary Conversation and find that little chunk that can be turned into pithy Dialogue.
The kids were concerned about eavesdropping on other people’s conversation, so we defined public conversation, available for public consumption. We weren’t going to listen to whispered private messages, or to things people said next to their dining room windows, unaware that we might be lurking beneath.
We trooped into town, an eight block walk next to the coast railway, I on my crutches from a recent foot accident, swinging along, in an effort to keep up with youngsters.
As we approached the town, we discovered many more people than on ordinary weekends. And most were dressed in the garb of pirate kings and pirate jezebels of the 1600s. Bustling was the order of the day. Plus, the pirates of Rockaway Beach are good for a lot beyond “Arrr”.
The parking lot near the railway car that serves as a Visitors’ Center was filled with booths and the booths were filled with pirate lads and lassies selling pirate booty. Everyone was in good spirits and every pirate was a town greeter.
One great sea-farer bore down on me with his velvet hat and feather, his leather jerkin and one leg pegged for the occasion. “Matey,” he says to me. “I wish I had them extry legs and not this pain of a peg like I got here.”
“These are pretty fine and fast,” says I, waving my right crutch. “You shoulda fired your surgeon and kept yer gangrene.”
“That I shoulda,” he says.
And then a voice from behind me says, “You done that and you’d be traveling with the fishies.”
One of the students says to another, “Isn’t that dialogue?”
20140628_152958“Dialogue for sure.”
Yes! They’ve got the difference, I thought.
We divided into groups of two. The division was to encourage listening and not being the conversation. The students also had a little spending money from their parents, so this was also a time for them to use part of that. Pocket money took them into all the stores on main street, Highway 101, looking for the perfect buy and overhearing the customer interactions.
Woody went to the hardware store, hoping to fix the running toilet in the Colonyhouse. The students discovered Flamingo Jim’s, the epitome of all beach stores. Julie and I crossed the street to the coffee shop where we could sit and keep track of the students as they visited stores and piratical events up and down the boulevard.
We heard the booming voice of the cannon that put wads of shot out toward the sea. The coffee lady handed us our cuppa and said, “Every hour on the hour. That cannon brings in the people, but it drives away the fish.”
We enjoyed the view of our students wandering from store to store and lingering near knots of people, evidently searching out nuggets of dialogue, rockery earrings or outstanding flavors of taffy and ice cream.
After a few minutes, a gentleman came into the store and said, “Mary, We shot Jim.”
“Jim? Your friend, Jim? I thought he died of the cancer.”20140629_102555 - Copy
“Yup. He died in May. We cremated him. And, as per his wishes, at four o’clock on Pirates’ Weekend, we gave him the gun salute, and shot him from the cannon into the ocean.”
I looked at Julie and she at me. I asked, “Can you put dialogue like that in a children’s reader, Jules?”
“Maybe the next generation. Who knows what will sell by then.”
Our students came up with great nuggets as well, but those nuggets are going in their stories, so I won’t be using them here. Hunting through conversation for gems of dialogue is a great pass time, maybe especially in Rockaway Beach, where the pirates are pithy.

Introducing Young Writers at the Coffee Shop

The Sixth and seventh graders of the Happy Valley Writing Club were invited to read at the Rain or Shine Coffee Shop located at 60th and Division in Portland, Oregon. This invitation brought with it a lot of pride and some fear.

Stephanie, Long, Emma, Amanda, Vanisa, Natalia, with Priscilla

Stephanie, Long, Emma, Amanda, Vanisa, Natalia, with Priscilla

“I’m not a good reader,” whispered one sixth grader to me.

“But you are an excellent writer, so we’ll work on the reading. Not one of us is a good reader without practice, and that includes your teacher.”

She didn’t believe me, of course. I read aloud to them a lot.

So, I had to demonstrate how I used to read in public. I stood on one leg and jingled the change in my pocket. I mumbled with my head down, gaze buried deeply into my paper. My speaking speed was ninety miles an hour. I finished with, “I guess that’s all. It’s not very good.” And then I sat down abruptly.

That very honest demonstration brought hoots of laughter from the members. “Really?” Stephanie shouted. “That’s not true.”

“Not only true, but the story was long and I’m pretty sure even my mom was asleep when I finally stopped.”

Jelena and Amanda

Jelena and Amanda

“We can do better than that,” Amanda laughed.

“And so you can. Let’s get to work and be ready for our night at Rain or Shine.”

Rain or Shine Coffee Shop has worked with mystery writer Bill Cameron, and now with Oregon Writers Colony to host readings on Thursdays. The readers who are featured are usually adults with a lot of practice bringing their audience a great story.

We needed to work toward this event. So, for a few Writing Club meetings weeks prior to the evening reading, the students practiced reading slowly and clearly. We had good laughs and realized our distracting habits. We learned to look confident. We learn to look at the audience at the end of paragraphs, (creating a chance to take a good breath).

I knew that the mike at Rain or Shine is uni-directional, so if we turn our head to read toward the right side of the audience, the mike can’t pick up our voices. We tried to practice staying on the pretend mike that we had.

We had a whole lesson on pronouncing the consonants in words. Thus, during our Thursday night reading, there were a few jokes about not going to Mill School, but Middle School.

Natalia, Jelena, Amanda

Natalia, Jelena, Amanda

Eight of the twelve students read on that night. We shared fictional stories about the aftermath of an auto accident, the breakup of a family, learning to appreciate the protective parent and some very frightening encounters with fantastic monsters. The students did extremely well. I am proud of how well they write and of how well they read. They are an amazing bunch.

We had great fun. Thanks Rain or Shine and Oregon Writers Colony for putting this challenge before us.

And by the way, I am on the lookout for a mike to use when we practice in the future. So, if any of you have an idea where to look for an affordable mike, let me know.

Jared & his lucky Pen

Jared & his lucky Pen

Being Prepared for the Big One, and the Small Ones, too

My friend, Ruth Jones, has tried to take care of her neighbors and her friends by joining Neighborhood Emergency Team (NET) program. Convincing complacent friends to be prepared has been an uphill slog for Ruth, but she keeps at it.

Last month, friends were at my house for lunch. We talked (not for the first time) about Ruth’s hope that we are actually collecting the things we need to survive the next (and way overdue) big earthquake in Oregon.

 Are YOU ready for the next big quake?Are YOU ready for the next big quake?

So, because Ruth has been trying so hard to get our attention on this subject, I challenged those who were at lunch to tackle the first and most important part of the list of emergency needs – water. My challenge was that by June (the next month) we should all have the suggested amount of water for every member of our family stored in our garage or basement.

Since I was the one who proposed the challenge, I had to go out and do. I bought a five gallon bottle of water for each person living in the house.

So, guess what we used when Portland recently had its boil water alert…

And now, I’m thankful and a lot more ready to get prepared for other emergencies.

I am going to tackle Ruth’s list from Neighborhood Emergency Team. I’m going to work down the list one item at a time because even one day of the Boil Water Alert showed me how much we take life in modern times for granted.

And, friends, I hope you will join me in getting prepared. There are great resources for us. The first place to go is  The Portland Bureau of Emergency Management. Take a look at the suggestions for planning, for collecting needed resources and especially for communication during an emergency.

Remember in a real emergency we may also be without the internet, so print off those to-do lists. Take them with you when you are getting items. Keep whittling down that list and meet me at the communications center tents set up for our neighborhood in the event of the Big One. (Mine will be at Irvington School playground. Figure out from the map on the website where your communications center will be.)

It doesn’t matter if the next emergency is just an icy winter, a boil water alert, or a more devastating event, I’d like to urge my friends to be ready, and then relax. Too often, I’ve relaxed first, thinking about getting ready. I’m glad I didn’t relax before I did step one – Water.

Become trained as a member of a Portland Neighborhood Emergency Team (NET). Or at least learn what you need to do to be prepared.

Visit The Portland Bureau of Emergency Management


Phone: 503-823-4375 Fax: 503-823-3903 TDD: 503-823-3947

Portland Bureau of Emergency Management


Every day the Preschool Passes

From my office window, two stories above my garden, I hear the teachers first, an alert that my favorite site is occurring yet again.  “Come on, Billy,” they call. “We have to meet the others at the corner.” Or “Susan, push your feet forward. Come this way.”

All Bundled Up

All Bundled Up

The two and three year olds are out for a walk. Some of the children walk purposefully. Some still finish snack time while on the move. A few arrive at the corner north of my house and impatiently wait for their buddies. One little guy is bundled up as if winter were about to make a quick return. Or is the truth that he  loves that hat and scarf?

A couple of children ride bikes without pedals, bikes short enough that they can propel them with a foot on either side. Susan has not yet gotten the idea of pushing off with her toes. She pushes with her heels and thus goes reversing down the sidewalk. She dismounts, pushes the bike forward for a few steps, then gets back on only to lose half her forward motion. Susan will get it. I expect any day to look out and see her traveling at the speed of the rest. I love her persistence.

Eleanor in Ben's swim goggles

Looking for a pool

One of the girls strides by, sporting swim goggles. I wonder if she woke this morning hoping for a different type of excursion. I expect her folks will soon sign her up for summer swimming classes.

But Billy is the child I wait for. Billy will not be hurried. Each day, he studies what others have passed by. He collects the winged seeds of my neighbor’s maple and the spikey nut of my Sweet Gums. He kicks the piles of pink petals from the Kwanza Cherries north of my yard. He watches lost worms creep their tentative way across the sidewalk in search of home.

The sun comes out, and Billy discovers a companion he didn’t know he had. By the time Billy arrives at the corner, he has been on an expedition.



From my window, I think, “Come on, Billy. Keep looking. Keep seeing what the rest of us have forgotten to enjoy.”

I know that someday, Billy will go by with the speed of others. He will have learned that friends become impatient. He will have unlearned the freedom of his curiosity. When he is grown, I hope he recalls, in the back alleys of memory, his joy in exploration.

Learn about work and money? When?

Where can your ten year old neighbors learn about the value of work and how to keep track of money? In a place called Biztown.

Downtown Biztown

Downtown Biztown

There is a whole little village that most of us will never see. Among its several stores, it includes a bank, a sporting goods store, a branch of the Humane Society, a construction company and even a newspaper. It is called Biztown and is tucked into a building on southeast Foster Road.

Biztown is the brilliant work of Junior Achievement of Oregon. In the Multnomah and Clackamas County area, many schools choose to spend a six weeks preparation time and one day of experience at Biztown.

Every child at Biztown has a job that they applied for, wrote a resume and were interviewed for. Their teachers assign them jobs based on their resume, their interview, and their ability to understand the job for the day.

These jobs range from being the mayor, the CFO or CEO of one of the businesses, to clerk in a sales venue or a reporter in the Biztown Journal. The students have learned how to do their job before they come, and, just as importantly, they have learned how to keep track of their pay, learned about depositing money to the bank, withdrawing cash, writing checks, and a new wrinkle this year, learned how to use a debit card.

They learn that some purchases they want to make at Biztown will cost them more than they earn during the first pay period. Thus, planning and saving become important if you want that adoptable doggy in the Humane Society.

Town Meeting

Town Meeting

Any area school that has the funds to do it may include preparation for a day at Biztown. There is a cost for the curriculum and the day at Biztown. The non-profit local Junior Achievement office works with area businesses to cover most of the cost, but there is a school fee of $18 per student, plus bus transportation to the site on Foster Road.

Parents and adult friends volunteer in each business to help the kids focus on tasks and to help the students understand the use of the bank deposits, how to take out cash and how to save for something they want to buy in one of the stores.

I volunteered for the third time in The Biztown Portland Business Journal and my husband always volunteers at Key Bank. It’s a kick. We find that the students come ready to work and want to succeed. At ten and eleven years old, a few might be easy to distract, but they get back to their job when reminded. Their focus is on exploring this new world that is a replica of the work-life of their parents.

The Journal editor knows her way around the simple computer layout program and she knows how to encourage her reporters to go out and get interviews with people in the town. Reporters have several pre-written stories, but the interviews are done on the big Biztown day. Each year, the reporter student’s picture of how to interview is different, but every time, they end the day understanding a little more about how to ask questions that give them a story.

The Journal has a photographer as well. Getting photos of fellow citizens can prove a daunting task. I have learned that it helps for a reporter to work with the photographer. Photos and interviews are done together and both Journal students enjoy the work more when together.

The Biztown Journal

The Biztown Journal

Each business has a chief financial officer. The Journal’s CFO comes knowing that getting out the paychecks to the staff, and paying the bills is his or her main focus. The CFO also gets the other businesses to pay for ads in the newspaper. Each year, The Journal’s CFO has done the job with great concentration.

During the second series of staggered breaks, when a third of the students are shopping, the photographer and the reporters at The Journal turn into sales people. At five cents from each customer’s Biztown pay, a copy of The Journal becomes a souvenir of their day that might end up in Mom’s memory box and be found years later. So, the students and the volunteers all want a copy.

With these sources of income, The Journal, and most of the other businesses, are able to pay off their business loan at the bank by the end of the day – a big measure of the day’s success.

For each student, staying above Zero in your checkbook, yet enjoying the various businesses is the measure of a good BizTown day. Both business and individual successes are celebrated at the final Town Meeting in the town square. And success is celebrated by the class the next day when they are back to normal kid life.

Citizens on a Break

Citizens on a Break

Junior Achievement has many programs designed to help older students also become aware and ready for career and personal finance choices they will be making as adults. A worthy addition to every student’s curriculum.

Take a look at their impressive offerings at their website: http://jaorswwa.org/home And then ask your local school what it would take to make the Biztown experience a reality for your neighborhood kids.