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” (http://www.infoplease.com/ipea/A0934958.html).

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:

READER AMERICAN WOMAN NON-ENGLISH DRAMA
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.

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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.

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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
Non-electronically.

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.

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“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 comicbookdiscussion.com – check it out!