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Archive for April 2011

Tornadoes Assault in Every Direction

April in the South is peak tornado season. Yesterday, killer storms swept through Alabama killing dozens, destroying lives and wiping out entire communities.


   It’s mid-April. The big forsythia I planted in my back yard is finally blooming. Jonquils have pushed up through the chilly soil.

   Spring comes quietly to the Northwest. In other parts of the country it is the prettiest time of the year, but there is a darker side to the season.

   Killer storms.

   If you’ve ever spent a spring or summer in the central and southern states, the region known as the Tornado Belt, you’ve probably experienced the dramatic clash of cold air sweeping down from the north and warm, moist air rising up from the Gulf of Mexico.

   You’ve been in tornado country.

   I grew up in the South and the first thing one learns about tornadoes is that they aren’t a single sensory experience. They overwhelm, assaulting from every direction.

   First, you can see bad weather coming. The sky lowers. Dark clouds build overhead and everything takes on a greenish cast. The breeze disappears and the tallest trees are still. Even the birds fall silent.

   Flickering television screens show anxious forecasters pointing to ominous radar images and tracing the path of the storm.

   You can feel the storm before it arrives. The air hangs over you, heavy and oppressive. The humidity is smothering.

   Tornados have a strange perfume. They are scented with ozone, a trace of flowering shrubs and other odors trapped in the wind. Tornadoes smell like the basement, the bathroom or the closet. Wherever you’ve run for shelter.

   A tornado has a voice. The sound begins with the sudden, piercing wail of sirens that send a warning across town. It’s a terrifying, nerve-shattering sound, loud enough to wake you; to get your attention and make you look up from your desk at work; to be heard over the car radio or the television in the den. Loud enough to make you move. Fast.

   Twisters bring the sound of rain lashing against the roof; wind whipping through the leaves, stripping them from the branches. They bring the sharp stinging sound of pine needles striking like javelins. The thudding of your pulse as you gather up the children, snatching blankets and teddy bears and sippy cups of juice to see you through the wait.

   They are a whirlwind of crashing, banging and shattering sounds.

   Survivors always say that the tornado, when it arrives, sounds like a freight train passing overheard.

   Tornados taste like fear.

   The thing about tornadoes is that, like so many of the things that scare us the most, they are random. They strike, skip, strike and skip again. There’s no way to predict where they will land or who will be in harm’s way.

   And when they swarm, you can’t fight them. You can only hide and hope for the best.

   It’s easy to find fault with the place where you live. And Spokane is no exception. Everyone has his or her own list of what would make this a better place to be.

   But we should be grateful for at least one thing. Springtime in this part of the country may be slow to arrive, but it is relatively meek when it gets here. We don’t have to search the sky with anxious eyes, or listen for the sound of danger. We can go to sleep at night without worrying that the roof will blow away and trees will be uprooted.

   Sure, storms come. And then they pass. At best, the grass is a little greener. At worst the creek is a little higher.

   But our homes, the places that shelter us, are still standing.

   And when the sun comes up, we’re still here.


This essay was adapted from an earlier column. Cheryl-Anne Millsap's essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at

Gone for a Soldier

    They stood on the corner downtown, a loose, silent group of young men. Most not more than boys, really. Each had a bag or duffle at their feet.

   I realized they were new recruits on their way to boot camp. To basic training. On their way to an adventure, on their way to the fast-track to maturity. On their way to a place and a future they couldn’t imagine. Gone, as the old folk song goes, for a soldier.

    The group paid no attention to me as I walked past. Most were lost in their own thoughts, staring down at their shoes, or at their fingernails. I wondered if they were still under the spell of tearful goodbyes; hugs from crying wives, mothers or girlfriends, awkward handshakes from fathers whose voices were gruff with unshed tears.

    It was all I could do to walk on by. I have a son just about their age. I worry about him all the time. When he’s traveling, I call, leaving nagging texts on his phone.

    “Where are you?” I write, or “You need to call me now.”

    When he’s in town, I cluck and flutter around him like a hen, asking questions and giving advice that is politely taken, but quickly tossed away.

    Those boys weren’t mine, but I could barely contain the urge to do the same for them.

    “Take care of yourself,” I wanted to say. “Be careful. Pay attention to what’s going on around you. Call your mother.”

    I wanted to send them off with a blessing.

    What would they think, I wondered, if a woman – a woman old enough to be their mother - ran up to each one and, taking their head in her hands, kissed each cheek and told them she loved them? Because at that moment I did love them all. They would remember me I’m sure. From time to time they would talk about the crazy woman who kissed them the day they left. They would laugh about it, but they would never forget.

    I didn’t stop. My feet kept walking. They kept their eyes trained at the far edge of the horizon.
And we each kept our thoughts to ourselves.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap writes for The Spokesman-Review. Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at

Regie Hamm: A Song of Second Chances

    Walking down the streets of Nashville, it’s not uncommon to see a star; an artist stepping out of a studio or having a beer at a downtown watering hole. You might see them in the grocery store or jogging through the neighborhood. Nashville is that kind of town. Most are famous for the songs they’ve sung, but the thing most people forget is that most of those songs were hammered out by other people. Men and women who put happiness, hard work and heartbreak down on paper, one note, one chord, one word at a time.

    Tin Pan South is the songwriter’s time to shine.
    Once a year Nashville fills the Honkytonks, the cafes, the dives and auditoriums with the talent behind the talent. Songwriters, not necessarily the names and faces you associate with well-known songs, gather to perform. It’s fun to watch and interesting to occasionally spot a famous face, a famous fan of the relatively unknown man or woman on the stage, standing in the crowd. They are there, like the rest of us, to see the masters at work.

    On my last night in Nashville, I sat in the crowd at Puckett’s, just up the hill from the old Ryman Auditorium. On the stage, four musicians, the featured songwriters of the evening  - Regie Hamm, Karen Staley, Billy Kirsch and Wil Nance, and laughed and joked and sang. Regie Hamm was the spokesman for the group.
    Each took a turn playing and singing a song they’d written. But what made it so interesting were the stories they shared, the stories behind the songs. It’s funny what can happen to a song, like any offspring, when it leaves home. Ballads become rock and roll. Hard rock tunes turn mellow, intimate.
    “As a writer, I say my piece and then let it go,” Hamm told me later. “I've had to learn how to allow the song to live on its own, without me. I can't know how people will react to it or how the message will be received.”
    That can’t be easy.
    At the end of the evening Hamm, having saved his best work for last, began to talk. He had a song, and a story, he wanted to share.
    “This is a cruel business,” he said. “It can kill you.”
    “One minute you’re riding high and the next you’re as low as you can get.”
    He should know. He’s been there.
    In 2003, with an album climbing the charts, he and his wife traveled to China to adopt a baby girl. They were gone less than a month but when they returned their world was already beginning to spin out of control. His song was pulled, tour dates were cancelled and the big money never showed up. Hamm went from being the next big thing to just another artist trying to get a gig.    
    But the biggest blow was the discovery that their daughter had a rare genetic disorder. Angelman Syndrome. They lost their home and faced a landslide of medical bills.
Hamm grieved for what was lost and what would never be.

     Hamm’s wife asked him to write a song - something she’d never done before - for the American Idol songwriting contest. At first, Hamm wasn’t interested. She persisted and finally, a week before the deadline, more excited about the furniture store jingle he’d been hired to compose, a jingle that would bring in a guaranteed $500, Hamm sat down to write. He wrote what he thought would win, words about happy endings and fairy tales come true. And then he stopped.
    “I realized I didn’t believe any of it,” he said.
    So, he started over and wrote what he’d learned. Life isn’t fair but it’s all we’ve got. And, even when it hurts, life is worth celebrating.
    He paid the $10 entry fee and sent it along with the song.
    There were 40,000 entries but Hamm’s song won.The song was “This is the Time of My Life.”
     Idol winner David Cook recorded it. It spent 16 weeks on the top of the charts. Oprah blessed it. The song was played at the closing ceremony at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, a particularly bittersweet moment for Hamm.
    “We’d said we would return for the Olympics, with our daughter,” he said. “That was before.”
    For Hamm it was a second chance.
    “Sometimes, you get surprised and someone takes your song to a new level with an amazing performance,” Hamm said. “That is always a blessing and is often the rush that keep you writing another day.”

    I left the show that evening and walked back to my hotel - a nobody in a city of somebodies - wondering how many people have listened to Hamm’s song, connected with it on some level, hummed along, tapping the steering wheel with their fingers as it played. People like me who had no idea what led to its creation but felt the power of peace and acceptance in every word. I walked on, filled with gratitude for people like Regie Hamm. People who are willing to live out loud and put it all down on paper - the good and the bad and the sheer, blind, hope that keeps us going.


Information about the Pacific NW Angelman Syndrome Foundation

 Cheryl-Anne Millsap writes for The Spokesman-Review. Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at

One (and then one more) for the road

   I didn’t pay much attention to the first shoe. It’s not unusual to see a lone shoe on the road, although I almost always wonder who dropped it and left it behind.

   The second shoe, the mate to the one I’d just passed, did get my attention. They were expensive-looking men’s leather shoes, lace-ups, and the one that had landed upside down showed a good sole, no holes or worn spots.
   Who loses both shoes in the road?” I wondered.

   But it was the pants that slowed me down. Not more than 100 feet down the road, a well-traveled arterial through an upscale residential neighborhood, a street lined by stately homes and old trees, a pair of men’s trousers, a nice wool gabardine by the look of them, were thrown across the center line.
Pants, shoes and then, yep, you guessed it, a little farther down the block, a shirt. A man’s light blue cotton dress shirt. By this time I was almost afraid to look ahead, afraid I would see some guy, stripped down to his boxers, splayed on the pavement like a scene from CSI.

   Fortunately, I didn’t find him. But there was a belt. A nice black leather belt with a shiny brass buckle.
I drove the rest of the way bemused. There had to be a story there somewhere.

   Was this what was left of a stockbroker who’d decided enough was enough and had switched off his computer, pushed away from his desk and peeled out of the parking lot, stripping off his work uniform like a snake moves out of his skin? Did he walk into the house wearing only his underwear and carrying a brief case and say, “Guess what, Honey? I quit,” to his startled wife?

   Or, perhaps it was something a little sexier. Had he been driving with a beautiful babe by his side urging him on as he peeled off his clothes, waving them once out the top of the convertible and then letting them fly as he sped away? If so, the pants and the belt impressed me. I mean, that would be hard to, well, pull off.

   I suppose the clothing could have been put there by an angry girlfriend, a trail of spiteful crumbs left by a woman who felt a little better with each garment she threw away. Relationship roadkill.

   I finally settled on another scenario. Not as romantic, but probably a little more realistic.
I pictured a car, maybe a minivan, driven by a man who left the office and stopped by the gym for a quick workout before picking up his toddler from day care. While he drove home, distracted, still connected to the office by a Bluetooth umbilicus, the curious child fished around in his gym bag, pulling out one thing after another and then deliberately pushing each out the window, delighting in the way the objects simply disappeared as the car moved on. I imagined his reaction when he opened the door and leaned over to unbuckle the grinning child.

   The next morning everything was gone. The street was clothing-free. But somebody, somewhere, must have had some explaining to do.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap writes for The Spokesman-Review. Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at


Disney Institute brings Walt’s ways to Spokane

   Think back to a soul-sucking work day in an environment that didn’t value the individual and corporate creative process, or at least give you the freedom to explore a new way of doing things. Most of us experience that at one time or another in our professional lives: The internship that asks only that you show up and do as you are told. The mid-level management morass that never rewards - and occasionally punishes - innovation. The checklist performance review.

    While plenty of us still struggle to find a method for interacting, performing and thriving in the workplace, others are studying the art of creativity with the masters: Disney.

    Since its opening in 1986, the Disney Institute has provided tutorials for business leaders who are seeking to change - from the inside out - the way they deal with both employees and consumers.

    I’d heard about the Disney Institute but had no real idea of what exactly it is the Institute does. I assumed the programing fell somewhere between basketry classes and trust-building ropes courses, with a little imagineering thrown into the mix. I mean, I get Disney. I just didn’t get how the fantasy translated into the boardroom and more importantly, the cubicle down the hall from the boardroom.

    So, during a family trip to Disney World last September, I asked for more information. I met and was able to spend some time with Disney Institute facilitator Jack Santiago.  When I asked Santiago, the first DI facilitator to present in Spanish, what the basic, consumable, byproduct of the institute is, he waived an arm.

   “Look around,” he said. “We’re in the most creative place in the world. A creative place that runs and grows on a system of best practices. That’s what you get to take home with you.”

    I asked Santiago for an example of a business that had made significant systemic changes after attending the institute. He pointed to the Disney Institute’s work with the healthcare industry.

   “Think of the basic operation of a large hospital or medical center,” he said. “They are there to serve people, to treat people, but it’s easy for that mission to get lost in the bureaucracy or day-to-day business of running the place.”

   By adapting Walt Disney’s business beliefs and passion for creating a positive experience for all “cast members” (employees) hospitals were able to change the way they interacted with “guests” (patients and other visitors.)
    “ The idea is to take our best practices and use them to improve an organization,” Santiago told me.  “We specialize in leadership, service, people management, brand loyalty and creativity training.”

    It made sense, but I asked Santiago for another example. I wanted to talk to someone in a field that it would be hard to imagine benefitting from Disneyisms. That’s how I was introduced to Tom Broussard.

    Broussard, a gregarious, motorcycle-riding, guitar-playing texan is fifth-generation mortician in Beaumont, Texas. He is also a Disney Institute apostle after attending a short presentation at an association annual meeting at DisneyWorld in 2000.
    “I sat there and it was like a lightbulb came on,” he told me during a long phone conversation. “They talked about personalization, making a real connection to others.  Well, what we do is intimately personal.”

    Broussard came away convinced the skills and techniques taught by Disney Institute facilitators could make a difference in the way he and the other funeral service workers in his network interacted with and served clients. He realized that some of the techniques used by Disney enterprises would help him create an experience for those who’d come to say goodbye to a friend or family member that would deepen their bond with the deceased.

    “There’s a move in our industry to celebrate the lives of the deceased. You see slideshows and things like that. But I realized that if we reached out to the people who attended services and helped them create a memorial or a keepsake, we would give them a deeper sense of connection,” Broussard says.  “It didn’t have to mean big changes in the way we do things, just more effective changes.”

    Broussard admits he has the right kind of personality to respond to the Disney Institute message.
        “Some of us expect to find some kind of creative reward or experience in everything we do,” he says. “We look for it. We expect it. We seek it. And we’re compelled to share that, to take that message to others.”

   In other words, he wasn’t hard to sell on the concept. Others, he admits, might not be so comfortable with the idea of personalizing, and in some ways “informalizing” the unique constraints of the funeral service industry.

    “I think the main thing he Institute gives us - as an industry - are the tools to bring back new concepts and ideas,” he says “They give us the skills to be creative and to make changes in a way that makes people comfortable. It’s ingenious.”

   There are the expected contemporary leadership and corporate lessons in Disney Institute programs but Broussard says the first time he met with DI facilitators, the creative process was reduced to an elementary level.

    “They had everyone at the table pass out crayons. ‘Now smell the crayon’ they told us.  There was an immediate reaction. That smell is unique. You get a whiff of it and you’re a kid again,” Broussard says. “It really opened my eyes. I took notes with the crayons. I highlighted with crayon. It was one small way of doing things but I could sense the change immediately.”

   Broussard’s enthusiasm is palpable when he talks about his experience.

   “They talk about structure, but about creative structure,” he says. “Like the way you draw the circles when you draw Mickey Mouse. Creative but with structure.”


The Disney Institute is coming to Spokane. Facilitators will be presenting a one-day program geared for local healthcare professionals.
Where:The Lincoln Center
When: April 12,
Details: For more information on registering for the Disney Institute program hosted by the Human Capital Academy in Spokane call (877) 544-2384, ext. 1.



Cheryl-Anne Millsap writes for The Spokesman-Review. She can be reached at


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Cheryl-Anne Millsap's Home Planet column appears each week in the Wednesday "Pinch" supplement. Cheryl-Anne is a regular contributor to Spokane Public Radio and her essays can be heard on Public Radio stations across the country. She is the author of "Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons."

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