Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Blogathon 2011: My After Action Report

Today marks the end of the 31-day Blogathon 2011. I made it! If you had told me a month ago that I would manage to successfully write and post daily for a month, I would not have believe it possible.

I thought I would devote this last day of the Blogathon reflecting on some of the things I learned from my experience.

My Reflections
  • The blogosphere is full of good writers and all that I met are encouraging and willing to help newbies.
  • I have to be more focused in choosing the content on which I choose to write; potpourri is best suited for the bathroom not blogging.
  • I need to do a better job of checking for typos and other errors. I gave my wife access (to late in this pursuit) to the blog so she could edit. She's a pro at it.
  • I discovered working between 9PM and 11PM tend to be my most productive times for writing. That being said, the work can sometimes be a bit rough.  It makes me think I should plan to write one day out. In other words, write the night before and post later the next day after Stacey gets to review it.
  • My top posts, based on views, during the Blogathon were personal stories about relationships
  • The simple act of writing everyday is a step in the right direction. I intend to make daily writing part of my routine
  • I had fun and I look forward to participating next year with a revamped and more focused blog.
Thanks to Michelle Rafter for organizing this

Monday, May 30, 2011

Theme Post: Wordle

Wordle create using Wordle.net

In Memory of a Fallen Soldier and Friend

On November 6, 2006, Lt. Col. Eric Kruger was killed by an improvised explosive device while on patrol in Baghdad. Kruger had only been in Iraq for a few days as he and the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division were relieving the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division. Also killed in the same explosion were Lt. Col. Paul J. Finken and Staff Sergeant Joseph A. Gage. Kruger and Finken are two of the highest ranking officers to be killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Eric Kruger was my friend. We met on the campus of Southern Methodist University sometime in 1985. I was one of two students in the newly created Army ROTC program on the campus of SMU. Actually we were a satellite of the University of Texas at Arlington program. At the time Kruger was a cadet in the Air Force ROTC program at the University of North Texas. When you are two of only a handful of guys wearing military uniforms on the campus you notice each other. One day Kruger and I struck a conversation about the new Army ROTC program. Eventually, Kruger transferred over to the Army program. 

One of the things I remember most about Kruger was his great sense of humor. While we were never in the same military education classes, we were both members of the UTA Insurgency Team, a group that would get together on weekends and practice infantry tactics. One weekend, the upper-classman in charge kept barking his order to attention by improperly saying "position of attention," and it also sounded like he was saying "tin can." Finally, Kruger had enough of this and the next time the cadet called out "position of a tin can," Kruger dropped into a squatting position and extended his arms out making a circle in front of his body. Asked what he was doing, he replied he was in the position of a tin can. All of us in ranks busted out laughing.

Kruger was also my fraternity brother. We were part of the same Pi Kappa Alpha pledge class. We were a small group and Kruger emerged as our leader. We all grew together during our time as pledges. We grew even closer as brothers. Whether it was putting on Shrimp Fest to benefit the Big Brothers or bowling for our only intramural championship, Kruger was there. My fondest memory is all of us going to Pancho's on Wednesday nights for dinner. Kruger called it Rauchos but he sure could pack away the food.  Later, Kruger would become the Pledge Master of a future class of pledges. His care for those pledges gave us all glimpse of how well he would take care of his troops.

Kruger and I lost touch with each other after we graduated from SMU. I somehow knew he would make Army his life. During his twenty years in the Army, he served in Korea, Bahrain, Africa, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Among the many accommodations he received, he was awarded the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart. At his memorial, his unit commander Colonel Jeffrey Bannister, called Kruger a leader who was "naturally gifted with people, and could make soldiers and civilians alike feel welcome and at ease." That says it all.

Lt. Col. Kruger is survived by his wife Sara and four children. A memorial fund was established for the support of his children. Donations may be made to: The Memorial Fund for Children of LTC Eric Kruger, 4850 Langdale Way, Colorado Springs, CO 80906

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Restaurant Review: Texas de Brazil

Tonight, Stacey and I celebrated our wedding anniversary by dining at one of our favorite restaurants - Texas de Brazil. The following is a review of the restaurant and a "how to" approach to dining at a Brazilian churrascaria.

The Ambiance
As you enter the restaurant you pass an outdoor statue-torch with a vibrant flame flowing out of it. You enter the waiting area to leather seats and are greeted by an attractive, presumably Brazilian, hostess. You are then seated by one of the managers in a dimly, but adequately, lit dining room. Immediately you see the gauchos walking about with skewers of meat. Below is a photo of one the gauchos holding the signature special - picanha.

The Dining Experience
Texas de Brazil is more than style it has substantial substance. They boast no less than fourteen different types of meat. All of which the gauchos bring to your table on a sword-like skewer. Additionally, they have a well stocked salad bar ranging from grilled mushrooms to sushi and other specialty items. They also have an extensive wine list ranging in price from very affordable to what I would call "once in a lifetime" wines. You are waited on by a team of wait staff including the gauchos. All the beef is generally cooked over flames to a medium rare. The chicken and pork are cooked through, but not dry.

How to Eat at a Churrascaria
A churrascaria, or Brazilian steakhouse, like Texas de Brazil is essentially an all you can eat dining experience. My first piece of advice is to eat a normal breakfast and lunch. Do not think that you will starve yourself all day and be able to consume more meat. It doesn't work.

The table will have a circular tab, red on one side and green on the other. This is your signal to the gauchos that yes (green) you want more meat or no (red) you are taking a break.
Pace yourself. This is a marathon and not a race. On your first visit you should try at least one of everything to get a feel for it. You definitely have to have at least three slices of the picanha. This cut of meat has a salty, garlicy flavor that just melts in your mouth. I liked it so much I passed on dessert to have one more serving.

Don't over indulge on the salad bar. Unless you are a vegetarian or vegan ( to which I have to ask why you chose to go in the first place) do NOT load up on the salad bar. This is all about the meat! Be the carnivore you were meant to be.
At some point you are going to be overwhelmed by the offers for more meat. Don't give in. Instead, simply turn the tab over to red and pace yourself. You will not insult the gaucho if you say no. If you find a meat you like more than the others tell the wait staff and they will alert the gauchos to take care of you. Tonight our waitress alerted the picanha gaucho that I was wanting more and he even came by when my tab was red.

Our Experience
We had a great time. We paired our meal with a Peter Lehman 2008 Shiraz. We also had the garlic mashed potatoes and fried bananas. Needless to say tonight was not a night to count points. I ended the night with a Fuente made Hemingway Short Story paired with a tumbler of Pyrat rum while enjoying the late Spring breeze while on my deck while Calvin and Hobbes played.

I have to conclude by pointing out that this dinner experience was made possible by the Christmas gift card given to us by my brother and sister-in-law, Thor and Cindy. To them a hearty thanks!

To you, happy dining!

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Looking for a Friend and Found a Soul Mate

My all-time favorite picture of Stacey.
(She's going to kill me when she sees Ihave posted this.)
Today is my wedding anniversary. Actually it's one of two. We had previously been married by the JP on August 24, 1999. May 28th marks the day Stacey and I were married in the Roman Catholic Church and she was fully received into the Church, thus also marking the anniversary of her First Communion and Confirmation.

I thought I would commemorate this day by writing about how we met.

The Back Story and Schindler's List
I am notorious for telling long stories, but this one is not complete without a brief (I promise to keep it short) back story. Back in 1994 I was still working as stock broker and living in Las Colinas, a sizable development in Irving, Texas where many corporations house their headquarters. It's also home to the Byron Nelson Classic which is taking place this weekend. One evening I got the whim to go by myself to see Schindler's List.  As I was leaving the theater - wiping tears from my face and hoping none of my buddies were there to see me - I ran into two friends (Peter and Yvette) I had worked with while I was still in law school. They convinced me to stay and watch another movie (Reality Bites) with them and catch up afterwards.

The Set Up and the Mavericks
Peter and Yvette, who I had introduced to each other, had been married for a few years now and lived in a condo near me. We rekindled our friendship and I began calling Peter on a regular basis with the hope of eventually pitching him on a stock pick or two. I never got to pitch him on the stock because I was too busy flirting with his secretary, Stacey, on the phone. Mind you we had never met. but she convinced Peter to use the firm's Mavericks' tickets to invite me to a game to join them.

The Introduction and the Shoes
I met the three of them at Peter and Yvette's place. Upon meeting Stacey in person I complimented her on her shoes. I thought I was being nice. Little did I know that Stacey interpreted this as an indicator I was gay. In fact, she told her best friend at work the next day that she had a great time but wasn't sure I was playing for the right team. Stacey loves telling this part of the story to all her friends and always gets a laugh.

The Wrap Up
This is how we met. We've been together ever since. We've endured some tough times over the years, but our relationship has deepened since we married sacramentally. We've shared some tears, but mostly we have shared a ton of laughs. Stacey has always balanced me. She has helped me learn to laugh at myself a little more and not take life so seriously all the time. When I met her, I told her I wasn't looking for a relationship, I just wanted to be friends.  I got that friend and more.  I got a soul mate.

Friday, May 27, 2011

What is in a name?

Tonight I am preparing for our school's graduation in the morning. I am the Voice - I call out the names of all the graduates as they receive their diplomas. I take this job very seriously because I know how important it is for their family to hear their student's name called, loud, clear and properly.

I don't pretend to know all of the students. I am lucky if I know half of them. A couple days ago - at the rehearsal- I asked the students to write their names phonetically beneath the printed label if they had a strange spelling or pronunciation. 

As I review the note cards, I am reminded of all the unusual names I have come across. I am not talking about names in foreign languages. No, I am talking about taking the names of products or just plain making up names. In years past, I have called out names of students named after hotel chains, luxury cars,  and even alcoholic drinks. Even celebrities are getting in on the act.  One couple naming their daughter after a fruit or was it the maker of iPods.

What happened to naming children after relatives or biblical names? In biblical times, a name meant something.  We read about significant events marked by God giving someone a new name (Abraham and later Paul). A name stood for something. It had meaning.  What do the names of today say about our society, about us? The only answer I can come up with is that we are obsessed with individuality and consumerism. It's reflected in the names.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Comic Book Movies Dominate the Summer

This summer appears to be packed with movies adopted from comic books. The year has already seen the release of The Green Hornet, Thor and Priest.  I didn't get a chance to see TGH, but I do hope to rent the DVD.  I was pleasantly surprised by Thor. Although, I must admit I went into with no expectations because I have never cared much for the character in the comic books. I have no interest in seeing Priest in any format.

I count six more "comic" movies opening this summer. We preview one of them today.  We will preview the remaining five in the weeks to follow.

For most students, school ends the first week in June.  That weekend also begins the summer movie blitz.

X-Men: First Class (June 3rd)
X-Men: First Class opens the summer season on June 3rd. This film apparently tells the early story of Xavier and Magneto before their feud began. Additionally, the movie, produced by X-Men veteran director, Bryan Singer, will focus on the development of the X-Men team based on the 1963 Uncanny X-Men series and X-Men First Class (2006). If the trailer is any indication this one is going to be worth seeing on opening weekend.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Second Chances

Today I got to see first hand that second chances can pay off. After a morning filled with our annual Awards Assembly, I was ready to get back to my room. This time of the year, my room becomes a senior hang out because they are done with classes and are waiting to go to their internships. 

I noticed one of the seniors I hadn't seen in a while. She was one of the rare students who comes to our school as a transfer sophomore. I had interviewed her for admission. She had attempted to attend our school as a freshman but wasn't accepted.  Instead of giving up, she worked diligently at her home high school and reapplied. I was impressed with her determination. Her grades and test scores were not stellar and I was concerned she might struggle under the pressure of the rigorous academics.  Nevertheless, I thought she deserved a second chance. She's done fine. Not brilliant, but she made the top quartile of her class. 

I asked her where she was planning on going to college. She said she wasn't sure (that's a red flag this late in the year), but thought she'd wind up at Our Lady of the Lake in San Antonio. They had offered her a generous financial aid package but she still wasn't sure. I had to ask.  "What's holding you back? What are your other choices?" Her answer - "Columbia, but I am scared."  I thought to myself certainly she means Columbia College not the university in New York.

Careful not to offend her, I asked, "the one in New York?"  Without a trace of agitation she responded, "yes, Mr. G." As our conversation progressed, I learned she had done very well on the SAT. After all she had accomplished since arriving at our school she was still scared. She was afraid she wasn't up to the task.  We talked through the concerns. She's going to Columbia. This girl who had not even been admitted to our school on her first try, got a second chance and made the most of it.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

My Desk and Four Other Unique Places Where I've Written

[Note: I am writing this post as the storms continue to strike our neighborhood.  Earlier the sirens wailed and apparently strong winds and hail were in the area. It's Spring Time in Texas.]

Today, participants in the Blogathon 2011 have been asked to blog on their five favorite places to write. As with previous themes, I am tweaking this a bit. I have chosen to write about unusual and not so unusual places I have written some of my most significant work.

The SAT Testing Site
I can't remember the exact high school, but I believe it was Skyline High School. While I was waiting for the administrative instructions for the SAT I got an idea for a short story. This is the first and only time an entire story just popped into my head. I rushed through the SAT so I could get home and write out my thoughts. That story, The Silent Master, was published in a small anthology of short stories written by high school students.  Edie Brickell was also included in the anthology.

The Foxhole
In January of 1991, I was serving on active duty at Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri to complete my officer basic course training. I was training as an engineer officer in the United States Army. Engineers spend a significant amount of time in the field. During one long training stretch, I was sitting in a foxhole, bored out of my gourd. Often we said in the Army, we hurry up so we can wait.  I was doing some serious waiting. In addition to picking up the bad habit of dipping snuff, I decided I could do some writing. I had a small Army note pad in my BDU's and I began writing letters to my girl back in Georgia. Somewhere along the way, I began incorporating a zombie story, Letters from the Dead.  Unfortunately, I lost all of those letters over the years, but the story has stayed with me. 

The Deck
When Stacey and I moved into the home we live in now, one of the things we liked about it was the deck and hot tub in the back yard. A few summers back I was completing my thesis paper for my Masters in Education. I set up a chair and used one of the benches as my desk. I began a morning ritual (it gets hot very early) of getting in some writing, while also smoking a Hemingway Short Story with my morning coffee. By the end of the summer, I had completed my work on Evaluating Magnet School Application Process for Racial and Gender Bias and smoked a box of my favorite cigars.

The Desk
Within the past year or so, I moved my writing to a desk in our bedroom. I wish I could say there was a profound reason for doing this. The truth is it was dictated by our new dogs, Calvin and Hobbes. We decided when we got them as puppies that they would not sleep with us in bed like our previous dog, Homer had done his entire life. Since the dogs go to bed at 9PM every night, I had to find a place to work that wasn't going to wake them.  So I cleared off the desk in the bedroom. This move has also permitted me to write when Stacey goes to bed. My participation in the Blogathon has taken place almost entirely at this desk. This experience has motivated me to jump start other writing projects. I suspect the majority of them will be at this desk.
Eucharistic Adoration Chapel for CRHP retreat.
The Chapel
I am a catechist at St. Catherine of Siena Catholic Church. In addition to teaching a number of adult formation sessions, I have written several articles and posts on Catholic topics. Often when I am preparing to teach, I will spend some time in our Chapel, praying and studying. There is nothing unusual about either of those, however, one week I was in a jam and I needed to catch up on some of the writing for one of the sessions. I was worried people would think I was surfing the web or being disrespectful if I sat down with my laptop. It just so happened I was reading George Weigel's biography on Pope John Paul II, Witness to Hope.  In it, Weigel describes Pope John Paul II writing on a typewriter while in his chapel. I figured that was my sign that it would be ok to sit in the chapel and work on my laptop too. I now use my iPad regularly to pray, read and write in preparation for my teaching and writing for my church. I don't have to worry about lugging a bag into the chapel and I don't think it's as distracting to others.

Where do you like to write?

Monday, May 23, 2011

Counting Points DOES Help Lose Weight

I have now successfully completed my third week of Weight Watchers (Plus Points) for Men. I have lost 13.4 pounds since I began, averaging a 4.5 pound loss per week. For me the most significant measure of my success so far was the ability to wear a Cubavera I had not been able to wear in nearly a year.

The biggest tool in my fat fight has been the Weight Watchers iPhone App. I don't like carrying around a bunch of workbooks or calorie counters. I am not going to sugar coat it; I eat out more than I should. Nevertheless, I have managed to lose weight each week. I have been able to do it because I've counted the points especially with the help of this handy dandy app.

In a nut a shell, I think the point counting system works because it forces you to make choices. A few days ago a fellow teacher had a box of dark chocolate squares on her desk. I thought out loud, "dark chocolate is supposed to be healthier for you." I picked up the box and calculated the points.  7 Points! 7 Points for a little square of chocolate.  I put it back, explaining if I was going to use 7 points, I was going to make sure they were "worth it." A man at tonight's meeting talked about substituting a steak (7 points) for a high point custom salad (32 points). Being able to make an informed choice, even if I decide to eat the chocolate, is empowering. I get to make the choice and instantly see the impact it has on my allotment of points.

You get the best out of the free app if you are a registered subscriber to the WW eTools. Here's a brief overview of the app.  

Home Screen
The home welcomes you by letting you know how many points you have left for the day and in your "weekly" points. The home screen also has a number of thumb nail images of recommended meals with their PointPlus values. You can swipe over these to browse and see if you want to use one for a meal.

The Menu tab appears at the bottom of the phone and pulls up the Menu Page which is the main menu of trackers and calculators. Like other iPhone apps you can swipe across the screen to get to the next page which contains all of the extra features.

The main page contains mobile versions of the PointsPlus Tracker, PointsPlus Calculator and Weight Tracker. Whatever you input on the mobile version will synch with your eTools on the Weight Watchers website. You can use the PointsPlus Tracker to immediately input foods as you eat them. You can even find a calculations for several popular restaurants. The PointsPlus Calculator helps you figure out how many points a particular food is.

Whether you choose to use the mobile app or not, counting the points works. I can not overstate the empowerment it gives you. As you log points, you are aware that you are beginning to make the right decisions to get yourself back to a healthy state.

Happy counting!

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Inexpensive Alternatives to Summer Camp

Summer break is rapidly approaching!  While the financial pundits insist that the economy is getting better, you know that things are still tight. The kids are going to be home for Summer and you can't afford to send them camp or day care.  What do you do?

If you are a stay at home mom or dad, here are some affordable alternatives to Summer Camp:

Local Museums
Start by identifying free and discounted days held during the summer.  For example the Dallas Museum of Art has free first Tuesday admission.  Often, corporate sponsors will offer coupons for special exhibits. I am not just talking about the big museums. Hunt out small private museums too. One summer I took our youngest son to a local airport museum and at the Texas Rangers ballpark (unfortunately it has closed). Most museums have interactive exhibits for the children.

Local Libraries
Most local libraries have all sorts of activities going on for children throughout the year.  For starters, if your children don't have library cards, I would make that a week one activity.  In addition to getting the card, you can invest time showing your child how to use the library computers and how to find books. In addition to being a source for borrowing books and other media, the library conducts various activities.  These range from arts and crafts to story telling.  I recommend visiting the library calendar of upcoming events and then schedule the ones you and your child will enjoy.

Dollar Movies
One day out of the week we designated as dollar movie day.  Some theaters even designate a half price show. Often you will find a group from a day care attending these.  Personally, I would avoid them and fork out the additional money. This is also a great way to catch up on a movie you missed when it was first released.  If you want to get creative or educational, you can do a tie to a library book. This may seem like it's obvious, but check the listings before you go.  Most will carry a few kid friendly shows.  Our local dollar theatre currently has four shows that are kid friendly.

When it Rains
One summer, I had all sorts of outdoor activities planned for Alec. Unfortunately, we experienced the rainiest June ever. We had to get creative. The two favorite activities we did were arts and crafts and indoor miniature golf.  For the arts and crafts we went to Hobby Lobby and picked up large bags of inexpensive plastic beads.  Those coupled with a few other supplies (yarn, etc) and a library book of crafts led to hours of fun.  The indoor putt putt course was the all time favorite. Alec is graduating high school this year and he still talks about it. We set up a nine hole course throughout the house.  We used plastic cups as the holes.  We marked the start of the each hole with masking tape (it wouldn't hurt the carpet). We used Pringles cans for some of the obstacles.  We used whatever we could find around the house to "trick up" the course.  I created score cards and we pre-determined the par for each hole.  I wasn't an avid golfer so I had to buy two putters and balls at Goodwill.

This of course is not an exhaustive list. It's a start. I hope you get the idea. Be creative.  One idea I didn't address is exploring your own city.  I am surprised at the number of people in Dallas who have never been to the 6th Floor museum.  There really is no limit to what you can do.  The important thing is to get the kids involved.  One year, Alec and I made "camp t-shirts."  Have fun with it and don't forget to drink lots of water!

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Rewards of Teaching Part 2

Velasquez brothers. (Photo provided by Velasquez Family)
Earlier in the week, I wrote a post about the Rewards of Teaching. I indicated it was rare that we get to see the fruits of our labor.  Here is one of those examples.

As I drove thru the morning fog wondering why I had registered the debate team for an exhibition tournament this weekend, my iPhone vibrated with the signal I had received an email.  When I came to the light (yes, I was trying to be a responsible driver) I stopped and read the email. A friend from St. Catherine's had emailed me to tell me she had read an article about me in the Dallas Morning News. I haven't bought a physical newspaper in years. Today, along with the fruit I purchased to snack healthily, I bought a copy of the paper.

Below is the brief note written by one of my students, Rolando Velasquez.  He has previously published an article entitled Making the Case for Debate.  It's been a good week for Rolando.  Monday, he learned he had been named National Hispanic Recognition Program winner.

I couldn't post a full link to the article because DMN has a new payment model they have implemented that has made most of their content only viewable to subscribers.
Don Gonzalez is the debate coach at our school. He is a star teacher who has inspired many kids to continue their debate careers after high school. I have had the privilege of being in his class for two years, and he has taught us great things — including leadership skills, economic skills and the ability to speak in front of people. While we learn debate in our class, we also learn life skills that will benefit us for years to come. Preparing for the real world is the benefit of his class, and every day I am there, I know I will learn a valuable skill.

- Rolando Velasquez, Junior, Judge Barefoot Sanders Law Magnet --
Dallas Morning News, May 21, 2011, Seven Things that Work in Our Pubic Schools, 21A.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Taste Addison

The city of Addison is hosting its annual Taste Addison this weekend. The three days consist of family fun, music and lots of great food.  Over sixty of the local restaurants will have booths around the Addison Circle selling affordable samples of their foods. Additionally, the festival has midway rides and games for kids of all ages. The main stage, sponsored by Dos Equis XX Cerveza, features several musical acts throughout the day. The featured national act is Third Eye Blind, performing Saturday night.

Admission is $5 before 5pm and $15 after.  Parking is plentiful if you are willing to walk a bit.  Several of the local hotels have packages that include free tickets and parking for the event. Stacey and I have purchased a hotel package in the past and we think it's the way to go if you truly want to make a night of it. It gives you the freedom to enjoy the food and drink without worrying about being too tired to drive home.  This also permits you to have a place during the day to recharge and shower before the evening events.

Based on the weather report, Saturday looks like the day to go.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

CDC Advice for Zombie Apocalypse

It was only a matter of time. I've been vindicated. The CDC has announced it's emergency response and preparedness for the Zombie Apocalypse. Ok, so it was a tongue and cheek effort to bring attention to emergency preparation in case of a natural disaster or health outbreak. The CDC does provide some helpful advice about what one should keep in their emergency kit. No one ever thinks it can happen to them until it does.  I applaud the CDC for taking this creative approach to informing the public especially as those of us in Tornado Country prepare for tornado season.

Of course, they did hedge their bets by not completely denying the possibility of the zombie apocalypse. They have reason to hedge.  Recently, a group of scientists found fungi that transformed ants into zombie ants.

They're coming Clarice!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Poll: Finish Writing the Book!?!

I relaunched this blog a few months ago with the idea I would focus on my writing craft.  The aim was to drum up some freelancing gigs and perhaps get to work on finishing one of my book projects.

I've got three unfinished books I have been writing on and off for a few years (I am too embarrassed to admit how long) now.  I am counting on the increased traffic prompted by the Blogathon to solicit some input on which of the three I should set out to finish by the summer.  Below, I will set out the working titles and a brief summary of the book.  I am asking for you to vote on the one you think I should work on finishing now.

Adventures in Orguland
This started as a bed time story I told my little brother Matthew. The story follows the adventures of twelve children who have been drawn into the secret world of Orguland where they must help its residents fight off the evil witch Rodama. The witch has recently turned most of the children into crickets and set her Tyrannosaurus Turkey to eat them. Each of the children is led by a guide called the Gribber who must help them learn to use their special ability. 

Letters from the Dead
This story began as a joke when I was writing letters back and forth with my girl friend when I was serving in the Army.  The story is told through a series of (electronic) letters sent by a man serving in a special Army Unit - Z Force - and his pregnant wife who he has left behind in New Dallas under the protected environment.  The main character, Captain Mike Hernandez leads a special unit sent to eradicate zombies in the outskirts of the city and to find a lost Z-Force unit led by Captain Moons.  Hernandez and his team discover that there are humans still living in the Outer Zone and that there may be something worse than the zombies to deal with.

Lights Out! 
I got this idea from my brother Tony.  When he was little boy he somehow got the idea in his head that when a street light went out someone died. The story is primarily about Tony Salinas, a recent Harvard law school graduate who has landed a job in one of Dallas' top law firms. The partners have assigned him to research a key procedural issue in a case in which the firm represents a lead smelting plant accused of causing all sorts of health issues in Tony's old neighborhood. Based on Tony's research, the firm is able to have the class action lawsuit dismissed. As Tony and the team of attorney's are leaving the courthouse, an old curandera grabs his arm and curses at him and yells, paga la luz! (lights out!) Tony's meteorite rise in the law firm is about to be short circuited as he begins to discover that he is prematurely aging.

Which book should I finish?

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Rewards of Teaching

One of the running jokes between me and one of my fellow teachers is that I am on ump-teenth year of my five year plan. When I first started teaching, I claimed I was only going to teach for five years. I certainly did not think I would be teaching long enough to see my students not only graduate from college, but graduate and law school.

This time of the year is generally my favorite of the school year. Not because I can count the days on my two hands before the summer break, but because of all the college kids come home. Often (some more than others) they will poke their heads into my room to see how Mr. G. is doing and to catch me up on their lives. 

For me, this is the payoff.  It makes the long nights at debate tournaments, weekends away from home, dealing with high school dramas, etc. worth it. They say in professional baseball that the biggest jump is from AAA to the majors. I think one of the biggest jumps in personal maturity takes place between a student's senior year in high school and the end of their first year of college. You actually start to see the students developing into young adults.

Today, I spent a good part of my day visiting with one of my all-time favorite students, Aushianna Nadri. She graduated from Austin College this past Sunday and will be going to law school next fall. I am not surprised to hear she made her law school choice based on wanting to help those less fortunate. Aush always seemed to have a way about caring for others. I remember a few years back when she made "debate goodie bags" for all the LD debaters as they were getting ready for the new season. She was a good kid and now has grown to be a great adult. Our society needs more like her.

We don't always get to see the rewards of teaching. Every once and a while we get a glimpse. Whether it's working side by side with a former student who is now your colleague (and keeps me going) or the one who just got elected to a local school board. With all the uncertainty surrounding school funding in Texas and the US, it was good to see some of the fruits of our work. It was affirming to see our work is meaningful.

Monday, May 16, 2011

10 Pounds Lost!

Weigh in number two and the results are in - I have already lost 10 pounds!  This just  in my first two complete weeks of following the Weight Watchers Points Plus system for men. I haven't done anything dramatic. I still haven't started a regular work out program.

These are few of the things I can pinpoint that have worked:

1. Keep Track of What I Eat
I am religiously counting what I eat. If I am not entirely sure of the points, I either don't eat it or I average up on the possible points.

2. Eat Half Portions
Stacey and I started WW together right in the middle of finals. Neither of us has had the time to cook at home so we have eaten out quite a bit.  The difference has been, I do not feel compelled to eat the entire serving. Instead, I will half it and eat the leftovers for lunch.

3. Make Smarter Choices
Just the other night, I had Dickey's Barbecue. Instead of eating the sausage, I opted for the turkey and chicken. Keeping to the "half-strat" I set aside half of the meat to make a fideo dish with it later.

4. Be Bold at Restaurants 
Early last week, I met a friend for dinner at a local asian fusion spot. I ordered one of the dinner specials when I noticed it came with an egg roll, which I knew was a no-no. I asked the waitress to substitute it with egg drop soup instead.  No problem. I'm also not a big fan of salads. Tonight my choices at dinner were a high point Caesar salad or cole slaw. It wasn't on the menu, but I asked for a fruit bowl. When the waitress said they had none, I asked nicely if she could ask the bartender for some strawberries and pineapple that they use with drinks. They threw in a few orange slices and I had a fruit bowl.

Today was supposed to be the blog exchange on the Blogathon.  My intended partner and I were not able to coordinate for today. Instead, I encourage you to check out Hey, Eddie! for another man's successful take on his Weight Watcher experience.

He's the dude that makes the rainbows and lollipops statement:

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Half Birthday Tradition

I began celebrating half birthdays when my youngest brother, Matthew, was around 8 or 9 years old. He was bummed out that his February birthday was too close to Christmas. So I made a deal with him to celebrate his half birthday in August. I don't recall it being too extravagant; I think I gave him a card and a small toy.

Since I got married and had my own family, I continued the tradition in our household. Again, we tried to keep it simple by giving each other a 1/2 Birthday card (normally hand made or on the computer) and a simple gift in the neighborhood of $25-$50, often a gift card. We love gift cards because you can hold onto them until a sale rolls around at your favorite store and then they become the gifts that keep giving.

We like celebrations.  We've celebrated the anniversary of our baptism days and even the feast days of our patron saints.

Today happens to be my 1/2 Birthday.  I came home from Mass and had a small gift bag waiting for me.  In it, courtesy of our "homerdogs," Calvin and Hobbes, was my favorite cologne (Happy for Men).  

Think about adding 1/2 Birthday celebrations to your family.  It can be a lot of fun, especially when your loved is surprised.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Saturday, May 14, 2011

e-Reading & Writing

Today I made good on my Mother's Day promise to my mom and took her to see Thor and to the bookstore.  To my surprise, she did not want a Dean Koontz, but wanted a copy of Stephen King's Under the Dome. We were at our favorite used book store, Half-Price Books.  I would have preferred to have bought her the less expensive hard cover, but she wanted the trade back edition because it was lighter and wouldn't cause her hands to go numb. I wondered if she might be better off with an e-reader. She surprised me again by saying she wanted a Kindle.

It got me thinking about the relationship between reading and writing. One of my colleagues, who is an incredible AP English teacher, always says "what you read dictates how you write." I don't disagree with this statement, but my question is whether the format we read matters.   I have found that I very rarely read any paper based books, magazines or even articles.  I have already been an Audible member for a number of years, listening to audio books on commute to work each day. Since, I got my iPad, I read almost all of magazine and scholarly articles on it. I actually think that the iPad has increased my reading because I can now read in bed without worrying about waking my wife.

I do not the think the format of the book matters. Reading is reading. My sister-law would argue with me that listening to audio books is not reading. Perhaps in its purest form it is not, but it is still connected to the ancient tradition of oral histories and storytelling. As long the reader is able to enjoy the story or the article, then the purpose has been met.

As a writer who hopes to have his novel(s) published some day, should I be bothered by the recent numbers published the Association of American Publishers that e-book market growth increased by over 200% and audio books increased by over 30%?  I don't think so. I view that as an opportunity to reach more people.  I know that some have concerns with piracy issues and I will address that further in another post. I know one thing, if my mom who has bookshelves upon bookshelves of books, is ready to transition to an e-reader, those numbers are only the beginning.

Friday, May 13, 2011

The Most Difficult Piece to Write

I actually intend for Wednesday's to be devoted to the art of writing, but I was distracted by the Spring Storms. For now, this will have to do.

I  once read somewhere,  perhaps it was King's On Writing, that the shorter the piece that one is writing, the more difficult it is to successfully complete. The smaller work requires a more tightly written, non-fat approach.  The novella is more difficult than the novel.  The short story even harder and the poem still more so.

I don't know how often this maxim is true, but it does makes sense.  I've reasoned that there is on other type of writing that seems to be more difficult: the thank you note.  Stacey and I have a friend, Sandy, who is the queen of thank you cards. She has mastered this lost art of personally handwriting a brief note expressing her thanks for even the smallest gesture.  Once, she even sent us a thank you for a thank you!

My point is we should return to a more civil age and take the time to hand write (not an email, a post or a tweet) a personal thank you to someone.  I guarantee they will be surprised and you'll make them smile.

Oh, and in the professional world, it could even land you a job.  Stacey once sent a follow up thank you after she was not offered a job.  The person who was hired didn't work out and the hiring partner remembered her thank you note and called her back in.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Education: Early Reading Matters

Because Blogger was down yesterday, I had to post on an ad hoc blog I created on WordPress.

One of the earliest concepts I learned when training to be a new teacher was that early literacy is important to a child’s future academic achievement.  Surprisingly, it also impacts the ability to effectively solve math problems (not just the “word problems”).  The bottom line is that children need to be exposed to reading at an early age.  Children of middle and upper class family grow up exposed to their parents reading.  Children of poverty do not.

The Athena Project is a Javits funded program and is the brainchild of the William and Mary Center for Gifted Education.  The Athena Project takes a four prong approach to addressing the development of advanced literacy in children of poverty: 1) development and implementation of a data driven curriculum model for primary school language arts and thinking skills; 2) development and implementation of a comprehensive professional training model; 3) development and implementation of appropriate identification instruments for students from low low-socioeconomic status; and 4) pursuing research on the short term and long term learning gains.

The early results indicate a favorable outcome.  The evidence suggests a demonstrable and statistically significant growth pattern in the use of the “differentiation skills of critical thinking, creative thinking and accommodation to individual differences” (VanTassel-Baska & Stambaugh, 2005, p. 61) by the teachers who received the two-year training and differentiated curriculum.  When the teachers were asked for feedback, they indicated they enjoyed the training and believed in its efficacy.

To measure success of the program, the Athena Project assessed both the students and the teachers.  The students were assessed with Test of Critical Thinking (TCT), Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS) and performance-based assessments.  The teachers were evaluating using the Classroom Observation Scale-Revised (COS-R).   Based on the first two years of available data the project has promise.  The student learning increased and the teachers appeared to be implementing the strategies they learned in the workshops.

The implications from this study are tremendous.  Curriculum and teacher training models similar to the Athena Project could be the key to developing early literacy skills in minority and low SES students.  More research has to be conducted on this project, but the Athena Project gives hope that verbal skills may no longer be the barrier gifted programs, but rather the gateway by which minority students enter new worlds of learning.

Research for this post obtained at:  VanTassel-Baska, J. & Stambaugh, T. (2005).  Project Athena: A pathway to advanced literacy development for children of poverty. Gifted Child Today 29(2), 58-63.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Mother Nature Causes Epic Light Show

If you have lived in North Texas for any length of time, you have gotten used to the Spring storms. These storms suddenly wreck havoc with gusting winds and bowling ball sized hail (OK so maybe that's an exaggeration, but not by much). May seems to be the primo month for this to happen. Remember the May 5th Hail Storm of 1995 that injured dozens at Mayfest?

I have seen so much hail, that it looks like it has snowed.  I have seen fences ripped up and mangled by twisters.  I have even seen rain falling sideways. I have never seen anything like the chain reaction of explosions caused by this lightening strike in Ft. Worth.  You may tempted to stop watching. Don't.  Play through it all.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Haiku: Sore Knees

St. Rocco, patron against knee problems.

Tired of sore knees
Steroids, doctor did give me
Now I’ll walk pain free

Monday, May 09, 2011

Weight Watchers for Men?

One lesson I have learned from my participation in the Blogathon is that if I want to increase traffic to my blog, I must maintain consistent themes. In that spirit, Mondays' posts will be dedicated to weight loss.

My decision to join my wife in attending Weight Watchers' meetings did not come easily. I perceived WW as a women's group. Having read the WW Magazine my wife received every two months did little to ease that concern. So I decided to join anyway because I had read that WW has one of the best sustaining success rates of people losing and keeping off the weight. Our daughter-in-law, Kate, has been a wonderful example of what you can do when you stick to their plan.

So I went to my first meeting last week and I counted no more than five men in the group. Ok, so I wasn't going there to make any buddies. Still, I was a bit disappointed until I got home and logged in my new WW code. I had seen Stacey's e-tools and expected to see the same. Instead, I found my e-tools were geared towards men. It gave me hope.

I follow the WW President's (who is a man) blog, Man Meets Scale as an extra connection to men struggling with weight loss. Perhaps his blog and ads like the one below will help remove the stigma that WW is a women's group and more men will feel comfortable joining. I intend to do my part with this humble little blog.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Mom and the Magnolia

Picture of my mom and me circa 1966.
My mother, Adelaida Bedelia Palacios, was the oldest child of twelve. She was a post-World War II baby, so I guess she is considered part of the Baby Boomer generation. When my mom was about twelve years old, her mother Guadalupe died from what we now know was Lupus.

After the death of her mother, mom went to go live with her grandmother as did most or all of the other children.  While living there she got to spend a lot of time with her tia Mary, who worked at a local drug store. Mary would bring home the leftover DC comic books and other magazines.  In those days, the stores would rip off the covers, send those back and throw away the books.  This is how my mother grew up reading Superman, Wonder Woman, Nancy Drew and others.  

This love of reading has stayed with my mom all of these years. I can not think of time she did not have a book with her on the couch or on her end table. I mentioned in a previous post that she was a huge advocate of my early reading. Because of her I was already reading and writing when I showed up for first grade.  That pissed off my first grade teacher, Ms. Pearl, but that is for another post.

A few years ago I was having lunch with mom for mother's day when we started sharing book studies. Then she told me a story that so floored me I just started crying. When I was sophomore or junior in college, I had a semester when my financial aid fell short and I didn't have enough money to buy my books.  Naturally, I called mom and dad asking for help. I didn't know at the time that they did not have the money to help me. My mother started praying for a solution. Around this same time, we had a magnolia tree growing in the front yard that was destroying the sidewalk. Mom had been pestering dad for months to do something about it. The deadline for buying my books was drawing near. At this point, my mother probably invoked the intercession of St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes.

Then there was a knock on the door.  It was a man who owned a landscaping company and he was asking about the magnolia tree. At first, mom thought he was asking for work to fix the sidewalk. Instead, he offered to buy the magnolia tree and remove it.  Her prayers had been answered and she now had the money to give me for my books.  I never knew this while I was attending school. Now, any time I see a magnolia tree, I think of my mother's love for me.

So needless to say, one of my traditions with my mom on Christmas, birthdays and Mother's Day is to give the gift of books and sometimes see a movie.  This year, I am getting her a book, probably Dean Koontz (her favorite author) and taking her to see Thor.

I love you Mom.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Acts of the Apostles - A Model for Today's Christian

llustration by Vicki Schuck

During the Easter Season - between Easter Vigil until Pentecost - the first reading in the Catholic liturgy is taken from the Acts instead of from the Old Testament.

The Book of Acts demonstrates the early Church and how the early Christians provided for each other.  This is a model that may seem impossible to achieve today, a utopia.  St. Padre Pio once said that if Christians everywhere would actually live their lives to the fullest as the early Christians did, there would be no need for government services. Nevertheless, while we may not be able to transform all of society, we can transform our little spheres of influence. I contend when the Knights of Columbus repair a parishioner's fence or build a wheel chair ramp, they are living as the apostles did.

Living the lives of the apostles requires more than simply performing acts of charity, it also means evangelizing.  Most of us are not called to be priests or to the religious life.  Instead, most of us are called to be ordinary people (yes, Joe Catholics) working and living in secular society. It is there that we are called to evangelize by our example.  As the hymn goes, "they will no we are Christians by our love." They will know and want to be like you because they see a positive change in you because of the Lord's work in you, because you have become Christ to others.  It means living and sharing your faith precisely where you have been planted in life.

For more on this subject, I recommend reading the first few chapters of Scott Hahn's book: Ordinary Work, Extraordinary Grace

Friday, May 06, 2011

There Be Dragons Opens Today

In a recent post on books that have influenced my writing, I listed The Way as a spiritual guide.  I often refer to it when I am making catechetical presentations at RCIA or Joe Catholic.  It's author,  St. Josemaria Escriva, is one of the main characters portrayed in the motion picture There Be Dragons which opens in theaters today.

The movie is a fictionalized account of Josemaria's early life set before and during the Spanish Civil War. The movie addresses themes such as faith, forgiveness and friendship. The film is directed by Roland Joffe, the Academy nominated director of The Killing Fields and The Mission.

One of the intriguing promotional ads for the films depicts Josemaria in a battle scene with the caption "even saints have a past."

Theaters showing There Be Dragons

Who was Josemaria?

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Joe Catholic

I thought I would use this post to promote my Joe Catholic Blog

Years ago I tried to form a men's small faith group in our parish and it failed.  Year after year some guy would come up to me after Mass and ask me when we were going to bring back the "Joseph's group."  I smiled nicely and said we'll see, knowing well I was not interested in another failure.  Two years ago I relented and invited some of the male leaders in our church to discuss revamping the group.  (This idea was founded on Maxwell's Law of Explosive Growth).  We kicked around format ideas and settled on a new name - Joe Catholic. I got the idea from Joe Plumber and the fact that I wanted to promote that we were just ordinary guys trying to learn our faith.

Joe Catholic now meets the first Saturday of each month, bright and early at 7:00AM.  Over forty men have attended at least one gathering and we consistently have fifteen or so at each get together.  We have settled on a three prong format: Catholic Toolbox, Saint Talk and FAQ of Faith.  Each session lasts about 15-20 minutes and they are non-sequential by design.  We maintain a casual environment encouraging men to show up late if they have to and leave when they need to.  The bottom line is that we want to help men develop in their faith.

Last year, Bishop Kevin Vann invited us to the Fort Worth cathedral (St. Patrick) to celebrate mass with him and subsequently to present one of our meetings to him.  I was proud.

The Joe Catholic blog serves to supplement the gatherings with resources for deeper study of the Catholic faith.

NOTE ON THE LOGO: The artisan's toolbox represents that we are all working men living ordinary lives.  The green book is the Catechism of the Catholic Church representing that we are loyal to the Church's teachings.  The black book is the Holy Bible to represent that we are men of the Word of God. The Rosary represents that we are men of prayer.  The hammer and rule are representative of traditional symbols of St. Joseph - the original Joe Catholic.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

My 5 Favorite Books On...

Today marks the first (optional) theme related post as part of my participation in this year's Blogathon. We were asked to write about our five favorite books related to writing or the subject of our blog. Since I do not have one set subject for my blog, I have decided to write about the five books that have most influenced my writing and the subject on which I write.

1. The Way, St. Josemaria Escriva:
I can not believe it has been over ten years since I came back to the Catholic Church.   During the time of my reversion I kept stumbling across writings by St. Josemaria, in particular points from The Way.  The book consists of 999 spiritual reflections, like mini-retreats.  Sometimes, when I read a point, it was as if St. Josemaria was speaking directly to me.  I can even hear his castillian accent.  The overall message of the book is that we are called to be holy in precisely the place in life we are or as Mother Theresa said "you are called to bloom where you have been planted."

2. On Writing, Stephen King:
I am not sure there would be many people who would have these first two books together on their list.  I grew up reading all of Stephen King's novels.  I must have been about nine years old when Carrie was published. I remember my mother being a member of a book club and often she would let me read some of her books. I very specifically remembering her finishing Carrie letting me read it. My mother was a huge advocate of reading and never censored our reading.  Anyway, I began writing short stories at about the same age and of course I was drawn to the horror and science fiction genres.  When King wrote this book, I had to have it.  I actually own the book in multiple formats: hardback, paperback, audio and ebook.   Like King in his early years, I am a teacher.  Just maybe...

3. Marvel Comics (The Avengers, Captain America, Spider-Man, et al)
I mentioned above that my mother was an advocate of reading. She never said no to giving me a dime or quarter to buy a comic or two.  I can't tell you the number of times she would catch me reading by the light of a flashlight after it was time to go to bed.  Reading these marvelous Stan Lee creations introduced me to the art of alliteration.  I have always loved used this literary device in all of my writings: fiction, non-fiction even in school essays.  I did not realize until very recently where this came from - Marvel Comics!  I was watching an interview with Stan Lee and heard him talking about the various names of characters when it hit me. BOOM! POW!

4. The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, John C. Maxwell
I have included this book on the list because I find myself referring to it when writing about educational and non-profit management.  I was first introduced to this book years ago when I was a financial planner. I actually have a personalized, autographed copy.  

Over the years, I have been impressed with how universal these "laws of leadership" really are.  Two of my favorite points include the Law of the Lid and the Law of Influence.  The Law of Lid simply asserts that an organization can only rise to the level of leader's ability.  Law of Influence essentially defines leadership as influence, nothing more, nothing less.  Finally, the funniest observation in Maxwell's book:  if you turn around and no one is following you, you are NOT a leader.

5. What the Dog Saw, Malcolm Gladwell
I could have very easily included any of Gladwell's books.  I chose this one because it most exemplifies the quality that has influenced my writing.  You can not read any of Gladwell's books or his articles in the New Yorker without realizing that he takes great effort in researching his material.  

In addition to his research approach, his writing is engaging.  How many people do you know who can write about the history of ketchup and make it interesting?  He did.

This is my humble list.  I have to admit this assignment was a bit more difficult than it first appeared.