"Temporality is part of the truth" -- Chuck Klosterman

Thursday, June 30, 2011

50th Post Clip Show

As milestones go, I'm sure this is pretty lame. Nevertheless, I'm going to celebrate it. And you can join me as I post the equivalent of a sitcom clip show. (Check out that link if you're not familiar with the term. Or visit this TV Tropes site that I've been wasting my time with enjoying, reading some cool stuff about how TV, or fiction in general, is written.) (Speaking of tropes, that's the first time in fifty posts that I've used the blogging convention of crossing out a phrase to be funny. I still can't decide if that's cheating or if it's clever. But I did it anyway.)

How about some self-aggrandizement:

As I write this 50th post, I have 49 followers. Wouldn't it be poetic if this post brought the fiftieth? (Hint, hint)

Much more poetic than hitting 5000 page views, anyway. A couple of weeks ago, dozens of backlinks showed up on a couple of my posts and suddenly in the space of just a couple of days, my view stats went to the moon. The individual post stats stayed normal, but the total went up over 1000 in just a couple of days. I don't know what this means, but I disabled the backlinks and the craziness ended.

Then, over the last few days, the same loco thing has happened with my post Three Art Docs. This has long been my most-viewed post, and I traced a link from the Banksy murdered phone booth to another site that apparently was adding hits to my page. I don't know how any of this works, so if someone can explain it to me I'd be grateful. My point is that these high stats are more baffling than the fact that my only post with over 200 hits has yet to elicit one comment.

Previously on Building Castles on the Beach:

When I started blogging, I wanted to write about three things I care about: Parenting, Teaching, and Music. The following are some of the posts I'm most proud of. You should read them if you haven't.

A montage about the boy Xander:

The "A Star is Born" parts one and two posts tell the story of Xander's birth. So far, only two installments are finished, but I intend to write the third one soon. I've tried to make these both funny and sincere, with lots of cute pictures.
Talking of which...

If you weren't around at the beginning of all this, you should check out my Fatherhood Manifesto, in which I outline why all fathers should take paternity leave to be with their new children, or Feed Xander Change Xander, in which I detail what it's like to stay at home with the boy minute by minute.

Clips about teacher stuff:

I'll link to Waiting for "Guffman"? and Let's all read about darkness and depravity! because those were some posts that became popular fast. If you missed them, "Guffman" is actually a review of the film Waiting for Superman from a teacher's perspective, and the other is about the YA fiction controversy from a couple weeks back--from a teacher's perspective.

I'm most pleased, I think, with my early post Be Less Stupid because I talk about why I teach and how education is not currently headed in the right direction. It's a sad state that needs to be discussed by more people than Bill Gates and Michelle Rhee. Perhaps actual teachers should be making some of these decisions.

The post I had the most fun writing is This Quintessence of Dust, which talks about the Shakespearean language from Hamlet that would be fun to have in modern everyday parlance. I have to read The Merchant of Venice to teach next fall and hope to write a post about similar language from that play.

Musing on music:

The Legacy of Teletunes includes some little-known videos that I grew up with in the eighties, which explains a little bit anyway about my taste in music.

Chips for Brains is my first post about my obsession with music. When the technology arrives, I will be the first in line for the iPod in my head.

I haven't written a post solely focused on my music mania in a while, and I still wonder if any of you readers care. I have some readers from where I work, some from family, and then there's the some I've stumbled upon through the magic of the interweb and they've stumbled on over here. I'd wager very few of you care whether or not Elizabeth Fraser makes another record, but I keep mentioning her. Here's her latest:

Okay, thanks to all those who make this possible. I thrive on the banter from comments.

So feed my ego: what is your favorite post on Building Castles on the Beach?

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Things I Eat When I Have a Per Diem

It's not often that a teacher gets treated on the company dime. Sometimes we get bottled water at a faculty meeting. And most Parent Conference nights we get a free dinner from the school cafeteria.

If it's in English, Spanish, and French,
it's international.
But every once in a while, a school district will invest in a program that's all about improving student performance, and someone has to be trained in order to implement said program. Rarely is an actual teacher sent to a conference instead of an administrator, but in the case of the International Baccalaureate Programme (and that "e" at the end of the word "programme" shows you how "international" it is), teachers need to know the curriculum to teach, so they are sent to get the training they need.

I have actually had the good fortune to attend the same training in Florida two summers in a row: Last year to learn what to teach in the first place, and this year because they changed the English curriculum for the incoming Juniors. But this post isn't about IB and it's accoutrements; it's about being paid to go on vacation and what it's like to spend a per diem. A perk that, as a teacher, I never expected.
The view from my balcony. Pretty.

Imagine a fogged-up bathroom after a hot shower.
That's what the outdoors feels like ALL THE TIME.

I was sent with a group of four others from my school to St. Pete's Beach, and stayed at the TradeWinds Resort, a place where you walk out of the hotel and onto the beach. As part of the conference, a breakfast and lunch buffet is provided in an air conditioned pavilion. That was decent grub, but when breakfast and lunch is already provided and you get a thirty-five dollar per diem, you can have a somewhat extravagant meal for dinner.
An unnatural, yet scenic, pond in the middle of the TradeWinds resort.

On the first night, we arrived late in the evening and checked into the hotel. No one wanted to go anywhere, except to remain indoors with air conditioning, a common theme throughout the week. So we went to the Palm Court Italian Grill conveniently located inside the resort. I'm not a seafood eater, which is 75% of their Italian-food menu. (You can check it out yourself if you want; my math's certainly off). They do offer Braised Florida Boar, which I might have tried if not for the mushrooms included with it. Since most of their dishes involve seafood or mushrooms or both, I got the New York Strip. Honestly, I don't often go out for steak. It's expensive, and I'd rather just grill it myself. But when I have a per diem, I'm going to get a nicely prepared slab of beef. This one was good, but it wasn't as great as the next night.

We ate him up in tiny bites.
The next night, though, was all about the alligator. We knew this place called Silas Dent's Steakhouse, across the street from the resort, offered alligator, and we were up for the experience. Or at least game enough to be able to say we ate alligator. Unfortunately, the gator came out as an appetizer, heavily breaded and with a honey-mustardy barbeque sauce for dipping. It tasted like popcorn chicken. That is to say, you couldn't really taste the alligator, but the sauce was good. While my companions were then eating grouper and oysters and lobster, I again had the steak--filet mignon, to be precise--with a blue cheese topping and twice-baked garlic potato. It was definitely one of the best steaks I've ever eaten. Even better than the much more expensive and elite ribeye I ate at Emeril's in Vegas a few weeks ago.

The third night, we got in the rental and drove to the point south of the resort in a little area called Pass-a-Grille Beach, which I thought would be busy and crowded, but instead was lazy and peaceful. Mostly filled with houses, condos, and hotels, this little plot of land at the entrance to the Tampa Bay had a block or two of restaurants and cafes. We stopped at one place called Hurricanes because we liked the look of the large, old building with a great second story view, but it turned out to be a one-floor dive bar without air-conditioning. They seated us, and we almost stayed just to be polite, but we didn't. Before they could ask us what we'd like to drink, we bolted.

Instead, we found a second floor view in a place called The Brass Monkey Bar and Grill. And even as I write this, I can't avoid repeating, "That funky monkey," in my head.

Here, push play, and you can sing along as I finish my story:

So this place didn't have a thirty dollar steak, but they had the crab cakes and fresh fish you might want. Me, I went for the BBQ bacon burger and the plate of fries loaded with bacon and cheese. This was the cheapest meal I ate all week, barely spending half of my per diem amount, but it was great. I can put down a solid burger before steak any day.

In conclusion, it's fun eat a thirty-five dollar meal every once in a while. Especially when it's not your money.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Lovin' the Language Blogfest

This is all Jolene's idea from Been Writing. It's just an excuse to share some work as a writer, but I'm game, even if I don't really understand the point of a blogfest, per se.

The rules are simple. Pick any five lines or any five SHORT exerpts from one of your WIPs. If you're feeling shy, and don't want to share from your own work, share from something you LOVE.

I can do that.

I have a completed manuscript called Trendy Poseurs Go Home, about a high school graduate drifting toward nothing, and if you want to read more about that, you can click the link or the one to the right and visit my author site.

Instead, I will share some lines from my new work in progress that I am currently calling Something About Ghosts and Aliens.

A young boy named Marcus witnesses something extra-ordinary in the woods outside of his grandmother's house, and his older brother, Evan, is never the same. This leads to Marcus's discovery of the Ghost living in the attic of Grandma's house. The rest of the book is his search for more Ghosts, for answers to what happened to his brother. Aliens will show up somewhere. These excerpts are the buildup to Marcus's meetup with the first Ghost:

We weren’t allowed in the room at the top of the turret, but the rest of the house was a continual source of entertainment. Around every corner something new caught up to us. We would creep in and out of cubby holes and crawl spaces. We were explorers and astronauts and pirates and dinosaurs. 

We called it The Forbidden Forest, though it was anything but forbidden. Evan and I would roam out there for hours every day, every summer. Great ferns, rotten logs, rocks and entire trees covered in moss. It was so easy for a child to get lost. 

The universe collapsed around me. Branches snapped. Whole trees shattered. Individual leaves disintegrated with deafening, popping explosions.

I calculated where I thought the sky shimmer had happened and imagined I could still see the spot in the air hovering above the branches reaching up to touch it, to see if it were real. I became the trees, standing tall on the bench, and stretching until my swaying could brush the clouds from the sky. Evan’s snoring became thunder all around me, the anger of the clouds.

I didn’t think I was hearing this, but it was a voice nonetheless. I turned, or willed myself to, but couldn’t feel myself moving. I was floating, alone, except for the Shadow presence, which I couldn’t pinpoint, only intuit.

There you have it. Feel free to encourage me to keep working on it because it's so brilliant and you can't wait to read more. Otherwise, you can go away quietly.

If you're curious, the next couple of blogs on the blogfest list are here and here.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Feed Your Head

Can you allude to this song without intending any drug reference? You tell me:

If you listened to the song all the way through, then the segue to the next bit might make sense. Otherwise, nevermind. Write your own opening.

Xander is a good eater. I've mentioned before how his mother and I had to learn to feed him because he was such a small thing at first. And apparently we grew so adept at the job that he gained off-the-charts weight. Actually, he was still on the charts, just not the preemie charts. He was gaining weight so fast that he was heavy even for his gestational age, which means that even if he'd gone to term, he'd still be little hefty. He kinda looked like the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Tyke.

From his birth, we fortified his breast milk with formula to give him the calories he needed to grow and catch up. He accomplished the growing part. We cut back on the supplemental formula, but recently the breast milk supply began to diminish. Now we give him a half-and-half mixture.

All this is to say that feeding him has only gotten more complicated. Also, they say that babies sleep for shorter times when they're fed breast milk because it's what they are built to digest. Anything else takes longer to assimilate, so they sleep longer. Yet, this hasn't happened.

Not that I'm complaining about his sleeping habits. Neither of my daughters slept through the night until they were over 18 months old. I'm sure this was my own fault, as I was too young and hip to keep them on a reasonable schedule. They would attune to my schedule or just have to deal with it. And so they did...by not sleeping well at night. My oldest added some kind of night-terror to the mix and would scream in her sleep until someone arrived to calm her down. So the fact that the boy cat-naps all day (if you move him from wherever he falls asleep, you lose and he wakes up) and basically sleeps through the night (he wakes up once between two and four a.m., downs his bottle in less than ten minutes, and goes back to sleepy town) isn't something to grouse about.

The other complicating factor is the introduction of solid foods into Xander's diet.

The doctor suggested bananas to start. Two or three days of just a few spoonfuls of bananas gave us two or three nights of smelly, sticky, poopy diapers every two hours. Before this, he rarely handed us poopy diapers in the morning. After those few days, we waited another couple of weeks before trying again.

Doesn't this sound tasty?
When we did, it was better. Diapers will never be the same, of course; with just breast milk, diapering is an easy, comparatively fragrant task. You almost couldn't even tell when he was dirty. But now and forever more, the diapers become more malodorous each week. Still, the boy's system is ready for it now, and so he's eating veggies like peas, carrots, and sweet potatoes; fruits like pears, strawberries, and bananas; and the rice cereal mixed with his milk. Sometimes these fruits and veggies are mixed into one edible paste. He likes the stuff from Ella's Organic Kitchen.

Feeding a baby solid foods requires patience and skill. First you have to contend with the tongue. The child has developed that thing into a vacuum, able to suck down five ounces of milk in a flash. But now all the tongue wants is to prevent anything from getting through. It's the mouth's own sentry, assuring that only warm, white liquids will enter the gullet. Due to this protuberance, and the fact that by now the baby has won control over his limbs and fingers, 95 percent of the food you attempt to feed him will end up outside of the mouth instead of inside. Like so:
I admit it: this entire post is a flimsy excuse just to show you this picture.

Xander has also started to make this noise that's a cross between a cackle and a scream. It's a short burst of air from low in the throat, like a bird's cry. He also hums for most of his feeding time. This gets more shrill as more food is introduced to his mouth. What these sounds amount to is that you never know when he's ready to be finished. Unless he does the blow-on-the-spoon move, and you end up with peas on your glasses. THEN he's done.

Why do kids like watermelon so much? He was sucking on this like his bottle.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Vegas, Baby: First Film

Totally unnecessary.
A couple of weeks ago, we took Xander and the girls to see an outdoor presentation of the musical Footloose by a local theater troupe. It was a poor production, and if they ever do make the movie-based-on-the-musical-based-on-the-movie, whether Zach Ephron is in it or not, I hope they don't include the song about Willard's mother.

Nevetheless, Xander was rapt. He stared at the clumsy dancing and listened intently to the off-key singing. But it was nothing compared to taking him into a movie theater.

(Now, if you haven't read the other posts about our recent trip to Las Vegas, you should go read about Xander's first time on an airplane and his first time in a swimming pool now.)

During our Vegas time-out last week, we met up with a couple of friends from home who were also taking advantage of a free Vegas stay, only they were comped at the Bellagio, a few lavish steps above the Red Rock resort, where we were. The second night, our friends met us at our place for dinner and a movie. We'd found out that the casino/hotel actually had daycare/babysitting service, but it would cost us something like 200.00$ for someone to watch the baby for the evening. So an actual show like The Lion King of Cirque du Soleil was out of the question.

Unnecessary, but still worth it.
The Red Rock has it's own movie theater (and a bowling alley) along with the usual variety of restaurants. We decided on X-Men: First Class at 7:50 and the Japanese place for dinner. I wasn't about to eat sushi or anything, but I like me some tempura. Unfortunately, they wanted reservations, and we were on a deadline, so we tried the Italian place. I enjoyed some good bread and spaghetti carbonara along with the company.

And then it was time to put Xander to sleep. (Not, you know, like a dog...) Anywho... You might be surprised at how strange most restaurant people think you are for requesting a glass of hot water to heat up a cold bottle of milk. They're usually like, "You need HOT water? How hot? Boiling? Just hot? Warm?" Then they bring it out in a glass or small teapot filled to the brim (one guy told us he thought the glass might crack because the water was so hot; he made us pour the water into an empty Starbucks cup) so that we have to then find another glass to pour the hot water into. We've taken to carrying a large plastic cup with us wherever we go for just such occasions.

Obviously this isn't Vegas. But he's in the BabyBjorn
for one of our first forays outside this Spring.
Okay, so the plan was for Xander to sleep stuffed into the BabyBjorn while the movie played. We even affixed his oxygen to his face so we wouldn't risk waking him by doing it when we got back to our room later. Of course, Xander had his own ideas. No warm milk. No dozing off. He accepted the oxygen cannula, but opted to stay wide awake and threaten the other people in the theaters.

Mommy tried facing him inward so he wouldn't be distracted by the movie screen; he could hide his face and go to sleep, never mind the loud noises. This, too, was not in the child's plans. So Mommy turned him around, thinking that she could lean back in these fancy, reclining stadium seats, and he could get comfortable and sleep the night away like that. Again, slumber was not in the stars.

In fact, once they turned down the lights and the trailer for Dragon Tattoo lit up the theater with that raucous version of "Immigrant Song"--which you should take time out to hear right now because, after The Social Network and Where the Wild Things Are and now this, Trent Reznor and Karen O should just spend the rest of their lives doing music for movies:

--this is what Xander looked like:

Not a great picture taken with my phone in the dark. But, still, he's mesmerized. 
Once the movie started and mutants were running rampant, he didn't care as much. He did finally go to sleep in his mother's arms, not in the carrying case, and with little fuss. The blaring explosions were just white noise to him. No one else in the theater even knew he was there.

And for good measure, outside of New York, New York on the Strip:

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Vegas, Baby: First Float

I learned how to count cards from these guys,
just not how to place a bet.
During our recent trip to Vegas, I was left to my own devices for much of the daytime. The eventime was filled with food and friends and that's the post to come. But I couldn't just sit myself down at a blackjack table and while away my 401K. For one reason, I wouldn't know how to actually make a bet in a casino any more than I would know how to build a carbon dioxide scrubber just because I saw them do it in Apollo 13. I don't even understand how the slot machines work now that they're all digitized.

The other reason I wasn't basking in the debauchery of Sin City was that I had a child in tow. While the Mommy was at her conference, the Boy was with me. We stayed at a "resort" called Red Rock, which is a long ways from the Vegas Strip on the west side of town near actual mountains and big rocks that are red and stuff. Not that once you're inside you see any natural formations of anything other than what naturally happens to the human body when you sequester yourself indoors and chain smoke until your ears are ringing with those tinny bleeps and blips. My wife, in fact, didn't go outside for nearly 48 hours. There was no need.

They also have concerts here while you bathe.
There's only so many times you can wheel a stroller around the outskirts of a casino before you start to smell like one of them. (Take your pick of antecedents for that last pronoun. Or invent your own. I won't mind.) My other choice was the pool. You see the picture there. I have to admit that it was pretty swanky. Lots of palm tree shade. Fountain in the middle. Little gazebos with what amounts to four-post beds. Lounge chair pads IN the water. Not to mention the lifeguards and serving girls in skimpy bikinis. Which I'm not going to mention. You're welcome.

Most important to me was the wealth of shallow water beckoning for Xander's first swim.

Here's the preparation necessary to ready a six-month-old for the pool:

Swimsuit: Check, except that the first day Xander wore a regular outfit instead because we couldn't find the suit we packed. It did say "Surf's Up" on it. The next day we found the real suit. It's full-body, like a surfer's wet suit.

Swim diaper: These don't naturally suck up liquids like a regular disposable diapers. I don't know exactly how they keep the pee in, then, but at least you're not carrying around ten pounds of pool water with the baby.

Sunscreen: Preferably SPF 7000 and in spray bottle form. Slather on all exposed areas of skin. Avoid the eyes, but cover the head thoroughly. Faux-hawk hair-do optional.

Big, floppy sun hat: This makes the sunscreen covering the head moot, and helps the child by shading the eyes so he can see what's going on directly in front of him but nowhere else.

Okay. The first day I took Xander down to the pool around four o'clock. The weather was plenty nice, not too super hot, but warm enough to want to get in the water. We found a shaded corner and I sat Xander in the shallow water. He's just barely sitting up without tipping over, so I didn't let go of him, and he wasn't as clingy as I expected. He does enjoy his bath time, so perhaps sitting in the water fully clothed and bonneted was not such a shock.

When I put him in his floatie tube, he seemed more apprehensive, but just kept that stoic expression on his face. He's a rather pleasant guy most of the time, but when he's introduced to something brand new, he gets this "whatchoo talkin' 'bout, Willis" look. He stayed that way for most of the time that I pushed him around the pool. He is still a little small for the floatie tube, so he slid as far down as he could without dropping out the bottom. There's really no way he could slip out of there, but I kept one hand underneath him at all times. The one thing he didn't like was getting splashed when the fountain went off and we were too close. Otherwise the only complaint I got was when I noticed his lips were dark purple. Time to get out.

The next day I took him to the pool a little before 3:00. As we entered the pool area, a prominent sign kindly told us the pool was closing at 3:00 so they could prepare for the O.A.R. concert that night. Annoying as it was that my only source of entertainment for the afternoon would be closed in ten minutes, the wind made it pretty miserable to want to stay in the pool. He fussed a lot more than he did the previous day about being in the cold.

On the third day, we only had some time in the morning for swimming. The temperature was already in the 80s at 10:30, which is high for a clan from Colorado, but not really hot enough to enjoy their cool-water pool for very long. We drifted around in the water, Xander constantly looking like he was about to ask what I was making him participate in. When his lips again became bluey, we got out and wrapped up and went back into the climate-controlled structure of the hotel.

Maybe it was that I was alone, that I didn't have anyone to share it with, like the boy's mother. Or maybe I'm overly cautious and Xander was loving it in that water. Either way, the experience was less than satisfactory to me. Both of my girls were water-babies from as early as I can remember. I know I didn't expect him to jump in and start swimming, but a little more excitement or at least expression from the boy would have helped.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Vegas, Baby: First Flight

We took a jaunt over to Vegas last weekend. Mommy had to work at a conference at a fancy resort in the desert, so Daddy and Son went with. Further posts about more of Xander's firsts are forthcoming if you want to stick around. Also, we didn't remember our camera, as we are wont to do, but I took a few pics with my crappy phone and those might be included later.

About the airplane generally: if you thought the seats were cramped when you’re all by yourself, wait until you have a floppy six-month-old on your lap. You’re used to having a variety of items within a moment’s reach: bottles, towels, toys. Anything you need to keep the boy happy. But once you’re on the plane, you’re trapped for the next 90 minutes--or longer if they decide to get everyone loaded 30 minutes early and promise you'll take off early but then you sit there in the cramped plane on the tarmac when you could have had more time in those wide, black vinyl seats at the gate where there's room to run and run or at least change a poopy diaper (within an enclosed stroller, or course). And hope you’re not going to Fiji or Sao Paulo because that’s a long way.

I took my two daughters on airplane trips when they young ‘uns, but I don’t remember so much trouble. Of course, I was probably half my current girth back then. Plus, airport security was a bit different. 

The security situation: We put our carry-on bags on the rollers, put our shoes in the square bucket. I took my laptop out of the bag and put it in a bucket with my phone and watch. May knew enough to take the liquids--breast milk and baby food--out of bags and put them separately in a bucket. Xander was in his stroller; we were told we could check it at the gate. But he had to come out of the stroller, and the stroller had to be collapsed and sent through the x-ray thingy. I didn’t think it would fit. It’s got double front wheels that give me trouble just stowing it in the back of the car. But in it went.

Baby can wear socks but not these.
May was holding the boy, but before the guard indicated she could go through the metal detector, he looked over Xander and told us to take off his shoes. Basically his shoes are just thick socks, but off they came and through the x-ray they went and they never made it back on his feet because they stayed in my pocket for the rest of the trip.

The actual vapor-seeking device. See here.
Pronounced Saab-ray. Partnered with Dunder-Mifflin.
I thought they only made defective printers.
On the other side of the veil, one of the officers asked me to follow him. He had the pack with the baby food and the cooler bags with the milk. I left May to get Xander returned to the stroller and our other bags put back together. Over in the corner, the guard chose two bottles of milk at random and asked me to unscrew the lids. He then waved a hand-held detector device over the open bottle. Its readout was something like, “Vapor analysis…” After a moment, it beeped and blinked, “Pass.”

He then opened the zipper on the pack of baby food, which was individual, unopened packages. He took a strip that kind of looked like a band-aid and swiped  the strip over a closed jar of baby food. He then put the strip into a large machine, as one might do to determine a blood sugar level. After another moment the man said that was it. I didn’t see what the output of the large machine was, but I assume we passed detection of any illegal or pathogenic substances.

The guard then wanted to stuff everything back into our pack. I told him I’d do it, but he said he got it. Not wanting to argue with the guy who might hold you and your family indefinitely if his machines told him to do so, I let it happen.

That was really the only thing he did that was annoying. He was pleasant and nice the entire time. In fact, the whole experience was rather innocuous. I thought it would be more trouble. Is it just that after ten years, we've accepted the poking and the prodding? Or has security gotten better and less intrusive?

Still, as I slipped my shoes back on and bent over in the middle of the way to tie the laces, I wondered why there were no chairs or a bench to sit upon at this juncture of our journey.

A final note about babies and air travel: On the plane home, Xander had trouble falling asleep. He didn't seem upset at the concept of flight; he was just tired and wanted to cry about it. By the time we were able to ask for some hot water to heat up a cold bottle, he had already elicited several dirty looks from those around us. I wondered how many Vegas hangovers we were dealing with. The woman next to May put her tray table down and her head upon the tray table and didn't get up for an hour. The woman in front of May turned around and bruskly told her that May's leg shaking to calm the baby was vibrating this woman's entire chair. This woman spent most of the flight with her face in her hands. Then, just as the attendant brought over the hot water, Xander was done complaining and closed his eyes to sleep. He woke up just in time for the worst turbulent decent into Denver I've ever experienced.

Xander handled it a lot better than I did. I still feel a bit nauseated.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Let's all read about darkness and depravity!

Yesterday the blogosphere was all abuzz about this article in the Wall Street Journal called "Darkness Too Visible." The author makes the claim that fiction for teens is too dark and disturbing. The internets disagree.

My Master's Thesis was a YA novel. (Plug: As completed it was called After Graduation, but you can see here the revised version called Trendy Poseurs Go Home.) My thesis defense committee was made up of three professors who have all published YA fiction. They were each helpful mentors and facilitated my writing in every way they could. When I went in for my official defense, however, the first thing they asked was how I could uphold my novel as literature. I stumbled around for a few minutes muttering something about how Adolescent Literature (as it was called back then) is a valid sort and, um, meaningful to a--ahem--variety of people, when they stopped me. I was embarrassed and confused because I thought they were belittling my choice of genre when they themselves write the same sort of fiction. They, of course, weren't trying to embarrass me, and they quickly told me they understood the importance of YA fiction.

(I still sometimes wonder why they passed me, though, because I clearly had a hard time defending myself.)

That was fifteen years ago. Since then Harry Potter happened and Twilight and The Hunger Games, not to mention Sarah Dessen and Jodi Picoult and Meg Cabot. Which is to say that Young Adult Literature (as it is called now) hardly needs defending any more.

So let's talk about the criticism that YA books are brutal and violent and full of sex and expletives.

It's all true. But it's nothing new. And neither is the criticism. Catcher in the Rye and The Chocolate War and To Kill a Mockingbird have all been deemed obscene and immoral or for years. What I think is new is that so many people care. And they are staunchly opposed to censorship.

They argue that YA novels depict teenage life like it is. That reading about an issue, even if that problem isn't something you deal with, can expand your worldview. If it is something you personally connect with, you understand better that you are not alone.And that suggesting teens shouldn't read certain books about these problems because of vulgarity or violence is censorship.

A censorship argument like this seems to lead to the idea that everything out there is equally valid. My issue with this "anything goes" attitude comes from the point of view of a high school English teacher. In another article, Julie Daines suggests that there's a difference between being "edgy" and "trashy." It seems to me that too many YA stories are provocative just for the sake of being provocative. People will read if you just give them the right kind of hook. And I've seen that my students are no different. Hook them, and they'll read anything, even if it's just garbage.

Don't get me wrong. I love YA Lit in realistic or fantasy form. I love books, period. Most of what I expect all year from a regular high school student is that they understand that reading is good for them. I believe that all high school students should read and study each of the controversial books mentioned above, along with dozens more. But I also think the jury's still out on books like My Bloody Life and A Child Called "It." 

(Full disclosure: I have not read these two books, and I probably never will. However, I have read sections of these texts and have had enough students read them and tell me about them that I feel confident in discussing them as examples here.)

In the high school curriculum where I teach, students are encouraged to choose what they want to read. It's a reading workshop where choice is supposed to lead to engagement with a text. And these books are two of the most popular choices.

My Bloody Life is the true story of gang life in Chicago. The problem with this book isn't the graphic depiction (and it's plenty graphic), but the fact that students can't seem to tell me what the point is. A few can tell me something, but time after time, I have asked my students if the point of this depiction of gangland violence is to show the horror and tragedy of such a life, and most of the time they respond with something like, "It's just real, you know?" Or worse, "It's just cool." (Perhaps part of this difficulty is that they also think a film like Scarface is cool because "no one messes with him"; they don't have any concept of an anti-hero.) This is what people like the author of the WSJ article argue against: that teens will read these violent books and think they're "just cool." The provocative nature of this story seems to outweigh the point. I don't know if the author of My Bloody Life intended the theme that gang life leads nowhere (or to jail) (or to death). But if that's not the point of a text rife with sexual and violent "reality" then I don't know if anyone should be reading it, let alone teenagers who think gangs are cool.

The problem with A Child Called "It" isn't theme. Most of my students can tell me what the main idea of the book is: "Child abuse is bad." It's a true story about a boy whose alcoholic mother abuses him physically and emotionally. It shows how this boy is able to overcome that abuse and succeed in spite of it. The problem here is in the simplicity. It's a one-note story, with unsophisticated language and manipulative writing. You get the point from page one, and then you're beat over the head with it. It's the car wreck you can't look away from. Of course it's sad what this kid had to suffer through, and I hope the mother paid for her maltreatment of her child. But I definitely don't need to read this book to understand that.

In these cases, I wouldn't say the gritty darkness, the "edginess" is worth it. I hope my students can graduate to more complex books with more difficult ideas to think about. And that they're not just choosing books because they're full of sex and violence.

Monday, June 6, 2011

How Does it Feel?

I wrote most of this just after school one day several weeks ago but never posted it. You should read into that to tell you something about the year I (we...most teachers at my school...in America) had. I post it now simply because with the passage of time I don't feel the negativity like I felt (see below re: title). Now it's basically just a couple of anecdotes about how your day goes as a high school teacher.

The title above is a line from a Nine Inch Nails song. I'm not going to tell you which song. If you know it, you know how it feels.

This week, I'm at school at 7:00 am, I don't leave until after 5:30pm, and I'm not even coaching this year. My IB students are presenting oral assessments this week. It's an after school requirement. So I get home and I'm wiped out. I have no energy. I don't want to play with the boy. I don't want to grade papers. I don't want to write. While I was off duty (on my paternity leave), I would have all kinds of ideas, blog posts, novel ideas, and I would write them down. Once I had an idea for a blog post, it would maybe take me a couple of hours to write and get finalized before I posted. I think that's a pretty good time commitment. My bet is most bloggers don't spend that amount of time. But I like my little essays to have coherance and heft. Anyway, the point is that I haven't the energy. Not to mention the ideas. I have about five posts started and stopped from the past two weeks. I can't seem to finish the ideas. I don't even really like what I'm writing right now and I wonder if this will just end up in the pile of drafts at the back of this blog.

All contraband.
Today during class, I asked a student who wasn't listening if she was listening, and she barked, "Obviously not." I suppose that's what I get for asking. She had headphones on and her iPod and phone out on the desk. I asked her to put them away. She didn't. (We're actually supposed to take those things away. I thought I was doing her a favor.) I asked her if we could go out to the hall to talk. Her response: "I'm not going to talk to you." She refused to move. So now that class had been thoroughly disrupted and my authority challenged, security had to come in and take her out.

It's the power struggle I hate.

He looked exactly like this until I ruined his day
I saw a student of mine in the hallway, carrying his lunch tray, far away from the cafeteria. I hadn't seen this student since my return, and his attendance when I was here before was sporatic, and getting worse each week. Just this morning, though, I recieved a note from the registrar that he had been withdrawn from school. So I asked him what was going on with him. I told him I was told he had dropped out. "No," he said, "I'm still here." And he grinned like this was very funny. He tried to walk off, like I wasn't even really talking to him, but I asked him again why I would get an email saying he withdrew from school if here he was, eating lunch with impunity. He just grinned, shrugged his shoulders, and tried to walk off again. He didn't yet understand what this chance encounter had in store for him.

Interestingly, we were standing in front of the dean's office and the secretary had heard my questioning, so she called out and asked his name. I told her and she checked and said, "Yep, you're no longer a student here." This happens sometimes with non-attenders. I asked him if he had just been coming to school and hanging out all day. He said, "I went to class this morning." Apparently that wasn't enough to stave off the withdraw. The secretary told him he needed to wait in the office until he could talk to a dean. I had just spoiled his lunch. My duty was over.

I saw him in the hall again a little while later. I asked him what the dean said. He mumbled something like, "I'm outta here." I wanted to ask him more about what happened, but he was headed out the door. He didn't stop to chat.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011


Is this better than a baby photo?
A blog award is a funny bird.

On the one hand, it's wonderful to be recognized. It's a ego boost and proof that at least one person out there actually reads the words you put down and doesn't just skip to the cute photos of your baby, or worse, a dead British phone booth. (If you click on that link right there, you have to promise you'll read the post, not just look at the pictures.)

On the other hand, most blog awards are merely chain letters that beg to be broken. At least the blog awards don't come with a dire warming of doom that if you don't follow the directions and do exactly as they say within 48 hours the Rapture will ensue and you won't be invited. Still, I can't bring myself to ignore them entirely. Chanel at Fabulously Neurotic, has repeatedly made mention of my blog and she has recently urged the bloggerverse to pay it forward.

So I will. But I will only follow some of the rules. And FYI, I now have a whole page where I will post any awards (like I'll ever get another after this) under the Awards Mantle tab up above. I'll also include my EGOT awards there when they arrive.

So Chanel--did I mention her blog Fabulously Neurotic?--has wacky adventures every week that she shares through her wonderful way with words. You should go there.

Sometime during the past several weeks, she has proferred the following:

This one has rules that I will follow in part. I'm not sure what it takes to get this award except to be so interesting that the giver just can't wait to hear more about you. Thus, I will tell you 7 facts, as the award itself states. Perhaps it should be called 7 Secret Admissions instead.

Fact 1: I take pleasure in mowing the lawn. I think it's the smell. Not the mower exhaust. The fresh cut grass.

Straight-shootin sci-fi.
Fact 2: I own nearly 3600 albums, over 3000 on CD.

Fact 3: I only hop on the treadmill to run so that I can watch a television series from the beginning without interruption. Right now it's Battlestar Galactica.

Fact 4: I prefer breakfast food. My favorite is cooking my own tortillas (not from scratch; they come in a package, but uncooked) for breakfast burritos. With bacon or sausage. Or both.

Straight-edge punk rock.
Fact 5: I enjoy folding laundry. Kind of a zen thing.

Fact 6: I just received in the mail the old Dag Nasty album Can I Say for, like, 22 cents, plus shipping and handling.

Fact 7: I was the hopscotch champion in second grade. Except that I wasn't. I came in second, but told my parents I won. They bought me a new rubber throwing disc that was all the rage at the time. The Pogs of the mid-seventies.

Chanel also awarded me  this darling decoration:

I'll just let you sit back and ponder why my blog is particularly lovely. There are no rules here, so this award will probably just sit and fester.

Then a couple of weeks ago Bryan at Notes from the Night Owl  invented a blog award that celebrates individual posts within someone's blog. I like this idea because it's much more than a chain letter that you pass on just for the sake of passing on. It recognizes distinct, specific efforts, which gives me a real reason for passing it on.

Bryan called this The Classic Post Award and offered it up for my post "Turn and Face the Strange."

And Chanel, in her eternal benevolence, has paid her Classic Post forward by granting me The Classic Post Award for my post "Baby's Day Out." You may go read those now if you haven't before.

So this is me paying it forward. I hereby bequeath The Classic Post Award to the following posts from blogs you all should be reading and following.

From  Notes from the Night Owl, the post "School's Out" is a nostaligic trip through the old neighborhood in all of us. This is the first post from his new-ish blog (he has two others), where he discusses memories or experiences from his childhood, mostly. His prowess with a descriptive passage is to be envied.

From Cynicism 101, the post "Optimism 101. What the what ?!?!" is the rare opportunity where Dr. Cynicism lets go of the pessimism for a day and his evil twin Dr. Optimism takes over. It's funny if you get what cynicism is all about.

From Fabulously Neurotic, the post "Apparently they've changed the definition of 'Comedy'" is Chanel's innocent, genuine surprise at the ending of the movie Marley and Me. This displays her personality and writing in the best way.

From Moody Writing, the post "Don't Overstuff Your Verbs--Unpack" is another one of Mooderino's writing tutorials. He's got so much great writing advice over there that is was hard to pick just one post, so go read his blog. Plus, he does a great close analysis of texts like Hunger Games and Fight Club.

From Notice Your World, the post "Hot Dog" shows off another of Charlie's stories of growing up in his family. He also includes homemade cartoons to illustrate his epic tales and the pictures in this post are pretty hilarious. It's all in the details.

Five is a good number for now. There are certainly many other bloggers that deserve this recognition, but these are the five that came to mind today. I don't think there were any explicit rules about passing on this award, so I will probably come back to it and give five more away when I feel like it.

Thanks for playing along.