June 27, 2018

My MFA Education


I recently attended a local writing festival hosted by the low residency MFA program at OSU-Cascades. We don’t get a lot of writing related events in Central Oregon, so I was super excited to see this one pop up. The first session was held at our local library. It featured readings from MFA staff as well as a graduate of the program who has gone on to be published. It was interesting in that most of the readers read unpublished work, stuff they are working on, instead of from a published book they could be promoting. Even the graduate read some fresh work along with something from her brand new book. Then they held a panel and we got to ask questions about stuff like inspiration and intent and other deep things.

Then we scurried across town to the OSU-Cascades campus for the second class. This was the class I was most interested in. It was about adding empathy to your writing. I’m a pretty no-nonsense person. I feel each person is responsible for themselves, their decisions, the consequences, their actions and reactions. It isn’t quite so hard and fast as all that, but it’s an over-arcing belief system I follow that doesn’t breed empathy. So I was all sorts of excited to learn how to create more caring characters, tell a more compasionate story.

And then we were given an assignment. Choose from several pictures our instructor shared and write about it. Collaborate among our tablemates to develop a story or choose a story from those written. My table consisted of three of the MFA students, a professor from the program, a writer friend of mine and myself. The picture we chose was a crowd scene. The focus was of a young girl holding a protest sign, which read something like, ONE CHILD IS TOO MANY. She was looking off camera, in the opposite direction from the crowd, behind her, and she had a concerned look on her face. A police officer stood in front of her, with his back to the camera, his arms held out as if to corral the crowd. He too, glanced over his shoulder in the same direction as the girl.

Each of us took five minutes or so to write something about the picture. My writer friend tried but just couldn’t relate to that photo, so being a rebel, wrote about a different picture altogether. The professor and I both chose to write about the same guy in the crowd. The man stood out because of his height and his hat, so it wasn’t too surprising we both focused on him. Our stories weren’t all that different either. In the end, we ended up allowing one of the MFA students to read his story because he focused on the cop and his story was filled with empathyßremember, the assignment.

I guess it’s no surprise that given five minutes to write flash fiction, I resorted to type and forgot the assignment. Oh well. Hopefully, I learned enough to add it to my writing in more relaxed circumstances. However, I thought I’d share my flash fiction with you for the fun of it.


I don’t know what I was thinking wearing this orange hat. In the woods it acts as my safety net, so no hunter will accidentally mistake my tall ass for an elk. Here, it feels like a target for the protestors. They’re across the way, pushing, pushing against the line of police. Their line shoulder to shoulder against the anger. And here I stand with my single police guard and my bright orange hat, a head taller than anyone else, saying, “Please, use your right to bare ams on me.”

Have you ever done a flash fiction exercise like this? It’s a great exercise to develop your writing chops. Now I want to organize a FF contest. Who's in?

June 13, 2018

Do You Knock First or Just Enter?

My son stopped by after work the other day. He works really early hours and is off by about 9:00 a.m. He walked into the house, greeted my husband and I, and all the animals, grabbed a bowl of cereal and sat down at the dining table with his earbuds in, and ate. He had an appointment later in the morning and didn't want to drive all the way home just to turn around and come all the way back. That's cool.

I left for work shortly after that, but I realized as I drove away that I was grinning. I mean, I love my son, he's got a wicked sense of humor, but why was I grinning?

That's when it hit me. I didn't have that kind of relationship with my mom, even though I considered us close. I still needed to call and arrange to see her. I'm pretty certain I knocked instead of walking right in. Don't get me wrong, the formality never bothered me. She respected my privacy when I lived at home and always knocked before entering my room and wasn't a snoop. But we treated our kids that way too. When they still lived at home, we knocked and received permission to enter. Yet my son feels comfortable enough to treat this as his home away from home and that makes me deliriously happy. (For the record we still have a son at home, but three have fledged.)

I loved my mom beyond measure, but she was a very different mother than I am and that's okay. We walked into motherhood with completely different backgrounds. Her parents didn't win any awards and her childhood wasn't happy. Where as I never doubted that my parents loved me and I had a very safe, secure, and happy childhood. We raised our children under very different circumstances too.  She was a single mother before it was accepted and I have a husband, partner, co-parent that I'm still deliriously in love with. I'm not stupid. I know some of the reason I can live this 'storybook' parenthood is because of how hard Mom worked to keep me happy and secure. I have no idea how she did it. I have nothing but respect for the successes she did have in parenting.

But it doesn't change the fact that I didn't feel I could just walk into her home. Yet, I believe she deserves a tip of the hat for the fact the my kids feel that way.

What's one thing you do in adulthood that your parent(s) didn't? Or if you aren't quite to full-on adulting yet, what do you hope to do different?

June 6, 2018

My Commencement Speech

Two years ago, as my son readied himself to graduate high school, I wrote a commencement speech to honor the occasion. This year, he is receiving his AA in Criminal Justice and you know what? The speech still applies. This speech always applies. So, I'm posting it again. And I'll probably post it every year until someone lets me read this speech in person in front of an auditorium of bright eyed graduates.

Original Post:


Let’s face it, it’s unlikely I will ever be asked to give a commencement speech, but this time of year all the You Tube links to inspirational speeches show up in my news feed and my very own son graduates high school in a few days, so I was inspired to give a commencement speech regardless of the lack of venue. Pretend we are in an auditorium packed with family, friends, and-most importantly-graduates. The Principal/Dean steps to the lectern…
***
Today we present our graduates with a woman who is a wife, a mother, an author, a daughter, a sister, an aunt, an employee, and a friend. Welcome Kai Strand.

*Applause*

Thank you to the faculty, staff, parents, family, friends, and students for the warm welcome. You may be wondering why I’m standing here in front of you today. I don’t have major accomplishments to tout; such as, organizing clean water for people in remote African villages, or providing warm coats for homeless children. I don’t even have an impressive degree to accredit me. I spend my days working a couple different jobs, raising children, coordinating efforts with my husband to keep our family functional, and picking up dog poop. I’m a very average person. Which is the point, really.

Of those of you who eagerly wait the moment you move your tassel across the mortarboard, many of you have grand dreams and endless ambition. You hope to change the world. Maybe you plan to become a scientist, a politician, a doctor, or a lawyer. To discover new technology, pass groundbreaking law, cure cancer. And some of you will do just that.

But most of you, like me, will live ordinary lives. As the years progress, you’ll have several jobs, some of which you’ll like a lot, most that you wont. Maybe you’ll report to someone or you’ll be the one others report to. I’ve been both. Over the course of your lives you’ll buy cars, maybe a house or two, you might get married and raise a family. There will be points in your life where you’ll struggle to make ends meet and each meal will include either potatoes or pasta – the only foods you can afford. Luckily, there will likely be periods where you are flush and able to buy speedboats or tour Europe. Or maybe you’ll be satisfied with being able to afford a daily Starbucks indulgence. This ebb and flow in life is normal. Very normal.

But you know what? Even normal people make a difference. Each day, when you go to work, or stop to pick up groceries, or browse for your next pleasure read at the bookstore, you will interact with people. You will talk about important things or make casual observations. Your words, your attitude, your actions will impact each and every person you meet. You will inspire a person or tear them down with a simple response to the service they provide. Holding a door open for the weary person behind you might be all he or she needs to walk into the lab where they’ve seen countless failures. All they need to cure cancer.

Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, Eleanor Roosevelt, they did not live in a bubble. When they weren’t changing the world, they lived mundane lives and were impacted, inspired by every day people.

Recently a woman told me I inspire her. She has several novels started and not a single one finished. I believe that I can finish novels impresses her more than the fact that I have twelve novels published. When she admitted to her inability to finish novels, I felt a familiar tug of empathy. Finishing is hard. So, I shared some tips of how I push myself through to the end. It was a nice conversation. And you know, it isn’t the first time I’ve been told, “you’ve inspired me.” No matter how many times I hear it, I react the same way. I cock my head and stare, like a curious kitten. It always takes a little longer for the meaning of the words to compute in my head. Even more surprising than the fact that my actions or words have resonated within someone is the fact that someone is watching. As an author I have a public persona. One I work hard on. Being quippy on Twitter takes a lot of effort. Yet even after all the hours I pour into making sure people are watching me, I’m still surprised to learn people are watching me. Let me tell you, people are watching you too. Not just your mother, or the brother who loves to hold things over your head, but your four-year-old niece, the quiet employee you work with on Thursday afternoons, the sales associate at the bookstore where you buy all your reading material, the professor who you’ll eventually hit up for a reference letter.

Even my ordinary life has had extraordinary moments. At the tender age of thirteen I traveled alone to France to spend the summer with a family I didn’t know. In my mid-twenties I visited Dublin, Ireland to hire and train an employee at a brand new manufacturing plant. Of course, as a mother, there were four life-altering moments when each of my children was born. But there was also my freshman year in high school when a boy I’d known my entire life, died from injuries he’d suffered from falling off his bicycle. And then when my roommates and I lost many of our treasured childhood belongings in a fire. There was that time my boss called me at home to ask me if the rumors she’d heard about me quitting were true – and that she was pretty sure the rumor about me sneaking off to empty hotel rooms with the bellboys, wasn’t true. Each of the extraordinary moments—whether good or bad—all had one thing in common.

Me.

I controlled my reactions. The words I used. The impression I left. I chose if I wanted to learn something from the experience or just be sad or bitter or gloating. As I rose to the occasion, or stayed strong, or restrained my anger—the whole time—there were people watching. Though I usually never thought about that aspect of it. If I was a homesick 13 year old or, like now, a nervous 51 year old giving a (fake) commencement speech, I am the constant in the equation. And regardless of if your aspiration is to be an astronaut or a school teacher, or if you go on to inspire a cashless economy or work at the dollar store, if you achieve your doctorate or never step into a classroom again, our human experience is the common denominator. Always.

Every day, every one of you will make a difference in large or small ways. You will—you do—change the course of life by who you are. I challenge you to consciously be a positive influence on this world in your day-to-day life while you work toward that big change your livelihood will make. Go off and do big things, but in the mean time, do a lot of really great small things.

Congratulations graduates.

June 1, 2018

Life in the Cereal Aisle



In full-on shopper mode, I turn down the cereal aisle and come up short. A thin, slightly slouched, old man stands smack dab in the center of the lane. Staring. His mouth agape, his eyes glazed.

“Can I help you?” I ask.

“Yes, I’m looking for Special K.”

I turn toward the shelves and suddenly they stretch out in either direction like Octopus tenticles reaching for prey. I’ve never realized how many brands of cereal there are until I see it through the old man’s eyes. For half a minute, I worry that I won’t be able to spot his preferred brand either. But then my younger eagle eyes spot it and I pluck a box off the shelf for him.

Fast forward about ten (or so) years to this afternoon when I stopped at the store to pick up a few things. This time I’m sauntering behind the cart because I’m seriously not in any sort of hurry. Then I find myself in the cereal aisle. Staring at the Cocoa Puffs and Lucky Charms and…ugh…Raisin Bran. And I realize I really want something chocolate or with marshmallows—dang it! But I don’t have any kids at home as my excuse anymore.

Maybe I’m not at the stage of the old man, overwhelmed by the shear number of choices, but I’ve taken yet another step in his direction. How does this happen so fast and at what point do we accept our own personal cereal choices? #SugarCerealsForTheWin