Monday, August 24, 2015

Back to School Days . . .

Wow, has it really been nearly two weeks since I last updated this blog?  Oh no!

I don't know how many of you have been waiting with bated breath to drink up the bon mots that flow forth from this fountain of scribbled insight, but I'm willing to bet that you've worked up a powerful thirst by now!  So, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa, and know that your long wait is now ended.

  So what to write about?  I've been pretty busy lately . . . to use an old Texas phrase, as busy as a one-armed man with a bad case of poison ivy!  It's the beginning of school - a week of in-service followed by the kids coming back to class last Wednesday.  We're also caregiving for my mother-in-law, who is 87 and increasingly frail these days.  She broke her arm in a fall a few weeks back and needs our help to get around.  My Dad's health has also deteriorated over the summer, so I am checking in on him at the nursing home even more often than I normally do.  That's part of the season of life my wife and I are in right now - our girls are in college and more independent of us than they once were, but our parents need us more than ever.

   But the stress and worry of that situation is alleviated by my wonderful job - and no, that's not sarcasm.  I teach in a small private school, and I single-handedly comprise our History Department.  Once they hit junior high school, our students have me every single year.  I get to watch them grow up from seventh grade until they graduate, and it is a wonderful experience.  I have six regular classes plus one elective that I started teaching this year that meets twice a week.  Let me tell you about them.

First of all, there is Seventh Grade Texas History.  This is the "Happy Meal" of history classes - predictable, simple content that is still enjoyable and informative, with a great "toy" thrown in - the annual trip to the Sulphur River to collect fossils and Indian artifacts.  We cover the maps of Texas, the Indians, the Spanish, the Alamo, and Texas in the Civil War . . . it's always fun.  I'm still getting to know my Seventh Graders, but they seem to be a bright, fun-loving bunch with an interesting mix of personalities.

  Then there is 8th Grade U.S. History.  One of my favorite courses, content-wise, and this year's 8th grade class is lively, fun, smart, and sassy.  The girls are all well-read and belong to various TV show fandoms, and most of the guys love Star Wars - it's neat when you have a group of young people who are unashamedly willing to embrace their inner nerd.  What a cool group of young men and ladies!

   Ninth Grade is World Geography, a relatively new course for me (this is my 4th year to teach it).  I've learned a lot about the world these last 4 years and am having fun sharing it.  The freshmen are another great bunch to hang with - they are smart and full of questions about everything from politics to movies to why the Middle East is so messed up.

   Tenth Grade World History is probably my favorite content area of all.  I'm an absolute sucker for the ancient world, especially "the splendor that was Greece, the glory that was Rome."  And I get to share it ALL with them this year - from the campaigns of Julius Caesar to the tyranny of mad Caligula, and then we move on to Mohammed and Buddha, the Byzantines and the Han Dynasty, Henry VIII and his half dozen spouses to Peter the Great and his penchant for amateur dentistry.  Plus we watch some great movies this year - GLADIATOR, Kenneth Branagh's HENRY V, and the wonderful LUTHER with Joseph Fiennes in the title role.  Not to mention this is a very sharp, funny, and eclectic young people that keep me on my toes every day!

   Eleventh grade is Dual Credit U.S. History, a super-accelerated course that offers six hours of college credit by the end of the year.  I re-cover all of 8th grade history in the first semester, then in the spring we do a whirlwind tour from Reconstruction to the present.  I require the students in this class to write me one book review per quarter; I have a huge library that they can check out titles from.  It's always fun to watch as a student picks up David McCullough's 1776, or Barbara Tuchman's THE MARCH OF FOLLY, or perhaps Doris Kearne Goodwin's magnificent TEAM OF RIVALS, which I consider to be the best book ever written on Abraham Lincoln.  My juniors are a big class, full of life and fun, with some marvelously quirky personalities - and some amazing talents as well.

  Last of all, there is Senior U.S. Government.  It's a one semester course, but it's always more fun to teach in an election season.  I have a huge Presidential Election Leader Board drawn up, and I adjust the poll numbers once or twice a week to show who's up, who's down, and who's dropping out.  We cover everything from the Constitutional Convention to Roe vs. Wade in this class, and it's fascinating to watch as these now young adults form the political convictions that will guide them for a lifetime.  This year's group is a special bunch, and it's going to hurt to let them go - we've had a great journey together, but this last trip promises to be an entertaining ride.

  But wait!  There is one more class, something brand new, so much so that I am writing the curriculum as I go along this year - it's called MODERN AMERICA: Pop Culture, History, and Politics from 1980 to the Present.  I've lobbied for this course forever, since in teaching U.S. History 2 in the spring I very rarely get much past Viet Nam and Watergate.  Now at least some of my students will be instructed about the world their grandparents built and their parents grew up in.

  My days are full but joyous; the sound of "learnage" carries out my door and down the hall as we daily declare war on ignorance and come forth leaving a little bit less of it in the world.  On any given day, my students might discuss anything from the Trump phenomena to how crowded Japanese trains are to how three cigars may well have determined the outcome of the Civil War.  I tell them every year: "You may like me or not, you may like history or not, but I promise you one thing - you will never forget me!"  And for 20 years now, none of them have.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

"And Now For Something Completely Different . . ."

Yes, I know, Monty Python said it first.
But I have put up a bunch of posts this summer about serious, heavy, and divisive topics.
Let's just have some fun this week!  Here is a review I wrote two years ago for one of the funniest movies I have ever seen.  So read my comments, then do yourself a favor and check out this hilarious film.  What film, you ask?  Read on:

Saturday night.  I am shuffling along the shelves at Hasting's, desperately seeking the kind of movie that restores your faith in humanity, revives your soul from the post-holiday doldrums, and fills you with that same wonderful sense of anticipation you get as you are about to pop a kitten into the microwave. Title after title went by - action flicks, same-o same-o slasher flicks, mindlessly stupid spoofs, romantic comedies that can drain every drop of testosterone from the room before the opening credits have finished rolling . . . I was near the end of the aisle, with no movie crying out to go home with me, and despair was filling my soul.

Then I saw it.  A shaft of heavenly light poured through the ceiling, and angelic voices sang a magical tune in my ear as the title glistened before me.  I fell to my knees at the sheer awesomeness of the concept.

What title, you ask?


I rushed to the front counter, clutching the precious DVD in my hand as I fumbled for my Hasting's card.
My hands trembled when I got home as I powered up the DVD player and prepared myself for the emotional and artistic experience of a lifetime.
But - could the actual film possibly live up to the awesomeness of the title?  Would it not be better for me to place it back in its case and merely bask in the imagined perfection of the concept, rather than hit the "Play" button and set myself up for the same kind of cruel, warped disappointment I experienced that time I mistook a garlic stuffed mushroom for a chocolate cupcake at a dimly lit dinner party?

NO!  I must see it!  Surely the filmmaker could not be so cruel, or so devoid of talent, as to make a movie unworthy of this magnificent title!

Vindication!  That is what I felt as the saga unrolled before my eyes.  Oh no, this movie was not merely a re-telling of Shakespeare's HAMLET, set during the Civil War, with zombies thrown in as a cheap marketing tactic to snag the youth demographic.  Oh no!  That would be clever, but not life-changing.  What the director of ZOMBIE HAMLET did was much bolder, much braver, much more daring - he made a movie about the MAKING of a movie version of Hamlet set in the Civil War with zombies thrown in as a cheap marketing ploy!
But this movie was more than that - it was so much more!

It has June Lockhart of LASSIE fame!
It has John De Lancie ("Q" from Star Trek!)
It has beloved African American character actor John Amos!
It has Shelly Long!
It has snoopy small town reporters and a sheriff with acting ambitions!
It has killer alligators!
It has voodoo loan sharks!
IT has cross-dressing, and disappearing dead bodies!
Romance! Action! Thrills!  Bad Checks!

For a bad movie lover, this was a life altering experience.  I am shaken.  I am stirred.  I am Bond . . . James Bond.
Or maybe I'm just turning blond! Who knows!

What I am saying is that this is the most amazing cinematic experience since SUCKER PUNCH.

Do it for the zombies.
Do it for the children.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Post-GOP Debate Impressions . . .

(Normally I update once a week, but being a hard-core political junkie, and having watched both Republican debates yesterday, I thought I would share my impressions of the GOP field.)

OK, overall reaction to Round One. (For those who don't know, since there are 17 Republican candidates running, they split them into two debates rather than one interminable one. The 10 front runners aired at 8 PM on FOX; the 7 bottom contenders aired at 4 PM yesterday CST.)
No one killed themselves verbally. No huge gaffes, and a few home runs. Here is my impression of the bottom seven in no particular order:
Lindsay Graham - totally unelectable. The man is smart and says many things that I agree with, but he is boring, uninspiring, and just looks tired, like a preacher who quit believing long ago but still mounts the pulpit out of habit.
Carly Fiorina - Probably the most solid performer overall. Intelligent, articulate, with actual proposals and not just talking points. She may bump up from this one.
James Gilmore - who? I had not heard of him before this week and he said nothing particularly memorable. I doubt he'll make it into December.
Rick Perry - a very weak start, but he got stronger and more confident as he went along. I think his hour has passed, but he said some things that were motivating, and he is still quite charismatic.
Bobby Jindal - He had some very strong moments and a few weak ones. I like him on a lot of issues; I just don't think he has the charisma to inspire the masses.
George Pataki - he put up a solid performance, but he is probably too liberal overall for the GOP base. Still, he had some good moments.
Rick Santorum - I love this man. He is passionate, articulate, and unwavering in his core beliefs, many of which I share. I just don't know that he can win - but I think he would be a fine President if he did.

So that's my summation of the lower tier.

OK, after watching the big show, here are my thoughts:
Trump hurt himself tonight. Not with the hard core Trump Chumps, but his snarky, petulant attitude was a turnoff to independents, and his not-so-veiled threat to run as an independent and throw the election angered the audience. His refusal to apologize for his unconscionably rude treatment of women, and his ugliness to Megyn Kelly, will alienate women overall (a constituency that the GOP desperately needs to win!)  Bottom line, he is not a likable man and his constant insults to those he disagrees with are going to be his political death. I think he may have already peaked.
Rubio did a great job and had some real shining moments. He may have gotten the biggest bump out of this.
Cruz was better than I expected - I'm not a fan, but he had some great lines.  His passion is undeniable, but he's burned a lot of bridges.  Can he unite the party behind him after that?
John Kasich was very solid, and I think he is angling for either the VP slot or possibly Secretary of Treasury - either of which he would perform quite well.
Huckabee is a wonderful debater and had a solid night. I like this man, I always have. But he may be yesterday's news.  That being said, his closing remarks had everyone chuckling, even as he made a very serious point.
Walker got in some solid licks but didn't really shine.  He may be too bland for the job.
Rand Paul came across as testy and combative and I think Christie owned him on the exchange over NSA surveillance.
Chris Christie surprised me; I don't care much for him, but he gave some great answers and vigorously defended his record.
Ben Carson started off slow and soft-spoken, but really nailed the last question and gave the best closing statement of the night. I was favorably impressed with him.
Bush was rather bland most of the time, except for his "I'm my own man" speech, which was well done. He neither helped nor hurt himself.  He has a lot of money and has laid the groundwork carefully, but I don't think he can win.

    Overall, there was no one clear winner, but I think that both Trump and Bush damaged themselves a bit.  Fiorina may well be in the top 10 next time; if so, she will have earned it.  I will say it was a very solid, well-moderated debate, with some hard-hitting questions and nearly everybody had one good line or one shining moment. I will be very curious to see what the polls say over the next few weeks.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Another One Bites The Dust!

     On October 9 of last year I sat down and began writing a story that I entitled LOVER OF GOD.  Usually, when I begin a novel, I have a pretty fair idea of where the story is going to go.  At least, I have a vague idea of how it will end, or what the major story arc is, or something.  This one, though, this story was elusive.  I had a great prologue, which was set much later in the story arc - but I had no idea how I would develop the characters, or what all would take place along the way. 
     But I set out on the journey anyway.  I knew who my main character was - Marcus Quintus Publius, a junior member of the Roman Senate during the reign of Claudius.  I envisioned this story as a loose sequel to THE REDEMPTION OF PONTIUS PILATE, my first novel of the New Testament era.  It begins about ten years after Pilate's death.  I knew that Publius would wind up being an advocate for Paul and the rest of the Christian community caught up in Nero's persecution after the Great Fire of Rome - that's where my prologue began.  But how did he wind up in that position?  How did he become a Christian sympathizer?
   But, as I wrote, Marcus' career came together.  A young Roman aristocrat, his family murdered by the mad Caligula, Marcus winds up befriending the Emperor Claudius, who wants to atone for his nephew's horrible crime by helping Marcus rise up the cursus honorum, the chain of offices that all Roman noblemen were expected to occupy in their public career.  Marcus, a skilled legal advocate, winds up going on a mission from the Emperor to inspect the provinces which had been sorely neglected during Caligula's reign of terror.  In the course of his travels, Marcus meets and befriends the leaders of the early Christian movement, including Peter, John, and Paul of Tarsus.  He also meets Paul's companion, a Greek physician named Luke, who is composing an account of the life of Jesus.  Eventually, Luke dedicates his Gospel to this powerful Roman who has become a benefactor to the Christian community - albeit addressing him by the nickname Paul has given him, Theophilus - "Lover of God."  Once Nero becomes Emperor, however, Marcus is placed in a difficult position, and must choose between his place in Roman society and his love of God.
    All told, I am very proud of the way this one came out.  It provides the reader with a tour of all Rome's provinces and a fascinating look at an early stage of the church's development, when the Apostles were mostly still alive and preaching the Gospel throughout the Roman world.  I also spent a good bit of time developing the characters of Claudius and Nero, two of Rome's most fascinating rulers, relying heavily on the historical sources of the era.  The Roman world has always fascinated me, and I think I did full justice to both characters.
    As I usually do, I will now wait a month or so and let the story sit.  Then I'll start over from the beginning, reading and editing as I go through, until I get it into satisfactory condition.  Then I will sent it off to my publisher and hope they like it as much as I do!
    Look for my next novel, MATTHEW'S AUTOGRAPH, coming out in December!