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?