Friday, July 15, 2011

Is This Anything?

David Letterman occasionally does a bit on his show called "Is This Anything?" It features some sort of strange performance, followed by Dave and band leader Paul Schaffer discussing whether the act is anything. That's it.

That's how it feels every year looking at our 4H pigs in the months, weeks, and finally days leading up to the Polk County Fair. After the previous year's fair ends, Brett and I start studying boar websites, looking for the next year's sires. We pick up every boar catalog available at the Iowa State Fair, even though we always get boar semen from the same two places, Swine Genetics International and Cain Super Sires. We discuss which boar would enhance the qualities of each of our sows and gilts, and we hope that we're able to match up the right genetics to get next year's Polk County Fair Supreme Champion Market Individual.

Once the farrowing starts in January, "Is This Anything: Swine Edition" starts in earnest. From day 1, we look at the new baby pigs and talk about what's good about them and what they are lacking. I talk with both Brett and Kay about what litter they want, and what their other options are if the other girl has first choice.

This year, there were really only two litters from which to choose. We had six litters, but these were the only two that had enough pigs in them to win the litter class at the fair. Brett went back and forth between them. Since she's a senior, she had first choice for both pigs and calves. She knew right away which calves she wanted for her feeder pen, but didn't make up her mind on the pigs until the week of the swine weigh-in in April.

At this point, we think both girls may have something. Brett has some individuals that are really thick and muscular, and Kay has a number of pigs whose rate of gain has far surpassed anything we've ever raised. Are they anything? That's up to the judge to decide, one week from tomorrow, when the pigs finally enter the show ring at the Polk County Fair.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Tech Haiku

I forgot that I had written this until today when I found it on the Notes app on my iPod. When bored and wi-filess, what better way to fill the technological void than to compose a haiku?

I have my netbook,
and I have my iPod touch. 
Alas, no wi-fi. 

Saturday, May 21, 2011

...and I feel fine.

On this dawning of the so-called Judgement Day, I've been wasting time finding some of my favorite End of the World writings and songs. I was posting them on Facebook, but I've become too verbose to fit my snarky remarks into the space Mark Zuckerberg gives me, so I've moved over to my long-neglected blog. Consider this my K-Tel Greatest Hits of the Armageddon package.

REM's "It's the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine)" is really the obligatory song of the day. Fortunately, it's a great song. Sometimes it's hard to keep up with the lyrics in Michael Stipe's vocals, but there are a million lyric sites on the web to help you follow along.

And while everyone's talking about fire and brimstone for the end of the world today, the great prophet Robert Frost reminds us that there is another possibility.

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great

Which leads us to perhaps the greatest doomsday novelist of all-time, Kurt Vonnegut, whose 1964 novel Cat's Cradle ended with a sufficient amount of ice--more specifically, Ice-9--to destroy human life on this island Earth. Vonnegut's story includes enough amoral scientists and religious extremists for any prophecy of the end times, and it's far more entertaining and well-written than any Left Behind novel.

Speaking of signs of the apocalypse, according to Wikipedia, Leonardo DiCaprio's production company has optioned Cat's Cradle and is currently working on a script for a film version of the book.

Sting's post-apocalyptic opus "Bring On the Night/When the World is Running Down" clocks in at about 10 minutes, so if you believe this is our last day, you probably want to spend your time doing something more productive. If not, it's a great performance, so relax and enjoy it.

Finally, there's Prince's "1999." Here in 2011, it seems outdated, which I suppose is one of the dangers of forecasting the destruction of the world: When you're wrong, everyone is still around to know about it. Ask Harold Camping, the radio host responsible for today's silliness. His first prediction of the rapture was for 1994. Of course, that didn't stop him from making a new prediction, all based on biblical references and math. (My understanding is that his first prediction was incorrect because he forgot to carry a 2 from one column to the next as he calculated the date.)

What this means for Prince is that if he follows Camping's example, he is only five years from another blockbuster hit. Personally, I can't wait to hear the funky groove he lays down for "2016."

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
--Hamlet, Act I, scene 5

Last night, Jordan and I watched Inherit the Wind, the 1960 Spencer Tracy/Gene Kelly classic based on the Scopes Monkey Trial. It was interesting watching a film where religious fundamentalists insist that any way of thinking that doesn't completely match theirs is a threat to everything that is good in this world on the same day that the Iowa House of Representatives passed HJR 6, the Marriage Amendment that not only puts a ban on gay marriage in the Iowa Constitution, but also a ban on civil unions and domestic partnerships. 

Part of me thinks that all of this has as much to do with the "ew" factor as with religion, that the opposition to gay marriage is mainly about thinking that gay sex is gross. But that can't be completely true, since so many gay-rights opponents have been found to have been shouting their opposition from deep within the closet. 

Most opponents of gay marriage claim a religious justification for their passionate support of discriminatory legislation. I won't argue against their claim that they found their beliefs in the Bible; I will argue against their claim that their beliefs are founded in the will of God. My own religious beliefs have their basis in the same Good Book as theirs, but my beliefs include the idea that if God is as truly great and mysterious as most Christians like to claim, then a few hundred pages transcribed from scrolls written in ancient languages and interpreted over and over again throughout the last 2000 years and beyond cannot even begin to reveal all of God's will in a way that can be understood by mere humans. 

At the end of Inherit the Wind, Spencer Tracy's character questions the prosecuting lawyer on passages from the Bible. While his opponent believes the questions are designed to mock the scriptures, the opposite turns out to be true. Tracy's questions demonstrate that the God who created the heavens and the earth also created in humans thinking, inquisitive natures that respond to information by wanting to know more; that creation is something beyond human understanding,  but it is in our nature to want to understand as much about it as we can. 

Hamlet was absolutely correct when he told his friend, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy." The same is true for love, and there is far more to it than the narrow understanding that the Iowa House voted to put into the Iowa Constitution yesterday.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Shake It Up, Baby

As I sit here watching "American Idol," it's hard not to think about what a gift it is to be able to sing well. I'm not saying this in a conceited way. I know that I was lucky to be born with a sense of pitch and a set of vocal chords that vibrate in a way that I've been told is generally pleasant to hear.

I've also been lucky enough to share a broad variety of vocal experiences with some great musicians, from jazz choir and "Hello Dolly" in high school, to the Old Gold Singers and a one-hit (one song, actually) acapella quartet at the University of Iowa, to my church choir and a couple different variations on a gospel vocal group. I've performed on stage at Hancher Auditorium in Iowa City and  on the Riley Stage at the Iowa State Fair. I sang the national anthem at an Iowa Cubs game in Principal Park, where I learned that singers and baseball managers have different standards for judging a vocal performance. "Great job," I was told as I walked past the home dugout on my way back to my seat. I was feeling pretty good about myself until he pointed to his watch and said, "One minute, 29 seconds. Perfect."

With the gospel quartet Bound4Him, I was part of three recording projects, but my real recording bragging rights come from singing backup on "Kansas City/Hey Hey Hey" on Paul McCartney's Paul is Live album. (In the interests of full disclosure, I should probably mention that at the time, I was sitting in the third row from the top in Arrowhead Stadium, and there were 60,000 other people singing along, but that song from that concert is on album, so I'm sticking to my claim that I sang backup on a McCartney album.)

Until today, however, I had never gotten the opportunity to sing and play guitar in a rock band. Let me tell you, if you ever have a chance to get together with a few of your friends, a few instruments, some amps, and an auditorium of screaming kids, I highly recommend it. From the time we kicked off "Twist and Shout" with lead in notes from eighth grade band director Ted Heggen's Hofner bass until we hit the final chord, it was an absolute rush. I know my guitar playing was far from polished, but (and I say this with no small amount of pride), I nailed John Lennon's scream at the end of the instrumental bridge.

It was a great way to spend a couple of hours at school, and I got to see some truly talented Southeast Polk Junior High students as well. All in all, the best way to sum it all up would probably be the last line in the email I sent out to my bandmates at the end of the day: When's the next gig, and what are we playing?

Sunday, January 23, 2011

To whom it may concern...

To the Campbell's Soup Company: You can add the adjective "homestyle" to your chicken soup label, but you're not fooling anyone.

To any of my professors at the University of Iowa from 1987-1991: I've been going through some old files and getting rid of a lot of things. As I use my paper shredder to convert your mimeographed packets into livestock bedding, I can't help but wonder if some of you would have made more sense if you had breathed fewer duplicating fluid fumes.

To Right Said Fred: I don't care if you're too sexy for your shirt, but I could go a long time without hearing that song again because, well, it hurts.

To Jimmy Fallon, who in his weekly thank you notes told the F12 key "Thanks for nothing": F12 is the shortcut for "Save as." I use it all the time.

To Comedy Central: Thank you for posting episodes of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report online. My cable and satellite dish-free life is better because of you.

To the producers of the Golden Globes show who were shocked by Ricky Gervais' performance as this year's host: Did you not watch last year's show?

To all the Bears and Packers fans: I'll be honest with you. I did not care who won the NFC championship game, but I'm really glad it's over so I can quit hearing about how much you hate each other.

To Rex Ryan and the New York Jets: You had second and goal inside the two yard line, and for some reason none of the next three plays involved Shonn Greene driving it up the middle? You deserve to lose.

To Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers: After stopping the Jets on fourth and goal at the one yard line, you fumble the first snap and give up a safety? You deserve to lose, too.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Unbust a Move

Dialogue in the Timmins living room during the new Young MC-accompanied Verizon commercial:

Jordan: What are you doing?

Me: I'm busting a move.

Jordan: Well, stop it. You look like a spastic turtle.

Brett: Jordan, once a move has been busted, you can't unbust it.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

In Support of Southeast Polk's Ag Department

The following is an email I sent out to my colleagues today in support of Southeast Polk High School's Agricultural Education program. I truly believe that our ag ed program is what education should be all about.

To my 8th grade colleagues,

With your Advisory materials this week, you received a letter from Southeast Polk FFA President Brett Timmins about the ag ed presentation this Friday during Advisory. I would like to encourage you to promote this presentation to your students because of how beneficial FFA and agricultural education have been for Brett.

Brett signed up for an ag class and joined FFA as a freshman mainly so she could show in the Iowa State Fair FFA swine show, but she got much more from her Southeast Polk ag experience than just the opportunity to show her pigs. FFA has taught her invaluable leadership, interpersonal, speaking and critical thinking skills. She has become a better student and a more confident young woman through her classes, through FFA competitions, and through experiences like the FFA National Convention and the Washington Leadership Conference. She has learned a lot about not only agricultural economics, but also her own personal finances through her supervised agricultural experiences (SAE).

Over winter break, Brett received her acceptance letter from Iowa State University (yes, I know, but it's OK), where she is going to become an ag teacher and FFA adviser. I couldn't be prouder than I am as the father of a Cyclone (no, seriously, I mean it), and I couldn't be more grateful to Matt Eddy  and the Southeast Polk ag ed program for what they have done for my daughter.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

It's Always Something

"Well, Jane, it just goes to show you: It's always something. If it's not one thing, it's another."
--Gilda Radner as Roseanne Rosannadanna

Gilda could have been talking about the Timmins family in the last few days. It sure seems like a lot of things have decided to pile on us at once.

The first "one thing" happened Wednesday afternoon. Barb called me at school because she had received a call from the school nurse telling her that Jordan had been in her office for the last hour, and was suffering from a mysterious pain on her right side. When I picked her up, the nurse said she thought Jordan may have strained something in her rib cage. A trip to the Mercy East Medical Center gave us a much different and entirely unexpected diagnosis: Jordan has shingles. By the time we filled a prescription for Valtrex and Tylenol with codeine at the Target pharmacy, Jordan reported that she felt like someone was "stabbing me in the side with a bayonet." 

I stayed home with her the following morning, then went  to school because Barb would be home during the afternoon. After school, one of our sows was in labor with our first litter of pigs of the year. After giving her a shot of oxytocin, I ended up pulling the first pig. He was huge, far bigger than a normal-sized piglet and too large for the sow's cervix. He was also the last pig she would deliver. She managed to move the second pig up the birth canal far enough that I could easily reach into her and get my fingers around the pig's head. Unfortunately, the head is the only part of it I could I could move past the cervix, as its shoulders prevented me from moving it any further. After working on it for close to five hours, trying every idea that Barb, my dad and I could think of, the sow and I were both exhausted. We decided to let her rest, hope that somehow she managed to deliver the pig by morning, and if she didn't, call the vet to see what he could do.

Friday morning arrived with the pig still lodged inside of the sow, and Doc Hormann didn't have any better luck with it than I did. He gave us two options: deliver the pigs by C-section, or let the sow re-absorb the pigs that were still inside of her. He recommended the latter. The sow never got very big during her pregnancy, and she didn't appear to have enough pigs in her to warrant the expense and risk of surgery. We took his recommendation, so for the first time since the Timmins farm started farrowing pigs over 30 years ago, we have a pig who is an only child. The sow is getting 20 cc's of antibiotics a day for the next five days in hopes of fighting any sickness caused by the now dead fetuses inside of her and any infections she may get from our unsuccessful efforts to get the second pig out.

It was a crazy couple of days, but things are starting to calm down, as they always do. Jordan is still hurting from the shingles, and the sow is still hurting from her trauma. However, the second litter came this morning (although I'm not sure if one pig can be correctly called a litter, so maybe this morning's pigs are the first). This sow has 12 strong, healthy pigs nursing on her, and we're feeling much better about the swine business. Now if we can get Jordan through the shingles, all will be well with the world, at least until our next Roseanne Rosannadanna experience.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Waiting

Don't wait for it to happen. Don't even want it to happen. Just watch what does happen. 
--Sean Connery as Jim Malone in The Untouchables

One of my favorite Facebook jokes is to reply "That's always the hardest part" anytime I see anyone post "is waiting" as his or her status. I'm sure most people would think posting the same Tom Petty reference over and over would become tedious, but it amuses me every time I do it.

That may be in part because there is some truth to those words. Waiting is hard. The anticipation of something good can often lead to an expectational build-up that reality has trouble competing with, while the knowledge of an impending problem or pain can often be worse than the actual situation associated with it. 

We're experiencing that right now with the pigs. Our first sow was due to have her litter on Monday and, as of 5:00 this evening, was still conspicuously pigless, as were the other three sows shut up in the farrowing house with her. We were really hoping for her to start yesterday, when the snow day would have made taking care of the new babies convenient, then we predicted that she would have them last night after the temperature dropped and the trip to the barn would have involved braving sub-zero windchill factors. (Swine gestation is approximately 114 days, which can be translated to 3 months, 3 weeks, 3 days, 3 a.m. and 3 below.)

As of this writing, the waiting continues. Hopefully, when the pigging starts, everything will be nice and easy for the sows, and the waiting really will have been the hardest part.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Rob 2.0

Time may change me, but I can't trace time.
--David Bowie

Teaching Computer Applications is my second teaching career. As I usually tell my students sometime during the first week of class, I am really an English teacher. That's what my degree from the University of Iowa and my teaching license say, anyway. It's what I taught for the first 10 years of my career, starting at Stuart-Menlo High School where I was the English department for grades 10-12 for a year, then at Valley High School in West Des Moines for five years, and finally for four years at Southeast Polk Junior High.

When I had an opportunity to switch to computers, I jumped at it. I was ready for something new and different, and to be honest, the subject matter in junior high English classes isn't nearly as interesting as Creative Writing and Modern American Lit, my favorite classes to teach at Valley.

Strangely enough, even though I like the subject matter of high school English better than junior high English, I learned that I enjoyed teaching seventh graders more than teaching high school students. Junior high students, especially seventh graders, still have an innocence about them, even when they are acting like hormones with feet. I can't imagine walking into a class of juniors wearing the headphones from their computers, pretending to be airline pilots, but I have done just that with my seventh graders.

From time to time, someone will ask me if I will ever go back to teaching English. The answer is maybe, but if I do, it will be as a high school teacher. For now, however, I'm having fun spending my day with seventh graders, so I don't plan on making that change anytime in the near future.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Snow Days

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer

To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake

To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.

But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep. 

--Robert Frost
"Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening"

Brett's been discouraged lately by the thought that we might get through this school year without any snow days. She's a senior, so she wouldn't have to make them up at the end of the school year, and she is convinced that the stars or fate or karma or the Channel 13 First Alert Weather Team has conspired with Mother Nature to make sure that she puts in every single day of class on this year's Southeast Polk calendar.

It's funny how different people react to snow days. I'm sure for many, snow days are a pain, an obstacle to whatever work needs to be done. I know I have colleagues who hate them, since every day we take off for weather from November through April has to be made up at the end of May, or even the beginning of June if we have enough of them. I can understand their objections. At face value, it does seem better to be out of school on a warm, sunny spring day than when the hounds of winter are howling outside.

Still, I love snow days. At our house, they tend to be lazy, relaxing days when we hang out in our pajamas, watch movies and play games together. Snow days bring with them the aroma of chili or chicken noodle soup in the crock pot, and the comfort of an afternoon nap in the recliner. So often, our lives seem incredibly rushed during the week as we go from school and work to chores to other activities. Snow days are the opposite: things seem to go in slow-motion as we slow down and enjoy as a family the fact that the weather is more powerful than the Google calendar.

So tomorrow morning, when my alarm goes off at 5:30, I will start my day off like I'm sure many of my students will, by turning on the TV and checking the messages on my phone in hopes of seeing those magical words: Southeast Polk Closed.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Don't Stop Believing

A couple of years ago, I bought a guitar. I had always wanted to learn to play, but for a variety of reasons had never put much effort into it. But when one of our band teachers switched over to teaching Fine Arts and then asked if I wanted to come to his classroom once or twice a week for lessons, I decided it was time.

In the two years since, I've learned enough chords to sing quite a few of my favorite songs, one of which (Barenaked Ladies "If I Had a Million Dollars") I even managed to turn into an Excel project that I kicked off by playing and singing it for my seventh grade computer students.

Even so, no one is going to accuse me of being a good guitarist. And that's all right, because it's not necessary to excel at everything you enjoy. I look at a lot of things I enjoyed as a kid, and I sometimes wonder if we have sucked all of the joy out of them by making competition more important than enjoyment.

On an annual basis, I have a discussion with a dancer who insists that dance is a sport. (Disclaimer: dance is not an activity I participated in as a kid. Ask any poor girl who was unlucky enough to be my partner when I was with the Old Gold Singers at Iowa, and she will tell you that I never had a single dance lesson growing up.) When I say that dance isn't a sport, the dancer is inevitably offended and launches into an explanation of how physically demanding dance is. This is how the conversation always happens. Then I explain that I'm not saying that dance is not a sport as a put-down; it's not a sport because dance is art. Personally, and I say this as a sports-lover whose mental health is determined far too much by the success level of the Iowa Hawkeye football team every fall, I believe that labeling dance as a sport is demeaning to dance.

The same goes for music. I love to sing, and I sing well, but any instrument involving much finger coordination has always confounded me. Still, I strum a few simple chords on my guitar, and sing songs recorded by some of the most amazing musicians to ever record: the Beatles, the Stones, Barenaked Ladies, Tom Petty, and so on. And later this month, depending on what song we choose, I may play guitar while singing for a faculty garage band at a junior high talent show. There's a Journey song that the kids get as excited about at school dances now as they did when the band first recorded it back in the 80s, and the rhythm guitar part consists of simple power chords. I've always wanted to front a rock band, and while this won't exactly be Madison Square Garden, I'm still excited.

Don't stop believing, baby!

Friday, January 7, 2011

Not Quite Terrible, Horrible, No Good or Very Bad

I went to sleep with gum in my mouth, and now there's gum in my hair. And when I got out of bed this morning, I tripped on the skateboard, and by mistake I dropped my sweater in the sink while the water was running. And I could tell it was going to be a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day... I think I'll move to Australia.

--Judith Viorst
Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

Alexander and I could have gotten together and swapped stories today. I woke up with a headache, and it stayed with me like an annoying little brother all day long. Right after my first class began, my desk nearly collapsed due to the fact that it's poorly designed. I managed to catch it, but not before my mug fell over and spilled hot tea over a bunch of papers. I had an email exchange with an unreasonable parent, and kept my 3rd period class after the bell because I spent far too much time asking them to be quiet so I could explain a new Excel assignment. By the time I got home, my headache was raging, so I was more than happy to fall back into the recliner, read a little ("Benediction" by F. Scott Fitzgerald) and fall asleep for a much longer nap than I had planned.

After what I had thought would be a 30-minute nap turned into 90 minutes, I woke up, thinking for some reason of our neighbor Doug. A couple of months ago, Doug fell out of a tree stand and broke his neck. He is currently in a rehab center in Colorado. Yesterday, according to the CaringBridge blog that his daughter uses to post updates on Doug's progress, Doug brushed his own teeth, helped put his arms in his shirt, swallowed pills on his own, worked on picking up playing cards, and made sandwiches for himself and his daughter using adaptive silverware. All of these are things are amazing, considering the condition Doug was in after his fall, and they are things that most of us take completely for granted.

So here I sit, typing out a blog entry at roughly 50 words per minute with fingers that do exactly what I tell them to do. Thanks to my nap, my headache is gone. Brett and I went to the barns together to feed the animals (something I guarantee that Doug and his daughters would love to be able to do tonight), and I had homemade pizza with Barb and the girls for supper. 

It's been a wonderful, enjoyable, very good evening. And even though the day that preceded it wasn't the best ever, I was able to walk my way through it, and when put in the perspective that retrospection can give, it really wasn't that bad.

"Getting Better," The Beatles

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

It wasn't that bad...

"Bad passing. Bad blocking. Bad coaching. The team simply oozed rottenness from every bad play. Simply bad beyond all infinite dimensions of possible badness."
--adapted from a film review by Opus the Penguin in Bloom County

After the Big Ten's 0-5 New Year's Day debacle, every sportswriter's commentary on the conference could have been summarized by Berke Breathed's intrepid penguin. The death knell was sounding for the conference, and sports pundit after sports pundit lined up to help deliver the eulogy.

That said, if any of them would have thought to shamelessly rip off Opus' diatribe like I did, they probably would have left off his classic disclaimer at the end: "OK, maybe it wasn't that bad, but Lord, it wasn't good."

And while it certainly wasn't good, the Big Ten's bowl season wasn't as bad as it seems to some. Yes, it did seem like the Michigan state legislature passed a new law preventing their state schools from taking any sort of football ability out of the state, and in the fourth quarter of the Outback Bowl, Penn State looked like it had an 84 year-old quarterback instead of an 84 year-old coach. But Northwestern put up 38 points on Texas Tech with their backup quarterback, and Wisconsin probably would have taken #3 Texas Christian to overtime in the Rose Bowl if their coach would have remembered that it was his running game that earned him a share of the Big Ten title when it was time to go for a two-point conversion at the end of the game.

And let's not forget that three other Big 10 schools played in bowl games before and after January 1. In a pair of showdowns with Big 12 schools, Illinois dominated Baylor, and Iowa (Go Hawks!) upset #14 Missouri without its leading rusher and its all-time leading receiver. In the conference's second BCS game, Ohio State held off a late Arkansas run to win the Sugar Bowl.

It's always easy to dwell on the negative. It's always easier to criticize. It's often easy to forget that there is good and bad in most situations. "It was the best of times; it was the worst of times," Leo Tolstoy wrote in Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele's version of War and Peace. I'm sure Charles Dickens would agree.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

If you with patient ears attend...

Thy Juliet is alive,
For whose dear sake thou wast but lately dead;
There art thou happy: Tybalt would kill thee,
But thou slew'st Tybalt; there are thou happy too:
The law that threaten'd death becomes thy friend
And turns it to exile; there art thou happy:
A pack of blessings lights up upon thy back;
Happiness courts thee in her best array;
But, like a misbehaved and sullen wench,
Thou pout'st upon thy fortune and thy love:
Take heed, take heed, for such die miserable.
--Romeo and Juliet, Act III, Scene iii

You would think that having English majors for parents would be quite nice when a high school student's educational journey takes them into the world of Shakespeare. Although I'm no Elizabethan scholar, my two semesters of Shakespeare at the University of Iowa probably make me more knowledgeable of the Bard than the average parent  of a high school freshman. Since I still get pretty geeked out by iambic pentameter, the Romeo and Juliet unit in Southeast Polk's freshman English curriculum has been a highly-anticipated event for me when each of the girls hit ninth grade.

Unlike most of her peers, Romeo and Juliet is a re-read for Jordan. I think she first picked it up sometime late in elementary school, and she knows the story far better than I would have ever anticipated one of my ninth graders knowing it when I taught freshman English at Valley High School. Even so, she probably wasn't prepared for my reaction when she told me this afternoon that the more she thinks about it, the less she considers it a tragedy, because Shakespeare's star-crossed lovers died for love. 

"It doesn't matter why they died," I told her. "It's tragic, because they didn't have to."
"But Romeo thought Juliet was dead. He didn't know she wouldn't wake up, so he didn't know that he had anything to live for."

And that's what got me started. In my lifetime, I've known too many young people who ended their lives because they didn't think they had anything to live for, starting with a murder-suicide at Southeast Polk when I was in high school, followed by a young man in one my classes who shot himself in the head after the very first week of my teaching career, and then extending into the series of suicides that became all too frequent at Southeast Polk a couple of years ago. I've seen far too much of the pain that suicide inflicts on the living to ever see it as a potentially romantic act, and for good or bad, I unloaded that all on Jordan as we drove from school to the grocery store today. What started as a literary discussion turned into a lecture temporarily, and that was probably unfortunate.

On the bright side of things, by the time we entered Fareway, I had backed off and we were back to just talking about the story. I'm guessing we were the only ones discussing whether it was possible to read some sort of backstory about the cause of the feud between the Capulets and the Montagues into Shakespeare's writing as we walked down the aisles in search of chicken breasts for tonight's supper. (And a fine supper it was. My compliments to Brett, who saw a recipe on the back of a corn flakes box, and decided to try it out.)

Still, the words of Friar Laurence that began this post ring true, and they remain as important to anyone who thinks that life isn't worth living today as they were to Romeo, who didn't listen to them when he had the chance. No matter how bad things may seem, there are always opportunities, and the only way that life can't possibly get better is if you choose to end it.

Monday, January 3, 2011

A Real Nice Problem to Have

Tell me, is it all that bad?
Sounds to me like a real nice problem to have.
--Aaron Tippin

A few years ago, Barb and I became leaders of the Altoona Hustling Herdsmen 4H club. It's one of the oldest clubs in Polk County, and it was my  club when I was a 4H member. Both of my sisters and I served a president of the Hustling Herdsmen during our 4H stints, and now my daughter Brett hold that office. My parents and my sister Susan served as leaders of the club prior to Barb and me.

When we took over as leaders, the Hustling Herdsmen consisted of around 20 members, most of whom were farm kids with livestock projects. We are now in our seventh year as leaders, and with the two new members who started tonight, we have 55 4Hers in the club.

The club is also far more diverse than it was seven years ago. We are still strong in livestock, with members who show swine, cattle, sheep, horses, poultry, rabbits and goats. However, our rural contingent is now less than half of our membership, and the majority of our members live inside the city limits of Altoona and Pleasant Hill. These numbers and diversity bring with them challenges. Those 55 members have signed up for 34 different project areas, ranging from the above-mentioned livestock projects to interests ranging from food and nutrition to shooting sports. (Speaking of shooting, our most popular project area is photography, with 34 members expressing interest in it.)

So here we are, four meetings into our 4H year, with members (and at least one leader) still trying to learn everyone's names, and I'm going to spend a good amount of time in the next month lining up adult volunteers in as many of those 34 project areas as possible with members who will hopefully take the opportunity to benefit from an adult mentor's expertise when they are thinking about and working on their projects for this summer's fair. As my dad told me many, many times before Aaron Tippin ever sang it, that is a real nice problem to have.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

--F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Day 2 of my resolution to beat on against the current of my declining literacy features a collection of short stories by one of my favorite authors, F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald is most famous for the above-quoted The Great Gatsby, a novel I despised when I first read it as a junior in Mrs. Tremble's American Writers class at Southeast Polk, then came to appreciate when I re-read it at Barb's urging when I was a junior at Iowa, and finally came to love when I taught it in Modern American Literature at Valley High School. I've probably read the book at least a dozen times, and our daughter Jordan's name came from the character of Jordan Baker. (I've been asked why both of our girls were named after drunken women from the 1920s. Our reasons are pretty much the same as the one Elton John gave for Levon naming his child Jesus: It was because we liked the names.)

I purchased Fitzgerald's The Curious Case of Benjamin Buttons and Other Stories with Christmas money last year at Barnes and Noble. It contains three different collections of Fitzgerald's short stories: Flappers and Philosophers, Tales of the Jazz Age, and More Tales of the Jazz Age. Until yesterday, it remained unopened, sitting first on the night stand next to our bed, then on our bookshelf. My goal is to read at least one story each day. Yesterday, I exceeded that goal by completing "The Offshore Pirate" and getting about halfway through "The Ice Palace."

"The Offshore Pirate" is a fun story about a spoiled, snotty young flapper whose yacht is hijacked by a group of musicians who are on the lam after robbing their last audience of all of their valuables. The first line reads like something out of Gatsby: "This unlikely story begins on a sea that was a blue dream, as colorful as blue-silk stockings, and beneath a sky as blue as the irises of children's eyes." Great stuff, but also the kind of descriptive writing that becomes old quickly on its own.

For me, Fitzgerald's best writing happens when he lets his characters speak, and Ardita Farnum loves to hear herself do that. In Curtis Carlyle, she finds for the first time someone she actually enjoys hearing as he tells his stories of how he went from jazz prodigy to offshore pirate, and if his tales are exaggerated, that is fine, as long as they continue to be exciting.

"What an imagination!" she said softly and almost enviously. "I want you to lie to me just as sweetly as you know for the rest of my life."

Knowing how life ends up for other Fitzgerald characters like Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan, it's easy to doubt that Ardita and her pirate will have the romantic life she imagines, but short stories can still leave you with some hope for their protagonists' futures, even while knowing that their chances of successfully continuing a romance based on fiction are slim.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

New Year's Resolutions

I'm not big on New Year's resolutions, mainly because, like most people, I've never been good at following through on them. That said, this year I resolve to read and write more.

Oh, I read and write plenty now, but it mainly consists of reading blogs and writing snarky little comments on Facebook. My goal is to read actual books, and to spend time writing something more substantial than what I had for supper or the song lyric that is currently floating through my brain.

I've come to realize lately that I seem to be declining in terms of literacy. I am certainly the least prolific writer in my house. Jordan writes constantly, Barb puts out a wonderful newsletter on her family history every other month, and Brett writes essays for school that I would have loved to have used for examples back when I was teaching Advanced Composition. I fire off Twitteresque missives that amuse me, and perhaps a few others, but they don't amount to anything of substance. Hopefully, starting this blog and spending some time on it will allow me to move my writing past the standards set by Sally in "My New Philosophy" from You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown.