Thursday, July 21, 2016

Flash Fiction

Paragraph Planet is a cool website that publishes one 75-word paragraph every day. I've been following them on Twitter for a while, and I finally got around to submitting something this summer. 

I'm proud to say that "The Raft" is featured today on the site. This piece began as a blog post here on my blog, a long time ago now. I've always considered it one of my favorite posts, so I reworked it to meet the 75 word limit. 

If you get  chance to check it out, I'd love to hear what you think. And be sure to give Paragraph Planet a follow on all your social media.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Top Ten Books of 2015

Getting a little late for an end-of-the-year list, but what the hell. I read 43 books in 2015. The books on my list weren't necessarily published in 2015, just books I read this year.

10) Shotgun Lovesongs, Nickolas Butler: written by a fellow Badger, this is an ode to Wisconsin, to friendships, to family, to women who make men better.

9) Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee: I could easily do a whole post on this one (and probably should); regardless of its literary merits and the circumstances of its publication, this book generated a lot of discussion in the Riley household.

8) The Crossover, Kwame Alexander: a YA novel in verse; a mix of rhythm and heart; a sports story that crosses over to speak about so much more.

7) 11/22/63, Stephen King: haven't read King in a long time; thoroughly enjoyed following Jake Epping on his journey back in time to save Kennedy.

6) The Book of Unknown Americans, Christina Henriquez: the beautiful, tragic, intertwined lives of immigrants with a slow burn to a devastating ending.

5) Redeployment, Phil Klay: excellent collection of short stories about soldiers' experiences in Iraq and their return to domestic life.

4) 800 Grapes, Laura Dave: great Napa Valley setting; each member of the Ford family is at a crossroads, and I enjoyed how Dave navigated the characters through their choices.

3) The Turner House, Angela Flournoy: excellent debut novel; the struggles of the Turner family mirror the struggles of their beloved Detroit, a setting that always intrigues me.

2) All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr: don't take my word for it, this won a little something called the Pulitzer Prize.

1) Station Eleven, Emily St. John: a literary descendant of Cormac McCarthy's The Road and David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas.

Let me know what you think of my choices. I'd love to hear what other people enjoyed reading this year in the comments, might give me some ideas for 2016. Your top book, top 3, 5, 10, whatever works for you.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Top Ten Movies of 2015

So yeah, it's been a while. You know, life and whatnot.

I haven't felt the urge to write anything for the blog in quite some time, but with the end of the year approaching, I've been seeing a lot of end-of-the-year lists out there. My favorite thing about the blog was always doing my end-of-the-year book and movie lists. To my eternal shame, I didn't do them last year. So with renewed vigor, here are my top ten movies of 2015.

I watched 112 movies in 2015. The first movie I watched in 2015 was Lone Survivor and the last movie I watched was The Big Short. If you're heading out to the theaters or looking for something to rent, you can't go wrong with any of these films. These movies aren't necessarily movies released in 2015, just movies I saw for the first time in 2015.

10) The Good Lie: A moving portrayal of Sudanese refugees adjusting to life in the US.

9) McFarland, USA: True story of a cross country team overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds to become a California powerhouse.

8) The Drop: James Gandolfini's last film is a worthy send-off. Tom Hardy channels Mike Tyson in this under appreciated crime film.

7) Big Hero 6: Let's put it this way. I watched this with a very tough group of 8th graders, and they were bawling, all of them.

6) Jurassic World: I didn't think you could match the scene in Jurassic Park when ol' T-rex makes his appearance, but when the new dinosaur shows up in this one, not only did I feel that same excitement, I could see it on my daughter's face as well.

5) Wild: While I would not consider myself a big fan, this is the second Reese Witherspoon movie on the list. This one was definitely overlooked by Oscar last year. Great adaptation of Cheryl Strayed's memoir.

4) Whiplash: A little movie that asks a big question: How far should we go to achieve excellence?

3) Inside Out: I'm a huge Pixar fan, and this is Pixar at its very best. And like any good Pixar movie, this one made me verklempt more than once.

2) The Big Short: Another film adaptation of a great nonfiction book. This movie tackles the complexity of the housing bubble that nearly collapsed the world economy with a wicked sense of humor. But it's smart enough to leave you pissed off.

1) Star Wars: The Force Awakens: Not many things in life surpass expectations, but this movie managed to surpass my unrealistic child-of-the-80s expectations. Starting a new chapter of this story with my girls makes it even more special.

Let me know what you think of my choices, and of course, I'd love to hear what you enjoyed watching this year in the comments, maybe some movies to watch in 2016. Your top movie, top 3, 5, 10, whatever works for you.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Z is for..........Zoo

Before I had kids I wasn't much of a zoo person. I do have a few fond childhood memories of trips to the zoo, but they're pretty faded and worn now. Way back in the recesses of my cluttered memory, I can see old Samson, the giant 650 pound gorilla from the Milwaukee Zoo.

I did work at a zoo the summer after freshman year in college. That was a wild experience, one that might make a pretty funny book one day. A coming of age story with elusive spider monkeys, wacky co-workers, raccoons on leashes, and hissing badgers. Years later I spent a memorable afternoon with Meg at said zoo. We watched in sociological awe as a family straight out of Deliverance got peed on by a lion they were harassing. Meg and I have gotten a lot of mileage out that story over the years.

We have a nice little zoo here in Tucson. You can walk the whole thing in about an hour, which makes it perfect for quick visits with the kids. When the girls were little we had a membership, and we went just about every weekend. First came the stroller years, when Meg and I could dictate the pace and enjoy some time out of the house. Then came the toddler years, when we let the girls walk on their own, herding them through all the sights. Finally, we reached the point where the girls could walk slightly ahead of us, Meg and I able to have a little adult conversation while the girls checked in with all their favorite animals.

We don't go to the zoo much anymore. I wouldn't say the girls outgrew it, but other interests have taken over. Every once in a while they'll get excited about going, maybe to feed the giraffes. I miss the days when a trip to the zoo was a major family outing. I'm sure we'll make at least one visit during summer vacation. I hope the girls will have fond memories of our trips to the zoo. I know I do.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Y is for..........YouTube.

I love YouTube. I like checking out the latest viral videos as much as the next guy, and I can't tell you how many times YouTube has bailed me out at school.

Kids, today we begin designing our catapults.

Blank stares.

How 'bout we check out a couple YouTube videos to get some ideas.

Happy shiny faces.

I don't subscribe to Youtube channels yet, but that may not be far off for me. It's quite possible that YouTube will be instrumental in how I access a large portion of my entertainment in the future.

I can foresee a situation where creative types have their own channels and you'll need to subscribe for new content. It's my understanding this is already happening, but I'm still pretty ignorant when it comes to YouTube.

One thing seems for sure. YouTube will be a big player in the entertainment world in the foreseeable future.

Monday, April 28, 2014

X is for..........Xenophobia and Xenophilia

To be honest, I was just going to skip X this year. But then something happened this morning. Every Monday I give my students a vocabulary packet, and when I flipped to this week's unit in my trusty vocabulary book I had to laugh. The words all include the suffixes phobia or philia. One of the words is xenophobia and that was my very first X back in 2011. In 2012, I went flip side of the coin and did xenophilia, a word that, quite frankly, was new to me at the time. So as I made my copies before school, I decided I wouldn't skip X after all.

I certainly prefer Xenophilia, an attraction to foreign peoples, cultures, or customs. The opposite of xenophobia if you will. I love learning about foreign cultures and customs, and some of my very favorite people hail from other countries. I may be making up a word here, but I would even consider myself a xenophiliac. 

As you can imagine, my students weren't particularly happy to see their weekly vocabulary homework coming at them this morning, but this little X coincidence put a smile on my face.

Hey, at least one person in the room was happy.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

W is for..........Wisconsin

Arizona is a fairly transient place, not a lot of born-and-raiseds. Talk with someone long enough and the question of where you're originally from comes up.

That's always been a tough one to answer for me. My family moved around a lot, but I guess when it comes down to it, I consider myself from Wisconsin.

When I tell people I'm from Wisconsin, a cheesehead reference soon follows. Which is cool. I am a cheesehead.

But there's more to the story. I lived in four Wisconsin cities, and each one left its mark, making me the person I am.

Port Washington is a small fishing town on Lake Michigan. My childhood there was idyllic, very Tom Sawyer. I remember summer days waking up before the sun, heading down to the creek (very definitely pronounced crick) for full days of fishing.

We moved to Appleton when I was in 4th grade. Appleton is where the hormones kicked in and girls started to matter. Appleton is where I met friends that have stayed with me over miles and years.

Green Bay was only 30 miles north from Appleton, but when we moved there my sophomore year, it felt like another planet. Green Bay is where I learned to fit in again, miraculously finding people who got me, and still do. I graduated from high school in Green Bay, and I suppose one never forgets that.

Madison is a college town, and a great one at that. Madison is where I figured out who I really was, wanted to be, the place where I started to become a man.

Port Washington, Appleton, Green Bay, Madison. All these places are Wisconsin. And when I tell people I'm from Wisconsin, this is what I mean. I haven't lived in Wisconsin for a long time. Nearly twenty years now. But these places remain, they are in my blood.

Friday, April 25, 2014

V is for..........Vomit

Way back when, the girls had a sleep over. There'd been a lot of junk food earlier in the day at Quinn's end-of-the-season soccer party. We made the mistake of taking home a nearly full tub of Red Vines. Over the course of the night, the girls polished that baby off. At the time I didn't think much of it. I mean, sure, it was ridiculous for 4 girls to eat that much licorice, but not unprecedented.

Of course, every time I saw Quinn grabbing a bunch of Red Vines, I assumed she was just being the considerate young child I know her to be and sharing with the other girls. Umm, not so much. Turns out the other girls weren't that into Red Vines, so Quinn took advantage and ate the whole lot. Even when we figured out that she'd pulled one over on us, I kind of had to chuckle.

My attitude radically changed around 4:00 the next morning when those Red Vines exacted their revenge. Quinn woke us up to tell us she had to throw up. We tried to get her into our bathroom, but it wasn't to be. Quinn puked her way to the bathroom, leaving a remarkably vibrant red trail. After pretty much emptying the contents of her stomach on the carpet in our bedroom and the tile in the bathroom, Quinn informed us that she had thrown up in her room as well.

There was so much vomit in Quinn's room, it was a small miracle that her friend was untouched. We moved the girls out to the living room and feebly attempted to clean up. I tried the stain remover we had in the house, but to no avail, those stains weren't going anywhere. Meg and I finally gave up and went back to bed. We'd been talking about replacing the carpet in the bedrooms anyway, so we figured this had to be a sign before drifting back to sleep.

We still haven't replaced the carpet, and by now we barely notice the red spots anymore. Actually, I kind of like those red stains now. They crack me up. Parenting is a funny thing. It can turn a night of prolific vomiting into one of those family stories that will stand the test of time.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

U is for..........Undefeated.

Undefeated is a brilliant documentary about an inner city football team. If you're a sports fan, this a must-see. Not a sports fan, you say? My wife could care less about sports and she'll tell you, this is a helluva movie.

In the tradition of great sports movies, it's not really about sports. It's about the people. It's about the relationships.

I'm not gonna lie, this movie choked me up multiple times, and one scene in particular almost had me sobbing. I tweeted something about the movie back when I watched it for the first time, and one of the guys in the movie retweeted my comment. That was pretty cool.

I really can't recommend this movie enough.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

T is for..........Teaching

It's hard to believe, but I've been teaching for 18 years now. I started out teaching at an alternative high school in Minneapolis. That was a wild three years, but it was an extremely rewarding experience, and really, nothing shocks me after all the craziness I had to deal with in that job.

Meg and I moved to Tucson in '99. My first teaching job here was a 6th grade gig at one of the more challenging middle schools in town. It was a tough job, but I would have gladly stayed. There were only bilingual positions open at the time, so I moved to a different middle school on the other side of town. I finally got to settle in at a school and I was there for 10 years. This is where I came into my own as a teacher, where I honed my style. I like to tell people my teaching style is Father Flanagan mixed with Bobby Knight.

I've been successful in my career at raising test scores and five years ago I was offered a chance to participate in a federal study to see if teachers who get positive test results in one school can replicate that success in underperforming schools. There was a bonus involved, and I made the move. That first year was probably the worst year of my teaching career. I was seriously second-guessing my decision. Fortunately, the second year was the complete opposite, reaffirming my love of teaching, perhaps making it stronger than ever. I stayed for a third year, but the commute got to be too much, so I returned to my previous school, where I currently teach 6th grade language arts.

Teaching is a demanding profession. Each day in the classroom is a microcosm of life. Every day good things happen, amazing things, profound things. But bad things happen too, and you have to be able to learn from them, bounce back from them, leave them behind.

It's not the best time to be a teacher in the United States. We don't seem to have a lot of allies out there nowadays. The one thing Democrats and Republicans seem to agree on is that schools are failing and teachers are the problem. I would say the politicians are the real problem in public education, but that's a whole other kind of post my friends.

I could go on and on, trying to distill the essence of teaching, but I probably wouldn't do a very good job. Let me leave you with a story that nicely illustrates why I love teaching.

I ran into a former student recently, a young man, now 21. He told me what he was doing with himself, and then he surprised the hell out of me. He thanked me for teaching him how to write. He said he learned to love writing in my class, and he was really happy to have the chance to thank me.

That's what teaching is all about.