Hattie and Kirby

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IMG_1810IMG_1808On May 14th, I went to a book signing. My friend Wayne Osborn works with the Washington Library Media Association, Mt. Rainier Region and invited me to tag along. Every time I go to a book signing I learn something and find new inspiration. I’d love to win a Newbery award from the American Library Association, so this signing with Newbery Honor Book winner Kirby Larson promised to be especially inspiring.

At least 40 librarians from the nearby school districts and a few teachers met at Johnny’s Dock, a restaurant by the water looking out over the Foss waterway and over to the Glass Museum. The day sparkled with sunshine on the waterway. Yachts surrounded the restaurant in their moorings while Wayne joked about which boat belonged to him.

We started out the evening looking at a table full of books by Larson, including Hattie Big Sky that won the Newbery Honor in 2007. I bought the sequel Hattie Ever After and filled out a sheet to have her sign it to me. Something about owning signed books of authors I admire thrills me. All the other folks, I noticed had her sign to their libraries.

IMG_1853 IMG_1852I got there early but soon the room filled with librarians. It didn’t surprise me that most of them looked just like the group I train with to teach ESL. I blended right in and no one noticed the lone instructor from the community college system.

When Kirby Larson arrived, she impressed me by shaking all of our hands and asking our names. We knew she wouldn’t remember, but it felt good to have her ask.

Larson then went on to give her presentation. She looked comfortable with technology and had put together a PowerPoint with slides illustrating her story of writing the two books Hattie Big Sky and Hattie Ever After. She shared the inspiration of her grandmothers and how they led her to writing the first book, making us all smile with the words she used from a 13 year old. The young reader complained that Larson had left her hanging like ‘an upside down question mark’ and begged Larson to write a sequel to Hattie Big Sky.  After finishing the first book, I had to agree with the 13 year old. I’m glad I bought the second book to see what happens to the character next.

As a writer, I drank in the words describing her work. She researched by asking librarians and experts in very specific fields. Writing her books involved the help of untold hundreds of people and she graciously credited them for their assistance. She also gave us a ‘press pass’ made on a printing press that Hattie might have used in the 1920’s. You can see a picture of the pass next to the Hattie Ever After book to the left.

After her story, Larson took questions. She advised me to use a program called Scrivener for my piles of research notes that are now languishing on Zotero but not attached to my book’s draft.  Following her advice, I’m using the trial version of Scrivener and saving my coffee money to buy it when the trial expires in 30 days.

But my favorite story was about getting the call telling her she won the Newbery. Larson told of how a stranger called at 6:00am while she was still in bed, and her first thought was of the inappropriate hour. After beginning to breathe again, she had an adventure trying to get into the ALA conference with her husband without a badge for him.

Maybe it’s my favorite story because winning a Newbery is on my list of dreams. I am grateful to the librarian at my table who asked her to tell the story of her success.

Overall, it was a delight to meet Kirby Larson and hear her stories. Book signings give me the emotional boost I sometimes need to keep me going. I’m grateful to I got to go to this one. Thanks, Wayne!

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Married to Destiny

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Tacoma never won many beauty contests. My first memory of the place involves a nasty stench. The Tacoma Aroma wafted through my family’s car as we drove past the port with it’s smokestacks spewing the stench of I don’t know what. The smell rolled out from any number of smelters. It probably damaged my growing lungs.

TacomaSONY DSC oozed with factories and shipping lanes ever since the Europeans came to the area. The EPA targeted Commencement Bay and surrounding ares as Super Fund Sites, meaning they needed extra dollars to clean up the mess we’ve made here in past decades.

Later I remember the shootings on the Hill Top and the fear of going downtown at all. Even today, I’ll get glimpses of those old days with tightness in my chest as I wonder if someone might shoot me for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Gangs still roam here, and I see the sadness of poverty on the streets in the people bent over, blankets held over their heads.

But over the past few years I have found a strange emotion filling me whenever I drive into the city on my morning commute or to go to the zoo with my children. It feels like looking at a loved one with all of her wrinkles and flaws and not caring one whit about them. It feels like being married to someone and, even though he sometimes drives me crazy by putting things in the wrong place or telling the same story for the hundred millionth time, loving the very essence of his being. I didn’t ever expect to feel this way about a place. And certainly not about Tacoma. But I do.

Growing up I couldn’t wait to leave my home. I longed for adventure in other cities and countries. I went on a mission trip to Ciudad Juarez, lived in San Francisco for a summer, worked in Germany in a hotel and taught English for a time in China. I loved to travel and still feel the thrill of the airport even with all of its lines and security. But every time I go, I think of what I am missing at home. A part of me feels empty and sad without my ‘place.’

Maybe this has to do with all the people I’ve loved in Tacoma even in the city’s dark times.

My father grew up in Tacoma on Ash Street off of 19th and Sprague. I can’t see a place in Tacoma without thinking of something I did with him or some story he told me like playing hookey when he was 10 and having the News Tribune take his picture at Hoodlum Lake – a place I lived across the street from as an adult. Here’s the picture of him and his friends on their raft. The newspaper photographer caught them, and the boys got in trouble for skipping school.

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As I grew up, we visited my grandparents’ home in North Tacoma, taking the Union Avenue exit off of Highway 16 for as long as I can remember. What’s not to love about a city where I played in a house with a candy dish full of M&M’s, a basement with slide-worthy stairs, a laundry chute and a toy chest?

For 17 years I have worked at Bates Technical College in Tacoma. Most of those years I worked downtown next to the city jail, county courthouse and local food bank. I’ve certainly learned more about Tacoma’s wrinkles from my morning commute and from the night classes I’ve taught in the neighborhood. But I’ve also met students at this school that live in my memory and colleagues that sometimes feel closer than family. One teacher held my hand just before my son was born and brought me the baby shower gifts I had missed at work because my oldest decided to be born early.

And while I’ve been busy living my life, Tacoma has been busy reinventing itself. Museums sprouted downtown and the LeMay museum grew up next to the Tacoma Dome. The Sounder brought commuters and everywhere I look, art springs up. Even on the sides of old houses like this:

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Many of the old smokestacks came down. They’ve cleaned up the arsenic in the soil of Ruston and places like the Children’s Museum make Tacoma an attraction rather than repelling visitors. Even the stench is gone. It lives the memories of we middle aged locals, but no one holds their noses while passing on I-5 any more.

It surprises me to feel this love of place. I always saw myself as a wanderer but maybe that was never true. I spent years thinking I needed to travel to find myself. Instead, when I sunk my roots in the earth of my home, I found myself.

I still want to travel. My soul loved all the places I’ve been and longs for more. But I don’t want to leave this home with all of her wrinkles and crazy stories, either. I count myself lucky to live here, to have students from all over the world and to travel now and then, knowing The City of Destiny waits for me when I get back. And sometimes, like last June, I go to the car museum at night, and I see her beauty reflecting my love back.

Destiny

Cultural Space

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About once a year, I do an activity with my students that I learned in my undergraduate days. It looks like this:

I call two volunteers to the front of the class. One is male, the other is female.

I ask them to walk toward me one at a time and put my hand up when they’ve walked close enough for my comfort level. I put my hand up to stop the walker at the distance I would be comfortable speaking to them. With men, I stop them about a foot and a half away. With women, I’m comfortable being a few inches closer.

I point out the differences between male and female space and then pull another volunteer, either male or female. We test the space comfort for different people as they decide when someone is close enough. Usually, people from the same culture have similar space requests. We talk about how many cultures can exist within countries. It’s always enlightening to see a visual demonstration of the influence of our backgrounds.

The power of culture fascinates me. I’ve worked with people from across the seven continents, and I intellectually understand cultural distance. Still, when women from Asia want to touch me, I pull back before I can stop myself. And one day a man from Mexico stepped back twice while I was talking to him. I kept moving closer. He kept moving away. We were both trying to get to our comfort space and doing a sort of dance. Finally, I stopped to let him get some distance. My cultural instinct drives my actions before my intellect can catch up. When I see countries arguing with each other in the news, I wonder how many dances we are doing unconsciously.

An article on NPR about this cultural distance reassured me in a strange way.  Even better than the written discussion, I found a link to a Seinfeld episode with a hilarious demonstration of what it looks like to break cultural norms. I’ve never seen anyone talk as in-your-face as Judge Reinhold no matter what culture he or she is from. A ‘close talker’ would struggle in most places, I expect.

It’s time for us to do our space exercise again. And this time, I’ll work in a bit of Seinfeld to help us laugh a little more at ourselves. When I start to stress about how we will ever all get along, a good chuckle always helps me breathe again.