TMI: Thoughts on my recent vasectomy…

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on July 16, 2011 by Mike

This may be (probably is) a post you have no interest in reading.  By all means, don’t.  Just putting down some random thoughts about the procedure. Don’t worry, no pics on this post.

…the decision was made b/c my wife and I have decided we’re done having kids, and the vasectomy’s more of a sure-thing than my wife having to remember to take her pill each day.

…I like to say I’ve taken myself out of the gene pool without actually dying.

…since my wife’s a vet, I can’t stop thinking I’ve been “fixed”, minus the whole removal of anything.

…as I wrote earlier, I’ve been reading the “Song of Ice and Fire” series, and can’t help but think that had vasectomies been available to kings, it would have helped keep the reign of Westeros from being so damned complicated.

…the worst part of the procedure? The injections of the local anesthetic – they were uncomfortable (and this, kids, is what we call ‘understatement’). Don’t get me wrong, they weren’t painful, just not pleasant (I suppose a shot to the scrotum shouldn’t be).

…my wife was in the room while the doctor performed the procedure.  They were talking about neutering dogs while he was working on me.  It was a bit disconcerting.

…guys, if you ever undergo a vasectomy, frozen peas and a jock strap are your dear friends.

…after two days of rest I was back on my feet (literally). While horizontal I started watching “The Wire” – fantastic show so far.

…actually, now that I think about it, the worst part was getting the two stitches removed, particularly the first one, which involved some tugging.

…went for my first run since the procedure this morning – I was a little tentative for the first 5 minutes or so, but everything seems back to normal.  Except, of course, for the capability of making babies thing.

…if you’re ever over for dinner at my house and you’re served peas, don’t worry, the bags I used were thrown away.

It’s the Revolutionary War all over again – Whose Side Are You On?

Posted in Comics, Entertainment with tags , , , , on July 14, 2011 by Mike

Tonight marks the opening night of the last chapter (part II) of Harry Potter.  You know, the movie based on the British author J.K Rowling’s books about British kids who find out they’re British wizards and go to Hogwarts, a British school of magic Rowling  modeled after the British school system.

Did I mention that they’re all British? (Okay, Rowling throws in some Scots and some French, too.  Same difference).

This movie is expected to shatter all records for opening weekends; tonight’s midnight showings – where attendees will dress in black robes, sacrifice black cats and summon Satan to enjoy some popcorn and Dots (so I’ve heard) – are sold out all across the nation in order that viewers can brag about being the first to see the finale of a film series they already know the  end to. It is also expected to be the top-grossing film of the year, and perhaps of all time.

This cannot stand.

Now, far be it from me to take away from the public’s apparent enjoyment of Anglophilic witchcraft, and I admit I will enjoy seeing Transformers 3′s opening weekend record be wiped from the books, but, dammit, we live in America, and this summer’s records should be held by an American film. No, not Michael Bay’s “movie” – America’s not about giant space robots who allow thousands of Americans to die to prove a point.  And America’s not about a Viking space alien, either, nor is it about a guy who gets his power from a green ring (do you see green on our flag?) or talking animals.

No, America’s about freedom. It’s  about “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”, individual achievement and responsibility to your fellow man.  It’s about sacrifice and it’s about loyalty to something greater than yourself. And it’s definitely not about witches. And there’s one movie out this summer that epitomizes America:

It's about America.

Captain America: The First Avenger is set during a time when the world faced the threat of an ego-maniacal genocidal madman bent on ruling the world.  If that sounds familiar, Potter fans, you’re right – Rowling plagiarized American history with her invention of Voldemort. Rowling, however, employs a bit of revisionism in her last novel by allowing the Brits to defeat their “Hitler” with no American support at all.  In fact, in Rowling’s fantasy world, America might as well not even exist (Rowling probably was worried American wizards would crowd out Harry). But Captain America might have actually happened: he’s fighting Nazis and Hitler, along with the forces of Hydra and the Red Skull. The movie’s practically a history lesson – I can envision high school coaches showing it to their American History classes in future years.

In fact, I think it could be proven that Rowling wanted Harry Potter to be the British Captain America. Think about it: both stories involve young men who come from humble beginnings and, because of who they are, are blessed with certain abilities and become heroes to all who meet them, all the while taking on the great evil of their time.  It’s a timeless story – I’m surprised Rowling was the first to crib it from Cap.

Look, I know that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is going to have a most impressive showing at the box office this weekend. Hell, I’m going to be seeing it too – after all the losers who are going to dress up as Harry or Hermione or Snape have seen it their five times. But I think we would be remiss as a nation not to show the same…no, MORE support for a movie that celebrates the American spirit through such an iconic superhero.  So go see Harry Potter this weekend, but make plans to see The First Avenger next weekend (twice, even!), too, and help keep the box-office records attached to an American movie. It’s your patriotic duty.

I’ll be first in line in the Cap costume.

I don't think I'll take the shield to the theater.

So I’ve been reading George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series…

Posted in Entertainment with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 13, 2011 by Mike

and have just finished the fourth book, A Feast For Crows.

Damn.

I hadn’t heard of this series until HBO’s Game of Thrones started getting some publicity during its production. After the first episode aired I went out and bought the first book and haven’t read anything not dealing with Westeros since.  And now the fifth book in the series is out (A Dance With Dragons), so if I break down and buy this one in hardcover (all the others are paperbacks) it’ll practically guarantee I won’t be getting to anything else on my bookshelf this summer.  Not that Martin’s books are hard to read, but every one of them is a TOME.  It takes time to get through them, even though I feel like I’ve flown through them this past month.

I’ve read my share of fantasy epics.  I cut my teeth on Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain series back in fifth or six grade – I remember completing a book report on The High King for Mrs. England’s class. I made a posterboard cut-out of Taran and was particularly pleased with his sword which was covered in aluminum foil.  I would later move on to the Dragonlance novels (authored by Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weis) – I remember being in a bookstore and seeing War of the Twins on the counter, and, being a twin myself, picked it up and ended up devouring that entire series over the next few years. Damn, there were a lot of books.

And of course there was Tolkien.  The Hobbit was required reading for seniors, as I remember, but that might have been either for “0n-level” seniors or discontinued by the time I got into senior AP English as I never read it for class.  When Peter Jackson’s movies came out I reread the trilogy and was surprised just how much Jackson was able to include (and though I understand why Tom Bombadil might not have worked for some audiences, I was really hoping the extended versions of the films would include him). I tried to read The Silmarillion but, forgive me, that thing’s nigh-unreadable.  A number of years later I started reading Salvatore’s Drizzt Do’Urden novels but grew disenchanted with them as Salvatore never seemed to want to kill off any of his heroes. I hear that’s changed recently.

However, Martin’s series is so drastically different from these other epics that I hesitate to compare them. Martin is writing something other than fantasy – there’s no black and white/good vs. evil conflict here.  Sure, there are characters you hate (Cersei is a capital-B Bitch), but all of his characters are complex creations that have a variety of motivations (and not just sex, though that’s a popular one).  There’s no Aragorn in this series,  and there’s no Sauron. Being a rotten-to-the-core bastard in Westeros can lead to death, but it can also lead to being crowned king. On the other side of the coin, being utterly noble more often than not leads to a bad end. Martin turns tried-and-true conventions of fantasy on their head, and the result, for me, at least, is something more affecting than any of the other fantasy series I’ve read, including Tolkien’s.  In The Lord of the Rings, I knew Sauron would be defeated, that the ring would be destroyed. In “A Song of Ice and Fire”,  I want to see Cersei receive her comeuppance, but I’m not sure that’ll happen.  And that uncertainty is  really one of the chief pleasures in reading this series.

Tyrion Lannister is another. But you need to read the series to see that.

My writing contest submission…

Posted in Entertainment on July 13, 2011 by Mike

A while back I posted about a writing contest I entered through Wizards of the Coast (read that here, if you haven’t already). I ended that post playing around with the idea of putting the sample here.   So, a year later, here it is…

 

Daenos Karanok led the bound and gagged elf toward the execution dais centered in the large, stone-walled chamber.   The white robes Daenos wore marked the solemnity of the event about to transpire, and the congregation gathered in the great hall beneath the Karanok mansion maintained an almost unnatural silence as the procession made its way through the chamber.  He stopped at the steps leading up to the pyre, the doomed elf behind him.  Daenos noted that Jaerios Karanok, ruler of Luthcheq and Daenos’ great uncle, smiled slightly at their approach, but Daenos knew the grin was one of anticipation rather than familial pride.  Jaerios never missed an execution.

From the base of the steps, Daenos glanced up at his distant cousin Kaestra, a dark-haired woman, pale and unattractive, who stood and surveyed the assembly and the prisoner below.  Her green eyes shone with what the Karanok family deemed the fervor of her faith, though others outside the family secretly believed it to be proof of her utter madness.  For a brief moment, the only sound within the chamber came from the sputtering torches which illuminated the chamber’s sole embellishment: a broad white tapestry decorated with a lone black circle, representing the sable orb located in the chamber above to which this ceremony was dedicated.  Kaestra’s voice broke the silence.

“The Great Nothing, look down upon your faithful and accept this sacrifice as a sign of our adoration and fealty.”

“Entropy hear us,” came the rejoinder.

“For in His wisdom, The Great Nothing has revealed to us the path by which we will achieve all.”

“Entropy hear us.”

“And in His name, we destroy those who disgrace Faerûn with the deceit of the arcane and those who would protect them.”

“Entropy hear us.”

“Bring forth the wizard.”

Daenos pushed his prisoner up the steps and toward the pyre.  He could see the elf’s arms straining against the bindings that kept them behind his back, despite the pain it must have caused – it was now common practice to break the fingers of wizards before their execution.  This practice had been suggested by Naeros, Jaerios’ son, whose treatment of wizards was legendary, even as far away as the city ofSaerloonfrom which Daenos had come.  “Take away their hands, and we limit what the filthy animals can do,” Naeros had explained. “I have often argued that we should cut out their tongues as well, but my father rather enjoys listening to their screams when they burn.”  Daenos had grinned at this and nodded.

Daenos fought off another smile now.  He had been sent by his father, Povros, to the port of Luthcheq to be trained to more thoroughly attune himself to Entropy, and thus to the five daughters the god had spawned, one of which could be found beneath his father’s mansion.  The decision to train Daenos had been made out of necessity.  Samil, the family’s former entropist, as the specialized priests had taken to call themselves, had been executed by Povros for drunkenly boasting of his position to a whore in a Saerloon tavern.  Fortunately, the now long-dead cleric had not revealed his employer, as the Karanok family name would most assuredly invite the wrath of the large enclave of Red Wizards located in Saerloon.  To this day, or so Daenos heard, children were still finding pieces of him throughout the city.  Because Samil had not been family, but a member of a lesser house of the city ofLuthcheq, Povros decreed all further entropists in his house were strictly to be Karanoks.

Daenos had been the obvious heir to the position.  His early clerical training identified him as one particularly favored by Entropy; his prayers and meditation awoke such insight within him as to the desires of their god that Povros’s most trusted advisors often consulted Daenos before meeting with his father.  All inhabiting the house considered Daenos’s gifts a blessing from the Great Nothing for Povros’s piety, which went so far as to preclude Povros from using any item he believed to be created by wizards.  Daenos’s predecessor, after observing him telepathically control the daughter of Entropy with no formal training, suggested to Povros that Daenos be sent to Luthcheq to be more thoroughly educated by Jaerios and Kaestra.  Initially loath to send away his first-born son and heir, Povros interpreted Samil’s death as a sign from his deity to reconsider.

Thus, for the past year, Daenos resided in Luthcheq, observing those who had already harnessed the god’s power, learning what wondrous abilities their god could grant.  His exceptional abilities quickly drew the attention of Kaestra, the most powerful cleric in the Karanok family, who took it upon herself to challenge Daenos in his training, at times cruelly.  This ceremony marked the culmination of those months of intense study, and signaled Daenos’ entrance into what he knew to be a level of prestige more suitable to one of his talents.  Soon, he knew, he would return to Saerloon, and continue the family’s efforts to rid Faerûn of wizardry, perhaps now a little less subtly.  The Great Nothing, Daenos thought, had illuminated within him a myriad of possibilities.

He was thinking of these possibilities now, as the elf’s hands were freed from their bonds and quickly moved toward the chains hanging above the kindling.  The elf had been captured two weeks earlier a short distance outside the city gates.  The apprehension had not been easy.  Not only was this elf a particularly powerful mage, one of the strongest Daenos had encountered, but he had been accompanied by three others, a trio of talented warriors.  Sheer numbers, as well as a bit of luck, Daenos admitted to himself, finally overwhelmed the group, who were subdued and arrested as hired mercenaries from the city ofCimbar.  Cimbar was a known ally of the city ofAkanax, which Daenos was aware had been at war with Luthcheq for close to eight years. The others’ heads had been sent back to Cimbar in baskets, with a letter of warning for those who would attempt to undermine the Karanoks and the city ofLuthcheq.  Captured wizards were always burned alive.

The sudden movement of the elf surprised Daenos and the clerics who were attempting to chain the mage’s hands.  As the assembly watched, the elf ripped himself away from the two clerics and, pulling off his gag with one broken hand, lunged toward Kaestra, possibly viewing her as a weaker target because of her sex and priestly garments.  Daenos made no immediate attempt to come to her aid, knowing the elf would pay dearly for this misjudgment.

Kay er scotus.” A black haze immediately surrounded Kaestra’s right hand as she brought it forward as if to motion the elf to stop.  The elf’s momentum, however, carried him into her so that his chest landed squarely on her outstretched hand.  He screamed and fell to his knees, clutching his chest with one hand.  Kaestra stood over the kneeling elf, as he looked up into the eyes of his tormentor.

The elf grinned.

Kaestra leveled her right hand across the elf’s chin, knocking him onto his side.  He attempted to push himself up, but after the blow his strength failed him, and he lay on his side as a small puddle of blood formed beneath his jaw.  Kaestra motioned for the assisting clerics to continue the ceremony.  As they pulled the semi-conscious elf to his feet and resumed the process of chaining him to the pyre, a hushed murmur moved through the assembly at the unexpected display of their god’s strength.   Kaestra, her hand still enveloped in the shimmering mist, addressed Daenos.

“Your last step is complete, initiate,” Kaestra declared. “With the death of the mage, you will be designated as a god-touched, and serve as a link between our priests and the Great Nothing.  Serve him, and us, well.”

Daenos moved toward the pyre as his deity’s power began to manifest itself within.  Ten feet away from the pile of brush and wood, he stopped and stared at the doomed elf, whose head was now bent toward his chest in apparent resignation.  Daenos smiled, his focus now moving to the base of the pyre.  While it was a minor spell, Daenos always delighted in the familiar warmth that came with the power at his control.  This warmth transferred itself to the pyre, and the brush soon began to smolder, then burn.

As Daenos’s spell ignited the pyre, the worshippers discarded their solemnity and broke into raucous shouting and laughter, mocking the wizard as the flames grew more intense.  The elf’s robes smoldered and blackened, and a sickening scent of burning flesh began to waft through the hall, overwhelming the smell of the witchweed that had been placed among the wood.  The witchweed, always placed in the pyre as a precaution against mages with extraordinary willpower, burned with a light smoke that could break even the strongest mage’s concentration.

Because of this, the elf’s chant came as a surprise to those who expected only cries for mercy.  It began slowly, spoken through clenched teeth and streams of tears; but as the flames began to destroy the nerve functions, it became almost song-like in its intensity and pitch.

Daenos, hearing the elvish language, strode toward the elf, pulling from beneath his robes an ebony mace, a gift from his father.  The head was a solid black sphere, in honor of their god, though it had been created by a high-ranking cleric of another deity in Saerloon.  It could, once a day, simultaneously summon a cloud of darkness and grant its wielder the ability to see through the blackness.  The weapon’s victims learned quickly why its creator had named the mace Dark Herald, for its plain appearance masked a weapon that struck with unexpected force.  Quickly calling on Entropy for a minor protection spell from the flames, he swung the weapon at the elf’s head, breaking the skull with a sickening crunch that echoed throughout the hall.  The elf’s body went limp, and the worshippers who had not immediately run for the nearest door cheered their approval.

“What was the elf saying?” came a voice from the back.
“Was it a spell?  Is it possible?  Did not the witchweed disrupt him?”
“It was a prayer.” All attention turned to the new entropist, who stared at the now partially blackened figure. “He was praying,” Daenos said.

“To whom?” asked a small man, whom Daenos recognized as a member of another noble house.

“A goddess — Loviatar.”

“What did he say?”

“Something inconsequential,” responded Kaestra.  “She holds no sway here in the presence of the Great Nothing.  Let the mage’s body burn until the morning; such is the power of his bitch goddess.”

The worshippers lingered in the hall until Jaerios left, knowing the awaiting feast celebrating the death of another mage would only begin after he reported the news of the successful execution to Maelos, his father.  Too old and senile now to attend the burnings, he remained in the northern wing of the Karanok mansion, locked away in his bedroom, and rarely spoken of by the rest of the family.  Jaerios made these reports out of duty and tradition, though Daenos had quickly learned that Jaerios’s sense of duty did not prohibit him from openly desiring the natural end to Maelos’s life.

Daenos remained behind as the others retired from the worship hall, considering what he had witnessed.  Before the elf succumbed to the flames, Daenos had noted the trance-like expression on the mage’s face, and, even more puzzling, the prayer’s words:

The Maiden of Pain grants me peace.  Peace through pain, pain without fear. I have received this promise from her: life follows the death of the devout.  A vision attends my death:  the deception will end.  I see pain without end.   I see death reflected here a thousand times, but with no life to follow.

* * *

            The woman awoke, a burning elf the final image of the dream that had accompanied her night’s sleep.  It had been a chaotic jumble of such images, and she struggled to remind herself of all that she had seen.  Two cityscapes entered her mind: one whose gothic architecture she immediately recognized as Saerloon, and another whose only distinctive trait had been accompanying images of a swamp.  A number of colorful, lizard-like creatures were also seen, as were six black circles, one larger than the other five.  Connecting each of these images, she remembered, and emphasizing this as more than a mere dream, was something with which Fyrra Klen was intimately familiar: a nine-tailed whip, symbol of Loviatar.

Fyrra rose from the bed, and walked nude to the small window of the room she had purchased for the night.  She did not fear being seen, as outside the streets of Pyarados were still dark with night.  And even if seen, Fyrra thought, the painful lust she knew her body could awaken in most men’s hearts (and some women’s, for that matter) only served her goddess more.  The Thayan city was quiet, almost peaceful, though Fyrra knew the rising sun would soon awaken it to another day of inevitable pain and suffering.  “Such is the reason,” Fyrra reflected, “that we pray to Loviatar in the morning: to give thanks for the opportunity to take a part in it.”

She knelt down in front of the window, awaiting the morning.  As the sun began to appear over the mountains to the east, Fyrra took up the small ceremonial lash that lay beside her and began to strike herself across her back.  Red lines, then welts, and then bleeding slashes appeared on her shoulders, joining the small, thin scars already present from previous rituals.  She stopped when the sun cleared the mountain range, and commenced to pray for her regular complement of spells, as well as further guidance in the interpretation of the night’s dream.  She smiled, feeling the chill of her deity’s caress as the incantations returned to her.  She opened her eyes and looked upon the streets, now illuminated with the dawn.  Loviatar had spoken to her.

“We must go to Saerloon,” she said to herself. “But first we must prepare.”

Fyrra Klen, priestess of Loviatar, the Maiden of Pain, smiled at the new day’s possibilities.

 

Scoring the AP exam

Posted in teaching with tags , , on June 22, 2011 by Mike

1030 essays.

This is the number of essays I ended up scoring this past week (June 11 – 17) for the AP Language Exam in Louisville, KY. Not counting Saturday, when we ended up spending most of the day looking at sample papers and calibrating our scoring, that comes out to about 170 a day. At the end of the week, the essays started looking really similar to one another, and a heavy glaze seemed to cover my eyes each afternoon. But despite this, I would jump at the opportunity to do it again.

And, yes (hell, yes), the Collegeboard paid me to do this.

I had found out I had been selected as a scorer in early April, and knowing I wasn’t teaching summer school at either Consolidated or Blinn, this was going to be the only chance for me to make some money for the family during the summer, unless I took a part time job as a sandwich artist or something. My wife was a bit tentative about it – she wasn’t sure it would be worth the time and wondered about expenses, but airfare/food/hotel expenses are all paid for so my out of pocket expenses would be rather minimal. So she agreed to my going out there.

Airfare was taken care of through email – they sent me instructions and I had to select the airline/times myself. It was a little overwhelming – a lot of information was being thrown at me and I basically just took the first itinerary I saw with what I thought were convenient times (ha! more on that in another post). My good friend J-Roy drove me out to Houston Intercontinental Friday morning and I was off. The flight and the connecting flight went smoothly – in fact, I was only really stressed out about what I needed to do after picking up my bag. But they had a guy with a sign at baggage claim so getting to the hotel was hassle-free.

A little background – there were over 400,000 students who took the AP Language exam, making it (for the first time) the largest AP testing group this year – normally it’s AP History. This means, for those of you unfamiliar with the AP Language test, that there were over 1.2 million handwritten essays waiting to be scored on a 1-9 scale (3 essays written by each student). The Collegeboard hired around 1200 scorers for the AP Language test, and another 1200 or so for the Literature Exam (scored at the same time) – Louisville saw such an influx of high school and college English instructors – enough to make the average high school student’s hair turn white. Surprisingly, in my time there, I didn’t meet one jerk. I was among “my people”.

The organization that this type of event must have is extraordinary. I never had questions about what I needed to do or where I needed to be. Of course, the meals could have been better, but serving 2400 people over a week without some misses is probably expecting a bit too much (note to meal organizers: scratch the Turkey Pot Pie). And there was a lot to do in Louisville after 5:00, when scoring ended. I took in a AAA Louiville Bats game (vs. the Toledo Mudhens), visited the Louisville Slugger Museum, went to Churchill Downs and lost $4 on a horse that couldn’t even show (I HOPE YOU’RE GLUE, YOU NAG), and frequented a couple bars only three blocks from the hotel.

Me at Churchill Downs before I lost $4 on a slow-ass horse that couldn't even show.

For those interested, scoring the essays involves dividing the 1200 into three groups and assigning each group a particular question. I drew the rhetorical analysis (I got into Louisville dreading scoring the synthesis prompt) – this year it was a speech by suffragette and child labor activist Florence Kelley. The groups are then divided into tables of 8 or 9, with an experienced table leader leading the scoring efforts at each table. I was one of three first year scorers at my table, and I’ll admit I was slow the first couple days (or so I thought). We are given folders containing 25 tests, and read the essay once and score it according to the AP scale. During the first two/three days, after we got done with a folder, it was given to our table leader, Ann, for her to back-read the essays and make sure our scoring was accurate. After those 2-3 days it became more spot-checking. One guy at my table, Charles, seemed to lap me in scoring – he seemed to do 2 for every 1 folder I completed for those first 3 days. My speed got better over the course of the week, of course, and at the end of the week Ann told me that I had been very fast and accurate. I was just happy that I was accurate.

Reading the essays was an eye-opening experience. One, I’m spoiled – my students are, more often than not, very well taught/prepared prior to coming into my class and their in-class essays prove it. Two, the disparity between schools across the nation is vast and it is troubling. I scored essays where students had no idea what to do, and they admitted as much in their essays. I scored essays that could not string two grammatically correct sentences together. There were essays written that detailed what students had done the previous night (I never saw any of these), and there were essay packets that had dollar bills taped inside as bribes (sadly, I never saw any of these, either). I went through folders where the highest score of the 25 was a four (“inadequate”), and regularly saw folders where the highest score was a 6 (“adequate”). All of this led me to think about Texas’ top 10 percent legislation, and while well-intentioned, it completely disregards the fact that all high schools are not equal, and treating them as such is an injustice to students who excel at high-performing high schools but are just outside the top 10 percent. The top 10 percent legislation was/is a band-aid cure for a system that requires open-heart surgery.

The Bats would end up losing 3-1 to the Mudhens, giving up 15 hits.

I also read some pretty terrific essays (though very rare), and feel confident that our AP classes’ scores will be solid once again. The experience of scoring so many essays and talking with others about the essay will strengthen my own ability to prepare my students for the exam. I also met some pretty fantastic people while there, and hope to run into y’all again down the road (Rory, Jane, Sal, Bill, Brad).

Overall, the week was a damn good time, and the scoring not nearly as tedious as I thought it would be (though, I admit, Wednesday was a beat down). I’m looking forward to having the opportunity to doing it again next year.

Though Delta Airlines can kiss my ass (post on that debacle coming soon).

To the Senior Class of 2011…

Posted in Entertainment, teaching with tags , , , , on May 19, 2011 by Mike

This year I wasn’t a candidate for graduation speaker (thank God), but I still have some words of wisdom I’d like to impart to this year’s A&M Consolidated graduates, and in fact to all high school graduates this year.  So for right now  go ahead and imagine me in a mortarboard cap and a long black gown stepping up to the podium to deliver your commencement address…For those of you who aren’t graduating this year, you’re invited to pretend that you’re a friend or loved one of one of the graduates…keep the babies quiet, please.

***

Mark Twain once said, “With great power comes great responsibility.”  He also said a lot of other things, most of which he actually didn’t say, but which are now attributed to him because the internet has no editors.

But I digress.

Responsibility is the word tonight.  It’s a word that’s thrown around in the presence of 17 and 18 year olds quite a bit, mainly after you’ve disappointed your parents in some way.  And, really, up until this point, your responsibilities have been rather minimal, unless you’re raising a kid or helping your family pay the bills by working two part-time jobs.  But for you others – the slackers who didn’t have kids while in high school – responsibility is now creeping up behind you with a sock full of nickels about to brain you.  And he won’t be charged with assault, either.

See, now that you’re legal adults, the world expects you to be accountable for your actions and decisions – unless you’re entering politics, when responsibility is at first a nice surprise, and then grounds for suspicion.  In high school, turning work in late would only lead to a point-deduction on your final grade. In the real world, late work results in pink slips and unemployment lines – unless you’re in politics, when deadlines just get extended because everyone’s scared you’d actually do something, anyway. In high school, planting a dead skunk in the school’s ventilation system is a “prank” and results in admiration from underclassmen.  In the real world, you’ve just committed an act of domestic terrorism and go to jail for 30 years. In high school, sending risqué pics to someone else’s smart phone is seen as juvenile and disgusting. In the real world, it’s still considered juvenile and disgusting, but standard behavior for Hall-of-Fame-bound quarterbacks.

But I digress.

As high school graduates, you now enter a world which will place expectations upon you to perform and achieve – unless you enter politics.  In other words, you have responsibility.  A responsibility to yourself to meet your potential, a responsibility to the parents and teachers who brought you to where you are today (figuratively, not literally – I know y’all can drive), a responsibility to society.  It’s that last responsibility I want to discuss here tonight, and by “discuss” I mean lecture at you since you’re supposed to be quiet and listen right now.  Which would be a first, judging by your behavior in my classes, but try anyway.

Sitting before me I see a wide variety of people with a diverse array of talents and interests.  It is these interests and talents that your parents, your teachers and I hope and pray you take out to the world to make it a better place, to show ingenuity and originality and integrity in the realms you choose to take on.  God knows we older generations have run out of ideas. Look at the state the world’s in – you’re seeing the best we can do, and isn’t that frightening? So it’s you we’re shifting our attention to, knowing that at some point we’re going to have to blame someone for all of this, and it’s damn sure not going to be us.  You’re younger and have less money, so you’re an easy target.  That’s how the world works.

But we’re giving you a shot to fix things, because that’s what America is all about – reworking things when they don’t work out the first time.  Look at Thomas Edison – he created the light bulb only after a long series of failures, whereas any reasonable person would have given up after, say, three failed attempts.  Don’t be that reasonable person. Your responsibility, while you’re young and full of energy and optimism, is to keep failing until you succeed, or at least until you have a family to support.

Beyond this admittedly broad responsibility to not give up, you also have more individual responsibilities I’m going to set down, organized by the fields you may eventually enter. These responsibilities have been identified only after much consideration, and fulfilling them will lead to a prosperous, happy life (this is by no means a guarantee, however, as I cannot be held liable for the state of your life.  I’m part of the older generation – it’s not my fault).

We’ll start with those who want to go into the medical field.  You have a responsibility to not screw up.  Forget what I said about failing until you succeed – get it right the first time. No one wants a doctor for whom “Let’s see what happens when I do this…” is a mantra.

For those of you who want to be engineers, you have a responsibility to keep the trains from running into one another (I’m actually surprised at the number of students who tell me they want to be engineers – I would think that jobs would be scarce.  Maybe it’s those caps that are the draw.)

If you’re a writer, you have a responsibility never to use vampires in your fiction.  Also, forget about reworking a classic work from the point of view of a minor character in said work.  Find an original idea or go sell insurance.

Future psychology/art history/sociology majors, your responsibility is simple: keep working on that screenplay so you’ll be able to move out of your parents’ house before they die.

If you’re into computer animation, you have  a responsibility to get a job at Pixar and then, once there, crank out a turkey, b/c that damned company is making us all look bad with their success rate.

Keeping with the tech careers, if your plan is to go into IT, you have a responsibility to get Adobe to finally stop updating.

Future journalists: you’re responsible for the dissemination of information regarding the most important issues facing this country today, but Americans don’t want to read that crap. It’s probably the root cause of our political divisions – y’all keep dredging up political corruption and all that other “bad” stuff – no wonder our government can’t get anything done .  Instead, concentrate on celebrities and cute animal stories, throwing in the occasional cannibalism story to underscore just how horrible the world is.  The reunification of America is sure to follow.

If you’re a musician, you have a responsibility to stay the hell away from American Idol.  As AC/DC put it, “it’s a long way to the top if you wanna rock and roll”, and no one respects people who take short cuts, except damsels in distress who are tied to railroad tracks waiting for a hero to come rescue them (think about it, I swear it’s funny). Pay your dues in the clubs, get some groupies, get signed, and then write ironic songs about how the record company doesn’t care about your music while college students steal it from BitTorrent. Live the dream.

If business school is in your future…well, actually, responsibility (fiscal, societal) is something the attorneys can worry about.  Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!

Speaking of  those future lawyers, you have the responsibility to demonstrate integrity in selecting which cases you choose to take on, to consider the possible societal implications of the judgments you are arguing for, to view your clients as people and not as billable hours, to make arguments that are fair and rooted in objective truth, and, finally, to pursue truth zealously and honestly…in other words, you have a responsibility not to go into law.

If you plan on joining the noblest profession, my profession, teaching, you take on the vast responsibility of preparing our youth to become the leaders of tomorrow.  Molding young minds to think for themselves; putting in the extra time to provide genuine and helpful feedback on the assignments they turn in; counseling them in their times of need; preparing coherent and engaging lesson plans each day that reach a wide range of learning styles; modifying assignments and tests for students with various learning disabilities, leading them to be successful on state and national exams; being observant for any indications of alcohol or drug abuse; writing college recommendation letters for students whose names you’ve forgotten since the previous year; attending staff meetings; filling out discipline referrals as necessary to remind them there are consequences for setting fire to the sink in the bathroom down the hall; attending the extra-curricular activities your students participate in to show them that you care about them as people, not just as students…and if you’re still listening there’s still time to change your mind. Maybe business school has some openings.

And, finally, if your goal is to enter politics, to get elected to office and work for change that reflects the will of the people and betters society, you have a responsibility to do just that. We won’t hold our breath.

Congratulations to the class of 2011 – may we hear of your future accomplishments in all the proper publications.

/if you enjoyed this, I spent four or five days writing it when I could take breaks from my grading

//if you didn’t enjoy this, it was slapped together in 20 minutes by someone other than me and proofread by monkeys.

Thinking out loud here about the upcoming Spider-Man reboot…

Posted in Comics, Entertainment with tags , , , on May 5, 2011 by Mike

…if we ever want to see Spider-Man meet up with the Avengers or anyone else in the Marvel Universe, Sony would have to give the rights to the character back to Marvel Studios. That would only happen if Sony thought the web-slinger wasn’t a viable property anymore. I think this means that the new Spider-Man movie needs to be boycotted.

Unless it’s awesome.

I kind of doubt it, though, based on the pics of Peter Parker with skateboard (what the hell?):

The reading habits of my students…

Posted in teaching on March 3, 2011 by Mike

I’m not sure how many of my students would be considered “readers”, but I’m fairly certain it’s not many. Less than half, certainly, probably not much more than a third (though maybe that’s just me being pessimistic).  I would define “reader” as someone who reads novels outside of assignments for class, and, more than that, does so consistently; i.e., always has a novel with a bookmark in it.

It probably shouldn’t be all that surprising, knowing the multitude of distractions we have available to us today: readily downloadable movies, smart phones, video games, instant messaging, etc.; the opportunities at which  a novel can be cast aside (figuratively or literally, you pick) for something more immediately stimulating, perhaps a bit less challenging, are legion.

And it saddens me, though I admit I’m often victim to the same distractions.

Prompting these thoughts are the reactions many of my seniors seem to be having toward Hamlet, one of Shakespeare’s most celebrated and acclaimed plays.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s not apathy to the play or to my class  that I’m seeing (at least I don’t think it is, though they are just 10 weeks away from graduation), but many are complaining that reading the play is too difficult.

It would be easy for me to write this off as laziness, and in a few cases I think that’s true. I have to squelch the urge to say “millions of people for centuries have enjoyed Shakespeare’s plays, so what does that say about you?” because that would be unfair. Blank verse can be challenging for anyone, and even moreso for students who don’t read often. Still, I do think it speaks to a limitation held by  many of my students, but not one of intellect.

Rather, their limitation is one of empathy, meaning it appears many of my students don’t attempt to connect emotionally with the characters.  Not that what Hamlet is experiencing is outside the realm of their own experience – I don’t believe one need lose a parent to understand what Hamlet is feeling – but because they don’t read (often) in the first place, they have not developed an ability to empathize with fictional characters. They can’t, or don’t, look at what they read as works that present “real life” because that’s not what they look for when they read.  Real life to them is separate from what they read – they’ve grown up on Harry Potter which has given way to Twilight.  Beyond that what do they read?.

To illustrate, we were looking at Act I, scene iii of Hamlet where Polonius gives some good advice to his son, Laertes, who’s leaving for France, and then turns his attention to Ophelia:

LORD POLONIUS

What is’t, Ophelia, he hath said to you?

OPHELIA

So please you, something touching the Lord Hamlet.

LORD POLONIUS

Marry, well bethought:
‘Tis told me, he hath very oft of late
Given private time to you; and you yourself
Have of your audience been most free and bounteous:
If it be so, as so ’tis put on me,
And that in way of caution, I must tell you,
You do not understand yourself so clearly
As it behoves my daughter and your honour.
What is between you? give me up the truth.

OPHELIA

He hath, my lord, of late made many tenders
Of his affection to me.

LORD POLONIUS

Affection! pooh! you speak like a green girl,
Unsifted in such perilous circumstance.
Do you believe his tenders, as you call them?

OPHELIA

I do not know, my lord, what I should think.

LORD POLONIUS

Marry, I’ll teach you: think yourself a baby;
That you have ta’en these tenders for true pay,
Which are not sterling. Tender yourself more dearly;
Or–not to crack the wind of the poor phrase,
Running it thus–you’ll tender me a fool.

We had already mentioned that Polonius appears to be a very loving father when looking at his relationship with his son, but here I asked them how they felt  about how he was treating Ophelia.

Silence.

After waiting a bit, I then posed a question to the females in the class: how would you feel if your dad asked you to explain your relationship with your boyfriend? The reaction was immediate and vocal: they’d feel it was awkward and embarrassing. Exactly!  That’s exactly what Ophelia is feeling! Then why didn’t they pick up on that while reading? They weren’t putting themselves in Ophelia’s situation because that’s not how they think about literature.

And I should note that what I see is not just reflected in their reactions to Shakespeare and his blank verse – I can’t write it off merely because the play might be difficult. The short fiction we read over the past four weeks also suggested this inability to connect with the characters: my students read John Updike’s “A&P” to begin the semester, a story about a nineteen year old cashier at a grocey store who ogles some girls in bathing suits and then quits his job in an act of chivalry when he feels they’re insulted (go ahead, read it). Many of my students came in saying they “didn’t get it” or thought that the narrator was a “creeper” (what, some of the girls in my class don’t have boyfriends already in college?). It’s as if they’ve never known a teenage boy before.

I suppose what I’m saying is that for far too many of my students, reading is viewed as an activity to be kept at arm’s length (heh). Emotional investment in the characters is rare, and this hurts their ability to truly understand what they’re reading.  As a reader, you have to be willing to get involved in the story and think about the characters as real people, attempting to understand their motivations, their desires, their strengths and weaknesses, all which lead to their actions. Reading’s a richer experience this way, and it ought to be a lesson that is learned early.

The tragedy of suicide

Posted in Uncategorized on February 27, 2011 by Mike

A young man at my school killed himself Monday.  I didn’t know him, but I probably had seen him in the halls at some point – he was apparently a pretty good kid…respectful, hard-working, a cowboy who liked nothing more than working on his grandfather’s ranch, as his obituary described him.

As I said, I didn’t know him, and details about his death are, of course, limited b/c of the circumstances. As I understand it, he was parked in front of his girlfriend’s house when he died, leading me to believe something happened between the two of them, perhaps a break-up.  He killed himself with a shotgun while locked in his car and while a couple police officers who were called by the girl’s father attempted to talk to him.

I didn’t know him, but can’t help but feel a sense of loss.

This kid had his whole life ahead of him.  He had a family who loved him dearly.  He had younger brothers and sisters who probably looked up to him (this thought haunts me). And he had touched any number of lives at school, where he was active in FFA. I saw friends of his hurting this week. I saw teachers of his crying.

His suicide ended whatever pain or difficult circumstance he saw no way out of, but it wasn’t a solution. Suicide rarely is, and never for such a young person.  I wish he had been able to look beyond his pain and seen possibility instead of an ending.

I don’t write this to judge him.  I write this to mourn him –  a kid I never knew – and the loss this world suffers when a young person takes his/her own life.

It’s never worth it.

How Led Zeppelin won me a Royal Caribbean Cap (or, My Vacation, part I)

Posted in Vacation with tags , , , , , , , on February 16, 2011 by Mike

My wife and I went on a cruise to Cozumel, Belize and Roatan last week (which explains why there weren’t any updates to my blog last week…well, I suppose the lack of posting could be just par for the course, too.  Shut up).  Great time – the countries are beautiful and we were accompanied by friends from Arizona whom we don’t get to see often enough.

...and the air was just right for drinking.

I’ll write at more length about the places we visited later, but wanted to brag about our victorious day 6 of the cruise in this one.

We had been competing in the various trivia sessions held on the boat while at sea with some success but never winning the valuable prizes.  But after our last excursion in Cozumel (swimming with sea turtles for the wives; ATV mudding in the jungle for the guys), we came back to the ship and, looking through the rest of the day’s schedule, saw that the 4:15 trivia’s theme was “’60s and 70s Rock.”

Oh yeah.

Jeff and I got there a bit early to get seats and had a few beverages to pass the time.  Soon enough, the host, Fritz from Philly (the Phillipines, that is), started setting up and, while doing so, cranked some Journey for those who had gathered.  Jeff started talking to me about Journey’s new singer, Arnel Pineda, and how the band had discovered him. The dude sounds EXACTLY like Steve Perry – it’s amazing, really – and is from the Phillipines.  If  you’re not aware of the story, read it here.

So while Jeff is telling  me this story I’m listening to the Journey blaring and recognizing that the songs sound remixed (slight differences in instrumentation) and suggest to Jeff that we were listening to the Pineda incarnation of Journey (it made sense – Fritz, as I said, is Filipino).  Jeff went to ask about that and when Fritz found that Jeff knew about Arnel, he immediately  came over and sat down with us and told us all about him.  Apparently Fritz was good friends with him before he was discovered. Fritz was a character – every time he cracked a joke he’d give a low “mwuah-ha-ha” laugh after (which grated when we first attended one of his sessions, but then became  endearing).

So then the trivia began.  Fritz would play a snippet of a song and we’d have to name the title AND artist. I gotta admit, I was pretty confident – I KNOW classic rock as it’s all I practically listen to these days, whether on terrestrial radio or Sirius. Fritz started off with Styx’s “Come Sail Away” (appropriate, being on a boat and all that), moved into Ozzy’s “Crazy Train” and Frampton’s “Do You Feel Like We Do?” and then “Sgt. Peppers…”.

We didn’t miss one. Here’s the list:

How would you have done?

Checking the score sheets was a blast: Fritz would play more of the songs and most of the time the whole bar would start singing along.  Damn near sang “Bohemian Rhapsody” in its entirety.  And Fritz could WAIL.  Awesome. After scoring, only one other group had a perfect score (out of about 20 groups) so it came down to the tiebreaker song –  I immediately recognized “Black Dog” and only had to turn around to see the other group looking at each other trying to come up with the name of the song to know we had won.  Fritz asked for both group’s “final answers” and when the other group said “Rock and Roll” I started in with the high fives among my group, a kiss for my wife.

Come to find out the prize this time was a Royal Caribbean cap – something sold on the ship for about $20.  Everyone in the group got one and then we had a picture taken with Fritz:

We Are the Champions

During the game Laura kept saying that I would have/could have won by myself – which is true – although I would have had to buy my own beer (we had what I thought was a sweet arrangement with our friends). But I also know that I have friends here at home who would have been able to match me song for song – we’d probably still be trying to break that tie if BRP had been competing against me.

Anyway, thanks to Led Zeppelin for the hat: