Archive | November, 2016

Observed and overheard on my annual trek to the Post Office

29 Nov

After a year in which the parcels I sent arrived on December 24th, I like to mail early, long before the December 10th deadline to Canada. And so, yesterday found me waiting in line at the main post office in downtown Portland. It was a longish line and they were understaffed. A clerk from another building had been called in to help out. The line was grumpy and the clerks were doing their best.

I knew the clerk I wanted: an African-American woman with hair extensions and fancy nails. We always laugh when I check out with her. She was working yesterday, but she was at the end of the counter where they take care of passports and business mailings. It might be possible to get her, but they only called people from the regular line when they weren’t busy. And that wasn’t today.

A young woman on a cell phone entered the line behind me with a bag carrying a couple of packages. She had clearly never been before because she was asking the person on the other end of the phone what she was supposed to do with the boxes. She seemed doubtful, so asked a passing USPS employee who told her she didn’t have to wait in line if they were relabeled. She still seemed unsure so caught the same employee on the way back who took her and showed her where to drop her prepaid packages.

I stepped to the side in line as the tall, elderly gentleman behind me breathed heavily on my head. Eww! Fortunately, he needed to write on his package so, once he’d found his pen, he leaned left to write on the counter showcasing stamps through the ages. I leaned right to avoid his breath.

The people in front of me had a couple of packages. She was lean, wore a cute crocheted hat and carried a small box. Her companion was also thin and had a long red beard. He was flitting about, holding a larger box. Their packages were labeled with an herbal medicine return address. Interesting. They looked sort of earthy.

A man stepped towards the counter and wanted to know would they cash his money order. He joined the line once he was told yes.

The line slowly edged forward and I saw a number of people in the passport line. Vacation travels? I wondered.

Finally it was my turn at the counter. I got the clerk who had snapped at me last time. Damn. She had chastised me for not leaving enough space for the customs form and had been rather grumpy. Today, she was all smiles. It was as though the busier the post office got, the more serene the clerks became.

I had three packages, so I had a bit of a wait at the counter. And that is when things got really interesting. The heavy breathing gentleman went to the clerk to my left. He had mail he was forwarding to his daughter. Apparently the post office doesn’t forward pre-sorted mail (formally known as junk mail) unless you pay to ship it. As he stepped aside to address the envelope he would use to ship all his daughter’s mail, Mr. Money Order took his place.

He was a loud talker so we all knew the money order was for $50.00. His clerk was the one substituting from another building and she was unsure of some of the rules at this PO. She asked my clerk several questions.  As my clerk was peppered with questions she apologized to me. Maybe she wasn’t as grumpy as I thought. Mr. Money Order was a little disgruntled that they had to call and verify it, but waited somewhat patiently. He was talking to the clerk and I, complaining a little about the wait. I offered him this bit of advice I learned from my mother: if you want an immediate answer, it is no, so be patient and you might just get what you want. When the clerk return from verifying, he got his $50.00.

Meanwhile, to my right, a curious incident was under way. A nicely dressed woman was arguing with my favorite clerk about her unsigned credit card. The post office has multiple signs saying they will not accept unsigned credit cards. This woman claimed her husband was a banker who had told her not to sign her credit card, and that it would be accepted, unsigned, with appropriate ID. Not at the USPS apparently, and she was angry, claiming she’d used it this way at this very post office before. My clerk asked me some questions and when I looked back at the woman, she was gone.

Thirty minutes after entering the post office, I left. Although I don’t know how all of these people’s stories ended, my heart was filled with happiness, knowing the packages were on the way.



High court drama

28 Nov

Several years ago, I had a 4th grader named Maria, who was obsessed with Imperial Russia. The fiction she wrote was always set there. She was a dramatic student, but I always enjoyed reading what she wrote. I thought about her as I read Evelyn Skye’s The Crown’s Game.


Publisher’s Summary: Vika Andreyeva can summon the snow and turn ash into gold. Nikolai Karimov can see through walls and conjure bridges out of thin air. They are enchanters—the only two in Russia—and with the Ottoman Empire and the Kazakhs threatening, the tsar needs a powerful enchanter by his side.

And so he initiates the Crown’s Game, an ancient duel of magical skill—the greatest test an enchanter will ever know.  The victor becomes the Imperial Enchanter and the tsar’s most respected adviser. The defeated is sentenced to death.

Raised on tiny Ovchinin Island her whole life, Vika is eager for the chance to show off her talent in the grand capital of Saint Petersburg. But can she kill another enchanter—even when his magic calls to her like nothing else ever has?

For Nikolai, an orphan, the Crown’s Game is the chance of a lifetime. But his deadly opponent is a force to be reckoned with—beautiful, whip smart, imaginative—and he can’t stop thinking about her.

And when Pasha, Nikolai’s best friend and heir to the throne, also starts to fall for the mysterious enchantress, Nikolai must defeat the girl they both love . . . or be killed himself.

As long-buried secrets emerge, threatening the future of the empire, it becomes dangerously clear . . . the Crown’s Game is not one to lose.

I liked this because of the setting. It was just real enough to feel authentic; just magical enough to feel unique. It includes all the romantic and dramatic things my former student loved about Imperial Russia: high court drama, St. Petersburg at its most glorious, and secret machinations behind the scenes.

The Crown’s Game is a wonderful place to lose yourself for a few hours, or a few days. Maria is a 7th grader now, but I hope she’s picked this one up.

Book talks for a short week

27 Nov

We only had 2 days of school last week 🙂

I was Thankful for that.

As a result, I only book talked two books and I felt like I had to make them good ones.


I started the week with The Reader. I enjoyed it so much I felt I had to share it with my students. Thinking about the excellent world building led me to talk about Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass.


First published in the US in 1996, most of my students were unfamiliar with the series, so I hope I have turned some of them on to it.


My take on Black Friday

25 Nov

Driving home from a delicious Thanksgiving meal last night, I passed a noticed all the empty parking lots and thought How nice, people are home enjoying each others company. Then, I drove past a Target. Illusion shattered.

I do not enjoy shopping on a regular day. Needless to say, I will not be joining the throngs of happy shoppers out looking for deals. My holiday gifts are ready. I’ve finished my holiday knitting and purchased the books that will be given. Allow me to smugly say that everything was purchased through independently owned shops.

My Black Friday will consist of three things:

  1. Poor Lucy has her annual vet appointment today. Because of timing this always seems to fall on the Friday or Saturday after Thanksgiving. Poor baby. She will get her bordatella and rabies shots. Most dogs get the bordatella through the nose, but Lucy, feisty girl that she is, always fights it so she gets hers subcutaneously. She is also due for a heart worm recheck. She’s never had heart worm and heart worm never existed this side of the Rockies, but it has arrived in Oregon. If you have a dog, be sure you test and tae appropriate precautions. I suspect, once we are home, she will spend most of the day asleep. She doesn;t really enjoy vet visits, even Dr. Klau is very gentle.Lucy_Nose
  2. I will spend much of my day knitting. I am knitting a scarf with two yarns from my stash and one of them is black. This is an easy pattern that alternates two yarns for a lovely effect.img_2269
  3. I will finish reading The Star-Touched Queen  by Roshani Chokshi.


Publisher’s Summary:Fate and fortune. Power and passion. What does it take to be the queen of a kingdom when you’re only seventeen?

Maya is cursed. With a horoscope that promises a marriage of Death and Destruction, she has earned only the scorn and fear of her father’s kingdom. Content to follow more scholarly pursuits, her whole world is torn apart when her father, the Raja, arranges a wedding of political convenience to quell outside rebellions. Soon Maya becomes the queen of Akaran and wife of Amar. Neither roles are what she expected: As Akaran’s queen, she finds her voice and power. As Amar’s wife, she finds something else entirely: Compassion. Protection. Desire…

But Akaran has its own secrets — thousands of locked doors, gardens of glass, and a tree that bears memories instead of fruit. Soon, Maya suspects her life is in danger. Yet who, besides her husband, can she trust? With the fate of the human and Otherworldly realms hanging in the balance, Maya must unravel an ancient mystery that spans reincarnated lives to save those she loves the most. . .including herself.

I hope your Black Friday will be as enjoyable as mine (after I get home from the vet).




Our traditional holiday lies

22 Nov

“I’m worried about the package,” my sister told me when we Skyped on Sunday. “I had to go to a different post office and the clerk gave me trouble.”

“How so?” I asked.

“Well, I lied, as always. Instead of saying the package contained tea, I said it contained chocolate. The clerk said it was a violation of Canadian and American law to send chocolate throughout the mail. So I said it was candy. I’m worried she flagged it for inspection.”

I laughed. We are always lying to federal officials on both sides of the border, about what our packages contain. They never contain anything illegal, but we lie just in case.

When I arrived home last night, I mounted the stairs chanting my new apres-knee mantra: “Good foot up, bad foot down”. I can walk unassisted, but am using a cane for security. As I reached the top step, I looked up and saw a small package at my door stoop. Oh, to be able to run or skip! It was, of course, my illicit Advent calendar.


I sent a quick message to my sister then opened this tiny cabinet of wonders.


One tea a day until Christmas! As a naturally curious person, I had to peek at my birthday. What tea would December 23 hold?


Organic Kashmiri Chai! I resisted the temptation to peek at any others. I just have to wait patiently for 8 days, until I can open the first drawer.




The Power of the Printed Word

21 Nov

I spent much of the weekend curled up with The Reader by Traci Chee.


Publisher’s Summary:Sefia knows what it means to survive. After her father is brutally murdered, she flees into the wilderness with her aunt Nin, who teaches her to hunt, track, and steal. But when Nin is kidnapped, leaving Sefia completely alone, none of her survival skills can help her discover where Nin’s been taken, or if she’s even alive. The only clue to both her aunt’s disappearance and her father’s murder is the odd rectangular object her father left behind, an object she comes to realize is a book—a marvelous item unheard of in her otherwise illiterate society. With the help of this book, and the aid of a mysterious stranger with dark secrets of his own, Sefia sets out to rescue her aunt and find out what really happened the day her father was killed—and punish the people responsible.

Man, this is a good one. It is Chee’s debut novel and I wonder if this is at all in the running for the 2017 Morris award.

Complex and multi-layered, this is not the simple book about the magical powers of reading I was expecting. Chee’s attention to details make this feel as if the world she has created might really exist. Featuring a strong female heroine of Asian descent, the book is full of diverse characters.

Alas, this is the first in a series, so readers will have to wait to see what happens next.

This week’s book talks

20 Nov

This week’s books started of sort of randomly, then ended with a theme.

Monday, I shared the book I wrote about on Sunday.


We started our information writing unit this week and I shared this book because of its unique narrator: The Groove.


Publisher’s Summary: Berry Gordy began Motown in 1959 with an $800 loan from his family. He converted the garage of a residential house into a studio and recruited teenagers from the neighborhood-like Smokey Robinson, Mary Wells, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and Diana Ross-to sing for his new label. Meanwhile, the country was on the brink of a cultural revolution, and one of the most powerful agents of change in the following decade would be this group of young black performers from urban Detroit. From Berry Gordy and his remarkable vision to the Civil Rights movement, from the behind-the-scenes musicians, choreographers, and song writers to the most famous recording artists of the century, Andrea Davis Pinkney takes readers on a Rhythm Ride through the story of Motown.

Wednesday, for no reason in particular, I chose three books to get me through the rest of the week. They all had a connection to games: chess, bridge, basketball

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Full of Beans

18 Nov

It’s the week before Thanksgiving and everyone is ready for a break. We’ve had some friendship and honesty issues at school, which is pretty typical for this time of year.

Beans, the main character of Jennifer L. Holm’s Full of Beans,  has similar issues.


Publisher’s Summary:Grown-ups lie. That’s one truth Beans knows for sure. He and his gang know how to spot a whopper a mile away, because they are the savviest bunch of barefoot conchs (that means “locals”) in all of Key West. Not that Beans really minds; it’s 1934, the middle of the Great Depression. With no jobs on the island, and no money anywhere, who can really blame the grown-ups for telling a few tales? Besides, Beans isn’t anyone’s fool. In fact, he has plans. Big plans. And the consequences might surprise even Beans himself.

Funny, honest and charming, this was a really great read. Appropriate for all audiences, the book really captures the flavor of the Depression. I really like the way Holm makes the  run-down town come to life as the New Dealers paint and spruce it up. It was like Dorothy leaving Kansas and arriving in Oz. And, along the way, the spirits of the islanders are lifted.  The author’s note at the end provides readers with photographs, list of 1930s child actors, popular sayings, gang rules, and websites.


17 Nov

The White House’s glass ceiling didn’t shatter last week, but girls and women will continue to fight for their place in society, world, business and academia. It can be helpful to look back at girls and women who defied convention for inspiration, and Jeannine Atkin’s Finding Wonders: Three Girls who Changed Science can help.


Publisher’s Summary:A gorgeously written novel in verse about three girls in three different time periods who grew up to become groundbreaking scientists.

Maria Merian was sure that caterpillars were not wicked things born from mud, as most people of her time believed. Through careful observation she discovered the truth about metamorphosis and documented her findings in gorgeous paintings of the life cycles of insects.

More than a century later, Mary Anning helped her father collect stone sea creatures from the cliffs in southwest England. To him they were merely a source of income, but to Mary they held a stronger fascination. Intrepid and patient, she eventually discovered fossils that would change people’s vision of the past.

Across the ocean, Maria Mitchell helped her mapmaker father in the whaling village of Nantucket. At night they explored the starry sky through his telescope. Maria longed to discover a new comet—and after years of studying the night sky, she finally did.

Told in vibrant, evocative poems, this stunning novel celebrates the joy of discovery and finding wonder in the world around us.

As I read each section, my mind went to other books I have read about these three women of science.

Margarita Engle wrote an excellent picture book about Maria Merian.


Publisher’s Summary:In the Middle Ages, people believed that insects were evil, born from mud in a process called spontaneous generation. Maria Merian was only a child, but she disagreed. She watched carefully as caterpillars spun themselves cocoons, which opened to reveal summer birds, or butterflies and moths. Maria studied the whole life cycle of the summer birds, and documented what she learned in vibrant paintings.

This is the story of one young girl who took the time to observe and learn, and in so doing disproved a theory that went all the way back to ancient Greece.

Several years ago, I read an excellent adult fiction book about Mary Anning, by Tracy Chevalier.


Publisher’s Summary:On the windswept, fossil-strewn beaches of the English coast, poor and uneducated Mary Anning learns that she has a unique gift: “the eye” to spot fossils no one else can see. When she uncovers an unusual fossilized skeleton in the cliffs near her home, she sets the religious community on edge, the townspeople to gossip, and the scientific world alight. After enduring bitter cold, thunderstorms, and landslips, her challenges only grow when she falls in love with an impossible man.

Mary soon finds an unlikely champion in prickly Elizabeth Philpot, a middle-class spinster who shares her passion for scouring the beaches. Their relationship strikes a delicate balance between fierce loyalty, mutual appreciation, and barely suppressed envy, but ultimately turns out to be their greatest asset.

Remarkable Creatures is a stunning historical novel that follows the story of two extraordinary 19th century fossil hunters who changed the scientific world forever.

Finally, local author, Deborah Hopkinson also published a picture book. Hers was about Maria Mitchell.


Publisher’s Summary: Maria’s wish burns as brightly as a star. Maria longs to be an astronomer and imagines all the strange worlds she can travel to by looking though her papa’s telescope. One night Maria gets her chance to look through the telescope. For the first time, she sees the night sky stretching endlessly above her, and her dream of exploring constellations seems close enough to touch.
In this story, inspired by the life of Maria Mitchell, America’s first woman astronomer, “viewers will find the cobalt-blue nights, lit with constellations that make imaginary (and actual) pictures in the sky, every bit as attractive as Maria does.”


Thank you

15 Nov

Hobbling around on crutches for a week, I have been humbled by all the kinds I’ve been shown. Every small act of kindness felt huge to me.

Thank you, Nina                                                                                                                                                          For wheeling me around school and making my tea.

Thank you Stoller colleagues                                                                                                                                   For sharing your wisdom and stories and for offering help.

Thank you, neighbor                                                                                                                                           For offering to carry my garbage bag to the can.

Thank you, Andrew & Sue                                                                                                                                    For talking Lucy for the all important evening poop walk.

Thank you kind people                                                                                                                                         For holding the door open for me. It was a small act for you, but tricky for me to do alone.

Thank you friends and family                                                                                                                                   For your calls and offers of help. I cherish every one, whether I took up your offer or not.

Thank you to Monika Schröder                                                                                                                          For giving me just the book I needed this week.

Thank you everyone                                                                                                                                           For you well wishes and encouragement. I appreciate every word.

Thank you to the ones I have forgotten to thank                                                                                    Forgive my imperfect memory.


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