Monday, December 24, 2007

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

googling myself

If there's one thing I know about you, it's this: You have, at some point in your life, sat down at the computer and typed your own name into a search engine. It's literally impossible to summon the will power not to find out where your name is popping up on the information superhighway (are people still using this term?). Well, I Googled myself first thing this morning, and I found out that there are a lot of Alex Bakers out there. I had to be very specific if I wanted to find anything about myself. Here's how my search went:

alex baker. I began with the most basic search. The first Alex Baker that Google located? The President and C.E.O. of AIG Shopping Center Properties, L.L.C. It occurs to me that this process could be damaging to my self-esteem. What if I'm the least successful Alex Baker I find? Hmmm.

"alex baker." Mr. Waters used to teach my class that quotation marks were their friends when it came to Internet searches, so I gave it a shot. Did you know that a guy named Alex Baker supplied the voice for Martin the Pirate in The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie? Check him out. Other Alex Baker acting credits: Band Manager in I'm in the Band, Ron in The Horrible Flowers, and Agent Pissed in Finding Neo (no, that's not a typo--IMDB calls it a "cross-concept of Finding Nemo and The Matrix"). So there you go.

"al baker." This took me to a blog, but not this one. Still, happy belated birthday to Al Baker's lovely wife Cindy.

"alexander richard baker." Is it possible that there is no reference to an Alexander Richard Baker on the Internet? It doesn't seem possible, but the first thing to pop up is some bill of which "Rodney Alexander, Richard Baker, and Charles Boustany" have become co-sponsors. There are only 54 results, and none of them refer to someone with my full name. Interesting. (And I'm using that term loosely.)

"alex baker," woodstock. Still not me. Some photographer on a web site where they post works of art and you're supposed to click "Digg it" if you dig it. He had zero diggs, so I tried, but you have to create an account, so I gave up. I tried though--I think the Alex Bakers of the world should stick together.

"alex baker," woodstock, illinois. Hey, hey! Here I am. And even my lovely wife will never guess where. She and I are quoted on the "Some Letters We Received" page of the Night Dancin' web site. To those of you who have somehow forgotten, Night Dancin' was the company that DJ'd our wedding. Check out Tom and Diane. Lookin' good, guys. We still appreciate the "personal attention you gave us throughout the planning process" and feel that it was "a pleasure working with you."

"alex baker," "big foot." A 2004 edition of the Big Foot High School newsletter telling people to contact me with questions about the play. I haven't done the play for three years, but at least the actual me is making some appearances on the list.

"alex baker," "ripon college." Did you know that as of May 6, 2002, I was among the Midwest Conference leaders in fewest hits allowed, fewest runs allowed, and fewest doubles allowed? It's true. And also not that surprising since I had probably pitched a total of 1 inning at that point. Interesting story, by the way: We were playing in Ft. Myers for Spring Break when I earned the first save of my college career. It was the bottom of the 8th, the bases were loaded, we had 2 outs, and Gordie gave me the call. I came in and threw a fastball off the outside corner for a ball, followed by another fastball for a called strike. The guy waved at the next two splitters, and I got the strikeout. So I sprint off the field and into the dugout, waiting for us to put up some runs in the top of the 9th, when I turn around and see the team huddled by the third-base line. Turns out that was the 9th inning, and the game was over. I had no idea. So when people tell me that they have a hard time paying attention to an entire baseball game, I forgive them.

"alex baker," "teacher man." Just curious. And yes, it takes you back here. The first entry to pop up? The "some cool links" entry I did a couple months ago. I wonder why that is. Who the heck knows? As I imagined that it might, this exercise has proven that the Internet is a mystery.

Later gators.

an open letter to the english teachers of america

First, I will share with you what bothered me in the first place: I'm teaching "The Red Wheelbarrow," by William Carlos Williams, in English 11: Literature. During my prep period yesterday, I was doing a Google search to see if there were any intelligent essays about the poem on the web. (If you're wondering, lots of essays, very few of them intelligent.) But I came across one in particular that made me want to punch out my computer screen. It's by a woman named Lezlie Laws Couch, and she begins by telling the story of how she met up with some ex-students who were complaining about poetry because they didn't like "counting beats," and who asked questions like, "Who could ever figure out what those poets were trying to say?" She goes on to say that she later looked back at the materials she had used for the class those students had taken with her and was "horrified" by what she found. After finding worksheets about meter, literary devices, etc., she claims that her "stomach was in knots."

Second, I will share with you the problem that Miss Couch illustrates: As I read publications like NEA Today and the WEAC newsletter, I find with increasing frequency articles that seem to have the same core thesis. Basically, students (and sometimes teachers) don't enjoy the nuts and bolts of reading and writing, so we should find ways to teach the latter while circumventing the former. No one wants to talk about which syllables are stressed or unstressed--we'd much rather discuss theme and imagery. No one wants to diagram sentences--we'll just teach all that mechanical stuff through their writing. Hogwash.

Third, I will share my opinion on this matter, which I hinted at with the final sentence (a fragment, for those of you who had Miss Couch for English) of the previous paragraph: You're an English teacher, for crying out loud. I have often observed that I would be a horrible football coach. I have a rudimentary knowledge of the game, and I've done enough coaching in my life that I could probably keep the players somewhat organized and focused. However, I'd call too many flea flickers. Seriously, I love those gadget plays. We'd be 4th and goal from the opponent's 1-yard line, and I'd call a triple-reverse halfback option pass. We wouldn't even have a punter because all we'd ever do is fake punts. Sometimes on third down. The Couch Approach to Language Arts is tantamount to the Baker Approach to Football. Sure there are fun things about English that the kids need to be exposed to--that, for the most part, is what got us into this field. But I think an English teacher ought to sort of love punctuation and rhyme and meter and everything else too. Almost to the degree that people think you're strange. Off the top of my head, I can think of six grammar/writing books I've purchased in the last four or five years and read for pleasure. This is not to say that I am the standard by which English teachers should be measured. (It's also not to say that I'm not--I'll leave that up to you.) It is to say that I'm tired of people thinking that we (teachers) need to cater to them (students) in our classrooms!

So to the English teachers of America, keep on diagramming those sentences! Don't let your students talk you out of a lecture on the finer points of the semicolon! And for Pete's sake, don't stop banging out that iambic tetrameter on your desk while those ungrateful miscreants half-heartedly recite "Because I could not stop for Death"! You're fighting the good fight!

Later gators.

Monday, December 17, 2007

what would charlie do?

Having finished our church Christmas pageant yesterday (an unabashed success, by the way), I feel like it's my responsibility to tell you that all of the Christmas pageants you did when you were a kid were full of lies. Sorry if I just totally altered the way you perceive your childhood, but it's the truth. Remember how Mary and Joseph would sit up in front with the little doll that was supposed to be Jesus, then the three guys who could sort of sing would walk to the front to the tune of "We Three Kings"? Well, it turns out that that's not the way it went down. It seems that those three wisemen actually didn't show up until Jesus was almost two years old! Am I the only one that didn't know this? Sara says that Stacy's Bible study group or something had this conversation, and a quick Google search confirms that while the wisemen were taking their sweet time to bring gifts to the son of God, he was becoming a toddler. In fact, a guy named Phil Greetham has a web site on which he scoffs at those who would believe that they showed up "5 minutes after the shepherds left!" Well, soooooooooorry Phil. I guess I just had too much faith in my Sunday School teachers.

What other lies did Mrs. Meredith and Mrs. Kyle tell me? Noah's ark? Adam and Eve? David and Goliath? It makes you wonder how many atheists out there made that decision because they found this out before I did.

Anyway, it occurs to me that if Jesus was roughly two--apparently that's the guess because after the wisemen talked to Herod, he had all boys under two killed--that would mean that he was about my son's age. Now, are we to believe that Jesus was somehow different because of all of the external factors involved in his birth, or was he a pretty typical 2-year-old? Because if he was anything like Charlie, I have a lot of questions:

Did Mary get pissed because the wisemen woke Jesus up from His nap when they banged on the door?

Did He run around yelling "NOT! NOT!" when Mary and Joseph tried to introduce Him to the wisemen?

Did He dump out the gold and just play with the box it came in?

How much of the myrrh did He eat before Joseph realized what He was doing? Or did Mary see it while Joseph was supposed to be watching Him and they got into a big fight?

Was it awkward for Mary and Joseph when He threw the frankincense and went to play with His Snoopy doll instead?

And the thing is, we'll never know. I suppose I could ask our minister, but I'm not really sure how much I trust him anymore.

Later gators.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

top 10 books

Has it really been over a week since my last post? I apologize. I am not reflecting the responsibility and diligence that one would typically associate with bloggers. I'll be better.

Time for another Top 10 list, I believe, and this time I'm going with books. Now, you would think that this would be a really hard list to come up with, but it really wasn't as hard as I thought it would be. That might be partly because the list I have to draw from isn't nearly as impressive as I thought it was before Monday night, when I brought home an AP test prep book and Sara and I went through the list of suggested books to see how many we'd read. Out of 50 books, I'd devoured 19, which seemed respectable. My wife, however, had read 18 of those 19 plus 20 others. 38 out of 50! That's ridiculous. (I'm trying to make a big deal out of M. Butterfly because that was the only one I'd read that she hadn't. Greatest book of all-time. Can't believe she hasn't read it. Guess she's not so smart.) Anyway, I came up with a list of books I liked, but the top 8 or so were obvious. My basic criterion was this: If someone I knew were going to die in a week and asked what one book he or she should read with the time he or she had left, what would I choose? The answers follow in my list of the Top 10 Books of All-Time:

10. Staggerford, by Jon Hassler. Hassler's pretty awesome--reminds me a lot of Richard Russo, who you'll find later in the list. This is the story of a week in the life of Miles Pruitt, a high school English teacher in Minnesota. (Hassler is, incidentally, an English professor at St. John's in Collegeville, MN.) It's a really spot-on look at what it's like to teach high school. For an example, read the first chapter, in which Hassler kind of lays out Miles's day based on the kinds of classes he has. Every teacher I know that's read this book says, "I've absolutely had that class" about every class he describes. It's Hassler's first novel, which makes it that much more impressive.

9. Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, by Chuck Klosterman. A couple of books are going to show up on this list that aren't likely to show up on anyone else's list of the "greatest books of all-time," but I don't care. If you want Ulysses, read I prefer this. I'm quite sure that James Joyce never wrote an essay about Saved By The Bell, or The Real World, or a GNR cover band, or anything nearly as cool as the stuff Klosterman covers in the 18 essays that comprise this book. It's funny, smart, unique, and thought-provoking. He also talks a lot about pornography and drugs, so my students like it. Whatever.

8. Freakonomics, by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. If you would have told me 10 years ago that my 8th favorite book was going to be written by some economist, I would have punched you in the gut. However, it seems that that would have been a mistake because it turns out to be true. But Levitt and Dubner don't explore interest rates and all of that nonsense. They look at more interesting real-world issues like whether the name you give your kid really matters and why violent crime rates in New York dropped so significantly in the 90's. This is the book that turned me on to all of the other economics-type books that I've fallen in love with--Blink, The Tipping Point, etc.--so it gets a place on the list.

7. How To Be Good, by Nick Hornby. Like John Hassler, Nick Hornby is awesome. Like Chuck Klosterman, he's both funny and smart. He's written books that have turned into blockbusters--About A Boy, Fever Pitch, etc.--but I prefer this one to all of those. (Full disclosure: I've only read two others. I bet I wouldn't like anything else as much, though. Probably.) Anyway, How To Be Good is the story of a woman who is in a bad marriage and wants out. She's a doctor, and her husband is the author of a newspaper column called "The Angriest Man in Holloway," so clearly she is the "good" one, and he is the "bad" one. But then he goes through this spiritual transformation and decides to start being really good--like giving away their stuff and inviting homeless kids in to live with them. So now she still wants to leave because he's unbearable, but she's less confident that she should because she might not be the "good" one anymore. The end bugs me a little, but overall, great story.

6. To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. Since everyone knows the story of TKAM because it's so awesome, a question: How amazing/ridiculous/baffling/etc. is it that this is Harper Lee's only book? I mean, what possible reason could someone with this kind of talent have for not writing more? She seems fairly normal, as far as writers go. She hung out with Truman Capote and helped him with his research for In Cold Blood, and she apparently became friends with Gregory Peck after he played Atticus Finch in the movie version (about which she seems to have nothing but good things to say). I guess maybe she's so normal because she didn't write more. All the prolific ones become alcoholics or druggies and die young. Maybe a good decision.

5. On Writing, by Stephen King. Seriously, I enjoy Strunk & White's The Elements of Style and an assortment of other books about grammar and usage and all of the other stuff that bores most people, but this is not one of those books. This is as fun to read as most of King's fiction. And if you want a real treat, get the audio version and listen to him read it. It's awesome. He's funny, he tells great stories (like when he got the idea to write Carrie), and you might learn something too. But you don't have to if you don't want to.

4. The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. This should probably be higher because it's probably the most perfect book ever written. The only problem is the old Dying Friend Test because I would want that book to be sort of funny, or at least witty, and I'm not sure Gatsby is. However, it's awesome, and Jeff Brower helped me realize why. Now, Jeff hates it, but when I asked him about it the other day, he confessed that he was still impressed by it: "I'm impressed by anyone who can write so easily." That's it, isn't it? Fitzgerald just writes so easily. And even if it wasn't literally easy, which it almost certainly wasn't, it seems easy, and that's basically the same thing as far as the reader is concerned. Anyway, here's to Gatsby.

3. Straight Man, by Richard Russo. In the first scene, Hank Devereaux's nose is huge and purple after getting stuck with the loose wire of a notebook. And then it gets better. Hank is a middle-aged English professor at a small college in Pennsylvania who is struggling with all of the stuff that guys like that struggle with: his health, tenure, his marriage, his students, etc. His story includes things like donkey basketball, a Groucho Marx-bespectacled goose, a guy nicknamed Orshee after the way he alway corrects the automatic use of the male pronoun...At one point, Hank tells a creative writing student: "Always understate necrophilia." These are a few--but not all--of the reasons this book is great. I cannot imagine someone not loving it. I really can't.

2. The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger. In King Dork, Frank Portman says of TCITR: "It's kind of like a cult. [Teachers] live for making you read it. When you do read it you can feel them all standing behind you in a semicircle wearing black robes with hoods, holding candles. They're chanting, 'Holden, Holden, Holden...' And they're looking over your shoulder with these expectant smiles, wishing they were the ones discovering the earth-shattering joys of The Catcher in the Rye for the very first time." This is supposed to be tongue-in-cheek, but it's absolutely true. I was a late-bloomer as far as bibliophilia goes (senior year--AP English), and this is the first book I ever read that I wanted to re-read right away. It was my favorite for a long time. Then I read...

1. Catch-22, by Joseph Heller. The best. My dad told me once that "the first half of Catch-22 is the funniest book I've ever read." Yup. And Jeff Brower once told me, "'The Eternal City' is my favorite chapter of any book I've ever read." Yup. There is no superlative too super for this book. As Dwight Schrute might say, it hits everything on my checklist: funny, tragic, great use of language, colorful characters, gripping plotline, terrific surprise ending. If I had a friend that was going to die in a week, I'd send his family out of the room and leave him with a copy of Catch-22. And I think he'd thank me.

Later (but not too much later) gators.

Monday, December 3, 2007

the reality of the situation

In one of my recent posts, I made the comment that "I hate reality TV." This is absolutely true. I was mildly intrigued by the first season or two of American Idol, I was highly engaged in the first season of The Apprentice, and I like the Food Network, although I don't really think that's "reality programming" in the way that we typically use that term. But I also realize that I may become something of a dinosaur if I continue to rage against the machine that is reality TV, similar to the teachers here at BFHS that are convinced that "computers are just making life more complicated." (And if the writers' strike continues, we might not have many alternatives.)

So in the if-you-can't-beat-'em-join-'em spirit, I have 3 ideas for reality television shows that are better than anything out there right now. Tell me you wouldn't watch these:

Name That Tune 2007. We probably couldn't get it off the ground in the next four weeks, so it might have to become Name That Tune 2008, but let's get some music geek--why not Chuck Klosterman?--to host. There will be a house band (or possibly a different semi-famous band every week) that would be prepared for songs in any number of categories: '80s hair bands, Seattle Grunge, Garth Brooks, '90s rap, etc. In the first round, contestants would choose categories and try to be the first to buzz in and identify the song. The second round is played by each contestant separately. While the other is in a sound-proof booth, the player does a "lightning round," in which he/she tries to name as many clips as possible in 60 seconds. The final round is a face-to-face "I can name that tune in 5 notes" situation. Am I right or am I right?

The Decathlon. I think we have to have celebrity contestants for this one. We have 2-4 contestants each week, and they compete in 10 of the following events: tic-tac-toe, rock-paper-scissors, war, dodgeball, 4-square, Tetris, hangman, 500, paintball, HORSE, checkers, 3-card Monte, ping-pong, foosball, air hockey, Guitar Hero, miniature golf, tug of war, etc. If Extreme Makeover: Home Edition can draw 10 million viewers, how many people would tune in to see Pauly Shore, David Spade, Flava Flav, and Adrianne Curry playing 4-square? Hard to even speculate.

The 1st-Year Teacher. Do you know how many teachers there are in the United States? 6.8 million. And even if they quit after a year or two, do you know what they all have/had in common? They had a first year. And do you know what else? It mostly sucked. I am promising you that those people would watch a show that followed a young, attractive, interesting first-year teacher in a school that was likely to create some conflict and interesting storylines. You'd have to pick the right situation, but I know that this could work. I know it, I know it, I know it.

Here's the litmus test: Pick what you believe to be the worst idea listed above. Okay, now pick the 5 best reality shows on television right now. Wouldn't my idea make the list? Thought so.

Later gators.