Sunday, December 22, 2013

Gazing out the window

The end of 2013 I've focused almost the entirety of my energy and time at work. There has been little time for writing or reflection. I have had a few moments to relax and enjoy our new house and neighborhood. Castle 2.0 (what we call our new home) has presented us with many surprises and adjustments. I have come to realize that everything happening outside our doors and windows of our new home make life more meaningful than anything that takes place on the inside.

Charlie definitely agrees with this statement. He always loved the windows at our other house, but now our window ledges are at his level, and the all-glass storm doors allow him to monitor everything that happens without having to put forth much effort.

He appreciates, just as much as I do, the fact that everyone in our new neighborhood comes over to talk to us. They want us to have their phone numbers. Making our street a welcoming, connected place is important to them.

Our neighbors make our community feel like a truly special place.

I've always talked to the people who live around me, doing my best to get to know them. But I've recently been reminded how intentionally working to build relationships and community with one another is what fosters a great space for people to inhabit a better life.

When we were looking at purchasing Castle 2.0, one of the neighbors came over to tell us about this special street. He glowed about his love for his neighborhood, how he raised his kids here, and the fact that everyone in the neighborhood knows one another and does things together. He briefly explained to us that the street is closed down on the Fourth of July, and there is a neighborhood parade and fireworks. He told us we would grow to love our house if we decided to buy it.

We haven't experienced the July festivities yet, however other little events have begun to foster that love of which he spoke.

About a month after moving and becoming acclimated to our new surroundings, we were driving through the neighborhood on the way home. Some people like to decorate for Halloween, but I noticed that an awful lot of homes had outdoor decorations in their yards.

I said to Michelle, "I guess people around here really love Halloween."

We didn't think much of it, aside from that casual observation. Then I was stopped by our neighbor (the same one who told us about the Fourth of July) when I was mowing the front yard one weekend in October.

"Has anyone told you about Halloween yet?" he asked.

"No. Why?" I asked.

"Our neighborhood is a bit of a destination for trick or treating," he began to explain. There are a lot of kids in the neighborhood and we are a safe place for families, so people drive in from other neighborhoods. You should be prepared for 800 kids." He went on to explain that our street goes out of the way to decorate and that we should be prepared for all the activity at his house every year with extensive ghosts and goblins floating through the yard on a massive pulley system.

A week later, another neighbor made his way across the street asking me if anyone had warned me about Halloween yet. When I responded that I was told about the number of trick or treaters he said, "When we first moved here we didn't believe what we were told. I'm telling you, believe it. Be ready." Then we received the same warning from the woman who lives on the other side of us.

I didn't want to disappoint these 800 kids. So I went and purchased a few lights and did some modest decorating. I wasn't as modest in the way I hoarded candy at the store.

Charlie approved. So did the 735 trick-or-treaters.

And because work has consumed me since October, I've been unable to write about Halloween and all of the other exciting surprises Charlie has encountered with us in our new home. What reminded me to reflect my excitement and appreciation was the scene outside tonight. Apparently, every weekend before Christmas luminaries are lit.

This amazing sight captured my gaze as I finished shoveling snow. It's moments like these in life that make me thankful for everything that is right in the world amidst all the pessimism, negativity, tragedy, and daily carelessness and drudgery of humanity often surrounding us.

I guess my point is this: I'm reminded I need to be a little more like Charlie. I need to remember the importance of stopping, relaxing, and gazing out the window more often. Hopefully our new home and neighborhood will help me do just that.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

For the love of popcorn (and accessible windows)

The greatest mistake a blogger can make is to not post regularly. Or, not post anything for months. Maybe I shouldn't call myself a blogger anymore? But I'm not willing to shed that identity yet.

Here's my excuse: moving to a new city, preparing a new house to make it a new home, and working diligently to open up a new store has completely encompassed every waking moment of my time.

A lot has happened (for Charlie) during this transition time.

A couple of nights ago, I made it home from work before Michelle. There have been patches of dead spots in our back yard, so I'm attempting to reseed the lawn. Charlie has not been allowed to come out in the back yard while I keep the ground damp  because he would love to get in the mud and roll around. I let Charlie out of his kennel and then went to water the yard. I was enjoying the peaceful moment, being alone. Then I heard a loud clanking noise. It was more like banging. I began to look around, trying to figure out the origination of the sound. It became louder, more intense. I couldn't figure it out. It sounded like wood panels, knocking against something in the wind...

But it wasn't windy.

And then it clicked in my mind.

We have wooden blinds in the living room.

And Charlie must keep track of his humans at all times.

I turned around and looked back at the window of the house. Sure enough, Charlie was working feverishly, desperately prying his nose in between the wooden blinds to watch me in the back yard. He just couldn't get his face in quite right, so he was shaking his head vigorously back and forth, rocking the blinds in every direction. He would pause for a moment, finding the perfect spot, and then crazily try to readjust again. He has always loved his perch in the front window at the old house because he could jump up on the couch and look out at everyone.

Some things never change.

The only difference in the new house is that the windows are accessible for him without having to jump up on furniture. If only the nice blinds didn't obscure his view.

Another thing that has remained the same is the mutual love Charlie and I have for popcorn. Charlie has become quite aggressive in his begging tactics. He will lay down patiently, next to me, often getting right up on my lap, putting his nose near the bowl.

Stay tuned for more stories (and pictures) showing how we are acclimating to our new home in Omaha, Nebraska.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

The rawhide project

It all started on a Friday a couple of weeks ago. Early. Five o-clock in the morning to be exact. My alarm on my iPhone jolted me awake from a strange dream I vaguely remember. About as quick as the dream disappeared from my memory, so did the eery feeling that my alarm might have been going off longer than it should have. But when I glanced at the time, it certainly was exactly 5:00a.m. Strange.

Charlie was already up, pacing the room. Mornings get him excited. Well, pretty much anything can excite this dog.

After briefly walking off the odd dream that involved me withdrawing huge sums of money (which I didn't have) from my bank account, I passed through the living room and into the kitchen to make coffee. Charlie at my heels, he passed up the rawhide bone he had pretended to bury in the couch cushion the night before. It wasn't buried, really. Rather, it was delicately placed in the crevice where the cushion meets the backrest, waiting plainly for anyone to see. Charlie didn't seem to pay it any attention as we strolled past. Strange dog.

Michelle had given Charlie the rawhide days earlier. Most dogs presented with such goodness will immediately devour the thing or at least attempt to chew it apart. Not Charlie. He walked around with it. He pretended to bury it. He was not going to eat it.

Michelle, Charlie, and I were up earlier than usual that morning because I was taking Michelle to the airport. It always amazes me how Charlie can sense a different routine, a break in the normalcy of our lives. That morning I asked him to go into his kennel, knowing I would soon return from the trip north on Interstate 80 and back again. And while I told Charlie I would be back, he didn't believe a word I was saying.

When I did return home, we completed our morning routine together. But Charlie missed his mom. Charlie ate breakfast. He was looking for Michelle. I let him outside and he went to the bathroom while I took the garbage out to the curb and the neighbor dogs went insane barking at me the entire time. He still seemed to look at me, wondering what I did with Michelle.

Back inside the house, well, watch:

And then, he proceeded to eat the entire thing in under 15 minutes.

Maybe Charlie grew tired of "fake" hiding the rawhide and then "rediscovering" it exactly where he had left it. Or maybe he was so upset Michelle was gone that eating it was calming and safe. Or maybe he was embarrassed that I caught his weirdness on video. But maybe, the real truth is Charlie is just downright, plain crazy.

Friday, August 16, 2013


Tomorrow, at Lincoln High School, TEDxYouth@Lincoln: Unleash Brilliance is taking place from 10am to 3pm.

I can guarantee that this event will be memorable for both youth and adults. I was able to get a glimpse of a few of the opening acts and I have been working with some amazingly talented youth who will be giving wonderful talks.

If you can attend, you should.

If you can't attend in person, you can watch the event streaming live!

I'll be there and will try to tweet from the event. You can follow me @CharliesHuman.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Living the mindful way

Charlie and I woke up early this morning to the bright sun beaming into the house. Michelle's sister stayed over last night and the two of them are still sleeping. The house is peacefully silent. I briefly interrupted the quiet by grinding some coffee beans and then relaxed on the couch with my most loyal companion laying next to me. In this moment, I became fully aware of how quickly time seeps away when life gets hectic. And when life gets busy, I almost always deprive myself of what I love.

I enjoy writing (or blathering) on this blog. I surprised myself when I pulled up the page to see my last entry was seven weeks ago.

I love running and, sadly, it has probably been at least that many weeks since my last run.

I take pride in finding time for Charlie, playing fetch in the backyard, walking or running with him, and grooming him. Lately, I have forgotten about the importance of those moments, for both of us.

I am thankful for the relationships I have with family and friends. While I have thought about people lately, I have failed to reach out to some of them, call them, or spend time with them.

What I have been doing is practicing mindfulness. And since I have neglected some parts of life, I thought it might be appropriate to write how mindfulness can enrich life.

While I knew of mindfulness long before, I really began to think about it and apply it (to my life and my teaching) during a graduate class I was taking for my master's degree. Mindfulness is the art of paying attention, or really being attuned to the people and things around you. It requires a full seeing or observation to what we often miss or take for granted.

I think of it this way: when we are busy, constantly multi-tasking, and thinking about several different things while doing something else, we don't fully attend to what we are doing in the current moment. Instead, we should focus on the moment at hand, and only that moment. Living the mindful way opens up opportunities to see, think, react, and interact in a more fulfilling and engaged way.

Read what Eden Kozlowski says in Mindfulness and How it Helps Kids Excel.

I have been practicing mindfulness at home and work and it has opened up moments in establishing relationships with new people. It has helped me to see challenges more clearly and has given me better insight for how to interact with them. I have grown to embrace the process of progress, rather than stress and fret over the details along the way. I feel fresh and energetic when encountering the daily, often monotonous tasks of life and work.

Now I must refocus on those things I love. Have you considered being more mindful? What in life have you neglected lately?

Friday, June 21, 2013

Photos from a storm chaser

This is a short, six-minute, TED talk from Camille Seaman and it contains some awe-inspiring pictures of storms. That's all I have to say. You should watch this!

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Three easy steps for grilling corn on the cob

I love to cook on the grill. Some of my expertise is just intuitive. The rest came from trial and error (what we call at our house "Todd experiments") and a great deal of online research.

I thought it might be useful to share some best practices, great ideas, and successful recipes about grilling.

Here are three easy steps for grilling corn on the cob:
  1. Soak the corn on the cob, in its entirety with the husks, in cold water, for at least an hour.
    • You can soak the corn longer. No harm done.
    • I prefer to also place the corn in the refrigerator while soaking, although that isn't necessary.

  2. Grill the corn.

    • Because the husks have soaked up water it will help prevent them from catching on fire (a little flame can be expected).
    • The outsides will darken and even blacken. That is OK.
    • Slowly rotate the corn. You will know when, as each side turns from green to brown to black.

  3. Remove the burnt outer husks, after the cob is mainly black and taken off the grill.
    •  BE CAREFUL because the corn and husks will be extremely HOT to touch.
    • I like to wear oven mitts or gloves to protect my hands.
    • The first couple of black outer layers will easily peel away and the inner layers can be left on the cob to keep the corn warm until it is ready to eat.
This way to grill corn on the cob couldn't be easier and it yields great results every time. These three easy steps are essentially fool-proof and guaranteed by Charlie. Enjoy!

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Out Stealing Horses

Out Stealing HorsesOut Stealing Horses by Per Petterson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Out Stealing Horses is a novel with rich, beautiful descriptions that carry the reader through the memories of Trond Sander, an elderly man who leaves the city to live in a remote area. For some odd reason, I immediately connected with Trond, the narrator. His need for loneliness, reflection, nature, and the loyalty of his dog struck a chord with me. Maybe it was the fabulous flowing language and the precise time that was spent dwelling on just the right moments that carried me through his story. Or maybe it was the fact that growing old is both exciting and frightening. What kind of an old man will I be?

Trond tries to bury his lived life out in the wilderness, but he finds that his memories are a part of him, something he can never escape.

Moments of Trond's life are slowly revealed throughout the book. Out Stealing Horses sat on my bookshelf for years after I picked it up for the first time. I should have read it sooner.

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Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Beginning of summer shenanigans

The beginning of the summer season has brought with it some terrific storms. Luckily, we have not had to take shelter yet; the tornadoes, while close, haven't made their approach to Lincoln.

I'm anticipating this summer is going to be packed with a variety of exciting events and I keep talking with Charlie about what might be in store for him and us. Recently, he and I had been counting down the days for his grooming appointment that was scheduled for this morning. I think I was more excited than him. Matted, tangled hair under his ears and on his legs were growing into massive lumps. Last time this happened, we had to make an emergency vet visit, because Charlie was accidentally cut while trying to trim out the knots. As a result of that tragic event, we now leave the grooming to the professionals. Here is Charlie's "before" picture:

And this is his "after" picture:

Charlie takes one heck of a glamor shot. He could be a show dog if he wanted to be, however he wasted little time when we got home to roll around on the rug and mess up his perfectly new manicured coat.

It must have been a rough appointment because he slept on the kitchen floor all afternoon.

Recently, I have taken advantage of some quality time with my niece Katelyn. She and I discussed a variety of worldly events, from the deliciousness of hot dogs, to the varieties of colors on the spectrum, and planning our day together this coming Thursday.

I quickly found out that she is quite adept at using an iPhone and we began to take pictures to document our fun. First, I told her that we were going to take a serious picture:

Then, we took a happy, smiling picture:

When we were flipping through the pictures we took, Katelyn was very adamant about her dislike for the serious picture. She shook her head back and forth furiously every time it showed up on the screen. I'm determined to keep working with her, teaching her my ways of how to make faces right before the photo is snapped. I'm confident her distaste will turn to pleasure as she develops a more nuanced palate for all things Uncle Todd.

We just need a little more time together...

Monday, May 20, 2013

Spring moments

After a very long, cold, snowy, and rainy string of months, the weather finally feels like it belongs in the right season: spring.

Last year the drought of summer killed part of the yard, and Charlie trampled around on the straw-like grass tearing it up into dirt patches that later turned into mud over the winter.

I like to see everything slowly begin to green in the yard as life returns from dormancy, but the big barren spots from the extreme trauma have remained. I reseeded the back yard and have been diligently watering the mud patches, hoping for some germination.

And, then, one day, I got a whiff of lilacs.

Then the next day, the columbine bloomed.

And, soon, the bushes began to sprout color on the stems.

Charlie likes to "help" water the grass. His favorite part is chasing the end of the hose as I roll it back onto the reel. Being outside is his favorite even though it inflames his allergies, requiring us to give him two doses of Benadryl a day. He couldn't be happier in the sun.

Spring also brings the end of the school year, with books, assignments, checklists, and late-work strewn haphazardly on my desk.


The greatest spring moments are the brief pauses on the patio, in a chair, not thinking anything specific, not doing anything productive. Just breathing, watching nothing in particular. Existing in a moment of relaxation.

Michelle, who doesn't particularly like to be outdoors, even lingered for a moment. Of course, Charlie needed to be there too.

Friday, May 3, 2013

The real "data" behind teaching is often the stories which go untold

I left work this Friday, my mind obsessing over the day. Teaching tends to do that to me. It's something I just can't escape: the good and bad moments with adolescents certainly weigh on my emotions and thoughts long after the students leave after the last bell of the day. Eventually, after many years and countless students, those thoughts and feelings tend to dissipate, floating away into some mis-mashed meld of things recalled inaccurately or forgotten completely. However, there are the pristine, crystal moments, those that are so intensely memorable they become permanently ironed in my memory.

I must write this teaching moment from today. I have to share it on this blog, regardless if ten people read it, or 50, or hundreds, or even thousands (I doubt that will happen because my readership base is just not that high yet). But if just one non-teacher reads this, I think that will be progress. I feel more and more compelled to share my teaching stories.

Here's why: We teachers are not good at sharing our stories.

Of course we tell about our work to those whom are closest to us--our spouses, family members, close friends, and other teachers. They all get to hear glimpses of our daily positive and negative moments. But we clearly don't do a good enough job telling people outside of that immediate circle, the people whose notions of teaching and learning are strictly limited to only their own experience and perceptions of being a student in school. This is a problem because the immensity of our work as teachers goes misunderstood. Or it is misrepresented. Or it is diluted. Or simplified. Or judged. The narrative most politicians, the media, and some of the public at large espouse is highly negative towards teachers, public schools, and an entire system they simply don't understand. That statement is not meant to be a slam on anyone. You just can't understand the complexity of teaching unless you live it.

For all you readers out there who are teachers or have been teachers, you get what I'm saying. And I know this story will resonate with you because we all have stories similar to this one--the one I will remember from today, forever.

First, the background.

Amelia (I have given her a pseudonym) is in my reading intervention class so that she can build reading skills to meet certain standardized test requirements. She is very bright. But she has not yet passed this particular standardized exam. Amelia wears an ankle bracelet, has a tracker, and a probation officer. She is fiercely social, her face screams intensity almost always, and she is loud. Very loud. I like all of that about her. She is a force to be reckoned with and, most days, I look forward to seeing her.

Amelia is failing my class. She was failing three weeks ago. Her out-of-school life often interferes with her in-school life. So, three weeks ago, a situation with Amelia escalated in my classroom. I was trying to get her to do the work I was asking her and other students in class to do. She was being defiant. The situation unraveled quickly to the point where Amelia was screaming obscenities at me, storming out into the hallway. I stepped out of the classroom with her, where things got worse. I asked her to go to the main office, at which point she threw a book--the one she was supposed to be reading--at me as her final insolent act and she continued to scream profanity walking down the hallway.

Amelia, her principal, and myself met the following day to discuss the situation that transpired. For the sake of brevity, I will only share this one moment of that conversation.

"I feel like you're always picking on me," Amelia told me with piercing eyes.

"I understand why you feel that way," I responded. "I am kind of picking on you."

Amelia looked at me, kind of stunned at what I had just said.

I continued, "Amelia, you are probably the smartest and most capable person in my reading class, but you are not passing. It is my job to help you pass my class. That is what I get paid to do. I am going to continue to ask you not to do things when they interfere with your learning in class. So yes, I'm going to 'pick' on you because you have potential. And I care about you passing."

Flash-forward to yesterday. Amelia and her friend asked about my ethnicity. This topic of conversation seems very important to Amelia, as she is curious to know about her fellow classmates. I was surprised when she inquired about me because I'm clearly very white. During our conversation, I began to tell her that my ancestors are Czech, explaining that my heritage on both my mom and dad's side of the family can be traced back to Czechoslovakia. She was confused. She had questions about where I was "from". She wondered if my wife was white too, or Czech, or Mexican. It was an innocent, yet intriguing, interaction.

Then, today, I was in my classroom during my off period, grading papers. This time, it was my turn to be stunned. Someone was standing outside my classroom door.

"Mr. P?" It was Amelia.

"Hey, what's up?" I said.

"Um," she hesitated, "Do you know what it means to vent?"

I kind of laughed. I think she totally underestimates my vocabulary as an English and Reading teacher. Whatever.

"Sure," I said, "Venting means that you need to tell someone something. You need to complain. Something is bothering you and you want someone to just listen. You need to get something off of your chest."

"I need to vent," Amelia told me.

"OK. Come on in," I said.

I probably should have asked where she was supposed to be, inquiring what class she was skipping to come and talk to me. But I decided that wasn't important information in this moment, nor was it an appropriate question to ask Amelia immediately, since she needed to vent. She seemed serious, acting in a way she had never revealed to me before. Her same intensity was there, but it was different now. I saved my question for later.

Amelia began talking. "I just want to give up," she started.

After that phrase, I was compelled to close the cover of my laptop as a way to signal to her that she had my attention. I listened, asking leading questions to get her to tell me more. Amelia shared that she has "been in the system" since she was 11 years old because there was some physical abuse in the home. As she grew older, crime and other scenarios have kept her in the system. She sees a therapist every Monday. Her mom recently told her that she doesn't care about her anymore, doesn't want to have anything to do with her, and wants her to live somewhere else. Then, recently, some conflict unfolded between Amelia's boyfriend of a year-and-a-half. The boyfriend is Amelia's one supporter, the person she really trusts. Well, he dumped Amelia, and then some other complications transpired on Facebook. Amelia said she was working hard to get her grades up and pass her classes because there are only three weeks left of school before summer. However, today, during her first period, she was taking a test and she just couldn't concentrate. She said she kept reading the same question over and over again but couldn't understand it. Her problems just kept taking over her thoughts. She told me she didn't even want to come to school today.

Throughout our conversation, I reassured her. I told her that her experience on her test this morning was completely natural and that most people going through what she was going through would also have a hard time concentrating on school. I processed with her how she could talk to her first period teacher to see if she could have a second attempt on that test. I asked about her therapist. I told her I would get in touch with her school counselor. I asked if there were other adults she could trust. I reminded her that, while she feels alone and abandoned right now, she is not alone. I thanked her for coming to talk to me.

And, most importantly, I pleaded with Amelia to not give up, telling her life is rough.

I said, "We can't let the bad stuff get in the way of what is good. We have to keep fighting. Don't let this bad stuff right now take over and cause you to fail classes when there are only three weeks left of school. Because if that happens, you have to deal with more bad stuff."

Amelia nodded through teary eyes.

"Thanks, Mister," she said. She calls me "mister" more than she calls me Mr. P.

And then I asked what class she was supposed to be in and if that teacher knew she was coming to talk to me instead of going to class.

Students like Amelia may not pass a test in their first period class because life prevents them from being their best. Equally so, if they are required to take a high-stakes standardized test on a particular day when life gets in the way of learning, they will fail. And then the results of that failing standardized test is used as "data" to label Amelia as a "failure". Additionally, that same data on Amelia is used to label her school as a failure, or "needing improvement". And her teacher is labeled a failure too. And, then, public schools are failing.

The real "data" behind every score on a particular test on a particular day are the minutes, days, weeks, and months of interaction between Amelia and her teachers. Because one day Amelia is launching profanities and throwing a book at me, and then, many days later, she needs me to be her advocate. Amelia is absolutely, unequivocally NOT a failure.

Teachers, we must tell more of our stories that inform the data on public schools.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Spring cleaning

This weekend brought on some serious spring cleaning motivation for Michelle. The sun, decent temperatures, and nice breeze suggested a need for clear windows. She did all the work by wiping down both sides of the windows, soaking the screens in the shower, and getting all the dirt and grime out of the sills. I sort of assisted by taking apart and reassembling everything in each room.

Charlie also had an extra spring in his step with a break from the wet, cold weather. He and I spent some time in the backyard, as I brushed away layers and layers of winter coat hair, letting it all float away in the windy afternoon air.

Then, like all household tasks, Charlie needed to "help" with the window cleaning. He loved the fact that the window and screen was missing, allowing him to hang his head out and watch the neighborhood from his favorite perch, getting the best of both worlds, being both inside and out.

Michelle was a little worried that Charlie would see something he might want to chase, and jump out the window. I was more confident, thinking he knew the jump was too much for his little body.

But then I went on a quick run to do a few errands. As I backed the car down the driveway, Charlie was in his normal spot, watching me. At that moment, I was slightly worried that he might want to leap from inside the house and run after the car as I drove away. Normally the panes of glass are the only thing containing his excitement as we come and go. Now, he had an opportunity to do something even more loyal, chasing a car, like in a movie.

I looked back a couple of times and then kept the reflections of his head hanging out of the house in the review mirror in my peripheral vision, just in case he would do something dramatic. Thankfully he didn't. However, if he did this blog post would have been much more exciting and entertaining.

Our windows look fabulous now and everything is in order. For now. It won't be long before Charlie reinstates his marks on the window as he watches us from his precious spot, sending us off to work and longingly anticipating our return every day this week.

Monday, April 22, 2013


Today, I asked my students to consider the theme of loss. We have been reading the book, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time and have been viewing the movie Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close as a parallel text. In preparation for their writing assignment over the movie, I wanted students to write about how characters in the movie deal with loss.

Some sad events transpired today, causing me to personally reflect on loss in our lives. One of Charlie's canine friends, Ollie, is no longer with us. He was struck by a car this morning. His human parents are obviously devastated, doing the best they can to overcome incredible, shocking loss. And we are also very sad. Ollie was a terrific dog. We will all miss spending time with Ollie, but Charlie will especially miss the mischief he and Ollie enjoyed together. 

Loss leads to remembrance. Through remembering, we grow as people. Our memories become part of our existence. Ollie is, and always will be, a part of our existence.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Complete Persepolis

PersepolisPersepolis by Marjane Satrapi
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Occasionally, I enjoy reading a good graphic novel and The Complete Persepolis is exactly that--a good graphic novel. Marjane Satrapi's memoir about growing up and coming of age in Iran is compelling at times, mainly because of the historical context. The slow and systemic radicalization and oppression of the Iranian people is presented in a realistic but heart-breaking way. The glimmers of hope throughout the novel are how people continue to find joy with others and in life, secretly, behind closed curtains in private places. The flip-side is a weighing sadness that people must hide freedom, joy, happiness, thought, and expression because government actors can always be right around the corner.

The journey the reader goes on with Satrapi is an exploration of this polarity between public and private space, and how she (and those around her) constantly negotiate this way of living. The true contradiction or conflict is how one's love for family and country is overcome with exploring a need to leave home and flee from it in order to truly understand oneself. In a lot of ways, that is a theme most wrestle with at some point during life.

Like most graphic novels, this is a quick read. At times, it is also a compelling one. The greatest value in reading The Complete Persepolis is gaining insight into the real oppression some around the world live with every day, and what appears from the collective outside may not at all reflect what is inside the individual hearts and minds of good people. I think our world needs more of that kind of understanding, which would make us all a little more "complete."

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Saturday, April 13, 2013

An earth video... perspective taking and something called the "overview effect"

After this week, I feel the need to write about perspective. Our habits of mind, what we choose to focus on, and how we think about life and people with whom we interact filters everything. We all (myself included) can easily become warped into our own limited worldview, failing to acknowledge the true greatness of potential surrounding us.

Sometimes it is healthy to step outside of ourselves, then calmly and consciously dwell on what it is we fail to recognize because we are too hurried, stressed, jaded, closed-off, or solidified in the every day of our own existence. By letting our minds wander into spaces not normally considered, a certain peacefulness can set in. Maybe a revelation will take hold. Our way of being with others and interacting in the world can be altered--if even slightly--to push us towards a different, more fully nuanced understanding of living.

Astronauts are a selective few who have an opportunity to experience living in ways most never will. There is a very cool video called "Overview" documenting what they understand since they have looked upon the earth from above. The video comes from the Planetary Collective, which is a group of people who want to explore the big questions and ideas that face our planet. The synopsis about the video from the website is this:
Astronauts who have seen the Earth from space have often described the ‘overview effect’ as an experience that has transformed their perspective of the planet and mankind’s place upon it, and enabled them to perceive it as our shared home, without boundaries between nations or species.
The pictures from space are breath-taking. The accounts of the astronauts make me slightly envious. But mostly, after watching it, the video has me thinking how easy it is to have a blinded perspective.

The video is lengthy. But even if you have to pause it, walk away, and return to continue watching, you will find that it was a valuable use of your time.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

A new home

Getting something new is nice, but it is oftentimes difficult to part with the old, comfortable things we have grown to love and rely upon. Charlie loves going into his kennel. It is his safe place when we have to leave him home alone or when we take him in the car.

Charlie has been putting on the pounds lately, becoming a bit too big for his current kennel. It works just fine, but he can't stand up entirely when inside. He has to crouch to move around or re-situate. I felt bad leaving him in there all day while I'm at work.

I made a trip to the pet store, purchasing the next size for his comfort.

I had a feeling that Charlie would be slightly cautious about this new addition to his life. He carefully approached the new kennel when I placed it down next to the old one. He had to smell and inspect it thoroughly. He refused to walk into the new kennel.

I decided to pull out his brown fleece blanket from the old home and put it into the new one. That seemed to be all Charlie needed to venture carefully into the upgraded home.

He stayed in the larger kennel for a minute or so and then carefully began dragging his brown fleece blanket out of it. He left it partially hanging out as he went back to the old kennel to sniff out the nostalgia of what he has come to love and know.

For a brief moment, I thought he would be accepting of this change. I was wrong.

Deciding he wasn't approving of this transition, Charlie proceeded to pull his fleece completely out of the new kennel and leave it on the kitchen floor.

Change is difficult. It requires an acceptance that the past is over and a willingness to embrace the unknown.

Charlie has come to love the larger kennel, his new home. Soon, with time, it will not be the "new" home, but his only home.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Proofreading, pastries, perfection, and passions (not necessarily in that order)

Facebook truly is one giant, digital time-suck. I'm often addicted to endless scrolling through statuses and pictures that, while sometimes interesting, is mostly just a replacement for other things I should be doing. Occasionally Facebook (and the people posting on it) has redeeming value with some inspiring, thought-provoking, or unique content that makes me feel a little better about myself for spending so much time on it.

Today was just one of those days.

I should have been focused on the productive to-do list I made the night before, and instead found my way to Facebook. And then I was stopped by a post from Hy-Vee:
What do you do when a kid named Henry points out your mistake and laughs? You make his day.
With donuts.
Thanks, Henry.
I had to click the link. For multiple reasons.

  • I love Hy-Vee. I love food. I actually love grocery shopping. And Hy-Vee is a company that I've worked for on and off again in a variety of capacities for many, many years. Hy-Vee will always be my company. 
  • There is a kid named Henry who is engaged in literacy. I'm passionate about literacy development and education. No matter where I go or what I do in life, those two topics will forever spark my interest.
  • In all aspects of life and work, people make mistakes. There is no such thing as perfection. Yet, we all love to be the person to catch those mistakes, especially when they are glaringly obvious. And, honestly, props to people who catch mistakes because there is a great deal of fun and amusement in being the person to notice the obvious infraction. I have previously written about my own embarrassing written mistakes: Rules, mistakes, and considerate corrections.
  • Throughout my dedicated years working in a grocery store, I have countless stories of grammatical, spelling, incorrect word choice, and punctuation mistakes that have made it on signage, oblivious to the creator. Sometimes those mistakes are caught before they are displayed for all to see. Typically, they are never noticed until it has been broadcast to the world and overlooked by many. 
  • I love donuts.

So, like I stated, I click on the Facebook link. Eight year old Henry was amused by the incorrect signage at Hy-Vee. His mom took a picture of it.

Then she blogged about the experience in the post Donuts & . . . on the blog Turn up the Valium. You must read what she wrote there along with the follow-up post The Tasty Typo.

While the mistake on the signage is amusing--along with being the true "hook" of the story--what I find most compelling is the important power of education and how one attentive, bright, eight-year-old applied something he is learning in school to his everyday life.  

I now attribute Facebook to making me productive, leading to this blog post, and therefor have no guilt as I return for more endless browsing, craving some additional inspiration.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

To This Day

In my obsession with TED talks and YouTube, I stumbled upon a fabulous spoken word poem, "To This Day" by Shane Koycz. It is an insightful and personal video about bullying, which, apparently, has been getting great attention on the internet. The poem itself is quite powerful, but when you hear it set to animation there is a richer layer of added meaning. It is seven and half minutes long.

I don't mean to brush off the seriousness of bullying with some light-hearted story, but I have to share with everyone what happened yesterday with Charlie, the bully. For those of you who have read my other posts, you are aware that anytime Charlie is let out in the back yard unpredictable events are bound to occur. Yesterday morning was just one of those times.

Charlie and I were up early. He immediately wanted to go out back, so I let him outside and watched from the back door window (since the back door doesn't lead directly out to the backyard, Charlie has to walk nine feet to the open gate by the garage). I can be an impatient person and wanted to be doing something while waiting for Charlie to do his ritualistic rounds of smelling everything in the yard while finding the perfect spot to do his business. Just standing at the back door is boring.

Honestly, the decision to multitask was probably a poor choice on my part; I'm just not good at it. I began to make coffee, opening up a new bag of grounds given to me by Michelle's parents for my birthday. After I broke the seal, I realized that this particular coffee didn't have one of those twisty things attached to close it back up. I needed to leave the kitchen to get tape or something from the other room to seal up this bag. Keeping a careful eye out the window, I didn't see Charlie. He must have been behind the garage. I waited. Still, there was no sign of Charlie. I made a calculated decision that I could make it to the other room and back to the kitchen without Charlie knowing.

Quickly, I retrieved the tape I so desperately needed and returned to the back door of the kitchen. Even still, there was no sign of Charlie. Doubt entered my mind. Was I not fast enough? In that brief moment, could it be possible that I missed him, and he slipped from the open gate, down the driveway, and to the front of the house? It has happened before. As my confidence in my multitasking morning began to diminish, I put the coffee away, stayed put at the back door window, and waited. No Charlie.

Then, a mad flash of a black and white cat whizzed from around the corner of the garage, through the gate, Charlie sprinting behind it in full speed, and both quickly disappeared out of sight down the driveway. I didn't have much time to think, half amused and half pissed that this was actually happening. I opened the back door and pretty much screamed, "Charlie, get back here!" at the top of my lungs, hoping he would hear. I know the dogs inside the neighbor's house heard, because they immediately began barking. I'm sure my neighbors were pleased.

I waited. Charlie did not appear. I began to wonder how intent he was on catching that cat and how far he had run in the front yard. But I wanted to keep the faith. So I didn't dare take a step down, out of the house, onto the driveway. Rather, I just left the door open and yelled Charlie's name one more time.

That was when I heard the pitter-patter of paws hitting pavement up the driveway. Charlie rounded the corned of the house, stopped, looked at me, and just starred at me, communicating his dissatisfaction with me ruining his early-morning bullyfest. "Get inside," I commanded.

I'm just surprised the cat didn't put up more of a fight. It was just as big as Charlie.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Teacher Appreciation Week

This week is Teacher Appreciation Week. Do what you want with that. Enough said.

Yesterday was not a good teaching day for me. For those teachers out there, you know how terrible the bad days can feel. And I can honestly say, I haven't felt entirely appreciated going back into the classroom. You go into teaching knowing that teenagers generally are not going to appreciate you. Oftentimes they view teachers as obstacles, people to subvert, push up against, argue with, disrespect, and I could continue with the list of those not-so-fun descriptive words. As the adult (and teacher), you go to work every day accepting teenagers for who they are, and do the best you can. But the bad days can weigh on your being like no other.

Thankfully, that was all yesterday.

Today, I felt appreciated. The teenagers were still their normal selves in all their glory. The revealing moments that capped my day today transpired during after school club with Mr. Pernicek. It's not really a club. Rather it is when students show up for extra help in the basement of the school where my classroom is located. More than a handful of students voluntarily stayed over an hour to do academic work. They genuinely wanted to improve and do well. There were several impromptu lessons:
  • How to take a run-on paragraph and change it to a solid paragraph of sentences.
  • How to come up with vivid, descriptive words using
  • Where to put commas in a compound complex sentence.
  • How to connect opinions about a book to life in a short essay.
  • How to write and punctuate dialogue.
  • How effort, time-management, and focus in school makes life less-stressful.
Most of the teenagers said thank you on their way out of the room this afternoon, their grades rising, and their sense of pride and self-worth intensified.

On an unrelated note, TEDxYouth@Lincoln is coming together nicely. Check out this update.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Achieved another year

There are many birthday cliches and traditions. Yesterday, I achieved another year of life on this planet. I celebrated with friends, my wife, and family. I ate some birthday cake. I went out to dinner and drinks. I ate more cake (and a cookie), a traditional nod restaurants give their celebrating patrons. I received gifts. Phone calls, texts, and Facebook messages reminded me of the wonderful, supportive people  in my life. Yet, I'm left thinking about two cliches:

I don't feel any older.


Time seems to go by faster the older you get.

Honestly, I'm not quite sure what it means to "feel" old. I'm certain it will happen at one point, and then, maybe, I'll feel wiser, accomplished, or fulfilled. Since the passage of time has not left me with any profound feelings of age, I wonder why each year increasingly seems to speed by faster than the previous one. Am I trapped in some strange birthday paradox? Or is this just a common experience we humans enjoy on our life journeys until we wake up one day and think, Oh my gosh, I feel old?

I guess until that happens, I've gratefully accomplished the past year, and I anticipate the gathering momentum of my next birthday.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Still here

It's been a while. But I'm still here.

Much has happened since my last post. I'm teaching again. My break from the classroom was short-lived, but I forgot just how taxing the life of a teacher can be. When I made the decision to return at semester, I thought I was going to be able to maintain a balance between work and life. I still think that I can. Yet living the life of a teacher is different from thinking about it: the lesson planning, extra time grading papers at nights and on the weekends, going in to school early and staying late, and, of course, the emotional and intellectual investment. The strangest part is that I feel like a first year teacher all over again.

After seven weeks of regaining my footing, I feel slightly more comfortable with this life-change. And I miss Charlie and His Human. Plus, English teachers should be writers, so I must make some time to write again.

Here are a few updates:

Charlie had his teeth cleaned for the first time. He loved it. And the people at the vet love him. Charlie is also becoming too-overweight, at 25 pounds. A male Cavalier is only supposed to be around 18 pounds. We are working on more exercise and less food. Charlie has been helping me train for the Lincoln Half Marathon. He can handle short, three-mile runs.

Charlie had been spending a lot of time in the back yard. I knew he was up to no good, but couldn't really figure out what he was doing. Then, one day, after an extremely long time out behind the garage, I let him back into the house. Michelle began screaming. Charlie had brought in a bird carcass, dropping it on the living room rug.

Maybe Charlie's weight gain is the result of some extra snacks out in the yard?

Yesterday, when we came home, there was a hawk in our front yard oak tree. It was pretty amazing. Our neighbor is the one who pointed it out to me. He told me that earlier he watched it take out a squirrel in his yard. I was able to get a couple of pictures, but as I tried to get a better picture, I spooked it and it flew away.

And tonight is the Haase Family Annual Academy Awards Extravaganza. This event is probably the coolest thing I've married into. Currently, we're sitting in the living room watching the Academy Awards, with our compiled ballots and highlighters to see who is going to win the traveling trophy this year. A mysterious thing happened last year. The trophy was stolen and somehow I got blamed because of these two pictures that were circulated on Facebook:

Regardless of this drama and being wrongfully accused, I'm enjoying the evening.

This is the second year we have dressed up as a character from one of the nominated movies. Here is what we all look like this year:

Jessica Chastain from Zero Dark Thirty

Jennifer Lawrence from Silver Linings Playbook

Girl, Bond Girl from Skyfall

Jason as Django

Bradley Cooper from Silver Linings Playbook