Thursday, December 22, 2011

A Remarkable Bug

I’m sitting in the hot tub when I see the mosquito. Course, I don’t know it’s a mosquito, not yet. Just a Bug, capitalized, because unless you’re a farmer or one of those starving kids in Africa, a Bug, even one of the good ones, is always capitalized. You can’t ignore a Bug.

You really can’t ignore it when the damn thing insists on dancing in the air a foot above the water, right about where your feet are. I kick, thinking the hot water might scare it off, maybe even burn it if Bugs burn like that. And besides, I can’t do much else. My hands are busy holding the Kindle, because I can’t just soak in the tub, stare at the walls, close my eyes, relax. Blame the culture or whatever, but I’ve got to be Doing Something.

I hid it, too. Had to walk past Gwen on the way out here, her on the couch, me burying the Kindle in the folds of a bathroom towel because I’ve finally given up the paperback I’ve been slogging my way through, fifteen minutes a pop.

“You taking that in the hot tub?” she’d say if she saw, all accusation, all that’s-a-stupid-thing-to-do, all knowing-more-about-it-than-I-do, like how even if I don’t drop it, which I probably will, the moisture will worm its way into the thing’s innards and corrode the motherboard or whatever makes it work. “Seems like a big risk.” Gwen with that look.

I can see how it’ll happen, me with my tasty winter skin showing. I can see it clearly: The Bug making its move, probably coming in from a blind spot, humming in my ear like these goddam mosquitoes—because I’ve convinced myself that’s what it is—do. And me reacting: flaring up a hand to swat at it, the two of us, man versus mosquito, engaged in the ancient battle, only this time with a Kindle in my hand that will surely fall all the way to the bottom of the hot tub and be ruined forever, and my wife, even though she never saw it (She didn’t, did she?), will win the argument without saying a word, which is the worst way to lose one.

Where did it go, anyway?

Not flitting around over the water anymore. Maybe I scared it off with the splashing. I came out here to read…

But it could be on my shoulder, its light touch masked by the rivulets of water, slurping out an evening snack. Better check.


And just what is a mosquito doing out here anyway? It’s February, 23 degrees in this screened-in room, and cold for months now. Shouldn’t all the mosquitoes be dead? Don’t Bugs need warm weather? Don’t they only live for a few days in the first place? What’s it been feeding on? Not even the cat comes out in the winter.

No, it can’t be a mosquito. Something else then, some winter bug. They must exist.

Ah, there it is, on the bottom step that leads to the tub, not four feet away. It’s a big thing, stilts for legs, a little pale itself, and slow, like it used all its energy with its brief fly-by and now it’s gathering strength for the next lift off. Tiptoeing on those six spindles, moving closer, inch by inch.

Probably hasn’t fed in a long time. Probably smells my blood pumping under all this flabby skin and over-chlorinated water. And why not? If I were starving, wouldn’t I detect the aroma of a freshly grilled hamburger, even while standing on a mountain of trash?

The Bug shouldn’t be here. Improbable at the very least, impossible more likely. Which is why I can’t get back to reading. Definitely a mosquito. A survivor. Just two feet away and probably starving, has to be near death, while I’m sitting in a hot tub that I climbed into as soon as I took off my sweatshirt, on the off chance that the neighbors might be looking.

And now I can’t even read the Kindle I risked so much to bring out here.

Quite a mosquito, when you think about it. Remarkable, really. Defying the laws of nature and all that other stuff people say about things they don’t understand.

So I hang my arm over the side, drape it there, the beaded water on the fiberglass cold where it’s been exposed to the air. That same air this Bug has somehow survived.

Go ahead, fella, have a taste. Just this once. You deserve it. We’ll resume our war in the summer, the season for battles. We’ll continue when you make sense.

I wait, the Kindle held above the water in my other hand.

And wait some more, but it makes no move, so I lean closer, putting my hand down right next to it. But instead of diving in, instead of plunging that needle, instead of feeding, it takes off, winging up into the rafters.

It’s hard to read when your mind’s on other things, so I turn the Kindle off, and climb out of the tub. I stand there in my dripping shorts, bare skin gleaming and available, plenty to go around, giving the Bug, capitalized, one more chance that it doesn’t take.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Yes, Mom, I Have Been Writing

Okay, so not writing novels or short stories or things that will further the likelihood of getting published, but I HAVE been writing. And I'm sure you want to read it. Why else would you be hanging out here other than to read my inspirational words. So, here's what I've been doing:

1. I started a new blog, but it's all secretive because it's about WORK. Well, it's really more about EDUCATION. It's a blog where I talk about all the stupid things the state of Michigan is doing to education and how most of them will lead to, if not outright failure, a host of unintended consequences, some of which aren't that terrible (maybe even needed), but most of which will do nothing to improve education. It's political and opinionated and maybe even controversial, which means I have to keep my identity a secret. The problem is it's hard to get readers when you're a secret.

2. I've been writing things for the junk I'm selling on ebay. It struck me soon after I started my buying binge of Harry Potter action figures that the descriptions people right are dead boring. So I try to make mine not. Here are a few for items I have listed. Read them. Then, go buy my stuff.

You are bidding on an awesome Nutcracker Ornament, perfect for hanging in a prominent position on your Christmas tree or displaying on a shelf with other Nutcrackers where he will probably frighten the others because this Nutcracker is fierce. In fact, I have had to store him in his original box for 50 weeks of the year because if he's not hanging from the tree he rampages throughout the house, terrifying my cat, Captain Crunch, raiding the pantry for bags of Funyans, and howling at passersby. Curiously, he has never cracked a single nut. Be warned, therefore, that should you win this bad-ass you will have to keep him locked away in his box or displayed somewhere high, as he is scared of heights. Good luck, I think.


Love S'mores but hate breathing in the noxious fumes of a bonfire? Or perhaps you love S'mores and bonfires but don't like people and would rather just eat your S'more in peace and quiet from the comfort of your own basement couch while playing World of Warcraft on your bad-ass computer. Or maybe you suck at starting fires, like my Uncle Glen, and don't want to go through all that rigmarole and embarrassment just for a delicious treat. Whatever the reason, we all sometimes just want to be able to make a S'more in a microwave and NOW YOU CAN!

This Micro S'mores S'more-maker comes new in the box. It has literally NEVER BEEN OPENED or used in anyway whatsoever. For example, I did not take the S'more maker out and dance with it or sing it songs or pet it lovingly. Really, I didn't do those things. Box comes with a "As Seen on TV" logo for those who like that sort of thing. Also comes with a recipe book for those morons who don't know how to make a friggin' S'more.

You are bidding on a Wells Fargo & Co. Express sign. This is a reproduction made by Ande Rooney, who is not that annoying old dude on 60 Minutes who's always whining about magazine inserts or the price of women's stockings or whatever. This sign is metal with porcelain enamel to make it look extra awesome. Yeah, there are real signs out there that you can spend too much money on (one looking just like this one recently sold for $72 bucks on ebay) and then your wife would be all this and that, or you can buy this sign, tell people it's the real thing, and have a better marriage and a few extra dollars. You choose.

This is perfect for the father who wants to add a little verisimilitude to his son's train set. Hell, you could probably even tell the little tyke that it's the real thing, straight out of whatever station at the turn of the century or whenever Wells Fargo was a big deal.

You are bidding on an Iroquois Beer and Ale reproduced sign by Ande Rooney. The sign is good quality and in very good condition. It's metal with porcelain enamel. I've never had an Iroquois Beer but I bet it's awesome. After all, it's named after the most bad-ass Indians to ever live. The Iroquois took no shit.

And neither should you. That's why you should buy this sign and display it boldly right on the front of your house to let people know you mean business, man. Let's face it, it takes a special kind of person in these pansy-assed politically correct times to display a sign that uses the likeness of an American Indian to sell beer. The value of this sign is probably priceless because there's no way in hell a beer company is ever going to get away with this again. Their lawyers wouldn't even let them bring up the idea in a marketing brainstorming session.

Be a rebel. Buy a sign with an Indian selling beer on it. And when you hang it on your porch, go stand in the road, admire it and the balls you had to display it, and, with your arm raised high in defiance of our grovelling culture, do the Tomahawk Chop. For just a second, you may feel like you're back in the America you grew up in--the racist, exploitative one where Indians could be used to sell just about anything.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

What I Am Not Looking for in an Agent

Since agents are always hopping on the social networks and telling writers what not to do (follow the guidelines, even if they are ridiculous; don't start your query with a rhetorical question; remember that a no from one is a no from all), I thought I'd get on here and tell my two readers what turns me off as a writer searching for an agent.

I've started my research with Agent Query, and have quickly realized there are some things an agent can list on their short bios that immediately make me scratch them off the list.

  • "Does not accept email queries"--This is like agents in the 1960s saying they'll only accept telegrams. The only reason I see to do this is to turn querying writers away, and if you're doing that, then I doubt you'll have much time for me anyway.
  • "Special interest in multi-cultural stories"---Ack! Look, I have nothing against characters of color, but a great story is a great story. If you're going to turn down the next Harry Potter because the kids are all white, then I have to question your judgment. Also, this kind of statement says a lot about an agent. To me, it says they're more interested in being an agent for social change than they are an agent who wants to sell a lot of books. But you can't really do the former without first doing the latter.
  • The agent who represents every genre under the sun---I think I read a lot. And I haven't come close to reading enough in a whole lot of genres to think I could ably guide someone in one of those genres. I want a little more specialization in my agent.
  • "Does not accept unsolicited submissions"--In other words, "I got more than enough on my plate already." In that case, I would assume you're somewhat successful and can afford an intern.
  • Overly picky agents--Yeah, I'm contradicting myself slightly, but while agents shouldn't represent EVERYTHING, they also shouldn't be so narrow-minded that they shut out what might be a great opportunity. One agent said, "No stories about talking animals." I don't blame her in a way, because a lot of people just starting out writing kids' books probably write what they think are cute stories about animals learning a lesson. On the other hand, this agent would have missed out on The Tale of Despereaux and Charlotte's Web.
  • And lastly, dear agents, it really isn't necessary to say you're attracted to "beautiful writing and compelling characters." You don't need to say you want stories that "keep you up all night turning pages." Most writers do not need to be told that agents want "memorable characters" and "a strong voice." We're reading your bios to find out whether you'd be a good match, so tell us something helpful, not something obvious. And in the tradition of social networking agents everywhere let me just say that this last one isn't an automatic no.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Plot Problems in Barbie in a Mermaid Tale

Little One loves mermaids and Barbie right now, so this is the kind of stuff she wants to read at bedtime. The Wife doesn't like it when I point out plot problems in front of her, so you're stuck with it. Lucky you.

I'll limit myself to the first few pages so as to avoid Random House's wrath. My comments are in blue:

Merliah Summers smiled as she rode the waves. Ever since she was a little girl, Merliah had been able to swim like a fish. Now she was one of the best surfers in Malibu. As Merliah surfed, she thought everything was perfect--until she noticed her hair. It was turning bright pink!

What the hell is she doing looking at her hair while she's surfing? Is this the secret to becoming "one of the best surfers in Malibu?" And wouldn't pink hair make things even more perfect?

Shocked and embarrassed, Merliah wiped out and dove below the waves. I'm guessing she wiped out because she was staring at her hair instead of the waves or the board or the horizon or whatever it is surfers look at, not because she was embarrassed. When I'm embarrassed, I don't lose my balance. To her amazement, she found that she could breathe underwater! Even more amazing than pink hair? And wouldn't the gills be embarrassing?

"Merliah?" someone said. A sparkly pink dolphin was talking to her! "My name is Zuma. I am a friend of your mother, Calissa. She is the mermaid queen of Oceana--but she needs your help!"

You'd think the queen of Oceana would have a better way of getting in touch with her daughter than turning her hair pink so that she would fall into the ocean and meet up with a pink dolphin. And what, the queen too busy to come see the daughter she abandoned in Malibu herself? Mom of the Year.

Merliah couldn't believe that her mother was a magical mermaid--and that she was half mermaid herself! I admit, such news would be surprising. Although, considering the drastic change in appearance and the ability to breathe underwater, she couldn't have been that surprised. And speaking of which, if Merliah is half mermaid, shouldn't she have always been able to breathe underwater? Given her status as one of the "best surfers in Malibu," how has she never noticed this before? Are we to believe she's never been submerged in water, despite being able to "swim like a fish" ever since she was a little girl?

Merliah learned that when she was a baby, her mother's wicked sister, Eris, had taken over Oceana. Wouldn't that make Eris the queen of Oceana then? The fortune-telling Destinies had foretold that Merliah would one day defeat Eris. So to protect her baby daughter, Calissa had sent Merliah to live with her human grandfather in Malibu.

And now she's leaving her in the flippers of a
pink dolphin? No wonder she lost the throne. I might argue that Oceana is better off with Eris calling the shots. Unless the pink dolphin has supernatural powers...Wait a minute...the dolphin is don't think?...

Vampire dolphin. Nevermind. I take back every criticism.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Reminding the Reader--a Technique

Note: I've got a story up on The Alchemy of Writing today (Thanks, Bryan).You should read it, find something to criticize, comment, and then I'll vigorously defend whatever you criticize and we can turn it into an all-out flame war. It'll be fun.

And now a writerly post:

I've been working by way through Harlan Coben's Myron Bolitar books and just finished Promise Me. He uses an interesting technique at one point in the book that I don't remember seeing before. His main character, Myron, is listening to a voicemail. The voicemail refers to an event that happened earlier in the book, early enough that the reader has most likely forgotten about it (as I had). So Coben needs to remind the reader what's going on. Here's how he does it:

Myron got into his car and checked his cell phone. One new message. He listened to it.

"Myron? Gail Berruti here. That call you asked about, the one that came to the residence of Erik Biel." There was a noise behind her. "What? Damn, hold on a second."

Myron did. This was the call Claire had received from the robotic voice telling her that Aimee "is fine." A few seconds later, Berruti was back.

"Sorry about that. Where was I? Right, okay, here it is. The call was placed from a pay phone in New York City..."

Clever, huh? Not only does the distraction allow Coben to slip in the reminder, but it also strikes me as real. I've been disrupted while leaving a message quite a few times. The downside? I couldn't help wonder whether or not the distraction was important to the story. Was Berruti in some kind of danger? It took a few more sentences for me to realize that Coben only used it so he could slip in the reminder.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Here's a Poem About Wine

It's awesome. Enjoy:

Here's more:

Monday, June 13, 2011

Writing for the "Right" Age

A few days ago Corey wrote about an exercise she was asked to do at the 2009 Rutgers conference. The panel leader asked the attendees to write their names and what age they felt inside. The point was that whatever age you feel inside should be the age you write for. It's cute and a little clever and maybe even somewhat useful, but I think mostly it's nonsense.

As writers, we traffic in the truth and this exercise strikes me as being largely untruthful.

Because the truth is, none of us feel the same age inside all the time. Or even most of the time. In two weeks, when I get together with some of my college buddies, I will feel (and probably behave) like a twenty-one year old, complete with lewd remarks I'd never make in the presence of my wife and more adult beverage consumption than I'll engage in the rest of the year.

Yesterday, when I tried to run three miles and gave up because my legs got sore around the 1.5 mile mark, I felt more like a forty-five-year old.

When I got on a bike last week for the first time since probably middle school I felt a lot like I felt when I was first learning to ride--nervous, cautious, embarrassed, and awkward. (And my butt hurt as if it had the padding of a person much younger as well)

When I learned my mom got cancer and then when she had open heart surgery I wrestled with the fears of a six-year-old.

On snow days I feel eleven.

And when I walk into a high school gym, memories of my own basketball playing days wash over me and I feel, if only for a fleeting moment, like I am seventeen again.

I think the better advice is this: for whatever age you are writing, you ought to be able to take yourself back in time and remember what it was like to be six, or eleven, or seventeen, or forty-five. And if you need to play a certain song, or recall a certain memory, or visit a certain place in order to do that, then go right ahead. It shouldn't be too hard. In fact, it's probably the most natural thing in the world.

Monday, June 6, 2011

The Baker's Assistant, A Short Story for Kids

The line outside the bakery was twenty people long and the bakery hadn't even opened. Inside, Chef Sprocket, the baker, opened a cupboard to take down his ingredients. He snatched the bag of sugar. He pulled down the cinnamon. He grabbed the chocolate chips. But when Chef Sprocket went to hoist the huge sack of flour from the shelf, there was was no sack of flour to hoist.

"VHAIR IS ME FLOUR?" he hollered.

Sven, the chef's assistant, ran into the kitchen. "What is the problem, Master Sprocket?"


Sven glanced out the window at the growing throng. How would they ever serve all those people if they didn't have flour? "I will go get some," he told the baker, and he rushed out the back door. He jumped on his bike and rode to the supermarket. But when he got inside he was dismayed to see that they too were out of flour. "How can this be?" Sven asked, but there was no time to waste complaining to the manager. He got back on his bike.

Sven could think of only one other place where he could get flour--McCready's Bakery, Chef Sprocket's only competition in the pastry field. Sven swallowed. McCready was a hard man who made his desire to crush Chef Sprocket no secret. Still, what choice did Sven have?

McCready's was already open and busy by the time he got there. The smell of donuts, biscuits, and cakes filled his nose. In his haste, Sven had forgotten to eat breakfast. He was very hungry. And if he bought some pastries, perhaps McCready would be more willing to help.

"I'll have a raspberry filled donut and a buttermilk biscuit," he told the clerk. He ate the donut while he waited for Chef McCready. The biscuit he put in his pocket for later.

"What do you want?" McCready snapped when he saw Sven. The pastry chef was a tall, thin man with an oily mustache. He wore a pillowy white hat on his head.

Sven said, "Um...uh...see..." And then, in an unbroken string of words, "We've-run-out-of-flour-at-Sprocket's-and-the-supermarket-has-run-out-and-so-I'd-like-to-buy-some-off-you."

McCready smiled. "Why should I sell you my flour? I need it for my own pastries."

"But surely you have some to spare."

McCready's smile grew brighter. "Surely," he said. Then, "The answer is no. Now get out of my bakery."

Sven thought he might cry. He imagined what Chef Sprocket would say when he returned with no flour. He'd probably get fired.

Because tears had puddled in his eyes, he almost missed the sign by the driveway. "The Gilberts" was written in script on a wooden arrow that pointed toward a small house. The name sounded familiar...

The Gilberts! Of course! As in Helen Gilbert. Sven had seen her picture in the newspaper just last week. She'd won the annual pie baking contest at the county fair. He remembered because Chef Sprocket had seen him reading the article and shouted, "PUT ZAT DOWN! ZROW IT AVAY! IZ MY RECIPE. ZAT VOMAN STOLE IT!"

Any lady who had won the fair's pie baking contest would have to have flour in her kitchen. Sven leaned his bike against a telephone poll and approached the house. He pressed the doorbell. No one came. He rang again, but still, no one answered.

He was about to leave when he had an idea--a bad idea. He could break in. It wouldn't really be stealing. He'd take the flour and then come back in a few days and explain the whole thing. He'd give her twice what he took.

Sven tried the doorknob. Locked. But at the bottom of the door there was a square, leather flap. A doggie door. Sven was a tiny man. He got on his knees and stuck his head through. The coast was clear. He crawled inside. The house was quiet. Maybe Mrs. Gilbert had taken her dog to the vet. If that was the case, he'd better hurry.

Sven threw open the cupboard doors and immediately spotted a bag of flour. But as he reached for it, his hand froze in mid-air at the sound behind him.


Sven turned slowly. A vicious looking Rottweiler was glaring at him.

"Good doggie," Sven said. "Good doggie."

GRRRRRRRRRR. Drool dripped from the dog's muzzle.

Sven looked for a place to run or hide or something to hit the dog over the head with. He found nothing. The dog attacked. Sven through up his arm to protect himself, but the dog bit him in the pocket.

He had forgotten about the biscuit. Quickly, Sven pulled the biscuit out and threw it down a hallway. The dog scampered off. When it did, Sven bolted for the door.

It was hopeless. He'd been gone at least an hour. Dejected, he rode back to Sprocket's. Sven was so upset when he got there that he didn't notice the line had disappeared. He walked into a bakery that was buzzing with happy people eating pastries.

"VHAIR YOU ARE! bellowed Chef Sprocket.

"What has happened?" asked a very confused Sven.

"I forget. I order more flour yesterday. The truck vhas late." The Chef shook his head. So did Sven. "Here,"Chef Sprocket said, "Have a biscuit."

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Jerry and His Smelly Donkey, a Short Story for Kids

Jerry owned a donkey, and every couple of weeks, after he'd grown bored of a place, he would strap his bundle of stuff to the back of his donkey and head out for the open road.

"Move faster, donkey!" Jerry would yell.

"You're so lazy!" Jerry would shout.

"And you smell like rotten pickles!"

Jerry was tired of his donkey. He thought he might finally be ready to settle down, get a job, and buy a house. And if you own a house, you don't really need a donkey.

Forest Springs seemed like a nice place to live. The trees had leaves. People obeyed traffic laws. Children rode bikes. One child zipped past Jerry and his donkey. "Peeuuwww! That is one stinky mule!" he said. So maybe the schools weren't the greatest.

There was a man selling peanuts at the side of the road. "Would you like to buy my donkey?" Jerry asked him when the man had finished shouting about how his peanuts were "fresh-roasted."

The peanut vendor looked at the donkey. He wrinkled his nose. "I don't want your donkey, man. That thing smells like sweaty socks."

Jerry tried to sell his donkey to six other people, but none of them wanted it either. He came up with a new plan. Instead of selling the donkey, he would just give it away. Who wouldn't want a free donkey? He chuckled at his own cleverness. "Pretty soon," Jerry said, "I'll be rid of you, my slow, malodorous friend."

It wasn't long before he came upon a beggar huddled under a blanket in a dirty alley. "Can you spare some change, brother?" the beggar said.

"No, I cannot," Jerry answered. "I don't have two pennies to rub together, but I can give you this donkey."

The beggar scowled. "That old thing? It smells like my armpits. It's bad enough I got to live with my stinky armpits, I don't need no smelly donkey to add to it."

Jerry tried to give his donkey away to a little girl, a lonely widow, and the zoo, but none of them wanted the animal. "You see how worthless you are, donkey? Not even a lonely old woman wants you. I ought to leave you right here at the side of the road."

That was it! He didn't need to sell the donkey or give it away, he could just abandon it! Jerry climbed off the smelly donkey and grabbed his bundle of belongings. "See you later, donkey," he said, and then added, "Actually, that's not true. I plan on never seeing, or smelling, you again." As Jerry strolled off toward the center of town, the donkey stood there stupidly, not knowing what to do.

Jerry soon found what he was looking for, a person who needed a roommate. He moved in to a tiny apartment on Main Street. But Jerry was so used to the open air that he felt cramped in the small space. The apartment was tiny and his roommate was a slob.

"Pick up your stuff, you slob!" Jerry scolded the man. "What do you need so much stuff for anyway?" They had a fight and Jerry's new roommate threw him out.

"And take your stupid bundle with you!" he said.

Jerry tried other places, but no one wanted him. Some people said he smelled a little like a donkey. He decided to go back to his old life. He slung his bundle of stuff over his shoulder and started walking. It was a long way to the next town.

The night was growing dark and his legs were sore, so he stopped to sit at the side of the dusty road. And as he did he smelled something on the wind. It smelled a little like rotten pickles. The scent reminded him of sweaty socks. It was redolent of the armpits of a homeless beggar. It smelled like Jerry's donkey, and it smelled wonderful.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

On Tenure, LIFO, and Paying for Years of Service

WARNING: Serious teacher post ahead.

There's been a lot of talk lately about reforming (or even getting rid of) tenure in the public school system. Critics say it makes it virtually impossible for districts to fire bad teachers. Another argument is that it grants teachers more job protection than anyone else in our economy. Less talked about are the related issues of LIFO* (last in, first out) and basing teachers' salaries on their years of service. In Michigan, and in many other places across the nation, all of these under attack.

I'm not going to trot out all the usual defenses of these practices. What I will do is offer a glimpse of what would happen if they disappeared.

What critics will say is that teachers should be treated like any other employee. They should be rewarded for good performance and penalized when they're ineffective. No one wants a great teacher laid off just because she's young. Teacher pay should be based on effectiveness, not seniority. These sound like reasonable arguments. But in actual practice, tenure, LIFO, and paying teachers based on years of service provide certainty to districts and consistency to communities.

Changing the current system will lead to unintended consequences. The legislature would essentially be turning every teacher in the state into free agents. Without the job protection tenure affords (granted after four years in Michigan), teachers just starting out their careers (unmarried, mobile, embracing change) could hop from district to district looking for the right fit. Without the incentive of future tenure and the yearly pay raises, there would be no reason to stay, especially for the best teachers.

If you tie teacher pay to effectiveness rather than seniority, there is nothing to keep a great teacher from leaving and looking for a better deal. Most veteran teachers I know don't even consider leaving after seven or eight years because of the hit their salaries would take when they changed districts. And which teachers would be most likely to take advantage of this new freedom? The very best ones. If you're a great teacher, why would you stay in your school if another school is willing to pay you more? And just where do you think our very best teachers would eventually end up? In the poorest districts, where they're needed most but the work would be harder and the pay less? Or in the districts who could pay them the most but probably need them the least?

Tenure, LIFO, and paying teachers based on seniority might be unpalatable, but no one can argue that it doesn't provide districts with a high degree of certainty from year to year. Right now, as districts figure out their budgets, one thing they do not have to worry about is losing half of their veteran teachers to better paying districts. And communities can count on which teachers are going to be there for their kids in the fall.

Personal Aside: I should say that as a male teacher in elementary education, these proposed changes don't terrify me. Quite the opposite. Believe me, I'd like a little more leverage. In the system described above, good teachers would be in very high demand (especially if the state actually started awarding schools for high performance) and the school system would more closely reflect the marketplace in that those teachers in the highest demand would command the highest salaries. There are very few men teaching in today's elementary schools (9 percent of teachers, actually). Given the high number of children being raised without a father at home, I think that might work to my advantage.

Another Criticism of the Criticism: Right now, schools have a much higher incentive to cut costs than they do to provide a great education. If that remains the case, it's hard to see how getting rid of tenure is going to ensure the best teachers remain in the classroom. My suspicion is that without the impediment of tenure, school districts will simply lay off the teachers who cost them the most, regardless of their effectiveness.

*"Last in, first out" is the practice school districts use for laying off teachers. Simply stated, those teachers who were hired most recently get laid off first when cuts to staff are made. Veteran teachers have virtually no fear of losing their job due to staffing cuts.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

A Fable, Retold

One day the animals were bored and so they decided to stage a contest. Zebra said, "I say we have a contest to see who has the most stripes!" Cow said, "I think we should battle to see who can produce the most milk!" Flamingo said, "I think we should hold a contest to see who looks best standing on one leg." And Raccoon said, "I think we should all dress up, and whichever one of us looks most like the Hamburglar should win!"

The other animals all hissed or mooed or growled or quacked or cawed or roared or whinnied get the picture.

But then Cheetah strolled into the clearing and purred, "I say we race to see who is fastest."

Now Cheetah was widely regarded as the most arrogant of the animals (except for Lion, but he was always asleep) and all the other animals talked behind his back and spoke openly about their desire to knock him from his self-appointed pedestal. However, most of the animals were clever enough to realize that they stood no chance in a race against Cheetah.

"I'll do it!" proclaimed Human, who never lacked for unwarranted confidence.
"I'll do it!" blurted Hare, who wanted to make amends for that lackluster performance against the Tortoise.
"Fine. I'll do it," snapped Tortoise, after Crocodile and Chameleon goaded him into defending his title.

And so the field was set. On the appointed day, Human, Hare, Tortoise, and Cheetah all lined up at the starting line. Human thought, "I'll use my superior intellect to win." Hare thought, "I won't make the mistake of taking a nap in the middle of this race." Tortoise hoped the others would somehow disqualify themselves. And Cheetah told himself over and over, "I'm the fastest animal in the kingdom. Nobody is as fast as me. I'm awesome. I'm unbelievable. I'm so fast, I make light jealous!"

And they were off. Cheetah raced ahead of the pack, quickly disappearing over a rise. Human had hidden a pistol in his running shorts, but by the time he pulled it out and took aim, the Cheetah was out of range. He shot Hare instead. And Tortoise plodded along, inch after inch, as Human swore and Cheetah sped farther and farther away.

By the time Tortoise finally crawled over the finish line, Cheetah had already bought twelve rounds of drinks for the other animals to celebrate his victory. The animals seemed to have forgiven Cheetah his arrogance. Everybody loves a winner, especially when they buy the booze. Human was especially happy. He tried to hug Tortoise, but fell over instead.

"Congratulations," Tortoise said to Cheetah. "You are the fastest."

"I always knew I was," Cheetah said. "Slow and steady may have worked once, but it's a poor substitute for talent and confidence."


Thursday, May 19, 2011

What I Learned About Sneezing

In general, I don't care for research. This is why I will probably never write historical fiction. However, there are times when, in the course of writing a scene, I doubt myself and feel the need to go googling. I was researching the act of sneezing the other day with the aim of determining how badly you can injure yourself in the act. I had heard that your heart stops when you sneeze and for years this sounded completely reasonable to me. After all, if a sneeze can force you to shut your eyes when you're blazing down the expressway at 85, 65 then surely it can stop your ticker.

Turns out it can't. I know, I was a little bummed too.

So then I googled, "Can sneezing kill you?" because, let's face it, we're kind of fragile things, we humans.

Alas, sneezing rarely leads to death (although if you're sick and you sneeze on a really old person, there's a chance).

But don't be disheartened. Sneezing can jack you up in lots of other wonderful ways. Scientists estimate the speed of a sneeze (band name alert) at 650 mph. Not surprisingly, it's kind of stupid to try and hold this sort of force back. You can bust an eardrum, tear blood vessels, damage your sinuses, or even cause a brain hemorrhage. (Never realized stifling a sneeze and watching Joy Behar had so much in common.)

And even if you don't hold them back, sneezes can be strong enough to cause a whiplash effect, leading to pulled muscles, bitten tongues, and even broken teeth.

In short, sneezes are bad ass.

And occasionally, so is research.

Here's a video of a baby panda sneezing and scaring all hell out of its mother:

And in a "you-can't-make-this-sort-of-thing-up" blessing, here's a news article about a girl who can't stop sneezing, a condition called Paediatric Autoimmune Neuropsychiatric Disorder Associated with Streptococcus, AKA...yep...PANDAS.



Thursday, May 12, 2011

Notes From Third Graders

Was given the following two notes today:

to: murphy
from: jimbo*

you are the best teacher of 3rd grade that I ever had in my life. you are so nice because you learn me great.

love: jimbo


Dear, Mr. Muphy

please don't make Cleopatra* get in trouble. She will get grounded for 5 years. Mr. Murphy please. Cleopatra is my best friend. I don't want her to get in trouble. Then she will tell everyone that you are a bad and mean teacher. Please. Then nobody will want to go to your class or they will sign their children out of this school and they will take their money back. Cleopatra means so much to me. What if you had a friend that you like and she/he meant so much to you?

From: Chrysanthemum*


Never a dull day.
*Names have been changed to keep me from losing my job.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Possibly the Best Title Ever

Credit to Anita for asking the question.

My response to that question was too long for the comments, and I haven't blogged anything except that self-congratulatory thing about my mad Twitter skillz in something resembling forever, so here you go.

The best title for a kids book has got to be:

How Lamar's Bad Prank Won a Bubba-Sized Trophy

Here's why:

1. You know what the book is about, which is a good thing.

2. The name Lamar leads one to believe that the main character is black, and, let's face it, this is still fairly unique in the kidlit arena. Unique is interesting.

3. Pranks are always fun to read about.

4. Questions: What exactly is a "bad prank" and how in the world does performing such a thing garner a trophy?

5. The use of the term "bubba-sized" is a good indication of the kind of voice we're going to be exposed to in the novel and it's a voice I'd like to hang out with for a while.

6. We know the ending (or at least, we can assume the ending has to do with winning the trophy) and now the reason to read is to find out how this seemingly inexplicable thing happens. This is one of my favorite story structures. TV shows use it all the time: The victim is seen lying on top of a high-rise in a pool of blood and then the story starts some time earlier and we watch to find out how such a thing happened. Love it.

7. There also seems to be a story of redemption buried in the title. A kid who performs "bad pranks" does not typically win anything, unless withering glares can be counted as winning. My guess: Lamar is a lovable troublemaker who finally comes out on top. And who doesn't love it when that happens?

Anyway, I haven't read it yet, but I will, just because of the title.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

My Tweeting Success

A tweet of mine made it on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon last night.

See it here.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

You Want Me To Teach What Now?

Here are just a few things I pulled from Michigan's third grade standards:

Social Studies:

- Using a Michigan example, describe how specialization leads to increased interdependence.

P3.1.3 - Give examples of how conflicts over core democratic values lead people to differ on resolutions to a public policy issue in Michigan.


S.RS.E.1 Reflecting on knowledge is the application of scientific knowledge to new and different situations. Reflecting on knowledge requires careful analysis of evidence that guides decision-making and the application of science throughout history and within society.

S.IP.E.1 Inquiry involves generating questions, conducting investigations, and developing solutions to problems through reasoning and observation.


R.CM.03.03 compare and contrast relationships among characters, events, and key ideas within and across texts to create a deeper understanding; including a narrative to an informational text, a literature selection to a subject area text, and an historical event to a current event.

R.NT.03.04 explain how authors use literary devices including prediction, personification, and point of view to develop a story level theme, depict the setting, and reveal how thoughts and actions convey important character traits.

Food for thought: I'd say around half of my students still believe in the Easter Bunny.

Brain development--those who write state standards might want to take a course.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

I Need New Blogs to Read

A lot of the blogs I used to read haven't been updated in a long time, (You know, kind of like this one) so I could use some fresh voices. If there's a blog you love, could you send me a link and maybe a quick word about why you visit? Thanks.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Easter Stuff

Easter Eggs With Legs


Paul Michael Murphy

In a pot, I boiled them,
this year’s Easter eggs.
And after I had colored them,
I went and gave them legs.

I put them in a bowl last night,
so Mom could hide them today.
She says she never saw them.
I guess they just walked away.

And here's a repeat from two Easters ago:

Happy Easter!

Sunday, April 17, 2011

I'm on Twitter

(Hangs head in shame)

Anyway, follow me or whatever. I'm P_M_Murphy because all the good names, like Ashton Kutcher, were taken. This link might take you there (I still don't really get Twitter.)

Why did I do it? Mostly because I have a smartphone now that I like to play with and this will give me something else to do with it. And also because summer nears and summer equals lots of free time for teachers, despite what Wisconsin teachers' union officials say.

Update: Try this link instead.

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Blog Post Otherwise Known as I Watched the Forgettin' Grammys

As a general rule, I hate awards shows. This is mostly due to acceptance speeches and gag-inducing pretension. But I watched the Grammys anyway, even though I know next to nothing about music. The Wife was there to explain things to me as the show went along and by the end of the night I learned some things and I have a few thoughts:

Bob Dylan was either singing poorly or unsuccessfully trying to hork up a loogie.

Cee Lo followed in the footsteps of legendary performers Johnny Cash and Elton John and performed with Muppets, which makes him the coolest person alive, even if CBS totally uncooled his song by calling it "The Song Otherwise Known as 'Forget You.'

The nominees for Best Rock Album were a bunch of old dudes and some band named Muse. Tom Petty and Pearl Jam were nominated. I guess it's nice to know that rock music hasn't gotten any better since my sophomore year of high school. I'm surprised Lenny Kravitz didn't make an appearance...oh, wait, he did?

Eminem somehow manages to enunciate really well and still leave me totally baffled. He's like the Micro Machines guy, except angrier.

Bieber somehow lost Best New Artist to Pam Munoz Ryan's middle grade novel Esperanza Rising. I'm as confused as you are.

Barbra Streisand...I don't get it.

There's an award called "Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals." Train won. I'm glad, because Train annoys me and so does that award.

Mick Jagger is seven years older than my dad. Somehow, I can't picture my dad prancing around on stage.

CBS did a nice job of limiting Seacrest.

But mostly what I learned is that the music I grew up listening to is better than the music kids listen to today. The Best Rock Album nominees prove it. Now, what the forget did I do with my Appetite for Destruction cassette?

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Chris Rylander, Author of The Fourth Stall

Chris Rylander has been called many things: the voice of the next generation, the Mario Puzo of children's literature, and, every once in a while, Chris or Christopher. In between unicorn hunts, he managed to write a book for kids. The Fourth Stall, summarized here, tells the story of...ah, just read the link...and comes out February 8.

I sat down with Chris on the veranda of his seaside manor in a beautiful fiefdom he's dubbed "North Dakota." After pointing and laughing at a few of his serfs, we got down to the interview.

Murphblog: I’ve seen the book described as “The Godfather for kids,” which begs the question, “Why didn’t I think of that?” What made you think of it and did you run into any problems that might explain why less courageous writers (like Nicholas Sparks) have been reluctant to bring the world of organized crime into children’s fiction?

Rylander: I don’t really have a concrete explanation as to where the idea came from. I guess I was just sitting there eating some frosting probably or something, and then I thought to myself how fun it might be to take organized crime and put a kid-friendly spin on it. There were some challenges, sure, like trying to walk the line between the right amount of violence and having the kids use severed horse heads as pillows and everything. But in the end, I always just asked myself this question: “Is there enough blood and gratuitous violence in this scene?” And if the answer was “no,” then I simply added more. And I think it turned out pretty well. One dead body per page is usually a pretty good rule for children’s books. No, but seriously it was a challenge to get that part just right - because I didn't want to soften it to the point where it was cheesy. But I also didn't want to glorify grade-school gang wars.

Murphblog: Your main characters, Vince and Mac, love the Chicago Cubs and save money to attend a World Series game. The back of the book states that you’re also a huge Cubs fan. Psychoanalyze the Cub fan. What kind of person puts himself through such misery and disappointment year after year?

Rylander: The sort of person who is the opposite of that one guy who always loves to point out how right he is all the time while simultaneously pretending he is only feigning pride but deep down we all know what a smug jerk he is despite the fact that basically everybody likes him anyway and you just can’t figure out why. Did that make sense? I hope not.

Me: Sticking with the Cubs, which of the following emotions best describes how you feel when you read the name Steve Bartman:

a. Hatred because he screwed the Cubs
b. Pity because of how abominably he was treated

c. Jealousy because he had such great seats
d. Other—please explain.

Rylander: – b. Pity because of how abominably he was treated. Bartman, if you’re out there reading this, contact me, I’ll send you a free copy of my book. Heck, I’ll even send you two if you can somehow get the Cubs back to the NLCS.

Me: In the book, Vince is fond of repeating the befuddling wisdom of his grandmother. One example is, “The only real way to eat a pinecone is with tortoise gravy and a sense of self-worth.” What’s the worst advice you could give to someone who’s trying to write a novel?

Rylander: I’d say to write out your novel by hand using a mixture of water and your own blood for ink. That way, when you send the manuscript to editors and agents to consider, you can also include a note that says, “There’s literally a little bit of me in every single page. Enjoy.” They’ll be delighted, and you’ll have a book deal in no time. That, and I also always like to remind people about the importance of wearing a bow tie when you write.

Me: Back to the Cubs. In the book, Vince and Mac try to stump each other with Cubs trivia. I have some Cubs trivia for you. No cheating.

Rylander: This is not fair.

a. Nevertheless. In what year did the Cubs play their first night game at Wrigley Field?

Rylander: I’m pretty sure it was in the late 1980’s… I’ll say 1987. The thing is, I black out most of the Cubs games I watch because they’re just too painful to remember. So I never remember the trivia and Cubs facts they talk about on air. Mac and Vince, however, are too young to have developed that protective crust of cynicism, so they soak it all up like sponges.

[Editor's Note: The first night game was on Aug. 9, 1988.]

b. Why did Keith Moreland wear eye black when it was cloudy?

Rylander: Keith who?

[Editor's note: This is an acceptable answer.]

c. The Cubs have gone over 45 years without being no-hit. Which Hall of Famer was the last to throw a no-hitter against them?

Rylander: I want to say it was probably Koufax or Gibson, but I think this is likely a trick question. You can’t fool me that easily. It was definitely Ebby Calvin "Nuke" LaLoosh. Either him or former president Teddy Roosevelt… Teddy could do just about anything. In 08/08/88, he once stopped a tornado with nothing but a yo-yo and a smile.

[Editor's Note: Koufax. Well done, Chris!]

Me: The villain of your book is a teenage gangster named Staples. What other office supplies would make good gangster names?

Rylander: I don’t know, I went through them all, and I think Staples is the best. I toyed with both Eraserhead and Tapehead, but those were both already taken. Pen15 seemed too juvenile. And Notebook Pants just didn’t have the same ring to it. But Pencil-Cup McCoy was a close second, I can’t lie.

Me: The story contains a plot twist concerning Mac and Vince. When you write, do you plan everything out first or just go where the story takes you and make the necessary changes later?

Rylander: A little of both. I don’t plan out very much at first, but then as I get further along I plan more and more. Although, I really have to give my agent and editor a lot of credit. They both really helped me to shape the final plot and make it all work. And while I’m at, I should probably thank that glass of orange juice I drank that one time for giving me the energy I needed to finish the book.

Me: The end of the book implies a sequel. Are you working on that now? What other projects do you have going?

Rylander: Yes, actually, I just finished the final draft of sequel. That should come out about a year from now. As for other projects, it’s more like what don’t I have going… So that’s how I’ll answer. Here are the only genres that I currently don’t have a project started in:

Me: Well, Chris, between hunting unicorns, avoiding sharks, upstaging Nicholas Sparks, lording over the fiefdom of "North Dakota," and writing in every genre, it sounds like you're keeping busy. Thanks for making some time for us.

Rylander: Thanks so much for all of the great questions, Murphblog! It was a lot of fun.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Fable: Robin and Bluebird

Robin and Bluebird

Robin and Bluebird spent the night sleeping in Farmer Johnson’s oak tree. The next morning, while it was still dark, Robin awoke, bright and chipper and full of as much vivacity as he always was.

“Tweet! Tweet!” he said to himself. “I’m up and at ‘em and ready to seize the day! And I sure am hungry!”

As quietly as he could, so as not to wake Bluebird, Robin lifted off his perch and flitted to the ground. He pecked at the soft earth and soon found a fat, juicy worm.

“You know what they say,” Robin said, “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day!” and he quickly gobbled up the worm.

He flew back into the tree with a full belly and an even more cheerful attitude.

“Tweet! Tweet!” he tweeted. “Wake up, Bluebird! It’s time to get up!”

Bluebird grunted and tried to ignore Robin.

“No, no,” Robin said. “It’s time to start your day. You’re a bird and you need to act like one. Birds wake up and tweet early in the morning.”

Bluebird mumbled, “Just let me sleep. I’m tired. I was out all night partying with Cockatiel.”

“Tweet! Tweet! You’d better get up. You know what they say: ‘The early bird gets the worm.’ If you don’t get up soon all the best ones will be gone!”

Bluebird cracked open an eye. “The sun’s not even out,” he grumbled.

“The earlier the better, that’s what I say,” said Robin, and he flew off to sit on a telephone wire.

Bluebird fell back to sleep, and without Robin there to pester him, didn’t wake up until almost noon. When he finally staggered off his bough, he dropped down onto Farmer Johnson’s property and soon dug up a small worm of his own. Contented, he flew back into the tree and sang a song.

The next morning, Robin was once again up before dawn.

“Tweet! Tweet!” he said to himself. “I’m up and at ‘em and ready to seize the day! And I sure am hungry!”

Robin flew down to the ground and had no trouble finding the fattest, juiciest, most succulent worm.

“Bluebird doesn’t know what he’s missing,” he said to himself.

But just before flying to his telephone wire he saw something out of the corner of his eye.

It was Farmer Johnson’s cat!

Robin tried to lift off the ground, but because he had spent his life waking up early to eat the largest worms, he was rather large himself and lacked the reflexes a leaner and more rested bird would have had.

Before he could get off the ground, the cat pounced on Robin and ate him.

By the time Bluebird finally got around to starting his day, the cat was back inside the house, asleep on Farmer Johnson’s couch, and Bluebird had no trouble finding a worm to his liking.

The moral of the story is: Getting up early is overrated.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Aesop, Revised

Sometimes I give assignments for no other purpose than my own amusement. Since we're studying fables, I can sort of justify this one, but mostly I just wanted a laugh and some blog material. I gave students some well known morals with their ends chopped off and asked them to finish them. The results:

Aesop: Don't count your chickens before they hatch.

Third Graders: Don't count your chickens before _____________.

eating them
cutting them
they lay eggs
slicing their heads off with an axe

Aesop: Don't bite the hand that feeds you.

Third graders: Don't bite the hand that ______________.

helps you
smells bad
is bloody
is strong
is already hurt

Aesop: He who has many friends has none.

Third graders: He who has many friends has ________________.

no money
not very good ones
lots of company
lots of help

Aesop: He who groans loudest is often the least hurt.

Third graders: He who groans loudest is often ____________.

nobody's friend
a baby
the man in the house
the boss
in trouble
in jail
ignored by others

Aesop: If you want a task done well, then do it yourself.

Third graders: If you want a task done well, then _____________.

you've got to do it right
ask questions
you have to pay someone
work harder
try again
do what you're good at
read the directions

Aesop: You can't please everybody.

Third graders: You can't please _____________.

my dad
a grumpy man
a donkey
mother nature
yourself or anyone else

Aesop: Quality is more important than quantity.

Third graders: Quality is more important than ___________.

other stuff
chicken wings
Billy Ray Cyrus's hair

Aesop: Think twice before you act.

Third graders: Think twice before you _____________.

fight someone bigger than you
run in a busy road
do it (I don't think he meant this in the way I would probably mean it)

And some random ones:

A bird in the cage is worth two on a pogo stick.
Misery loves you and your family.
Misery loves her or his mommy.
A bird in the cage is worth two on a platter.
One good turn deserves a hug or pat on the back.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011


My poem, "The Ride," appears on the back cover of the January/February issue of Jack and Jill Magazine. Got my cc's in the mail today, and I'd like to give credit to the editor who made the changes. The poem is better because of them. Also, the artwork is sweet. Well done, Gary LaCoste.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Third Grade Imagery

No, I'm not going to describe what was left in the toilet in my class bathroom this afternoon.

You're welcome.

I am going to share some examples of imagery my students came up with. Some context: I did a lesson on imagery today in which I defined it, read a book that contained a lot of it (This one), and then gave students some things to describe--Clouds, rain, snow. I got some good stuff, some cliche* stuff, and of course there was the clueless contingent. I'm sharing the good and the bad, but leaving out the cliche. You're not eight; you already know them.

The Good

The clouds looked like giant mashed potatoes.
The snow fell like baby powder.
The clouds looked like fluffy sour cream on a blue spoon.
I watched through the window as God melted icicles.
The snow was like a feather; you couldn't hear it at all.
The clouds were like little white boats in the ocean sky.
The snow was like whipped cream.
I looked out my window as a drizzle comes down, tiny water balloons crashing and breaking apart.
The rain fell like little liquid raisins.
The clouds were like fat blobs of cream cheese spread on a bagel. (Editor's note: Yum.)

The Clueless

I love how the clouds move.
I hate snow because it storms and that's why I don't like rain. (Editor's note: Swear to god that's what it says.)
I like snow. (Same kid.)
Rain makes rainbows.
Snow can get things wet.
Rain everywhere when it rains.
I love when it snows because we have snow days (me too!)
Snow is like hail, but softer.

And the Never Gonna Be a Poet Award goes to...

Snow is a weather. It is a weather in the winter because there is snowflakes. Snow is cold. Snow is dangerous because you might slip on the ice and fall on the ice.

*If you'd like a lesson in futility (and humility) try teaching third graders what cliches are. It is, by definition, almost impossible. Nothing is overused to them--they're eight! You wouldn't believe how many kids think "He ran faster than a deer" is the height of originality.

Books Read In 2010

This one's for my own records. 78 books, a little short of last year's mark. I hit a dry spell in late summer.