Monday, December 7, 2009


So I was up until 1:30am trying to solder the new fixtures together in the downstairs shower and I'm feeling strangely euphoric at 8:00am, looking forward to talking about Dubliners this week with my advanced seniors. We're studying the book in the order Joyce intended: childhood, adolescence, maturity, and public life. They're doing well with the stories and I think our study of Heart of Darkness really prepared them for the subtlety of "literary" writing. I introduced them to these stories with "Araby," and then "An Encounter," and we're looking at "The Sisters" last in the childhood section, just because I find it the most obscure story in the section (due to the religious stuff), and I knew it wouldn't make a strong first impression.

Reading Dubliners again has really rekindled my love for the craft of the short story. Naysayers who love the opinion that Joyce would never get published today can keep their negativity to themselves as far as I'm concerned. Joyce might experience difficulty getting into print today for the same reason there are scads of brilliant writers out there with the same problem...he'd probably suffer for his art today just like he suffered for his art back then. Almost never a bad thing.

Anyway. Onto the nature of epiphany. It strikes me that epiphany is the same thing as realizing our least these seem to be the nature of the epiphanies in the childhood section of Dubliners. We're children, all of us and it's only through utter scrutiny of our self that we grow and become self-aware. The epiphanies are not always encouraging, but the alternative, walking around with your mouth hanging open, blissfully unaware, is worse I guess. I'd like to say I'd rather be a child again...unaware...but it's not true. Knowing that I was unaware was more painful than the process of becoming aware. After careful scrutiny I have decided I am not very skilled with solder.

This realization will not stop me from trying again.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Overdue Check-up

I just spent over an hour putting in a glass block window in my basement... while Wyatt was napping... and now I've got that expandable yellow foam all over my hands and it kind of feels like dead skin. It's gross. The window, however, is very nice. It lets in a lot of light and you don't have to worry about looking up there and seeing a face. Especially since I'm tiling the once nasty shower down there. I will be showering down there. I will... probably not. But if I ever have the need to...

I've been meaning to write something about health reform, but I haven't read the bill and know very little about what's going on. So, you may ask, why do I feel I have something to say? Many reasons:

1) You know something big is happening when a random guy with a curly blonde mullet (and a scar across his throat) wants to fight you over the topic of health care reform during your wife's 30th birthday celebration.

2) "They're going to fine you $20,000 and put you in jail if you choose the wrong doctor!"

3) A bumper sticker reading "Socialism is a great idea until you run out of other people's money" next to one reading "Keep the change" with a picture of an American flag sporting a hammer and sickle on a car parked at a city building.

4) Someone framed (framed!) a political cartoon depicting a large-eared Obama kicking one of the wheels off Uncle Sam's wheelchair and hung it in the staff lunchroom.

5) Scads of elderly protesting (I caught this for a minute on the news- my father was watching) in Washington with picket signs.

6) The realization that the greatest enemy of the social revolution sparked by young people of of the 1960s were other young people of the 1960s who grew up wanting to censor the spokespeople of their generation... and still work at it.

7) The fact that many of these people trust their sons and daughters with public school teachers who work for the state, but can't imagine trusting their bodies with doctors who work for the state.

8) The fact that there are many people in the country who define themselves by what limits them.

9) The fact that the prospect of equality still scares the shit out of a lot of people and causes them to say and do many irrational things, most of which, if they had an ounce of self-awareness, might seem absurd.

10) The fact that a lot of the people who will benefit the most from health care reform are hell bent to see it fail.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

No Class

Between being a dad and an English teacher, I have been working with my wife on finding a new home, and I have made up my mind not to slander any persons, places, or school systems in this post.

We have rebelled against what I call "cookie-cutter" development homes, built on .360 acres or less. When I look at the symmetry of the roof lines in these developments, something dark moves within. I imagine myself as Jack Torrance running amok, laying my axe into the neighbor's SUV, their white vinyl picket fence, their perfectly sculpted topiary bushes. I think I would do fine in isolation. I think I'd have to be committed if, while looking out my kitchen window, sipping coffee, I see my neighbor some twenty feet away hosing the mud from his four-wheeler and singing along to Kid Rock's latest, glossy bit of plagiarism. If left to my own devices, I might take to glowering at my neighbor's military flags and committing small acts of civil disobedience to give members of the respective homeowner's associations something to talk about at their meetings. The thought that I might end up in such an environment has me grinding my teeth and reciting "Earthquake" by Charles Bukowski.

Considering these facts, most of the homes in Medina and Wadsworth (at least those in our price range), are Stepford Wife approved. My wife, on the other hand, feels pretty much the same way as I do about the "cookie-cutters." That said, we've been looking since April of 2008, have walked through numerous open houses, had discussions ranging from argument to lecture to rant to bargain (collective and interest based), and have learned a lot about each other's wants, but have only been able to talk seriously about two homes. We've looked at over 60. One of the two is in Wadsworth, and the only thing saving it from being too cookie-cutter is its unique interior layout and the fact that it butts up against a park. So, we would have land, but just not our land, which might be okay. However, I have suspected that this might make our dwelling the stomping ground for the obligatory passel of Stepford-brats populating the area. That and the price of this house is a little above what we've been looking at. Houses are more expensive in Wadsworth, but the taxes are much lower than in Medina.

The other house is in Marshallville. It is a large home, sits on just over two acres, and is adjacent to an old cemetery. Some people might consider this last feature undesirable, but yours truly thinks it's much cooler than an association recreation center or a community pool. My wife likes the house as well as the little ravine at the back of the property. My only hesitations come from learning 1) There are construction loans that have not been paid by the owners (I don't really know what this means or if it is a problem for potential buyers) 2) There is a sophisticated wood burning setup tied into the heating system, which means a) piles of wood and lots of smoke b) potential high heating bills without said wood and smoke 3) My drive into work will only be shortened by a minute, from 35 to 34. 4) I know nothing about Smithville schools (Green, Wayne country), other than the fact that they are rated "Effective" (as opposed to Wadsworth and Medina's "Excellent with Distinction"), or about Marshallville in general. I never know how much stock to put in those state ratings anyway.

We have both spent quote a lot of time and energy looking for our dream home, and it has been fun yet frustrating. I almost think there could be a class on homebuying. Probably, there is. I also think there should be classes on just about everything. Choosing a religion, dealing with parents (your own as well as those of your students), talking to the opposite sex, how not to be a doormat, and probably most important, how not to end up like Jack Torrance.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Reading Workshop 9

If Chuck Norris were a character in your book, explain how his presence would affect the plot.

"...he would find Holden and force him to go to school by roundhouse kicking him in the face."

"Every ministry would simply become The Ministry of Chuck Norris and everyone would watch Walker: Texas Ranger on their telescreens 24/7"

"...he would kill them all in one blow using only his chin."

"...he would appear only after Jonathan Livingston Seagull attains Zen mastery and the ability to teleport."

"...he would probably turn Elizabeth Bennett into a cowboy loving bad girl and steal her from Mr. Darcey"

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Our Youth... continued

This assignment caused all of these things to happen.

I have written fact and figures in a notebook, but I plan to ignore them for this post, and tell you instead what I have learned over the past days based upon my memory of that time. I have learned that skim milk, water and chocolate syrup all mixed together looks like dirty water when one of my students pulled this confection from his book bag, in a clear plastic water bottle, told us he filled it in a mud puddle this morning, and proceeded to drink. His presentation was on the lack of drinkable water in Africa and I'm pretty sure he could teach better than me on most days. Often I feel that I've lost my dramatic flair and have kept only the madness.

I have learned that a cosmetics company called Lush makes their products with natural materials by hand and does not test on animals. I have learned what a shampoo bar is and where to get a pretty good one should I so desire.

I have learned that women are often conscripted into rebel armies in Africa to cook. Often these women are the victims of sexual imposition and later outcast by their communities.

I have learned that the Black Hawk Down incident was caused in 1993 by American forces being dispatched by George Bush to sort out why UN foodstuffs were not reaching the Somalian citizens. Many US soldiers and many Somalian militiamen lost their lives. The leader of the Somalian troops was apprehending the foodstuffs before the people could get it. This information juxtaposed with Matt Damon's face on a flier sponsoring clean water initiatives in Africa made me wonder if American celebrities are doing more good in the world than the US Armed Forces... not out of any greater sense of duty (I'm sure the sense of duty is greater for men and women in the Armed Forces), but by the gentleness and generosity of their approach. I really think it's something else that America's wealthiest and most famous citizens have taken upon their backs the burden of confronting the world's problems. There is something wonderful in this. It makes me wish I was a celebrity so I could do something good for the world with my fame and well scrubbed face and my money. I'm planning on looking for a magnet shaped as a ribbon for my car that proclaims Support Philanthropic Celebrities.

I have really enjoyed teaching lately. Some days I think I need it more than they do.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Our Youth

So this new post is going to be about me, not my classroom, though it is very tempting to write about what a wonderful job they're doing researching the difficulties plaguing the life of Africa... eh, nevermind. I'm going to write about that instead. It's far more interesting than little old me.

Three students presented today first period. The first presentation was themed "We Don't Own the World" and focused on vegetarianism. Here's what we learned. 1) In order to feed a meat eater (someone like me) it takes four times the amount of land necessary to feed a vegetarian. 2) KFC and McDonald's practices debeaking of chickens and raises them in farm factories to die... we feed Wyatt chicken McNuggets when we take him to McDonald's to play. This makes me sad because he's cute and so are chickens. Maybe Ted Nugent has it right.

The second presentation focused on the AIDS epidemic in Africa. Here are some startling facts: 1) Every day AIDS kills 6,300 people. 2) 8,500 people are newly infected everyday 3) About 70% of the worldwide population of infected live in Africa... this sickness seems to be spreading due to a lack of education about preventative measures. Storytelling and superstition trump science in their culture.

The third presentation was about poaching. It seems most animals are targets for poachers to "strip" the way cars are stripped in this country by criminals for parts that can get them money. But cars don't lay bleeding where they're disfigured: animals do. The following animals are poached in Africa: Elephants (ivory tusks-hide), Rhinos (ivory horn-hide), Leopards (hide), Lions (hide), Zebras (hide and tails), giraffe (hide), and the Dik-Dik (bones).

In all the presentations were inspiring and compelled by a close study of Heart of Darkness, Christen's visit and research done entirely in a computer lab.

When the presentations are over, I have a short video and lesson to teach them about the 30 Human Rights outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights created in 1948 by United Nations.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Once upon a Beat

Hello Internet, I was wondering what has happened to the Beat generation. I've looked for them in the pages of my high school American Literature textbook and... can you guess? They're not there! While scouring you (Internet) for resources I have found many wonderful documentaries... no really. Not just a bunch of video montages made by college students set to their girlfriend mispronouncing words from "HOWL"... serious film. The more I study the Beats, the more I wonder if they're best left out of the survey of American literature most high school students have dolloped onto their consciousness like a fartsound spoon of cafeteria confectionery. Why leave out the Beats, folks? Why?

I understand the intellectual cowardice that rules public education. In the "HOWL" obscenity trial one of those standing against the poem was a public school teacher. We have always been part of THE MAN's tribe. Not quite gun and badge carriers, but close enough to call it. Am I right? So what's this trying to be with the hip crowd. Settle back into your Robert Frost, Norman Rockwell campy Americana, drink your Ovaltine and lower your voice. This is a library, need I remind you.

I found a lesson plan that actually calls for the teacher to play a recording of "HOWL." I mean, am I pushing the envelope too much? Should I just be content with teaching the "masters"? My book includes some of the Harlem renaissance writers... shouldn't I just leave well enough alone?

I've spent a significant amount of time with Ginsberg's poetry. I read On the Road. I know Corso and Snyder's stuff. I can't help but feel these are representative contemporary American writers. Were they any more radical than the Romantics? Maybe just a little bit. I don't know. Maybe I should just be content to put them out on the shelves and point the occasional beat soul their way. Maybe discovering these writers on your own is more gratifying. Maybe I need to stop being a pansy and just xerox 11" X 17" copies of "Bomb" for the class to read out loud. I'm not trying to be cute...

I suppose I'm having these thoughts having come off teaching The Catcher in the Rye. Isn't that part of the story? Can we be so bold as to consider it a critique of American values in the 1940s. Isn't Holden a Beat in cocoon? Haven't upper middle class, capitalist, white Christian values failed him? Isn't that the point? How can a teacher teach The Catcher in the Rye and not go on to the Beats? What am I supposed to do? Pass out copies of "The Road Not Taken" and tell them "Holden took the easy way out, and if you're not careful his failure will be your failure too." Should I be stroking my cop moustache while I say it?

Ah, it's all too much. I'm going to sleep. Peace.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Hello, Africa!

Grade Level 12
Advanced English

Choose any one of the following activities for our study of Heart of Darkness

1. Good readers ask questions of a text. Keep a reading journal to record yours. A reading journal should be an informal piece of writing done after each significant session you have with the book. A reading journal should do all of the following:

a) List unknown words. You will look these up and write down the definitions.

b) Ask basic questions such as who, what, where, when, how?

c) Allow the reader to react to the philosophical issues of a text. This story addresses each of the following philosophical questions, for which there may be no definitive answers:

• Is evil an inherent human trait?
• Should women be protected from harsh realities?
• What is the nature of human superiority? Is there such a thing?
• Is Heart of Darkness a racist text?
• Is colonialism ethical? What stance does the book take on empire?
• How should one go about telling a story? Explore Conrad’s philosophy of storytelling. Should a story be a kernel, or the haze that brings out a glow?

d) Reflect upon imagery (light and dark) and metaphor/symbolism.

2. Africa is still a vastly troubled nation. Research modern dilemmas (such as child soldiering, the war in Darfur, etc.) and prepare an informative presentation to the class including handouts and visual aides.

3. Animal rights take a backseat to human rights in Conrad’s novella. Research the
devastating effects the need for animal products has caused in the animal kingdom and prepare an informative presentation to the class including handouts and visual aides. Your presentations need not be restricted to elephants, but should include current information about the ivory trade.

4. Ivory is just one of the sought after natural resources of Africa. Research the
other natural resources that have caused conflict in the land and prepare an informative presentation to the class including handouts and visual aides.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

We're in the middle of the project designed to introduce Holden to modern music. There have been some really great presentations so far. The insights these students have are incredible. For example someone said how Holden sees women, girlfriends as a solution to his problems; yet another said Holden needs a girlfriend. I feel two ways about this: the truth is, I think, that we're all co dependant on somebody, regardless of how we deny it... that's love, right? And love is the whole point of this mess, so, it can't be bad. And I agree, Holden needs a hug. On the other hand, I can understand how teenagers are wary to give their hearts away, especially to the opposite sex. The potential for hurt is great, yet I've always preferred people who love without regard for their own safety. I think Holden might become one of these people. Maybe not. I mean look at JD Salinger. He took the love away. All because he got his feelings hurt. That kind of sucks in my opinion.

I feel the need to name-drop a few of the new bands I've discovered through this project, so here they are. Hollywood Undead, Mewithoutyou, Eyes Set to Kill,TUFF. Also, some of the lyrics I keep on reserve for students who want me to give them a song to interpret (and there are a few) are: "Sweet Jane" The Velvet Underground, "As I Come of Age" CSN, "Heart Cooks Brain" Modest Mouse, "Hey You" Pink Floyd, "Let It Be" Beatles, "Blowing in the Wind" Dylan, "I Am a Rock" Simon/Garfunkel

I think they really sense the humor as well as the sorrow. They get that Holden is torn up over Allie's death. They also get that he doesn't have any friends because he'd be kind of a drag to hang out with. Holden talks about being a good golfer in this book. I think golfing with Holden would probably be pretty fun.

I have been reading a lot of it out loud, because hey, everyone likes story hour, right?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Poltergeist in the Rye

Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters just came out. There's a part of me, the ninety year old literature professor, that is appropriately horrified, but there's the other part too- the kid that would rather read about a tanar'ri named Ertu from the Abyss than the whims of pampered aristocrats-he's appropriately horrified also... and loving it. I tried reading Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and while it was amusing, I couldn't suspend my disbelief long enough to enjoy it in any way other than in an "isn't this quirky-and-kind-of-hip" self consciousness that wasn't too much fun. In the end I could have probably ordered an ice tray with space invaders shaped inserts from, spent less money, and got the same (if not more) satisfaction while drinking Kool Aide... rather than subjecting myself (again) to 200+ pages of British dialogue.

Yet... I was thinking what would Holden do if, while in New York, a zombie outbreak occurred? I mean, he's one step away from suicidal-maybe he'd want to join them? Or, maybe he'd get satisfaction from the way they resumed the mundane tasks of their mundane lives. It might be kind of interesting. I don't know how you'd use it in the classroom, or even IF you could. Or maybe, instead of zombies you could use werewolves. Like a werewolves of London kind of thing in New York city. I'm not a very big fan of werewolves, or vampires to tell you the truth, but maybe you could use ghosts. Holden is haunted, figuratively, why not propose a prompt in which Holden is haunted literally? C'mon, even Shakespeare used ghosts. Plus ghosts aren't really that hip right now. Nor ever. I think Casper ruined that possibility... and that movie with Patrick Swayze, God rest his soul, so you don't have to feel like a sell-out.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Holden the Optimist

We learn so much about what Holden thinks is phony in his world, yet we get a strong sense of his value system throughout the book. Your assignment is to find a cause, movement, organization, or charity in our world that Holden would not think is phony.

1) In 300 words, write why you think Holden could get on board with this cause, organization, or charity. You must use specific language from the book.

2) Familiarize us with your cause, organization, or charity. How did you hear about it? What are its goals? Is it possible for anyone to join?

The name of your cause, organization, or charity is due to me by ____________. Presentations will begin ________________. If you do not have a cause, organization, or charity by _______________, I will provide you with one.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Holden the Beat

As a class, we are going to make a mixed CD for Holden Caulfield introducing him to modern music.

You must choose one song with school-appropriate lyrics to appear on the mix. You will be required to write at least 300 words and to give a short presentation (including playing the song) to the class based on the following criteria:

1. Please don’t choose songs at random. Choose the song not necessarily because you like the guitar solo, but because you think it fits Holden in some way. Maybe you think its message might be helpful to Holden. Maybe you think Holden could relate to it in some way. Maybe you think it attempts to teach us something valuable about life. Regardless, have a legitimate reason for picking the song, and be able to explain why Holden Caulfield would like this song using specific references to the novel.

2. Analyze the lyrics. What elements of poetry do you think it includes? (figurative language/symbolism, irony— hyperbole, sarcasm—narrative devices)

3. In order to present the song, you must have a CD with your song and a copy of the lyrics for me.

*This project will be graded on effort, creativity, how well you demonstrate your understanding of the novel, and how well you complete all parts of the assignment.

**Turn in a copy of the lyrics and the CD by ------------- or as soon as you have them. I will choose a song for you if I don’t have materials by this deadline. Presentations will be ----------------.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Holden the Remote

Bellwork #4

We know Holden does not like movies because he tells us, however, he never mentions television.

1. If you were to hand Holden Caulfield a copy of this week’s TV Guide, which shows do you think he would express interest in? Why?

2. What modern television shows do you think Holden would never watch, even if you paid him? Why?

I usually get some good responses on this one. Kids think he'd like House for the sarcasm and Stewie for the innocent genius dichotomy. One student thought he'd like Anime because he was the fencing manager. Most kids say he'd hate reality shows because they're phony, as well as sitcoms and Lifetime.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Digital Storytelling: Pre-reading Activity

Like most good ideas, I stole this one. Here's the gist: arrange four images on a slide (I used powerpoint) and have students put them in chronological order. You'll be amazed at the stories that come from nowhere. Use groups of three or so and let them figure out the story. I toyed with having them write it down, but it's much more dynamic if they just start telling a story out loud. I used these images to prepare them for The Catcher in the Rye. Afterward, you can tell them the order of the images as per the book: in Holden's case, it's the broken window, the F, the train and then the city.

Saturday, August 29, 2009


This year has been great! I know, it's only been three days and I'm acting like a neophyte, but having the advanced students at the beginning of the day really helps set the tone. I always tell my last period they better be my best class because if I go home mad I'll kick my dog. They always laugh like someone is punching them in the gut, which is, I suppose, the kind of laugh I'm the best at getting.

Who welds a balance beam perpendicular to the playground exit? Kids fall down. This is how my kindergarten playground was set up. It makes me wonder... I'm not teaching fiction writing this year and my lunch is at 9:55 am, yet I feel good.

I hope to teach some new titles this year. Among them are Grimm's Fairy Tales, Dubliners, and Crime and Punishment. I asked the advanced students to respond to 10 statements on the first day. The results were a lot of fun and inspired some discussion.

1. Humanity is a brief pulsation in the black hole of eternity

-5 -4 -3 -2 -1 0 1 2 3 4 5
Strongly Disagree Strongly Agree

2. Learning about human suffering is not important because it teaches us nothing about ourselves.

-5 -4 -3 -2 -1 0 1 2 3 4 5
Strongly Disagree Strongly Agree

3. The courses of our lives are dictated by chance.

-5 -4 -3 -2 -1 0 1 2 3 4 5
Strongly Disagree Strongly Agree

4. I alone exist.

-5 -4 -3 -2 -1 0 1 2 3 4 5
Strongly Disagree Strongly Agree

5. Dignity is an essential element to a fulfilling life.

-5 -4 -3 -2 -1 0 1 2 3 4 5
Strongly Disagree Strongly Agree

6. Murder is always wrong.

-5 -4 -3 -2 -1 0 1 2 3 4 5
Strongly Disagree Strongly Agree

7. Disney is the highest authority on Earth.

-5 -4 -3 -2 -1 0 1 2 3 4 5
Strongly Disagree Strongly Agree

8. Society is just one way humanity combats the darkness inherent within the individual.

-5 -4 -3 -2 -1 0 1 2 3 4 5
Strongly Disagree Strongly Agree

9. Thinking about the past and/or the future is a waste of time.

-5 -4 -3 -2 -1 0 1 2 3 4 5
Strongly Disagree Strongly Agree

10. The printed word still matters.

-5 -4 -3 -2 -1 0 1 2 3 4 5
Strongly Disagree Strongly Agree

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Back to School

As I've said before, I've had a hard time reading and writing this summer, with the exception of the poem that bled out the other night, I've hardly written anything. Part of me thinks I deserve the time off after writing Mark's story, but another part of me, the mean one with the implements of medieval torture, has been whispering that I'm wasting time, what talent I have, and as well as the few ideas I've had.

With school looming ahead, I'm sad for the end of summer, as I've been able to finish some home improvement projects and spend time with Wyatt. I'm glad for the promise of structure (however mind-numbing) and the stimulus of meeting a bunch of new teenagers and seeing some old faces. But I will miss the little face peeking over the crib rail every morning.

The first task of preparing for a new year is to revamp sylllabi. Since I will only be teaching two preps, Advanced British and World, and American Literature, I hope to take the time and rehaul them completely. Starting the year with The Catcher in the Rye has worked very well with American Lit students in the past, and I plan to do the same thing this year. Last year, due to a challenging sixth period class I devised twenty or so bellwork journal responses for The Catcher in the Rye that worked well and were a lot of fun. The intent was not only to focus their attention after lunch, but to try and make the book more relevant to today. I'll post some of these journal prompts as soon as I can re-open them, and in the meantime I'm going to consider my starting place with the advanced students. It's always difficult, and I don't know why. Beowulf is a logical starting place, but I spend more time on Gardner's Grendel anyway, and that can be an off-putting book due mainly to its philosophical nature, and the year I started with Plato and Aristotle went badly, much less Sartre and Hume. So, last year we started with Oedipus, which seems logical to me. It's a difficult play to teach, and I have trouble myself discovering why it's such a masterpiece. I prefer Antigone, myself. It seems less like pantheon propaganda and more like a story with real heroism, conflict and sorrow.

Thursday, August 13, 2009


The house is finished. Well, we still need to have the gutters and downspouts hung, but that probably won't happen until next week. In the mean time, I'm going to post some before and after pictures of the siding.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Trial Run

I sailed on Tuesday for the first time. The boat, a Caprice, was about 14 feet long, made in the early 1970s in Canada, blue fiberglass, with some teak wood trim. We went to Nimasilla reservoir on Portage Lakes because they do not allow gasoline engines. I would have taken pictures, but my phone got wet and malfunctioned. I'll go ahead and list some of the terms I learned.

On a boat, rope is called a line. When the line is attached or otherwise associated with a sail, it's called a sheet. There were two sheets on the jib, starboard (right side) and port (left side). We controlled the mainsail with a system of pulleys (three in all, I believe). We lowered the keel because the wind was a bit gusty. The keel was controlled by a rope and pulley: the idea there is that the keel lowers into the water under the boat, and helps keep the hull on an even tack when you're sailing against the wind. When you're sailing with the wind the keel can be retracted to lessen drag and increase speed. The keel also helps the boat stay upright, which we needed on more than one occasion.

"Hanking on" is when you're attaching the jib to its stay (forestay) with "hanks." These are little spring loaded hooks much like those found on a dog leash.

A batten in a long, thin strip of wood one uses to stiffen the mainsail. No, it's not the same batten for the hatches.

Coming about is when you switch directions, and therefore, have to duck the boom. We did this a lot, which is the trickiest sort of thing to manage, I think. You've got the tiller, the main sheet, and you're trying to switch seats, hoping all the while 1) the boom doesn't knock your mate into the drink, 2) the boat doesn't tip and throw you both in there, 3) you can keep on tack, which is difficult, because the tiller is very long, and you can't step over it because of the boom, and sometimes you end up catching it with some part of you as you're switching sides.

Sailing was a lot of work. It was also a lot of fun. My phone, once it dried out, works better than ever. I'm hoping to go again sometime soon.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Where's the Magic?

During the course of all this manual labor I have stopped writing (besides this) and I haven't been able to really read anything. It's like another part of my brain has taken over. I don't know if it's just post MFA blues or the allure of summer, but I feel a bit jaded with my writing. Whenever I plan to get back to the novel and redraft it, I think, "why?" I haven't even been able to publish anything! Who's going to want a book from me? I'm not sitting on the pity pot, I'm writing this down with the hope that, once expressed, these feelings will disappear. I guess I need to get my head into something new and forget about publishing or not publishing.

On a semi-related note, I just looked at the New York Times top 10 bestseller list and realized I have never read any books by any of these authors. and nor do I really plan on it. The #1 seller is a book by James Patterson, with (of course) another writer, called The Bathing Suit.

I'm (slowly) reading Just After Sunset, and trying to finish Death on the Installment Plan. In the meantime, I read The Zombie Survival Guide. Maybe I need to lighten up and try the NYT bestsellers?

Sunday, July 5, 2009

I tore out some wooden sofit today under the front porch eaves with the intent of replacing it with vinyl. 7-5-09

Update: I replaced most of the front sofit with vinyl. I bought another saw. A Craftsman mini-circular saw. This thing is awesome! 7-6-09


I've decided, after watching My Name Is Bruce, to list ten reasons why I think Bruce Campbell should be canonized:

10) When children dream of superheroes, they all have Bruce Campbell's face

9) Who else from Michigan owns that many Hawaiian shirts?

8) "Gimmie some sugar, baby."

7) Your primitive intellect wouldn't understand.

6) He's the only man in the world better with a saw than me.

5) He did deliver us from the Deadites

4) Without direction, his instinct is to flip off the camera.

3) Could YOU defeat your evil twin?

2) All you existentialists, can you think of a better name than Ash?

1) The man starts a chain-saw with his teeth, okay?

Well, there it is. Critics please e-mail me at, or feel free to post here. I'm sure I forgot all kinds of information that may be valuable to the Catholic church. Talk to you soon.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

I spent Tuesday morning pulling the benches away from the garage. I had been dreading this only because I consider the deck sacred. It came away without too much fuss thanks to the carriage bolts we used. If the whole thing had just been screwed together... or worse, nailed, it would have been a nightmare. As it was I'll probably need to replace the only board that I had to remove (the top railing board) because backing out the screws caused some damage.

This freed up the garage space, so I started there with the 1X3X8 furring strips. I've been buying them at Lowe's. They look a lot nicer than the ones I got at Carter. Lowe's is a little bit of a hike, and they cost 10 cents more there, but they're straight and have clean edges. So, the Alero has been behaving well as my impromptu work truck. I can fit 36 boards in it. That sounds like a lot, but it really isn't, as you can see from the pictures.

After all this wood cutting I broke down and bought a miter saw. I went with the Ridgid 10" MS1065LZA 28513, which should make cutting those pesky furring strips much easier. Also, I bought an Irwin plywood blade that I plan to use for cutting the vinyl siding. Apparently the more teeth the better, so the blade I got has 180 teeth, and I guess you're supposed to turn it backward so as not to splinter the vinyl. I'll let you know how it works.

I ran into a few difficult spots yesterday after the garage was finished. There's a trim board along the gables I'm stuck working with. It's nailed onto the house and catches the nails from the roof decking too, so removing it is not an option. It shouldn't be that big of a deal, but it extends out farther than the furring strips. Also, there's flashing above the brickmold on all the windows. It's going to take some time to finagle that stuff... I don't want to tear it out.

All this work as made me 1) sore 2) aware of the fact that building, or remodeling, is like writing. How, you ask? Everyone does things their own way. If you want 15 different opinions on how something should be done, go to the hardware store. However, at the end of the day it's you and your saw, or you and your hammer and the only person you're trying to please is yourself. But you start off as an apprentice, I suppose. I don't know. It's weird.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Warning: Hard Hat Area

I put vinyl windows in the garage today. All three windows cost over 400 dollars. I bought them at Lowe's. I don't know where else to get stuff like this. All three were special order sliders with faux glazing strips (only because those I took out were real glass panels... and about 50 years old). I'm planning on vinyl siding the house and the garage this summer, and I see the garage as the most logical place to start. Maybe I've mentioned that my grandfather built the place. Not "had it built." He built it, though I'm unsure if he did EVERYTHING himself. I'm pretty sure he called in someone to plaster the walls, and for specialty work like the cove base floor in the kitchen (now vinyl tile). Apparently my grandfather was a bad ass. He passed away in my early twenties. He was a boxer and a police officer and I have black and white pictures of him wearing a singlet. He was a very strong man, apparently, and renovating the house has, over the years, made me feel strong by virtue of the fact that I'm keeping something he started with his own sweat alive with my own sweat. It's probably a very complicated psychological thing, but I like to try and keep it simple. Work on house = good feelings. Letting house devolve into crap = bad feelings. I'm doing my best.

I've done my homework on the vinyl siding. I'm going to try and keep j-channel to a minimum. I'm using something else called window and door casing, which is 2.5" deep instead of just 1" with the j-channel. I'm spending the extra money to use a simulated hand-split shake vinyl on the peak on the house, and on the garage. Carter prices this stuff by the half square ($156), and even by the half it costs more than a whole square of 4.5 Dutchlap ($61.49). Since I'm going over redwood siding, I'll have to fur the whole thing out with strips- I'm going every 16" on center and running them with a framing nailer. This is the plan as it stands. I'll keep you updated.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

You know how it is (reprieve)

Sometime it's trying to speak hey joe and picking notes on country roads. Your baby doesn't let it be and I come to find out there's something more between you and me. Say it ain't so... Stab your blood into me and then / I know your eyes in the morning sun / I feel you touch me in the pouring rain / and the moment that you wander far from me / I wanna feel you in my arms again / And you come to me on a summer breeze / keep me warm in your love then you softly leave me / and it's me you need to show / how deep is your love / How deep is your love? / I really mean to learn / 'Cause we're living in a world of fools / breaking us down when they all should let us be / There's one thing to know about this town / It's 500 miles underground / and that's all right

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Readers in their youth... the short story, continued

Or... why not just teach whatever the heck I feel like? I think I've been feeling a lot of anxiety at the prospect of teaching only literature classes next year. There are rumors that my school is clamping down on electives. Apparently they're too small (student numbers) and too much of a scheduling hassle. I, obviously, think this would be horrible for teachers as well as students, but with public schools, sometimes it's about the kids, and sometimes it's about the money.

In the past I've had the freedom to do a lot. In fiction writing alone I've used the collections Werewolves in their Youth and Nine Stories as well as anthologies like You've Got to Read This (thanks Bob Pope), and The Oxford Anthology of American Short Stories. Some of the best discussions we ever had came from reading Werewolves in their Youth. Why? We read some of the bad Amazon book reviews, such as:

" I just read one of the stories from this book because my visiting cousin (16 years old) has it assigned for classwork. She said it was "the dumbest thing" she had ever read. Thinking she migh be missing something, I read the story myself. She is correct. This is the type of verbal diarrhea that causes young people to dislike literature. What a sad commentary on our culture that this is considered worthy of study in any context." -Erika Kendra

Isn't that hilarious! Here's another:

"Chabon is so praised, I try to find quality in his work, but it's pretentious writing, that tries so hard to be literary, and nothing in the stories or the words themselves pulls you toward the next page. I started reading a short story in this collection, and had to look up two words within the first two paragraphs. It made me feel stupid. But then I realized that I just finished reading WAR AND PEACE the week before, and had not had to look up a single word when reading THAT (the greatest novel ever written). Chabon should take a lesson from Tolstoy and try to write more naturally, and stop trying to be such an academic fop." - A Customer

The idea that looking words up makes someone feel stupid got my students laughing and stirred up. Then we debated. Half of the room took the opinions of these readers, that Chabon is spewing verbal diarrhea is an academic fop, yadda yadda yadda, while the other half tried to defend the merit of his writing. This was after we read "Spikes," which is a really good story in my opinion.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Again... the short story

So Chekhov is good. He has to be, because Cheever was the Chekhov of the suburbs, and Carver was the Chekhov of... desperation. Then there's Gogol: your character should want something even if it's only a glass of water. I'll just teach "The Overcoat" and call it a day. You've got character study, conflict, social satire, magical realism... And Tolstoy! Who needs Aesop when you've got him? Parable ahoy. So now I'm never leaving Russia.

But what about Joyce? Oh buddy. You've got to have Joyce. Who wouldn't want to read a guy with an eye patch? And those epiphanies... where would we be without them? So I could theoretically teach Tolstoy, Chekhov, Gogol, Joyce and...hmmm... Cheever or Carver. I might have to go with Cheever. Sorry. He's got a better sense of humor. No eye patch, but he used to try and get journalists drunk so they couldn't interview him. And he wrote "The Death of Justina." And "Goodbye My Brother."

Then what? I'm starting to feel like some literary gasbag imagining a room with these writers' heads hanging on plaques. Of course everyone would be smoking giant cigars and talking about Hemingway's iceberg theory. Uh-oh. What about Hemingway? He's pretty good. No, nothing pretty. He's damn good.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Short Story...continued

I really don't admire Maupassant, Saki, or O'Henry... it's the "twist ending" kind of thing, I guess. I prefer Roald Dahl's gruesome shorts. Stories like "Skin," "Lamb to Slaughter," "William the Conqueror," and even "Man from the South" are a lot of fun to read, probably a lot of fun to teach, but here we are again: is my job to teach what I like, or what is worthy, in this case, "genre-defining." Up until now I've been able to talk myself into teaching what is notable, but how many kids have already read "The Gift of the Magi," or "The Necklace" in seventh grade? Maybe I'd be doing them a disservice by making them read it again. Maybe I should skip this type of ironic-ending story altogether?

Turgenev? Is he worth considering? When I think of Sketches from a Hunter's Album, I think of landscape pieces. If Chekhov is "The King" of the short story, then Turgenev is Ricky Nelson. Why bother trudging through Tugenev's landscapes when Chekhov's are more vibrant?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Examining the Short Story (Part One)

I know this task is folly, doomed to fail, and probably a waste of time... so why do I keep coming back to it?

As a way to put off taking down posters and organizing files, I started a list on the board regarding the short story. With the help of some folks I work with, we were trying to create a timeline if (hypothetically) one were going to teach a survey course of the short story, where to start? Where to end? What are the definitive pieces, and/or writers? Is there such a thing?

I thought the best place to start would be an exploration of Fables, Parables and Allegory, which include Fairy Tales, Oral Traditions, Mythology, and possibly even scripture, though some might object. These stories seem to be didactic in some way and usually contain morals. The problem is, there are so many different types! Grimm's Fairy Tales, The Panchatantra, Aesop, The Decameron, The 1,001 Nights, The Canterbury Tales, Mahabharata, Buddhist Scriptures, much of the Old Testament, Ovid, Norse Myths... Mother Goose?

Then there are Legends and Tall Tales to contend with. There's King Arthur, obviously, but just in America alone there are tons of tall tales, like Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill, Brer Rabbit, Bigfoot Wallace. I haven't even investigated tall tales in other cultures.

There's a giant heap of stuff to climb over, or wade through. I like a lot of it. If it were up to me, and I suppose it is because I'm the one writing this post, I'd start with a few Aesop's fables. Something like "The Fox and the Grapes." Why? Students have been conditioned how to read this kind of story. Since they were wee tykes (probably) they've been asked to identify "the moral of the story." A lot of the selections in middle school textbooks offer some kind of message, or moral and students come to regard the story as Conrad's nutshell, their task to crack it and devour the nut, or theme or moral or lesson. By the time these students begin reading more contemporary short fiction they're unprepared for the idea that sometimes the moral is more subjective, or perhaps, there is no moral.

We talked a lot this past year about Disney, and how they tend to make everything cute (despite the racism inherit in most of the drawings... the native scene in Peter Pan, for instance. Or Song of the South--
thanks Kat ; ). It would be a blast to compare the Grimm's to Disney. I think teenagers would really get a kick out of the original versions of these stories. Allow me to digress a little... teens are growing up in a world in which everything designed for kids is super tidy: the good guys win (in fact no one is supposed to lose), the women are idealized, no one ever gets hurt that doesn't deserve it, and God loves you no matter what you do. Parents are mystified at such wild phenomenon as "goth," "emo," and "cutting." I'm not suggesting to throw the babies out with the bath water... some kids are dealing with real evil, like neglect and abuse... but I think these trends are some kids' way of saying "enough is enough, nothing seems to be at stake in our lives and we're sick of being pampered!" So... I could see how kids might get a charge out of reading "The Robber Bridegroom," "Rapunzel," or the original "Snow White." I know I did. Furthermore, how can Edward or Bella hold a candle to Hades and Persephone? Isn't the wicked step-mother in Snow White kind of like Cassiopeia? I think examining these stories can be a nice way to show how certain archetypes are born and pop up again and again.

I think it might be easy to get carried away with scripture. Our high school literature textbook features excerpts from the King James book of Genesis. Maybe toss in Cain and Abel, Abraham and Isaac... the flood. I don't know. What would be the purpose? Maybe so I wouldn't feel bad about teaching Buddhist Scriptures like "The Bodhisattva and the Preacher of Patience" and "Bodhisattva and the Hungry Tigress"? Maybe just carve out religion altogether. I don't know. I want to resist the impulse to just teach what I like, but... Maybe these stories would make more sense in some sort of context.

Especially now that I'm in summer-mode I have to constantly remind myself why I shouldn't just teach The Zombie Survival Guide- it would be a lot more fun, it would lend itself to inter-disciplinary activities, and I'm interested in them... zombies, that is. Heck, it could save their lives! Wouldn't students ultimately get more out of something I personally love? No. Probably not. For the same reason you didn't get anything out of that course requirement as an undergrad in which the teacher lectured more about her family than her subject matter. Just because it's interesting to you doesn't mean it will be interesting to them. There has to be a more substantial reason to have it on the syllabus. In this case we have to ask - is it a piece that defines the genre? How can you ask that question of scripture? My gut tells me to leave scripture of the main world religions out entirely, which, as a result, probably means no Milton, Dante, etc. I don't know. I'll probably change my mind next week.

Until then, onward. I'm considering the pre-cursors to Realism next. I don't know what they're called. I don't even know if I've got Realism right. Anyway, what to do with Maupassant, Saki, O'Henry? Turgenev, Anderson, Washington Irving? Are they worth considering?

Monday, June 8, 2009

How to Effectively Read and Respond to an Article

I came up with these when I first started teaching. Some of my students weren't ready to choose a book for reading workshop. They were very low-level readers. My solution was to have them read a high interest magazine either in the classroom or in the tutoring area. Their assignment was to write a reaction to the article. I don't know if this kind of assignment was good or not, but these guys (mostly) would profess to hate reading, but you'd have to pry Dirt Bike magazine or Field and Stream from their cold, dead hands. After a while I wondered why I was fighting it.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Rubrics in the Creative Writing Classroom

I know what you're thinking. "He's been brainwashed by those education-types." Maybe. I know that whenever anyone mentions using rubrics to assess creative work it's in jest. However, I've thought a lot about it, and here's what I came up with. I want to clarify that I use these only in "regular" english class (not fiction) when someone expresses interest in writing a story. I think rubrics can work to address some of the issues beginning writers face. Thanks goes to Kurt Vonnegut, without your wisdom this rubric would really stink.

Postscript 2013: see updated rubric here!

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

To teach or not to teach: that is the question

Part of my problem with teaching high school literature, any kind of survey course, is that they tend to be a mile wide and an inch deep. There's a real lack of aesthetic and thematic focus throughout the year. Students may tend to see these courses as a hodgepodge, or worse, as a helping of everything you, personally, think is groovy or morally instructive. In order to survive in the HS classroom, one must be an eminent salesperson, and I think, even if I don't personally like the piece we're studying, I can sell its good qualities. Understand it. Forget loving it. High schoolers can, at best, be the least sentimental of critics, and, at worst, openly hostile. There are a lot of things in life that are considered uncool, and literature seems to be one of them.

I am cool with this.

The teacher of literature needs to make peace with the fact that students will probably think great literature (and YOU by virtue of having taught it), is lame. Teachers may respond in a variety of ways. 1) "Hey, do you think I LIKE teaching this crap?" Not a good idea. It may be Machiavellian to get students to sympathize with your plight, but I think there's something unethical about bashing the material. 2) The way some parents want to be their kid's friend, some teachers will try and find material that may be more "hip" than the canon. Usually these books can be found on the shelves at Target. This CAN work. Sometimes. In the long run, it's like parents trying to "hang out" with their kids. Chances are they're going to appreciate the effort, but find someone cooler all the same.

My proposal is to run at least a two tier classroom. The first tier is designed to recognize and encourage independent reading. Make time for it, at least one class period a week. I've seen classrooms that do it three times a week or so for 15 minutes, but I think one substantial session is best. During this time encourage students to hang out with their favorite books, or even just the flavor of the week. Do not sneer at their selections. Praise them for being "English Rockstars." They are, too, if they're reading. Sometimes a student will ask your humble advice. "What should I read?" Classroom libraries are important for this reason. Steer them toward something challenging but not totally overwhelming. Give an assignment at the end of class, something fun. Here are some of my favorite prompts:

Your assignment this week is to write a note to your book. Remember, I said forming a relationship with your book is like forming a relationship with the opposite sex, so your note can be a love letter praising your book for its great qualities, a warning letter outlining what is not working in the relationship, or a “Dear John” letter (a break-up letter). Regardless, your note should include some indication as to how the relationship is going, and specifically why.


React to one of the following quotes concerning books in today’s Reading Workshop. You should mention your book in your reaction.

"The public library is the most dangerous place in town.” John Ciardi
"Instead of going to Paris to attend lectures, go to the public library, and you won’t come out for twenty years, if you really wish to learn." Leo Tolstoy
"If there’s a book you really want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it." Toni Morrison
"I find television very educational. Every time someone turns it on, I go in the other room and read a book." Groucho Marx
"God forbid that any book should be banned. The practice is as indefensible as infanticide." The Strange Necessity - Rebecca West
"Classic—a book people praise and don’t read." Following the Equator - Mark Twain

In the spirit of John Donne and metaphysical conceit, we’re going to think figuratively about our books this week in reading workshop. Please answer any one of following:

If your book were a building, what kind of building would it be (What would it look like? What purpose would it serve?) and why do you think this?
If your book were food, what kind of food would it be and why do you think this?
If your book were a bug or an animal, what kind would it be and why?
If your book were a regime, what kind of regime or government would it be (communist, fascist, democratic) and why?
If your book were a type of music, what type would it be, and why?
Think of a metaphor of your own!


Imagine your book’s character is at a Chinese restaurant cracking their fortune cookie. What kind of message do you think they need to hear at this point in the book? Write it! Explain why you think they need to hear this.


Franz Kafka thought, “A book should be as an axe, to break the frozen sea within us.” What do you think he meant? Has your book moved you in any way emotionally thus far? Remember, in any way emotionally: anger, frustration, happiness, sadness? Pride, outrage, disappointment? Respond with specific examples.


Today we are going to appreciate the beauty of language. Don’t be afraid to let yourself be dazzled! Choose a sentence or passage from today’s reading that you admire and copy it below. Offer a brief explanation as to why you chose it.


Here's the generic reading workshop form I started with in 2002. Nothing wrong with it, it's just boring...

Reading Workshop
15 points
All sections must be complete

Name/Period: _________________
Book Title: __________________
Date: ________________________
Pages Read Today: ____________

Part One:

A summary is a brief (a few sentences) retelling of what you read


Part Two:
Chose One of the following options:

Write a question that you have about what is happening.

Pick and write a particularly well-written sentence.

Make a prediction about what is going to happen.


The goal should be to finish a book. When finished, the student must write a response by a certain date. I allow five different responses: New Critical, Reader Response, Biographical Inquiry, Historical Inquiry, and Creative Writing.

Here's an example of how I grade a Reader Response paper:

I have the other rubrics for the other types of writing. E-mail me if you want a copy oh audience of my imagination.

So, Reading Workshop is a great time. Read with your students, converse, circle up and share. It's the time you get to "hang out" with readers.

The question of what to teach students in a literature course (I say teach because Reading Workshop really isn't direct instruction) is a troubling one. Flannery O' Connor addressed this question in an essay called "The Teaching of Literature," and she proposed that a teacher not cater to a pupil's taste, but, by teaching demanding works from the canon, help to form their tastes. Doing both in the same class can be difficult. On one hand, you've just had a great discussion with a student about a Stephen King novel, or something by Jodie Picoult and now you expect them to read Dostoevsky or Sophocles. HEY, THIS ISN'T FAIR! I THOUGHT WE WERE PALS!'s a tenuous relationship, but I think it's important to make the distinction between reading for pleasure and reading for scholarship, and it's something I'm definitely going to address on day one next year with seniors.

So, what should the serious teacher of literature choose to teach? I think the answer begins with books that both challenge but reward in some way. For me a lot of these books can be found on my profile page, but some of them are Crime and Punishment, Dubliners, Heart of Darkness, Oedipus & Antigone, Siddhartha, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Moby Dick, Native Son, Blood Meridian... the problem seems to be that I can't think of many women writers. The two books that come to mind are My Antonia and Mrs. Dalloway. Maybe I just haven't read enough women writers. This is starting to feel like a hodgepodge! Where's the thematic continuity? I think a good idea would be to read formative/representative works of genre: novel, novella, short-story, short-short?, what about the fairy tale?, poetry, memoir. What's a representative or formative book of poetry? Are writers like Edson and Barthleme too zany and postmodern for the classroom?

Thursday, May 7, 2009


So if you just keep plugging away...

My students have been dazzling me with their insights into Heart of Darkness. Teaching great works of literature is like leading a group therapy session... I have a little more experience with the books, but I feel as if they're such eminent works of art that I'm stuck dealing with them just as much as the students feel stuck dealing with them. Sometimes I feel like, oh god, I'm all alone in the conversation of this book, so I have to keep up a running monologue until someone in the class takes a plunge. I know this isn't the most effective way of teaching, but it happens. I was dazzled on many levels today by what seniors were saying about this book! I finally felt, for the first time really, that I can rock back on my heels and enjoy the experience of teaching it... like I'm not scared they're not going to get it, if that makes sense. I end up saying and doing a lot of strange things because of the fear of them not getting it. For instance the other day (in ernest) I drew a heart on the chalkboard and labeled it "heart," then colored in a dark patch and wrote "darkness." It wasn't until the end of the day that I saw it up there and cracked up. Diagrams?! What would the diagram be for Meditation 17, or Oedipus? One student made me feel better when she said that she thought my illustration should replace the cover art.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Spring 2009 Northeast Ohio MFA Graduate Reading

What better day to post than National Teacher Day?
Thank you all for sharing your talents.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Stop and Smell the Fertilizer

So I smell like fertilizer because I just finished spreading a bag on my yard. It's a good smell; bright and somehow lively. I like yardwork because often, while I'm mowing or raking leaves, trimming trees, or cutting wood (I still have some logs to split from the chestnut), I don't think about anything. Not thinking about anything is preferable to thinking about something in my book, and I like anything that takes me to that kind of place. I like watching the granules drop through the spreader onto the grass (it never seems like enough), and I'm just some boring guy taking care of his yard, and that's okay. I think the key is resignation. I often feel like I'm in a hurry all the time during spring: so much so, I don't get a chance to enjoy it; and BOOM, the kids are graduated, it's summer, and my schedule has been completely cleared. It's kind of like stepping off a cliff.

Rushing... I was trying to blow my nose at a stoplight today and the light turned green before I could do it and I had to drive; it's this kind of feeling that causes stress. For me at least. Yardwork is a great cure for stress. That is, unless you feel like you have to do it. Like maybe because your neighbors are getting sick of your leaves, or weeds, or whatever. No, if you're doing it just because you want to... that's what I'm talking about. There's perhaps nothing quite so gratifying as mowing the yard. It's probably one of the dumbest chores human beings have invented, but if you can look past all that and just live in the moment of pushing the machine you'll see what I mean. Probably, you already know.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

It's Called Gratitude

I've been very busy with thesis work-that, and reading David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas-so I haven't been blogging, but I just read on NPR that there were more births in 2007 than in any year in our nation's history-even more than the Baby Boom generation. This fact gives me pause for several reasons. 1) I think, hooray! Wyatt will have a ton of playmates. 2) People are doing a better job at taking care of the planet, but the question is- how much better? We, as in Carrie and I, use disposable diapers. I am aware that this may be bad for the environment, but I secretly feel that some folks don't have anything else in their lives to worry about... this probably makes me a callus ass. But here's an example of what I'm talking about ... one of my friends was trying to tell me that the little faux-bubbles in Bath and Body Works hand soap travel down the drain through the sewer and into the ocean to choke little fishies. I had to put my hand up to stop- leave a message at the snap. I guess I can only worry about so much during the day. And on the diaper issue, all I can think of is the Saturday Night Live skit for chewable Pampers. I know people who think this would be a good idea. 3) We stopped at a fast food chain for dinner tonight after Wyatt's nine month pictures. It tasted really good because it's been literally years since I've been to one, but I couldn't help but feel a twinge of guilt in my gut (maybe it was the slice of cheesecake) as I dumped plastic forks, straws, Styrofoam cups, sandwich bubbles, napkins, etc into the trash. I wanted to ask them if they recycle. This particular establishment is reputable for its charitable programs to help married couples stay married and help maintain some sort of stability for foster kids. I was wondering if all that energy going to help people could be negated by landfills full of their trash.

Why am I having these kind of thoughts? When I was younger I couldn't have given a damn-in fact, I used to LITTER! (that's right, just toss that bag of fast food refuge out the window) that is until an older friend gave me a hot reaming for it and I realized he was right. I haven't littered since. I'd like to think I'm relatively considerate of the environment- I insist on fuel efficiency, I recycle, I use those fluorescent, incandescent light bulbs. I guess maybe I'm wondering what kind of world Wyatt will grow up in with all those people. Kids are really into the green push too. I have students who started a Recycling initiative at our school; I'm thinking of a really bright young man that wants to study environmental engineering, others that volunteer to support politicians whom advocate for the environment. I think there's definitely hope. Kids today are more inclined to think green.

Just today I overheard a Junior talking about Darfur. Some of my kids are reading books like Not on Our Watch on their own. It was a student whom educated me about child soldiering. This girl has been to Africa, and is going over again to help reform child soldiers. So many others want to teach...

I'll be the first to admit that I'm not always a stellar human being, but I certainly feel privileged to teach such conscientious youth. I don't know where I (or our world) would be without them. It gives me hope to think Wyatt will live in a better world. With any luck he'll help to make it that way.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Heel or Ball?

I'm reading Joan Silber's Ideas of Heaven for Imad's 20th Century Fiction class right now, and boy is it good. It's easy to write about children's books and sound smart, but national book award finalists... The one smart thing I have to say is that some people's prose is leisurely, like it walks on its heels. This book definitely gets up on the balls. When I ran track in high school we started every practice with a warm up mile, ran as a team. After I started to place in events, I tried taking some tips from the fastest kid on our squad- he said he ran the entire warm up on the balls of his feet. Just thinking about it now seems like another lifetime, but if you're going to write a "ring of stories," a ring resembling a track, you could do worse than to get the prose up on the balls of its feet.

I think of other books that do this-Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones comes shooting out of the blocks and then it hunkers back on its heels for a long distance jaunt through the lives of the characters affected by Susie Salmon's murder. I think the secret to writing this way is to know exactly what it is you're writing and writing it-the heck with suspense. It's weird how doing away with suspense can be even more gripping than stringing the reader along, but sometimes mazes get boring. It's really hard to go through a maze on the balls of your feet. You'll, no doubt, end up crashing into something.

Maybe it's because Ideas of Heaven is an assigned text that I am enjoying the quick pace. I tend to read assigned books quickly (probably the wrong way to do it), searching for something that grabs me on a human level as opposed to a craft level. Normally I like laid back in prose and in life-it's why I take baths instead of showers if I have the time, and it's why, most of the time, I walk on my heels. I can do laid back if it's an audiobook- something that I'm going to have to spend a month with while driving in to school- something parceled out in hour segments. I did Gone With the Wind this way and it took about three and a half months. I just finished Jodie Picoult's Nineteen Minutes this way-with that book I think I would have been tempted to put it down if it had been in my hands, but having the audio there pacing right along despite my shouts of "Are you serious!" and "Come on!" (what normal people probably holler at the referee while watching sports on TV). I enjoyed the story-it was better than the alternative-radio talk, or songs I have already digested into nothingness-but it didn't impress me on a sentence level.

The only audio book that engaged me enough to pop out of the car stereo and bring inside to finish was Cormac McCarthy's The Crossing. That story has suspense and beautiful sentences; it's not told in a breakneck fashion, and the chapters are rather long if I remember, but it hit all the right buttons. Kid + wolf = interest.

I suppose I could ask you out there, oh imaginary audience, what you prefer in terms of the speed with which a story is told, or whether, if the story is good, it even matters.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Children's Book Review: Cause and Effect

Both If You Give A Mouse A Cookie, and Goodnight Gorilla are children’s books that teach cause and effect in very different ways. If You Give A Mouse a Cookie claims that if you do indeed give a mouse a cookie, then he’ll want a glass of milk, and then he’ll want a straw, when he’s done, he’ll want a napkin, then he’ll want a mirror to make sure he doesn’t have a milk moustache, then he’ll see his whiskers needs trimmed so he’ll ask for a pair of scissors, then he’ll want a broom to sweep up the trimmings, then he might get carried away and sweep every room in the house, then he’ll want to go to bed so you’ll need to fix him a place to sleep in a shoebox, then he’ll want a story, then he’ll get excited at the pictures in your book and want supplies to draw one of his own, then he’ll want a pen to sign his name, then he’ll want scotch tape to hang up the picture…looking at the fridge will remind him he’s thirsty, so he’ll ask for a glass of milk.

The boy who caters to the mouse’s whims is dirty and exhausted by the end of the book and would’ve saved himself a lot of trouble, seemingly, if he had not given the mouse a cookie in the first place.

This book annoyed me on several levels. First, I thought of a quote from Deuteronomy 15:7-8, 11

"If there is a needy person among you, one of your kinsmen in any of your settlements in the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman. Rather you must open your hand and lend him sufficient resources for whatever he needs. For the poor will never disappear from the earth, which is why I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land.”

Maybe I’m taking this a bit far…I don’t know. What harm can children’s books do? Well, a lot, I think. See The Poisonous Mushroom. I guess I was thinking of how prevalent the quote from Deuteronomy is supposed to be in Jewish communities, and then I thought of anti-Semetic propaganda like The Poisonous Mushroom. It’s unclear if the mouse in this book represents any ethnic people(s), but the story seems to be a critiquing the kind of generosity and open-door-policy most religious texts intend to inspire.

To further complicate my relationship with this book is the notion that it may be a critique of the welfare system… like Reganomics for kids, or something like that. Even more ironic is this notion that Conservatives and Neo-Cons alike are supposed to be religious. If that were wholly true, what about Deuteronomy? I'm familiar with the old cliche' "Give a man a fish, feed him for a day, teach a man to fish, and he'll eat for a lifetime," but I can imagine that if the boy in this story had to first get out flour, eggs, sugar, chocolate chips, baking rack, Crisco, that the tone of the narrative wouldn't change.

Goodnight Gorilla offers a more subtle lesson in cause and effect and manages to remain inoffensive to yours truly. The story goes like this: A gorilla swipes a zookeeper’s keyring as he passes by saying goodnight to all the animals. On the first page the gorilla lets himself out of his cage, a mouse uses a balloon string (setting the balloon free) and ties it to a banana, and they follow the zookeeper (Joe) on his rounds, letting out all the animals—elephant, giraffe, lion, hyena, armadillo, until they all follow him into his bedroom and hunker down to sleep. His wife says “goodnight,” and all the animals respond. She wakes up, alarmed and leads them all back to the zoo, with the exception of the gorilla and the mouse, who sneak back with her. In the end, the gorilla and mouse climb into bed with the zookeeper and his wife and the mouse says goodnight gorilla, but the gorilla is already asleep because he ate the banana the mouse had been dragging along with the balloon string. The end. The cool thing about this book is that the balloon floats farther and farther away in each frame, so you can make a game of hunting for it as the story unfolds. It’s a neat thread that kind of ties the book together, and the story is one that does not encourage niggardliness in the reader. I'm not even going to approach the ethnic critique, because I really don't think either story warrants one... I'll leave the offensive inferences to the New York Post.