Talking Story

Mainland Living

homelessI saw you sitting outside the Olive Garden on a park bench. Your toddler was held across your lap, sleeping. Admiring his blond curls, I almost missed your cardboard sign with its homeless, please help plea. I looked a little closer.

It was hot, August-in-the-city hot. Next to you was a faded stroller and an empty baby bottle. My stomach started to hurt.

My teenage daughter, strong, tall, and privileged, leaned close. “Let’s feed her.”

Such a simple thing.

We headed up the stairs and into the restaurant.

A little while later we walked out with a bag full of hot, fresh food and a to-go cup of ice water. I caught your eye as I approached and handed you the bag. “It’s not much,” I said, “but at least you can have a good meal.”

You took it and whispered, “Thank you. He’s very hungry.”

Not wanting to intrude, my daughter and I walked quickly away. Standing at the corner waiting for the light, my daughter looked back. “Wow. She’s really drinking that water fast.”

Should I get the cup back and offer to fill it again? The restaurant would do it if I asked. Would they do it for you?

“Look, Mom. Look at the baby. He’s happy.”

I risked a glance. I remembered that bounce, that baby bounce of delight in a high chair when I fed my kids things they loved. Seated in the stroller, your baby was doing that dance, reaching for the spoon as you tried to blow on the soup to cool it.

But you were hungry, too. Far hungrier than I’d realized until I saw how you’d scoop a bite, blow, eat half, then force yourself to stop, and feed the rest to your baby bouncing in anticipation.

The light turned green.

I should’ve gone back and filled your water cup. I should’ve taken some time to see if you needed diapers—of course you needed diapers—or had a place to stay. But the light turned green, and I had places to go.

In truth, I was so overwhelmed with your need that I didn’t know what to do.

I’m sorry I didn’t do more.

cleaning out the basementMost creative types think of spring as a time of renewal. Stores burst with bunnies and chicks, nurseries fling open their doors to reveal shelves of fresh and tender garden starts, the sun warms up, and green things begin to grow.

Those with more left-brained leanings set their internal timepieces to a calendar. January 1st marks the beginning of a new year and resolutions about diet, exercise, and sleep. Back in the days before smart phones and apps, on the first day of the year I’d spend an hour or two setting up my new planner: establishing goals, lining up tabs, adding birthdays, and copying addresses from dogeared pages onto crisp new ones.

But now my planner’s electronic with no need to hand-write and transfer notes or to even check-off activities. Calendar events like birthdays auto-magically roll on year after year; addresses stay firmly in the database. There’s never a reason to rush to a stationary store (do they still exist?) to buy new inserts, much to Franklin-Covey’s dismay.

Unmoored from left- or right-brained conventions, I tried to go back to the rhythms of youth where the year always starts in September, ends in June, and the summer stretches forever in a lassitude of books, TV, and summer camp.

It didn’t work.

But now, deep in fall foliage with snow sweeping down mountain ridges, traveling across the valley to beat fluffy flakes against my office window, I sense the stirrings of renewal.

Maybe it was finally packing up some of the basement junk horded in precarious piles—the eighteen-year old baby swing, car seats, dusty luggage sets, boxes of books.

Oh, good grief, the books. I think my recent donations to the local library doubled its collection, all hardback, mostly bestsellers, and only read once. There are still seven more boxes to sort through downstairs and three in the garage ready to go to the library.

Nobody needs that many books.

Cleaning out the basement means shining a light in dark corners, sweeping away cobwebs, wondering why in the world I thought I would ever use a burned out crockpot again or needed five rolls of quilt batting or faded Valentine decorations well past their prime.

Once I started organizing, rearranging, examining what I thought so important, I began to realize that all these things kept for an uncertain someday are really chains weighing me down. Lighter, freer, there are so many more possibilities, like a new basement office and audio studio, cupboards and counters for mailing signed books. Space enough to dream new adventures, to think about the time when the house is further wrapped in snow and silence, to take that long winter’s nap.

There is something odd, but comforting in the notion that while most of the world thinks of late October as a time of gathering in, retreating, and hunkering down, I think of blooming possibilities.

migraineMy head hurts. It’s another migraine, one on the epic scale that I’d hoped were gone forever. It’s been a couple of years since I had one last this long–three days now–and longer still since I’ve had one I couldn’t force myself to function through.

If you’ve had one like this, you’ll know what I’m talking about. All you want to do is lie in bed in a dark room with silent tears streaking down your cheeks because any noise is like an ice pick through your eye.

But Moms can’t simply go to bed for days, nor can people with mortgages and car payments, students with classes, or really any human with responsibilities beyond themselves. I have horses, dogs, cats, kids, and deadlines, so I swallow pills, chug colas for the caffeine, and try to deal. The family sees the squint in my eyes and the frown lines across my brow. The white pursed lips are another giveaway. They mostly try to walk softly and leave me alone.

Through the fog I think of bed, that soft, billowy haven of cool sheets and darkness. I imagine lying in the comfort of fabric softener and down pillows and try to ignore the vise crushing my head, the pulsing of a brain that feels too big for my skull. I try to write, to fold laundry, to plan meals, but I’m not really here.

I know my triggers. I try to avoid them, but sometimes they sneak up on me like the Roadrunner does the Coyote. The Coyote plans and plots, but the Roadrunner is always ten steps ahead with an elaborate ruse to trick the Coyote. Dynamite and falling anvils, the Coyote always gets it in the end.

Being the Coyote sucks.

I know the stages. In a couple of hours if the pain doesn’t ease, I’ll be unable to do much of anything, too tired to move, but unable to sleep. Then the mental howling will begin. For me migraines are the body’s way of telling me that I’ve been living in crisis mode for too long. Things buried, pushed aside, and ignored in the moment of triage are now clamoring for attention. It’s when things are safe, when there’s time to pause and examine that the past comes to haunt me.

I wish I knew how to exercise my demons once and for all. Until then, I will count the hours until my next pain medication and try not to whimper.

Paperbag-over-headWe rushed into a pew and quickly lifted a hymn book from the rack just as the congregation starting singing. Suddenly, my daughter poked me in the ribs. “Mom!” she hissed. “You forgot to put on your make-up!”


I thought back. Yep. Morning routine interrupted. I showered, brushed my teeth, put on moisturizer and deodorant, and then got called to help with some family non-emergency. Later when I rushed back to the bathroom, I did my hair by braille. Grabbing my glasses was the last thing I did before we flew out of the house. No time or thought for a mirror check.

My daughter scrambled in her bag and handed me colored Chapstick. “I only carry mascara in my gym bag.”

“Really?” I asked. “Is it really that bad?”

She gave me the look that said are you really asking me that?

I heaved a sigh and swiped a couple of strokes across my lips. “Better?”

The sideways tilt of her head and frown said it all.

“What? Should I go home and come back? Am I that hideous?”

She patted my arm. “Well, think of it this way. At least you’re not one of those moms who can’t leave the house without a ton of make-up on.”

Fudge. Maybe I should see if I can find a bag to put over my head.

And then I squared my shoulders. It’s not a photo op. It’s not like anybody else is even going to notice. God sees me without make-up all the time.

So I stayed through the service and went on to teach teenage Sunday School. They wouldn’t have noticed if I sprouted wings or grew a third arm. They’re teens. No matter what I say or do, I’m uncool and beneath their notice.

However, I did sneak out a side door before I had to talk to grown-ups. It’s okay for God to see the imperfections—the wrinkles and dark circles and spots; I know He’ll overlook them in His grace. But I really didn’t want a bevy of casseroles showing up from concerned neighbors who might think I was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s.

After all, if you’re wearing a dress, heels, and hairspray how do you explain forgetting to put on your make-up without sounding like someone who needs a casserole and a good house cleaning?

Hmmm. On second thought…


I admit it. This year Christmas sneaked up on me. No decorations went up in the house until December 21st. A lone wreath my husband bought at Costco after Thanksgiving was propped on a sofa table for weeks waiting for someone to find a door hanger. The weather was the weirdest ever; in prime ski country we had no snow until early Christmas morning—a result, I am certain, of the fervent prayers of foolish people who believe in the necessity of a white Christmas.

But I digress. We’re supposed to be talking about poi here.

No snow, no decorations, no surprise that it was Dec. 23rd when my husband and I were frantically trying to get all the shopping done, shopping that I used to pat myself on the back for finishing before Thanksgiving. (My younger self was such an overachiever.) I’d invited my parents and my brother for Christmas dinner and now needed to figure out what to serve.

“Something simple,” my son requested. “Something good that can sit in an oven while we play cards.”

“You mean like a roast?”

“Yeaaahhhh.” Not too enthusiastic.

I thought some more. “How about a pork roast? I’ll make it kalua style.”

“Perfect!” He grinned.

What can I say? The kid loves Hawaiian food.

Running our last minute errands, my husband and I’d bought the roast, cabbage, and sweet rolls. Liquid smoke and alaea salt were already in the pantry. Rice, I thought, steamed yams, carrots for those who hate yams, haupia—I have two cans of coconut milk and cornstarch. What else?

Oh, no. “Uh, Kevin?”


“We need to run to a few more places. There’s just one thing I need to pick up for Christmas dinner.”



“Poi?” The car came to a screeching halt. “It’s Dec. 23rd!”

“I can’t serve a traditional Hawaiian dinner—”

“Without poi. I get it. At least we’re in Provo. You better pray somebody got a holiday care package they’re willing to share.”

Our first stop was L&L Hawaiian Barbecue. L&L Drive-Inn in Hawaii is plate lunch place the serves all the best local foods. In Provo I found it to be hit or miss—mostly miss.

I walked up to the counter, scanning the menu for poi.

“Can I help you?” asked the perky girl with long black hair pinned with a fake plumeria.

“Yeah.” I pointed to the tip cup taped to the cash register. “I’d like some poi to go, about that much.”

“Poi? You mean that kalua pork?”

I blinked. That kalua pork? “No, poi.” She looked at me blankly. “It’s mashed taro root.” Still nothing. “It’s greyish/purplish and thick like a paste.”

“Uh…” She yelled over her shoulder to the cook. ¿Tenemos poi?”


“Poi. ¿Hay poi?”

You have got to be kidding me. My husband saw the look in my eye, grabbed my arm, and shook his head. He slowly backed me away from the counter.

¿Que es poi?”

Another voice from the back said, “No hay.”

“Sorry,” she called, but by that time he had me half-way out the door with a kung fu death grip on my shoulder.

For their own safety, of course.

Our next stop was a pacific rim/Asian market called Food From Many Lands. When I was in college it was the place to buy calrose rice, rice cookers, shoyu, kakimochi, and dubious Portuguese sausage. The same Chinese proprietor very kindly told me she didn’t carry poi, but the 7-11 next door was owned by a Hawaiian man who might know where I could get some.

Back in the car we jumped. Down the road was another Hawaiian food place called Sweets. When I walked in the beautiful young woman behind the counter began uncovering trays of teri chicken, beef stew, and other plate lunch staples. Hawaiian, I thought, hapa-haole and maybe some Samoan or Tahitian. “Hi,” I said, “I’m looking for poi. Do you have any?”

A panicked stare. “Um…”

Raised on the mainland. Bummers.

She disappeared in a flash.

Another beautiful Hawaiian woman came from the back, the girl’s mother perhaps, and eyed us with The Look. I knew it well. It was the look Hawaiians reserve for crazy haoles who had lived TDY at Schofield Barracks or Wheeler Army Airfield for a year and thought that made them Hawaiian. She spoke carefully and slowly. “We don’t have poi today.”

“Oh. Do you know where we could get some?”

“Try the Hawaiian 7-11.”

Hawaiian 7-11? Another round of send the haoles on a wild nene chase? Seeing the confusion on my face, she continued.

“It’s just up the block. They might have some in the freezer.”

“The Hawaiian 7-11?”

“Oh, yeah. He has all kinds of things there—poi, laulau—”

“Laulau? No way.”

She laughed. “Check it out.”


When we pulled up to the 7-11, I was disappointed. Nothing about it said Hawaii, no signs about deliciousness available inside, no throngs of Pacific islanders standing in line for last minute stocking stuffers. I walked through the entire store and saw nothing out of the ordinary—just coffee, burritos, chips, candy, gum.


Then my husband called from the other side of the cash register, the part of the store that looked like employee-only storage. “You gotta see this.”

And there it was. A freezer case with char siu manapua, red Redondo’s hot dogs, S&S Saimin, a pink slab of kamaboku fish cake, laulau, cubed ahi for poke, spicy and mild Portuguese sausage—and frozen 1 lb. bags of Taro Brand poi.


Next to the freezer were mostly empty shelves (it was Christmas, after all), but there were a few bags of crackseed, kakimochi, jars of guava jelly, and li hing mui powder. I grabbed lemon peel, dark arare, rock salt plum, dried cuttle fish, cream crackers, spicy sausage, and two pounds of poi. I handed my credit card to the clerk and tried not to gulp at the total.

It was Christmas after all. Well, Dec. 23rd. And everyone knows two day poi is the best!


Knowing when I was going to get mail used to be a simple thing. Never on Sundays. Around 11:20 am Monday through Friday and around noon on Saturday. There was no reason to keep checking the mailbox—one delivery a day brought all I was going to get until the next time the mailman made her rounds.

Yeah, our mailman was a lady, but we still called her the mailman. When I was little I thought the word was mail ma’am. I also thought the song Cherish You was all about cherry shoes, but that’s another blog post.

Growing up in Hawaii, I could predict when I might get a card or letter from my mainland family. Christmas and birthdays were a sure thing. Presidents’ Day, Groundhogs Day, Flag Day—not so much. I’d haunt the mailbox the week before an anticipated arrival but ignore it the rest of the time. A kid can only get so excited about Hawaiian Electric bills, Longs ads, and mail addressed to Resident.

But with email, you just never know. Any second somebody could be sending that all important message, the one you didn’t know you were waiting for until it arrived. I find myself reaching for my smartphone and checking my inbox way too often in meetings, watching tv, at kids’ soccer games—even church. I’m starting to feel like Linus with his blankie.

I’m not ADD. I can choose when I’m going to pay attention and can sustain that attention for a scarily long time when I’m engaged. My problem is low boredom threshold.

It’s easier to let people think I’m ADD.



My sixty year old neighbor at the end of the cul-de-sac phoned late this afternoon. We live in an area with only six homes over about 30 country acres, so it’s not your typical suburban cul-de-sac. Two of her horses were loose and she’d been chasing them for hours from property to property. She was calling me to see if anybody was home—besides me, since she knows I’m crap at horses—who could hop on one of our horses to help her wrangle hers home. Last seen her horses were munching on grass in a field near my house and she was worried they might get out on the busier road.

I felt terrible when I had to tell that none of our horses were at the house. They were all having a last summer hurrah at what I thought of as Pony Heaven—a wooded 100 acre parcel a few miles away filled with meadows, hills, and a running stream. In a few weeks they’d be back to their boring corrals at our house, stuck there through the long, cold winter. But for now all the summer parades and horse shows were over, and they were living the horsey high life.

She was tired, angry, and thoroughly over her rotten horses. Of course, her husband was out of town. Another ten minutes of chasing them, and I think she would’ve gotten a gun. She knows I’m not a horse person, so any of my suggestions—grain buckets, more help corralling them—was given a sniff of derision and a snapped, “I’ve already tried.” Frustrated that I didn’t have the solution she wanted, she hung up.

My husband had heard enough of my side of the conversation to know horses were loose and was already putting on his shoes. “I’ll come,” I said.

“You don’t have to. I got this.”

“She says they’re really naughty.”

“It’s okay.”

I grabbed my shoes, too. “How about I just go spot them for you?”


I went out the front, down the road, and over to the field she’d last seen them. There they were, bold as brass, nibbling on the far side on top of a hill. When they spotted me watching them, they squealed and ducked behind the hill.

Yeah, they know they’re being bad.

A few minutes later my husband walked up the road carrying a couple of halters and a bucket of grain he’d snagged from our horse trailer.

“You’ve seen them?”

“Just over the hill. Want me to come?” I asked.

“Nah. Just stay here in case they make a break for it and head to the road.”

Off he went.

When he got close, the horses started to run, so he stopped, looked away from them, and stood shaking the bucket, the halters held out of sight behind his back. The horses moved away from him and started eating again. Working an angle, he moved closer to them, still holding and shaking the bucket. When the first horse turned to look at him, he immediately turned his back to them and  moved away, walking toward their house. The horses looked at each other and started walking quickly toward him. When they got close enough to nudge him, he turned and showed them the bucket, then kept walking away. They hurried to keep up with him and nudged him again. He stepped sideways and let them have a taste of the grain in his bucket. Then he walked away. They chased. He stopped and gave them more grain, this time slipping a lead through their headstalls. Caught, they meekly followed him back to their corral.

It took all of five minutes.

Later when I asked him about it, he said horses are a lot like people. They like to think they are getting away with something they shouldn’t. They like to think they are in charge. Chasing them only makes them think they are winning. You have to walk up with something they love and then deny it to them. You’re the boss and they have to recognize it. They have to decide they want what you’re offering more than freedom. You have to be the one that fulfills their desires. You make them come to you. You start with a bucket of grain, but you act like it’s all yours. They want it. You give them a taste and ignore the dangling ropes and halters for the moment because if you grab at them too soon, they’ll sense a trap and bolt. You make them love you. And once they do, you slip the halter or rope around them and they forget they’re much bigger and stronger. They’ll go exactly where you want them and will do what you ask of them.


My horse whisperer of a husband thinks horses are just like people. Boggles the mind when you think it through, doesn’t it? Politics. Religion. Peer pressure. Professional organizations. There’s something to this.

What’s your bucket of grain, who’s holding it, and what freedoms are you giving up to eat it?


The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints recently put out a new video called You Never Know. Part of their Mormon Messages campaign, it’s about nine minutes long and tells the story of a young mother whose day is much like the days I remember when my kids were small. The best laid plans go out the door. It’s the kind of day where you make a list and nothing gets crossed off, but you’re running every single minute.

The video makes several points, not the least of which is that we never know all the good we do with our small acts of kindness. It’s meant to inspire, uplift, and celebrate the everyday things we do as Christ’s hands.

But in my mind it misses the mark.

You see there’s a whole sub-plot of the mom and her cousin. From the very beginning you know that at some point in the evening the mom is supposed to meet her cousin at the airport for a mini reunion during the cousin’s two hour layover. It’s on the calendar. The mom has gotten a babysitter. The cousins are texting back and forth. This is clearly a Big Deal. The clock is ticking people. This mom is on a deadline.

But in fiction as in life, things get in the way. Throughout her day, the mom chooses the inconvenient choice in every situation. She prepares her picky daughter a second breakfast. She glues her son’s forgotten science fair project together before school. She watches a neighbor’s drop by child and brings her needy sister lunch at the park. She tries to take crafty photos of her uncooperative toddler. She even prepares and delivers a last minute supper to a family with a new baby—after forgetting to turn the oven on. Things push her day so off schedule, she never makes it to the airport. The mom is sad, weepy, and not a little frustrated at the end of the day.

And because this is fiction, we get to see how her decisions to do the inconvenient thing—always—helped so many people. Her son wins the science fair. Watching the neighbor’s child allows the parents time to deal privately with a medical tragedy. The sisterly pep talk leads to bigger and better things in her sister’s career. The last minute meal helps a couple keep going through those long new baby nights.

During these images, there’s a voice over message that says it’s all okay—we’re not failures. We simply we never know how much good we do.

It’s as subtle as a hammer. The writers, actors, and director increase the tension and risk at each plot point—the video is designed to trigger a tsunami of  emotion. I get that. But to an analytical mind who crafts stories for a living—at least this one who used to be a video director and was once a mom with small children—the whole scenario rapidly becomes absurd.

At the end the message left me with the unfortunate takeaway that good mothers sacrifice everything. Instead inspiring or encouraging, to me it’s more an homage to ideals of motherhood as self-sacrifice—the exact opposite of what I think the video was trying to say.

Here’s how I’d fix it.

If they’d asked me, there would be no cousin coming to visit. The focus would be on the long list of things—all worthwhile and important to the mom and her family—that the mom plans to accomplish.

Let’s assume everything else stays the same. (Although if I were really writing it, lots would change here, too.) Throughout the day the mom gets the same derailing problems and makes the same choices. Her frustration comes not from missing her cousin, but from not checking things off her list.

Think about it. In my version there’s a moment at the end of the day where she sits at a table with Fruit Loops stuck in dried milk, dots of glitter glue trailing over the placemats, and the morning’s congealed eggs on a plate. She looks at her house and list and shakes her head. She didn’t sew the costumes. She didn’t sort the old winter clothes and run them to a charity shop. She didn’t use the peaches and now they’re spoiled. She didn’t update her blog with cute photos like she promised her mother. She’s a failure. She didn’t do one important thing she set out to do.

Then the voice over comes telling us that we never know the good we do. We see the same results of her choices, but this time at the end, she raises her head. She grabs the pen and writes all the things she did do that day and crosses them off the list. She sits back in contemplation of her choices and realizes she did the work God set for her—the truly important things. She laughs at the cereal stuck to her elbow and says tomorrow is another day. She climbs into a bubble bath with a magazine. There are candles lit around the tub. Later she says a prayer of thankfulness that she could be Christ’s hands and asks for guidance tomorrow. She goes to bed tired, but empowered.

That’s the message.

At least the one I’d want to tell.

country_walkTonight near midnight I had a nagging urge to check the horses, one of those niggling feelings along the back of my neck that wouldn’t let go. I called the dogs from my daughter’s room, slipped on my flip flops, grabbed a flashlight, and headed out the door. There was no moon, but it was light enough to see the way to the corral. Brownie came to the rail to greet me with a nicker and a slight cough I’ll check in the morning. All seemed well, so after a few pats and a double-check on the water, I headed back to the house. That’s when I heard it–the long, low cry of the wolf pack. Not close, in the hills a few miles away, I think, but it’s been a couple of years since I’d last heard them call. Wildlife officials say there are no wolves in these parts, but they are mostly nine to fivers. You have to be a night owl to run with the wolf pack. Keeping the dogs in tonight.


The librarian called me a liar.

“There’s no way you read those books! You just took them home yesterday. You’re trying to cheat!”

Now a wiser child would’ve simply said something like, “No, ma’am! I live thousands of miles away, but I’m spending the summer with my grandparents. I don’t know any local kids, and my grandparents are happier if they can’t hear, see, or smell me, so I spend my days perched in the top of an old oak tree with an apple, a bottle of Coke, and a couple of books. I’ve already read every word in their house twice which is why I’m back at the library for more.”

But I all I heard was cheat and that hurt my pride.

“I did too read those books! You don’t want to sign my book log because you’re afraid I’ll win the prize!”

Yesterday the sign was the first thing I saw when I entered the tiny public library. In big, bold letters it announced the annual summer reading program with the prize of a free ticket to the magical land of Lagoon for any kid who read one hundred books. I’d heard of my cousins speak of Lagoon in the hushed tones reserved for church or when Grandpa was napping. “It makes Saratoga Springs look like the dinky Strawberry Days Fair,” they said. Saratoga Springs with its waterslides and rows of skee-ball alleys was the bomb-diggity. Lagoon, I figured, was a ten year old’s version of paradise. If I got a free ticket, my grandparents would have to take me.

But that would never happen if this dried prune of a librarian kept giving me heat, saying I didn’t read the three measly books she let me borrow a whole lifetime and twenty-six hours ago. I crossed my arms and stuck out my bottom lip.

She raised an eyebrow and picked up the top book from the pile, Rose in Bloom by Louisa May Alcott. “So when Kitty married Mac—”

“Kitty never married Mac,” I interrupted. She married Steve. Rose married Mac.”

She sniffed. “You read it before.”

“Nope.” I picked up Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. “I did see this movie, but it was called Willy Wonka. In the movie Charlie and Grandpa Joe find the golden ticket, but in the book only Charlie does. I liked the book better.” The last novel was A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. I held it up. “I loved this. I want to be Meg and have a brother like Charles Wallace. Do you have any more like this one?”

She narrowed her eyes, but grabbed her rubber stamp and dated my log, scrawling her initials next to each title. The war with the librarian was on.

Almost every day I’d walk the two miles each way from my grandparent’s house to the library, toting the three books she let me borrow in the horrific July heat, stopping to splash in the irrigation ditches and to check if the pawdawadames that grew along the banks were ripe. Each day with the bitter taste of too-sour plums teasing my tongue, I’d get quizzed on the books I returned and watched as the librarian reluctantly stamped my official reading log.

I drove her nuts checking out every book deemed fit for children in her library. I read all the Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, and The Three Investigators mysteries on the shelves and moved on to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie books. I escaped into Narnia, Middle-earth, and Pern. Huck Finn, Tom, Becky, and I explored the Mississippi, and once I went to a strange planet where all the aliens were made of mushrooms. To this day, I can’t remember the author or book title, but I remember how the space children had to eat boiled eggs. I detested boiled eggs.

The summer I turned ten should’ve been lonely, but with my book friends and imagination I was never bored. I rode my aunt’s old bike around town, played in tennis tournaments, impressed my land-locked cousins by jumping off the high dive, and peeled mountains of cucumbers for my grandmother’s refrigerator pickles, but mostly I read. I discovered that books didn’t care what you looked like, what you wore, or where you came from. Unlike people, you could put them down and pick them right up where you left off, ready to entertain, amuse, and amaze.

Years later when I was studying how people learn, one of my professors talked about how reading with speed and fluency were the most important things for a child to learn. In fact, from kindergarten to sixth grade, average kids who spent only twenty minutes a day of their free time in silent sustained reading were guaranteed to score in the ninetieth percentile on standardized tests regardless of IQ. Like a basketball player working the free-throw line after practice, it was a matter of building muscle memory and neural pathways. In a year, those daily twenty minutes compounded into more than one million additional words read. During tests this was a huge advantage because more time could be spent figuring out the best answer and less on reading through the questions. Studies showed that any sustained reading—comic books, magazines, newspapers, the backs of cereal boxes—as long as a reader stuck to it for a significant amount of time, it helped improve reading speed and fluency.

I never imagined that while I was reading about flying dragons, I was really preparing for SATs and earning college scholarships.

The take away here for parents is that we should worry less about grade level appropriateness and vocabulary building—just those concepts alone are enough to turn kids off reading—and more about finding stories that keep kids engaged. It’s sad, but true that my son taught himself to read when I finally refused to tell him what each of his Pokémon cards said. Highly motivated, he learned to read. I’ve seen similar things happen when kids discover Amelia Bedelia, Encyclopedia Brown, or Harry Potter. For some kids reading becomes fun when they discover stories about world records, survival tips, or sports heroes. With sustained reading as the goal, the right kinds of books make all the difference. Libraries with their varied offerings are exactly the kind of smorgasbord kids crave.

It was late in the afternoon and I was leaving for my Hawaiian home in the morning when I returned my last borrowed books to the Pleasant Grove Library. “See?” the librarian smirked, “I knew you couldn’t do it.”

A smarter kid would’ve shrugged, knowing there was no time left in the summer for a trip to Lagoon. I went to the baby section and read thirteen picture books. “Here,” I said, dumping them on her desk, “one hundred!”

“Those don’t count!”

“Your sign says books. These are books. I bet you’ve never given a ticket away. You probably don’t even have one. The whole summer reading program is a scam!”

When I walked into my grandmother’s house, I handed my golden ticket to my nine year old cousin. Lagoon, she later wrote in my Christmas card, was glorious.

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When you’re allergic to water,
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you’re not safe.

Everything you thought you knew
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