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31 January 2010


I became a runner on April Fools Day, 1994. My total experience as a runner to that point had been the mile I was required to run in Junior PE in high school and a half-hearted attempt to begin running as a 22 year old that lasted three days. But when my son Alan ran with the high school cross country team as an eighth grader, I liked the supportive atmosphere of the team, which always said “Good job!” to one another. I asked the coach whether, if I got in shape, I could run with the team the next fall. Neil Branson said sure.

I started on April 1st as a joke on myself. I didn’t expect to last long. I was 41, overweight, and out of shape. I figured my knees would give out. Something would give out. I went out on sand to see what I could do. I could not run a half mile. Heck, I couldn’t run two blocks!

By August I was running 6 miles on the beach from my house to Cannon Beach, twice a week. I’ve done this most of the fifteen summers since then. When cross country practice rolled around in 1994, I could keep up with all but the varsity runners during practice.

You can do that too.

If you’ve never run before or consider yourself a non-athlete, here are three approaches to getting in shape for the novice runner. Each focuses on a single aspect of running.

1. DISTANCE. Start with a short distance. Maybe a half mile to start, and run it at whatever pace you can manage, do it regularly, and after about three or four weeks, you’ll notice that it’s becoming easier. At that point start increasing your distance by fifty yards or so and see how that goes. At first every increase will seem hard, but once you’ve been at this—honest—it simply gets easier. One day you’ll be running a mile and a quarter and the next you will realize that you can run two miles. And then you'll work to three miles. This is how I did it the first time... but check out my "secret" below.

2. OR. Start with a given distance, perhaps the distance you want to be able to run, a 5K, which is 3.1 miles. Measure it out and run as much of it as you can, then walk to the end. Each day try to run a few feet further into that distance. After three-four weeks you will notice that you’re not as out of breath and it feels “easier.” It is.

3. TIME. Start with a time, say three minutes. Run three minutes (or two or only one), walk one minute, run three. Do this rotation once and after a week or when you can, add rotations until you're running and walking for a longer and longer period of time. When you can run and walk for a half hour, gradually increase the running time, say by a half minute in each rotation a week, and reduce the walking time, until you can run for an entire half hour.

Keep track of your running on a calendar and run on a regular schedule. Track your progress. You're officially a runner when you can manage 30 minutes of running without a break on the flat. However far or long you run, as soon as you’re done, stretch, hydrate, and rest. The stretches should be gentle, slow, relaxed into, not pushed or bounced. Drink 16 ounces of water and maybe take a calcium tab, shower, and put your feet up for twenty minutes. I drink a half cup of coffee before I run in the morning and take aspirin. (I weight myself right after I’ve stripped from my run, then I drink the water. ;-)

STRETCHING. Not everyone stretches, especially before a run. Dynamic stretching for at least several minutes is probably a good idea. Movement that gets you warmed up and your muscles working is best according the the dance people, and I tend to trust the dance people: "movement that is of low intensity and uses a broad range of motion. Leg brushes, arm circles, trunk rotations, lunges across the floor, and other large movements constitute dynamic stretching. 'Even walking or biking to class is an ideal way to get the blood moving and raise the body’s temperature. Simply put, the body needs movement to get ready to dance.' ” Most runners use static stretches after they’ve run. Trying to explain stretches without pictures is tricky. Have someone show you. The goal is to stretch each major muscle in the direction it will or has been working—front and back of thighs, front and back of calves, etc. Be gentle. Don’t bounce, don’t force. Relax into the stretch and hold each one for 30-45 seconds. The whole process requires only a few minutes and is healthy a part of your cool down.

MY SECRET TO SUCCESS. Here’s my secret to becoming a strong runner from a dead stop. Run every other day. Rest a day. That’s how I did it, and it’s still what I do when I’ve gotten out of shape and am trying to get back into shape. Run one day, rest the next. Most training programs include three rest days each week for novice runners. Maybe it seems counter intuitive, but resting will get you further faster. Putting 48 hours between your runs allows your body to heal any slight damage from your gradual conditioning (not pain, this should not hurt) and to build strength. It also allows you in the early weeks to reason with yourself: Run today and you won’t have to run tomorrow! Put your feet up after a run and rest.

SPEED. The only way to become a faster runner is to run faster. No magic. I became a faster runner when I began running with faster runners and started timing myself. I ran 9½ minute miles and then I ran 9 minute miles and then I worked to run faster than that. My best time ever was 25 minutes for a 3-mile run of steep hills. One summer I consistently ran 6 miles on the beach in 54 minutes, 9 minute miles. I’m proud of those times, but running for speed is a great way to injure yourself. Once you're in shape and want to speed up ask another runner or Google Fartleks (a Swedish term, “speed play”): race for less than a minute, slow down, race, slow down. Another way to build speed: At the end of a run, move those arms up higher, take longer, quicker strides and race for the last hundred yards. When you’re not in shape, running for speed just messes you up and wears you down. THEREFORE, don’t start with speed. I had been running for four and a half months back in 1994 before I bought myself a sport watch and began to time my runs. Just cover the distance and when that becomes “easy,” you can start shaving time by running faster.

PAIN. Running shouldn’t hurt. No matter what your high school coach or PE teacher told you, “No Pain/No Gain” is a crock. If you hurt after a run it’s because you’ve damaged something. That means your body has to repair itself AND get stronger. You want to focus on strength and not waste energy fixing damaged muscle. You might feel a twinge while you’re running, but if you are conditioning gradually and feel a twinge in your right knee, for example, it ought to go away if you keep going light for another couple or three minutes. If pain doesn’t go away, do not “run through the pain," slow to a walk, stop and stretch, take it easy, until the pain is gone. If you start running again and feel that pain, especially if it hurts worse or still hurts when you stop, you’ve damaged something. Stop running. Rest. See a doctor or talk to a knowledgeable coach. This probably won’t happen. Over the past fifteen years I’ve had shin splints and stone bruises and these injuries happened when I ran with someone I shouldn’t have tried to keep up with. All by myself, I pay attention to my body. I rest when I should. I don’t try to do it all at once. I feel TERRIFIC after a run. So should you.

GEAR. Neil Branson, my running god, used to tell his team that one great thing about running is that you don’t need any special equipment to do it. Compared to the football players who used to practice in the field where our cross country team warmed up, that’s true. But strictly speaking, it’s only wishful thinking. You do need gear. You need good shoes. Go to a running store where they carry many brands of running shoes. Bring a pair of old shoes to show them how you wear them down. They will put shoes on your feet that fit, and encourage you to run around in them a bit. Buy shoes from them, no matter the cost. Expect to pay $75-120 for correct shoes. Buy socks with a looped toe seam and try them on with your shoes before you buy them both at the same time. You need a tank and a light shirt. Until I’d been running for six months I’d never considered wearing synthetic fibers, but cotton really isn’t the best for gear you’ll sweat into for 30-60 minutes. A running store can help you here, too. Online, Road Runner is a good outfit. For women, I suggest Title Nine, which is helpful on the phone. This is important because you need a good sport bra and Title Nine will find you exactly what you need. If your thighs touch (women know what I mean) buy yourself knee length or capri tights instead of shorts or you’ll chafe. Everything you get should be absolutely comfortable when you try it on—though the bra will feel tighter than you’re used to, it shouldn’t pinch, cut, or chafe. Those running shoes will feel like heaven.

FORM. All I worried about at first was getting in shape to run. I didn’t worry about form or speed or anything else except to be able to run. Watch really good runners who make running look easy. It is easy for them because they are in shape and because they have developed an efficient form. They move their arms evenly, straight ahead of them and then down, as if plucking something from their hip pockets. If you’re holding your arms in front of your chest, you need a better sport bra. If you’re holding them too high, crossing them in front of your chest, or behind your back, you’re wasting energy. Relax your hands, keep your chin level with the ground, keep your feet running quietly on the ground. Bowen, a runner I knew from cross country used to say: Quiet feet are happy feet. And that’s true. If you’re slapping your feet on the ground, you’re hurting them, and pain is not part of our game plan.

LOCATION. LOCATION. LOCATION. It matters where you run. Cinder, wet sand, and earth are easiest on your feet and all your joints. Gravel can shift under you, but isn't bad if it's fine gravel. Pavement is hard on your feet. Cement is a killer. Running a track is boring to me, but the footing is perfect and it might be worth running laps to have that surface to run on. My favorite surface is wet sand at low tide, which is flat and giving, but tricky to manage in the winter, so I do some running on gravel and pavement. Avoid hills when you start—any slope at all is an additional challenge that you don’t need when you’re trying to get in shape. Run on the flat, even if that means driving to find a giving, flat surface. Once you can run your target distance, add a run on hills once a week. Be prepared to slow down or take a walking break when you run hills.* Don’t run downhill faster than you’d run on the flat. This is how injuries happen. [*I once won a 5k race in my age bracket by taking a 30-second walking break midway and then pushing all the harder through the second half.]

A last word about distance. The famous Oregon runner Steve "Pre" Prefontaine used to train by running a hundred miles a week. If he'd lived long enough, his joints would have turned to mush. You don't have to do that. You're not training to complete in the Olympics. You just want to feel stronger and lighter and maybe run in the Race for the Cure or the Shamrock Run. Running 12-15 miles a week might be your perfect end goal. Do some strength training on your off days, add a half hour walk each day and you have an excellent fitness program. You'll make your health care provider happy and your body will thank you.

Running is good for your heart, bones, immune system, and mental attitude. Once you’re in shape for your 5K, you can run more often than every other day, but still give yourself rest days, and you’ll probably feel more cheerful and alert because of it. My husband turned 60 last fall and brags, “I can still do hills.” That's him up top.

We’ve registered for the Portland Half Marathon 10 October 2010 and this month we began training: three miles each on Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday. The sun isn’t up when we go out, but we both prefer the mornings. When we can, we run the beach. Along about March we'll add some distance. We feel great on the days we run. I never thought I'd be a runner past 50, but at 57 I'm thinking I might become one of those crazy people who still run at 70.

PS It's June as I write this addendum, and we're running 24 miles each week—6 miles for the first time the other day—and we're feeling pretty good. I needed new shoes along about March and then just yesterday had to relace them to take pressure off the top of my feet.

26 January 2010


Our car windshield was struck on the way home from Portland on Saturday, right in the middle between us. Loud! We thought a rock kicked up by tires, but the nearest car was a quarter mile ahead of us, downhill. Then Gary joked about space debris, and the watermelon-sized space rock that crashed through the roof of a doctor's office. With patient. And then we got home and the quarter-sized cracking fans out from a perfectly round divot—which suggest a gunshot, and Chapter Two of Olive Kitteridge mentions that a 22 bullet can travel a mile. So there is the mystery.

Elizabeth Strout’s novel, Olive Kitteridge, has uncanny connections to my mother’s life. Mom was never as cross as Olive, but I still found it reminded me of many aspects of my mother, her loves and sorrows. I read it very fast, in two days, anxious to find the end, and then was bereft when it was done. It’s probably the best book I’ve read in a while.

Today after school, because it was supposed to rain all week but the sky was blue and the tide low, and because Gary ran yesterday on his day off while I was at work, I ran on the beach. Yeti was very patient and I was slow, but we got our three-mile run and now I am enjoying the afterglow. I’ve been through the tide table searching for low tides when I will be able to run. Not too many between now and the end of June when I’m off for the summer and we can begin serious training. Gary and I have registered for the first half-marathon in conjunction with the Portland Marathon on 10 October 2010 (10 10 10). That’s 13.1 miles. I’ve run a measured half, but not in years and neither has Gary. We’re planning to run 6 miles, walk a mile, and then run to the end. Friends from Seattle might come down and run with us. We already have our “Training for the Marathon” t-shirts.

The sun is setting particularly well tonight. The dog is mothering a tiny squeaky toy. The cat is waiting for me to light a fire in the wood stove. I have to revise an exam, make a new version for students who managed to miss taking it today. And then rest, I think, watch television, be grateful I am here.

22 January 2010


A week ago Tuesday Haiti was hit with a 7.0 earthquake. Most recent estimates of the death toll run between 60,000 and 200,000—higher than any previous earthquake in the western hemisphere—and hundreds of thousands injured in a nation of around 10 million. On 60 Minutes, Dr. Farmer of Partners In Health called this recent disaster unfair after recent hurricanes and the overall poverty of the country—the people didn’t believe it was fair. He said he didn’t mean to romanticize the Haitians, but they were a model of persistence we might all learn from.

My third period class was deeply touched by this event, and by the terrible plight of the Haitian people. After watching the 60 Minutes segment, they compiled a newspaper about what they enjoy and the people in Haiti lack: water, food, shelter, medical care, transportation and communication, roads, electricity, fuel, public safety, and order. One young man put $10 on his cell phone bill for Red Cross to benefit the Haiti. Several of these freshmen have been watching the news. They are not unlike most Americans in their compassion and generosity.

A couple of weeks before, they had no particular interest in reading or watching the news. What had it to do with them?

In class we had discussed health care reform and one student was particularly vocal that he didn’t think it fair that taxes should be used to benefit people who “were lazy and wouldn’t work.” We had an interesting discussion as another student pointed out that members of her family worked hard and didn’t have access to health insurance. Ultimately, we understood that while most of the students in class worked, the only way any of them had access to insurance was through parents fortunate enough to have insurance.

Wednesday, the same young man who opposed health care reform asked me if I’d seen the news. Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat was given to a republican on his promise to oppose health care reform. He asked me what I thought, baiting me. Right about now you might be tempted to think what I’ve thought myself on occasion: Those who oppose health care reform don’t want anyone else to have what they themselves do not ever expect to need. Heartlessness, I might say.

And thinking that is a pretty cold-hearted, "left-wing, tree-hugging" judgment on my part. It’s inaccurate, too.

The young man opposed to health care reform wants to serve his country when he graduates from high school. He’s the same one who donated to Haiti on his cell phone. He’s not hardhearted, he’s a pragmatist and a capitalist.

So let’s have look at the health care reform bottom line. America has a health care system inferior to many in the world, measuring by the ration of doctors to patients, life expectancy, infant mortality, health, and cost. We pay more than any country in the world for an inferior return. This isn't capitalism stimulating competition, this is a sign of a corrupt marketplace. As consumers, citizens, and small business owners we want our money’s worth. We deserve to live. As health care costs soar, individuals and companies deserve an honest profit, but they should not be allowed to continue in a system that deprives us of life.

Who among us would allow a five year old die because her parents had no health insurance? I doubt any American would turn a woman in labor away from an emergency room to have her baby in the street. In fact, laws prevent our doing so. These laws support the widespread value that people in need should be helped. Hospitals are not people, and hospitals have turned away patients, which is why we pass laws to ensure that organizations behave with the same humanity as the young man in my 3rd period class. Even if their parents were lazy, he wouldn’t condemn children to a life handicapped by poor health… in the wealthiest country in the world.

17 January 2010

Last Days: PACIFIC MFA RESIDENCY, 15 & 16 January

I’m going to confess first that I’m tired. I worked this past week, attended a wedding, seven readings, and a concert, and got in only one run. We had company one night, and I stayed late at school as I always do on Wednesday evening. My classroom was the target of a (spurious) bomb threat. It rained so much that ODOT hauled out their reader board signs in preparation for flooding on the highway I take to work. None of this is bad news (except not running and the bomb threat) but it’s worn me out. I missed two readings. I slept in yesterday and today until almost 7am. Today I might not even get dressed. 

Friday evening ELLEN BASS was the first reader, a poem about the end of the day’s obligations, of that moment when “whatever was going to happen today has already happened” and it’s time to stop anticipating the next thing. There was a wonderful poem about a friend of hers giving artificial respiration to a lizard—“I can’t be sure, but I think she’d kill for me.” PAT CASON was sitting beside me for this reading. I don’t think Pat would kill for me unless I might die and then I think she’d kill for almost anyone to save their life, so I was glad to have her there, just in case. STEPHEN KUUSISTO read next from nonfiction, “Ice” and “Pills”—“I’m here, I’m here, such a midnight sound”—and from a new book of poems coming out from Copper Canyon, Morning with Borges. BENJAMIN PERCY read a portion of “Refresh, Refresh” in his deep-throated voice. I’d already bought a graphic novel based on that story, but wished I’d had it in my hands while he read.

Yesterday, Saturday, morning we went to JOHN REMBER’s craft talk, which was also a reading. He began by grinning to the audience and acknowledging that it had been a long residency. “If you feel like you’ve been locked inside a kaleidoscope with a lot of monkeys—on drugs—just know that’s normal.” he said. We all felt that way. Rember’s essay, “Kids Don’t Try This at Home” was a “show/don’t tell on travel writing.” The next hour he took his audience on an amazing ride from Thailand of twenty years ago to today, from luxury to responsibility, inventing verb tenses to suit. “Third person mundane” is fact based exposition—numbers dates, how to get there, what hotels cost. It was also about telling the truth and the other costs of tourism, about how places, peoples and cultures are altered when we fly in to look at them. Travel and Leisure magazine, for whom he used to write, won’t be touching this one. After a good night’s sleep I have a lot of notes, but I’m looking forward to reading this essay in print. You should too. Stay tuned. 

On the way out, Pat and I bumped into David Long again, back from a walk on the Prom with his wife. I told him I was on my way to a wedding and a benefit concert. “And a five-mile run?” he said. I was ashamed to admit that I didn’t think I was up to five miles. Winters are dark and wet, with few days offering access to flat sandy beach. I am out of shape, though I can manage 3 miles of hills. On Wednesday my husband said, “I’m sixty and I can do hills.” He’s earned bragging rights. When we went through Saturday’s mail there were our “I’m Training for the Portland Marathon” t-shirts. We’re doing the half, offered for the first time this year on 10 October (10/10/10). 

A lovely wedding at the Liberty Theater in Astoria, home to rest, but I didn’t. And then the second annual concert put on by Seaside HS students in memory of Elliott Hearing, who drowned in Cannon Beach the summer before his Junior year in 2007. The last time I saw him in the library we shook hands, agreeing that we were looking forward to fall when I would be his teacher and he my student. And then he was gone. His class drew together over the loss. My mother died in the same week, and that fall was thick with grief. On line I’ve found a painting of Elliott created by a woman who never knew him. The likeness is striking, but the expression is sorrowful, as though he were missing life, and that’s unlike the fully engaged young man who never missed a thing, the person who I looked forward to having in my class. The benefit concert was notable for a John Denver’s “It’s in Every One of Us” played and sung by one of the organizers of the evening, Max Milander. That was just like him.

Sometimes in my wild steady march I find my face bent to the ground like a weary horse bent into harness, too sweated and exhausted to look up. And then I remember that I’m going someplace.

14 January 2010

Days 5 & 6, PACIFIC MFA RESIDENCY, 12 & 13 January

There ought to be a way I could transport to school instantly at 6:00am, work for an hour in my pjs, be transported home, run on the beach in the dawn, shower, change, and be back at school by 8am. I think about this almost every day in the winter months as I drive to and from work in the dark.

Tuesday night I pled exhaustion and stayed home from the MFA Residency. My husband and I began watching a terrific movie that we completed last night, THE BROTHERS BLOOM. Two young men have survived a rocky childhood by developing skills as con men. They are joined by a non-speaking fair-haired Japanese woman and the subject of their ultimate con, Penelope, who cultivates extraordinary skills without locating a life to use them in. Older brother Stephen, who writes the cons, taunts his younger brother Bloom, who only lives them, about wanting to leave the life: “[You won’t leave because you’re not ready and] real sunsets might be beautiful but they turn into uncertain nights.” Stephen’s goal is to tell a story so well it becomes real. A concept I took away from this quirky film, written and directed by Rian Johnson and starring Adrien Brody and Robbie Coltrane as the brothers, has to do with writing your own life, closing the distance between the story you’d like to tell and the life you live. Make it a good one; make it interesting.

Two stories read last night by DOUG ANDERSON and CLAIRE DAVIS are not ones I’d want to live. Anderson announced he was reading “about sex, the 1960s, real and imagined” from Keep Your Head Down: Vietnam, the Sixties, and a Journey of Self-Discovery, which came out last year. In quick, painfully funny scenes, it was a shocker of a ride from tagging along to bars and strip clubs on his mother’s dates—was she using him as a sexual shield he wonders?—to butchery in Dà Nang—not all he experienced as a medic—his involvement with Bat Woman trapping bats for  her dissertation on their sonar—which she later sold to the military—his dream of Richard Nixon—“You just don’t know how it is, Doug”—to his return to Vietnam in 2000.

Davis read part of “Mouse Rampant” about an aging woman who disturbs her husband by taking up taxidermy of mice and road kill—can’t we just have a quiet evening at home without skinning a mouse? The husband is required to locate suitable road kill—not too long dead, no flies or missing appendages—a task he takes up with understandable misgivings. The details of skinning and stripping off fat and boiling skulls invade the husband’s imagination.

Not stories I would write for real.

The introductions this week have been quotes from customer comments at Amazon and other sites on line. I am fond of customer comments, but I usually don’t read the sort of comments quoted this week. I avoid the 5-star reviews and go straight for the bad reviews, the one and two stars pans. I can tell better whether I’ll like books by the bad things said about them than the praise. Are the bad reviews written by idiots or relatively articulate costumers? 

There are only 6 reviews of The Brothers Bloom at Amazon so I read them all. One customer who titled his 4-star review “Not quite as deep as it thinks it is, but vastly stylish and entertaining” complained that only one of the two brothers was named Bloom—no problem if “bloom” is read as a verb (not to mention it’s their last name). A 3-star review claims that the film is “tone deaf”—whatever that means—and goes on to write a complete plot summary. A one-star reviewer complaining that the “Ridiculous plot — it made no sense” apparently has less visual literacy than my high school class, who have no problem following this story. Maybe because the customer “watched this at AFI Dallas” (why do I care?), or maybe this review suggests something about why I like this film. Another 4-star rating commented that the plot of “this deeply self-conscious stylish movie” was predictable. There’s the problem—somewhere between predictable and nonsensical. Kind of like life.   

12 January 2010


The readings have been starting later, first a couple minutes then five past the posted time. Some readers have stolen five minutes from those who followed, but the readings were still ending in time for me to get home, complete what had to be done, sleep, and leave for school before 7 in the morning. Last night was different and I didn’t get to hear the complete reading, not anything from the last reader, whom I especially wanted to hear.

The first reader's slide presentation had become scrambled and she chose to show the slides first, then do a “shortened reading.” The slides were beautiful and her reading was solid journalism. But, frankly, I didn’t see or hear anything new to me in her 45 minutes.

MARVIN BELL asked for a short break, which was necessary, but added to my quandary as I understood I would not be able to stay to the end of the reading. Marvin began with a selection from “The Animals for baritone and piano,” a series of short pieces meant to be sung. “Rooster,” “American Buffalo,” “Charley Horse” (who was a particular smart ass), “Polar Bear,” “Vulture,” and “Peacock.” “Inside each of us was the beauty unfolded in feathers… we are talking, each of us, yes, we are talking to you.” They were rhythmic. They were smart and funny as they sneaked up on you and slid the knife home. Next he held up a collection I had been wanting to read, a few poets all completing work in five days, and began. And then I had to go home without hearing CRAIG LESLEY.

Some day I will screw up a reading, I’ll mess it up but good. But it won’t be Ruth Gundle’s fault because she taught me well at The Flight of the Mind. She choreographed evening readings involving as many as twenty readers. How long you were allowed to read depended on the number of readers, the more readers the fewer minutes we were allotted—five minutes for prose, less for poetry… no, only three including introduction. The whole show had to be completed in less than 45 minutes. I think we all felt certain that Ruth kept a stop watch in her head and would nail us if we went over our allotted minutes. (She never did; she made us each feel like a star—like part of a brilliant constellation.) We timed our pieces to the second, and she ordered us according to emotional content, interleaving poetry and prose. We rehearsed with mike, we warmed up together. The goal was to please the audience. Remember the audience? Readings are not for the benefit of the reader, but the listener. As I recall, she warned against making any audience sit through more than 30-45 minutes of reading in one evening, perhaps another fifteen if the content was widely varied and allowed the audience emotional and psychic variety.

At a week-long writing workshop in Georgia I was subject to every reading offense Ruth had warned about. Readings that were supposed to be fifteen minutes turned into forty-five. Readings of unedited, unrevised work completed five minutes ago and NOT even been typed yet. Unscripted readings where the author rifled through stacks of pages looking for just the right poem. (Poets are especially guilty of this. Having seen accomplished poets shift gears in their readings in response to audience reaction, less experienced poets think they can choose what to read on the fly as well.) Readers who spend their entire time introducing their work. Authors who are poor readers. Authors who complain about other people rather than describing their own work. Some of my best friends have been guilty of these offenses.

Some day, with luck, I’ll again have the opportunity to mess up a reading. When the time comes to plan my reading, I’ll remind myself that it isn’t only the reader who works, so does the audience. This is not like television which only asks for a corner of our attention. Literature makes demands on us as thinking and feeling beings. Our attention must be focused, and like the reader we listeners are tired at the end, stretched and drained and exhilarated by the experience.

Bad mikes, noisy venues, rude audiences. Authors have no control over these interruptions. But they can control what they read. They can rehearse and clock their reading to fit the time allotted. They can choose work that is ready to be read, that has had a chance to breathe in the world for a time before being spoken. And they should always remember who they are reading for.

10 January 2010


On our way home from the reading this evening I spotted a doe standing on the south side of Cannon Beach hill, just beyond the cover of forest, looking straight into my eyes. I was reminded that last night there were three deer in that same spot, and then as we drove through the curves an elk bounded across the road in front of us and before the car coming out of the fog from the opposite direction. All of us passed without harm.

Tammy introduced herself this evening and encouraged friends. I wondered if this was because, like me, she has missed the camaraderie of the program since graduating. I visited briefly with Pete, Joe, Marvin (in order to pass along a message from Jensea, who he called something splendid), Sandra, Shelley, and David.

SANDRA ALCOSSER was first, reading older work, difficult work, she said. After Bonnie Jo took us to the junk yard, Pam took us to Tibet, and Judy took us to the kitchen, it was time to go to the underworld, and as always in trips to hell we needed to be like a character in the Wide Sargasso Sea who said, “Women must have spunks to live in this wicked world.” I missed several titles, but the poems were wise, lush, and exploding with flavor: “A worm can eat anything — a two by four, dog, human… “ One poem for Joe Millar was about a card game with humans she could not quite trust. I’m not afraid of animals, she said, but were these people really human? There was a wonderful poem about an iguana, and “In Case of Rapture This Taxi Will Explode.” Yes, that's where we were. Exploding.

Second was DAVID LONG who was introduced with a review calling his prose “effortless.” He said, “It’s not exactly effortless,” and said that since students were being asked to risk, he would do it himself. He’s teaching flash fiction and read three 500 word stories and a 1000 word story—“with flash you count words.” They were “brand new and probably not finished yet.” “The Cool Names” passed through about a youthful band trying to name itself, “Think Up One for Me” detailed a violent incident in a club, and “Fluid Dynamics”—all smart, sharp, funny, and staggering at the end. (“The ends are hardest he told me afterward. If you hold back too much… and you can’t just end.”) He quoted Kundera, “Fictional characters are not there to mirror life, they’re experimental selves.” The final story, “The End of Baseball,” confronted age, sex, death, taboos, and the end of baseball, in other words, the end of everything.

It was a marvelous evening, leaving us all sucking in our breath and desperate to write.


Gary and I went to Portland in the morning, came home and then headed together for the readings. 

Jack Driscoll came over to say hi, said he’d seen me the first night and then looked up and I was gone. 

I'll confess I feel a little out of place among all these people. The Lewis and Clark Room was packed and last night I didn’t even slow down as I left, not even to say much to a former student who was sitting in the back. I just scurried away and plan to continue doing this. 

But Jack even remembered Gary’s name and that really impressed me. It’s been great to see David, Shelley, and Jack.

The evening started a few minutes late with the introducer’s long back-and-forth I-don’t-want-to-do-this-but-Shelley’s-making-me lead up to the news that it was Pam Houston’s birthday. We all sang. Pam loved it.

First reader PETE FROMM (fiction) is a wonder on stage. He was funny and comfortable while sneaking up on really great stuff. “It’s good to be back in Seaside... at least it was until this morning’s craft talk when Ben slid up beside me and whispered, ‘I’m about to lower the bar,’ and I said ‘Your first time here and already you’re after my job!’ but the bar wasted lowered…” He told about why he couldn’t stop working: his wife works every day and he’s scared not to work, partially because of what “Dad” Jack Driscoll has been up to since he recently completed a manuscript and is giving himself a break. Jack’s purchased something called a hammerhead which is like a luge only faster. The following story was hysterical and nuts, but apparently you can see some of it for yourself on YouTude. Google “Driscoll hammerhead.” Then he read a wonderful new short story called “The Land Beyond Maps” about a 20 year old couple, newly pregnant and traveling across Oregon into California trying to come to terms with the rest of their lives as adults with responsibilities, a romantic and humorous blend of fishing story and Mount Vesuvius, the way things happen outside our control.

Second reader PAM HOUSTON (nonfiction) read from a new collection of 144 very short anecdotes, each numbered and named for its location. Crowds pressing into a chapel in Tibet and a squirrel repeatedly throwing itself into a plate glass window in Milwaukee. The stories were touching and funny and ultimately provoke thought.

What with birthday songs and anecdotes, third reader JOSEPH MILLAR (poetry) felt the pressure to be quick, “Pete tells me I have three minutes.” He also chose to read new work. One was “Ginsberg” introduced with great respect to those who write about Vietnam from experience, as concerning what it was like not to go to war in that country in 1970. Another, "Ode to the Ear,” dedicated to Stephen Kuusisto (who reads this coming Friday) concerned listening. You can close your eyes when you don’t want to look, Joe said, which he does often in movies, but you can’t close your ears.

The evening ran late, the room was hot, and I was having hot flashes and could barely breathe, but I didn’t regret a single moment of those readings.


Color was already fading from the sky by the time I pulled out my camera for this shot. Tide rolling into the rocks and no chance for a beach run until the afternoon reveals the sand again. But it's pretty, huh?


On my way home from school yesterday I heard Ellen Bass doing a live promo for the Pacific University MFA readings on KMUN. She read two poems, both stunning, but I was so taken with the first that I failed to retain the subject of the second. It was the one about being the last person to touch someone before they died. I nearly cried. 

I arrived home before Gary's "lunch" so we had a half hour together. He took one look at me and suggested I take a nap if I was going to go back for the reading. It was a rough week. A sudden on-slot of requests for letters of rec, including two from former students (one graduated in 1995, graduated from Willamette and is now applying for a scholarship to help her through nursing school) and one from a student who is currently visiting family in Mexico. And then one of my favorite students had a disaster in the family. Her older brother was the victim of a hit-and-run on New Years Eve. Brain damage, but is able to wiggle fingers and toes and is somewhat responsive. If he continues improving, they will try to put his skull back together on Monday. She won't be back to class. 

So I took a nap. 

I woke in time to head north. The first person I saw as I entered Lewis and Clark was David Long, my thesis advisor. I said hello, but he was busy with another student so I scooted on in and sat on the side. The program Director, Shelley Washburn came over—looking beautiful and uncharacteristically unfrazzled—and said hello. At first I didn't recognize any of the students, and then spotted Molly H. across the room and a couple of other familiar faces. I saw instructors Craig, Jack, John, Peter, Claire, Sandra, and Ellen. 

The introductions were about 50% "I" and 50% readings from Amazon posted customer comments, without a review of the body of works or awards or background, education, etc. of the readers. 

The first reader was Judy Blunt (nonfiction) who joked at the beginning that someone should let the missing faculty know it was safe to attend; she was NOT reading from BREAKING CLEAN. She read from a new book with the working title of COOKING FROM SCRATCH. The title came from a relative who told her a story of visiting the family ranch when Judy was about 7, and Judy's mother was about to take everyone out to look at the cattle—"what passes for entertainment in Montana"—and sent Judy into the house to bake a cake for supper. She'd been impressed that a child of that age could be trusted to bake a cake without supervision. She talked a good deal about the expectations of girls in those days, about how hers (mine too) was probably the last generation where there was that expectation, where "can't cook" was a damning criticism. She told about her own grown daughter, asked to wash a head of lettuce, filling a sink with hot soapy water! She stated that she's glad boys and girls now have choices, though she secretly hopes they will someday see the light and decide that eating out and frozen pizza will not suffice. She read about making her son, home on leave, a complete breakfast without hardly thinking about it. "How do you do that?" he asks. She describes it "like dancing." The graceful conversion of raw potatoes, eggs, sausages, bread, and jam into a complete breakfast, all done and hot and served in one smooth continuous series of actions. She read that a calf separated from its mother cow will return to the last place it suckled, even if that place is miles away and through fencing. She does not share this analogy with her son. 

Bonnie Jo Campbell (various) read next, a series of works all based on the same life experience. She'd researched the beating of a wrecking yard owner who was beaten in order to find out where his money was kept and who refused to say. She wrote a creative nonfiction piece about it, then used it for the last story in her AMERICAN SALVAGE collection, then wrote two poems all based around the incident. 

Jack Driscoll (fiction) was last. He read from a story, "The World of a Few Minutes Ago" (from a poem by...), completed a few weeks back which includes different ages of narrators. The portion he read was from a 77 year old man whose wife has Alzheimer's disease. He's a retired AP photographer. Jack warned that it was different from his other work. It was. He's been going darker and darker. His character recalls indiscretions, times he thought or said cruel things about people he had no right to complain about. He wants to atone for his sins. I though about age and what it brings us back to—the works incomplete, the dreams unrealized, the mistakes left unrepaired. 

Judy wore a brilliant jewel colored top (peacock or purple?) and Bonnie Jo wore a sleeveless black top over a black miniskirt black patterned stockings and black boots. I mention this because Jack quipped that he wished he'd known, he'd have dressed better. Jack dressed like Jack. 

They were told they had no more than 20 minutes each. Clearly this was a strict rule and each reader kept a steady eye on the clock, or maybe Shelley. Even with the introductions, the entire reading was done at 8:36, an hour and six minutes, and I was home again by 9pm. 

03 January 2010


One of my favorite novels of all time is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, about an early nineteenth century boy and an adult slave on the run. I’m about to start teaching it again, something I’ve done several times for twenty years without tiring of it. Despite no interesting female characters at all, despite the distance between Huck and myself in terms of location, history, family, and gender, I love that kid. Clarence Page loved the novel, despite the use of the N word, because he found himself, a black man, included in an American masterpiece and he stretched himself to identify with a slave of a hundred years before. I guess I can stretch to accommodate a boy.

At home I’m reading a marvelous book [THE DISAPPEARANCE OF CHILDHOOD by Neil Postman] about the end of childhood. It's really got my brain humming. The first section was about how childhood was "invented" (in the west—he really doesn't explore the rest of the world). Until a few hundred years ago, children were just little adults after about the age of 7, and before that not even quite human. In the middle ages, “infants,” those under seven, sometimes were not granted names, were buried without a record of their gender, and for centuries clergy doubted they even had souls. There are many reasons for this. Life was hard, infant mortality high. Children or ordinary people learned the work of their parents by doing it. After age 7 people worked. 

But with printed books and freer access to knowledge came a purpose for childhood—to develop literacy. Also two opposing views of childhood—Locke's child as blank book (or Calvin’s feral beast needing to be tamed) in contrast to Rousseau's innocent. It’s more complicated than that, but imagine Huck Finn as the natural, if imperfect and flawed, innocent vrs. Roger in The Lord of the Flies as the monster needing to be tamed. Huck has mostly good impulses. He is kind, compassionate, disturbed by wanton violence, and guilty for his sins. In the other novel are children who, left to themselves in paradise, once outside authority is gone, resort to torture and murder. I've held as the personal opinion for many years that those kids were simply enacting the social controls they'd been subject to as buggered boys in boarding "Public" school... but there you are. I can't very well teach that, can I?According to interviews with Golding, it wasn’t his intent to show boys carrying civilization with them, but to reveal what happens when society lets loose. Most accept that William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies was written as a direct response to a nineteenth century novel, R.M. Ballantyne’s The Coral Island, which describes an idyllic version of shipwreck survivors who create paradise on a tropical island.

Are we monsters held in check by an artificial unnatural culture, or does our culture reflect our nature? The Naked Ape was popular when I started high school. In it Desmond Morris described humanity as a violent animal. The year I graduated from high school, a Nobel Prize winner, Albert Szent-Györgyi, wrote The Crazy Ape, which I preferred.

During their winter break, five former students from my college classes stopped by my house and we sat around talking about life as it is for them in college, their goals, their issues. How are my current students, they want to know. I give them the truth: You were more engaged in discussions. And thank goodness they were who they are. I was new to teaching college and needed to figure out what I was doing as quickly as possible. The college offered no guidelines, giving me complete freedom, but also little reassurance if I was doing well. I made mistakes, but I’m used to that. I hope they had as good a time in my class as I did. They were exceptionally willing lab rats. Boys and girls, young men and young women—nothing they said to me during those hours n my house suggested their gender. They are intelligent people attending college, and though someday they are likely to fall in love and marry, raise children, their conversation seemed determined less by gender than by their stage of life. Pretty and handsome, feminine and masculine, they are interesting people. They have never been blank slates or monsters, they are no longer complete innocents. Of Ballantyne, Golding, and Twain, Rousseau, Locke, and Calvin, I’ll give the nod to Twain for understanding human nature.


01 January 2010


Our three miles this morning were harder than six in August—we’re out of shape. 
I always intend to run through the winter, but November rolls around and it’s too dark in the morning, the wind and rain are too cold. I used to do a better job when Alan was in high school because we ran after school on most Tuesdays and Thursdays. He ran four miles, I ran three and we finished at about the same time. I’d get another run on the weekend. This past August Gary and I ran 103 miles, We ran steadily through October, but we ran only 13 miles in November. December, we managed 2 miles. I caught a bad cold and I still have a little congestion, so that’s my excuse for our pitiable miles. That and Christmas cookies, and the tide. I could think of more excuses if I needed them.
But I don’t need excuses. No one is standing over me telling me I have to run, no one but myself. 
My Language Lab class decided before Winter Break that their newspaper theme for the first week of January would be about New Year's resolutions, so I've been scooting around the internet looking at what others have to say about this. Evidently only about 12% of the population keep their resolutions, and losing weight is the most common failure. Money is on the list too.
According to Wikipedia, which cites, In the United States, “popular goals include resolutions to:
• Improve health: lose weight, exercise more, eat better, drink less alcohol, quit smoking
• Improve finances: get out of debt, save money
• Improve career: get a better job
• Improve education: improve grades, get a better education, learn something new 
• Improve self: become more organized, reduce stress, be less grumpymanage time, be more independent
• Maintain a diary
• Take a trip
• Volunteer to help others”
The diary was a surprise to me, but most of the other goals are familiar to me, actual goals I have thought of for myself and tried to achieve during my life. I've never smoked, but I generally pledge to lose weight, for example. Money has never been a focus of my life, though with one income and two children we had some very tough years financially. Now as we approach retirement, and our children a grown, I think about money in a different way than paycheck to paycheck. And as a class warrior, I have always valued the small and weak (who shall inherit) over the great and powerful man behind the curtain. Thus my interest in...
Ariana Huffington and Rob Johnson of HuffingtonPost write today about a recent dinner party discussion: “We talked about the outrage of big, bailed-out banks turning around and spending millions of dollars on lobbying to gut or kill financial reform -- including "too big to fail" legislation and regulation of the derivatives that played such a huge part in the meltdown. And as we contrasted that with the efforts of local banks to show that you can both be profitable and have a positive impact on the community, an idea took hold: why don't we take our money out of these big banks and put them into community banks? And what, we asked ourselves, would happen if lots of people around America decided to do the same thing? Our money has been used to make the system worse -- what if we used it to make the system better?” They suggest this be a New Year's resolution.
I like to keep my promises. It took me several years to commit to being a vegetarian, I thought about my three-cup-a-day coffee habit for years before I quit, and I tested out my ability to set money aside for over a year before I promised myself I would do it. Every year I look for some small thing I can promise myself with the security of keeping that promise. What did I manage to accomplish last year?
• Gained weight (not good—a goal in reverse), made soup almost every Sunday, and ran strong in the summer.
• Redecorated the upstairs rooms of the house; planned and saved enough money to remodel the downstairs bathroom.
• Joined Facebook in order to track down former students, began a blog in order to have an excuse to write, and learned to use a cell phone (a Christmas present from Kerris and Ian).
There are many things I hope to see in the new year, but only a few things I can safely promise. My 2010 resolutions:
• Lose that 30 pounds (about a pound a week), spend at least 30 minutes outside each day, and eat a healthy diet.
• Save more money out of each paycheck (already automatically withdrawn each month), find a better place to stash my savings (savings and loan?), and make improvements to the house (the bathroom... maybe the kitchen).
• Take a vacation this summer (to the southwest?).
• Write regularly on this blog (every week?), write a new story (I have written only one story since 2007), and complete the cook book I've been working on for the past eight years or so (section intros and a few recipes).
Our run this morning was hard and slow, but we felt good when we were done. A little goal made real, to run in the new year. The ocean is netted over with white and the rain has stopped. We've drunk the last of the excellent cider from the Farmers' Market. Now it’s time to undecorate the house for the New Year and get on with 2010. We wish you all a happy New Year. May your dreams become wishes, your wishes become goals, and your goals find a reality in your life. 
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