Saturday, April 30, 2011

Z is for.....

Z is for.....Zoo

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

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

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

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

Well folks, there you have it, the last post of the A-Z Blogging Challenge. Thanks to everyone for reading and commenting. The feedback has been awesome and greatly appreciated. The Challenge was a lot of fun, but I'll be glad to get back to a more sustainable blogging schedule, probably a couple times a week kind of thing. The hosts of A-Z have a reflection post scheduled for May 2, so I'll share more thoughts then. Again, thanks to everyone for making this challenge a rewarding experience.      

Friday, April 29, 2011

Y is for.....

Y is for.....Yoda.

I wouldn't call myself a full-fledged Stars War geek, but there are tendencies. I can't tell you the names of all the creatures in the cantina scene or anything, but I will gladly proclaim my love for Yoda.

I have a giant Yoda poster in my classroom. I tell my students that Yoda sees all and gladly informs me of any wrongdoing I might miss. I also have a few Yodas strategically placed around the class. One is a Yoda Magic 8 Ball, and every so often I'll let the kids ask Yoda some questions. I may or may not answer those questions in a lame Yoda voice. We have a few Yodas around the house as well, and I'm proud to say my daughters love the wise green one as much as I do.

George Lucas gave us two very different Yodas. The Yoda of the original trilogy is broken down, barely able to lift Luke's ship out of the swamp.

The Yoda in the prequel triology is an ass-kicking whirling dervish.

It was pretty cool to see Yoda bust out the light saber and mad fighting skills, but when push comes to shove, I have to go with the original Yoda.

Last summer I discovered a new version of Yoda. Origami Yoda.

This Yoda plays a prominent role in Tom Angleberger's great book The Strange Case of Origami Yoda. The book 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 ideal for 3rd-6th graders, and their parents of course.

Original Yoda, prequel Yoda, and yes, even origami Yoda. What's not to love? 

Thursday, April 28, 2011

X is for.....

X is for.....Xenophobia.

When I decided to do the A-Z Challenge, I made a list of the alphabet and wrote ideas for each letter. Some letters were easy, some where hard. I had multiple ideas for certain letters and none for others.

The one letter that never caused me a single problem was X. That's right - X. Sounds weird you say? There aren't many X words, certainly not good ones for this type of exercise. Well, I live in Arizona. 'Nuff said.

I had grandiose plans to write a searing 5 paragraph essay about xenophobia. The history of xenophobia in America. The recent xenophobic leanings of my adopted state. A systematic approach to wiping out xenophobia in American politics. I'm pretty sure it was going to be great. But then I came across this clip from The Daily Show, and I figured this would be a lot more fun.

It's about a year old now, but sadly, with our legislature obsessed with birth certificates and the like, the general point still applies.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

W is for.....

W is for.....Writing.

The writing bug hit me a couple years ago. I started working on a book in June of '09, and the plan is to finish the first draft this June. Two years may strike a lot of writers as way too long for a first draft, but it is what it is. I'm still working on the discipline thing, but I also don't want to make writing a chore. Writing is fun, and I want to keep it that way. For comparison, I'd love to hear how long other people have taken on first drafts.

I did take a break from the book to write a short story. A funny thing happened and it struck me as worth writing about. I'd read that writers are always working on more than one thing at a time, so I figured it was OK. I've sent the story out to a few places, but so far, no luck. Like they say, you're not a writer until you've been rejected. I would like to dedicate some more time to sending the story out. That's a pice of the writing process I hadn't really thought about, the work of getting something published. My goal is to spend a chunk of time this summer getting the story out to as many publications as possible. That way I'll feel like I gave the story a chance.

There is one other reason the book is taking so long. THE BLOG. I'd read somewhere or heard somewhere that writers need to have an online presence. This made sense, so I started the blog in January of 2010. I thought it would be a nice break from the book, while sticking to my goal of writing every day. I know I spend too much time on the blog, time I could be working on the book. I have to go back to the fun thing. The blog is fun. It may not be a book or even a short story, but it is writing. People are reading (thank you very much) what I write and giving feedback with comments. Seems to me that's what writing is all about.

Who knows where it all leads. If anywhere. Does there have to be a destination? Eventually I'll look for an agent, try the traditional publishing route. If that doesn't work there's always self-publishing. Either way, the odds of making any real money as a writer are long. I may never be able to quit my job and write full-time, but as long as I'm having fun, I'll keep writing.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

V is for.....

V is for.....Vincent Vega.

This post is for all the Quentin Tarantino fans out there. I was blown away when I saw Pulp Fiction for the first time. The nonlinear storytelling felt exciting and new. Pulp Fiction was cinematic and literary at the same time. I read recently that Jennifer Egan, who just won the Pulitzer for A Visit From the Goon Squad, was inspired by Tarantino's narrative structure. I'm sure she wasn't the only writer inspired by Pulp Fiction

There are so many great characters in Pulp Fiction, it's hard to pick a favorite. I particularly loved Travolta's performance as Vincent Vega. Here's an interesting bit of movie trivia for you. Tarantino initially wanted Michael Madsen to play Vincent. Madsen had played Vic Vega (Vince's brother) in Reservoir Dogs, but he passed to be in Wyatt Earp. I bet there's not a day that goes by that Madsen doesn't regret that decision. I liked Madsen in RD, and I'm sure he would have done a great job with Vincent, but it's hard to imagine anyone doing a better job than Travolta.
Vincent and Jules are the heart of the movie, and their scenes together are full of hilarious, spot-on dialogue. My favorite Vincent scene though is when Vincent stabs Mia Wallace in the heart with that wicked needle. We're talkin' cinematic genius. 

So what do you think Pulp fans? Which character is your favorite? Which scene stands out the most for you? 

Monday, April 25, 2011

U is for.....

U is for.....U2.

Like a lot of people of my generation, I fell in love with U2 in the early 80s. I was a little young to be fully on board when Boy and October came out, but U2's third album, War, was a musical turning point in my life. I remember seeing the videos for New Year's Day and Sunday Bloody Sunday on MTV, and I was hooked. From that point on, the music of U2 has been like a soundtrack to my life.

I've seen U2 live three times in my life. The first show was in 1992 at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison. It was right before I left Madison for Minneapolis. The songs of Achtung Baby always remind me of that transitional time in my life. The second show was in Phoenix in 2000. Meg and I were new parents, and it was our first night away from Scout. It was after 9/11, and near the end of the show the names of all those who died in the towers scrolled down the huge screen. The emotion in the building was palpable; it was a night I'll never forget. The third show was in Phoenix again, last October. I'm not a huge fan of the latest album, but it was a fun show. We were on the floor of the football stadium, and I remember looking up through the open roof at a beautiful star-filled sky as I listened to songs that took me back in time. Me and 70,000 other people.

When I decided on U2 for this post, I got to thinking about my favorite U2 songs. The U2 catalog is full of classic songs, a perfect repertoire for a nice little top ten list. Ask me to name my top ten U2 songs another day, and I might come up with a completely different list. As I sit here writing, these are the songs that make the cut.

10) Where The Streets Have No Name
9) I Will Follow
8) One Tree Hill
7) Ultraviolet
6) Bad
5) With Or Without You
4) Sunday Bloody Sunday
3) Beautiful Day
2) One
1) Pride (In The Name Of Love)

If you're a U2 fan, let me know your top 3 in the comments. Concert stories would be good too. If you're not a U2 fan, what band or musician has provided the soundtrack of your life?

Saturday, April 23, 2011

T is for.....

T is for.....Teaching.

I've been teaching for 15 years now. I started out teaching at an alternative high school in Minneapolis. That was a wild three years, but it was an extremely rewarding experience, and really, nothing shocks me after all the craziness I had to deal with in that job.

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

I've been successful in my career at raising test scores and two years ago I was offered a chance to participate in a federal study to see if teachers who get positive test results in one school can replicate that success in underperforming schools. There was a bonus involved, and I made the move. Last year was probably the worst year of my teaching career. I was seriously second-guessing my decision. Fortunately, this year has been the complete opposite, reaffirming my love of teaching, perhaps making it stronger than ever.

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

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

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

I took Scout and Quinn to the middle school city track meet last Saturday. I wanted to support my students who were competing. Right before I left, a former student came up to say hello. Here was a young man, now 21, who I had taught years ago. He told me what he was doing with himself, and then he surprised the hell out of me. He thanked me for teaching him how to write. He said he learned to love writing in my class, and he was really happy to have the chance to thank me.

That's what teaching is all about.

Friday, April 22, 2011

S is for.....

S is for.....Scout.

I have two daughters, Quinn and Scout. Quinn was the inspiration for my Q post the other day, which means today has to be Scout's day. It was hard to choose just one picture, but this one just feels like Scout.

When Meg and I found out we were having a girl, it didn't take long for us to decide on a name. We both love To Kill a Mockingbird, and when I suggested Scout, Meg was game. It's funny, Scout is very much like her namesake: adventurous, smart, inquisitive, kind, wise. Scout may be an unusual name, but it fits her perfectly.

Scout is a voracious reader. The kid reads so much, sometimes I'm surprised there are still books she hasn't read. Seriously. We go to the library at least once a week, and Scout always checks out a huge stack of books. For Christmas this year all Scout wanted was Borders and Barnes and Noble gift cards so she could buy new books. I love coming across Scout in one of her many reading spots in the house. Years from now, certain places in our house will remind me of her.  

Scout is a kid with inner strength, more than she even knows. Life is quickly providing opportunities for Scout to figure out how strong she really is. One opportunity came on the soccer field this past season. Scout took a nasty fall in a game. I coached the team, so once I was sure she was physically OK, I asked her if she wanted to stay in. She said she did, so I kept her in the game. Later in the same quarter, one of her teammates blasted a ball that hit Scout square in the face. I could see the impact knock the wind out of her. As I ran out to make sure she was OK, I figured she'd have to come out of the game. Once she calmed down though, she wanted to stay in. I was reluctant, but I let her keep playing. I thought Scout might be tentative, but she was her usual aggressive self. Scout scored two goals in a span of ten minutes, and I simply could not have been more proud.

Another opportunity came at an Irish dancing competition. Scout fell during one of her dances. She popped right back up, and without missing a beat, kept right on going. She had to stay on stage for two more dances, and I was worried she might be too rattled to do her best. She kept her composure and danced them both beautifully. I was incredibly impressed, but hey, I'm the Dad. Apparently the judge saw what I saw. Despite the fall, Scout won that first dance, and she took first and second in the other two. 

That's what comes to mind when I think of Scout. A kid who falls down, picks herself up, dusts herself off, and keeps going. A kid finding her inner strength and learning she can do whatever she sets her mind to do. I can't wait to see where she sets her sights.  

Thursday, April 21, 2011

R is for.....

R is for.....Regret.

I'm not typically someone who spends much time with regret. For better or worse, I've learned to live with the consequences of my actions. I think my life playing and watching sports has helped me escape the grip of regret. Athletes learn early on that you make mistakes during games, and you certainly don't win them all. You can't hang your head, dwell on the play or game that went wrong. You need to get ready for the next play, next game, and give it 100%.

This isn't to say that I never think about my mistakes. I absolutely do. I use my mistakes to inform future decisions all the time. I just don't beat myself up. Every bad decision was made with the best of intentions, and I've tried to learn from every mistake. If I regretted every bad decision I've ever made, my life would be pretty miserable. Instead, I embrace the opportunity to grow from my mistakes. I'll hang out with regret for a little while, but then it's game time and I've got to be ready.

Regrets are like old friends you don't see very often. You get together every once in a while to get caught up, but then you go your separate ways, hopefully made better by the experience. You see some friends more than others over time, and there are some decisions that you revisit more than others. One decision that frequently shows up for me was made right after I graduated from the University of Wisconsin.

I was working at a park in Madison, running a summer program for neighborhood kids. Two of the kids were from Italy. Their mom was from Madison and they were visiting for the summer. The boys really took to me because I made everyone play soccer with them. The boys knew about baseball from their mom, and they wanted to try it out, so we played a lot of baseball that summer as well. Right before the family left to go back to Italy, the boys' dad asked me if I would come to Italy for a year and start a baseball league in their town. I don't even remember the name of the place anymore, but when I think of it now, it's always the most idyllic town in the history of the world. They had a guesthouse I could stay in, they'd feed me, pay me a modest monthly salary. Looking back, this should have been a no-brainer.

This post is about regret, so obviously I declined the offer. I had my reasons, but in hindsight, they weren't good ones. I often think about that lost opportunity. Who knows, I could be an Italian hero by now, the man who brought baseball to Italy. I could have written a bestseller about my year teaching baseball under the Tuscan sun, that kind of thing. I'm not saying the course of my life would have been dramatically altered, but I'm pretty sure it would have been a really good time.

When this memory fights its way to the surface of my consciousness, I briefly regret my decision to pass up a year in Italy. The reasons that led to my decision seem foolish now, but they were legit at the time. That's the thing, our decisions may not make sense in retrospect, but they were probably the best thing for us at the time. I still haven't been to Italy, but I believe I'll get there when the time is right.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Q is for.....

Q is for.....Quinn.

I wasn't going to write about my kids for A-Z, but my mind just can't wrap itself around another word for Q. I had some other ideas for Q, but my heart just isn't in it. I hope I'm not turning people off by writing about my daughter, but when I think of the letter Q, it's hard for me not to think of this face.

Quinn, Quinny, Q-bird, just plain Q. It's hard to believe the little girl in the picture is 8 years old now. There are a million reasons why I'm crazy about this kid. I won't go on and on, just a few highlights.

If Quinn had a theme song it would be Iggy Pop's "Lust for Life." The girl is full-on, all the time. Quinn is a kid who can play outside in the backyard by herself for hours. She sings, dances, pretends to be on the phone, sits in the palo verde tree holding intense conversations with imaginary compatriots. It's hilarious and beautiful. Sometimes I just stand at the window and watch her out there. It always makes me smile, and it's inspiring.

Quinn is also a kid who cries hysterically whenever we see one of those help the animals commercials. I'm talking heaves, sobs. We can be flipping channels and just the slightest glimpse of one of these commercials sets her off. It's hard not to laugh sometimes, but then it's hard not to cry right along with her.

Quinn is a kid who dances all the time. She's been Irish dancing for a few years now, and she's always practicing her moves. Seriously, the girl doesn't stand still. If she's upright, she's doing one of her Irish dance moves. When she runs out of a room, she does it with steps from one dance or another. Quinn has even made me love a Katy Perry song with her dancing. She and a friend made up an Irish dance routine to Perry's "Firework," and I know I'll always love that song.

If you're still reading, thanks for putting up with the ramblings of a Dad who's head over heels for his kid. I'm sure there are a lot of great Q words I could have gone with for Q, but sometimes you just have to go with your heart.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

P is for.....

P is for.....Pixar.

Pixar movies are those rare gems that connect with people of all ages. I've watched all the Pixar movies with my daughters, and I'm not sure who loves them more, me or the girls. There is definitely a nostalgia factor in play with the Pixar movies for me, each movie evoking memories from specific times in my kids' lives.

But it's more than the nostalgia. The animation is stunning, and even more importantly, the stories are creative and well-crafted. Pixar has made 11 movies since 1995, and I love every single one of them. I also love making lists of movies, so here's how I would rank the Pixar movies.

1) Up
2) Finding Nemo
3) Monsters Inc.
4) Toy Story 3
5) A Bug's Life
6) Cars
7) Toy Story 2
8) Toy Story
9) The Incredibles
10) WALL E
11) Ratatouille

Let me know in the comments which Pixar movie is your favorite. I'll leave you with a video highlighting 25 years of Pixar brilliance. If you're anything like me, you may very well find yourself getting a little verklempt.

Monday, April 18, 2011

O is for.....

O is for....Owls.

I've always been fascinated by owls. I lived in Wisconsin and Minnesota for most of my life, and while I'm sure they were all around me, I never actually saw one in the wild until I moved to the desert. Now I see them all the time.

Our first house in Tucson was in the middle of town, so I didn't see any there. Our current house is on the outskirts of town, near a National Park. All the lots in our neighborhood are fairly large, with natural desert yards. We get a lot of owls out here.

I saw my first owl about a month after we moved in. I was turning off the lights outside when I noticed this little guy. He just sat there staring at me. I'm sure the poor guy was paralyzed with fear. I had plenty of time to get Meg and the camera. That was four years ago now, but my eyes still go to that spot every night when I close up, hoping for a return visit.

We see Great Horned Owls quite frequently. I don't have any pictures to share, but man, they are so cool. Our neighbors had this dead tree in their yard, and the Great Horneds loved to perch at the top, surveying the land for prey. They would just sit up there, hooting away. The neighbors took the tree down a while back, and unfortunately we don't see as many Great Horneds these days. 

I remember lying in bed one night and the hooting was particularly loud, it was like the owl was in the room with us. It sounded so close, we went outside to look for it. A giant Great Horned Owl was right on the old TV antenna directly over our bedroom. It was so cool we got the girls out of bed to check it out. 

This little guy is around so much we had to give him a name. We named him Horatio, but recently the girls decided we should add Papa to his name in honor of my dad. So now our little friend is Papa Horatio. I believe Papa Horatio is a Western Screech Owl. There's a hole in the brick he's on, and there are normally birds nesting there. Papa Horatio shows up every so often for a feast, hangs out for a while, and then he's gone. This owl spends so much time at our house, I've actually toyed with the idea of getting a falconer's glove and trying to train it. I told the girls I was thinking about training Papa Horatio one time and they nearly lost their minds laughing. Yeah, guess I'll just settle for taking pictures.    

Saturday, April 16, 2011

N is for.....

N is for.....New Zealand.

When I was 9 we welcomed an exchange student from New Zealand into our family. Steve lived with us for a year, and even though he was busy being a normal high schooler, he always made time for me. I've never forgotten the time he took me rollerskating. I felt like I had a big brother, and when Steve went home after a year of living with us, he was very much a member of our family.

That bond strengthened over the years. Steve came back to the US right after we moved to Green Bay. I was a sophomore in high school, and having a hard time adjusting to Green Bay. I really enjoyed having Steve around for a little while as I tried to find my place. Steve has always been a big music fan, and he brought me a copy of New Order's Blue Monday and a Joy Division T-shirt.  I had never heard of New Order or Joy Division, but I proudly wore the T-shirt to school. It was my interest in New Wave music that finally broke the ice for me at school. I'm not exactly sure how long Steve stayed with us that time, but for me his visit was perfectly timed.

Life carried on, and the next time I saw Steve was in Carson City, Nevada. My parents had moved out West when my dad found a new job, and I was living in Minneapolis by then. Steve had started his own family, and we happily welcomed Jo and their son, Connor, into our extended family.

In 1998, I was the first Riley to make it to New Zealand.  Meg and I went down over Christmas vacation for a couple weeks. Steve is a proud Kiwi, and he made sure we saw as much of New Zealand as possible in our short time. New Zealand is stunningly beautiful. Every time I thought I was looking at the most beautiful place on Earth, Steve would take us somewhere else, and I'd have a new top spot. The scenery was brilliant, but the best part of the trip was meeting Steve and Jo's family. I left New Zealand feeling like my own family had grown exponentially.

After having two more sons, Elan and Henry, and doing the family thing for a while, Steve and Jo couldn't fight their wanderlust anymore. Steve and Jo left the kids behind and came to the States with Steve's Uncle Paul and Auntie Carol. We had a great visit with them In Eagle Harbor, and then a classic night in Minneapolis. I'll never forget Paul and Carol busting a move to Hollaback Girl in First Ave.

The Kiwis value travel, and that was never more evident than a few years ago. Steve, Jo, and each of the kids picked a place they really wanted to see, and they set out on a family world tour. They went to the Great Barrier Reef, Siberia, Mongolia, Brazil, New York City, and they threw in a Tucson stop to see the Rileys.

My parents finally made it to New Zealand in 2009. My dad's health had been dicey for a while, but for those three weeks in New Zealand, he was full of energy and life. He was never really the same after that trip, but I'm glad his body gave him the chance to truly enjoy the experience. I think my parents had the same experience Meg and I did. They loved the spectacular beauty of New Zealand, but the best part was the people. They were among family.

Steve flew up for my dad's memorial service in January. He spoke eloquently at the service, sharing his unique impressions of my dad, a man he greatly admired. Steve ended his remarks by announcing that Jo and the boys had woken up at 6 that morning for a moment of silence to honor my dad. They didn't have to do that. Steve didn't have to come. That's just how it is with family.

And then last week, Steve's oldest son, Connor, called. He's taking a year off before university to travel. He'll come to Tucson in September, the next chapter in a long relationship. I can't wait to see what comes next.

Friday, April 15, 2011

M is for.....

M is for.....Movies

I was going to write an essay about the importance of movies in my life, highlight some of my all-time favs, that kind of thing. Then I had an idea: movies A-Z for the A-Z Challenge. I believe that's called synchronicity, and if it's not, well, anyway, here are some of my favorite movies A-Z. Good or bad, I loved them all.

=  Away We Go
=  Breaking Away
=  Chariots of Fire
=  Duma
=  Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
=   Finding Nemo
G =  Goodfellas
=  Hannah and her Sisters
=   Inception
=    Jerry Maguire
=  Kung Fu Panda
=   Little Miss Sunshine
= Midnight Run
=  No Country for Old Men
=  Once
=   Pulp Fiction
=  Quick Change
=  Raising Arizona
=   Signs
=  Tootsie
= Up
= Victory
WWonder Boys
= Xanadu
= Young Guns
=  Zoolander

I have a couple questions for you guys:

1) What's your favorite movie on this list?
2) If you could change one letter of my movie A-Z, what would it be?

Thursday, April 14, 2011

L is for.....

L is for.....Language Arts.

I teach 8th grade Language Arts. We don't call it English in middle school, it's Language Arts nowadays. Not sure why, but hey, I'm just a humble public servant. The powers that be can call my class whatever they want. Like my main man Will once said, "a rose by any other name would smell as sweet." Or something like that.

My job is to teach 13 and 14 year olds how to read and write better. This may come as a surprise to some, but a good majority of today's teenagers are not particularly excited about reading and writing. As if the gig isn't hard enough, many of my students come in working below grade level. I've got kids who read and write at a second grade level, 5th grade level, 8th grade level, 10th grade level, all in the same class. I have 125 students this year, and my challenge is to help them all improve. All this is to say, teaching kids to read and write is a daunting task.

There are days when it feels like it's all a big waste of time, like nothing I do makes a difference. My students are at a critical juncture. If they can't read and write, what chance do they have in this world? I try to have the kids read and write as much as I can, but I only have them for 50 minutes a day, a little more than 4 hours a week. Factor in all the absences and wasted time dealing with disruptive kids, and it's just not enough. Sometimes I feel like my job is impossible.

I can't give up though. It's just not in my makeup. I may have chosen a quixotic profession, but I love it. I love when a kid figures out how to correctly combine two sentences into one. I love when a kid volunteers to read out loud because he's finally confident he can do it. I love when a kid writes an essay with an obvious thesis statement and ideas to back it up. I love when a kid tells me the book we're reading in class is the best book she's ever read (thank you Hunger Games). I love when a kid who would make you cross the street writes a poem that can break your heart. These are the little victories that keep me going.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

K is for.....

K is for.....Kurt.

I remember the first time I heard "Smells Like Teen Spirit." I was driving to Minneapolis to visit friends and I heard it on the radio. It was like a sonic slap across the face. I had never connected to a song so immediately, and I don't think I have since. That was a musical moment of inception, the beginning of a long relationship with the music of Nirvana. I don't listen to Nirvana as much as I used to, but the songs still resonate with me.

I thought about Kurt a lot this past weekend. Meg and I were flipping channels Friday night and we came across a show about the Foo Fighters, the band formed by Dave Grohl after Kurt's death. There was quite a bit about the Nirvana days. Nirvana bassist, Krist Novoselic, played on one of the songs on the new album, and it was particularly poignant to watch Grohl and Novoselic make music without Kurt.  Saturday night I caught the Foo Fighters first song on Saturday Night Live. I'm not really a huge Foo Fighters fan, but there's no doubt Grohl is a talented guy. He writes catchy songs, and it sounds like he has another hit on his hands.

Kurt died in 1994. 17 years ago. Hard to believe. I remember the day they found Kurt dead in his Seattle home. I was teaching preschool in Minneapolis. A friend called me at work to break the news. I was devastated. It was hard to keep it together. I loved Nirvana, still do. I often wonder what kind of music Kurt would be making in these crazy times. I miss Kurt Cobain.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

J is for.....

J is for.....Javelina

Though some people think javelinas (the j is pronounced like an h, as in jalapeno) are a type of wild pig, they are actually members of the peccary family, a group of hoofed mammals originating from South America. I could try to explain the difference between a peccary and a pig, but frankly, I'm not really sure what the difference is. Apparently there is one, and that's good enough for me. Moral of the story, javelinas are not pigs.

Javelinas are common in much of central and southern Arizona, and they are very common in our yard. We moved to our current house in 2006, and our yard is a travel corridor for a herd of javelinas. The experts say you shouldn't feed javelinas, and ordinarily we don't. The one concession we make is Halloween. Why throw away perfectly good pumpkins when these guys will gladly eat them? Our neighbor does feed the javelinas, so they've made our yard part of their daily route.

We normally see 6-8 javelinas in our little herd. I don't know if they're the same 6-8 from year to year, but we like to think there's some continuity. In the spring we see babies, and let me tell ya, those babies are damn cute. My girls nearly lose their minds. This picture is a little blurry, but you get the point, there's is some serious wildlife going on in our front yard.

Monday, April 11, 2011

I is for.....

I is for .....Isthmus.

An isthmus (rhymes with Christmas) is a narrow strip of land connecting two larger land areas, usually with bodies of water on either side.

The only reason I know this is because I went to college on an isthmus. You see, Madison is one of only two major US cities built on an isthmus, the other being Seattle. The Madison Isthmus forms the heart of downtown Madison and houses the twin engines of the city's economy, the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Wisconsin State Capital. The Madison Isthmus is bounded by Lake Mendota on one side and Lake Monona on the other.

To be honest, while I was a student at the University of Wisconsin, I thought Isthmus was just the name of an alternative weekly newspaper that I read to kill time every once in a while. Only later did I realize the geographical significance of all those trips up and down State Street. Looking at this aerial view, it's amazing to think that I lived the better part of 5 years on that stretch of land known as the Madison Isthmus.

Every summer we spend about a week in Madison visiting with friends. My buddy has a great view of the isthmus from his house. We often sit on his deck at dusk, the Capital dome in the distance, the waters of Lake Mendota and Lake Monona shimmering in the fading light. It's a view I didn't even know existed when I was in college, but it's one I treasure now.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

H is for.....

H is for.....Hoosiers.

The topic for today's post came to me last Saturday. The Butler Bulldogs had just beaten VCU to advance to the national championship. Butler's improbable run to the finals made me think of the movie Hoosiers.

Butler is a small school in Indiana, and many of the kids on the team are small-town Indiana kids. To basketball fans, small-town Indiana basketball players are known as Hoosiers. Another connection between Butler and the movie is Hinkle Fieldhouse. Butler plays their home games in Hinkle, which was also the setting for the epic final game in Hoosiers.

Hoosiers is one of my favorite movies. It's about basketball, but like any great sports movie, it's about much more than that. Gene Hackman is great as Norman Dale, the coach with a checkered past. Dennis Hopper is brilliant as Shooter, the town's basketball-loving drunk.

One of my favorite scenes in Hoosiers, or any movie for that matter, is when Coach Dale gets himself thrown out of a game and Shooter has to take over. The team huddles up and Shooter is frozen. Just when it looks like Shooter might wilt under the pressure, his son suggests they run the picket fence. I love the look on Hopper's face as Shooter slowly gains the confidence to diagram the play. It's a powerful scene, one that has stuck with me through the years.

Perhaps the most memorable character in Hoosiers is Jimmy Chitwood, the tortured soul who could shoot the lights out. Jimmy barely speaks in the movie, and he rarely misses a shot on film-I can think of only one shot he missed. In my day, calling a guy Jimmy Chitwood on the basketball court was high praise for one's ability to shoot the rock.

So last Saturday, after Butler won, I found myself whistling the score from Hoosiers and I knew what my H post was going to be. Butler didn't go on to win the national championship, falling one game short for a second season in a row. As a life-long basketball fan, watching those small-town Indiana kids was inspiring.

I'll end with a clip, the last couple minutes of Hoosiers. This ending makes me verklempt every time. What are your favorite sports movies?

Friday, April 8, 2011

G is for.....

G is for.....Green and Gold

Green and Gold, a color combination synonymous with the Green Bay Packers. If you've been reading this blog for any length of time, you know that I am a diehard Packers fan. I grew up in Wisconsin, so my allegiance was never a question. My family moved to Green Bay when I was 16, and we lived down the street from Lambeau Field. I left Green Bay, and Wisconsin, in 1992. Almost twenty years ago now, but I still bleed Green and Gold.

My childhood fell in the post-Lombardi, pre-Favre era: 1969-1991. This was not a great time to be a fan of the Green and Gold. The Packers managed just 5 meager winning seasons during this period, and let me tell ya, the losing seasons involved A LOT of losing. While the Packers of my youth didn't give me much to cheer about, I always kept the faith.

The Packers returned to prominence in the 90s with the arrival of Ron Wolf, Mike Holmgren, Brett Favre, and Reggie White. In 1996 the Packers won their third Super Bowl, briefly returning the Lombardi Trophy to its rightful home. Wolf, Holmgren, White, and Favre are all gone now, but the Packers haven't missed a beat. Under the leadership of General Manager Ted Thompson and Coach Mike McCarthy the Packers are champions again. With players like Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews, the future looks bright indeed. Allow me to get my shades.

I found a little song that fits today's post. It's by Pat McCurdy, a comedian/singer/songwriter who was a staple of my time in college. Pat played in Madison about once a month and his shows were always packed.

How 'bout you guys? What colors do you bleed?

Thursday, April 7, 2011

F is for.....

F is for First Avenue

Today's post is not about a street. The First Avenue I'm talking about is the classic rock n' roll club in Minneapolis. First Ave is the place where Prince and Morris Day and The Time threw down in Purple Rain. First Ave is hallowed musical ground, the way Wrigley Field and Lambeau Field are hallowed sporting ground. If you're a fan of live music, seeing a show at First Ave should be on your bucket list.

I moved to Minneapolis in 1992, and I saw a ton of shows at First Ave throughout the 90s. I can't say for sure what my first show was, but my earliest memory is tagging along with my roommates to see Sonic Youth. We weren't really fans, but tickets were cheap and available, so we figured, why not. It was an all-ages show, which meant we had to sit in the balcony to drink. I'll never forget the sight as Sonic Youth started playing, the high schoolers erupting into a crashing sea of teen spirit.

First Ave was beautifully seedy. The bathrooms were disgusting, but that should go without saying, we're talking rock n' roll here people. The place reeked of cigarettes and stale beer, a smell that should have been nauseating, but somehow became the smell I associate with great music. You came to First Ave for one thing, and one thing only: music. I don't see a lot of live shows these days, but when I do, I always wonder what the show would have been like at First Ave, the best place for live music in these United States.

Got any cool rock n' roll clubs in your neck of the woods?

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

E is for.....

E is for.....Eagle Harbor

Every summer we leave the heat of the desert and head north to visit family and friends in Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin. We used to leave town the day school let out, usually around May 20, and return a day or two before school started up again, usually the middle of August. With Meg doing summer school the last couple years, our departure has been pushed back, but we still have a ton of time to travel.

Meg's family has a place in Eagle Harbor, Michigan, and our time there is always the highlight of the trip. The family cabin is right on the water; we fall asleep to the waves lapping at the stone shore. It's a real On Golden Pond kind of setup. The wall the girls are sitting on in the picture is right out the front door. This pensive, over the shoulder pose is a bit of a tradition, the girls looking at the lighthouse.

We typically spend the 4th of July in Eagle Harbor. The 4th 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. Last year’s costume theme was Star Wars. Check 'em out: Queen Amidala 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. Most of the games on the 4th involve throwing things. The kids throw frisbees, and the adults toss eggs and rolling pins. The 4th in Eagle Harbor is classic small town Americana.

Time has a way of slowing down in Eagle Harbor. The days are long, filled with reading, trips to the beach, boat rides, long walks, good meals and good conversation. It's the place where I recharge the battery. Even though we only spend 2-3 weeks in Eagle Harbor every summer, the memories we create last a lifetime. It's a long way from our home in the Sonoran Desert to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, but Eagle Harbor is always close to our hearts.   

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

D is for.....

D is for......DROPS

Heide - Drops candy box - 1970s

Drops were, hands down, the greatest candy ever made. I used to get a box every time I went to the movies. I loved Drops so much, it never occurred to me that one day they would disappear.

I'm not exactly sure of the timeline, but Drops starting becoming scarce in the mid to late 80s. I once went by myself to see Beaches at a discount theater because I knew they still sold Drops. That's called devotion my friends. Well, that or addiction.

I remember saving empty boxes, writing the name of the movie I'd seen on the box. I distinctly remember flattening the boxes and stashing them in my closest. I'm torn between being embarrassed that I was such a loser, and wishing I still had those boxes. They were from movies like The Breakfast Club, Stand By Me, The Princess Bride. They would be like relics of my youth.

By the 90s, Drops were extremely hard to come by. They weren't in theaters any more, but every once in a while I'd come across some boxes in random, off the beaten track places. I bought every box I could find and milked them for all they were worth. My closest friends knew I was obsessed with finding Drops, and they would buy any boxes they came across on their travels. One of my friends even called the company that made Drops, Heide, to find out where he could get some. My friend was told Drops were no longer being made. Once the existing the supply was sold, no more Drops. The kind soul on the phone that day actually sent my friend a case of Drops for free. My friend gave me the box for my birthday, and without a doubt, it was one of the best presents I've ever received.

I remember my last box of Drops. Meg and I were seeing a movie in Buffalo, Minnesota. I want to say it was one of the Harry Potter movies, but I'm not sure. We stopped in the little drug store down the street from the theater to get some cheaper snacks. I was shocked to find a lone box of Drops in the candy aisle. It's possible I'd never been that happy in my young life. Those last Drops were a little crusty with age, but I savored every last one. 

Monday, April 4, 2011

C is for.....

C is for.....Cereal

Seinfeld is one of my favorite TV shows of all time. Some of the best scenes took place in Jerry's kitchen. My eyes were always drawn to the cereal boxes in the background. Those boxes of cereal made me feel like Jerry and I had something in common, just two hip and happenin' guys who loved cereal.

My earliest memory of cereal is drowning Cheerios in sugar. I dumped so much sugar on those Cheerios, the excess would settle at the bottom of the bowl. I scraped the bottom with my spoon to make each scoop a sugary delight. When the Cheerios were gone, I happily knocked back the glorious sugarmilk remaining.

During high school, my friends and I often went out to lunch.  If we were strapped for cash, we would go to one of our houses to raid the fridge and cupboards. When we ended up at my house, we'd take this big mixing bowl we had and fill it with whatever cereal was on hand. Our favorite concoction was Lucky Charms and Fruity Pebbles. We creatively called this combination Lucky Pebbles. It still makes me smile to remember us standing around that mixing bowl with oversized serving spoons, the air filled with the sound of our crunching.

I probably ate more cereal in my 20s than I did as a kid. There were days when cereal was breakfast AND dinner. I still eat cereal for breakfast most mornings. My cereal of choice these days is Raisin Bran Crunch. I'm proud to say the girls have inherited my love of cereal. Meg and I try to keep the cereal choices fairly healthy, but I sneak in a box of Lucky Charms every once in a while as a special treat. Nothing like sharing a bowl of Lucky Charms with my kids. Who knows, maybe I'll introduce them to Lucky Pebbles one day.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

B is for.....

B is for Bueller..........Bueller.

The 80's gave us a lot of great teen movies, perhaps none better than Ferris Bueller's Day Off. In high school, a bunch of us would act out scenes from the movie at parties. Such was the pull of Ferris Bueller that this often made us the hit of said parties. It was a glorious time indeed.

I've always thought they should make a sequel. Ferris is producing a play on Broadway and Cameron is a banker on Wall Street. Ferris has to meet with an investor threatening to walk, but his marriage has just fallen apart and he can't handle the idea of groveling for money. He gets a message from Sloan, whose own marriage has recently imploded, on facebook that she's coming to the city and would love to get together. Cameron is working on a big project, but Ferris coerces him to ditch work. The three old buddies wander NYC, avoiding Ferris's investor, Cameron's boss, and possibly Sloan's ex. This is just a rough outline of course, but you can see the possibilities, can't you?

I saw this recut trailer for Ferris Bueller a while back, and it's kind of interesting. Imagine Ferris repackaged and marketed as an indie film, full of irony, angst, and epiphany. It makes me wonder if I missed some deeper meaning in the film.

Friday, April 1, 2011

A is for.....

First day of the A-Z Blogging Challenge. Here we go.

A is for.....Appleton.

Appleton, Wisconsin, is one of the places I lived growing up. We moved to Appleton from Port Washington, Wisconsin, when I was in 4th grade. I still remember the day my parents called me into their room to give me the news. Just that morning my best friend at the time, Tommy Kent, had gleefully told me that his parents had bought one of the lots right behind us. My best friend was moving a stone's throw away, and I was moving to some place called Appleton.

I was devastated.

Luckily, you bounce back quickly when you're 10. There were lots of kids my age in our new neighborhood, and it didn't take long to find running mates. We had a lot of freedom in those days. Appleton was a small town, the kind of place where parents expected their kids to play outside all day. It was the kind of place where all a kid needed was a bike.

We rode to the fields that bordered the neighborhood to play Dukes of Hazard. We rode to the softball fields to collect aluminum cans. We rode to Open Pantry to play BurgerTime and Dig Dug. We rode to the tennis courts at Einstein Junior High or the public swimming pool at Herb Park.

When winter came the bikes went into hibernation, but there was still plenty to do. We built snow forts and waged epic snowball fights. We laced up our skates and spent hours on frozen ponds and flooded backyards. We took the bus downtown and played basketball all day at the Y.

Life uprooted my family again when I was 16, shifting us 30 miles north to Green Bay. Even though my time in Appleton was relatively short, it remains a big part of who I am. The memories of my Appleton days are always with me.