Stephanie Wells Mason

Romance Author

Archive of ‘Montana’ category

Literacy Awareness and Montana State Speech Tournament

Mallorie (far left) with fellow classmates at the 2014 MHSA State Tournament

Mallorie (far left) with fellow classmates at the 2014 MHSA State Tournament

Yesterday I had the privilege of spending the day at the Montana AA High school State Speech and Debate Tournament both as a judge and a parent.  It was rewarding to watch the diverse collection of students compete in various venues from serious and humorous interpretations of literature to extemporaneous speaking about current events.  My daughter, a Junior, competed for the second year in a row in memorized public address.  This venue requires students to memorize a speech given by someone else in a public forum.  Their speech must include some kind of background regarding the date and place of the original speech as well as an analysis of the significance of the speech.  Students (with some help from their coaches) choose from a wide range of topics–it can be anything from Abe Lincoln and the Gettysburg Address to Steve Jobs and Ted Talks.

My daughter took her speech from an address given by Alice Ozma at the 2011 American Library Association.  Ozma is a young author of The Reading Promise: My Father and the Books We Read.  You can watch her impassioned speech here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BJMCuEhA4_s.  It’s a wonderful speech about the importance of literature and reading in our lives.  She discusses how books connect us and that sharing books is not just about the book itself, it’s about the relationships we develop as we share books.

I listened to my daughter deliver this speech with finesse and poise.  It was beautiful. She has used this speech for the entire season–October through January–with varying degrees of success depending on the city in which they were competing.  Sometimes she would place as high as sixth overall and other times she wouldn’t even make it to the semi-final round.  When being judged by amateurs who are just community volunteers, I think who wins has a lot more to do with the values of the community and less to do with the way the speech is delivered. Yesterday I watched the faces of the judges as she spoke in the final round of competition nod in agreement at the words she delivered.  I saw them return her smile as she stood before them and asked them to make the reading promise.  With her sweet, compelling voice she had the room captivated.  It seemed we were all under a spell.

Later that night she stood among the other eight contestants on the high school stage waiting for the results to be called.  I was sure she would win.  She had gone into the semi-final round having won the previous five rounds.  By the time the students get to the finals round, the competition is incredibly stiff.  These students are all polished.  They know how to speak, and speak well.  They aren’t fidgeting or mumbling.  They are the best eight students in the state.  So how are they judged?  How do three random judges decide who is best?  I think it has to come down to the speech’s content.  Will it be choosing your future from the woman who swam across the ocean from Cuba to Florida?  How about protecting our children by John Walsh, or stricter gun control by the father of a boy killed in the Sandy Hook elementary shooting–both speeches addressed to Congress.  Or will it be Malala and her address to the United Nations?    Just where does a call for increased literacy fall among important topics in today’s world?

I listened as the first name was read–eighth place–and my heart sank…Mallorie Mason from Flathead High School.  I was so proud and disappointed at the same time.  I knew what she had accomplished.  I had heard it, felt it.  But this wasn’t just about her. It was about what she had said.  Apparently,  gun restriction is of greater importance than building relationships through books–the winning speech delivered by the father of Jessie Lewis from Sandy Hook Elementary to Congress.  Didn’t they hear?  She told them in her speech that 65% of prison inmates can’t read.  Maybe if we were reading to our kids more, less of them would be prone to go out and shoot people.  Maybe if we developed a relationship with our kids that included a love of history, fantasy, and science fiction we wouldn’t need to talk to Congress about guns.

Perhaps I’m biased, but I still feel hers was the winning speech.  I’m thankful to people like Alice Ozma for her uplifting and compelling words, encouraging everyone to stand up for reading.  And I’m thankful for my daughter who stood up before her classmates and the community to echo the same thoughts.  I know it was much more than a speech to her.  It is part of her core belief.  I’m thankful for the time she and I have spent reading books together–some of which have become our own inside jokes, a language that only she and I speak.  It is my hope, that you will be able to do the same with the ones you love.  So get off the computer, make Ozma’s “Reading Promise,”  and go read a good book!

I’ve included my daughter’s speech–Alice’s speech– below for those interested and so that you can make that promise.  Your kids will thank you!

Alice Ozma ALA Speech 2011

In January of 2011, Alice Ozma addressed the American Library Association.  This twenty-two year old author of the best-selling book The Reading Promise: My Father and the Books We Read, shared an impassioned speech about the importance of reading.  The world we live in, she argued before hundreds of the country’s librarians,with our computers, our tablets, iPads, smartphones, and our busy lives, has devalued the significance of reading.  To change that, she concludes, families need to work together to share a love of literacy.

Illiteracy has long been a problem throughout the industrialized world.  It’s a trend we don’t hear a lot about, but as more and more emphasis is placed on technology, it’s a problem that is not soon to be resolved.  Experts estimate that as of April 28th, 2013, there were 774 million people worldwide who could not read, 32 million of whom live in the United States.  Furthermore, statistics show that 63% of prison inmates are illiterate.

This poses the question: how many could have avoided the path of crime that led to their confinement if they had been taught to embrace a love of reading?

Too many children are missing out on not only the wonderful stories and historical significance of books, but, as Alice shares in her address, they are also losing the connection and relationships built through reading.  Emilie Buchwald once said, “Children are made readers on the laps of their parents.”  We cannot underestimate the vital need for reading and its impact on future generations.  Alice shares with the ALA the reason for her love of reading.  She then challenges them, and all of us, to commit ourselves to reading.  As we accept her challenge, we become advocates for literacy and will improve the world one page, one book, one child at a time.   

Before I begin, I want to let you know that this is my absolute first appearance to do with a book so I’m really excited.  I’m not going to try to be professional or cool because I am twenty-two and there’s really no need for that, so let’s be honest, when I found out I was coming here, I screamed and jumped up and down for forty minutes. 

In a room full of strangers, we all have so much in common.  We’re all readers to the highest degree.  Bookworms, eggheads, whatever terms we use, I take great comfort in that.  I feel as though I am among old friends.  In fact, we probably have quite a few mutual friends.  Aren’t we all rather close to Pip and Huck and Ramona?  We may not have anything else in common but the moment I say those names, we all suddenly feel at ease.  We conjure up similar images.  We smile a little to ourselves.  Books can be such insular experiences, and yet they connect us.  They forge bonds among strangers. If you have read the same book as someone, you both have, however briefly, lived in the same world, breathed the same air, watched the same sunsets. 

My book, The Reading Promise, is about this sort of a bond.  When my father and I began what we call the streak, I was only nine years old and we made it our goal to read every night for 100 days.  What we never realized is how hard it would be to stop.  3218 nights later, we had read for almost nine years, never missing a night.

In this day and age, this sort of bond is so vital.  Twitter and Facebook, although good for some purposes, tend to give us a meaningless stream of facts about people we love.  But these facts are hollow.  Reading together is raw, perhaps even brave.  Emoting sincerely and honestly together no matter what the cause seems infinitely more valuable to me than bombarding each other with status updates and whatever information you can fit into 140 characters.  Even fiction is more sincere.

It seems a little dubious, the role computers play in our everyday lives. I want to be clear that I think technology serves many wonderful purposes, but there are some things computers simply cannot replace.  Those of you that aren’t aware, I will tell you that my father, a former children’s librarian, who devoted forty years of his life to forging a bond between children and literature, ultimately lost his job because of computers.  His passion for reading aloud was painfully beaten out of him as his school district decided that computers, not books, should be the focus of a library class.  His reading time with each class was limited to five minutes per period and then cut all together.  In the last weeks before his forced retirement my father huddled his children in a corner of the library, turned off all the lights, and read to them in a whisper.  He was caught and reprimanded.  This all took place, my dad said, in a school with 90 percent poverty rate that has not passed a state reading test in years.

It is wonderful to be in a room full of people who are fighting this kind of darkness; committed torchbearers in a dark and rather bleak time in the literary world.  I would love to know how many American children are missing out on copies of Jane Eyre, The Great Gatsby, and Dracula.  I’m afraid the Pickwick files are becoming an endangered species.  But I don’t mean to be grim.  I hope that in my own small way to be part of the solution, to bring us back to those, whether they’re tattered old editions or e-books on our kindles.  The books we read shape our society.  So what happens to a society that doesn’t read?

People often ask me, if myfather and I called it the reading streak, why is my book called The Reading Promise?  Well, there are two reasons for that, one is that my publisher thought the word “streak” sounded a little too PG-13, and the other, is a bit more difficult to describe.  The reading promise is what my father made to me.  It’s what He made to His students, what I made to Him, and what we made to ourselves.  It’s why I stand here today.  I worked for quite some time on one particular page in my book.  It’s the last one wherein I ask the reader to make a commitment to literature. This page is the most important to me.  I’d like to share it with you now. 

The reading promise:  I, you can fill in your own name here, promise to read.  I promise to read on my own, on print or on a screen, wherever books appear.  I promise to visit fictional worlds and gain new perspectives, to keep an open mind about books even though the cover is unappealing and the author is unfamiliar.  I promise to laugh out loud, especially in public when a chapter amuses me and to sob uncontrollably on my bed for hours at a time when my favorite character dies.  I promise to look up words I don’t know and cities I can’t locate and people I can’t remember.  I promise to lose track of time.  I promise to read with the people I love, if not every night then whenever I can.  I promise to remember that this person is more than my son, daughter, father, mother, aunt, uncle, cousin, or dog walker.  He or she has a mind that like mine loves to be used and challenged.  I promise to appreciate the time we spend together and the literature we read even when I am stressed or tired or sunburned, or an awful combination of the three.  I promise never to give up on reading.  I promise to support reading in my community however I can and anywhere else for that matter.  I promise to spread the word about words whether it’s volunteering at my local library or just recommending good books to friends.  I promise to speak out when reading is cut from the school curriculum and fight for them whenever their value is challenged.  I promise to tell everyone I know how reading calms me down, riles me up, makes me think or helps me get to sleep at night.  I promise to read as long as human thought is still valued and there are words to be shared.  I promise to be there for books because I know they will always be there for me.

In Search of the Elusive Huckleberry

Everybody keeps secrets.  It might be a secret stash of money under the mattress, or how much money you made last year.  It might be how much you weigh or how old you really are.  There are family secrets–Did Aunt Polly really have an affair?  Was Uncle Jo really a CIA agent?  There are company secrets–Who really knows the formula for Coca Cola?  What will Microsoft’s next big release be?  And there are national secrets, things so confidential no one really knows the truth, especially the American public.  After all, we’re still waiting to see our president’s birth certificate.

In northwest Montana the biggest secret of all isn’t where the guns are stashed or which politician is lying.  No, our biggest and best kept secret is where we pick Huckleberries.

These small wild berries are similar to blueberries and are actually from several varieties.  In Montana they typically grow in higher elevations.  Despite many efforts, no one has found a way to raise them commercially.  Some say it’s because they have to pass through the digestive tract of an animal (usually bears) before they will germinate.  I even have a friend who collected bear scat, kept it in his freezer all winter, cut it into pieces, and planted it in his garden in the spring in hopes of creating his own private huckleberry patch.

Huckleberry picking is as much a part of living in the Flathead valley as hunting and skiing.  And everyone has their secret spot.  Don’t ask them where it is, because they won’t tell you.  At $40 a gallon, no one’s going to spill the berries.  But trying to get a gallon?  Yeah, good luck with that.  Each plant may only have three to four berries on it.  And when you consider that each berry is only the size of a small pea, it takes a lot of bushes.  That’s why no one is anxious to share their stash.  It takes a lot of hiking and walking through scratchy underbrush, spiderwebs, and who knows what else (I try not to think about it actually) just to get to them. My efforts this year only got me a bowl full.  Two hours of wandering for less than a sandwich bag full.  I’ll be rationing them out like they’re gold.

So if you decide to move to the Flathead and  people ask, “How much did you get this year?”  they probably aren’t asking about your salary, more like what’s stock piled in your freezer.  Because there’s nothing quite like sitting at home on a cold winter day when it’s snowing outside, enjoying a bit of huckleberry cheesecake, or a handful on a salad, or in a bowl of cereal.  It’s a little taste of summer to help us endure the winter.

McGregor Lake & Ross Creek Cedars

DSCF0789My summer is disappearing all too quickly as it does every year.  In the spring, as I anxiously await the last day of school, I think of all the things I want to do before the snow flies again in the fall; hikes I want to go on, new camping spots I want to explore, and places I want to visit.  Sadly, I only ever get to a few of them.   There are just too many fantastic places in Montana…

This week I went camping on the shores of beautiful McGregor Lake, just 32 miles from home.  I love this lake!  It’s so blue.  That is, until you stand out on a dock and look down and realize it’s totally clear!  Below, you can see to the very bottom where old logs lie crisscrossed like sunken pirate ships and crawdads scurry around like miniature lobsters.  McGregor is colder than some of the other area lakes, but it didn’t stop us from jumping in and enjoying the water.  The campground sits right on the shore under the trees, providing a shady place to sit back and gaze at the reflection on the glassy surface of the lake.

After a hearty breakfast of eggs, sausage and hashbrowns cooked on the Coleman, we headed off for a drive to Ross Creek Cedars.  You don’t have to go to the California coast to see giant trees.  These 500 year old cedars are unbelievable!  Located between Libby and Troy off highway 56, it’s off the beaten path, but worth the drive.  We walked the well worn mile long trail through this protected old growth forest, climbing inside hollowed out trees and up enormous trunks.  Ross Creek runs through this idyllic forest in a quiet, lazy path, leaving a trail of moss and ferns the likes of which I’m sure are home to fairies and elves.  It truly looks magical!   And great inspiration for writers!  I wonder if Tolkein ever visited…?

 

 

 

Kalispell, How I Love thee, Let Me Count the Ways…

I absolutely love my town!  I love that it’s June and my heater comes on every morning because it’s still cold at night and by afternoon I can be swimming in a glacier fed lake.  I love that on a Saturday afternoon I can walk eight blocks with my son along tree lined streets with uneven sidewalks where the roots are finding their way to the surface to the local ice cream shop and buy a huckleberry ice cream cone for just $2.  I love that we have huckleberry ice cream, and honey, and licorice, and  all things huckleberry because they grow in our incredible mountains.  I love the ginormous maple trees in my front yard that are constantly dropping sticks, blossoms and seed pods all over my lawn so that I have to rake it half of the year.  I love that when I look around my neighborhood I see beautiful flowers in every color, tenderly nourished by their owners, because I know they won’t last long, yet for the few short months we call summer, they bring a smile to my face.   I love that there are yard sales around every corner where someone’s garbage can become my next DIY treasure.  I love that I can’t go to the store without seeing someone I know and that the kids I work with at school call out, “Hello, Mrs. Mason.”  I love that rush hour lasts for ten minutes and then the streets are empty and I can ride my bike down the middle.  I love that deer feel comfortable eating my garden like they were invited guests, and that I have to stop my car for wild turkeys crossing the road.  I love that I can see mountains in every direction, smell lilacs in bloom, hear birds singing, and feel totally and completely alive and satisfied.

Spring Break

Spring break takes on a whole new significance when you live in Northern Montana.  Winter is long, and I mean it could (and does) snow in June.  Even if there isn’t a lot of snow in the valley (which there hasn’t been this year), it’s cold and dark and you start to feel like a vampire hiding from the sun.  Traveling by car in winter is risky because no matter which direction you go there’s a snowy mountain pass to cross, so unless you’re willing to fork out the ridiculously expensive air fare (which I’m not), you’re kind of stuck for six months.  By the time April rolls around, you can hardly wait to skip town and experience new and exciting things like…freeways.  Kalispell is two hours from the nearest freeway.  120 miles to I-90.

I never realize just how far removed from the hustle and bustle I am until I go on a road trip.  First there’s the drive around Flathead Lake.  It’s a breathtakingly beautiful lake with the Swan Mountains towering over the eastern shore.  In spring, when the peaks are still capped in white and the sky is gray, it makes for a picture perfect contrast to the blue water below.  The road wanders and winds around every bend in the lake–all 50 miles of it–so there’s plenty of time to admire the view.  To the west are rolling hills of grass and forest, home to many animals who can’t read road signs and have no compunction about wandering on the road, including deer, wolves, squirrels, skunks, and coyotes, just to name a few.  This is no stretch to set the cruise control either because even though the speed limit is 70 on most Montana highways, there are at least four towns along the way which have a maximum speed of 25.  It’s also a two lane highway with only a few passing zones so if you happen to be behind a semi-truck fully loaded with logs, or a 30 foot RV, you might as well sit back and get comfortable, you aren’t going anywhere fast…

Yet, it’s this same drive along the lake that I’m so anxious to return to after a week in the city where everywhere I look there are cars, people and buildings.  It’s been a fantastic week with friends and family, shopping and eating at my favorite places.  But I love coming home to the rolling hills carpeted in yellow with winter grass, the mountains capped in snow and covered in fir trees, and the blue lakes that last week were frozen but in which I’ll be swimming in two short months.  I love the fact that I can drive for ten miles before I pass a single car, and that car just might be a truck with four dead mountain lions in the bed (yes, this really happened).  I’ve left behind the green grass and blossoms that were already popping open and returned to the north where it’ll be another month or two before the trees have any leaves.  The sky is still dark with rain and the temperature still warrants a fire in my fireplace, but I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else!  There’s no place like Montana!

Meat for Thought

I’ve lived in Montana for nearly eight years.  It feels like home with the beautiful mountains, the incredible lakes, winter sports, summer sports–you name it, Montana’s got it.  But as much as I love it, I don’t know that I can ever really be considered a wholehearted Montanan.  There will always be a crucial piece missing and no matter how hard I try, I just can’t fake it…I don’t like meat!

In the fall of 2005 my husband took a job here in Montana and we left our beloved town in Western Washington.  We found the perfect home, one that would meet the needs of our small family.  My husband claims I fell in love with it the first time I opened the hall closet and found there was a window in it.  That’s not exactly true but I did ooh and ahh over that just a little.  What can I say, it was charming.  The man whom we bought our house from was in a hurry to leave and left behind a lot of stuff, particularly in the garage.  Most of the homes in our neighborhood are older like ours and have detached garages.  In the process of cleaning out the garage, ridding it of old windows, old remodeling supplies, old baby furniture, even some re-bar, we found a huge grappling hook hanging from the rafters.  Being the city folk that we were, we assumed he must have used it for mechanical work.  Our friendly neighbor, who had kindly offered his truck to haul all the junk to the dump, saw us throw that old hook onto the pile and immediately pounced.  “Can I have that if you’re just going to get rid of it?” he asked.  “Sure,” I replied, “Do you do mechanic work too?”  Here’s where I think he was trying not to laugh…”Uh, no.  It’s for hanging deer.”

Since then I’ve learned that hanging deer and elk in your garage, shed or even the back porch is a critical part of Montana living.  I grew up in Salt Lake City,  Utah and I knew about hunting.  Hunting was the reason we got out of school one Friday every fall, even if they insisted on calling it a teacher work day.  Hunting was something men and boys, fathers and sons did to spend time together, to show off a few horns.  But, as I’ve come to learn over the past eight years, hunting is a way of life in Montana.  People actually eat that stuff.  Yeah, they might be excited about the size of an animal’s rack (“Did you see the ten point Bob shot last weekend?”), but it’s all about the meat.  People stock their freezer for the entire year.  It’s bad news if you aren’t able to slaughter Bambi; you might actually be reduced to eating hormone injected beef from the grocery store shelf.  Heaven forbid!

Fortunately, there are a lot of opportunities for buying beef fresh off the range.  We’ve stocked our freezer with our neighbor’s cow–and had steak sitting in there for two years–I wonder if it has freezer burn?  My husband will have to find out, because I’m not about to cook it.  There’s just nothing appealing about a slab of meat sizzling on a grill, no matter where it came from.  I’m not a complete vegetarian by any means.  I enjoy a very well done hamburger now and again, but it better look like a hockey puck or I don’t want it.

I’ve learned what “gamey” means and which animals are the least likely to be.  I’ve also learned that nearly everyone owns a rifle and is anxious to use it.  There’s a whole hunting lingo I’ve yet to master, but I’m no longer surprised by grown men wearing neon orange.  I’ve come a long way in eight years.  It doesn’t bother me a bit to see the carcass of a dead animal hanging out the back of a truck, but I certainly don’t want to eat it!   , I’m just glad they don’t ask you these things on the Montana State driver license exam.  Because truthfully, I’d rather have a salad than a steak.  I’d rather gnaw on carrots than a piece of elk jerky.  I’d pretty much rather go hungry than eat a hunk of meat!

Spring

It’s a beautiful sunny day in March, light winds, blue sky, an occasional bird chirping–probably not unlike many other places.  But in Northwest Montana it’s a rare and precious gift.  People come out of hibernation.  They pull off their coats, their hats and gloves.  At 48 degrees it’s practically tropical.  No white before memorial Day? Forget that.  It’s time for shorts and flip flops!  The sun has been hidden for so long it almost seems like a UFO in the sky.  Don’t get me wrong, I love clouds!  I love dark, cloudy rainy days.  I loved living in the Pacific Northwest for that very reason and I love that Flathead Valley in Northern Montana gets about as much sun as Seattle.  But the occasional vitamin D boost does wonders for the psyche.    I love that people come out of the woodwork like cockroaches and I wonder where they’ve been all winter.  People are walking, running, biking, and hiking.  It doesn’t matter that it’s still cold.  It’s sunny and that’s all that matters.  I love that my kids have turned off the TV and are outside playing–even with no coats on.  Everything is still dead and brown and ugly, but there’s hope that before too long it won’t be.  Chances are it will snow again, maybe even tonight, but for today I finally need my sunglasses.