22 July 2014

Brilliant But Weird

We have been listening to a lot of Weird Al this past week.  His new album was recently released and eight days in a row he released a new video from the album. I thought the first two songs and videos, "Tacky" and "Word Crimes," were brilliant and fun. The later songs I thought were typical of his work, but they did not resonate with me like those two did. It does help to know the songs or the styles he is parodying and I willingly admit to being so woefully out of touch with pop culture that I am mostly clueless about where the parodies on his new album originate.

Isaac, as you can imagine, loves Weird Al.  That's his wheelhouse -- the guy gets 8-9 year olds' humor. Isaac knows slightly more of the music that is being parodied than I do, but only slightly. For him, though, the the humor does not come from the parody, it comes from the lyrics and funny videos. Most of his favorite Weird Al songs are older ones like "White and Nerdy" and "The Saga Begins" and "Eat It."

In the past week, there has also been a lot of criticism centered around the new album, specifically the song "Word Crimes" in which Weird Al uses Robin Thicke's song "Blurred Lines" to parody grammar mistakes. In it, he uses negative language to refer to people who use improper grammar. So, his song lyrics, while moderately educational and maybe even well-intentioned, are actually reinforcing stereotypes and the marginalization of a segment of society. There is supposedly debate about who he is actually parodying -- the people who use the incorrect grammar or those who are such sticklers about it.

I listened to Grammar Girl's podcast yesterday about the song and she has some pretty strong opinions about which side he falls on and the message his song is actually sending. I get it -- his terminology could, and should, have been more carefully selected. But I still think the song is fun to listen to.

Would I use the video with my students? No! Before the criticism of the song began, I knew I could never show it to my students or share it on the school Facebook page. Regardless of the degrading words he uses, the video has sexual innuendos that are not appropriate for the classroom. As much as kids, Isaac especially, love his stuff, it isn't meant for school.

Weird Al is brilliant, but he is also crass and his humor is base. Like I said, perfect for 8-9 year olds. I Googled some of the artists and songs he parodied on this album. See? Woefully out of touch. While Weird Al may not be the most high-brow influence on Isaac's musical tastes, I much prefer him listening to Yankovic than the artist "Word Crimes" came from.

Isaac and I made our annual 9 hour drive to Florida last week. Weird Al was played most of the way down. A friend commented that he didn't realize there was 9 hours worth of material. I assured him that there isn't, at least not on Spotify. And Isaac has some definite favorites. I now know them all by heart. I realized that Isaac is now about the same age I was when I first listened to Weird Al. I like that we have that connection and when a song comes on I can say, "I remember seeing this video when I was a kid." There are worse things over which we could bond.

21 July 2014

A Summer of Reading, So Far

I don't read as much during the school year as I would like. I especially don't stay caught up with the new novels that come out for elementary age children. This summer I am trying to play catch up and read some things that I have had on my list and become familiar with some books so I can make better recommendations next year for my students. So here is some of what I have been reading.

Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage is the first book in what is now a series. The story is set in the fictional North Carolina town of Tupelo Landing, which is somewhere "down east." Mo LeBeau, whose mysterious beginnings set the stage for a puzzle that will span future books, considers herself a detective and jumps into the fray when there is a murder in her small town. Her antics sort of help solve the crime, with some bumblings and interference along the way. Her best friend, Dale Earnhardt Johnson III, is her partner and the backdrop of small town, everyone-knows-everyone-else's business, life brings in a host of interesting characters. There are nosy old women, overly helpful local politicians, eccentric business owners, the town bully, and rivals turned friends. Mo is funny and earnest, mostly funny because she is so earnest, but her insecurities will resonate with many kids who are asking questions about life and self and the mysteries around them.

Wonder by R.J. Palacio made me cry.  A lot.  I cried in the first chapter and in the middle and I sobbed at the end.  It is the story of Auggie Pullman, a seriously disfigured 5th grader who is going to school for the first time.  His story is told from multiple perspectives -- his, his older sister's, his classmates', his sister's friends'. Through the eyes of all of these characters we get a picture of Auggie finding his path through the world and finding friends to make the journey with him.  He is bullied and hurt but it is a story of triumph and healing.  This is a story of perseverance and acceptance that everyone should read. But have a box of tissues on hand.

A Tangle of Knots by Lisa Graff is about a fantastical world in which most people are Talented. The Talent may be a bizarre one, like having perfect spitting aim -- or an artsy one, like being able to weave elaborate braids -- or a sentient one, like being able to place orphans with their perfect families on first meetings. In this world, in Poughkeepsie, NY, live some interesting characters whose lives become tangled together as one searches for her forever family, another searches for her Talent, another searches for adventure, another searches for a long-lost treasure, and yet another searches for an escape from the past. This story is also told from multiple perspectives and it weaves in and out of each character's experiences, all the time tying everything together and showing how people's destinies are often connected to those around them. Sometimes we all need to be reminded that what we do affects others. This story will help kids make that connection.

Twerp by Mark Goldblatt is set in 1960's Queens. It is about 6th grader Julian and his struggle to come to terms with some bad things he has done and what kind of person it makes him. Julian is suspended before the novel opens for an act of bullying, we assume, though what actually happened is not explained for most of the book. His English teacher gives him an assignment as additional "punishment" -- keep a journal for the remainder of the school year and get out of writing the "Julius Caesar" essay the rest of the class will have to do.  The novel is Julian's journal.  In it he works his way through typical 6th grade problems -- self-esteem troubles, friend troubles, girl troubles, friend troubles caused by girl troubles, self-esteem troubles caused by friend and girl troubles -- and eventually does some deep self-examining, which we all, including Julian, knew was his teacher's intention in the first place. I liked that the characters in this book were real, with real defects. Julian knows what his teacher is trying to do and openly resists it.  Julian also knows that his best friend is a bully, but can't quite admit it to himself. Instead, he defends Lonnie, even at the end. But he also stands up to him and makes him do the right thing. That kind of courage is hard to find when you are 12. This is a different perspective on bullying and one I think many boys will connect with.

Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures by Kate DiCamillo is about a lonely girl and an unlikely super hero.  It reminded me a lot of The Tale of Desperaux, also by DiCamillo. Flora, the daughter of a divorced accountant and a romance novelist, is a cynic who doesn't believe in hope. Her approach to the world has been formed from reading The Illuminated Adventures of the Amazing Incandesto -- "Do not hope; instead observe." Ulysses is a squirrel who got sucked into a vacuum cleaner and emerged with super powers -- strength, flying, writing, understanding humans. Flora, with the help of some weird neighbors and unexpected friends, saves Ulysses from his arch-nemesis. In the process, she loses some of her cynicism and even finds hope.  The tone is very similar to Desperaux -- characters is both books are on a journey of self-discovery and the main animal character views the world with a sense of wonder. What I think will really appeal to children about this book, especially boys, is the use of comic-style illustrations to tell part of the story.  Flora also constantly refers back to her comics as she struggles to work out the various obstacles she and Ulysses encounter.  The book is a nice mix of the two styles of storytelling.

I have also done some professional reading and read some adult novels, this summer. We finished reading Harry Potter with Isaac -- he is now reading Timmy Failure:Now Look What You've Done. I read Fortunately, the Milk by Neil Gaiman, and enjoyed it. I also have a stack of books with me to read on vacation, so my reading is far from done. Now to decide what to read next . . .

18 July 2014

Fortunately, The Milk reviewed by Matt

My old college friend Ben McFarland compared Neil Gaiman’s Fortunately, The Milk to an un-aired episode of Doctor Who for children. That was enough to make me want to read it. Isaac, like many children, has a love/hate relationship with the Doctor. He is both fascinated and terrified of the science fiction creatures on the show. I leapt at the opportunity to give him the same intellectually playful and non-cynical experience of Doctor Who without the chance of him coming to our room at three in the morning to tell us about his dreams of the Cybermen.

Gaiman actually has written an episode of Doctor Who, “The Doctor’s Wife," along with many other books including Coraline, The Graveyard Book, and co-wrote Good Omens which had me gasping for wind from laughing so hard when I read it for our church book club.

Fortunately, the Milk is the story of one father’s attempt to bring some milk home from the store and the shaggy dog adventure he had on the way home.  (Sort of a cross between Dr. Seuss’s To Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street and The Usual Suspects).  It also reminded me of one of our favorite web comics, Axe Cop, in it’s rambling “everything including the kitchen sink” method of storytelling.

The Doctor famously once said,People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but *actually* from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint - it's more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly... timey wimey... stuff.”  And that certainly applies here.  It gives young children a chance to experience non-linear cause and effect in a fairly simple way.

The book takes maybe 30-45 minutes to read and all three of us enjoyed it immensely.  Pick up a copy and let us know what YOU think.

15 July 2014

Giggling Angel

I've written about Aunt Sarah before.  She has been a constant in my life -- someone who offered unconditional love and support.  She died yesterday morning.  She was 102, her mind had grown fuzzy and her body weak.  Her life on Earth had become a burden to her.  It was time.

I learned a lot from her -- things that have helped me as I grew into myself and things that I want to pass on to Isaac.

From Aunt Sarah I learned that women could be independent.  She never married.  For a woman born at the beginning of the 20th Century this was unusual.  To be honest, I don't know if she stayed single by choice or if the chance to marry just never came along for her.  There were some things you just didn't ask when I was growing up. Regardless, she set an example of womanhood outside the traditional married-with-children-staying-home-keeping-house model that most women of her generation, including her sister, my grandmother, subscribed to.  She worked her whole life and was proud of her career - she often had stories to share from her days with the Steamfitters and would defend unions against the staunchest foes.  She supported herself and learned how to manage her money so that she would remain independent even in her retirement.  Whether it was her choice or just the circumstances of her life, she embraced her single state and enjoyed her independence.

From Aunt Sarah I learned that your are never too old to try something new.  As a young girl, and later as a middle aged working woman, she always relied on her feet or public transportation to get around.  She never learned how to drive.  But when she retired and prepared to move to a more rural town, that would not suffice any longer.  So, in her late 60's she took driving lessons and got her license.  After that she was never an adventurous driver, and she definitely did not like driving at night, but she had the freedom to visit family, go to the store, or do whatever else she had the mind to.  I am probably remembering her drive down the mountain to our house as longer than it really was, but I can still picture her driving along in her little Ford Escort a few times a week to bring us something or pick one of us up to spend the weekend with her or to just visit.

From Aunt Sarah I learned the value of making something new out of something less than ordinary.  Having lived through the Depression, and probably also from having to economize as a single working woman, nothing was ever wasted.  My sister and I had the best dressed Barbies on the block because Aunt Sarah used the scraps of material (left over from making her own clothes or clothes for us) to make dresses for our dolls.  We didn't have a fancy store-bought doll house, but we had a two-story mansion made from boxes, covered in wallpaper scraps, that we enjoyed playing with just as much.  She always arrived at our house with plastic bags hanging from her arms carrying whatever it was she was bringing -- whether it was groceries or her clothes for an overnight stay.  She reused everything.  Shoe boxes were covered in patterned contact paper to hold loose items. Paper towel rolls were cut down to organize cords.  She could make a fortune today blogging about her methods for repurposing.

From Aunt Sarah I learned the joy of organization.  Well, to be honest, I don't know that she was really organized --  but she did love "sorting" her many contact-paper-covered boxes of things.  After she moved in with my mother in her 90th decade, you could often find her in her room going through her things -- mostly paper and photographs, things that connected her to her family and her old friends, she loved looking through these items and reliving memories.  She had her own system of organization and it worked for her.

From Aunt Sarah I learned the importance of generosity.  She was always buying something for me or my sister or giving us money.  Big or small, it was always gifts -- never loans, never any conditions.  She always said that she would not be able to take it with her and she would prefer that it be put to good use during her lifetime.  As long as she had enough to buy food and pay rent, everything else could be given away.  Every time I was at her apartment, there was a letter thanking her for her contribution to this charity or that organization.  She wasn't indiscriminate in who she gave to -- she chose causes she felt strongly about or had a connection to or maybe sent her address labels. She gave responsibly and often.  Money was not important to her.

From Aunt Sarah I learned to love books.  She often took me to bookstores -- the dark, dusty bookstore downtown to buy old copies of Nancy Drew books or the sunny, cheerful bookstore by her apartment to buy my set of Anne of Green Gables books, one book at a time.  I can still remember visiting both stores with her and buying books that I still own.  Thinking back now, I don't recall seeing Aunt Sarah read much, though I know she did - she was a Dick Francis fan - but she definitely supported my love of books.  She would take me to the library regularly but spend as much time parallel parking outside on the Pike Street hill as I spent inside choosing books.

From Aunt Sarah I learned that going to church every Sunday is not what makes you a Christian.  I know that she was active in her church in her younger years, attending regularly and teaching Sunday School.  But I don't remember her stepping foot in a church except for weddings when she was older.  I also don't know that I have met many people with a stronger faith than hers.  She had a quiet, but strong faith.  It was important to her that we have a foundation in the church, but once she retired and moved, finding a church was not a priority.  She knew what she believed, she had her Bible and her hymns, and her faith in God was evidenced in how she treated the people around her.

From Aunt Sarah I learned the importance of family.  She gave up her youth to nurse her sick mother and take care of her widowed father.  Probably gave up any chance of having a family of her own, too.  She adopted us as her own and treated us like we were more than just great-nieces.  She moved to Florida with us to stay close.  Her mind wandered back to her early days with her family when the fuzziness started to set in.  Family was her life, her reason.  She would have done anything for us.  And us for her.

From Aunt Sarah I learned to laugh.  She had the most infectious giggle.  Oftentimes, she was laughing at herself as she recounted something silly she had done.  Most family dinners that she attended ended up with our stomachs hurting -- not from eating too much, but from laughing with her.  Sometimes the story wouldn't even be that funny, but something would set her off giggling and then we were all caught up in her mirth, with tears running down our faces, gasping for breath.

It is the laughter that I will miss the most.  There are so many other memories that have flitted through my mind as I wrote this -- watching ShaNaNa in her apartment as she cooked me a hamburger, her telling me not to stick my arm out of the window as we drove up the mountain because she had a friend whose arm was cut off doing that (yes, I believed her), her standing at the refrigerator eating out of the ice cream container (her favorite food), the homemade skirts she wore (always skirts, never pants) --but her giggle is the most vivid memory I have.

She lived a good, long, full life.  She was the last of her generation and now she has joined her family who went before her in Heaven.  The family she left behind will miss her, but her memories will keep her alive.  I can almost hear her laughing as she catches up Grandma and Poppy and everyone else on what they have missed since they left.  But I know, too, that she is up there watching over us.  Our own giggling angel.

14 July 2014


Our summer has been dominated by the World Cup.  We have not watched every game, but we have scheduled our weeks around the games we wanted to see.  Now that it is over, Isaac and I will have to be more creative about how we fill our time.

Even though Isaac has played soccer with the YMCA since he was five, we are not a soccer household. American football has firm roots here and always will, I am sure.  But I discovered over the past few weeks that I really enjoy watching soccer.

I don't know that the World Cup would have even been on our radar had our favorite coffee shop not advertised that they would be showing the USA group matches.  Isaac saw the poster on one of our weekly visits early in June and immediately decided he wanted to watch them.  Since we do not have cable, going to Geeksboro or a sports bar was going to be the only way to do it.

At the first match, I was barely tuned in, but after the win over Ghana I got caught up in the excitement.  We went back to see the second match and then I even planned to go watch the Germany match despite the fact that Isaac was in camp and wouldn't be able to go with me.  I had to be able to give him an update, right? We watched the USA lose to Belgium in the Round of 16 and Costa Rica pull off a win after being down a player and making it through extra time to come through on penalty kicks.  Then there was their loss to The Netherlands in a similar scenario, and Netherlands loss to Argentina again on PK's, culminating in Argentina's loss to Germany in the final.  My track record held through it all -- ultimately the team I was routing for met its demise.  But it was still fun to watch.

As I told friends who talked me through some of the finer points of the game -- why the goalies' uniforms are a different color, what the yellow armbands mean, why they get a goal kick rather than a throw-in -- I know enough about soccer to sound stupid.  I love watching the constant action, but I don't yet understand the finer nuances of the game -- what will get a yellow card vs. a free kick, when the players are off-sides, though I do finally at least understand what that means, whether or not the player writhing on the ground is really injured or just buying his team some rest time.

I marvel at the athleticism of the players on the field and am amazed at their running stats at the end of the games.  Watching the game without interruptions, without ads, without stopping after every play pulled me in and let me get caught up in the rhythm of the play.  So much different than football with its stop and go motion and TV time-outs and halves that last twice as long as the clock says they do.

What really pulled me in, though, was being part of a community of soccer fans.  Watching the games at Geeksboro, many times in their intimate basement theater, cheering with a crowd, and catching the other fans' excitement is what brought me back game after game.  For a few weeks, we were part of a larger soccer family.  Even after "our" team lost in the finals yesterday afternoon, I smiled to see the Germany fan running up the Geeksboro stairs waving his team's flag and cheering.

Last fall Isaac chose to play flag football instead of soccer.  This fall he wants to play soccer again and I look forward to watching his games, though my heart will be in my throat if his coach puts him in goal again.

And the Women's World Cup is only 326 days away!