Reading nerds: The Literature Draft

Posted in Entertainment, Novels, teaching, Vacation with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 1, 2014 by Mike

A few weeks ago I was watching the NFL draft waiting to see where Johnny Football would be drafted when I started thinking (it’s a problem – it usually leads to all sorts of work for me). My initial thought was what a literature draft would look like; that is, if a group of people were drafting works of literature, who would pick what first, and how would those choices be justified? I mean, James Joyce’s Ulysses is considered by many to be the single most important work of the 20th century, but I wouldn’t take it in a draft because it’s nigh-unreadable (I tried once). Okay, maybe that’s a little unfair to Joyce, but there are other novels higher on my list.

It was this thought that led me to, on a whim, post to my “Books” Facebook group (a cadre of English teachers who post about what they’ve been reading) the following:

Silly idea: let’s have a novel draft. We could use, say, Time’s Top 100 list (or something better) and compile our own squad of books, then read them (if we haven’t already).

This might have been the end of it, as it got only 4 “likes”, but then eLaffint commented with

Yes let’s do that. But please explain more.

So eLaffint forced me to think about this some more, and closer to the end of the school year I woke up one morning with the following rules in my head:

1) There’s a $10 entry fee – this will be important later.

2) We will each choose 4 works from one of two lists: either the AP title list or the “Top 100 Works in World Literature” (

3) The four works must include a) an American author b) a female author c) an author whose original language is not English and d) a play. None of the choices may be a work taught at the school or something you have already read (you’re on your honor).

4) The draft will be done by email – the order will be pre-determined and everyone in the group will “reply all” when it’s your turn. It doesn’t matter what order you “draft” your works, but no repeats are allowed.

5) Once your list (“team”) is complete, you have pretty much the rest of the year to read them.

6) Once finished, you must write a brief essay (3-5 pages) that reflects on what you’ve read. 10 point font, Times New Roman, double spaced.

7) These essays are due to me by December 12, 2014.

8) An independent panel of three judges (three people not in the draft) will read these essays and determine the winner. All essays will be published to this site, as well as to any blogs the participants might have, with the “winning” essay designated as such.

9) The winning essay’s writer will receive all the money collected from the entry fees. There is no second place. If we have 10 people enter, the winner will receive $100.

A couple notes: I decided on the AP list because it’s quality literature and diverse.  Selecting from that list could also benefit teachers who are looking for literature for their class libraries and want to branch out from young adult fiction and the more common works that most high schools already have on their reading lists (I’m looking at you, Gatsby).  Plus, it’s a pleasure to read. [bonus points for identifying the allusion]. The other list I found through Google, and thought it might help find works that help fulfill requirement “c” on number 3.

The essay requirement was a bit of a worry as I thought that might turn off possible participants, but I wanted something more to happen than “I read it, and it was _____” posts on Facebook. The opportunity to reflect on what you’ve read is an important part of the reading process, and I wanted to give everyone a chance to demonstrate their writing chops.  Hell, it’s something we ask of our students all the time, so, physician, heal thyself, IMO. Let’s put ourselves in our students’ shoes a bit, but also show off what we can do. We’re English teachers for a reason (okay, one of our group is not, but J-ROY’s a reader).

Eight of us decided to give this a shot.  We held our draft on Saturday, and, after a bit of delay due to J-ROY’s travelling, we each have our four works selected:

RAINY Invisible Man The Color Purple In the Time of Butterflies Glass Menagerie
E-E-RON House Made of Dawn When the Emperor was Divine History (Elsa Morante) Zoot Suit
JAX A Tree Grows in Brooklyn Handmaid’s Tale Purple Hibiscus Trifles
DEE-DEE Love Medicine Alias Grace A Thousand Splendid Suns Hamlet
eLaffint Cat on A Hot Tin Roof Wide Sargasso Sea Lysistrata Equus
J-ROY All the Pretty Horses Cat’s Eye The Trial Mother Courage and Her Children
BRP In the Lake of the Woods Member of the Wedding Gargantua and Pantagruel No Exit
ME Old School – Wolff God of Small Things Blindness Doctor Faustus

I think we’re all looking forward to reading our selections, but I’m particularly anxious to read their essays.

I’ll periodically post on my progress here.

Diabetes update…

Posted in Uncategorized on May 17, 2014 by Mike

Five months after being diagnosed with diabetes, I thought I’d update anyone interested as to how I’m doing.

I guess the biggest challenge I face right now is my diet. Not in the sense that “Oh my God, I need to eat ___________!” where I crave some type of dessert or carb-laden treat, because changing my eating habits was really quite easy.  I eat salads every day for lunch (topped with grilled chicken, usually) along with fruit of various types, and dinner consists of some sort of non-fried meat alongside some vegetables and maybe a small portion of something with carbs. Breakfast is instant steel-cut oatmeal and coffee – I’d never been a breakfast person but now I don’t skip it.

No, the challenge for me is all the weight I’ve lost. I know, that doesn’t sound like much of a problem. As I wrote when I announced I had been diagnosed, five months ago I weighed 195 pounds.  Today I weigh between 175 and 180, depending on the time of day.  A lot of that loss can be attributed to the diet, I’m sure, but I’m also hitting the gym and the road regularly – meaning that if I don’t go to the gym I’m running 4 to 6 miles. I’ve found with the weight loss that my mile pace has improved considerably – go figure, right? I’m now able to run four miles easily at an 8:30 pace. Longer runs I’m not falling below 9:15. So there’s that. This combination of diet and exercise has, amazingly enough, led to the shedding of the gut I saw in pics of me taken last summer at South Padre.

Notice how tiny the Shiner Bock can is compared with the belly backdrop. Yeesh.

Notice how tiny the Shiner Bock can is compared to the belly backdrop. Yeesh.

A "selfie", as the kids call it today.

A “selfie”, as the kids call it today.

First world problems have resulted.  My pants don’t fit me – I had to buy a couple new pairs of jeans (32 inch waist) and now even they’re a bit loose. The one suit I have, which used to fit me fairly well, now looks and feels baggy. Fortunately I’m only required to wear a suit one or two times a year. I feel like I’m always hungry, too, and that leads to more expensive grocery bills because I’m eating fruit, nuts, and sausage.  I’ll get home after work, turn the grill on, and throw a link of jalapeno cheese venison sausage on and eat half of it as a snack.

I’m really struggling with how I can maintain or gain weight – sugars and carbs are right out, really (and not the type of weight I want to gain), but eating too much meat will certainly affect my cholesterol levels. I drink protein smoothies after every workout, but I’ve found the frozen berries I throw in lead to a spike in my blood sugar level, and I’m still a bit paranoid about that. Especially when I drink the smoothie after my evening workout, go to bed, and wake up to see it at 130. No smoothie, it’s in the 1-teens. Really, though, it’s usually down to less than 100 a couple hours after lunch, so I don’t know what I’m particularly  worried about.

So, how to stabilize my weight in a healthy way is the biggest question I’m facing.

I did visit a local endocrinologist in late January – I wasn’t impressed: my blood test results weren’t given to me until a month and a half later, and only after I called and requested them.  My A1c was at an 8.6, which wasn’t a surprise given my elevated blood sugar levels, but I had to get that down.  I did learn, also, that I have “diabetes 1.5”, and it’s really only  a matter of time until I will need to go on insulin. But for now I’m controlling it with diet and exercise and Metformin.

I later changed general practitioners, and was told again that my diabetes is in some sort of “honeymoon” period, and that if/when I start to see a rise in my levels, I’ll need to get on insulin. I don’t plan on letting this honeymoon period end soon. The good news is that I did have another A1c done, and it’s now at 7.0, which is where my doc wants me to be, if not lower.

All in all, I guess it could be a whole lot worse. I don’t want to be on insulin, but if it comes to that it’ll be what it’ll be.

My Half-Price Books story from ILPC weekend

Posted in Novels, Uncategorized with tags , , , , on May 16, 2014 by Mike

A few weekends ago my newspaper staff attended the ILPC conference in Austin. It’s an opportunity for them to learn from professional journalists and award-winning newspaper advisers from across the country, as well as a chance for them to bond and celebrate the almost-over year.

And since BRP is my assistant adviser, it’s also an opportunity for us to do some book-deal hunting at the nearby Half-Price Books.

Austin’s Half-Price Book stores have a much wider selection than my local store, of course, and the particular store we visited always has a grand collection of signed novels and collectibles (BRP calls it his “mecca”).  For instance, back in its collections room it has an uncorrected proof copy of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (yours for $700) alongside a first edition of a Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations (yours for $6000). BRP was really impressed with an early copy of Ginsberg’s “Howl” while I was (and still am) desperate to find a first edition of John Williams’ Stoner (no dice…probably couldn’t afford it if I found one, though).

We also scoured the fiction section for less-rare first editions and signed copies. I picked up a first edition of Hillary Jordan’s Mudbound.  Then I headed over to the end of the alphabet to check what Twain they had – I’m always looking for another copy of  A Pen Warmed Up in Hell and to check on any John Williams novels they might have (answer: none).  BRP was there in the same aisle – I moved past him and eventually came to Richard Wright, where I saw an old hard cover edition of Native Son on the shelf.  I pulled it down and noticed it didn’t have a price tag , but it did have $10 penciled in on the first page.  I took a look at the back of the title page – “first edition” was there, followed by 1940.

A nice find. Native Son is Richard Wright’s seminal work, and one that I read long, long ago.  BRP looked at the book and said if I didn’t buy it he would, so I kept it with my others.

When we got back to the hotel that evening, BRP asked to take another look at it.  I handed it over to him, and as he flipped it open on the table, he said something to the effect of “what the hell?” causing me to look back.  BRP pointed. I looked down – in the pages of the book lay a $100 bill, as crisp as the day it was minted (which was apparently in 1969). Despite being surrounded by my impressionable staff, I couldn’t keep myself from repeating “Holy shit!” a few times.   I immediately picked up the book and looked for more bills.  Nothing. I shook my fist angrily at God and…no, I didn’t – that would have been greedy.

The Benjamin in question.

The Benjamin in question.

I did find a pamphlet inserted in the book, though, that suggested the copy was a “Book-of-the-Month” Club edition. Not quite an actual FIRST EDITION (/angels singing), but, still, a nice find, indeed.  Half Price Books, from a particular point of view, PAID ME $90 to take that book off their hands.

The next day BRP and I returned to the store to check the old copy of Wright’s The Outsider that we ignored on our first trip.  Nothing.  The book stayed on the shelf.

So, now BRP is eating his liver with jealousy, and I’m sure he has his own version of how things went down that fateful day.  Ignore him – I’m the one God smiled on that day.

Sidenote: A lot of people ask me if I’m going to “pay it forward” – it’s found money and all that.  Hells, no. I’m a public school teacher – I “pay it forward” every day I go to work. The person who put the bill in the book was obviously storing it for a rainy day, and not as any part of a plan to make someone’s day 40 years later.

I spent it on a birthday gift for my wife.


Let’s start the new year off right…

Posted in Uncategorized on January 1, 2014 by Mike

Since it’s the first day of a new year, it’s time to make some resolutions  – and then begin paving Hell with them the rest of the year (as Twain said).

First up, I’m writing more often.  I’ve written this one before, and Hell has a nice walkway through its eighth circle because of it, but this time I have a bit more motivation: on Monday, I went in for  a physical/check-up (after two years of not really worrying about it), and fully expected to be told that I had high cholesterol. And I do (blood pressure’s perfect, though). But that’s not what the doctor called me about that afternoon .

It seems I have diabetes.

Yeah, I know, right? I’m 6’3” and 195 pounds – I’m not the typical diabetes candidate.  I’m definitely not obese and I do work out (irregularly lately), but my piss-poor eating habits seem to have caught up to me in a way I never expected.  One of my symptoms (there were a few) appeared about two weeks ago – eye blurriness.  I thought grading papers was the culprit, or I was spending too much time reading on my iPhone, but, nope, that was my high glucose levels affecting my vision, trying to tell me to straighten the hell up. Honestly, I’m angry at a lot of different things right now, myself included, and what I think is the whole fucking injustice of it all, but I know have to change some pretty significant parts of my life. I now have to wake up and go prick my finger to check my glucose level first thing every morning – I’m three days in and I can’t tell you how disappointing it is to see 288 staring back at you when you think you were eating responsibly the previous day (for those who don’t know, I need to shoot for 70-100 on a fasting sample to be considered normal).  It’s unrealistic to think it will change after three days (and, hey, my fasting sample was well over 300 on Monday), and Laura (who has been utterly fantastic about this – I’ve been very low) has reminded me that it’s taken years to get myself to this condition.  I can’t expect it to repair itself overnight. And she’s right.

Speaking of diet, I’m no longer allowed to eat anything with abandon, and now I’m constantly thinking of the types of food that will be exceptions/forbidden.  Fried chicken, most fast food, most sweets – saturated fats and all that. I did find out peanut M&Ms are okay, so there’s that.  The past couple days I’ve looked through our pantry and have recognized just how much crap I’ve got in there.  There’s a definite lack of appropriate snack food there for me.  Now I’m trying to figure out what kind of snacks I can eat and what kinds of food I’ll be able to take to school for my lunches.

Beyond diet, I need to exercise more regularly, which I don’t mind, but I would have rather had been more intrinsically motivated than have my doctor tell me I need to.  So I’ve started running again, and I’ll be getting to the gym even more regularly.

So there are my New Year’s resolutions in a  nutshell (healthy, see?). I’ll be updating this blog with how my condition is going, among other things, this year.

Best wishes to you all this year!


Addendum: the Aggie game last night was amazing – Johnny Manziel showed why he is the best college football player in the country.  I hold out hope he’ll stay one more year, but deep down know he won’t.  Good luck to him!



No Shave November at the high school.

Posted in Uncategorized on November 1, 2013 by Mike

One of my good friends (and fellow teacher) was somehow able to convince our principal to promote a “No Shave November” contest among students and faculty this year. Actually, the “somehow” isn’t too difficult to understand – the proceeds are benefiting another faculty member (and friend) who has been diagnosed with both bladder and prostate cancer.

No Shave

Here’s the ad for the event. If interested in helping out, contact me.

Now, I’ve never been able to grow a beard.  My attempts at such have been limited to a week’s worth of goatee growth on several occasions, but my own sense of vanity ended those attempts.  Okay, my wife’s aversion to facial hair also had something to do with it.  I  have at times coveted my friends’ facial-hair prowess (I’m looking at you, BRP, Scott F.,  and Mark H.), and my dad can grow a beard at will, but I’d console myself that because I don’t have a beard, I look much younger than my 41 years and, hey, Cap doesn’t have a beard.  Okay, that last one’s pathetic.

But I am not alone – my twin, of course, has the same problem (though he has recently made it past the “this looks awful” self-doubt phase and is sporting a goatee these days), and my younger brother hasn’t really committed himself yet (though, as the spitting image of our dad, he’s bound to get started soon).  Another good friend at the high school (J-Roy) is worse off than me; I recall being able to count his chin whiskers after two weeks of dedicated growth. But because he’s J-Roy, he’s convinced me to join with him to form a team in League One: “Team Patchy.”

This means I’ll be attempting to grow a full-on beard over the next month.

This also means I’ll  be sleeping on the couch starting about next Wednesday, I imagine.

Wish us luck.


Assignment: Go out into nature and use your sense(s)

Posted in Uncategorized on October 11, 2013 by Mike

Yeah, I’m not going in there
There’s bound to be poison ivy
And my calves prefer to remain itch-free.

Some small bird with a loud mouth, er, beak
Sounds off behind me
While another tweets ahead of me

Ouch! Damn mosquito –
Killed that fucker dead.

Nature be damned. I’m going back inside.

Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (allow me to geek out for a moment)

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on September 26, 2013 by Mike

Warning: here there be possible spoilers.

Ever since the first teaser for “Marvel’s Agents of Shield” appeared, one of the more popular talking points about ABC and Joss Whedon’s series has been”How the HELL is Agent Coulson in this series? He’s dead! I saw him die!” Of course, comic book superheroes never really DIE for good – there’s not a superhero out there that hasn’t died in the pages of his/her comic book a few times over. But Agent Coulson’s no superhero – prick him, he’ll bleed; poison him, he’ll die and all that – so after Whedon ripped our hearts out in Avengers (as he did in Serenity) it was reasonable to wonder how he’d pull off the trick of bringing Phil back to life without blatantly cheating.


“I am a leaf on the wind.”

The first episode of “Agents…” doesn’t completely answer that question. Sure, Coulson tells us about how he “saw a bright light” and was apparently on death’s doorstep before being revived miraculously (the heroes needed that “push” and weren’t told that Coulson survived) – and that’s certainly plausible – but it also cheapens the moment from the movie considerably. Coulson’s death becomes a trick, a ruse, not only fooling the heroes but also the audience. Beyond that, it suggests that mainstream superhero movies won’t let ANY protagonist actually die, which, if Marvel goes this direction, takes away any dramatic tension because there’s no risk anymore. Innocent bystanders are at risk of falling debris, of course, but never anyone with, you know, a name.

And I can’t really believe Whedon would do that.

There are hints in the episode that he didn’t. After Coulson discusses the bright light and being brought back to life, he goes on to talk about his recuperation in Tahiti, “a magical place.” Again, plausible, but Whedon brings in Firefly/Serenity alum Ron Glass (Shepherd) as one Dr. Streiten, who, upon hearing Coulson talk of Tahiti, looks on with amazement/mild bewilderment and, after Coulson exits, says something questioning Coulson’s lack of knowledge about what really happened. Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders reprising her Avengers role) responds with something along the lines “He can never know.”

The plot thicks.

Fortunately, there’s a perfectly Marvel-ous answer for this, and, if true, would restore the integrity of Coulson’s death in The Avengers and enrich the cinematic Marvel universe through the use of comic canon: Life Model Decoys.

For the uninitiated, Life Model Decoys (LMDs) are androids that serve as perfect duplicates of VIPs in the Marvel Universe, right down to DNA and memories. They are SHIELD creations, and the original Nick Fury in the comics has several running around at any given time. Using one to replace Coulson would be in keeping with Marvel tradition and could possibly lead to some very surprising reveals later in the series. In fact, they’ve already been name-checked in the cinematic universe: Tony Stark tries to play himself off as an LMD when Coulson arrrives at Stark Tower to bring him his “homework.” So there is precedent.

But what about that whole “he can never know” business? LMDs in Marvel comics have been known to believe themselves to be the real thing, rather than a copy. The last run of Secret Avengers used a Nick Fury LMD who believed himself to be the real Nick Fury, and ended up going a bit insane. The idea that Coulson is actually an LMD who doesn’t realize that he’s artificial is, in my eyes, a distinct possibility, and sets up some fantastic possibilities/drama for the future. What would happen if Coulson realizes he’s an android? That SHIELD kept this from him because he’s so valuable (Fury: “I lost my one good eye”)? As Stark explains in the Avengers , Fury is “THE spy. His secrets have secrets.”

I think Whedon has one, too.

/I published this first on – check it out!

The benefits of having cute daughters…

Posted in Uncategorized on September 18, 2013 by Mike

About a year ago, I was traveling with the family to my parents.  We were in my wife’s Highlander, and, because its ride is very smooth and its acceleration impressive for a small SUV, I didn’t really notice that I was going about 83 in a 75…okay, maybe I did, but no trooper is going to pull me over for just 8 over, right?


Just before Hearne, a trooper (WHO CAME OUT OF NOWHERE, I SWEAR) pulls in behind me and flashes his lights.  I pull over, groaning because my wife is right beside me and smiling smugly because she was the last one to get a ticket and I hadn’t had one for years.  She also said she told me to slow down not ten minutes earlier.  Right.  Like I believe that.

Anyway, the trooper gets out of his car and makes his way to my window, which I’ve rolled down in preparation for the “Do you know why I pulled you over?” conversation. Before he says a word, though, Suzie, my cute, silly little five year old daughter sitting behind me in her booster seat, looks at the officer and says, “Hi!” in her cute, silly little five year old voice.

I’m looking at the officer and see his stern face break into a slight grin – he tried his BEST to suppress it, but couldn’t.  It was at that point that I thought to myself, “Hot damn, I’m not getting a ticket.”

I didn’t – he let me off with a warning.  My wife and I laughed about it the rest of the way to my parents, and she told me I owed my daughter big-time.

Cut to this morning, and I’m driving Suzie to school in my silver SS Camaro, not paying ANY attention to my speed as I go down the main drive from my house.  I honestly didn’t think I was speeding – the thought never crossed my mind.

That is, until the motorcycle cop set up at the end of the street flashed his lights as I came over the crest of the hill.

Digression: From time to time since the state trooper escape, I’ve told Suzie that if I were to ever get pulled over again, she should again say “Hi!” to the officer as he gets to my window (“what the hell?”, I think, it can’t hurt).

Suzie performs admirably. In fact, she says “Hi!” about four different times as the officer tells me he clocked me at 38 in a 30.  I expressed some surprise at the speed and he asks how fast I thought I was going.  In one of my more impressive moments of stupidity, I say I wasn’t paying any attention at all to my speed.  Nice, Michael.

He walks back to his bike with my license (Suzie says “Hi!” a couple more times) and I’m wondering how I’m going to hide this ticket from my wife.  When he returns, he tells me he’s giving me a warning, and asks me if I’ll slow it down next time.  “Absolutely,” I say, and he kind of laughs at that.  Then he tells me that some neighbors have complained about speeders on the street and then says he’s “looking for bigger fish” that morning.

I drive off relieved, of course, but also amazed at two things:

1) Motorcycle cops NEVER let people off of tickets.  I’ve never heard of it happening.


2) I’m in an SS Camaro – I’m not one of those “bigger fish”?

Still, I think I owe Suzie again.

The Ceiling Tile Assignment

Posted in teaching with tags , , , , on July 25, 2013 by Mike

At the end of each year I allow my students to add to the panache of my classroom by decorating the 2′ X 2′ ceiling tiles in my classroom.  The only real rule to this assignment is that the tile they create should reflect something from the class that they found important/memorable/inspiring, but many times they ignore this and just make fun of me (those tiles don’t stay up long). This has been going on for about ten years now so I’ve got quite a collection of student artwork hanging above my head, and the nice thing for me is seeing the tiles from years past that make the cut each year, reminding me of those students who are at this point probably finished with their college undergrad careers.

Anyway, I thought I’d show off a few of them here (click on the pic for a bigger size)…

What Would Twain Do?

Mark Twain is a common inclusion on these tiles, as  I make no secret of the fact that he’s my favorite classic American author. This one obviously is a rip-off homage to the “WWJD” bracelets that were popular a number of years ago, although this tile’s sentiment is probably a bit easier to achieve, if only because Twain wasn’t, you know, God.

Time tile

This one has a number of quotations concerning the passage of time swirling around a working clock that the student had placed in the tile.  The hands of the clock are made from balsa wood, and I remember the student complaining about the time it took him to get the weight correct.  I need to get up in the ceiling to replace the battery…

Many times the tiles students create (they aren’t actually using the tiles themselves – they use posterboard cut to size) reflect some dominant image from a novel we read.  Dr. T.J. Eckleburg’s disembodied eyes are a popular choice each year.

 … above the gray land and the spasms of bleak dust which drift endlessly over it, you perceive, after a moment, the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg.   The eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg are blue and gigantic – their retinas are one yard high.   They look out of no face but, instead, from a pair of enormous yellow spectacles which pass over a nonexistent nose … But his eyes, dimmed a little by many paintless days under sun and rain, brood on over the solemn dumping ground.

Silver Surfer

Other times students pick up on the fact that I am a Marvel Comics fan.  The student who created this work of art knew that I put “SSURFR” license plates on my silver Camaro  (I was tempted to go with “Radd“) and ran with it. Yes, that’s a three-dimensional Silver Surfer hanging upside down from my ceiling.  I’m amazed at the time/effort she put into this – it’s so much fun to look/gawk at.

Captain America makes numerous appearance each year, for some reason.  The above is from this past year, as well.  I don’t see myself taking this down…ever.  I think I’ll have it buried with me. And, yes, that says “Mr. Williams is a HERO.” Future students, take note.

Then there are tiles that reflect something so specific to that class/year, that for future students and other observers they’re cryptic and/or nonsensical. Such as the above.  Yes, that’s a psychedelic-colored picture of  a younger, thinner-faced me, the words “Sin is Tasty” and a pie beneath that.  It relates to this AP prompt borrowed from Gary Soto.  In this class’s discussion of said prompt, the allusion to the original sin committed in the Garden of Eden drew attention, and I had them look at how the young Soto relished the stolen apple pie:

But even that didn’t stop me from clawing a chunk from the pie tin and pushing it into the cavern of my mouth. The slop was sweet and gold-colored in the afternoon sun. I laid more pieces on my tongue, wet finger-dripping pieces, until I was finished and felt like crying because it was about the best thing I had ever tasted.

“Sin is tasty” I apparently told them, and for a group of about four students, that’s what stuck.  I have my moments.

Other times I don’t.  This tile has been up since my second or third year of teaching AP juniors. That year, a few parents (two, I think) complained to my principal about a novel on the class’s reading list, Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain.  One parent went so far as to type up every passage from the novel she deemed offensive and gave it to the principal.  This was a few months before we were even going to get to the novel, and I remember thinking, “I don’t have the time to fight this battle” [actually, it was “time for this shit”] and some other ruder thoughts about the intellect of the parents who complained. So I made the decision to pull it off the reading list that year to avoid the hassle.  That decision’s one of my biggest regrets of my teaching career. The school paper at some point  that year did a story on book banning and the English class reading lists (the newspaper staff is always chock-full of AP English students), and I was interviewed for it.  That quote on the tile came from the story and it’s something I believe with all my heart. The pictures are the covers of the books we read that year.  All of them are open except Cold Mountain.

Vindication came the next year (my juniors’ now seniors): Cold Mountain was a title referred to on the open-ended question of the AP Literature exam.

My top five formative albums

Posted in Entertainment, Music with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 24, 2013 by Mike

The internet’s full of top-whatever-number greatest albums lists, most of which I disagree with.  I mean, Sgt. Pepper‘s is a great album and all, but it’s not one that would crack my top 10. “Well, yeah,” you might say, “but you listen to mostly heavy metal” (I’m assuming you know me a bit). Sure, but then there are also lists devoted to strictly metal albums, and I have to tell you, I don’t care too much about Black Sabbath or Iron Maiden’s Powerslave.  Again, some awesome songs on both (“Aces High” is on my workout music playlist) and influential to the genre, but they’re not albums that have any distinct resonance with me.

And I suppose that’s why those top-whatever ratings get argued over so often – musical taste is subjective and what blows your skirt up might not even…well, whatever the male equivalent of that previous expression is for me. Those putting together these kinds of lists try to avoid that by looking at the albums’ perceived quality, originality, and influence, and that’s why Sgt. Pepper‘s and Revolver end up being in every top 10 list out there. Meh.

Now, I’m not “meh”-ing The Beatles, so much as I am the nature of these lists. Look, no shit, the Beatles are one of the most, if not the most, influential rock bands ever, and to suggest otherwise illustrates some sort of petty bias against those boys from Liverpool.  It’s ignorant.  If you want to hate on a band, direct it toward the Black-Eyed Peas – they’re the ones ruining music. Usually, though, those lists tend to get those objective qualities meted out in the right order, unless they’re purposely trying to annoy people (Kanye West at number 9, Adele at 17, while Led Zeppelin IV is at 79 – are your editors collectively stupid, Entertainment Weekly?).

But more to the point, while those lists are good for message-board fights and blog posts, the magazine’s/website’s selections shouldn’t mean much to readers. I know I’m not terribly interested in listening to The Beatles’ Rubber Soul or The Clash’s London Calling just because Rolling Stone deemed them top 10 albums, but I can appreciate reading the justification RS writes up. The list sells the magazine, and will be modestly adjusted the next time the next-big-thing hits (though, if you look at RS‘s list, you’d have to go all the way to #17 to find a post-1970’s album : Nirvana’s Nevermind, which, while definitely an “important” album for what it meant for American rock, can it honestly be said that it should be ranked higher than EVERY Led Zeppelin album?).

Rock attained perfection...

“Why do you need new bands? Everyone knows rock attained perfection in 1974. It’s a scientific fact.”

So I’m not interested in message board debates about these kinds of lists. What I’d be more interested in, though, is an individual’s list of his/her top 5 albums that had a lasting impact on his/her musical tastes.  In other words, albums that are responsible for what you listen to today.  I don’t necessarily believe that these are albums made by your favorite artists, otherwise I’d list off 4 Anthrax albums and something by Ian Moore for variety’s sake. Nor do I think it’s as easy as saying, “When I first heard Led Zeppelin/The Beatles/Nirvana/[insert ‘important’ band here] it showed me everything I listened to previously was crap.” Bullshit. If you LIKE a band’s music, then what other bands have done either before or after shouldn’t matter. We’re talking about art and emotional response, not compare/contrast.  Certainly albums by those ‘important’ bands could be on someone’s list, but there’s nothing wrong with declaring “Gypsy Road” has more importance to you than “Penny Lane.”   Illustrating this a bit,  Chuck Klosterman,  in one section of his “holy-crap-why-didn’t-I-write-this-book?” Fargo Rock City, lists out his top-whatever albums and the amount of money it would take for him to never listen to the albums again (apparently there’s not enough money for him to never again  listen to Appetite for Destruction).  His reasoning is both hilarious and intensely personal,  the latter of which makes it such a great read for anyone who grew up listening to hair metal in the 80’s, and anyone else who didn’t but loves reading about music (seriously, he’s exactly one day younger than me; that book might as well be entitled DeSoto Rock City).

So these kinds of thoughts have led me to think about my top 5 formative albums – these albums are my best guess as to why I have the taste in music I do. These are not my top 5 of all time – that’s a different thing and I’m pretty sure none of the following would be on that list. But these albums can probably be blamed for the presets on my car stereo…


Pyromania is the first rock album that I remember owning. Think about all the singles off this album – songs that are now staples/classics of 80’s rock: “Foolin'”; “Photograph” (can you hear that one guitar note that begins the song and NOT listen to the rest?); “Rock! Rock! (Till You Drop)”; “Too Late for Love”; and, of course, “Rock of Ages”.  In 6th grade some friends and I auditioned for a talent show doing an air guitar rendition of “Rock of Ages” (the school had a loose definition of “talent”, I guess). Every other group of kids auditioning “performed” Van Halen’s “Jump” – we were the only ones to get in (we had practiced our moves/lip-synching quite a bit, admittedly). This album was a gateway album to A LOT of late 80’s hair bands for me. Motley Crue, Warrant, Skid Row, Cinderella, Tesla, Extreme, hell, even the Sleeze Beez (/shudder) – I bought all those albums and memorized their lyrics because Def Leppard’s album showed me how awesome rock was.

Hooked on Classics

I’m not all about the metal these days (Sirius Pops is one of my presets), and I probably owe my taste in classical music at least in part to this damn album (Looney Tunes cartoons deserve some credit as well). I don’t know how well it holds up today, as the disco rhythm that’s tacked on to the classical music makes it sound a bit cheesy, but I know I couldn’t wait for it to get to the William Tell Overture (i.e., the “Lone Ranger” theme). You know what? Screw that – this album’s still great.

I'm the Man

I would love to be able to say that Among the Living is what turned me onto my favorite band. I can’t. Instead, I first heard Anthrax in my friend Mike’s garage when someone put on the I’m the Man EP.  I was laughing all damn night. One, the title song’s hilarious, and illustrates a sense of humor that really no other metal band cared to exhibit at the time (Metallica/Slayer/Megadeth: SERIOUS AND ANGRY – they wore all black.  Anthrax band members wore Jams on stage). Two, holy crap, “Caught in a Mosh” is fast and live (and recorded in Dallas!). Three, they wrote a song about a comic book character (Judge Dredd) and Danny Spitz’s guitar had the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on it.  Then, come to find out, the band members were reading the same books I was (Stephen King’s The Stand, “Apt Pupil”, and Misery all inspired songs).  I have to say that the “I’m the Man” lyrics “They cut their crack, they offer joints, We don’t do drugs, do you get our meaning? [POINT]” also drew my attention/appreciation [side note: years later Scott Ian would say that he had tried marijuana and had an allergic reaction to it.  I don’t know…then there was Charlie Benante’s point about buying toys rather than drugs]. It was the perfect storm of music and personality, and if it was Pyromania that led me to more hair metal, it was I’m the Man that opened up Metallica, Megadeth, Testament, etc. to me, which would later lead to Pantera and Machine Head and so on.


I remember when my parents forced this album on me and my brothers – they were playing the cassette constantly: when they picked us up from school; when we went to the store; when we were being driven to a  friend’s house; when we took vacations.  All the time – at least that’s how I remember it.  But the album grew on me, more so than on my brothers, I think, for whatever reason. Paul Simon is a hell of a musician (my Dad holds the not-so-uncommon opinion that Art Garfunkel was lucky to have known Simon), and the songs on this record are surprisingly catchy, especially for a 15 year old kid who was into rock and metal exclusively. Then there was the song/video for “You Can Call Me Al” – Chevy Chase was still a bankable star at that time and the interaction between Simon and Chase was fun to watch. My favorite song ended up being “I Know What I Know“, though. The use of South African musicians/music also demonstrated a social conscience as apartheid was still in effect (many felt, though, that Simon had broken a boycott toward S. Africa by doing so). So maybe I attribute to this album the reminder that good music is good music, no matter the genre. I ended up buying the CD, and was still listening to it right up until 2000 when it disappeared along with my stereo when my car was broken into out in Phoenix. Maybe the album had the same effect on the thief.  : /

Licensed to Ill

Any rap I’ve ever listened to can be attributed to this album.  Yes, I agree, it’s an extraordinary shame that I trace my appreciation for a musical genre that was created by urban blacks back to three Jews from New York, but, damn, this album is extraordinarily fun and stands the test of time.  Just try NOT listening to “No Sleep Til Brooklyn” or “Paul Revere“. Of course, it’s got “You’ve Got to Fight, etc..”, which I’ve always considered more rock than anything else, but above all this album was accessible (it didn’t hurt that Slayer’s Kerry King made an appearance). This album led me to, among others, Run-DMC and, later, Ice-T’s O.G. Original Gangster (no kidding!), along with Del the Funky Homosapien, Jurassic-5, and, of course, Eminem. Rap/Hip-hop’s never been a genre I’ve listened to consistently, but it was Licensed to Ill that opened that door.