Sunday, December 22, 2013

Book Review: The Walking Dead Volume 1: Days Gone Bye by Richard Kirkman

The Walking Dead, Vol. 1: Days Gone ByeThe Walking Dead, Vol. 1: Days Gone Bye by Robert Kirkman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I became fascinated by The Walking Dead television series in its first season.  The acting, effects, writing and direction felt as good as any horror/thriller film I'd seen in a long time.  The action was character-driven, and the premise -- that in a post-epidemic world where "the dead have risen and feed upon the living" one might have to be more cautious with the living than the dead -- has kept me looking forward to each upcoming episode for a few years now.

I didn't know about the graphic novels on which the series was based until halfway into season one, and was always curious about them.  Upon finishing the first volume, it's clear that the series and its producers have taken some liberties, embellishing or de-emphasizing as they see fit in order to serve the medium and the emerging story.  All the subtleties of the characters are a bit more "black and white" (pun intended) in the comic -- mostly, I think, because an actor of the calibre of Andrew Lincoln or Scott Wilson can say in a look or a gesture what a drawn character needs to say in a paragraph-length bubble of monologue.

I've just ordered volume two, probably because the show is in the midst of a midseason hiatus till February, and I'm missing the characters and their stories.  It's a little odd, though; the sensation is a bit like watching shadows of the people I've come to know.  Ironically, the actors have, in my mind, become the actual characters, and these well-drawn but two-dimensional drawings of them feel a bit like impostors somehow.

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Thursday, November 28, 2013

Son of Grammar Snob

It must have been a long day at school because I'll admit my reaction was on the "strong" side, to put a pretty face on it.  I was driving home, listening to NPR's "All Things Considered" on KUT, our local affiliate here in Austin.

The narrative drew me in, as NPR so often does.  I found myself nodding my head here and there at salient points the story covered, when I heard this line:

"My friend's daughters received the help they needed, but this was not the case for my family and I."

Suddenly I went from nodding my head amiably to screaming at my radio console.  "'My family and ME!' 'My family and ME!' You're OVERCOMPENSATING! 'Me' is the OBJECT pronoun, not the SUBJECT! Arrrrggghhh!"

I stopped myself short of having an aneurysm and/or driving into a ditch.  Catching my breath, I thought of a short-lived reality show that aired on MTV for a while, in which the producers rigged people's cars with hidden cameras, so that the drivers could be captured singing along (badly, normally) to their favorite songs on the radio.  I wondered what a video of my little grammar tirade would look like.  It would probably be evidence enough for most judges to have me committed to a mental institution.

And to make the judge's case even stronger, a voice suddenly popped into my head.  "You're overcompensating.  Look here:  Take away the other people -- in this case it's 'my family.'  You wouldn't say 'this was not the case for I,' would you?"  It was one of those moments when you realize how hard-wired your DNA is.  For some people it's a predilection for alcohol and cigarettes (I may have inherited some of that, as well, but that's another blog post.)  My mother's voice came right back to me, and I started laughing, as I remembered the way she would frown as she corrected my brother and me whenever we made this sort of error.

(You'll notice she didn't correct "my brother and I.")

My mother, Carol Fuchs, doing a few of her favorite things in the summer of 1963 -- reading, lying on the beach and smoking*

*And yes, she was pregnant with me at the time.  As I said, that's another blog post...

Monday, November 25, 2013

My Wife, the Zumba Instructor: Mind if I Just Say… 'WOW!'?

Jeanette Reyes-Fuchs, Zumba Instructor
The Baker Center in Austin is an old school building that has been re-purposed to house meeting spaces for the Austin Independent School District.  It has the musty air and tiny toilets that make you imagine generations of children making their way through these hallways, since the structure first opened back in 1911.

On this particular rainy Saturday in November, I see a whiteboard with the wo
rds "ZUMBA THIS WAY!" written in red marker, in familiar handwriting, leaning against one of the outside doors.  My wife, Jeanette Reyes-Fuchs, has been excited, nervous, and energized about this day for weeks now.  She has invited several area Zumba instructors to participate in a fundraiser in support of the families in South Austin who lost everything in local flooding a few weeks ago.

My wife's passion for Zumba is nothing new; she has been very into the exercise/dance craze for a few years now, even taking the time to become a certified instructor by attending an intensive, day-long workshop in San Antonio a couple of years ago.  My boys and I have become accustomed to the pounding of her music, and to when she closes herself in the office and practices along with YouTube videos.

My two sons and I make our way into the Baker Center, following the thumping music that sounds down a dreary hallway.  We enter a large room that has a stage at the far end, along with vestiges of cafeteria serving windows on the opposite wall.  This was an early "cafetorium," no doubt, and is now serving as the site of my wife's Zumba-thon.  She greets us warmly.  I can tell by her expression she's a little surprised to see us.  She introduces us around to a number of people who, like her, are dressed in energetically-colored clothing that projects a certain degree of peacockish joy.  Almost all the garments have "Zumba" printed on them somewhere.

"I'm so nervous," she confides in me in a low voice.  "My turn is coming up."

"Just have fun with it," I say.

The other instructors are good.  Each brings their own spin to the practice of leading the group through a series of moves.  I participate here and there, mostly out of politeness.

And then it happens.  My wife moves up to the stage and the songs my kids and I are so used to hearing at home comes over the PA system.  Suddenly, Jeanette's face changes, and the whole room is captivated by her.  Her moves are synchronous, flirtatious and fun.  She cues us through our movements non-verbally, by way of hand signals, facial expressions and the like.  She connects with each of us in a way that makes us all feel special, as if we're all dancing with her.  Some of her songs are in Spanish, and others are in English.  She sings along with all of them.

At a certain point I realize I have become completely unselfconscious about what I am doing, even though I am, no doubt, pretty well out of step.  I also realize that I have a huge smile on my face that won't go away.  It's a difficult feeling to describe, but it's something I hope every person in my situation -- in a long-term relationship with the same person for a number of years -- can feel at some point in their life together.  At the risk of stepping into melodrama and smarminess, I fall a little more in love with my bride on this morning, as I follow along with her Zumba moves and fall victim to the charms of her infectious stage performance.

I know I am biased, but she is really, really good.  Others think so, too -- even the seasoned Zumba instructors she has recruited for the event.  She has found her passion, and my hope is that she will pursue it fully and deeply.  To say I am proud of her is an understatement.  She has my full-on support.

If there is something about which you know your partner is passionate -- whether it's fantasy football, needlepoint, scrimshaw or bird-watching -- do yourself a favor:  Go be with him or her when they do that particular something.    I promise you that if you feel anything near what I felt at Jeanette's Zumba-thon fundraiser last Saturday, you'll be more than glad you did.
The Author…Swept Away

Sunday, July 28, 2013

A Desire for Miracles: The Joy and Confusion of Magic in The River Swimmer by Jim Harrison

The River Swimmer: NovellasThe River Swimmer: Novellas by Jim Harrison
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'm struggling for connections between the two novellas that make up this volume.  The writing itself is uniformly good; Harrison is clearly a master of the English language, and some of his passages captivate.  In fact, my response to these works is more about me, the reader, than the author.  In this way, I can thank Harrison for helping me know more about myself than I did before.

In the first long story/short novel, titledThe Land of Unlikeness, we are made to follow the misadventures of a middle-aged painter of fading renown as he goes back to his childhood home in rural Michigan.  I agree with Harrison that "memories reside in the landscape and arise when you revisit an area."  However, there was nothing heroic or interesting enough about Clive, the protagonist in question, to make me particularly care about his memories or how they made him feel or think about his life.  Late in the narrative, Harrison states of Clive, "He was a man of no importance so why not paint?"

I know that this is a story about how one examines the path his life has taken up to its apex and impending decline; in fact, I know it quite personally.  Unfortunately, however, I agree with Harrison's narration in that I find Clive unimportant and therefore uninteresting.

Conversely, the second piece,The River Swimmer held my attention, mostly, I think, due to a kind of magic realism that was absent from the first story.  Thad is a person who cannot stay away from the water and the wonder it offers him, the true meaning it gives his life when he is swimming.  He is accompanied, time and again, by his "friends," amphibious creatures called "water babies," who, according to native lore are inhabited by the souls of dead infants.  They guide and love him in the dark water, and he muses on whether or not to share his discovery with the rest of the world.  The core of the book is this division between the real and the miraculous.  In my favorite line in the book, Harrison writes, "It seemed comic to [Thad] that people desire miracles but when they get them it adds an extremely confusing element to life.  Maybe Lazarus didn't want to come back to life."

The River Swimmer is all about this struggle we hold; on the one hand, we desire a quiet, comfortable life.  As humans, however, it is in our nature to crave the transcendent, the magical, the divine.  Again, my thanks to Jim Harrison for reminding me that I, too, crave this magic, especially in the fiction that moves me in any "real" sense.

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Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Book Review: Solo Faces by James Salter

To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be who have tried it.
-- Herman Melville

James Salter's great accomplishment in Solo Faces is that he matches, and sometimes exceeds, the magnitude of his enormous subject matter, through vivid characterizations.

While reading a novel about mountain climbing, I expected I would highlight excerpts about the act of scaling an ascent. And yes, Salter is a good writer, and those passages are harrowing, solidifying in my mind the resolution that I will never, EVER be a mountain climber. But I found myself more struck by descriptions like these:

"She already had a stiffness and hesitation that are part of middle age. Her attention was entirely on her feet. Only the humorous, graceful movements of her hands and her kerchief around her head made her seem youthful."

"He's a strange guy. He's like a searchlight. When he turns your way, he just dazzles you. Afterward, you're left in darkness, you might as well not be alive."

I'm not sure how this book would go over with women. His protagonist, Vernon Rand, has both a voracious sexual appetite and a gnawing misogyny at the core of his interactions with the female characters in the novel. "One woman is like another," he muses at one point. "Two are like another two. Once you begin there is no end." His interest, or "trust" in them, circles back to what is ultimately most important to him -- himself, and that he will somehow live on after his death, in the stories they tell of his accomplishments:

"For some reason he trusted only women and for each of them he assumed a somewhat different pose. They were the bearers of his story, scattered throughout the world."

Solo Faces is one of those books that is so well written, you almost forget you're reading it. For a writer, reading Salter is like taking a sip of cold water from a wellspring on top of a mountain. Yes, the mountains in this book are symbolic, just as the white whale is in Melville. However, this is no more a book about mountains than Moby Dick is a book about whales. In the end, this is a "mighty book" about characters who become real and who make the reader care about them, their choices, accomplishments, challenges and joys.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Schroder: The American Dream, Gone Horribly Wrong

SchroderSchroder by Amity Gaige
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If you're planning on reading this book, this is where I guess I'm supposed to write the words "spoiler alert," because I plan on discussing how the story plays itself out.  So if you care one way or the other about knowing the resolution of this novel, stop reading my humble review now.

This story of the American Dream gone bad does hold the reader's interest, for the most part.  I did find myself wanting to know what was going to happen to Meadow Kennedy and her fatuous father, Eric.  I'm not sure whether Gaige wanted me to like the protagonist or not.  I can tell you that I didn't.  I found Eric Kennedy/Erik Schroder patently un-likeable.  I wanted things to work out for his little girl, and I found myself wanting Eric to be apprehended.  Maybe he does love Meadow sincerely (albeit difficult to believe any assertions made by a self-proclaimed liar.  It's like Spock's paradox, when he makes Harvey Mudd's fembots blow their perfectly logical circuits, when he tells them in his sexy, knowing way, "Listen carefully:  Everything I a lie."), but even so, Eric is a classic Narcissist, and all roads, even the suffering of his own child, circle back, ultimately, to how it will affect him.

It's unusual to say this, but I liked the book well enough, without liking the main character at all.  If I was supposed to be rooting FOR Schroder/Kennedy, then this novel is an abject failure.  If I was supposed to enjoy his collapse, then Bravo, Amity Gaige.

Not exactly a recommendation, I know.  Read it if you care to.  I'd be interested to hear what you think of it.

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Thursday, July 11, 2013

Beach Landscape with Two Boys and Their Father

The waves roll in, one after the other, after the other, and three heads bob in unison.  One belongs to a grown man, the other two to his sons, one of whom is ten and the other eight years old.  This picture is precious to me, because it actually represents two groups of men.  If the picture were on Polaroid or Kodachrome stock, it might be dated 1973.  The beach could be Fire Island, or the Cape or somewhere along Highway 1 in California.  The man might very well be my father, Hanno Fuchs -- overweight, smiling and hairy.  The boys, full of courage and joyful smiles are likely myself and my younger brother, Michael.

Now if the photo were digital, posted on Instagram or Facebook, the year would be 2013, and the hirsute, rotund man would be me, the older boy would be Diego Reyes Fuchs, and the younger boy would be Jackson Hanno Fuchs.  Apart from the names, the remaining details would be very much the same.

"Okay guys, we're gonna ride this next one!" I call, loudly enough to be heard over the sound of the constantly breaking waves of Cancun.  The three of us fixate on the wave that builds toward us. 

"No, Daddy! The NEXT one!  The next one!" Jackson calls.  All three of us nod in agreement, and we let the wave I'd originally chosen pass, bouncing and bobbing over it, in favor of the whitecaps that are forming on the one Jackson has chosen for us.

"Here we go!" says Diego.  "Ride it! Ride it!"

All three of us begin swimming with the breaking wave, and when I come up from the water, I see that the boys have caught the wave and have ridden it all the way to shore.  Not me.

"I missed it!" I yell to them over the continuous roar of the surf.

"I caught it!"

"Me too!"

I want to stop, to interrupt the game, in order to tell them, to let these two boys know, how incredibly happy this seemingly simple activity is making me.  I want to grab them up and smother them with kisses and tell them of my love for them.  But I know my children; their moods turn on a dime, and this perfection we are sharing in the midst of the planet's tidal undulations is as delicate as a moth's wing.  If I touch it, even slightly, it may turn to powder and blow away.

Because I don't want this moment to end, I stay in it, stay with it, and keep my mouth shut.  I smile with each boy, as we connect -- with each other, and with the tides.  Occasionally, we mis-time a wave, and rather than guiding us gently to shore, it lifts us up like an enemy, dashing us headfirst into the gritty, unforgiving sand.  This is fine, though; this is good.  Part of this whole experience -- an important part, in fact -- is failure. 

I realize now, looking back on all the time I spent on beaches with my brother and father, that body surfing is a life lesson.  Each wave is an opportunity that presents itself to you.  You must decide quickly whether or not to seize that moment, and when you do, there is no guarantee that it will work out for you.  When the opportunity bears fruit, the sensation of gliding along with the wave is almost like sprouting wings and flying.  When it falls flat, you are literally dragged through the grit and muck. 

This was a great life lesson for me, and those beach memories are indelible, as much a part of my heart as the blood that pumps continuously through it.  My hope is that these times will take root in the hearts of my sons, and give them the same comfort they have always provided me, even in my darkest, loneliest times. 

As my wife Jeanette said on the beach today,when we finally decided to come out of the water, "It's so great that you are in there with them, making memories."

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Flying, Then and Now

The flight attendant bunches her nose up, so that she looks like a bunny, as she baby talks my sons, handing them each a cookie on their way off the plane in Cancun, Mexico. 

"Oh my goodness," she says, to my wife really, I suppose, "can't I have one?  Can't I just keep one of them?"

The boys say thank you, almost as fast as we can remind them to do so.  The cookies are on the nasty side -- some overly soft combination of oats and cranberries.  Even I, their human Hoover, cannot vacuum them into my gullet.  They're that bad.  It's as though someone had, in their haste to put together a healthy cookie, forgotten to actually cook the thing.

Anyway, that's hardly the point.  This isn't about how good or bad the airline's cookies were.  This is a post about remembering when the stewardesses (as they were called then) doted over me when I was a boy the age mine are now, back in the early 1970's.  I recall the way they would spoil me and my brother, and giggle at how we blushed, much the way the flight attendants do with my boys today. 

I also remember EXACTLY when that all came tumbling down.  It was in the spring of 1985, on my first ever flight to Madrid, Spain.  I was on my way to meet up with my girlfriend who was studying there at the time.  I was 22 and in the prime of my life, flying with my roommate, Greg, and probably drinking too much Jack Daniels.  It was a charter flight, and I remember it being very full.  One of the flight attendants was a Spanish woman, not much older than me at the time, and very cute.  Deep dimples in her cheeks, and dark, dark eyes, if memory serves.

Flight attendants (or "stewardesses") as I remember them
back in the day, as they like to say

I'm sure I was putting on a bit of a show for my friend, but I began an ill-fated (and probably half-hearted) attempt to pick up on this young woman.  Her weariness became immediately apparent, and as she shunned my attempts at humor, I realized she was an extremely patient and hard-working individual, who I would never, ever see again.

"Why don't you just tell me what you want to drink, and I'll go get it for you, okay?" she said, or something close to that.  It had the effect of chilling my blood, and I realized I would never fly as that cute young boy the stewardesses liked to embarrass anymore.  Instead, I had become just another young, drunk Lothario, there to make her day even longer and make her ask God what exactly she'd done to deserve this. 

I remember exactly what Diego and Jackson feel like as they are mooned at by grown women in airline uniforms, because they did it to me and my brother too.  I almost want to tell them to enjoy it while it lasts.  Before too long, they'll be the young guy on the make, and in a few breaths after that, the invisible, if sometimes charming, middle aged man with the beautiful wife and kids.

Monday, June 24, 2013

The Crossword Connection

I've come to enjoy Father's Day in the ten years it has pertained specifically to me.  My wife does her best to spoil me (though, to be honest, I feel spoiled on most days), and this year was no different.  The kids always scrawl me out a couple of loving cards, and I get one big, pampering gift, and one small, tongue-in-cheek gift.

This year it was a 90-minute massage and a nose hair trimmer, respectively.  In addition, however, Jeanette got me The New York Times Will Shortz Presents Every Day with Crosswords: 365 Days of Easy to Hard Puzzles.   She got me this particular gift, because she remembers a time, early in our relationship, where crossword puzzles, from the New York Times could often be found on the various night-stands and coffee tables of our world.

My wife also knows that crossword puzzles -- like chess, which I've described in a previous post -- hold a special place in my family history, because my father was a prodigious puzzler himself.  In fact, when I picture him, I see him sitting in a golden yellow upholstered easy chair, with the Times on a clipboard in one hand, and a pen (always a pen and NEVER a pencil, which I still adhere to) in the other, his scotch and water sweating in a glass on the side table.

He's looking over his reading glasses when I picture him this way, smiling, the lines above his cheekbones deepening, as they always did.  He'd probably rather be working on the puzzle than entertaining whatever it is I've interrupted him for, but he rarely, if ever, expressed any exasperation about having to put the clipboard down in his lap to address my issue.

I can't remember whether or not I was resentful of the time my dad spent with his crossword puzzles.  To be fair, he was quick -- much quicker than I -- in solving them, so that time was probably negligible.  Because I myself enjoy puzzling now, I of course get that this was his private time when he could tune us and our constant squabbles out and just enjoy his puzzle.  (Not to mention his cocktail.)  Like Hanno, I am a hard-working father of two energetic and mostly happy boys, doing my best to help them along.  I now understand that means that my father, like me, and like every parent who fits the description, actually worked two jobs, and the one for which he got paid was definitely the easier of the two.

So this break, this brief respite or reprieve from the job of being a parent, is something my father appreciated deeply.  I appreciate it, too, and this gift from my wife, shows her appreciation of it, as well.  For this I thank her, more, probably, than she'll ever know.
The author getting ready to delve into a morning crossword.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Heft is a Novel That Lingers

HeftHeft by Liz Moore
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

You know you're in the middle of a good book when you find yourself wondering about the characters when you're not reading it.  I did this constantly with Heft.  Just as you think of a friend or lover who has left you after a pleasant evening of the kind of togetherness that reminds you of why they are special, and that makes you feel blessed, this book lingers.

One could argue Heft is a story about loss, despair, and sadness. Undeniably, these are central aspects to the novel.  However, I came away feeling a wonderful lightness -- ironic, when you look at the title.  It's an extremely hopeful book, in the end, about all the ways we continue to live and to love, even in the face of gut-wrenching loss.

There's some lovely writing by Liz Moore, who has managed, at a tender age, to speak in the voices of not one but two flawed and believable characters.  Here, Arthur Opp, over 500 pounds, and lonely in the Park Slope brownstone where he grew up and now lives by himself, at age 59, describes a very particular brand of empathy:

"Here is what I have always thought:  that people, when they eat, are very dear.  The eager lips, the flapping jaws, the trembling release of control -- the guilty glances at one's companions or at strangers.  The focus, the great focus of eating.  The pleasure in it."

Not only is the writing simple and sharp, but the thought is unique, and helps us know Arthur deeply.

The other narrator is an 18 year-old baseball player who is struggling with a loss that fills him with ambivalent emotions.  He comes to a realization that frankly stunned me.  He is 18 and the author who created him is not much older; together, they express an understanding that I came to only recently at a slightly more advanced age.  (Let's just leave it at that.)

"I feel like people are only really dead once you stop learning about them.  This is why it is important to me to keep learning about my mother, and what she wanted, and what her life meant, what she meant by the life she led.  Then she will be alive, somehow, and her wish for me will have come true.  My vow is to learn more about her.  To see her as she saw herself."

I'm excited about Liz Moore.  Hers is the kind of writing that endures, because it is straightforward and moves us, because its characters, and the lives they lead, the emotions they feel, go directly to our hearts, with a pinpoint accuracy that astonishes.  To say I look forward to her next effort is putting it (pardon the pun) lightly.

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Thursday, June 20, 2013

I've Got An Eight-Track Mind

Smells trigger memory.  So does the weather.  In my case, as I've discussed in a previous post, dull, repetitive menial tasks do it, too.  I'd call the phenomenon "Proustian," but that would be pretentious and would suggest that I have managed to get through Remembrances of Times Past, something I have not been able to do up to this point in my life. 

One of the greatest memory triggers for me, and for many, I've heard, is music.  Anything by Paul McCartney and Wings, for example, takes me right back to Rocky Ledge, the swim club where we spent our summer days when I was a pre-teen, and where I fell in love on a daily basis, with girls in bikinis who never even knew I was there. 

I've taken to using the Shazam app when I am driving to and from work, in order to capture songs I either like or connect with, for whatever reason.  Okay, it's also to show off, since I know the songs I tag will automatically post on my Facebook page.  I like to imagine people seeing what I'm listening to and thinking, "Wow, that Dan sure does have an eclectic music sense!" 

The other day Dionne Warwick's rendition of Burt Bacharach and Hal Davis's "Walk on By" came on KUTX -- our public radio station here in Austin.  It hit me like the proverbial bullet in the brain, and I was in our living room on Hartford Lane, dozing in my father's lap, staring out the pre-dawn bay window, hearing the "Ca-CHUNK-click" of the eight-track stereo cassette player, switching tracks. 

I'm sure my dad had lots of 8 track tapes, but the three I remember best are Dionne Warwick, A Partridge Family Christmas, and Simon and Garfunkel.  The latter is the only one of these three that I currently own on MP3.  Everyone I know who remembers 8 track, does so fondly, with a glint in their eye.  It's so archaic now, of course, along the same lines as the CB radio.  But for me, it's a joyful, warm memory, and I may very well have to get myself some Dionne Warwick/Burt Bacharach for my iPod some time soon.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Little Big Chat

A recent staring contest between the author (left) and young Jackson Fuchs, age 8.  Winner uncertain.
I'm not a big fan of the "Kids-say-the-darnedest-things" branch of literature.  It gives rise to, in my opinion, the precious and smarmy.  Despite my feelings on the genre, however, there are times that one or the other of my sons come out with things that I must make sure and write down.  This is one of those times.

"Daddy?" Jackson said, the ellipsis hanging invisibly in the air between us.

"Yes, son?"

"Will I look very different when I'm a grown-up?"  He was standing in front of the bathroom mirror, and had just finished brushing his teeth before bed.

"You will," I answered definitively.  "You'll certainly always recognize yourself, but you'll change, too.  You'll get a lot hairier, for one thing."

He then ran to where I was waiting for him in the hallway and threw his arms around me.

"Oh, Daddy," he said, full of emotion.  "I wish you could live forever."

I realized then, returning his embrace, that this was more a conversation about mortality than appearance.  We have these little big chats every now and again.  I've come to accept that when you've got a grandfather you've never met, you are going to have these questions.  He must empathize with me on some level.

"I'll always be with you, son," I tell him.

"I know, Daddy.  Right here," he says, touching his chest where he thinks his heart is.  It's what we always say -- the classic Mufasa-Simba conversation.

But I can tell it's not the same.  He'd like us to be together forever.  I know that in a few years he'll feel differently, so I soak in this unabashed love.

As Jerry Seinfeld said in a recent stand-up routine, "Our children are here for one basic purpose:  to replace us."  All I can do is continue to shower these two people with all the love I can.  In this way, I'll "replace" myself with two young people who know how important it is to be kind and to love, and to leave the world a better place for your having lived in it.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

A Great Day for Frogs

Our backyard play scape in the morning rain
"Look at that rain!" I say, noticing it after helping the boys get dressed for their second day of Raider Baseball Camp.  "Oh well, it's a great day for frogs."

It's one of those things I say a lot.  One of those Dad Things.  I'm not sure where I got the phrase; must've heard it somewhere.  It's one of those things the boys roll their eyes at -- like when we're at our favorite Chinese restaurant, Happy Dragon in Round Rock, and I draw their attention to the string-heavy traditional music playing on a loop and say, "Hey, do you guys like this song?  I wrote this."  They pretend to be pained by my corny jokes, but their vague smiles suggest they will one day be nostalgic about it, just as I am with my own brother about the many, many phrases, quips and bad jokes our father repeated through the years.

Any way you classify this weather, it signifies a rain out -- a re-thinking of plans.  A re-boot of our day.  Jeanette has already left for work, and it is a Guys' Day.  The boys immediately go for their Nooks, and begin constructing houses that will keep them safe from the zombies who creep around the perimeters of their virtual homesteads.

Jackson and Diego playing Minecraft on a rainy morning in June
I grab my tablet and get back into the novel I'm currently reading, until I feel a pleasant sleepiness come over me.  I put the device face down on my chest, the way I used to leave an open book there when I'd get drowsy.  Then I nap, until one of the boys comes in to show me the houseboat they've been working on, and ask me about going to the movies.

I get on the computer and buy e-tickets for the 11 o'clock matinee of Man of Steel.

It's all great stuff.  I'm not a troglodyte who pines for the days before there was this level of technology. I will say, though, that I grew up in a place and time that found me often out in the rain.  My friends and I were explorers, and we were lucky to be surrounded by acres of relatively pristine land.  When I think back on childhood rainy days, I feel the cool droplets on my skin, and I smell the earth, replete with wildlife.  Earthworms were the most obvious, but we also saw salamanders, moles, chipmunks, and yes, frogs.  Lots of them.

Maybe that's where I got that from.  Hmm.  I am feeling somewhat inspired to take the boys out on a nature walk somewhere.  Perhaps I'll do that.  After the movie.  Go out on a trail, in search of some frogs.

Friday, June 14, 2013

The New Gorilla: How to Make a Feature Film for Under 25K by James Savoca: An Intimate Sit-down with (and Kick in the Ass from) One Who Knows

I really could’ve used this book.  Back when I was a young man who entertained that glimmer of a thought to be the Next Big Thing in Filmmaking.  Like Savoca, I am a lover of film; we share many of the same influences – Cassavetes, Scorsese, The French New Wave. 

Unlike Savoca, I failed to do the work necessary to make a film happen.  And that’s essentially what The New Gorilla is about:  the WORK.  Yes, the title does suggest a “bottom-line” financial approach, and Savoca does discuss the ins and outs of the business side of making your first film.  I’d argue, however, that the real message to be taken away here is simple (“keep it simple, stupid,” as he says on numerous occasions):  DO THE WORK.

Savoca himself is very much present in the book.  He is the voice in the reader’s ear, reminding him or her, again and again, to stick with it, to keep going.  I had the impression at one point that Savoca was in the room with me, encouraging me and not letting me settle for mediocrity.  In this way, The New Gorilla is intimate.  Yes, the conversation is one-way, but Savoca has been there, and he knows the questions that dog the mind of aspiring filmmakers who fight that nagging voice inside their heads. 

A play, I’m guessing, on the French word guerilla (warrior), the “Gorilla” of the title is that unstoppable force that will get this film made by doing the work and never veering from the path set out by Savoca.  The author goes to great pains never to be the distant intellectual.  His voice is real; he’s your uncle, not the Dean of the Visual Arts department at your university.  He is nudging you – not always gently.

In one interesting turn, Savoca acknowledges that filmmaking has become totally and completely democratic.  You, the reader, the prospective filmmaker, have every right – even, he suggests, the right to suck, as he defends his argument about the importance of going step by step when laying the foundations of your film.  Here, he responds to that imaginary impatient reader, who’d rather just skip the preliminary steps and jump right into writing the screenplay: 

You can just begin to write your awful script at your desk anytime you like.  I say awful because it will be complete garbage if this is the route you decide to take.

The New Gorilla is not for the faint of heart.  You’ll get no-nonsense advice like this throughout.  But if you’re someone who is serious about breaking into film in this world of sometimes confusing new media, it’s worth it.  Savoca’s experience as both a filmmaker and teacher of filmmaking give him the authority to kick his readers in the pants now and again.  He’s been through the fires and has come out with films that are uniquely his and true to his vision. 

If being able to make films that are uniquely yours, true to your vision and cost-effective is an idea that appeals to you, then this is the book for you, as they say.  Just be ready for the occasional good kick in the ass and constant reminders to do the work it takes to get there.

In Savoca’s own words, “Don’t just try.  Succeed.”  Buying The New Gorilla would be an excellent first step towards that success.  

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Twenty Years

Twenty years ago, I made a choice to become a long-term substitute teacher at Satellite Academy High School, where my college friend, Sonia Murrow, taught at the time.  In making the decision to accept that job, I sent my life on a certain trajectory, moving away from the path of material wealth, and towards a more modest existence.

But I also joined the ranks of the Truly Fulfilled.  We walk with a lighter step, and we sleep a more peaceful sleep.  You can see it in our faces; when we come home at night, after a difficult day at work, there's a "lightness" about us that comes from knowing we've helped another person, despite the sometimes considerable challenges it may have entailed.

I tried my hand at a potentially more lucrative position, in a different line of work, just about midway through my career.  That lasted all of about two weeks, I'd say.  I knew almost immediately that selling things to other people was something I wouldn't be very good at, and I couldn't get used to the heaviness I felt at the end of the day -- a weight to which I was unaccustomed.

I'm a buttoned-down administrator now, bald and gray-bearded.  "Seasoned" is the euphemism we tend to use in education.  I've landed at a school I love, and although the days are sometimes stressful, and people, being people, are imperfect and annoying at times, I've finished my twentieth school year filled with the same sense of purpose, and the same lightness, as ever.

To all those of you who read this with whom I've crossed paths in those twenty years -- as your teacher, co-worker, supervisor, teacher of your kid, or friend -- thank you.  Thank you for being a part of my life, and for making these twenty years so special.

Here's to the next twenty!

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Reports of Reading's Death Have Been Highly Exaggerated

Years ago, as I was having lunch with one of those few elders who I consider my true "mentors," she made what I thought was an unexpected observation.  She was in New York only briefly, stopping to work with a set of schools in peril, before moving on to Philadelphia or Jerusalem, or wherever her next gig was.  

"I love riding the subway when I come to New York," she said, her eyes wide with wonder, "because it restores my faith in humanity!"

"Really?" I said, nearly choking on my salad.  "I can't say I've ever heard anyone say that before."

"Because there's so much reading going on!  Despite what all the spoiled-sports are saying about the so-called 'death' of reading."

Pleased with her observation, she chortled her rather awkward giggle and went about eating her meal.  

It was one of those observations that stuck with me.  On my way home to Brooklyn that afternoon, I did my usual people-watching, this time with the specific purpose of verifying, or debunking, my friend's thesis regarding reading.  There were the usual sleepers, bee-boppers and gamers.  But there were, indeed, a good number of people with their noses pressed into books, newspapers and Kindles.  They were reading a great variety of materials -- from the Bible to comic books --  and I have to admit that, like my mentor, I was heartened by the realization that reading was in fact alive and well and living underground in New York City.

That subway ride occurred back in the days when you knew a Kindle when you saw one, and you knew that a Kindle meant the person was reading something.  I'm sure that if I visited the F train today, I'd see fewer print and more devices.  The Kindles might be playing music or movies, and people might be reading books on their iPhones.  The data might be more difficult to gather now, but I'll bet you dollars to donuts, or iBooks to Tablets, that many of them are indeed reading something.

Now I am about 1,800 miles away from the nearest New York subway station, but if I want to be reminded of the fact that reading is alive and well, I need only open my gmail account and look at all the updates Goodreads automatically sends me, via Facebook.  Many of my Facebook friends are voracious readers (you know who you are) and this app makes me instantaneously aware that they have read, made progress in, or reviewed a new book.  

Now I know there's someone out there reading this blogpost (reading again) who knows a lot more about publishing than I do.  If you've got your eye on the balance sheet and are watching for industry numbers, then you could probably tell me that Publishing (capital P) is in the red.  

Be that as it may, Sally Brown (as another mentor used to say), I am, as always, an optimist, and yes there really is "a lot of reading going on."  And to my English teacher friends whose hearts drop every time a young person groans at the novels you assign -- do what I used to do:  Put your hands in the air like an orchestra conductor and make a big show of it.  Here's the script: (don't forget the hands in the air part) 

Ah, yes.  Because you are teenagers, you must groan at the prospect of reading a WHOLE BOOK.  But that was some of the most pathetic groaning I've ever heard.  Now when I give you the signal, I want you to groan so loudly that the principal will hear you in his office.  Ready?  1, 2, 3, [conductor hands for duration of groaning; then "cut" groaning with conductor hands.]

Much better.  And now that you've got that out of your system . . . START READING.

They're teenagers and it's their job to resist stuff like reading.  Once you give them the right to have the reaction, they can actually read (and ENJOY) great literature.  Just be that crazy lover of words.  They'll thank you for it one day.  And they may even read your book on the subway.  And post their review on Goodreads.  

Who knows?

Friday, June 7, 2013

Getting the Call-Up

For whatever the reason, Jeanette and I were slow in getting our boys signed up for Little League baseball this year.  By the time we finally got it together and made our way over to East Metro Park in our town of Manor, we had missed one practice.  Not so bad.  Unfortunately, the "kid pitch" team of kids Diego's age had already filled up, so his only option was to be on the same team with his little brother, Jackson.  "Coach pitch" was a step down for Diego, but, to his credit, he took it in stride.

Needless to say, I benefited from the arrangement -- in my role as chauffeur, I had only one stop to make on game and practice days.  Last year, when Diego was on the Manor Red Sox, and Jackson was a Manor Hellcat, it was not unusual for me to be expected to be in two places at once.  Somehow my wife and I made it work, but it wasn't easy.  So for Mom and Dad, this new deal was a cake-walk.

Statistically, Diego thrived among the younger kids.  He hit the ball hard, and ran fast, and he made some good plays in the field.  Sitting on the sidelines in my folding chair, my heart always swelled when my son came up and I heard the opposing coaches yell to their fielders, "Move back! Big hitter! Look alive!"

As for Diego, he was his usual nonchalant self, playing off the cheers and pats on the helmet as he made his way back into the dugout after hitting a home run.  He never got too up when he did well, and he tried to hide his disappointment when he didn't.

After the last game of the season, one of his coaches asked me if Diego would be interested in playing in a post-season tournament with other boys his age.  His eyes lit up, and he said "Kid pitch?"

Now we're back to two separate schedules, as Jackson is also playing the tournament for his age group.  It's worked out well so far, with their practices being at the same time, on adjacent fields.  I'll spend some time watching and encouraging one boy, then swiveling over to do the same for the other.

Suddenly, Diego is no longer the biggest or most confident boy on his team.  The coaches are more seasoned and work them harder than he's been used to.  As always, he's taking it in stride, and I'm careful to check in with him, and make sure he's still feeling good about baseball.  So far, he's playing his cards close to his vest, which is kind of how he lives his life as a whole.  He says it's fine, and that he's getting used to it.

My tendency is to want to protect him, but I have to remind myself that life is a series of challenges.  Sports mirrors life in this way.  There is no greater feeling than thinking you can't accomplish something when you first look at it, and then going ahead and overcoming what you thought you couldn't overcome.

Whether Diego puts up good numbers or not, he'll learn something about himself as he faces the challenge of this call-up.  I suppose that as his father, it falls on me to be there for him, in whatever way he needs me to be, regardless of how he does -- in this circumstance, and all others.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

How Our Garden Has Grown: A Chronicle in Pictures

Clearing out the space for one of two raised-bed gardens.

Putting down cardboard, a barrier for weeds.

Smoothing out the soil and mulch.

We made it a square foot garden, using twine.

Our original plantings:  beans, lettuce, eggplant, tomatoes and marigolds.

Lots of Central Texas rain = a bumper crop!

Judd Apatow: Chronicler of . . . ME

I know it's a bit trite for a 40-something, upper middle class white man to say it, but I'm going to say it anyway:  I see myself in Judd Apatow's work.  Consistently.

And I just realized, watching a DVR'd episode of Freaks and Geeks, which the Sundance Channel thankfully shows every morning at 5 am, that I've been seeing myself in Judd Apatow's work for as long as he's been doing that work.

With Freaks and Geeks, Apatow arguably gives the most honest portrayal of high school that has ever aired on network television.  Actually, I need to be more specific.  He provides a perfect picture of high school in the late 1970's and early 80's, when I was a suburban lad, growing up on the outskirts of New York City.

The show takes place in Michigan, I believe -- a place where I also spent a portion of my adolescence.  As the title suggests, Freaks and Geeks is about cliques and the stringent social structure in high school.  Perhaps because I moved around a bit (I attended three different high schools), I was able to move from clique to clique, as well.  For a time I was a geek, and a freak, and a jock.

I remember hanging out with people who looked like the characters in Freaks and Geeks, having the kinds of conversations they so awkwardly have, about love and fitting in, wishing to be considered an adult, while simultaneously lamenting my childhood, as it faded into the distance behind me.

The series only lasted for 18 episodes, suggesting a short-sightedness that some network executive fell prey to.  I can picture him now, shaking his large head, jowls frothing, as he wonders why he didn't foresee the stardom that was in store for so many of the people involved in that little show.  He must kick himself every time a new Apatow hit comes out.

A more recent Apatow-produced hit was a kind of spin-off from his very successful 2007 film, Knocked Up, called This is 40.  My wife and I saw it on a date night, and we laughed.  A lot.  We whispered, "Oh my God, that's us!" and punched each other in the shoulders.  It was a great time, and Mr. Apatow once again proved himself the chronicler of my bourgeois, suburban life.

It leaves me wondering:  Will there be a This is 80?  I just hope I'm around to see it.  If I am, I have no doubt it will make me laugh and think, and see myself, the way both Freaks and Geeks and This is 40 have done.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Review: Drinking with Men by Rosie Schaap

Drinking with Men: A MemoirDrinking with Men: A Memoir by Rosie Schaap
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've been a lover of bars for many years, so I went into this book suspecting I'd like it.  I bought it after hearing Rosie Schaap interviewed on NPR's Morning Edition, where she'd read a segment that hooked me.  Something in her tone sounded familiar, and I knew I had to read her memoir.

If you've ever been a regular at a bar -- and in my twenties and thirties I was -- you will recognize yourself in this book.  As it turned out, Rosie writes about a couple of places I frequented in New York, so that I found myself scanning my memory, wondering if I'd ever met her.  I was a regular at Puffy's Tavern, a TriBeCa bar that figures prominently in the book, where my fellow teachers and I wound down each Friday during "F Slot," as we called it.  (The final period of our school day was E Slot back then.)  This was in the mid-to-late 1990's, precisely when she drank there.  I recognized her descriptions of certain regulars, and half-expected her to describe the rowdy group of high school teachers from the alternative high school a few blocks away on Chambers Street.

She never did make that mention, but I wonder.  Surely we must have crossed paths -- if not at Puffy's, then perhaps at Milano's?  Or Tom and Jerry's?  Whether we ever did meet or not, after reading her book, I felt like we had.

View all my reviews

Monday, February 11, 2013

Diggin' It

When I was a child, I wanted to be a grave digger.  There.  You see your face?  You see your reaction?  I got that a lot when I would tell people that.  They would ask me the question:  "Danny?  What do you want to be when you grow up?"  And I would say, quite sincerely, "I want to be a grave digger."

You know, as I write the words down, I can see why people responded the way they did.  It's a pretty dark thing for a sweet little boy to say.  Kind of "Addams Family"-esque.  When most people think of grave diggers, they probably think of this guy:

"The Tall Man" from Phantasm, a movie that truly terrified my brother and me
So I can see why it may have creeped some of my parents' friends out when I shared my career aspirations with them.  But, by way of an explanation, I need to share what I was "into" at that time in my life.

I really dug digging.  I used to go out in my back yard and dig holes, just for the sake of digging them.  I wasn't looking for buried treasure.  (I did, however, find the occasional deer jaw, which was pretty cool.)  And I wasn't trying to get to China.  Archeology was a notion I enjoyed, but I wasn't that specific.  I simply liked the experience of making a hole in the ground where there had been no hole before.

I hadn't thought about my grave digger dreams at all, for maybe the last 40 years or more, until this past weekend, when I got out in the yard with my rake and my shovel in order to dig out an 8 x 8 foot patch of grass in preparation for our 4 x 4 raised bed garden we're constructing.  My yard, like many in this area, is populated by a strain of super grass called Bermuda grass.  It grows in a heavy, clay-like soil, and is not your run of the mill pretty sod grass.  You won't find Bermuda grass at any well-manicured baseball stadium or golf course, let me put it that way.  Digging in this stuff should be an Olympic sport.  Or, at the very least, an event in one of those "Tough Man" competitions -- the ones you see late at night on ESPN 2, with giant Lithuanian dudes going up against giant Swedish dudes, pulling trees out of the ground, or doing a 40-yard dash with a refrigerator over each shoulder.

This grass is No Joke.

As I dug out the plot for my vegetable bed, smelling the wormy soil, watching the grub worms roll into shrimp-like balls, and seeing spiders skittering for cover, that simple pleasure came rushing back to me, and I was in the back yard at 18 Hartford Lane once more.  I found myself smiling -- not so much at the nostalgic flashback, but at the simple joy of digging.  It still does it for me.  (The arthritic wrists and throbbing back are new, but hey, that's just part of the package.)

There is a derisive cliche in the world of education.  Some asshole, somewhere along the line, was quoted as saying, when faced with a student who just "didn't get it," "Hey, the world needs ditch diggers, too."  It's a quote I've always hated, but if and when they divide us up, one line for the intellectual phonies, and the other for the ditch diggers, you better believe I am going to reach for that shovel.

(Maybe I'd sneak a pencil into my pocket, too.  I might just want to write about those other assholes, after all....)

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Driving from the Back Seat

I'm in the back seat of my father's station wagon, drowsy and comfortable, after some family outing that has made for a full, exhausting day.  Like my brother, I'm lying on the floor back there.  This is in the days before the invention of the child car seat, when seat belts went across your lap only and were considered more or less an optional nuisance.

I drift off, lulled by the repetitive thunking of the uneven asphalt beneath me.  My thoughts melt into each other and make less and less sense, like sentences tumbling off a page, letter by letter, splashing into an unseen pool of water somewhere far below.

Suddenly, I'm sitting upright in the back seat, alone.  I look around for my brother, who is no longer back there with me.  The tires on the asphalt still pound out a steady rhythm, as I look to the front seat and see that my parents, too, are gone.  I reach over the seat, barely able to get the tips of my fingers on the steering wheel.  It's too dark to see what's going on with the pedals, and I can't understand how it is that I'm still moving forward in the night.  But I am.

Thunk, thunk, thunk.

Minimally, I maintain control of the car, and my sense of the road is vague, at best.  Some rumbling suggests I may be veering off to the left.  I know I should pull the steering wheel hard right, but something happens, and I am frozen.  Immediate action is required, but I am paralyzed.

If this dream has any resolution, any finish, I don't know what it is.  I believe it ends in that moment of fear and realization that I can't move.  Usually, when people talk about their recurring dreams, like the one about the math assignment that's due, I forget I have a recurring dream at all.  This one comes up irregularly, from time to time, and feels the same each time.  According to a website called, there is a simple explanation to my dream.

This particular expert tells "Restless Erica," the reader who shares my dream, the following:

Your dream describes an issue in your life circumstances. It suggests you are not in control of your life, that you have "taken a back seat" and allowed the control to be in someone else's hand. Your attempts to gain control or direct your life may feel scary and cause you to "stay in the back seat and duck". Your lack of destination may be causing you to struggle to regain control. 

Well, duh.

I suppose there might be some truth to this, even if it does feel a bit "clap-trap."  Maybe it is time to come up with a new, original plan of action for my family that is uniquely mine.  Texas was my wife's idea, but I've embraced it.  I went to Spain and loved it...because my girlfriend suggested it.  Syracuse University was a great experience, one my father had before me.  A case could certainly be made that I'm a bit of a Restless Erica myself.

I'll give that one some thought, as life continues to move forward on the uneven asphalt of time.  Truth be told, I'm not that concerned about it, and am quite content to lie down, my ear to the floorboards.

Thunk, thunk, thunk.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Just ASK Them

51 Chambers Street where Satellite Academy resided, on one dimly lit, dusty floor,  from the late 70s till 2000

“Slipping through the cracks” is a cliché; however I can tell you it is a very real phenomenon.  Kids do it every day, in hundreds, maybe thousands, of American high schools.   When I worked at a small public school in New York City, especially designed for those students, I knew first-hand of the many ways in which they had failed school, and school had failed them. they wove a common thread when they told of “feeling like a number” and not “being known” in their old schools.  Some kids told stories of being “internal cutters” in buildings so large they could be counted present at certain key moments of the day, then wander into less patrolled sections of the school and “chill” until it came time to leave each afternoon, successfully avoiding classes that bored or confounded them.

Of course back in those days, I was filled with self-satisfaction, knowing I was One of the Good Ones, helping youth find their way back to the educational path from which they had strayed.  I had the opportunity – the luxury, I realize now – to be encouraged by my school’s (and, at one time, my district's) leadership to be a leader myself, in inspiring my students using creative means.  We had approximately 200 students in our building, cared for and educated by around 20 adults.  I’d be lying if I suggested we were successful in guiding all of them, but we were good at helping a majority of them feel they had found a scholastic home – a place where they could be free to be vulnerable in that way that allows you to pick yourself up and try again. 

The school where I work is anything but small, as I have mentioned in a previous post.  In that same post, I meditate on the notion of bringing a “small school mentality” to a large campus.  I don’t know that I had a clear sense of what I meant when I wrote those words the first time, but I think I know now.

And here it is:

Just listen to them. 

It sounds absurdly like an oversimplification, and I know it probably is.  Don’t dismiss the idea, though.  What most of the people who graduated from the school where I taught in New York will tell you (and I hope they’ll read this and chime in) is that the first step comes when a student begins to seriously consider what is not working in their education.  Teachers are asked to reflect on student failure all the time, as they should be.  But rarely do we ask students to think, and talk, about what they believe has gone wrong. 

Here are some questions that a teacher might think about asking their students:

  • ·      Tell me about you and school.
  • ·      Tell me a about the last time you loved a class and why you think you did.
  • ·      Who was the best teacher you ever had and why?
  • ·      Who was the worst teacher you ever had and why?  (No names, please.)
  • ·      What do you think you need in order to be successful?

There are teachers who will read this and have a negative response, dismissing me as one of those liberals who enables children, rather than challenging them.  I’d argue that these questions are challenging ones – especially to ask sincerely and in a safe atmosphere that will ensure honest results.  Some will say, “Well, when I was a student no one asked me questions like these.  They just told you to do the work, and either you did it, or you didn’t.”

What I would encourage that teacher to understand is that the self-actualization they may have had as a teenager is rare.  Yes, many of our students are capable of pushing through whatever the assignment is, with a minimum of help.  However, there are others who bring with them through our school doors myriad shackles, accumulated over years of failure and/or being passed along. 

It’s difficult for you to know every one of your students well in a school where your individual student load approaches 200 – the TOTAL number of students we worked with in our small transfer high school in New York City.  I don’t deny that.   But the teachers I see thriving, coming to work with smiles on their faces, and leaving in the afternoon looking invigorated and not depleted, tend to be the ones that try.  Keep fighting the good fight.  And if you want to take a step in the right direction, stop that one kid who keeps on failing, seemingly without a care in the world, and ask him my first question. 

“Tell me about you and school.” 

You might be amazed at what you hear, and it might just energize you at the same time. 

But one thing is for sure:

You’ll never know if you don’t just ask.