Monday, April 30, 2012

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

Z is for..........Zusak.

Markus Zusak has written five books: The Underdog, Fighting Ruben Wolfe, When Dogs Cry, I Am The Messenger, and The Book Thief.

I don't remember how I came to read The Book Thief, if someone recommended it to me or I just came across it in a bookstore one day and it caught my attention. However it got in my hands, I'm glad it did. The Book Thief is one of my very favorite books, certainly in my lifetime top ten.

The Book Thief is a World War II story like no other. Liesel Meminger is a young girl on the verge of adolescence in Nazi Germany. Liesel develops a strong bond with Max Vandenberg, a Jewish fist-fighter taking refuge in the basement of her foster parents' home. Liesel sporadically steals books throughout the novel, perfectly illustrating the transformative power of the written word. I'd say that's what this book is, transformative.

Zusak's language in The Book Thief is unique, sometimes unsettling, consistently beautiful. I have read The Book Thief with some of my 8th graders the last few years, and I'll never forget something one of my students said in class one day. After we'd read the first few pages, she said it sounded like poetry. I've always liked that description.

Zusak has said he doesn't know if he can write anything better than The Book Thief, and to be honest, I highly doubt it myself. It's kind of like Harper Lee trying to follow up To Kill a Mockingbird. Which she didn't do of course. I'm glad Zusak is going to try though. His next book is supposed to come out in 2012, and I can't wait to read it.

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'm glad it's over. The hosts of A-Z have a reflection post scheduled for May 7, so I'll share more thoughts then. Again, thanks to everyone for making this challenge a rewarding experience.      

Saturday, April 28, 2012

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

Y is for..........Yellow Jackets.

I was never much of a soccer guy, but when my girls started playing, I quickly became a fan. In fact, I've been coaching one of the girls' teams for the last 6 years.

This past season was my first coaching Quinn's team, and it was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. The Yellow Jackets were a great bunch of girls. They worked hard all year, and that hard work paid off with an undefeated season.

The highlight of the season came in the championship game.

There was a girl on the team who wasn't very good. Her own parents called her a baby giraffe. She wasn't fleet of foot, but she was smart. I usually played her at forward, hoping she could get a goal. She would stay in position and throughout the year she had some chances to score, but the shots just wouldn't find the back of the net.

The championship game was very competitive. We took a 1-0 lead early in the second half, but things were still tense. I had my girl at forward, and sure enough, one of her teammates made a beautiful crossing pass. She was in perfect position, wide open, and she blasted that baby in. Our sideline went nuts. And not just the girls' parents, all the parents. Everyone knew this was our girl's first goal of the season, and in the championship game no less. It was awesome.

Winning the championship was cool, but the best part was the look on that girl's face when she scored that goal. It's something I'll never forget.

Friday, April 27, 2012

X is for..........

X is for..........Xenophilia.

When I signed up for the A-Z Challenge last year, I knew what my X post was going to be right away. It had to be xenophobia. Back in April of 2010, our governor signed SB 1070 into law, legislation that many believe promotes racial profiling. Unfortunately, for many people across the US, my adopted home state became the poster child for xenophobia.

With the Supreme Court about to rule on the constitutionality of the law, I thought about doing xenophobia again this year. I changed course when I found xenophilia while doing a search for X words.

Xenophilia is an attraction to foreign peoples, cultures, or customs. The opposite of xenophobia if you will. To be honest, I was unfamiliar with the word. I'm glad I found it. I love learning about foreign cultures and customs, and some of my very favorite people hail from other countries.

So today, X is for xenophilia, because not everyone living in Arizona is xenophobic.

How 'bout you? Have any favorite foreign people, cultures, or customs?

Thursday, April 26, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

It might be a little while before we get to replacing the carpet. In the meantime, those red stains kind of crack me up. Parenting is a funny thing. It can turn a night of prolific vomiting into one of those family stories we'll share and laugh about for years to come.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

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

U is for...........Up.

I'm gonna make this a quick post. I just got back from a conference, and I'm beat. I haven't been around A-Z much the last five days, but now that I'm back, I'll start working on getting myself caught up.

Back in January of 2011, I did a post on my top ten movies of the first decade of the new century. If you get a chance, check it out, let me know what you think.

Number 3 on that list was Up. The best animated movies work on multiple levels, and Up is both a fun movie for kids, and a deeply moving film for adults.

The best movies give you something to talk about, and I have had so many great conversations about Up with the girls. One day Scout asked me why Mr. Fredrickson used a walker in the beginning of the movie. This led to a discussion about symbolism. I didn't have to tell the girls why he used that walker. I asked a few questions and they were able to figure out that the walker was a symbol for giving up, and that by the end of the movie, Mr. Fredrickson didn't need that walker because he had decided to enjoy his life again.

Not bad for a cartoon.

What's your favorite animated movie?

Monday, April 23, 2012

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

T is for..........Twitter.

My I post for the Challenge was about information. I get most of my news and information from Twitter these days. News organizations tweet their headlines, with links to articles that make it easy to stay insanely current. Only if a story merits an actual visual do I need to turn on the TV. I like this system.

I'm not exactly sure why I joined Twitter, just kind of a joiner I guess. For a long time I didn't really do anything with Twitter. After a friend suggested I tweet when I have something new on the blog, that got me going.

Then I started to find some really interesting people, many of them writers. Hanging out on Twitter makes it feel like every person in the world is a writer. I've had some fun run-ins with well known authors on Twitter, which is really what I wanted to write about in this post.

I'll usually post something about the books I read. Last summer I read Half a Life by Darin Strauss, and I tweeted that it's an incredibly honest, moving memoir. Later that day, Strauss responded, thanking me for the kind words. That was pretty cool. Another time, I was lucky to catch Jonathan Tropper, one of my favorite authors, responding to tweets because his wife told him his Twitter etiquette needed work. I told him I was looking for a book to read, and he suggested Steve Martin's latest.

Those are just two examples, but they illustrate one of my favorite things about Twitter, the chance to interact with writers.

How 'bout you, any interesting Twitter encounters?

Saturday, April 21, 2012

S is for..........

S is for...........Springsteen.

The Boss
rock n' roll poet
the ultimate showman
a true American icon.

I've been working on this post for a while, going through the Springsteen catalogue, trying to come up with my top ten Springsteen songs.

It wasn't easy, but here they are, my top ten Springsteen songs:

10) Darkness on the Edge of Town
9) Bobby Jean
8) Hungry Heart
7) Waiting on a Sunny Day
6) Backstreets
5) The River
4) Thunder Road
3) Jungleland
2) The Rising
1) Born to Run

OK Springsteen fans, have at it.

Friday, April 20, 2012

R is for..........

R is for..........Reality.

I'm writing this post as I watch The Voice with my kids. Normally, I wouldn't be caught dead watching this crap, but my kids love it. It's for the kids man. Of course, we might have to switch over and check in with Dancing With the Stars to see what my man Donald Driver is doing. I mean, come on, Donald plays his heart out for my Packers. It's the least I can do. After that I might watch a little House Hunters with Meg. What kind of husband would I be if I didn't spend a little quality time with the wife?

And that's just Monday night.

Reality shows dominate the airwaves these days, and while I generally scoff at them, upon closer examination of my TV habits, many of the shows I watch are reality shows. Some of it I blame on my kids. They love reality shows, and I have to admit, it is nice to hang out as a family and watch shows like Man vs. Food or The Barefoot Contessa or even Storage Wars. There is a dark side though. The girls also love shows like Dance Moms, and it takes every ounce of strength I have not to run screaming from the house when that damn thing is on. And now there's a Dance Moms: Miami. I don't know if I can take it.

There will always be a place for quality scripted shows, but I would imagine there will be more and more reality shows. Gotta give the people what they want.

Pardon me while I go grumpy old guy for a minute.

Sometimes I worry about this generation of kids. They're going to walk around thinking their lives are perpetual reality shows waiting to happen, absurdly melodramatic music punctuating the minutia of their lives.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

How 'bout you? What's your favorite reality show?

I'm going out of town for a conference, so I apologize in advance for not visiting as much as I'd like. I'll be back Monday night, and then I can give the challenge my full attention for the last week.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Q is for..........

Q is for..........Quarterback.

Quarterback is perhaps the most glamorous position in American sports. If your team has a good quarterback, they always have a chance. My beloved Green Bay Packers have been blessed with two great quarterbacks, and a third on the verge of greatness.

Green Bay's first great quarterback was Bart Starr. I never saw Starr play, but he was the first Green Bay coach that I remember. Starr guided the Packers to unparalleled success as a quarterback, but his coaching career with Green Bay would have to be considered a failure.

The thing that really impresses me about Starr is that he was drafted in the 17th round out of Alabama. 198 other players were drafted ahead of him. Guys like Starr aren't supposed to make the team, much less become a franchise icon.

It would be a long time before another great quarterback roamed the frozen tundra.

Brett Lorenzo Favre was drafted by the Atlanta Falcons in the second round of the 1991 NFL Draft. Favre was traded to the Packers the following year, and most Green Bay fans were underwhelmed. Quite frankly, most of us had never even heard of the guy. But oh my, how that quickly changed.

Favre got his chance in the 4th game of the 1992 season (which Green Bay won on an incredible Favre touchdown pass no less), and he went on to start every game through the 2007 season. Favre is the only player in NFL history to win three consecutive MVP awards (1995-1997), and let me tell ya, those were fun times to be a Packers' fan.

Unfortunately, things ended badly in Green Bay. Management was ready to move on, but Favre wasn't ready to retire. Most Green Bay fans cheered for Brett in New York, but when he donned the purple and gold, Favre's reputation took a serious hit. Even now, when someone talks about Favre, my first response is often, "Who?" I still need time to get over the whole Vikings thing, but eventually I'll open my heart to the ol' Gunslinger again.

It wouldn't take another 21 years for Green Bay to find its next great quarterback. In fact, Green Bay sent Favre packing becasue they had a young kid waiting in the wings.

Aaron Rodgers took over for Favre in 2008. A lot of fans were still upset about losing Favre, and the pressure on Rodgers to succeed was intense. While the team's record in Rodgers's first season was an unimpressive 6-10, Rodgers played at a high level. Even the most ardent Favre supporters could see that Rodgers was a special player.

In 2010 Rodgers led the Pack to their fourth Super Bowl title. Rodgers was the league MVP last year, as he led the Packers to a 15-1 regular season record. Unfortunately, the Packers ran into the red-hot New York Giants in the playoffs and failed in their quest to repeat. With Rodgers at the helm, Green Bay should be in the hunt for a title every year.

Green Bay may be the smallest market in the NFL. But when it comes to quarterbacks, they're second to none.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

P is for..........

P is for...........Politics.

I've always been interested in politics. I was raised in a house where political debate was encouraged and enjoyed. When one parent is a Republican and one is a Democrat, just about every conversation eventually turns political. Let's just say things were always lively at the Riley house.

Sure, there were arguments, some hard feelings now and then, but ultimately, there was respect. Always.

Respect seems to be sorely lacking in our politics today. Politics has become a blame game, our two political parties acting like petulant children, each whining that the other started it. Politicians get elected by blaming their opponent for everything that's wrong, not for actually having any good ideas for how to deal with problems.

Vote for me.


Because I'm not him/her.

That just isn't good enough.

I was a political science major at the University of Wisconsin, but my interest in politics has been steadily waning since my ivory tower days. Civil political debate is essentially gone, modern politics nothing more than party hacks accusing the other side of trying to destroy the country. As far as I'm concerned, there's plenty of blame to go around. Party hardliners would like us to believe that their party is the one to get us out of our current mess, but it's getting harder and harder for me to see a real difference between the parties. As far I can tell, Wall Street bankers are calling the shots these days.

Now having said all this, I'm sure I will put my cynicism aside to follow the politics of an election year. Republicans and Democrats will try to convince me that this is the most important election in the country's history. Obama and Romney will use scare tactics to win votes, all the while hiding behind negative super PAC ads.

We'll elect our next President this year. One side will celebrate, their hope renewed, while the other will bemoan the end of civilization as we know it.

Politics as usual.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

O is for..........

O is for..........Olympics.

Like a lot of people my age, I fell in love with the Olympics in 1980. The Miracle on Ice? It doesn't get any better than that. I'm not a hockey fan, but I still get chills when I hear Al Michaels's famous call: Do you believe in miracles? Arguably the greatest moment in the history of American sports.

The Winter Olympics feel more quirky to me. You've got crazy ski-jumpers, speed skaters seemingly parallel to the ground, that thing where people ski and shoot guns. And then there's curling, that strangely hypnotic frozen cousin of shuffleboard.

The Winter Olympics are brilliant, but I prefer the Summer Games. I'm really looking forward to watching this summer with the girls. Track and swimming are my favorite events, and I'm excited to see if Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps can repeat their dominance.

I'm sure London will be a great Olympic host, but have you seen the mascots they came up with? Meet Wenlock and Mandeville, the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic mascots. These guys are apparently based on a short story by children's author Michael Morpurgo that tells how they were fashioned from droplets of the steel used to build the Olympic stadium.

Um, I'm sorry. What?

I mean, don't get me wrong, I'm sure the kids will love these guys. I mean, what kid doesn't love droplets of steel?

Monday, April 16, 2012

N is for..........

N is for...........Netflix.

I've written about Netflix Guilt before, but recent developments have made it necessary for me to revisit this most pernicious of mental disorders.

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.

My last bout of Netflix Guilt was brought on by The Last Station. Fine film, I'm sure, but I never did watch it, finally admitting defeat and sending it back in shame. I've been able to avoid NG for quite a while, but I am currently experiencing an attack over another film, Martha Marcy May Marlene. This is one of those small indie movies that all the critics love, and normally, I make it a point to watch those kinds of movies. If that's not enough, the Olsen twins' sister is in it, and supposedly she's great. I mean, the Olsen twins' sister. Who can resist that? And yet poor Martha Marcy May Marlene sits forlornly in a red and white paper coffin, desperately hoping to be resuscitated by the friendly confines of a DVD player.

I fear it's too late. Martha Marcy May Marlene may never know the joy of being watched in the Riley household.

As if that isn't enough guilt, now there's an added layer. When I first wrote about this disorder, I wasn't streaming movies on Netflix. Now that I can stream movies, I find myself adding movies willy nilly to my Instant Watch queue. And there those movies sit, in some kind of digital island of misfit movies, waiting to be watched.

So many movies, so much angst. 

Saturday, April 14, 2012

M is for..........

M is for..........Music.

Last year I went all Inception for my M post. That is to say, I did an A-Z list of Movies for the A-Z Challenge. See what I'm sayin?


That was actually a lot of fun, and I was going to do it again. Self-doubt reared its ugly head, and I thought I should do something different. My next idea was to write about Music and how it triggers Memory, but I couldn't resist and wound up exploring that theme in my post about the Jayhawks.

So then I had two ideas on the brain: music and doing another A-Z list for the A-Z Challenge. Thus, today I present a musical A-Z, all artists whose music elicits distinct and powerful memories.

B - Bruuuuuuuuuuuuce!
C - Clarence Clemons (it's all about the E Street)
D - Depeche Mode
- Enya
F - Foo Fighters
G - Goo Goo Dolls
H - Hall & Oates
I - Indigo Girls
J - Jayhawks
K - Killers
L - Living Colour
M - Marley
N - Nirvana
O - Otis Redding
P - Prince
Q - Queen
R - Replacements
S - Springteen (The Boss deserves as many mentions as possible)
T - Thompson Twins
U - U2
V - Violent Femmes
W - Weezer
X - xx
Y - Yeah Yeah Yeahs (triple score!)
Z - Zeppelin

So tell me, who's your favorite on this list?

Friday, April 13, 2012

L is for..........

L is for..........Lombardi.

I grew up in Wisconsin, so it goes without saying that I'm a huge Green Bay Packers fan. As a child of the 70s and 80s there wasn't much to cheer about, the Packers were consistently terrible. My generation had no idea what it felt like to cheer for a winner. All we could do was listen to stories of the glory days, passed down from parents to children, stories of the Lombardi era, when the Green Bay Packers were the epitome of success, right up there with the New York Yankees.

When I was 16, we moved to Green Bay, about a mile down the street from Lambeau Field. When you live in Green Bay, Lombardi and the Packers are everywhere. My old high school is on Packerland Drive. My brother and sister both attended Lombardi Middle School. We drove Lombardi Avenue nearly every day. Lombardi may have died in 1970, but his legacy is still very much alive in Titletown.

Lombardi  became the head coach and general manager of the Green Bay Packers in 1959, winning Coach of the Year honors in his first season. In 9 seasons, Lombardi's Packers racked up a record of 105-35-6. The Packers reached the NFL Championship game in Lombardi's second season, the only time the Packers would lose a title game during his tenure. Lombardi famously promised his men they would never lose another title game, and he was true to his word. The Packers went on to win 5 of the next 7 NFL Championships, including the first two Super Bowls in 1966 and 1967. And that my friends is why they call it the Lombardi Trophy.

The Lombardi Trophy is a vagabond, making stops all over our glorious country, from Oakland to St. Louis to New York. Since 1967, the Lombardi Trophy has only made it home for brief stops, in 1996, and most recently 2010.

Who knows how long it will take for the Lombardi Trophy to make its way home again, but when it does, you can bet the ol' coach will be smiling down.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

K is for..........

K is for...........Kiva.

A few years ago, we set up an account with Kiva, a non-profit organization that allows people to loan money to entrepreneurs in developing countries. Kiva works with regional microfinance institutions to distribute member donations. As of March 31, 2012, Kiva has loaned over $300,000,000 to small business owners all over the world, with 80.46% of all loans going to women. If you are interested in learning more, just click on the graphic to go to Kiva's website.

We have made 16 loans to small business owners all over the world. 11 have been paid back in full, 4 are ongoing, and one loan was refunded. We get an email every time a payment is made on an outstanding loan, and when there is enough in our account, we look for other people to loan the money.

We started with an initial donation of $150, all of which we loaned to Comfort Anima in Ghana to help her buy supplies for her store. As Comfort repaid the loan, we in turn, loaned that money to other entrepreneurs. I may be oversimplifying, but the way I look at it, our original $150 has become the $625 we have so far loaned through Kiva. As our loans are repaid, that number will continue to grow. We have enjoyed our involvement with Kiva, and as a family, we look forward to helping more people.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

J is for..........

J is for..........Jayhawks.

The Jayhawks are one of my favorite bands. Their sound has been defined as alt-country, or Americana, and I suppose that will do. I would just say they're a great rock n' roll band. My girls have been listening to The Jayhawks since they were born, Hollywood Town Hall and Rainy Day Music, the kind of music I needed to share with my kids.

When I listen to The Jayhawks now, certain songs are like triggers, memories playing like my own personal music videos. My mind wanders back to the 8 years I lived in Minnesota: the friends, the shows, the breath in the air when you got in your car on a freezing winter night and as soon as you started the car The Jayhawks were.....there.

The Jayhawks take me back to that very first night in Minneapolis. It had been a long day of hauling and unpacking, and I needed some music and some beer. I took the first of many walks from my new apartment to The Uptown Bar and Grill. The Jayhawks were the band that night, and it was love at first sound.

The Jayhawks take me back to a deserted Kansas road, or was it Nebraska, or South Dakota, or New Mexico, somewhere with a perfect blue sky, one of our many road trips north during the summer. Quinn's singing, her little voice belting out "Save it for a Rainy Day," fills the car. I glance over my shoulder and Scout is looking out her window, and it could be me looking out that window, and I smile because I know she's making her own video.

The Jayhawks take me back to the night Meg and I saw Mark and Gary here in Tucson. We got to talk with Gary after the show, and when he signed a CD for the girls, he told us his favorite line from To Kill a Mockingbird: thus began our longest journey together. We had just used that very line to accompany a shadowbox of Scout's handprint.

All these memories come to me when I listen to The Jayhawks. The best music isn't just about nostalgia though. The best music goes on creating new memories no matter how old the songs are. Every time I listen to The Jayhawks, there are new memories in the making.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

I is for..........

I is for..........Information.

I had an interesting conversation with my students last week. We were doing some prep work for the upcoming standardized reading test, going over practice questions provided by the state. One of the questions sparked an interesting conversation. I don't remember the exact wording, but basically, here's the question:

If you wanted to know what educational programs Sea World provides, which source would provide the most relevant information?

a) an atlas
b) a dictionary
c) a website
d) an encyclopedia

Most of the kids got this easily: the website, of course. I told the kids this question made me feel old. When I was in 8th grade, there were no websites. Hell, people didn't even have computers. That really blew the kids' minds. How did we live?

Now we walk around with computers in our phones and everything you want to know can be found on some website or other. All this has had me thinking about how I get my information, specifically how I stay informed about current events.

Traditional newspapers are just about a thing of the past. I can't remember the last time I read an article in an actual newspaper. We still have the paper delivered on the weekend, but that's just to get the coupons. I'm sure we won't need to do that much longer. I used to get a lot of my news from TV, CNN and the like, but I find myself doing that less and less. TV news is mostly commentary now, and I can't take all the talking heads passing off their opinions as news.

Nowadays my main source of information is Twitter. I follow my favorite newspapers and pick and choose from the constantly updating headlines. Instead of watching CNN, I follow on Twitter and only look at what's of interest. It's actually quite an effective filter. People are always posting links to interesting articles. Follow enough people on Twitter and you'll hit just about every opinion on anything going on in this great big world of ours.

A lot of people scoff at Twitter. Why do we need to know every waking thought of people we barely know, that kind of thing. And sure, a lot of people tweet minutia that even their closest friends and family don't want to hear about. All that crap is easy enough to avoid and filter out. Once you learn how to use Twitter effectively, it's a great tool for managing the tidal wave of information that modern life sends at us every day.

How do you get your information these days?

Monday, April 9, 2012

H is for..........

H is for..........Hodag.

If you ever have reason to be near Rhinelander, Wisconsin, keep an eye out for a hodag. Some would say the hodag is a mythical creature, kin to Sasquatch and the chupacabra.

The Rileys are believers though, and every summer when we drive through the area where the hodag is said to roam, our eyes scour the woods, hoping to spot the elusive beast.

The town of Rhinelander has embraced the hodag, so much so that the hodag is the high school mascot. The first time I heard of the hodag was when my high school played Rhinelander in the state basketball tournament. Only years later, when we drove through Rhinelander for the first time, did I appreciate the awesomeness that is the hodag.

A local author even has a cute series of children's books chronicling the adventures of Happy the Hodag. I'm sure you could google Happy the Hodag and get your hands on some if you'd like.

I think the hodag would make for a great monster in a campy horror flick, plucking off Wisconsin teens as they take to the woods to drink and whatnot. I'm kind of surprised they never did a hodag episode on the X-files. I mean, they had that chupacabra episode, and the hodag is way cooler than the chupacabra. Seriously, if they can do a reality show called Finding Bigfoot (which the Rileys fully support), where's the love for the hodag?

There are a couple hodag statues in Rhinelander, one in a little park by the McDonald's and one in front of the library. Last year we stopped to get some pictures with these statues, and that was fun and all. But on our way out of town, we all kept our eyes peeled.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

G is for..........

G is for..........Ghana.

G is also for Guest. My wife had a unique experience that I thought would be interesting reading for A-Z. So without further ado, here's the better half.

I recently spent two weeks in Accra, Ghana, as part of the U.S. State Department’s Teachers for Global Classrooms program.  The program is designed to help teachers build a globally focused curricula and develop their students’ global competencies.  I had an incredible experience visiting schools and learning about the education and culture of Ghana. While two weeks in a country does not make me an expert by any means, I had some insights and experiences I thought I would organize by Gs.

Greetings:  A common greeting in Ghana is “akwaaba” which means welcome.  Many meetings with Ghanaians began with “You are welcome” to which I would reply “thank you.”  This flip of the order of these expressions at first gave me pause and then a new appreciation and understanding of words I take for granted.

Government: Ghana gained independence in 1963 from Great Britain and was the first African colony to do so. On March 6, 2012, the 55th anniversary of that bloodless revolution was celebrated across the country. The president, John Atta Mills spoke to thousands of Ghanaians in the capital.

The celebration also featured the branches of the military.  Throughout my stay in Ghana, I thought about how the military was featured as I was repeatedly told by taxi drivers, teachers, salesmen in markets that Ghana was the most peaceful country.  It was such a consistent message seemingly borne from horrific neighboring conflicts in Togo, Cote d’ Ivore, Liberia, and Sierra Leone.

Goats:  I saw a lot of goats in Ghana.  They were quite ever present in the city and in the country.  They would wander all over town, but I was told they would find their way home every day.  They were smallish goats, used for meat but not able to produce much milk.  On my last day in Ghana I saw goats eating grass and plants in the middle of a traffic wedge.  I don’t know if the photo does it justice.

Right after I took this photo I saw a hatchback taxi carrying two men in Muslim attire in the back seat.  Behind them in the storage space were two goats.  They were looking out the back window like they belonged there.   

Globalization:  I was very interested to see how Ghana fits into the increasingly interconnected global economy.  The school where I spent most of my time was in the port city of Tema, 16 miles from Accra.  Tema is the largest port in the country.  I was thrilled to get close to the actual port and blown away by the shipping containers, such a tangible sign of development and our globalized economy.

Additionally, the containers served as stores for countless shopkeepers throughout Accra, Cape Coast, and Tema.

Garbage:  Another sign of progress(?) and an increasingly globalized economy today has to be the increase in garbage.  As with many developing countries, there is an incredible garbage presence that closes in on living quarters and natural resources.

In Ghana, drinking water is packaged and sold in plastic pouches and sold all over.  One school I visited had started a recycling initiative with these pouches.

Grace & Gratitude:  My trip to Ghana left me with impressions of incredible beauty, resilience, and complexity.  I feel like this photo captures these impressions better than any words could.

Friday, April 6, 2012

F is for..........

F is for..........Fargo.

If you're planning a trip, you might want to check out Fargo, North Dakota.

See what I'm sayin? Who doesn't want to be a legend? All kidding aside, this may be the best ad I've ever seen.

I would love to regale you with stories about wild nights in Fargo, but I've actually never been there. No, F is for Fargo because Fargo is one of my favorite movies.

The movies have given us any number of great female characters, but for my money, Marge Gunderson is the best female character in cinema history. Not one of the best, THE best.

There it is, gauntlet thrown. I've got Marge Gunderson. Who you got for best female character in the movies?

Thursday, April 5, 2012

E is for..........

E is for..........Education.

As a teacher, I can't help writing about education on the blog from time to time. I really do love teaching, and I try to focus on the positive aspects of education, the relationships and interactions with students that make teaching a uniquely rewarding experience.

This has been a tough year to focus on the positive. My school is under a lot of pressure to improve our standardized test scores. I have spent more time teaching to the test than I would like, but our current reality makes it unavoidable. This means I spend a lot of time teaching kids how to analyze the mood of obscure poetry or how to find common themes in folktales from Norway and Japan. Both worthy exercises I suppose, but not exactly riveting for kids. I don't have a problem with standardized tests, but I do think there is too much significance placed on them. Our society has decided that kids are essentially the sum of their test scores, no better or worse than their data. It bothers me that this doesn't bother more people.

We've gone from Bush's No Child Left Behind to Obama's Race to the Top. It is now the educational policy of the United States to have winners and losers. The game is standardized testing, and the losers will be stuck with all the crap minimum wage jobs our politicians talk about with such pride. And to the winners, well, the way things are going, most of them will be working minimum wage too.

The US collectively wrings its hands about our standing in the world, middling test scores a sign of our impending doom. Bullshit. I'm not saying the US educational system doesn't need to improve. Of course it does. It's strange to me that the public thinks politicians are more capable of improving schools than teachers. You know, the people who actually care about kids as human beings, not just as employees.

Bit of a rant here. Thoughts?

I promise I'll be more positive the next time I write about education.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

D is for..........

D is for..........Desert.

I fell in love with the desert in 1997. Friends of mine were living in Tucson, and Meg and I came down to visit during Spring Break. By the time we left, we had Arizona teaching licenses.....just in case.

I remember Meg and I looking at each other one winter day, and there were no words necessary. We moved to the desert in 1999, and my love for the desert has only grown.

Sunsets are beautiful everywhere, but it's hard to beat a desert sunset. Tucson is in a valley, surrounded by mountains. I love the colors in the mountains as the sun sets. I wish I had a better picture, but my photography skills leave something to be desired. Somehow the colors seem different every time, each sunset painting its own unique picture (channeling my inner Bob Ross here).

The Sonoran Desert is the only place in the world with sahuaro cactus. I remember being in awe the first time I went over Gates Pass, sahuaros as far as the eye could see. The Sahuaro National Forest taught me that my Midwestern image of a forest was severely limited.  Sahuaros miraculously bloom in the heat of the desert summer and then bloat with monsoon rain. I feel fortunate to have a number of sahuaros in my yard, each green obelisk standing sentinel, arms infinitesimally growing to better protect us.

The desert is home to a unique array of animals. I'll never forget the first night I heard a pack of coyotes somewhere just beyond my backyard, a dissonant combination of yelping and laughter. Our yard attracts just about every type of desert animal you can imagine, from rattlesnakes to roadrunners. Our most frequent visitors are the javelinas. We see them all the time, but it never gets old. I mean, look at these guys!

I had a moment of grace recently. Standing in my backyard in the light of a full moon, the smell of citrus in the air, I knew it for sure. The desert is now in my skin.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

C is for..........

C is for..........Cameron Crowe.

Cameron Crowe's movie career began in 1982, when he helped adapt his book Fast Times at Ridgemont High: A True Story into the seminal high school flick of the same name. There are so many great characters in Fast Times, but my favorite has to be Mr. Hand. He and Spicoli were a perfect team.

Crowe made his directorial debut in 1989 with Say Anything. Lloyd Dobbler is one of my all-time favorite movie characters, and arguably the best teenager in the history of cinema. There are so many great scenes in Say Anything, so much spot-on dialogue, but this scene epitomizes what Lloyd and the movie as a whole are all about.

My favorite Cameron Crowe movie is Jerry Maguire. Show me the money, you had me at hello, we all know the lines. My personal favorite: It was just a mission statement (thus the picture). Jerry Maguire quotes float around in my brain, ready at a moment's notice to spice up a conversation, or a late night text. Maybe the best thing I can say about Jerry Maguire is that it's one of those movies I can't turn off when I come across it while channel-flipping. No matter where it is, I'm in.

I highly recommend Crowe's latest movie, We Bought a Zoo. Matt Damon is great as a widower who buys a zoo to find meaning in his life and reconnect with his kids. I gotta say, I've been known to tear up during a movie every now and then, but man, this one really got me.

Any Cameron Crowe fans out there? What's your favorite Cameron Crowe movie?

Monday, April 2, 2012

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

B is for.......... Badger.

As an alumnus of the University of Wisconsin, I am proud to call myself a Badger. I love all things Bucky, and I could go on and on about the great times I had at Madison. These kinds of Badgers are everywhere, and I see them all the time.

No, this post has to be about a different kind of badger.

The real McCoy if you will. The summer after my freshman year in college, I worked at the Brown County Reforestation Camp. The place was basically a zoo, and would later officially become one. There were lots of animals when I worked there: bears, buffalo, monkeys, even a lion. One of my jobs was to clean the animal enclosures.

The only animal to give me a hard time was the badger. That thing was nasty. I'd get him in the little box with his food and go in to clean up. That guy would hiss at me something awful. He would rake his claws on the screen of that little cage, man, he wanted a piece of me. I'm not gonna lie, that thing scared the living hell out of me. I couldn't get out of there fast enough. I lived in Wisconsin and all, but I'd never seen a badger before that summer. I had no idea they were so fierce. I've had the proper respect ever since.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

A is for..........

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

A is for..........Atticus.

Atticus Finch is one of the most famous characters in American literature. While he's not my favorite character in To Kill a Mockingbird, that would have to be Ms. Jean Louise, he's certainly a close second.

Atticus is one of those rare characters that transcends the page to become a symbol in popular culture. He is a symbol for courage in the face of injustice, for decency and honor. Compare someone to Atticus Finch, and most people know what you mean. It is high praise indeed.

I'm not sure there has ever been a better pairing of actor and character than Gregory Peck and Atticus Finch. I know Mr. Peck starred in numerous films, but to me, he will always be Atticus (definitely not the guy in The Omen).

I've had this picture of Peck/Atticus in my classroom for years, and kids are always asking about the old guy in the rocking chair. Without batting an eye, I say he's my grandpa.

They buy it every time.

Once I've had my fun, I set them straight, encouraging them to watch the movie. Heck, if they're feeling crazy, they might even want to read the book. Who knows, it might just change their life.