Thursday, November 29, 2012

Garth Brooks at the Wynn

 us. before the show. november 2012.

I just couldn't end my chapter on Vegas without sharing not only one of the highlights of our trip, but one of the neatest experiences of our lives.  Many would characterize Vegas with its casinos, its over-the-top hotels, and its three-foot drink glasses, but Beau and I developed a love for the food and the amazing lineup of shows on the strip.  In what seems like a two-mile radius, you have the likes of Bobby Flay, Gordon Ramsey, and Emeril Lagasse, and shows for every age, every taste, and every mood.  When we first decided to go to Vegas, we scoured the lineup of shows and dreamed about eating at one of our culinary idols, Bobby Flay's, restaurant.  And thanks to our friends, Kyle and Jen, who offered rave reviews of Garth Brooks' weekend show at Wynn, we went out on a limb and booked two tickets for one of country music's all-time greatest performers.

Little did we know that two weeks later, Garth would announce that our weekend would be the last show he would perform at Wynn.

To say this news upped the ante of our expectations is an understatement.  While we both grew up loving Garth Brooks' music, we now got to be part of one of the last shows of this man's career.  While we considered selling the tickets for gambling money (this crossed our mind for 2.5 seconds), we looked forward to this truly once-and-a-lifetime experience of seeing Garth on stage.

Most fans of Garth Brooks know him as a gifted performer, and remember his concert for nearly a million people in Central Park, slamming guitars on the stage and running around flames singing 'Standing Outside the Fire.'  I think this image of Garth is what made the setting for his show at the Wynn so amazing.  An intimate auditorium, with maybe around three hundred seats, surrounding a single stage, a single spotlight, and a single stool for the entertainer himself.  The show was 2 hours and 45 minutes of Garth, his guitar, and the songs and influences that shaped his career.  He played everything from George Jones, to Simon and Garfunkel, Bob Dylan, and Bob Henley, and connected the songs in his own repertoire to these songs that influenced so much of music.

As he played his songs and his influences, and told stories of growing up, he sent his audience on a time warp, remembering the stories and influences that shaped our paths as well.  And most of all, he brought music alive in that auditorium in ways I've never really experienced.  My favorite songs included his version of Shameless, and his version of Dylan's To Make You Feel My Love.   

I'm not sure there are any other performers whose audiences and fans knowing every single word to nearly every single song of Garth's.  It's something that makes him unique and powerful.  Singing songs like 'Unanswered Prayers,' 'The Dance,' and 'That Summer,' a capella with the crowd, while Garth stood on the stage with his eyes closed, listening to the sounds of his own influence spread throughout the crowd, was something I will never forget.  In a way, we were his last evidence of that, the last choir of voices to emphasize his great music and great influence.  Beau and I sang our hearts out, and had so much fun together.                

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Vegas, Cont. (and omg, Sherman Alexie!)

Me (nervously inching my way closer, attempting to not look like a psychopath stalker with my Canon Rebel and goofy excited smile): "Hi Sherman, I know this sounds cheesy, but you are like totally my literary idol."
(kicking myself for how stupid I sounded)
Sherman (poised, confident, equally goofy): "Wow, that's really cool, and you are like really pretty."
1, 2,, click, click. 

This pretty much encompasses the ten seconds I had with Sherman Alexie, award-winning author and producer of movies like Smoke Signals, and books that include one of my all-time favorites, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time IndianSo when the NCTE National Convention announced that Sherman would join the lineup of luncheon speakers that included Lemony Snicket, Nicholas Sparks, and David Shannon, I knew I had to see him speak.
I attribute much of what became my teaching practice to Sherman Alexie.  It was the summer before I started my first teaching job, and I remember sitting on the living room floor surrounded by old college notebooks, literary anthologies, and the course textbook, not having a clue how to start building a yearlong curriculum that was challenging, engaging, and edgy for my students.  I could imagine this American Literature course in my head --- students writing from the depths of their souls, taking part in rich, intellectual discussions about life, philosophy, and humanity, and discovering newfound knowledge through complex reading assignments. I, like most new, idealistic teachers, had Freedom Writers in my head --- I just didn't know the first thing about how to get there.

And then I read True Diary.  A semi-autobiographical account of Sherman's life growing up on a poverty-stricken reservation in Spokane, Washington.  As a freshman in high school, Sherman (or Junior in the book) decides that in order to make something of himself, he would need to leave his reservation school and attend the larger, middle class white school in Spokane.  This decision sent Sherman on a quest to discover his true self, caught between two worlds that didn't accept him.  Viewed as a traitor on his reservation, and an outcast at the white school where he says that he "and the mascot are the only two Indians in the school," Sherman learns the power that community expectations have on our identity, and seeks to write his own story instead of accepting the one already written for him.

This book led me down a path that helped ignite a curriculum centered on a questions, talk, and relevant, authentic purpose.  I used essential questions like "How do we overcome stereotypes in order to be ourselves?", and "What are the benefits and costs of advancement in our society?" to shape my unit instruction, and blended classics like Thoreau's, Walden, with 'Into the Wild,' and Sherman Alexie with The Breakfast Club.  
The wonderful thing about Sherman Alexie's writing is that it is real.  I know this now because I've seen him speak.  He is the same person in his writing that he is when he is speaking to a room full of English teachers.  He mixes humor with insight, and will have you tearing up from laughter and tearing up from sadness within one story.  I guess it was fitting because, really, "laughing and crying are pretty much the same thing."
Sherman talked about the power of stories, and that the key to writing a good story is being aware of the world around you.  That sometimes, we just need to 'shut up and pay attention,' and look for the small details that tell bigger stories.  He was humble, but passionate, and thanked the teachers for bringing his story to life for the students in the trenches.  "My books," he said, "are simply words on a page, but it's you that breathes life into these texts for your students."      
This was my experience with Sherman Alexie.  I laughed, I cried, and I felt motivated to be proud, to be aware, and to be real.  

Tuesday, November 27, 2012


"Time stands still best in moments that look suspiciously like ordinary life."

-Brian Andreas 


Well, Thanksgiving has come and gone and we are less than one month from Christmas.  I was starting to think my trip to Vegas had put a damper on my holiday cheer, as it was a bit of a whirlwind being out of the state and away from Cruz, our home, and my job longer than normal, but, this wonderful little weekend at home proved to be just what I needed to fall full-fledged into this season of open fires and marshmallows and carpet picnics and baby mangers and Bing Crosby and ornaments and Charlie Brown trees and Holiday Hooplas and cocoa and shopping and mittens and...

Well, I could go on forever.

I love Thanksgiving for many reasons --- the turkey, the stuffing, the pie, the football, the napping, the leftovers...but I think there are things about this quiet little prequel to Christmas I love even more than the food itself.  

I love this long weekend for its tradition.  For the last couple of years, we have stuck to a similar plan for our special days at home --- an opportunity to ready our home for the Christmas season, practice cozy comforts of the season of hibernation, and soak up an opportunity to slow down and truly 'live in' our home.  Too often it seems our home gets taken for granted.  It is a place that provides necessary shelter and warmth, yet we come and go as we please without taking time to truly appreciate its uniqueness and live in its comfort with keen awareness.  Every home is a testament of one's story, a backdrop to the fabric of family, a dwelling place. 

Our house was 'lived in' this weekend.  Whether it was a family-style breakfast in our pajamas, dancing around the Christmas tree to Feliz Navidad, or curling up in a pile watching movies in front of our first fire, we seemed to use every inch of our space and soak up its comfort and quiet familiarity.  And while our very lived-in space didn't quite resemble the Martha Stewart inspired Thanksgiving spread I saw on The Today Show, I oftentimes stopped myself this weekend to remember that this year, this holiday season, this very 'lived-in', slightly messy house, is our snapshot into this season of our life.  It's real, its raw, and its not always pretty, but its uniquely ours and so, so precious because it can't ever be replicated in the same way. 

A holiday season doesn't approach without me thinking about years past, especially the last two with Cruz.  I think back to the first two months of his life, still on maternity leave, spending afternoons at the mall Christmas shopping with this little bundle in a stroller and spending nights curled up on the couch, watching movies and snuggling this blessing, and feeling so overjoyed with love.  I think back to last year, a little boy just beginning to walk, pulling at Christmas tree branches and standing on ornament boxes, not quite understanding the meaning of it all but relishing in the happiness and togetherness and warmth of being home.  As I think back to those memories, I have such a mix of bittersweet emotions - sad that they have passed, but so excited about what's in store for our future.  The days seems so fleeting sometimes.

I think that's why I'm a lover of traditions.  Traditions provide a comforting sense of sameness to this fleeting life --- something to hold on to while the rest of the puzzle changes as we age and grow and explore new places and new territories.  These traditions become mile markers in our histories, and like an old symbol of home or an uncovered family memento, these traditions are always welcomed with a sense of comfort, anticipation, and excitement.

Our home was 'lived in' this weekend.  

It was lived-in with a Thanksgiving breakfast tradition.  Homemade cinnamon rolls, a cup or two of joe, and Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.


It was lived-in with a very special tree trimming, uncovering our favorite ornaments from our childhoods, our first few years together, and our first special Christmas with Cruz.  Cruz was excited about the boxes of breakable ornaments, but was more content standing on the end table beside the tree and shaking his booty to the Christmas music that played while we trimmed. 


It was lived-in with hot cocoa stirred with candy canes, peppermint marshmallows, and our first fire of the season. 

It was lived-in with my favorite garland on the mantle and three stockings on the staircase.

It was lived-in during a Saturday night movie night, camping out under the Christmas tree watching Arthur Christmas with our own little elf nestled in between us.

It was lived-in with late nights, lazy mornings, breakfasts in bed, and that welcomed feeling of not setting an alarm until Monday.

It was lived-in during quiet afternoons, sometimes napping, sometimes wrapping (think bows, not Jay-Z), and sometimes just being still.  Reading books, writing Christmas lists, or admiring how nice the house looks with its Christmas sweater on. 

It's growing colder outside, and it seems every morning I'm finding new layers to add to Cruz before we head out the door for another day.  And while a part of me misses those warm afternoons at the park or the pool, the season of hibernation is upon us and I'm ready to dwell in the comforts of our home.            

Monday, November 26, 2012


Until tonight, I never knew the joy that would come with that first poop in the potty.

Way to go, Cruz Man!  Or as Dad would say, "you are now ready to go to camp." 


Thursday, November 22, 2012


So much to be grateful for this Thanksgiving...

things like...(in no particular order):

1.  Leggings.  The only clothing staple that can be worn to work, around the house, and to bed --- sometimes in the same day.  

2.  Mumford.  This band speaks to me and makes me want to burst into tears or dance like mad from a rooftop, sometimes in the same song.  

3.  Our sweet bedtime routine.  I've always dreamed about cozy'ing up in a big chair and reading books 'til I felt my babe grow heavy.  It's my moment of peace every single night and my little dream come true. 

4.  Our gingerbread house.  It's been almost five years and I only continue to fall deeper in love with this space we've made our home.  It's got our blood, our sweat, and our tears, and it's the place we brought our baby home to.  It's our haven, our little love shack.

5.  Ikea frames.  It's the only way I can possibly justify having 28 of my favorite photos displayed in a single room.  

6.  Barnes and Noble nights with Cruz.  These are special little nights saved just for the two of us - playing with the choo choo, reading books in quiet little corners of the store, and picking one or two favorites to add to our collection at home.  

7.  Simple nights at home with my boys.  Jam sessions, bath nights, supper around the table --- I hope these are the snapshots I will always remember about this stage of our life.

8.  Pizza.  What would we do without pizza.

9.  My favorite patchwork quilt and sunsets at Alice Wyth Lake.

10.  Iowa seasons.  Picnics and afternoons at the pool in the summer, neighborhood walks and pumpkin spice lattes in the fall, fires in the fireplace and movie nights in the winter, and baseball season, open windows, and fresh cut grass in the spring.  Every season brings its own resume of joy and I can't imagine living anywhere else. 

11.  My husband.  The best daddy to my baby and the man of my dreams.  He's my other half, my best friend, and a necessary equation to this life of ours.  He still makes me laugh, and still makes me weak in the knees with those dimples and bright baby blues.

12.  Talks with my mom.  She can make me feel better by not saying a word and always seems to know what I need.  She's always been amazing at this mom thing and I only hope I can be half as good as she is. 

13.  Our church.  I thank God that He led our family to this place that has taught us more about Him and the kind of people He wants us to be.  A place that has shown me the true meaning of salt and light, and challenges me to do better, love deeper, and serve more.  

14.  My job and my colleagues.  My former students and Room 222.

15.  My Shutterfly photo books.  You know that question, 'You're stranded on a deserted island, what's one object you'd take with you...?'  Well, I've never been one for practicality.

16.  Cruz's giggle.  I'm convinced it can move mountains.

17.  Neighborhood walks.  Our footprints are forever imprinted in these sidewalks of ours.  

18.  This blog and all of my sweet readers.  I'm so thankful for this space and for your comments.

19.  Our daycare.  Cruz is truly loved there and we are so thankful he has a safe, loving, and educational place to spend his days.    

20.  My family, and all the traits they've instilled in me.  I am so thankful to have them close, to watch Cruz grow up with his cousins, and have grandparents that love our little boy to pieces.   

21.  My favorite books and the characters that come to life inside their pages.  Atticus Finch, Holden Caulfield, Augustus Waters and Arnold Spirit have become forever bookmarked in my life and I am thankful for their lessons and impact, on me and so many others.

22.  My faith.  Jesus paid it all.  All to Him I owe.

Another special holiday season is about to begin, and there's so much to savor this time of year.  Life is full of so much beautiful.  

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.


Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Love & Loathing in Las Vegas

The Vegas Strip is an interesting place.  It’s flashy, a bit cheesy, and this odd mix of swank and glamour every way you look.  Beau and I arrived in Sin City on Friday morning and stayed until Monday, and after three days of casinos, platform heels, and ten-dollar beers, we were ready for the low key and affordable Midwest.  I swear I will be hearing the sounds of slot machines in my sleep for weeks to come.  We stayed at the massive MGM Grand, a 9,000-room metropolis that seems more like a small city than a hotel.  The midway of the hotel is filled with blackjack tables, slot machines, and scandalously-clad servers, and suites of rooms are separated on all sides with thick double doors only accessible with your room key.  These doors that separated the casino and hotel rooms presented such a telling juxtaposition of Vegas itself.  On one side was the normal world, and the other side, an alternate universe.  At first, this universe was exciting, dynamic, and full of energy, but by the end of the trip, it became this sort of abyss to us – a trap of deceit, depravity (of sleep, clothing, and morals), and lots and lots of money.  I’m happy to say we survived our trip to the underworld and live to tell our story --- or at least tell what we loved, and loathed about this interesting place.

1.  The casinos will rob your very soul, but the shows are worth every penny.  While I was at my conference, Beau snuck over to Hooters to play a little blackjack at the only $5 table he could find on the strip.  He sat with some married men from Canada, in Vegas on a guys’ weekend.  About five minutes and three hands of blackjack later, Beau saw three of the four men lose over $500 in cash.  They ordered a round of jager bombs, threw a few more chips in the ring, and laughed about their losses.  And while their entertainment came from a few hands of blackjack, we chose to spend our pennies on some amazing shows that I believe make this place worth the trip.  I’ll save those shows for another post, but they were unbelievably good.

2.  Walking down the strip is time well spent.  Never have I seen so many advertisements, but the smorgasbord of people who attempt to earn a few dollars on the street is mind boggling.  The baseball cards of naked women to order with a single phone call, and the weirdly scary combination of costumed impersonators is sad and entertaining.  Elmo is sitting beside Elvis, Peewee Herman is conversing with Robert DeNiro, and countless Zack Galifianakis’ are wandering down the streets with beards, babies, and all.  My favorite was the middle-aged Latino woman pushing her Optimus Prime costume in a shopping cart down the street.

3.  Spend some time just walking through the massive hotels.  When we first pulled up to the airport, I was a little underwhelmed at the strip from a distance; however, up close and personal, this place will knock your socks off.  Each hotel covers what seems like miles of space, and each have a distinct energy and appeal inside.  There’s the lively, more inexpensive New York, New York, and the ultra glitzy Aria, filled with aisles upon aisles of the fashion district’s finest.  There’s the sophisticated Wynn and the colossal Casear’s Palace, and the pirate show at Treasure Island.  Seeing the money, the detail, and the people power that goes into a place like this is worth the trip --- each hotel is incredibly over-the-top in its own way.


4.  You can’t be in Vegas without trying one of the buffets.  And the street-slide slushy stands.  And Cirque de Solei. 

5.  Thank you Fatburger, for your $5 burgers and outdoor, strip-side seating, and thank you Bobby Flay and Mesa Grill, for your outstanding service and amazing food.  It was worth every penny spent.  Tom Colicchio and your $150 steak...I think we’ll stick to our grill and Iowa beef for the time being.

6.  Dear Beatles Love Cirque de Soleil show, I now know why I could never find an effective description of what your show entails.  The only way I can explain you is to say that I now know what an LSD trip must feel like. 

7.  Dear MGM, The massive amounts of cheap perfume you attempt to spread through the ventilation system only amplifies the thick stench of cigarette smoke that fills your hotel.

8.  Dear every girl between the ages of 21-25, adding three more inches of skirt would only leave more to the imagination of the drunk, broke fools drooling over you.  You’re making it too easy for them.

9.  Dear escort sitting next to us at the sushi restaurant in the Wynn, the table you’re sitting at has nothing to do with the fact that “everyone in here is staring at my boobs.” 

10.  Dear creepy Elmo character on the side of the street – stop talking with your horsey, whiskey-breathed voice – you are scaring the children.

11.  Dear Freemont Street, I feel sad that you are now the ugly step-brother of the Strip, but you are a little scary at 3 o’clock in the afternoon and not quite worth the $60 cab ride.  I’m sure you, like many of the other demographics in this city, look a lot better at night.

12.  Dear Bellagio Fountains, Thank you for being beautiful.  I love you.
13.  Dear slot machine crazies, You are the reasons these hotels look this way.  And the fifty bucks you won last night doesn’t quite compare to the $2000 you lost the night before.  But Steve Wynn thanks you for your logic.   

Of all the lessons I can take with me from this trip to the strip, I can appreciate the many layers and luxuries of this flashy city.  And although it seems quite ironic that an English teachers conference is what led me to Vegas, I learned that this city is full of stories.  From the old woman in mink playing penny slots by herself at 4:30 in the morning, to the mom attempting to explain to her horrified son that ‘Elmo is different in Vegas,’ I appreciate that this city has an identity all of its own.   


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