Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Top Ten Movies of 2010

I have a lot going on in my head and in my heart today. Writing helps me cope. I have things I want to write about my dad, but now isn't the time. Right now I want to write about something else, just a small break from reality.

Movies are a big part of my life. Meg and I watch a lot of movies with the girls, and I have to say, some of the best movies being made nowadays are the "kid" movies. Meg and I watch a lot of movies after the kids go to bed, and when we do go out, it's usually dinner and a movie. I find it hard to go to sleep on the weekends, and I watch a lot of movies after Meg has gone to bed, usually bits and pieces as I surf channels. Being the dork I am, I actually keep track of how many movies I watch each year. This year I've seen 71 movies, which is down a bit from last year. I only keep track of movies I watch from start to finish. Unlike my top ten books, I've only included movies that were released this year. There are some movies I haven't seen yet that I'm sure would make the list (True Grit, I'm looking at you), but whattayagonnado.

10.  Date Night:  Meg and I had heard this wasn't very good, but we gave it a chance becasue we love Tina Fey and Steve Carrell.  Maybe we were just in the right mood, but we laughed a lot.

9.  The Ghost Writer:  I know Roman Polanski is a scumbag, but I really enjoyed this movie. The story unravels much slower than your standard thriller, but I found myself enjoying the slower pace.

8.  Green Zone:  This is an action movie with a poitical tilt. Matt Damon is great as a solider looking for WMDs in Iraq.

7.  Despicable Me:  Here's one of those "kid" movies.  An evil genius is transformed by three little girls. This movie is very funny, and like many of the best animated movies these days, surprisingly moving in spots.

6.  Winter's Bone:  The first word that comes to mind with this movie: stark. It's the story of a young girl trying to save her family home in the Ozark Mountains.  It's a bleak world to be sure, but it feels authentic.  It's always good to see a strong female character.

5. The Kids Are All Right:  This is the story of two gay women raising a family. The issues they face may be unique to their situation, but as we watch this family struggle, we realize all families have one thing in common: love.

4.  The Town:  Ben Affleck is becoiming quite the director. I loved Gone Baby Gone a few years ago, and this one is great too. Bank robbery, lots of swearing in Boston accents, what's not to love.

3.  Toy Story 3:  Another gem from Pixar. This movie is a rollicking good time, but let me tell ya, the ending is a tear-jerker.

2.  the social network:  David Fincher is a great director, and his masterful telling of the facebook story is mesmerizing.

1.  Inception:  For me, it doesn't get any better than this. Christopher Nolan has created an action movie that refuses to dumb itself down. The special effects are stunning and the acting is top-notch. Like all great movies, this is one you think and talk about long after you've seen it.

I'd love to hear what other people enjoyed watching this year in the comments, maybe some movies to watch in 2011. Your top movie, top 3, 5, 10, whatever works for you.             

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Medical Odyssey

My dad's health has rapidly deteriorated since my last post. The events of this past week are so jumbled in mind, I feel the need to document what I remember now, before it's completely lost.

Last Sunday night, my sister and I watched the Packers with Dad in his hospital room.  His chest still hurt like hell from the compressions, but he was in good spirits, and even talked about coming home after dialysis the following day. I was skeptical, but it didn't seem out of the question.

I think that next round of dialysis happened Monday, but like I said, my memory is hazy, it could have been Tuesday. Whatever day it was, his heart just couldn't take it.  He was moved to ICU and things have been critical since. His heart rate skyrocketed and he couldn't breathe. It was brutal watching him struggle. I told him all the things I wanted him to know. I'd said them all before, but I wanted him to hear them again-it felt like that time. His breathing eventually became so labored, the doctors put him on a breathing tube.

The doctors dropped a camera down the breathing tube to take a picture of my dad's heart. The results showed his heart valve (a whole other medical odyssey) wasn't functioning. He was transferred to a different hospital for surgery, and we had renewed hope. The surgery was postponed a day because his blood was too thin. They got the blood where they wanted it, and the next day was a go. They told us the operation would take 5-6 hours, so when the surgeon came out to the waiting room after an hour, I knew something was up. They had taken another picture of the valve before, and this time the valve looked perfectly fine. The surgery was aborted. This was crushing news; we were back where we'd started.

In the midst of all this, I wanted to keep Christmas as normal as possible for the girls. My family took a break from the hospital, and we managed to have a nice Christmas Eve at our house. Meg and I watched It's a Wonderful Life and got things ready for Christmas morning. We did all the normal things: presents, egg dish, monkey bread. The girls had a good Christmas, and that means a lot to me.

I spent a couple hours at the hospital Christmas Day, and then Meg and I took the girls to her parents' place for Christmas dinner. I hadn't seen my father-in-law since he left the hospital, so it was good to spend some time with him.  He was tired, but he's definitely on the road to recovery.

By the time I went to bed, my dad's breathing tube was out, and he was doing OK. I was hopeful.  Then my cell phone rang at 4 A.M. Things had taken a turn for the worse during the night. I'm not good with the medical terminology, but in layman's terms, my dad's heart still wasn't working, and the doctors were out of ideas.

We moved my dad to hospice this afternoon. They don't do aggressive treatment in hospice, which means my dad will not be doing any more dialysis. The goal now is to make Dad as comfortable as possible.  I don't know exactly when my dad's medical odyssey will finally end, but hopefully what I've written tonight will help me make sense of things down the road.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Top Ten Books of 2010

I enjoy reading top ten lists this time of year, especially book and movie lists. I thought it would be fun to do some top ten lists of my own this year, starting with my top ten books of 2010. I read 49 books this year, which is a big number for me. The books on my list weren't necessarily published in 2010, just books I read this year. Steven King uses the same system, so it's legit.

10. The Strange Case of Origami Yoda, Tom Angleberger. The Rileys are Star Wars geeks, so Mr. Angleberger had us with the title. This is a sweet story about a socially awkward 6th grade boy (is there any other kind?) who dispenses middle school wisdom through a perfectly constructed origami Yoda. It's perfect for 3rd-6th graders, and their parents of course.

9. Everything Is Illuminated, Jonathan Safran Foer. A young Jewish American travels to the Ukraine to uncover his family's history. In the process, he illuminates the family history of his Ukrainian guide as well. Foer's writing is unconventional and powerful.

8. A Gate at the Stairs, Lorrie Moore. Gotta give my fellow Badger some love. Moore's novel showcases a young college girl, Tassie Keltjin, as she navigates through the emotional minefield of her life. This book may have more spot-on figurative language than any book I've ever read.

7. Everything Matters, Ron Currie Jr. If you knew exactly when life on Earth was going to end, how would you live your life? This is John Thibodeau's fate, and as we follow his journey, we realize that every single choice, no matter how small, makes a difference.

6. That Old Cape Magic, Richard Russo. Jake and Joy Griffin are going through a rough patch in their marriage. As they try to figure things out, their daughter announces she's getting married. This is a book that deftly explores beginnings and endings.

5. let the northern lights erase your name, Vendela Vida. The protagonist of this book, Clarissa Iverton, travels to Lapland to find her father. She finds her mother instead and must come to grips with what she learns. I read three of Vida's books this year, this one being the best. I love Vida's writing style, short, crisp sentences.

4. Zeitoun, Dave Eggers. This nonfiction book details the struggles of one man, Abdulrahman Zeitoun, before and after Hurricane Katrina. It's an immigrant story, it's a New Orleans story, it's an American story. A definite must-read.

3. This Is Where I Leave You, Jonathan Tropper. This is the story of Judd Foxman. His life is already a wreck when his dad dies, and we follow him as he joins the rest of his family to sit Shiva. I fell in love with Tropper this year, reading five of his books. I find his writing to be funny and poignant.

2. Freedom, Jonathan Franzen. I think this book lived up to the hype. The characters aren't exactly likable, but I think that's the point. Franzen is one of those hold-the-mirror-up kind of writers, and we don't always like what we see. If you're a serious reader, this is a book you have to read.

1. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Dave Eggers. Another nonfiction masterpiece from Eggers. This book chronicles the author's life as he raises his brother after the loss of their parents. The writing is brutally honest, Eggers often coming off as self-absorbed. It's a side of grief rarely admitted, and it is refreshing to read truth.

I'd love to hear what other people enjoyed reading this year in the comments, might give me some ideas for 2011. Your top book, top 3, 5, 10, whatever works for you.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Quick Update and a Question About Comments

I'm not sure what the etiquette is on comments, but I want to thank everyone who left a comment on my last post. I truly appreciate the positive energy. My dad is actually back in the hospital. His heart stopped during dialysis Wednesday night, and they had to perform CPR. His chest hurts like hell, but all things considered, he looks good. We had a long and winding talk last night, the centerpiece of which was our esteemed opinions on the plight of our beloved Green Bay Packers. My mom thinks he could be released today or tomorrow. My father-in-law's recovery seems to be coming along, and I'm hopeful he'll be home for Christmas.

Reading the comments people left got me thinking. I always read and appreciate comments, but I don't always respond. Is that rude? I follow quite a few blogs, and I leave comments when a piece of writing strikes a chord. I like getting a response, but I'm not offended if I don't. While I don't get a ton of comments, I am starting to get more. Should I be responding to every comment, and if so, what's the best way? I'd love to hear what others think about comments in general, and how other bloggers handle their comments in particular.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Heart of a Dad

Things have been crazy since my last post. Last Wednesday my dad went in for an angiogram. It was supposed to be an outpatient procedure, but his heart rate elevated and he was having trouble breathing, so they admitted him.

The semifinals were Wednesday night. The Riptide won a hard-fought game, 2-0, setting up a third game with our nemesis, The Killer Smurfs. Right after the game I went to spend some time with my dad. We talked about the game, and it clearly lifted his spirits.

Meg's parents were spending the night, so when I got home, we watched a couple episodes of Meg's new favorite show, Storage Wars. It had been a long, emotionally draining day. Little did I know, life was about to kick it up a notch.

Meg is gone before the girls get up, so she calls every morning to talk to them before school. I should have known something was up when the phone rang unusually early. It's never good news when the phone rings really early or really late, is it? Meg's dad was in the hospital; he'd had a heart attack during the night.

Needless to say, Thursday was rough. Meg's dad had an angiogram of his own, and it was determined he needed bypass surgery, a sobering diagnosis. We finally got some good news on Friday. My dad's heart rate and breathing returned to normal and he was discharged.

In the midst of all this, we still had our championship game on Saturday. The girls played their best game of the year, and we won 2-0. Scout scored the first goal, and generally whipped her body around the field. The girl was not to be denied. I was incredibly proud of her and the rest of the team. It was a great moment. My heart swelled with pride. I stopped by to see my dad later, and he congratulated me on the victory. I have a feeling his heart was filled with pride too.

Meg's dad had triple bypass surgery yesterday. He came through in good shape, and he's on his way to recovery. I stopped in to see him today, and it didn't take long for the game to come up. He congratulated me on the victory. I have a feeling his heart was filled with pride too.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Rating Teachers

I heard a story on NPR yesterday about New York City releasing teacher ratings to the public.  Los Angeles has already done this, and if NYC follows suit, I would expect school districts all across the country to jump on the bandwagon. I know a lot of people, forward-thinking educational reformers, think this is a good thing. I'm not so sure.

As a parent it seems like a good idea.  If you know who the best teachers are, you can push to get your kids in their class.  Of course, everyone will want the top-rated teachers, and since this isn't possible, it stands to reason there could be some unintended problems if a rating system is made public. I'm not sure pundits have thought this through. Seems like an awful lot of politicking will ensue. The pushiest parents get the best teachers. That doesn't seem like an answer to our problems.

As a teacher, I have concerns as well. Ratings will alienate teachers on the lower end of the scale, possibly driving people from the profession. Some would say this is a good thing, get rid of the dead weight. Again, this sounds good in theory, but who's going to take their place? Last I checked, people aren't exactly lining up to work in America's public schools. I'm not saying that means Amercian kids have to settle for inferior teachers, it's just too easy to say getting rid of all the bad teachers will solve the problems.

The ratings are heavily based on standardized test scores. A growing number of people seem to think a teacher is only as good as the standardized test scores of their students. I agree that the scores are important, but they don't tell the whole story. Let's say I have a class of kids. Every single one of them failed the standardized test the year before they come to me. After a year with me, they all still fail. Am I a bad teacher? Not necessarily. What if each of those kids improved by 20% on the test? Would that change your mind? I think most reasonable people would say I did a helluva job, and yet, the way these ratings are done, I will very likely be rated poorly. I don't think that's fair.

I have other problems with these ratings, both as a parent and a teacher. Teachers are taking a beating from both the right and the left these days. One of the only things Democrats and Republicans seem to agree on is that evil teachers are ruining public education. I think it's only a matter of time before rating teachers is standard practice across the country. What do you think, is it a good idea?

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Playoffs and a Little Holiday Cheer

The soccer playoffs got under way Friday night. I'm not sure who was more excited, me or Scout. We won the first game in a rout, 6-0, earning the maximum 10 points.

After the game, we hustled down to the U of A for Quinn's performance.  Her class was asked to sing a couple songs at a fundraiser for arts in the schools. They sang "My Favorite Things" and "We Need a Little Christmas." There aren't too many things that warm the heart more than a group of 2nd and 3rd graders earnestly belting out Christmas songs. The audience gave the kids a standing ovation; the smile on Quinn's face was priceless.  

On Saturday we played The Killer Smurfs, the only team to beat us all year. We lost a tightly contested game, 3-2. It was a weird game. We took the lead in the first quarter, and it looked like we would go into the half ahead 1-0. Unfortunately, right before the first half ended, our goalie badly misjudged a gently rolling ball, so we went into half tied. The girl was distraught, and the rest of the team was clearly shaken. The 3rd quarter was brutal. The ball barely left our end, and we were lucky they only scored once. When the Smurfs got another goal at the beginning of the 4th quarter, it didn't look good. I was just hoping we could somehow avoid being blown out.

Then something beautiful happened. Our girls caught fire. Our fastest girl started getting by their seemingly impenetrable defense, and when she scored on a breakaway, we were right back in it. We had so many shots in the last five minutes, I really thought we were going to ride the momentum and pull the game out. In the end, we just couldn't get the equalizer. Even though we fell short, the girls learned a valuable lesson about sports, and more importantly, life. Like the great Jimmy Valvano said, "Don't give up, don't ever give up." When the final whistle blew, we were on the wrong side of the score, but I felt like we were winners.

It looks like we'll finish second in our group, and the top two teams advance. We'll play the winner of the other group Wednesday. We beat that team pretty handily without two of our top players, so while nothing in sports is guaranteed, I fully expect to get a third crack at the Smurfs in the finals. I hope the way we ended the game carries over, and maybe, just maybe, third time's the charm. If we play with the heart we showed in that last quarter, no matter what the score says, we'll be champs in my book.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

facebook nation

Meg and I went to see the social network a couple weeks ago. It's certain to be nominated for Best Picture this year, and deservedly so, it's a great movie. The story of Mark Zuckerberg's meteoric rise from jilted, bitter college student to the youngest billionaire in history is simply amazing. I've been doing a lot of thinking about it lately.

While I'm no facebook junkie, I do use it, and I think it's a cool way to stay in touch with people. I've reconnected with some of my friends from high school and college, and for that reason alone, I'm a fan. Only two things bug me about facebook: overposting and overliking. I don't want to know the minutia of even my closest friends' lives, much less those on the periphery of my social life. I also don't need to know you "like" air, some things ought to go without saying.  

Whether you like facebook or not, it's impossible to deny its relevance in modern life. It blows my mind that Zuckerberg basically created an empire with a lap top and $1000. The other thing that blows my mind is that Zuckerberg became a billionaire by giving his product away. His success virtually flies in the face of capitalism. I know there are haters out there, but I find Zuckerberg and facebook rather fascinating. How 'bout you?

Sunday, November 28, 2010

I Couldn't Hear a Thing Harry Potter Said

Meg and I love going to the movies. We used to go all the time before the kids, and as parents, date nights are often dinner and a movie. Yeah, we're exciting like that.

We're also big Harry Potter fans, and last night we went to see the new movie. I knew there was a problem during the previews. The sound was out of whack. You could barely hear the dialogue, and the background noise was so loud, you literally had to plug your ears. Meg went to report the problem, and was told the audio should adjust when the movie started.  OK, sounded reasonable enough.  Five minutes  into the movie, the sound was still wrong.  I was having a hard time hearing the dialogue, and it was ruining the movie for me. This time I went out to complain. The kid at the concession stand voiced my compliant into his radio, and I heard a response that someone would check it out. Again, sounded reasonable enough.

This was where I started to have a problem. If someone came to check out the sound, they sure as hell didn't do anything about it. We seriously considered leaving and asking for our money back, but ultimately we just couldn't bring ourselves to do it. We've never walked out of a movie before, and we weren't about to start now. Of course, once we decided to stick it out things went from bad to worse. The couple whispering behind us began to sound likes nails on a chalkboard. The guy coughing up a lung seemed to time his outbursts for only the most crucial of dialogue. I hate to admit this, but I began to loathe humanity.

We're not big complainers, but we did talk to a manager afterwards to voice our displeasure. He admitted they'd been having trouble with the sound all day, and he gave us 4 free passes for the inconvenience. He had a giant stack in his hand, so they were obviously expecting trouble. I guess it's nice to get some free movie passes, but quite frankly, I'm not sure I want to go back. Not just to this particular theater, I mean any theater at all.

We have a sweet flat screen TV now, and I would much rather watch movies at home. If I had my way, new releases would be available to download on demand, bypassing theaters altogether. What do you think? Do you still enjoy going to the movies, or are you ready for movie theaters to be a part of the past?

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Netflix Guilt

Newsweek coined a great phrase a few years ago: Netflix Guilt. If you use Netflix, chances are you've experienced this condition. Netflix Guilt results when a movie shows up at the house, and for whatever reason, you never get around to watching it. The guilt intensifies every time you watch something else, but you just can't bring yourself to watch it. You really want to, but the mood is never right. Finally, after months of excuses, you shamefully place the movie in your mailbox before skulking off to work.

I am currently experiencing a bout of Netflix Guilt over The Last Station. I want to watch it, I really do. Helen Mirren is in it, and she was great in The Queen, right? It's about Tolstoy, and I read War and Peace, didn't I? Hell, Meg and I even toured Tolstoy's old house when we were in Moscow years ago. Tolstoy was cool, I should want to watch a movie about the guy.

I like to consider myslf a bit of a cineast, so I hate to give up on any film. I'm also a realist, and it's time to admit defeat and move on. This isn't my first run-in with Netflix Guilt, and I'm sure it won't be my last. So, my fellow Netflixers, what movies have you had to send back unwatched?

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Back to Full Strength

Different kind of weekend for the Rileys. Meg and Scout were in Sacramento for the Oireachtas (O-rock-tus).  This was Scout's first time at regionals, and even though she didn't place, it was a positive experience. I think she was just happy to be there this year, but if I know Scout, she'll readjust her goals and work hard to reach them. That may mean getting called back for the third dance, it may even mean placing. Whatever the goal is, I know Scout will work hard to make it happen. I love that about Scout, she's a determined kid.  

It felt weird around the house without Meg and Scout, but it was really fun to spend so much quality time with Quinn. She filled in for Scout at soccer practice Thursday night, and she more than held her own with the older girls. We won our last regular season game Friday night, and now it's on to the playoffs. I probably shouldn't be as jacked up about the playoffs as I am, but what can I tell ya, I'm a competitive guy.

Quinn's team played their last game Saturday, and even though they lost, it was fun to watch Quinn flying all over the field. She didn't have much help from her teammates this year, but she worked her tail off every game. She was definitely one of the top players at this level, and I can't wait to see her on a bigger field next year.

After the game, Quinn and I watched the Badgers dismantle Michigan. Wisconsin's last win in Ann Arbor was 1994. The last time the Badgers beat Ohio State and Michigan in the same season was 1981. It was only the third time in school history that the football team has beaten Michigan, Ohio State, and Iowa in the same season. While the Badgers were making history on the field, there was a little history being made in the Riley house. This was the first time one of the girls watched an entire football game with me.

Meg and Scout drove straight through, getting home late Saturday night. Quinn couldn't fall asleep knowing they were on their way, and she came darting out of her room when she heard the car coming up the drive way. I don't know how to explain it very well, but the vibe of the house changed as soon as Meg and Scout walked in the door. The Rileys were back to full strength, and it just felt, right.         

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Toy Story Meets Lost

Pixar movies are some of my favorite movies, animated or otherwise. You never think they can outdo their last movie, and then they go and do it. I especially love the Toy Story series, and #3 was amazing. I fully expect TS3 to be nominated for Best Picture when Oscar nominations come out later this year. If you haven't seen it, make it your next movie. The last 15 minutes in particular are as good as movies get.

My favorite TV show of all time has to be Lost. It was frustrating as hell at times, but ultimately, I could never give up on it. Every time I thought I was tired of being strung along, something happened to hook me again. I particularly loved the music. Michael Giacchino's music for the show was brilliant.

I came across this video last week on one of my favorite blogs, /Film, a great source of comprehensive news about the movie industry. This clip combines a scene from TS3 with the music of Lost. It's a surprisingly perfect combination. Call me a sap all you want, but it makes me a little verklempt. Check it out, see what you think. Sorry about the right side of the screen being a bit cut off. Still trying to figure out this whole uploading video thing.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Brett Favre's Got Nothing On My Kid

I've been coaching Scout's soccer team for the last five years, and watching her develop as a player has been truly rewarding.  There have been a lot of memorable moments, but today was Scout's finest hour.

Toward the end of the first quarter, our opponents got the ball near midfield, and it looked like they might have a break away.  Scout was well out of the play, but she got on her horse.  She was really moving when she got to the ball.  Depending how you look at it, her feet got tangled up or she was tripped.  Either way, she took a pretty wicked fall.  The ref immediately blew the whistle, and I ran out to make sure she was OK.  She was crying, but I could tell she was going to be alright.  Fortunately, the ref called the quarter, giving her a little more time to regain her composure.  She did, and she stayed in the game.  I was really proud of her for sucking it up and getting back out there.

Like the old saying says, when it rains, it pours.  In the third quarter, one of Scout's teammates blasted a ball in her face at very close range.  It was one of those things where everyone on the sidelines cringes and involuntarily says "oooooohhh."  As I ran on to the field, the look on Scout's face was breaking my heart.  She was having a hard time breathing, so I got her to take some deep breaths.  She was getting it together, but I wasn't sure she would be able to continue playing.  I wasn't sure I wanted her to keep playing.

Maybe I should have just pulled her, but I wanted to give her a chance to make the decision.  When she had herself back under control, I asked if she wanted to come out.  She said no, she wanted to keep playing.  I told her it was OK to come out, but she said she wanted to stay in, so I went with it.  I'm glad I did.

Not only did Scout stay in the game, she played the best quarter of her life.  I thought she might be tentative, keep her distance from the action.  No way, she was her usual aggressive self.  Scout has never scored two goals in a game, and today she scored two in a quarter. As a coach, I've never been so proud of a player.  As a Dad, well, it was a great day to be a Dad.

While the goals were nice, what happened today is bigger than that. Scout learned something about herself.  She learned she's tough. She learned she can handle adversity.  That's a lesson that will help in the future, on the field,  and more importantly, off.


Thursday, November 11, 2010

Gratitude and Bon Jovi

No school today in honor of Veterans Day. As the child of two sailors, I deeply appreciate all the men AND women who have served in our military. As I told my students yesterday, it's nice to have a day off, but it's important to remember why. If you're reading this and you're a vet, a great big thank you.

I'm trying to be productive with my day, get some work on the book done. As usual, I've let myself be distracted. I came across this video of a Celtics fan channeling his inner Bon Jovi. I'm not sure if it was staged, or they just caught this guy and stuck with him. Either way, this is guaranteed to make you smile, and quite possibly make you feel better about the world in general.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Irresistible Movie

I can remember the day cable television came into my life like it was yesterday.  I'm not gonna lie, truly one of the best days of my childhood.  The joy of channel surfing quickly became a habit, one I still feed most weekends, mindlessly flipping through channels after the kids are in bed, waiting for something to grab my attention. There are a lot more than the 57 channels Springsteen once sang about, but there is often nothing worth watching.  I can easily spend a couple hours just flipping, bits and pieces of pop culture seeping into my consciousness.

On Friday and Saturday night, I'm usually looking for a movie to watch.  Sometimes I find a movie I haven't seen, and I'm pleasantly surprised.  Recent examples include The Mexican and The Upside of Anger.  Other times I'll watch a movie just to verify my disdain. Recent examples of this include anything starring Matthew McConaghey.

Most of the time I watch movies I've already seen.  I always enjoy coming across an old classic.  Of course, by old classic I mean such fine films as Flatliners and St. Elmo's Fire.  Then there are movies I simply can't turn off, movies I've seen more times than I can remember. Footloose and anything from the John Hughes oeuvre come to mind.  It doesn't matter how late it is, how much I've already missed.  There are some movies I just can't resist.

Last night I realized that Little Miss Sunshine has become one of those movies.  I'd seen it a couple weeks ago, but when I flipped to it last night, my channel surfing was done.  It really is a great film.  If I come across it again a month from now, I'm sure I'll watch it again. It's just one of those movies.

I think we all have those movies we can't resist watching over and over.  I'd love to hear what movies other people can't resist.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

A Real Treat

I loved Halloween as a kid.  I lived in small Wisconsin towns during my prime trick-or-treating years, and I have fond memories of running around the neighborhood loading up on candy.  After I grew out of trick-or-treating, Halloween kind of receded into the background. The whole costume party thing has always felt like a hassle to me.

Halloween started making a comeback when Meg and I bought our first house in Minneapolis.  We had a lot of kids in that neighborhood, and for the first time, I was the one passing out the candy.  I discovered it was just as much fun to give as to receive.  Halloween reached a new level when the girls were old enough to truly enjoy it, and these last few years of trick-or-treating have been a blast.  The only downside is that no one really trick-or-treats in our current neighborhood.  The lots are huge and the houses are set well off the street, not conducive for optimal candy hoarding.  Fortunately, there are lots of great neighborhoods near by, and the girls actually enjoy working a new area every year.  Like little candy mercenaries.

Meg and I have been surprised over the years by the number of people who don't pass out candy.  Last year one house even had a sign on the door saying "No candy-may have swine flu."  If you live in a neighborhood with a lot of kids, it's pretty lame not to participate. Meg has even gone so far as to say it's unAmerican, and I'm inclined to agree.  Come on people, give the kids some damn candy.

We kept things pretty simple this year, trick-or-treating around my parent's neighborhood.  Scout was Nancy Drew and Quinn was Raggedy Ann.  Before we went out, the girls predicted they would be coming back with a million pieces of candy.  Ah, the optimism and illogical math of youth.  No Halloween is complete without dumping all your candy on the floor, lining it all up, and counting how many pieces you have.  I loved this ritual as a kid, but I love it even more as a parent.  The sound of my kids counting their Halloween candy is the best treat of the night.                      

Saturday, October 23, 2010


I read a review recently heralding Jonathan Franzen's new novel Freedom as the book of the century.  Sure, we're only ten years in, but a bold statement nonetheless.  Even Oprah was so impressed she couldn't resist burying the hatchet with Franzen.  Rarely does a book get this much publicity.  I enjoyed The Corrections quite a bit, so I was going to check Freedom out regardless, but I have to say, it more than lived up to the hype for me.

Franzen strikes me as a modern day Phillip Roth, commenting on the overall culture through the meticulous telling of one family's story.  Freedom tells the story of the Berglunds, a typical American family, which is to say, there's a lot more than meets the eye.  Walter and Patty Berglund are not happily married per se, but they love each other enough to keep at it.  The novel is their journey to truly find one another. That journey is complicated by imperfect relationships with their two kids, and the intermittent presence of Richard, an old college friend. Franzen thoroughly develops each of these characters without passing judgement on them.  He gives his readers the freedom (wink, wink) to decide how they feel about these people.  Love 'em or hate 'em, they are certainly fascinating characters.

Freedom is a fairly long book, but the writing is so good, it flows, I breezed right through it.  It's definitely the kind of book that I'll be thinking about for a while.  I'm glad this book is getting a lot of publicity, it deserves to be read by a wide audience.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Duct Tape Kid

Yesterday one of my students came into class with 5 rolls of duct tape on his arm.  When I asked what all the duct tape was for, he responded, "I'm an entrepreneur.  I make things out of duct tape and sell them."  This kid is pretty bright, so I was curious.  My expectations weren't real high mind you, but then the kid pulls out this perfect long-stemmed red rose.  My picture doesn't really do them justice, but trust me, the detail is impressive.

The kid could tell I was impressed, and being an astute young businessman, he went right for the sale.  "You want to buy one? 3 bucks, two for five." I had to laugh, the kid had chutzpah.  I knew the girls would love these, so I ordered two and told him I'd gladly pay full price to support his fledgling business. Realizing he had a live one, my man then asked if I needed a wallet. He showed me one of his wallets, and while the craftsmanship was again top-notch, I politely declined.  No worries, he already had a number of orders for wallets anyway.  He told me he was working on a prototype (his exact word) of a tie that he hoped to start selling soon as well. The bell rang, and I walked away chuckling to myself.

The duct tape kid is good.  Not only did he have my order ready today, he also came to school sporting his tie prototype, a red and white striped beauty.  He already had several orders by 3rd period.  At $7 a pop, he figures they could be a real moneymaker.  He asked what I was going to do with the roses, and when I told him I was going to give them to my daughters, he immediately offered to make a vase to hold them.  I had to laugh.  This kid is going places.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Dealing With Rejection

I had a great English teacher in high school, Mr. Moeller.  He taught us how to analyze the great short stories, and he guided us through the process of writing our own.  He thought I had some talent and encouraged me to enter a contest.  The story I submitted was based on the Springsteen song Downbound Train, and while I thought it was brilliant, the judges did not agree.  I didn't have the requisite thick skin to be a writer, and that one bump in the road was enough to bring my fledgling writing carer to a screeching halt.

A couple summers ago I decided to give writing another chance.  I had an idea and quite possibly the requisite will to make it a book.  I wrote about 70 pages that first summer.  Not Stephen King productivity, but I felt pretty good about it.  Then I got a little sidetracked. 

Personal experience gave me an idea for a short story, and I couldn't resist.  It actually made me feel like a writer to have two things going at once.  I hacked the story out over the next month or so, and then let it sit for a while, going back to the book.  Eventually I asked a few people to give me feedback on the story, and that was very helpful.  I let the story sit some more, and then I did some revisions. 

When I felt the story was ready, I researched literary journals and began submitting.  The first place I sent the story was Narrative, perhaps the most established online literary journal.  Narrative sent a rejection email this week, and while I am disappointed, I'm not deterred.  I've submitted the story to two other publications, and even if they both reject the story, I'll keep submitting.  In a weird way, this rejection makes me feel even more like a writer.  I put myself out there, and that's something.  Rejection is part of the process.  I wasn't able to handle that at 17.  I am now.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Grace and Grunts

Last weekend was fun and productive for the Rileys.  The girls' school had a movie night Friday night.  I really enjoyed watching Monsters Inc. under the stars.  I have to say, Monsters Inc. is one of my all-time favs.  After the girls went to bed, Meg and I watched Date Night.  I don't think the reviews were very favorable when this one was released, but we thought it was hilarious.  Of course, we'd watch Tina Fey and Steve Carrell in just about anything.  Meg crashed, but I decided to go for the movie hat trick.  For some reason About Last Night has been in my head lately, so I hopped on Netflix and streamed it.  This is one of my new favorite things, late night Netflix streaming.  I can't say that ALN stands up very well; I fell asleep half way through.

Saturdays are all about soccer right now.  Scout's team played a great game, easily winning 4-0.  Quinn's team also won, 1-0, with Quinn scoring the only goal.  Quinn's effort reached new levels on the pitch this weekend.  She's always had classic facial expressions, but on Saturday she was grunting almost every time she kicked the ball.  It was hilarious and more than a little impressive.  The girl is a beast out there.

Saturday afternoon the girls danced at the annual Tucson Meet Yourself, kind of a showcase of cool things going on in the city.  One of Scout's old teachers was there, and her husband, an amateur photographer, took a bunch of pictures.  He kindly sent them to us, and they're amazing.

Sunday would have been perfect, but the Packers managed to blow another game.  I'm afraid the old GBPs are just not good enough.  Ah well, I'll keep watching, it's what I do.  I finished reading an excellent book, let the northern lights erase your name.  This is the third novel by Vendela Vida I've read recently, the other two being And Now You Can Go and The Lovers.  She has quickly become one of my favorite authors.  I really enjoy her writing style: very sparse, lots of short sentences, perfectly descriptive. 

We closed the weekend out with another movie, City Island.  I'd never even heard of this movie, but I found it looking around on Netflix. The story takes place in City Island, a picturesque section of the Bronx (sounds like an oxymoron, I know).  Andy Garcia and Juliana Marguiles are a married couple raising two teenagers.  This is a movie about the secrets we keep from those closet to us, and it rang very true to me.  I highly recommend it.

I thought I'd just start Jonathan Franzen's new book Freedom, 15-20 pages before going to bed.  80 pages later, I reluctantly turned off the light.  I'm sure I'll have more to say about it later, but it's already obvious that this one is going to be a classic.      

Monday, October 4, 2010

It Doesn't Take Much

Teaching is often a thankless profession.  Like most of my colleagues, I'm certainly not in it for the money.  I keep plugging along, waiting for the little moments of grace, the moments that make it all worthwhile.  I had one last week, and its effect still lingers.  One of my students asked if she could decorate my classroom for Halloween. I said should sure, why not.

To be honest, the next morning I had completely forgotten about the offer.  Kids say they're going to do things all the time and then flake out.  I was pleasantly surprised when my student showed up, shopping bag of supplies in tow.  She put a cotton cobweb full of spiders around my doorframe, and together we found the perfect place to hang the mini-skeleton she had brought.

It doesn't sound like much, but it made my day.  Hell, it made my month.  There is a lot of negativity in the teaching profession, and don't get me wrong, I can be as jaded as the next guy.  But I'll tell ya, all it takes is one kid to care.  The decorations aren't much, but my room has never looked better.    

Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Bird

This is banned books week.  The American Library Association has a list of the most challenged books of the decade, and I highly recommend checking it out.  If you're like me, the list will boggle your mind.  It's important to remember that there are still people out there who would censor some of the best books ever written.  A number of the bloggers I follow have written about their favorite banned books, and reading these posts has inspired me to write about the banned book that means the most to me.

To Kill a Mockingbird is my favorite book of all time-hands down-banned or otherwise.  I didn't read the book in school, which is surely an indictment of my education.  I read it on my own after graduating from the University of Wisconsin.  I read it over the course of a Western road trip with a good friend of mine, and it had an immediate, profound effect on me.  For my money, Atticus Finch is the best character in American literature. His integrity and perseverance in the face of evil still inspire me to this day. 

Then there's Scout.  Let's just say Jean Louise Finch made quite an impression on me.  When the doctor told Meg and I that our first born was going to be a girl, I knew her name had to be Scout.  Luckily for me, Meg was amenable, and I have to say, our Scout embodies the spirit of her namesake.

I think the main reason people have tried to ban Mockingbird is because of racist language, particularly, use of the n word.  The language makes people uncomfortable, but that's the point. Harper Lee was shining a light on hatred and racism.  Yes, the n word is abhorrent, but to exclude it from a book set in Jim Crow Alabama would have been dishonest.  And that's the thing about To Kill a Mockingbird.  It is the most unflinchingly honest book I have ever read.

I make it a point to reread The Bird every year.  If you haven't read it in a while, maybe now is the time. 

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Double Digits

My oldest daughter, Scout, turned 10 today.  Double digits.  Hard to believe.  I have to admit, I have mixed emotions.  My heart swells with pride daily as I watch Scout grow and evolve, but my little girl isn't so little any more, the innocence of childhood beginning to slip away.  I think this was the most excited Scout has ever been about her birthday, and while her enthusiasm was infectious, there was definitely an underpinning of sadness.

Scout had very specific ideas for her party this year.  She chose to invite only her two closest friends.  In the time-honored tradition of kids everywhere, she initially wanted to have a sleepover.  After careful consideration, she decided a sleepover wasn't the way to go.  She reasoned that while sleepovers are great, you're asleep for most of it, not hanging out with your friends.  I was impressed with the logic.  Instead, she wanted to spend an entire day with her friends.

Scout planned the whole day, and it was a blast.  The girls came over Saturday morning around 10:30, and they hung out for a while, doing 10 year old girl things.  We had lunch at Little Anthony's, a fun 50s style diner, and then we went to see Legend of the Guardians.  After the movie we came back to the house for swimming, lemon meringue pie, and of course, presents.  Scout had a look of pure joy on her face all day.  It was the look of a kid whose plan was working to perfection.

Today was a typically busy Tuesday for the Rileys, but we squeezed in birthday touches all day.  I gave Scout a lengthy birthday piggyback ride this morning to get things started.  There were birthday treats at school and at dance class.  We had Scout's favorite, Panda Express, for dinner, followed by family presents, and we finished things off with ice cream bars at soccer practice.

Pretty great birthday I'd say.  I just went to check on Scout and she's still awake, well past her normal bedtime.  She said she doesn't want to go to sleep because she doesn't want her birthday to end.  In a way, I think her feelings are similar to mine right now.  We both want something to last that by its very nature must end.      

Friday, September 24, 2010

Funny because it's true

Back when I was a student at the University of Wisconsin, The Onion was a fledgling student newspaper. Like most Badgers of my era, I spent a good deal of class time sneaking a peek at The Onion, trying not to lose it. I've been a fan ever since. My brother sent this clip a while back, and I just rediscovered it when I was cleaning out my inbox. I can't figure out how to embed the video correctly, so just click the link for a good laugh. Glad to see The Onion hasn't abandoned its Sconnie roots.
Packers fan announces he will return to drinking

Monday, September 20, 2010

Fall in the Desert

It is still ridiculously hot here in the desert.  It's probably 100 degrees as I write this at 9:00 P.M.  I was talking to a friend in Madison this past Saturday night; he was turning the heat on in his car, and I was about to jump in my pool.  In fact, I'm going to jump in the pool after I finish this post.  All this heat almost makes me pine for winter - almost.

Despite the heat, this past weekend was a blast.  We had our first soccer games, and the girls were outstanding.  Meg coaches Quinn's team, and she definitely has her work cut out for her.  Lots of standing around, watching the ball go right by.  Quinn is a stud on the pitch.  She scored a goal, and was generally all over the field, wreaking havoc.  I coach Scout's team with a buddy of mine, and we easily won our first game 5-0.  Scout is very dependable, so we usually keep her on defense.  She's so fast, even if the ball gets by her, she can easily recover.  We let her play forward for a quarter, and she took full advantage.  She scored a goal, and she made an amazing crossing pass to a wide open teammate.  The ref called offside, but the skill of the pass was undeniable.  Overall, great beginning for both girls, looking forward to a fun season.

Fall, of course, means football, real and fantasy.  My Badgers are still undefeated, but more underwhelming by the game.  My high hopes for the season are sinking rapidly.  The Packers are off to a quick 2-0 start, and while they haven't looked that great either, I think their best is still to come.  Unlike a certain team with an elderly quarterback who probably should have stayed on his tractor.  My fantasy football is not going well at all.  I'm 0-2 in both of my leagues.  One of my teams, the Desert Lombardis, looks particularly pathetic.  It's early, things can still turn around, but I'm not holding my breath.

Soccer and football make the fall a great time of year.  Now we just need the heat to finally break.  On that note, time to get in the pool.        

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Parents These Days

It's my job to get the girls to school.  On time.  Not to brag, but 4 years in, not a single tardy.  Every day I see the same parents show up late, frantically running with their kids.  I have to resist the urge to tell them they're already late, save the energy.  Every day I have the same thought: what the hell is wrong with these people?  Get your kids to school on time!

On the way back to my car today, I overheard two of these habitually late parents commiserating.  One parent was complaining she couldn't get her son to school on time because he wouldn't stop playing his DS. The other parent said his problem was TV.  I was this close to stopping.  Instead, I contented myself with visualizing the verbal smack down that wasn't.

Excuse me, I couldn't help overhearing your conversation, and I've noticed that you have a hard time getting to school on time.  If I may be so bold.  Addressing the woman: take the damn DS away, and watch how fast little Johnny gets his act together.  Now turning to the man: And you sir, the television has an off button, you might want to figure out where it is.  My head now oscillating between the two:  If the problem persists, might I suggest a sledgehammer.              

Tuesday, September 7, 2010


It took me 41 years, but I finally made it to Vegas over Labor Day weekend.  The drive from Tucson to Vegas is quite beautiful, so the 7 hours went by quickly.  I particularly enjoyed a scenic stretch of road north of Wickenburg, AZ.  Joshua trees filled the desert for miles, the perfect setting to listen to a little U2.  There were warnings of long delays at the Hoover Dam, so that will have to wait for the next trip.

This trip was centered around Wisconsin football.  The Badgers opened their season against UNLV, and I was just one of many using the game as an excuse to get together with friends for a long weekend.  The Badgers easily won the game, but a lot of people lost money when they failed to cover the spread.  The spread was 20.5, and the Badgers won by 20.  If you know anything about sports gambling, those half points are notorious.  I didn't have any money on the Badger game, but I did go 3-5 on my college football bets.  I promptly gave my meager winnings right back at the blackjack table, but I managed to get out of town without breaking the bank.

Sunday night was the highlight of the trip.  The Krieghoffs and I went to see The Beatles LOVE at the Mirage.  It was a perfect combination of Beatles music and the acrobatic spectacle typical of the Cirque du Soleil shows.  The storyline was a little vague, but the athleticism and artistry of the performance was amazing.  It was a great way to end the weekend.

Vegas seems best in small doses, and I was more than ready to hit the road yesterday.  I rolled out of town blasting the killers, Vegas finally under my belt.  Now that I have the lay of the land, I can definitely see doing a family trip to Vegas.

Of course, sometimes the best part of going away is coming home.  The girls had Welcome Home signs all over the house, and not much beats hearing your kids scream, "Dad's home!"

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Right to Make Me Uncomfortable

I was a political science major at the University of Wisconsin.  I've always enjoyed a good political debate, but lately the tenor of political discussion has become so vile, I find myself becoming apolitical.  It's all ranting and raving.  If you're a republican, you can't possibly take seriously what a democrat has to say, and vice versa.  Working with someone from the other party is considered weakness.   This makes me sad.  It strikes me as profoundly unAmerican.  The media is to blame for much of the animosity.  I guess people trying to belittle each other makes money.

I'm trying to avoid politics more and more, but I can't get a couple things off my mind this weekend, and I think they're related.  First of all, the whole debate about the mosque near Ground Zero.  I'm glad our President spoke out in defense of religious freedom.  Frankly, if he hadn't, I would have been incredibly disappointed.  Religious freedom is one of the founding principles of our nation, and if our leader can't defend it because it's politically unpopular, then we have a serious problem.  Having said that, I sincerely hope the mosque isn't built, it just doesn't seem like the right thing to do.

I also take issue with went down yesterday in D.C.  I'm not going to lie, I can't stand Glenn Beck.  I believe he is a hateful man masquerading as a compassionate one.  For him to hold a rally on the anniversary of Dr. King's historic moment strikes me as crass and egomaniacal.  He talks about taking America back, like those of us who disagree with him aren't American enough.  The man is shameless.  Having said that, I'm glad Mr. Beck had his rally.  It is his constitutional right, and I will defend it every bit as much as I will defend the rights of Muslims to build a place of worship.  

A mosque near Ground Zero makes me uncomfortable.  Glenn Beck channeling Dr. King makes me uncomfortable.  You know what?  Tough.  As citizens, we don't have the right to be comfortable all the time.  Too many of my fellow citizens have confused their comfort with rights, and it's making a mockery of our principles.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Leonard Smalls vs. Anton Chigurh

I'm a huge Coen brothers fan.  The Big Lebowski is my all-time favorite movie, but that's not what I want to write about.  I recently watched Raising Arizona again, and I couldn't help noticing some striking similarities to another Coen film: No Country for Old Men.  If you've seen both of these films, the comparison may seem like a stretch, but I've been thinking about this a lot the past couple weeks (just ask my wife), and not only do I think the films are eerily similar, I think a case can made that they are essentially the same movie.  For the record, I don't consider that a bad thing.  In fact, I think it's genius.

Both films have the same basic premise.  The protagonist takes something that doesn't belong to him, and then is relentlessly pursued by a demonic antagonist.  The Coens deftly use both Leonard Smalls and Anton Chigurh as symbols.

You don't have to be a film expert to realize these two characters represent pure evil.  On a deeper level, the Coens use the bounty hunter and the hitman to symbolize the evil of the times, which happens to be the 80s in both films, catching up with America.  Or something like that.  The Coens do love their symbolism.  I'm certainly open to other interpretations.

There are other, smaller similarities as well.  Both movies are set in the desert Southwest.  Both films have friendly police officers, and finally, both movies feature lengthy scenes with dogs chasing the protagonist.  There are more, but you get the point.

Now, having tried to make the case that Raising Arizona and No Country for Old Men are basically the same movie, I want to give the Coens their due.  These cats are auteurs, so I'm pretty sure they did it on purpose.  Even though the films are quite similar, the tone is completely different.  Raising Arizona was made pre 9/11, and the movie is essentially a comedy.  NCFOM was made post 9/11, and it is most definitely not a comedy, unless you tend to the very dark.  I have a feeling the Coens made the same movie to illustrate how different our world has become.

Of course, this could all be complete nonsense.  I can't help myself.  I watched a lot of Siskel and Ebert growing up.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

School and Favreball

The first week of school is in the books.  Even though my class sizes are bigger, it feels like a good group of kids, much better vibe than last year.  We're still in the honeymoon period, but my instincts are usually pretty good.

I actually had a first this year.  I always start out with student interviews.  The kids interview a classmate and then they present that person to the whole class.  I realize this is a nerve-wracking experience for the kids, so I offer extra credit if they volunteer to come up.  I've never had an entire class volunteer until this year.  Just one of many signs that have me cautiously optimistic.

With school back in session, that means the football season is right around the corner.  I've written about Brett Favre before, but in honor of his 20th season, I thought I'd say a few things about the ol' gunslinger.

I'm glad Favre's back.  Love him or hate him, the guy is flat-out entertaining.  Favre and the Vikings put a beat down on the Packers last year, and if the Packers want to be a serious Super Bowl contender they need to beat Minnesota with #4 under center.  I'm sure Favre will play well, he always does.  Just remember Vikings fans, the plot may change somewhat, but the ending with Favre is always the same.  Heartbreak City.  If you're like me, you'll love him anyway.    

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Road

Cormac McCarthy's The Road was one of the most profound reading experiences of my life.  I'm not ashamed to admit that I was moved to tears, and more than once.  The Road is right up there with To Kill a Mockingbird in my personal pantheon.  The amazing thing about the book is that it works on so many levels.  On one level it's a simple, and undeniably bleak, story of a Father and son trying to survive a post-apocalyptic wasteland.   Go a little deeper, and there is a beautiful and incredibly powerful theme at work.  No matter how bad things are, every minute we spend with loved ones is to be valued and fought for.  In the end, what else is there?  At it's deepest level, The Road is a commentary on the times.  McCarthy illustrates how hard it is to keep the fire with so much evil lurking in the world, and yet, in the end, if we follow the road, there is a way.  Sorry to go all literary there, but I love this book.  Don't take my word for it, Mr. McCarthy won a little thing called the Pulitzer Prize for his efforts.

I wanted to see the movie when it came out last year, but Meg isn't a fan of the whole post-apocalyptic thing.  Meg and Scout were at a Girl Scout camp Saturday night, so I picked up the DVD.  McCarthy has had a number of his books made into excellent films (No Country for Old Men is a classic), but I wasn't sure if The Road would translate as well.  When you love the book, the movie can often be disappointing.  The movie isn't on the same level as the book, but I definitely wasn't disappointed.  I love Viggo Mortensen, and his spot-on portrayal of the Dad makes this movie worth watching.  The Road isn't for everyone, but it is a powerful film in it's own right.    

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Mixed Emotions

School starts tomorrow, and I have conflicting emotions.  As a teacher, I'm ready for the challenge of another year.  As a parent, I will dearly miss spending so much quality time with the girls.

Last year was the most difficult of my teaching career.  It was my first year at a new school, and in an attempt to fit in, I dialed it down, particularly in the classroom.  I like to describe my teaching style as a cross between Bobby Knight and Father Flanagan.  I kept Bobby bottled up, and Father Flanagan got his butt kicked.  I may not go as far as throwing chairs across the room, but to be truly effective, I need to let the inner Bobby out every once in a while.  After a lot of reflection this summer, I had to admit to myself that the fire, the Bobby, just wasn't there last year.  I won't make that mistake again.  I'm challenging myself to teach with that fire this year.  My students deserve it, and I won't let them down.

On the flip side, I hate to see this summer end.  This really has been one of the best summers of my life.  June was all about lazy days: playing games, reading, swimming, watching movies, taking naps, just being together.  July was an action-packed month of travel, family, and friends.  August has been about integrating Riley into our family.  I am incredibly grateful for the time we've had, but selfishly, I want more.        

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

New Addition

Meet the newest member of the Riley family - Riley.  That's right, Riley Riley.  No, we didn't name her, she's adopted.    

Before going up North this summer, Meg and I told the girls we would look into getting a dog when we got back.  Meg and the girls scoured throughout July, and they fell in love with two dogs in particular, one of them being Riley.  Things came together quickly once we got home.  Riley was in foster care in Tempe, and as it turns out, we were going up to Tempe for a feis on Saturday.  We arranged to meet her before the feis, and we picked her up on the way home.

When Goldie passed away last February, I knew it was only a matter of time before we got another dog. The girls were persistent, but this isn't a case of the parents folding.  Meg and I grew up with dogs, we've raised the girls with dogs, I guess we're just dog people.  I did have my doubts, but something Scout said wiped them all away.  "It's like having a best friend who never leaves!"  So there you have it, my little girls have a new best friend.          

Friday, August 6, 2010


The Rileys picked up a new hobby in Minnesota.  It's called geocaching, and it's a great family activity.  Shout out to Aunty Jody for introducing us. 

Geocaching is basically a modern treasure hunt.  Yon can sign up for a free membership at, and you're off and running.  Punch in any address, and a map will show you all the caches in the surrounding area.  With over a million caches worldwide, there will be plenty.  Each cache, or container, has coordinates, so you do need a GPS device.  We used the Garmin my dad gave me for Christmas, and it worked just fine.

Plug in the coordinates, and your GPS will take you right to the area.  The caches come in all sizes, and they're hidden, often in difficult terrain, so finding the container itself can be challenging.  When you find one there is a real sense of accomplishment.  Here are the girls looking mighty proud after finding a cache today.  It was cleverly hidden at the base of the Palo Verde tree in the background.  We were out for about an hour today, and we found three caches.

Each cache has a log book to sign, and some have little trinkets you can take, but only if you leave something else behind.  There may also be a travel bug.  These are little dog tags that people buy through the website and attach to an object.  We've already found two, one attached to a Lego Indiana Jones, and the other attached to a mini surfboard.  If you find a travel bug, you can take it and put it in the next cache you find.  Travel bugs have a tracking number, so you can follow where they go online.

Each geocaching excursion is logged online, even unsuccessful attempts, so the creator of the cache can see what's going on.  That's the next step for packoriles (our geocache name), hiding our own cache.  It's ready to go, we just need to figure out the best place to hide it.  The girls are looking forward to seeing what kinds of things people leave behind.  I'm looking forward to all the time we'll spend as a family with our new hobby.      

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Opportunity Knocks

After 35 days on the road, we finally made it home, albeit a little later than originally planned.  Our flight was overbooked, so we took a bump.  We weren’t on a schedule, so we couldn’t pass up the $300 vouchers.  That’s $300 per person, $1200 total=NO BRAINER.

We were perfectly content to stay in a hotel and fly back in the morning.  In fact, the girls were down right giddy about the idea.  They weren’t exactly itching to leave this morning, so anything to extend the trip was fine by them.  They’ve already decided that we’ll use the vouchers to go see their cousins in Portland.   They wanted to get bumped again, but alas, no such luck. 

I heard the agent trying to get some other people on the last flight to Tucson, so I figured it couldn’t hurt to ask if we could squeeze on as well.  Turns out there were some empty seats, so we made it home by 10:30.  In my mind the Rileys made a cool $1200 for spending an extra three hours in the friendly confines of the Dallas/Fort Worth airport.

In my last post I wrote about the girls learning first hand that sometimes the most rewarding experiences of travel happen off the beaten path.  I think they learned another valuable travel lesson today.  Be flexible on the road, you never know when opportunity will present itself.  Well, that, and never pass up free plane tickets.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Off the Beaten Path

Our trip is winding down, a few more days with Auntie Jody in Minneapolis and then back to Tucson on Tuesday.  As usual, we thoroughly enjoyed our time in Madison with the Krieghoffs.  We got our shopping fix on State Street, and of course, ice cream at the Union.  There are now two Big Chairs, and the girls chose to take their requisite Union photo on the new one, gets the lake in the background.  We did a little more campus this year, walked up Bascom Hill, and then ended our extended tour at the Lakeshore dorms.

The highlight of Madison this year was the show the girls put on for us our last night.  My goddaughter, Carlen, choreographed dances to 6 or 7 pop songs, and after the girls got the giggles out, the performance was actually pretty impressive.  We've had a number of these shows over the years, but this year's was by far the best.  I recorded the whole thing, so I can bust it out any time I need to properly embarrass the girls.

The drive from Madison to Minneapolis is usually nothing to write home about it, or in this case, blog about, but this year was a little different.  While flipping through radio stations, we came across a show on public radio about tourism in Wisconsin.  A woman called in and raved about a graveyard of wacky fiberglass animals and shapes at the F.A.S.T. Corporation in Sparta, Wi.  Meg was intrigued and checked the map.  When we realized we were only a short detour away, we decided to check it out.

The graveyard is full of fiberglass animals and shapes, the kinds of things you see at water parks, restaurants, cheesy tourist sites.  The place reminded me of a Midwestern island of misfit toys.  We walked around for a bit, took a bunch of pictures, then hopped back on the interstate.  It may not sound like much, but we went off the beaten path as a family, and I have a feeling this little stop will be remembered for a long time.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Raft

In my last post I alluded to a big development at the beach this summer.  The beach at Eagle Harbor has a raft floating about 50 yards off shore.  It's always been my job to escort the girls out there.  It's one of those little things you do as a Dad that make you feel useful and appreciated.  On our first visit to the beach this summer, I was more than happy to fulfill my fatherly duty when the call came.

Turns out there wasn't much for me to do.  Scout can easily walk out now, and what Quinn can't walk, she can easily swim.  It struck me that my presence, while perhaps comforting, may not actually be necessary.  It took the girls a few more days to figure this out for themselves, but eventually the question came: can we go out to the raft by ourselves?  Meg and I had already discussed this of course, but we acted the part of deliberating parents before saying yes.  The girls had the look of kids who are fairly certain they'll be shot down, but it's their duty as kids to ask anyway.  Their little faces lit up as it sank in that they'd actually been given the green light, and they were off.

The girls made it easily, like I knew they would.  I smiled, swelling with pride, as they jumped off the raft, over and over, the thrill of independence floating back to me on their laughter.  As I kept watching the girls, it dawned on me, this won't be the last time they figure out they don't need the old man.  Letting go is only going to get harder, and in that moment, I was grateful for the practice.   

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Family Time

Meg’s parents left Friday morning, ending two great weeks of family time at the cottage. We head to Madison on Thursday, so we have the place to ourselves for a while. Kind of a bittersweet deal: nice to have some time alone here, but we miss having everyone around. I think it would be better to have our time on the front end, then leave with everyone else.

The first week was full-on family, very action-packed. We kicked things off on the 3rd with the annual Popeye Run. Meg and I haven’t been running lately, so we didn’t do the 10k this year. I “ran” the 5k, finishing in 29:52. You know you’re slow when a 6 year old leaves you in her dust. In a first, Scout and Quinn walked the 5k. I suppose it won’t be long before the girls are running the 5k, and then ultimately the 10k. I’m sure they’ll bury the old man too.

The 4th of July is always great up here, classic small town Americana. The festivities kick off with a parade. The kids wear costumes, and at the end of the parade, they present themselves before judges, who will create an award for each kid, thus earning them a nifty $5. When the cousins are together we try to do a theme, this year’s being Star Wars. Check 'em out: Queen Amidala, Princess Leia, Luke Skywalker, and Obi Wan Kenobi.

After the parade, everyone meanders over to the ball yard (you could say “park" but the more old-timey the better around here) for an afternoon of games. It was really hot this year, so by the time the rolling pin toss was done, we were ready to hightail it back to the cottage for a dip in the watermelon hole. The icy waters of Lake Superior never felt so good.

The weather was great the rest of the week, so we spent a lot of time at the beach. The highlight for me was the afternoon we spent trying to body surf at Great Sand Bay. As far as the kids were concerned, it was just as good as being at the ocean. There was a big development at the beach this year, but I want to save that for it’s own post.

Scout and Quinn tried waterskiing last summer for the first time, but they weren’t able to get up. They tried again this year, and they did really well. They never got very far before falling off, but they made huge strides from last year. I bet next year they’ll be all over the Harbor. That means more time on the water for Big Dad, which will definitely make him happy.

Meg’s dad loves to be on the water, and his granddaughters love to be in the boat with their Big Dad. We usually just cruise the Harbor, with a quick run out to the bell buoy mixed in. The best boat ride this year was on the last day with the cousins. We went down to Silver Island to do a little exploring. We hiked around for a while and ended the excursion by jumping off the rocks into the lake. It was a great way to send the cousins off.

In between all the action, there’s still plenty of down time to enjoy. We play a lot of games, take long walks, read, take naps, just sit around and chat. Our time at Eagle Harbor is the perfect combination of action and relaxation. The whole experience is very restorative. The other night Meg and I were taking a walk after dinner, and she summed it up perfectly. The images of Eagle Harbor, the old ones that are updated and the new ones that get added, make it easier to deal with life in the real world-until we can make it back. I feel very fortunate to have a place like this in my life.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Take Me Out To The Ballgame

It’s hard to blog from the road, so I’ve decided to break our summer trip into manageable segments. The first segment is the shortest, just the first couple days.

June 30th was a travel day, and even though we had to sit on the runway in Tucson for an hour and a half, we made our connection. I was very impressed by how well the girls handled the delay. It was pretty late when we got to Aunty Jody’s house, so it was straight to bed for the Rileys.

Meg’s sister and her family got in the next morning, and the cousins got right to it. My brother-in-law and I took the two older girls to a Twins game. The new ballpark is as good as advertised, but they might want to beef up security. A pretty nasty fight broke out in our section, one drunk guy using the other drunk guy’s face as a punching bag. These were big dudes and no one was doing anything to break it up. For a second I thought Tom and I might have to get in there, but thankfully someone beat us to it. The “security“ that finally showed up was some old guy, no way in hell he was going to help. He didn’t even have a radio to call for back up. I never did see a police officer, which I found more than a little odd. I’ve been to a lot of sporting events, at a good number of stadiums across the country; I’ve never seen a situation in the crowd so poorly managed.

Both of the brawlers left bloodied, although I think it was all one guy’s blood. I was worried the girls would be traumatized, but they quickly turned the whole thing into a game, creating possible conversations between the two guys, always ending with “and then they started fighting.” Pretty damn funny actually. The game was quite exciting, but the Twins blew a lead in the ninth and ultimately lost in the 10th. The best part of the whole night was working with Scout to fill out the scorecard. If you’re taking a kid to a baseball game, forget all the fancy souvenirs. Just get a scorecard, spend the whole game talking with your kid about baseball, it really makes the experience.

That brings us to July 2nd, another travel day. The drive from Minneapolis to Eagle Harbor, Michigan, takes 8-9 hours with the kids, but it never feels that long. I love driving through northern Wisconsin, close to my roots kind of thing. Eagle Harbor is a pretty remote place, especially if you’re coming from the Sonoran Desert. Not a lot of internet access here on the Keewenaw Peninsula, but the one restaurant in town does have wi-fi access this year. We’ve been told you can sit in the parking lot and patch in. I can’t decide if this is a good thing.