NOW SING! |
by L. Garvey Thomas


Nobody warned me it would happen, and it sure wasn’t in the course description. I later learned that it was just the nature of a theater class...

The class was called Poetry as Performance, and the professor, (I’ll call her Professor Bell), had a BFA in Journalism, an MFA in Anthropology, and a Doctorate in Theater. To add to this list of credentials, Professor Bell wrote16 plays, all performed by major playwriting companies, appeared on talk shows like Riki Lake, and shared performances with famous poets such as Maya Angelou. She told us stories of marching in Black Rights rallies and performing her poems in front of thousands of people. In comparison, I felt like a peon, a speck of dust.

The first couple of days, we had to look at ourselves in the mirror and ask “Who is the ‘me’ in the mirror?”  The answer would be a draft of a poem. I looked at the “me” in the mirror, one face among twenty and feel ridiculous. The whole time I thought, “We haven’t analyzed a poem yet. I

wonder if Accounting 101 is still open.”

The weekly routine was the same. We sat around the perimeter of the room, and one by one, my classmates recited poetry about rape, racism, social injustice, and lost loved ones. They recited their poems with such passion; it wasn’t rare to see tears or hear a booming voice coming from a face red with anger. I’ve never been mugged. I’ve never been molested, but there was that one time my car broke down and I had no money…couldn’t compare. In turn, I sat on the side, rarely, if ever, participating.

            Three weeks into the course, we had to write a song poem. My peers sang with the enthusiasm and confidence of potential American Idol contestants (the talented ones), and I wanted to jump out the window because I couldn’t sing like my peers, and if asked, I’d break the pattern by sounding like a dog caught in a fence.

I wrote a poem, taking Johnny Cash’s “I Got Stripes” and putting my own words for recital while keeping the refrain. I liked the song, and I figured it would keep the singing to a minimum. Also, I had never been called up to recite a poem, and I figured the chances of me being called were slim to none. For the sake of the assignment, I thought it better to have something than be the “I didn’t do it” guy.

Professor Bell announced, “Lee, you’re up.”

A shock of nervousness hit me, and she announced again that it was my turn, but she dragged out the words so there’d be no misunderstanding. I stiffened my face in a “damn it” expression and stood up. My mouth went dry, and I took steps toward the room’s center, reminding my brain to tell my legs to move. While up there, I felt the eyes of my classmates probing me, and I recited, not sang, my poem. When I finished, there was utter silence, and I thought, “Okay, I’m done; maybe I’ll slip through the cracks.”

            I took a step toward my seat, and she yelled, “Now sing!” Ignoring her, I sat down, but she said, “Lee, now sing.”

I continued sitting there thinking, “No, I did my part; I’m done.”

She looked at me with sharp, brown eyes. “Now sing.”

I wanted to tell her that I wasn’t a singer or even a poet, that I didn’t have the guts to stand in front of twenty people and pour my heart out like my classmates or go toe-to-toe with White Supremacists at the Washington Monument. If I did, the response would just be…

“Get up there and sing,” she repeated.

I stayed planted in the seat like it was glued to my butt.

“Fine, we’ll wait,” she said, crossing her arms.

Thirty seconds passed, and there was nothing but silence. She stared at me with the eyes of a Panther, and I knew I was going to lose. After all, I’m nothing compared to one of her abusive ex-husbands or a racist cop. To her, I was probably a joke.

Someone spoke. “You know others want to share their poems, Lee.”

I realized I was being a whiney, little kid and that I was also taking time from others. I felt rotten, but I was still stuck. I couldn’t sing, and I thought my peers would laugh at me.

My friend, Denise, said, “You’re not being fair, Lee. I did mine, and it sucked.”

That’s what did it for me. I got up, looked down at the words, and sang the best I could (which was, in my opinion, horrible).

After I finished, the professor said, “Comments or criticisms?”

One girl said she liked the first and last lines, and another person said it had good word usage. Isolated in the middle of the floor, I still felt like a criminal on trial.

When I sat down, the teacher looked at me and said, “It was really good. I don’t know why you wouldn’t sing it.”

She called up the next person, and the class proceeded for twenty minutes or so. I, however, stayed in the moments of humiliation and felt like the scum beneath my shoe.

That event pops into my head every now and then, and when I think deeply about its details—the room, the expressions on my classmates’ faces, the professor—I cringe. The irony was in an attempt to avoid humiliating myself, I drew more attention to myself. I should’ve sung the song, heard some comments, and sat down. It would’ve been over and done with, like yanking off a band-aid. It was an art orientated class, meant to breach boundaries. I’m not an actor, but the craft intrigues me. Actors like Johnny Depp, Heath Ledger, and Tom Cruise stepped outside of themselves for the sake of art, and I couldn’t even do something simple. If she’d told me to write a poem of my greatest fear, I wouldn’t have thought twice. I felt like a hypocrite, narrow minded. So what if it wasn’t my craft? Ultimately what I learned was live in the moment or situation and let it pass. Resistance is just prolonging the removal of the Band-Aid.
 
___
A native of Philadelphia, PA, Tom Crankshaw writes constantly, whether it is a revision or developing a new story idea. In February 2013, he received his certificate from the Long Ridge Writer’s Group: Breaking into Print Program. He has been published in The Chaffin Journal and Conceit Magazine’s The Bracelet Charm.

Excerpt from The Springfield Overland Trail |
by Husam Sweileh


 
From pages 165-168

 
Although Sam was on a watchfulness duty, he could not help thinking of his feelings about the American Civil War.  Since July 13, 1864, Sam had continually marched for long seven days with his regiment before he participated in battle.  Later on he would become truly weary with long marching, gun battles, and the sights of the dead and the wounded among soldiers and civilians.  He felt it essential that the war be over.  Still, he had been lucky not to have sustained a single battle wound during his service at the Civil War. 

 

Sam had been uncomfortable since he put on his Union soldier uniform. The uniform’s thick-cloth coat or jacket was dark blue buttoned up to the neck.  His thin-cloth pants were light blue with a dark-line running down along each external side.  His laced shoes were black and hard on his feet which were sour with long marching.  

 

Although the jacket and pants provided a becoming contrast in color, the uniform was wholly made of wool.  Therefore, the uniform was rather warm and was not comfortable in warmer climates like that of the State of Georgia.  As a soldier, Sam was also not permitted to appear in public in his issued cotton shirt but he had to have his jacket on.  While marching in rather warm weather towards Atlanta, Sam was constantly feeling that he was about to have a heat stroke. 

 

The Civil War had started three years before Sam was drafted into the war effort.  By that time the States had been divided between the North Union and the South Confederacy.  Many more states had however supported the Union, including the State of Illinois.  As part of the first major Union army attack on the defenses of Atlanta a week on, the Battle of Peachtree Creek would be fought in Georgia in the afternoon of the twentieth day of July, 1864. 

 

In their night watch-and-ward duty at the edge of the campsite, Sam and his veteran comrade soldier William O'Neil were privately talking about the rumor that a battle was close at hand north of Atlanta.  It later became Sam's first battle.  Unlike his comrade Sam, William had a passion for heroism and killing the enemy.  William told Sam "I should be given a hero's medal because in the last four battles, I shot and killed four enemy soldiers in the back while they were fleeing from the battlefield." 

 

Trying to make more sense, Sam said, "Under the legal and moral principle of self-defense, one may kill or injure only armed fighting soldiers, not soldiers fleeing the battlefield.  Also, war is not heroic because one army of the two armies participating in the conflict will necessarily outnumber the other." 

 

In the interest of clarity, Sam added, "Our task as soldiers is to end the war by defeating the enemy's army, not killing non-fighting fleeing soldiers." 

 

William argued, "The south has started the war." 

 

Sam promptly retorted, "A started war must be ended; who started the war is not a moral or legal justification to wage war forever.  No country has ever won a civil war; everybody loses in a civil war." 

 

Sam went on to say, "Under the self-same principle of self-defense, a country may wage a war against a foreign army which has first resorted to armed conflict." 

 

William said, "A civil war is a regular war, and a civilian must be killed if he assists an enemy soldier." 

 

Careful not to encourage civilian bloodshed, Sam retorted, "The soldier may have forced the civilian to help him at the gun's point." 

 

Having no arguments left, William confirmed, "I will hold firm and fight back no matter what happens at the frontlines." 

 

Sam believed that William thought that he was a hero because he had been marching with the victorious army and because he had killed four fleeing soldiers.  Sam thought that if the situation had been the other way round, William would have noticed that his comrades had been outnumbered.  Had William retreated before a superior force, he would not have felt heroic. 

 

On the following day to Sam’s first battle, Sam was unable to talk to William who was asleep.  When Sam asked an army surgeon about William O'Neil, the field-hospital surgeon told him that during the battle attack, William had been shot twice by a rifle in the left hand at its outer edge.  Sam figured out that William had to have been fleeing when he had been wounded. 

 

What immediately came to Sam’s mind was the possibility that William's hand was no longer usable and that his wounds might develop gangrene later on.  Also, Sam thought that after William had been shot while fleeing, he had to have changed his standing with regard to shooting fleeing soldiers. 

 

After a short rest, Sam went to visit William again in the field hospital ward.  Protruding from under the blanket, William's left hand was wrapped in bloody bandages, yet he was covering his head with the blanket in his bed.  So Sam went to see the army surgeon again.  The surgeon told Sam that William would most probably lose the use of his hand and could infect with gangrene. 

 

On that day the commanding officer ordered that the regiment remain in the same place for a week.  The soldiers were assigned the usual tasks of collecting equipment, guarding the encampment, burying the dead and caring for the wounded. 

 

When Sam went to see William in the afternoon of the following day, William looked sullen, pitiful, hopeless, and weak.  After all, he had been fleeing the battle field when an enemy rifle had shot him twice.  His wound proved his perceived act of cowardice while William himself advocated shooting fleeing soldiers.  His hand was now swollen and dark with gangrene. 

 

Sam consoled William with few encouraging words.  He told William to take care of himself and to prepare for his civilian life now that his fighting days were over and done. 

 

The regiment in which Sam served and the other regiments’ soldiers were ordered to prepare for marching the following day.  So Sam went to see William for the last time before leaving with the army regiments.  Sam was with William when the surgeon came to examine William before the operation. 

 

The surgeon examined the gangrene course up the forearm.  It was clear that it had to be amputated from the elbow down.  William asked, "Doctor.  Am I going to lose the arm from the elbow down?" 

 

"I'm afraid yes.  Many soldiers have lost arms," replied the surgeon. 

 

"One does not lose for his country; one sacrifices for his country," Sam corrected. 

 

The surgeon nodded his head twice in approval and said to William, "We ran out of pain-killers for the amputation.  So we must do without." 

 

William said, "The amputation will not give me pain half as much as it had after my hand was gunned." 
 
__
 Hussam Sweileh holds a Bachelor of Arts in English Language& Literature and an Associate’s Degree in Clinical Laboratory Science.  He is scheduled to study Medical Laboratory Science at the University of Illinois Springfield. 

    His bookThe Springfield Overland Trail, is a single, non-series novel whose main characters are (1) Sam Hudson, a livestock rancher, (2) Ben Norton, his crop-grower friend, and (3) Georgia Hudson, the 14-year-old daughter of Sam’s cousin.  The novel’s main storyline takes place along the Chicago-Springfield Overland Trail in the early summer of 1868.  One can purchase a Kindle edition of the novel from www.amazon.com.  At present  am working on editing his 88,000-plus word collection of eighteen short stories titled Under Our Frontier Skies.  

 
 

 

The Man With No Name |
by Chad MacDonald


 We were a military family; my father was a man that I only knew through myth. A collection of fables fabricated neatly between legend and facts. A masked hero with no real face behind his ego. Only had pictures and names to play with, everything else was just a fantasy.  The Bible says that you can identify God by observing your father. My father was never there for me.

     Smoke plumes through windows in a solid column. It spews out like an exhaust valve from the center of the earth. The smoke drifts into the blue sky as a black curtain, strangling yellow rays that travelled hundreds of thousands of miles, only to be devoured by a dark cloud. There was fire too, and it licked and clambered alongside the building’s frame, madly whipping itself into the sky, a constant flickering flare.

     I never fully understood who God was. My mother described him as a source of love, the creator of all things, an ethereal heavenly father that supersedes physical existence. He is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent. He is jealous, and wrathful, but he is also love. He works in mysterious ways. Whenever a question pried too deep or too far into the Bible’s outline of God, the answer would always be a reciprocating loop. God is vague. God is hollow. God is mysterious.

     People gathered around the center of the burning buildings. Screams, shouts, and cries sounded out in cacophonic unison. Fire trucks blared onto the scene with their sirens adding to the chaos. They jumped off trucks in black suits, darkened even further by the swirling ash and debris about the place. The oxygen masks hung over their faces, and I wondered if they prayed to anything before they began making their way to Ground Zero. I wondered if they were sent to save lives or retrieve remains.

     At first, I was fine with mysteries. Mysteries are hollow stories, begging to be filled by any means. I grew up in black Baptist neighborhood; none of us had fathers, only the shadows of something that was supposed to be our protectors. A generation shrouded in mystery. Our pastor told us that God was our father. God was watching us. We were his beloved children. A fatherless generation loved by an eternal father.

     I sat on the floor of the living room; face glued to the television as every beating second of 9/11 unfolded. Crumpled tissue after crumpled tissue began collecting on the floor as my mom wept her tears in between prayers; my mother and I were in different worlds, yet in the same room. My father was deployed in South Korea when the towers fell. I told myself that he was still watching me, he was still watching us, we were safe.

     Mathew was a bastard at birth, a kid that never saw the face of his father, never even knew his name. No face, and no name…it didn’t matter. Mathew gave him one. An empty void waiting to be filled in. Matt claimed that his dad was a super-secret agent with a lifelong mission to carry out. He could never come back home and hug his son because it would give away his identity, bad things could happen to him and his mother. He loved them both, and hid himself away to protect the both of them. Mathew told this story to me every day, reminding me constantly that there was a reason behind his absent dad. There was a purpose to it.

     People began to walk out of the wall of gray smoke. Smeared blood mixed with dirty ashes on their face, caking them in a dark black stain. Mouths were wide open in moans of pain, but it could not be heard over the anchorman’s voice and police sirens. My mother’s voice was rattling off in the background too. A mixture of prayers and telephone calls blended into one another, forming an intelligible language. A voice that I heard, yet could not fully hear. She wanted him home as much as I did. She wanted someone to watch over her, she kept saying to her friend on the phone. She wanted something to watch over her. Her hands clasped again in a shaky and stuttering prayer. She longed for two fathers that I never fully came to understand.

     Mathew asked me what my dad was like, if my dad was as astounding a hero as his. I knew what my dad looked like, we had pictures of him, and I knew his name too. Names mean nothing if they are associated with an empty void. It was okay though; my father didn’t need a name in the first place. I watched Clint Eastwood’s spaghetti westerns when I was a kid. “The Man With No Name” would ride through towns, gun down the bad guys, and ride into the sunset with a cigar clenched between grinning teeth. That was my father, the mystery was his name. The mystery was his persona. The less there was to know about him, the more room to fill with my own fantasies.

     People began crowding the smoke exhausted windows. There were more people than smoke, and they all reached their hands out, as if desperately and arbitrarily trying to find something to hold on to. I wondered if God was watching.

     My father came home before Mathew’s. Walking off the plane that brought him in from South Korea, I gave him a hug immediately, coming only up to his waist. I remember him kneeling down and hugging me back. Clint Eastwood’s character always had an air of stoicism about him, somewhere buried beneath his silence; there was a man, a human. From the first day my father was home, there was silence. A hug was the only communication that we had between each other, the only connecting factor between father and son. I told myself that it was okay, Clint never talked that much either. But there was something different about my father’s silence. It was a silence that had an echo. A silence that something hollow produces.

     One man climbed out onto the ledge. The camera had to zoom in to get him into the frame. Smoke gushed out violently from the window he escaped from, snippets of fire belched between the plumes. He looked back at the window, and stared down. The silent voices that plagued the scene were unheard, until that man jumped.

     I tried getting him to talk. War stories fascinated me as a kid. I wanted to hear about all of his adventures, all of his heroic victories. Breakfast was cooked that morning. My father gripped his warm steaming cup of black coffee, and stared at his shadowed reflection from the dark liquid. His knuckles teetered from being white, to a lucid and distant grip on the handle. It was okay though, Clint never talked much either. My cereal was stirred into a water logged mush, as I mindlessly stared at my father’s face. Clint’s eyes didn’t sink so far into his head. His bags beneath his eyes weren’t that puffy. His eyes weren’t that cracked and red. Clint fights with a revolver; he has steady shooter hands, ones that don’t shake. My dad let go of his coffee cup, and picked up the paper. Clint’s hands don’t shake…

     I wondered if God watched him too. I wondered if God caught him. I wondered if God loved him. A game that my friends and I use to play was dropping action figures from heights and watching them tumble down, seeing if setting up obstacles for them to get jumbled against on the way down would make their fall more interesting to watch. They would spin head over heels, a log senselessly tumbling through a gravitational adventure.  I never played that game again.

     The dog’s fur would ruffle on her back, and her teeth would snarl at the man who came home in camouflage and combat boots. My hand would try to stroke her stiff fur back into place, and I would whisper to her that it was okay, that Dad was home. This was Dad. That phrase was repeated over and over again, and with every stroke, I tried pushing her fur back. Mathew told me every day that his father loved him. It became his mantra, a chant, a senseless sentence that was directed to no one. I stroked my dog’s fur, and told her that this man was Dad.

     I turned away when he fell. The crowd screamed at him. My mother was crying, watching person after person tumble like hail out of the tower’s windows. I closed my eyes until the lids were sore, my fingers plugged into my ears until the world was nothing but a silent shell around me, a black veil of emptiness and safety.

     The door to my dad’s room was locked, but my hand still toggled with it. My knuckles rapped against the door, a hollow echo from the wooded surface replied. I wanted to talk; I wanted to hear his voice. I wanted to hear his stories. Having my father lock himself away from the world wasn’t new to me. There would be days were I would hear the hinges on the front door creak open, announcing that my dad was back from running military drills, but almost as soon as the front door shut, so would the door to his bedroom. A specter who is only be caught in blurry photographs, my father faded away from reality. I banged my fist on the bedroom door. I told myself that Dad was home. He was home, and I was safe. He was finally home with me, but no voice rose up from the other side of that door. No hollow words of comfort, only a dark and empty silence.

     I guess there are times when even God has to hide away.
 
___
 
Chad MacDonald is undergrad creative writing student at Longwood University in VA. He is attempting to become an established writer, and run two radio shows within his campus radio station, and write for the opinions column in the local paper.

Editor Note: Review of Nathan Leslie's "Sibs" |
by Ada Fetters


Nathan Leslie’s Sibs is a collection of short stories that revolve around sibling relationships. While there is a consistent dark undercurrent, the stories take place in widely varied settings and the tone ranges from barely-controlled glee to deeply reserved.

Each of the stories can stand alone. None of the stories relies on the others around it to define it, such that each is a discrete object unto itself, much like the chess squares pictured on the cover. Sibs relies on the central theme to hold together.

The book's description gives you fair warning: these stories are "thematically intertwined." If you are looking for a cohesive “thesis” type of collection that carefully explains an overarching story, you will not find it here. Yet if you are looking for variety, for myriad different ways to explore the relationships between siblings, Leslie’s book may be for you.

Leslie does not make a habit of explaining his work, so whether he is writing a stark happening like “Southward Bound” or a surreal almost-faerie-tale like “The Beauty Mark,” reading his book is not a passive experience. Readers must move with him from setting to setting and tone to tone, but these stories are certainly worth the effort. The writing is vivid and engaging, beckoning readers on and casting a new light onto commonplace objects.

One of Leslie’s great strengths—what really makes these stories work—is his ability to write a startling variety of characters. Whether he writes of a drug-addled young man who drifts into a commune in “Joy Pasture” or an elderly woman whose pride and joy is the comfort of the guests at her bed-and-breakfast in “Let Me Go,” his characters are believable.

Leslie writes with empathy that gives each character their own legitimate viewpoint. This ability effectively gives readers a glimpse into the worlds of the characters. Sure, you might judge the heavyset eleven-fingered prostitute in “The Mellow,” or the obsessive-compulsive Elvi in “Backsliding,” but Leslie himself will not tell you what to think of them. He will expertly slip the lenses of the characters over your eyes, distortions and all, and let you figure it out.

Though the stories often end on a hopeful note, with a glimmer of better things for the characters, these are not sugary-sweet tales. The characters’ goals are as different as they are, so better is relative. It might mean escape from an abusive pimp or embracing a black-sheep relative, but it might also mean hiring a half-brother to whack an abusive ex or embracing the rampant commercialism of a new decade.

Leslie will present you with a peanut, olive, pickle and pretzel casserole (“Lists”) – but you supply the reaction.
 
___
Sibs can be found on Amazon.com, or Aqueous Books and you can find Nathan Leslie's website at  http://www.nathanleslie.com/
Nathan Leslie is the author of six books of short fiction, one book of poetry and editor of two anthologies. He is the fiction editor for Pedestal Magazine and was the series editor for Best of the Web. He lives in Northern Virginia, and teaches at Northern Virginia Community College.  
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When Ada Fetters is not editing the Commonline Journal, she divides her time between teaching Psychology to college students and writing. She has been published in Copperwood Review, Humanist Magazine, Niche, and her paper "Levinas, Language and the Schizophrenic Other" can be found in Journal of Humanistic Psychology.

La Lluvia |
by Charles F. Thielman

The opaline notes of a clarinet
mist the river and distant, green hills
 
as the long-haired sheep of evening
circle to sleep near the roots of trees.
 
Avenues emptied of midnight transits,
neon curves below cloud spun ribbons,
 
a blue-gray sweep of rain
rides the ivory keys milked by her touch.
 
La senora leans over her slow chords,
blue-gray shawl brushing her wrists,
 
she sings her children awake, round eyes
and jade ovals rising from dream.
 
 
___
 
Not a few of Charles F. Thielman's other poems have been accepted by literary journals, such as The Pedestal, Pif Magazine, SLAB, The Commonline, Gargoyle, Poetry365, The Criterion [India], Poetry Salzburg [Austria], Gangway, Windfall [Oregon], Muse [India], 'Battered Suitcase, Poetry Kanto [Japan], Open Road, Poetry Kit, Rusty Nail and Pastiche [England]. His book, “Into the Owl-Dreamed Night” is available through Uttered Chaos Press at www.utteredchaos.org .

 

Daughter Bird Bone Song 2. and 3. |
by Michele Pizarro Harman


2.

 
The calendar photo reveals green grass, blue sky, and many pieces of floating white bread in the foreground. Now that he's inside an aerosol can, he can easily be packed. They call their keno machine shark face, because inside the ball are two arms shaped like fins. The sidewalks are looping and thin and cut through the air like freeways; my father is king here. I taste test from the pitcher of anise and later run down the halls crying help. One weapon is a large metal arm painted into a suit sleeve. It will follow him home, since it didn't yet get his money, and I go to the wedding held in a doughnut shop wondering why the groom's in full drag. The mother offers a plate of confections: one is large and smooth like a goose egg; one is covered in noodles and long like a tube; one is rolled in powdered sugar; all the sweets breathe deeply as in sleep; I pull a noodle off one, and it flinches and rolls over: the joy of free coastal waters, she says from the other room. He lays the baby into Tupperware, closing it over with four different lids; I fear he's suffocated it, but its eyes are wide when we reopen the dish.
 

3.


Rushed and awkward and not at all like Christmas. The fighting takes such a long time. Blot up this blood's pool. Genes. Five demons inside! One of the girls in white gloves, and my character's lines have all been translated into playing cards and dice. I throw a handful of salt into the ocean. People incessantly climb ladders behind me. Suitcases filled with dust and a black high-backed chair as for tarot. Two boys begin their drowning. Cobwebs drop in sheets. I must go now. I ascend too quickly, while my stomach opens like a soft purse, and piles and piles of makeup tubes roll out in plastic, zippered bags. Killed by baby dolphin bites. A force throws me against the room's walls, though I remain uninjured by turning myself half into ghost. Grandma bounces up and down in a short, frilly dress. The electricity which runs Christmas, he explains. Black smoke clouds fill the room.
 
 
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___
With undergraduate and graduate degrees in English literature and creative writing, poetry, from UCLA and UF, Gainesville, Michele Pizarro Harman has published poems in such literary journals and online venues as Quarterly West, The Antioch Review, Mississippi Mud, Midwest Quarterly, Puerto del Sol, Sycamore Review, Berry Blue Haiku, Shepherd’s Check, a handful of stones, The Commonline Journal, and Miriam’s Well. She currently lives with her husband and two of their four children in the small town in Central California where she and her husband grew up; beyond the cows, crows and cranes, she teaches reading, writing, and math to K-6 special-needs students in a public elementary school. She also may be found at: www.michelepizarroharman.com.