Saturday, September 24, 2016

We Moved!

Blogger has been fantastic, but the time came to upgrade and put together a something a little more professional looking. And sometimes it's just fun to create something new. So, head over to...

... for all of the old blog posts in a shiny new package, plus all the new ones from here on out. Thanks!

Sunday, August 21, 2016

My Kids and Governor Walker

Outside Wisconsin's Capitol
In 1992, our school held a mock election. All the students voted, and some got to be poll workers. The newspaper sent a reporter who asked the obvious question of all the middle schoolers, the one forbidden at the actual polls because an adult's vote is private and discussing politics is impolite. "Who did you vote for? Why?"

My answers, in 1992: "George Bush!" and "Because that's who my parents are voting for!" I remember feeling proud to support who my mom and dad supported, to be able to put my affection for them into action.

Our middle school predicted a close Bush win. We were... incorrect. Wisconsin broke for Bill Clinton, 41% to 37% (that was the Ross Perot year, remember), and our county gave Mr. Clinton an even bigger margin. But the loss didn't sting too terribly. I was only twelve.

Twenty-four years later, my wife and I took our kids to tour the State Capitol in Madison. Before you assume we're some civic-minded uber-parents, we chose Madison for a quick family trip because, in order, it has a nice zoo (that's free), I found an incredible deal on a fancy hotel with a pool, and my wife REALLY likes farmer's markets (Madison has a big one). The capital was fourth on the list, tops.

In the Assembly chambers
In the car on the drive down, I angled the mirror so I could see my children in the back seat. "Hey," I said. "When we're in the capitol, you can't say anything bad about Scott Walker."

"Why?" my son asked.

"Because he's the governor, and we have to respect him."

"But dad, what about..."

And then my son proceeded to recount all the of grievances I have with Governor Walker, shared over the dinner table and overheard in conversations with my wife since 2010. I've learned to loathe arguing politics with friends and strangers, but I can't tell this story without sharing a few of my views here. I'm not a Scott Walker fan. I'm a public school teacher. I signed the recall petition. My disagreements with him are the same as anyone else who disagrees with him, from Act 10 and the union thing to state natural resources to actions I perceive as unfair and underhanded, especially against those who don't agree with Governor Walker.

The Governor's conference room
I don't know how my parents felt when I told the newspaper I voted for Bush, but when my son recited all the reasons why "we" don't like Scott Walker, I felt anxiety, not pride. Eight-year-olds aren't capable of considering both sides of political issues and using their values to choose candidates who they feel best represent them. The boy has my values and beliefs and representatives, wholesale, and maybe those will be fine-enough placeholders until he has the critical thinking abilities necessary to make his own decisions. Or maybe I just brainwashed another thoughtless American voter, like those people who can't even name their representatives but who get spitting-mad at every moron on Facebook who dares have a different view on politics than they do.

The best antidote I could come up with as a I sat in the car was to teach my progeny who our representatives are, quick.

On the capitol dome observation deck
"Listen," I said, "you need to know who our representatives are. Our Assembly person is Dana Wachs. Think about this way - I have a cousin named Dana, and when our representative needs fresh air, he walks. Dana Wachs. Got it?"


"And our Senator is Kathleen Vinehout. You have an aunt Kathy, so Kathleen. And then, think vines, like in the garden. They're outside. They're out. Kathleen Vinehout. Can you remember that?"


"Okay. So who's our Assemblyman?"

"No idea."

"Our Senator?"

"Not a clue."

Overlooking the rotunda
We arrived at the capitol, and the size of the building awed the kids, almost as much as the revolving doors (we don't have any of those in Eau Claire). My cousin's fiancee works for one of the Assembly people, so he gave us a fascinating tour. The children sat in the Governor's chair in the Governor's conference room, and in the Speaker's chair in the Assembly chambers, a privilege earned only by invitation from a government official or staff person. We climbed up into the dome, and heard the stories behind the paintings. My son and daughter paid attention for fifty times longer than they pay attention to anything that isn't associated with Lego Ninjago.

I hope my kids grow up to believe what I believe, but I hope even more that I figure out how to respect their beliefs and values if they don't. Until we find out which way they fall, I will do my best to help them understand what "bicameral" means, and how the Supreme Court works, state and federal, and I promise, Mr. Kind and Mr. Johnson and Ms. Baldwin, I will come up with fun associations to help them learn your names, too.

My son's favorite part of the weekend, even more than the zoo and pool and pizza in the hotel room, was the tour. My daughter's was the capitol's revolving doors. For now, that's close enough.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

MFA Take-Aways

My masters dorm room
Some people say earning an MFA is a necessary part of pursuing writing as a profession. The practice and study facilitated by a university will provide significantly better results than any programs of improvement writers might try to accomplish on their own. An MFA proves the seriousness of a developing writer’s intentions and dedication.

Other people think that’s all a bunch of crap. Many legendary writers achieved notoriety without earning a masters’ degree, and the MFA industry exists because it makes a ton of money for universities. Writing skill can’t really be taught.

I just started an MFA program, so you can probably guess where I fall.

During the first residency of my low-residency program, I learned things. Maybe those things aren’t especially unique or profound, but my newfound understanding of them is.

Beardedus Emerging Writerus, in the wild with family unit
1. There is a taxonomy of people you meet when you become a writer. We shouldn’t stereotype, but the categories are so gosh-darn apparent. For example, one phylum under the kingdom of Writer is the Late Career Writer, which encompasses the classes of Pre- and Post-Retirement Writers, which are further subdivided into genera including Memoir Writers, Lyric Poets, and Perpetual Students. The Undergrad phylum tends to be a little less complicated, until we start to try to classify young sci-fi and fantasy writers. Modern science would struggle to arrange that family.

I am kingdom Writer, phylum Mid-Career, class Literary Fiction, order Family Man, family Public School Teacher, genus Midwestern, species Bearded. In my MFA class, there is another specimen exactly like me.

2. I am a big sucker for author success stories, even though I hate them. Twitter and numerous blogs (Michelle Hauck’s, for example) attract a respectable readership by relating the stories of how published authors earned their agents and success. An MFA program inevitably features many of these stories as well, from the staff and the visiting authors. These stories are not meant to be formulas. Instead, these stories are shared so aspiring writers can mine them for advice. If they ever find themselves in some semi-similar situation, they can learn from what others have tried.

But that is really hard. Others’ success stories are like paths through the desert in a sandstorm. No one can follow anyone else’s paths, but many still try to. I still try to. I learned that I need to look up from the sand, focus on the destination, and try to see my own path. In a sandstorm. Good luck.

3. Rejection is really, honestly, actually a part of a writer’s life. I’ve grappled with this lesson before, but the MFA experience helped solidify it. One of the visiting authors was Jacob Appel, a novelist and short story writer and all-around brilliant human being. He has had over 200 short stories published in prestigious literary journals. In pursuing those publications, he has amassed over 21,000 rejections.

He told this story, which I still can’t wrap my brain around. He entered and won the Boston Review Short Story Contest, an enviable award that involved the magazine flying him to Boston, a big cash prize, and muchos prestige. The story he won the contest with had been rejected seventy-five times previous, including a rejection from… wait for it… the Boston Review.

There is no such thing as too much rejection.

4. Everything I need to know about writing I learned in 9th grade. In our workshops, we discussed character, and point of view, and the plot curve. An accomplished travel writer and journalist (Greg Breining) talked about organizing nonfiction, where he cited the five-paragraph essay as a solid organizational strategy.

I’ve taught ninth-graders, and I can assure you, not one of them is ready to publish a novel or write for the Star-Tribune, so I’m not trying to imply that I already know everything, and that the instructors did a poor job. But… we all already know the tenets of good writing. Studying those basics, understanding them more deeply, and learning to manipulate them in increasingly complex and effective ways, that is how we will become better writers.

5. The Secret of Good Writing. I had hoped on the last night of the residency, our mentors would don robes and, in an ancient ceremony, deliver the secrets of quality writing. But that’s not how this works.

Writing is like playing the guitar. You don’t get better at playing the guitar by taking notes on playing the guitar. You get better by practicing, and for a long time it doesn’t feel like you’re making any progress at all, until hundreds of hours and chords and words and sentences later, you start to look like you know what you’re doing. Few argue that taking guitar classes isn't necessary for getting good at the guitar. I won't make that argument for writing, either.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

My 15-16


Occasionally we see freshmen boys who haven’t made it through puberty by the time they reach our building. As if high school isn’t challenging enough, these guys stand feet shorter than their classmates, with kid voices and skinny arms that look painfully inadequate for shouldering the enormous backpacks and stresses we hoist upon them.

Three years ago, I taught a section of freshmen as an overload when a colleague transferred to another school. Because it was my third prep and sixth class that year, those ninth graders and I kept our time together casual. They knew I had taken on more work than I could comfortably handle. I rewarded their understanding with flexible due dates and extra time spent on the film analysis unit.

In that section, I had one of those yet-to-mature boys. He sat up front and compensated for his stature with enthusiasm, as if no one told him he was supposed to abandon his excitement in middle school. I will always remember that section of English 9, and he was one of the big reasons why.

Three years later, he showed up on my English 12 class list, and on the first day of school, I didn’t recognize him. He was all grown up. The enthusiasm remained, but he had tempered it, channeled it into outlets more appropriate to a senior in high school. He was quieter, but he still earned the highest grade in the class.

I don’t know if this student will remember me. I tried to provide a worthwhile experience for him, but he was well into a successful life regardless of his 9th and 12th grade English classes. There are some kids who need the specific curricula they learn in school, but for a lot of them, the best we teachers can do is watch them grow up and keep them occupied while they do.

It’s like planning a party. I can put together some killer decorations, and whip up some incredible appetizers. I can pick the perfect music, and I can flit around and try to make sure everyone’s having a good time. But whether or not the party becomes something memorable, something epic, something important, that’s not really up to me. Sometimes it happens. Sometimes it doesn’t.

With that kid, we had a monumental party, and I just hope I was able to contribute.


The third-to-last thing public schools need is more political discussion to distract students and teachers from their jobs. The second-to-last thing we need is more politicians trying to convince voters that, despite having no experience in an actual school, they know what’s best for schools. And the absolute last thing our particular public school needed during the 2015-16 school year was a visit from Donald Trump.

We didn’t need any of those things, but we got them nonetheless.

This blog is a bad place to argue education politics, so I’ll just acknowledge some facts.
1.     The politics of education have made lots of people really upset.
2.     Really upset people often have a hard time seeing things from others’ perspectives and compromising to find solutions.
3.     Helping really upset people become less upset is probably a critical step to solving their problems.

Donald Trump is not the best guy out there to help people become less upset. But that didn’t matter, because the weekend before Wisconsin’s primary, he needed a place to speak, and our school’s auditorium was open, so we hosted one of the most colorful and divisive figures in modern politics. The days between the announcement and the visit felt like the air before a storm. The teachers did their best to diffuse tense political discussions. The students quickly learned not to say anything too offensive or threatening.

And then I overheard the following conversation.

Student A (after tapping the screen of his cell phone): “No way! I just got tickets to Donald Trump.”

Student B: “Nice!”

A: “Do you want to go?”

B: “Sure. I’m not working.”

A: “What should we wear?”

B: “I was thinking about wearing my sombrero.”

A: “Good idea.”

Let’s be honest. Things can’t be that bad if you’re wearing a sombrero.

For a lot of years, I’ve worried about the politics of education. I’ve lost sleep over it, I’ve shed tears over it, my values and understandings of my fellow citizens have changed, in fundamental and not very positive ways, because of education politics. And all of that stress and worry, work and voting has changed exactly nothing about my job, my paycheck, the professional respect afforded me by my district, or my stature in the community.

Maybe it’s time for me to buy a sombrero.


2015-16 was my eleventh year teaching, the kickoff of my second decade in the classroom. Maybe I’ve done all the good I can do as a teacher, or maybe there’s more left. Maybe my early-millenial generation status means I’ll never be happy doing anything for longer than a decade, or maybe I can find contentment in a 35-year teaching career. Maybe next year will be better than this year. Maybe it won’t.

But I still signed everyone’s yearbook with “Thanks for the great year!” And I meant it.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

The Classic Wisconsin Spring Break

Spring break in Wisconsin starts with a spirited round of "When you wanna leave?" Departure times and travel arrangements create anxiety for all vacationers, but up north it's worse, because there's always some sort of weather coming. In late March, the forecast probably contains snow, which makes for an extra-exciting "When you wanna leave?" match. Will we be driving into the storm? When's it supposed to start? Is it all snow? Sleet? Where's the rain/snow line? Is there anything for us to do if we show up six hours early?

"When you wanna leave?" is so much fun, relatives may call to participate.

"Hey," they'll say, "when you thinking about leaving?"

"If we get out of here by noon, we should be fine."

"I don't know," they'll say. "I just saw an updated forecast. I'd shoot for ten or eleven, if I were you."

"You think?"

"Better safe than sorry."

A good number of people lose their games of "When you wanna leave?" and stay home. They shovel, and maybe take their kids to a movie. Which is fine. The important part is having the time off. They don't have to go somewhere to have a nice time. Those who win get on the highway, enter the snowstorm, and wish they had left earlier.

Spring break in Wisconsin would lead most to assume that the "break" takes place during "spring," which would allow Wisconsin spring breakers to get outside and enjoy the fresh sun. Curiously, "spring break" occurs while it is still "winter," so instead of spending time outside and finding some sort of kinship with all of our beach-going vacationing brethren to the south, we all pack into giant hotels and waterparks and arcades and movie theaters.

But don't worry, it's not sad and pathetic at all, because many of these places have fake palm trees and tropical themes that are nearly identical to relaxing somewhere close to the equator. Ancient Mayan culture or an African safari as interpreted by a Wisconsin Dells hotel feels pretty darn authentic, especially if we pound enough beers from the swim-up bar. Ten or twelve Miller Lites and that jungle panther might as well be hunting us for real. Back to the lazy river; he can't get us there.

Spring break in Wisconsin may seem like some sort of cultural joke, like the Griswolds meet Fargo, but we genuinely enjoy it. Even though we don't get to sample the fresh fish and fresh fruit they have down in the tropics, we go out to eat a lot and order fancier versions of the heavy meats and fried foods we order when we go out to eat back home. And every decent Wisconsin waterpark hotel has a place that sells fudge. Hotel cable TV is hundreds of times more fascinating than home cable TV. If Wisconsin has an obesity problem, on full display in countless dad-guts and two-pieces that fit way better last August, we can't imagine why.

But we do take the opportunity to cut loose, let it all hang out, have a wild time. Kids love hotels no matter what the weather's doing outside. Parents try the water slides, too. And if the family ventures out of the hotel to an indoor go-kart track or a trampoline park, there's no limit to how crazy things can get.

Spring break in Wisconsin ends the same as all spring breaks do. The kids are overtired, mom and dad are crabby, everyone smells bad, but at least Wisconsin spring breakers only face a couple hours on I-90/94, instead of airports and extended layovers.

No matter how the stay went, no matter if we opted for Tuesday through Thursday instead of Friday through Sunday, no matter if we spent way more money than we wanted to, or way less, no matter how sore the adults are from overdoing it in the wave pool, no matter how scraped up the kids are from falling because they wouldn't stop running, no matter what we forgot in the hotel room, no matter if we liked this year's hotel better than the one last year, no matter how many valuable family memories we created, we always talk about the same thing on the ride home. Next year, we should go to Florida. We could get a group of friends together, rent a place on the beach. That would be amazing. The Dells was fun. But Florida...

We'll see.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

What I Would Have Lost If My Computer Had Actually Died Last Week

My wife handed me my laptop. I opened the screen, and the backlight came on, but nothing else. I restarted the device, then again, then again. I held all the combinations of buttons the internet recommended, and held my breath, and repeated the mantra of all those desperate for their electronics to spring back to life, as if the little bastards were playing some awful cruel, joke.

"Please work this time, please work this time, please work this time..."

It didn't work. 

I took the computer to the technicians on Monday morning, and the guy there assured me everything would be fine. My data was safe, he was pretty sure he knew what the problem was. There was a chance it would be expensive, but it would probably be cheap and fast. Just be patient. He'd call by the end of the day, or maybe Tuesday. Wednesday at the latest.

It sounds terrible, I know it does, but it was almost like waiting for a loved one in surgery. I'm not good at backing up, and I've given that machine management responsibilities for my memories, and my creativity, and my entertainment. That's not nothing. That's not meaningless. It's certainly not life-or-death lung surgery, but I definitely felt more anxiety than my wife's wisdom tooth extraction. And what worried me most was what I would lose that couldn't be re-found, or re-constructed. What worried me most were the items sitting deep in those file folders that I had forgotten, documents and photos and files that I would remember years from now, when it would be far too late to recover.

For that reason, I am documenting the five things that I would have missed the most, had they been lost forever.


This is a picture of my two-year-old daughter waking up from a nap. I snuck into her room to take pictures of her with my new old timey photo app on my phone. I wasn't quiet enough, and I woke her up. This is nostalgia, a lump-in-the-throat memory. It would have been gone.


This is my favorite song ever, or at least a crappy version of it. This band (Here, Here) doesn't exist anymore. The song (Poor Sailor) is no longer available on iTunes, or anywhere else that I can find. I feel bad for these people, that they didn't find the lasting musical success I assume they wanted. But every time I listen to it, maybe that counts as a musical legacy. That would have ended.


In college, I picked a creative writing minor because it seemed like the path of least resistance. It sounded easy. Pursuing writing in any formal, professional capacity never crossed my mind. But now that I'm writing manuscripts and trying to sell short stories and taking a whole-hearted crack at it, those early writings now mean something. This is a poem I wrote in an intro to creative writing class. It's bad, but I would have missed it.


The routines of my life have almost always contained a computer, and I am perhaps the first generation for whom this is true. I've lost much already, to obsolete floppy disks and upgraded machines. But a few months ago I found a way to play beloved game from my childhood, Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis. All that game progress, for the second time in my life, would have evaporated.


My wife, with laptop. You'll see this a lot at our house.
A computer is a thing, a tool, but that does not excuse it from human affection. For some reason, though, we are not ready to accept our fondness for our devices. When a beloved grandparent passes away, we cherish the items she left behind. Many of us have boxes in storage of the important stuff from our childhoods, and we can hold those pinewood derby cars and dolls and experience real emotion. But electronics do not receive such deference. They are dangerous things that threaten to tear families apart and ruin our children's intelligence. A life lived through any sort of electronic filter is woeful and inauthentic.

When the technician handed me my computer, with a fresh new screen (the expensive potential, after all), data intact and ready to be booted and immediately backed up (I've learned my lesson this time, I promise), the relief felt significant, and it's something I choose not to regret. This thing, this stupid, mass-produced, shiny, amazing thing has allowed me to do and see so much. It deserves a little recognition. It deserves some angst when its LED board fails.

I hate to say it, computer, but it's good to have you back.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

On the Achievement of My 100th Literary Journal Rejection

In 1955, a struggling actor in Los Angeles got a job driving a cab. This allowed him to work at night, and still go out on auditions during the day. Cab drivers in Hollywood must meet all sorts of famous and influential people, and one afternoon this particular cabbie picked up a fare who topped all others--John F. Kennedy. Kennedy maintained his masterful political charm even from the backseat of the car. The then-Senator peppered the driver with questions about his family and his acting prospects, about their shared hometown of Boston and Adlai Stevenson's prospects for winning the Democratic presidential nomination.

"Unfortunately," as if publishing is decided by a coin flip
I can guess what that driver felt, because I've felt it, too. He strove for something difficult, something that many of his friends and relatives probably dismissed as an impossibility. Acting? What a cliche. What a ridiculous endeavor. Do you know how many people are trying to become actors? There's no money in acting. When one struggles to achieve something like becoming an actor, or, in my case, a writer, every experience comes to be viewed through that lens. It morphs into a sort of obsession. Every person is someone new to discuss my writing with, every new memory transforms into potential subject matter for a story or essay. I imagine that driver couldn't help but question if his encounter with JFK meant something, if, finally and at long last, his moment had arrived. Maybe that connection would finally lead to something. Who knows how, but maybe that was the turning point.

At some point during the ride, Kennedy offered this thought to the driver. "Lots of competition in your business, just like in mine. Just remember there's always room for one more good one."

Thanks, editors, for looking at my stories
As it turns out, the driver was a "good one," and his business made room for him. Leonard Nimoy acted in small parts and B-movies for another nine years after that cab ride until the pilot episode of Star Trek in 1964.

Today, I had an experience that feels important. I didn't receive sage advice from a beloved politician or anything quite so dramatic. In my email, I found another rejection from a literary journal, which happens several times a week. But this one is my 100th. If all successful writers face mountains of rejection, then I am inching closer to being a successful writer. Stephen King had his infamous nail full of rejection letters. All the stories I've read about winning query letters and offer of representation phone calls feature tons of "Dear author, Unfortunately..." emails. All those people felt everything I keep feeling. Every rejection is another tiny devastation that forces the question, "What the hell am I doing?"

He probably felt inadequate, too, not just because of that haircut
But this one, I will celebrate. Number 99 stung terribly, and so will number 101. But number 100 is a milestone. I may not be good enough yet, but I am working, desperately, hopefully, tirelessly. Soon they will have no choice but to make me some room.