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.