Shelter, Warmth, Dignity–and Education


Two Fridays ago I returned from Haiti, where ShelterBox, the disaster-relief agency I volunteer for, is helping the nation to recover from Hurricane Matthew.

As always, there are many different things I saw and people I met that left me feeling richer and better rounded, but I want to take some time and space today to reflect on something that sometimes gets overlooked in our normal understanding of relief efforts.

So let’s picture what people think of when they think of disaster relief: Food. Medicine. Shelter. Yes. All good, necessary things. But what happens in the immediate days after a disaster? Depending on where you live, you’ve probably encountered a sign like this somewhere in your neighborhood:


Where do you usually see them? Civic buildings, generally: Stadiums, churches, sometimes–and schools. Schools are well-built; it’s the place to which parents will naturally turn if a natural disaster strikes during school hours, since they’ll want to see if their kids are okay.

But quite often, places of education get turned into shelters that may serve a population for weeks on end if families have no place to turn.

When we arrived in Haiti, a few days after Hurricane Matthew came through, schools had already been pressed into service. One chalkboard I saw had its last lesson on it, from September 28. When we left Les Cayes, there was no news as to when schools could go back into service.

The problem is, when schools are housing families, serving as places to stay safe and out of the elements, they can’t be used for their original purposes. In the Haitian earthquake of 2010, schools only started to reopen after a few months. And in Malawi, where I was last year, even after schools opened to regular classes, classrooms were still serving as shelters, so families had no place to go during the day, while school was in session; and school staff and communities had to work every morning and every afternoon to effect the change from classroom to shelter and back again.


The classrooms in this school in Malawi were doing double duty when we showed up: They were serving both as shelters for families while they rebuilt their homes and as proper classrooms. You can see the kids in their school uniforms with my teammate here.

The effect of natural disaster on a society goes far beyond the more acute needs of food, medicine, and shelter. It’s one of the reasons aid agencies like ours work so hard to get families back onto their home sites, so life can go on.

For more of our work in Haiti and worldwide, visit ShelterBoxUSA.org. And for more detailed information on what effects disaster can have on education, see this paper from the Brookings Institute.



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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Naming Conventions for Unconventional Real Estate

On a little island in the middle of the Philippines, there stands some incredibly attractive property. Ocean views on hillocks; fertile soil that gives rise to corn, cassava, coconut; curious lava-rock formations that attract the eye and, occasionally, the butt of a scratching goat or cow.




Everywhere, happy neighbors and a healthy community; folks who will take care of you in trying times. Every morning and afternoon, children in school uniforms walking the over-two-kilometers from home to school; school to home to help their parents, cheerfully waving and calling to foreigners riding by in trucks, there to help a community recovering from an extreme act of nature.

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

An Old-School Race Report

I did two races this weekend: a 10K and a sprint triathlon. This report is about the tri. My friend John covers the 10K admirably, over here.

I used to write race reports with some regularity, but I’m reasonably sure I haven’t ever done one for a triathlon. Then again, my memory is failing me, so who knows?

Anyway, the San Dimas Turkey Tri is the first triathlon I have ever done in my home vicinity. That is to say, in the 13 years I lived here prior to my leaving for New York, and in the year since I have been back, I have never done a triathlon in southern California. So I was excited. And, I was excited because my friend Chels, who is a friend from my MFA program and has done the Whidbey Island Triathlon with me for the past two years, was also participating in this race. Plus, added bonus: Jim signed up for it too! So we had a nice little team. Chels’ husband Tyler came to watch and help us shlep stuff from race finish to the car afterward. Very nice.


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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Happy 1-Year Anniversary…

…to California, for getting me and Jim as residents. Feh.

Here is a brief list of things I like here:


  • I never know what month it is, and am sometimes pleasantly surprised to find out.
  • I am almost consistently warm.
  • I like the smell of eucalyptus and pepper in the mornings.
  • I like being  up before the rest of California, to work with my east-coast clients.
  • I like being closer to my Whidbey Island friends.
  • I like the ocean, although it is very far away.
  • We have a nice aquarium here.
  • The colleges are pretty.
  • I have enjoyed getting to re-know some friends, and making some new ones.

Well. More later.

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Verbagram, the Grilled Cheese Edition: A Tall Tale*

Verbagram: (n.) A thingamajibber in which I make up for my crap food photography by telling you a story about the food in question.

A few months ago, this happened:

Don’t quite understand it?
It’s okay. It has taken me lo! all these months to process it myself.
Here is what happened.
We went to our local brewery for the first of their Food Truck Fridays, which is, yes, when food truck arrives at brewery. The truck that week was the Grilled Cheese Truck. It was late getting there and late setting up, which is why Mr. Gooddirt had something like two and a half strong beers before he got into line.
Presumably the ABV contributed to some kind of food-related myopia, because when he delivered our food to the table he dropped off two normal grilled cheese sandwiches, one for me, and one for my friend, and an order of tater tots, and then he weaved a little and said, “Be Right Back,” and then he came back with another two handfuls of grilled cheese.
Well. I thought it was two handfuls of grilled cheese. Basically it was two grilled cheese sandwiches, each stuffed with mac and cheese, and slapped together. The whole thing was glued together by another layer of mac and cheese and more pulled pork.
The woman who is sitting next to Mr. Gooddirt is most likely laughing because she can’t believe he is trying to explain the thing to her and eat it all at the same time.
Also, it arrived in two containers and weighed about as much as a brick.
The next morning Mr. Gooddirt smelled like bacon and could not roll over onto his belly.
True story.
*Not really very tall. In fact, just normal height.

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A writing prompt, after a fashion

I saw someone very special the other day. It was someone I only see once every six or seven years, apparently. She is lovely and it never seems like any time has gone by when we do see each other, and I think this is part of the reason why:

Well. Not this exactly. But stuff like this.

After an awesome backwards dinner (we had dessert first), we strolled back to my car and spotted this, um, tableau in a shop window. We then proceeded to riff off of it for a good ten, fifteen minutes. It’s nice to find people like that with whom you can do such things.

We came up with a number of possibilities. (If you can’t really see it, the scary-looking devil-child is holding a set of antlers behind his–its?–back.) The horse is actually an old rocking horse, and it has a hole through its neck where, presumably, the reins used to go.

The various scenarios we came up with:

“Hello horsie. Would you like something sweet?”

“Well. I have these fine antlers. But I really would like it better if you were a unicorn, so…here.”

“Ah. I see. The hole in your neck. Here’s something to plug it with.”

“My Frankenhorse is almost complete. I have shed the barnacles of my childhood by making a mere plastic rocking horse into a carousel horse. Now it remains only to unicornize it. Oops. I did not mean to de-antler that buck on the way here.”

Now it’s your turn. What do you think is going on here? My totally subjective choice of winner gets a bag of Swedish fish mailed to them. I’ll try to make it the multi-colored ones, but you’ll get standard red if that’s all I can find.

“Submissions” close December 31.

Special thanks to Shey, my once-every-seven-years friend, for making this happen. Hopefully we’ll see more of each other now!



Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Reasons to run in the morning

1. Less smog
2. Fewer people
2a. Fewer cranky old men telling you your heeling hound needs to be on a leash.
2b. Fewer attack chihuahuas miraculously untethered from their people. Yes, really.
3. Better companion-hound activity
3a. Less need to stop for poops
3b. Too sleepy to want to stop and smell everything.
4. Southern California in the mornings smells like eucalyptus, pepper trees, sage, rosemary, thyme. Yes, really.
5. Pizza for breakfast
6. Coffee is so much more of a reward
7. The morning version of the gloaming
Here, have a gratuitous Sprocket photo.

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Long overdue

Oh, man. The past couple of months have been a terrible whirlwind of Stuff.

First there was the realization that we are moving. Then there was the trip to Blighty. And now here we are, the day before our move day. I’m not entirely sure how to fill the ensuing space. There was so much going on.

Of course I’m shattered by the idea of leaving New York, but it had to be done: my parents are getting older, and Jim got a really lovely job close enough to them. So we’ll be moving to just down the street from them, and it will be good, if only for the reason that Jim really loves his new gig.

New York is the only place I’ve really ever felt at home. I love everything about the northeast and I will miss it terribly. I feel like I’ve been swaddled in cotton wool, though–with the big trip to England to re-up my ShelterBox training and a bunch of work surrounding the actual move (I’m teaching a webinar on social media tonight), I’ve been largely insulated from the move. So instead of the sharp pangs I had upon each of my previous moves, I’ve been experiencing sort of dull, constant echoey ache that presents itself at the most inopportune of moments.

It’s doubly hard that Jim isn’t here. He’ll be back tomorrow to help with the move, and to co-host the big party we have planned. The fact that he’s so excited makes it a little bit easier, I guess.

Am I ready to leave? No. But I was having a conversation with someone recently, and it occurred to me that you oughtn’t really even attempt to go home again until you’ve crossed a certain threshold in your own life. That is, it’s best for you to attempt a life of your own before you move to within striking distance of your childhood home.

Do I, at least, feel like I’ve done that?

Well. Yes.



Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

I talk to one of my favorite authors

The LA Review has my essay, “Communiques to Mr. Lee Child,” up on its web site. Go look here, and see what I think of his character, Jack Reacher, and why I love Mr. Child’s work.
And okay, maybe what I think of Tom Cruise, too.

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.