Category Archives: life_and_whatnot

life lessons courtesy of the Muppets

Miss Piggy is my role model. I’ve spent years trying to deny it, hiding my true feelings by claiming that she’s my least favorite of the Muppets gang and that I find her karate chops and shrieks annoying. But after seeing The Muppets recently, and experiencing a surge of nostalgia so strong it startled me, I can no longer fight it. I aspire — I suppose I always have aspired — to be Miss Piggy.

I adored the movie. Jason Segel, a comic hero of mine since his Freaks and Geeks days, did a fine job rebooting the beloved franchise. From the very first moments of the movie through the closing credits (featuring the infectious “Mahna Mahna” song) I was sporting a huge smile, the kind of smile that could only be brought on by some serious walking down memory lane. I had forgotten what an impact those fuzzy puppets had on my childhood. Seeing my old friends through adult eyes brought all those feelings to the forefront and I understand now, perhaps for the first time, why Kermit and the gang were so important to me.

1. The Muppets taught me about friendship. The Muppets were so much more than just a strange collection of animals and humans and animal/human hybrids. They were a family — a big group of strong personalities who were constantly bickering and getting on each other’s nerves, but who would ultimately do anything for one another. Through love and loss and bad jokes and misfiring experiments and human cannonballs, they comforted and supported each other, and they celebrated each other’s quirky talents. And if that’s not friendship, I don’t know what is.

I can’t help but think Thelma and Louise is at least in part based on Kermit and Fozzie’s friendship. I love this road trip scene and I will never forget how hard I laughed at the fork in the road. So clever!

2. The Muppets taught me about acceptance. There’s a frog, a bear, a pig, a dog, a lot of chickens, some aliens and some weird hook-nosed guy (really, what is Gonzo?). If this were a Natural Geographic special, someone would likely be losing a limb. But in the Muppets’ world, it’s perfect harmony among species. Looking at it now, I understand what Jim Henson was trying to tell me. It doesn’t matter what you look like or where you came from, or even in what part of the food chain (or galaxy) you reside, it’s what’s on the inside that counts.

3. The Muppets taught me how to overcome adversity. I remember it like it was yesterday: the moment in The Muppet Movie when Kermit and Fozzie inadvertently leave the giant Sweetums behind at the car lot. This scene traumatized me, and I have thought about it often since I was about five years old. It made me so profoundly sad, the way that this big giant oaf is running after the car, wanting so desperately to join his newfound friends in an adventure to Hollywood. And while I know Sweetums eventually meets up with his friends in the end, this scene left in me such a paralyzing fear of being left behind that I’ve spent my life working hard to prevent that from ever happening. Sheesh…who knew a kids puppet movie could be so anxiety-inducing?

4. The Muppets taught me about hard work. Through countless episodes of The Muppet Show and several movies, the Muppet gang showed me the value of putting forth real effort to make things happen. In so many challenges overcome and problems solved, Kermit, Miss Piggy and friends taught me that I could achieve anything with a little ingenuity. But it was their puppet cousins over at Fraggle Rock that really drove that point home. I loved that show — I even prided myself on never having missed an episode (pre-DVR, what am I saying? Pre-VHS!) — but I often found the Fraggles’ brand of hippie tomfoolery to be a little immature. This from a 7-year-old. But I could always identify with the hard-hat wearing Doozers.They kept Fraggle Rock operating so those silly Fraggles could sing songs and eat radishes all day. I knew right away I would rather be a Doozer.

5. The Muppets taught me to sing, sing, sing. The Muppets were always singing, but two musical memories in particular left indelible marks on my heart. The first is a memory that is closely tied to my Grandma Devine, though I’m not really sure why. It’s an episode of The Muppet Show featuring Canadian songstress Anne Murray singing her hit “Snowbird.” Murray has the most soothing and pleasantly, well, Canadian voice. It’s a scene — with Murray in her white fur coat on that wintry stage — that always makes me smile and brings me peace.

The second memory relates to a record my sisters’ and I had of John Denver and The Muppets singing Christmas carols. We listened to that record until it wore out … I think we even listened to it in the middle of summer, we loved it so much. “The 12 Days of Christmas” was my favorite song, with Miss Piggy singing about five gold rings. The record made me giggle and nothing made me more excited for Christmas to come.

The Muppets were always singing and, as it turns out, so am I. I would love nothing more than my life to be an actual musical. And after seeing The Muppets, I am reminded of how much I would love to have Kermit, Fozzie, Gonzo, Scooter, Rolf and Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem be a part of my personal song and dance. And now that I am older and as independent and bossy as ever, I would love to compare notes over cocktails with Miss Piggy.



a tour of Phoenix coffee shops (or how I survived 44 days without home internet access)

Hello, old friend, it’s been a while.

I have 101 excuses for my two-month+ absence. Some are valid (I started a new job, bought a new house, started a new website), others are not (I’m tired). I’ve missed the creative process of coming up with fun, pop-cultury topics and writing about them, but if I’m being honest, the whole thing has recently felt more like a burden than anything else. But I’m committed to this blog — and the five people who read it — so I’m determined to turn things around.

We moved into our new house in August just after my birthday. Our new house is everything I had hoped for — it’s located in a historic district tucked away just east of busy Central Avenue. Our neighbors are friendly and inviting and we can walk to many different places to eat and shop; it’s the closest we can get to living in San Francisco while still living in Phoenix. But our move came with one huge and unexpected twist: our house was not wired for the internet, and Cox would need to get a permit from the city before they could install a drop in our yard.

What? Not wired for the internet? It’s 2011!

I took the news in stride, choosing to believe Cox would get the job done on the early end of the two-four week time frame they quoted me. In the meantime, I thought, I’ll get to know the local coffee shops with free wifi. That will be a fun, hip thing to do, I thought. I couldn’t have anticipated that my internet would not be connected for more than six weeks and that I would come to think of these coffee shops as my second home. I varied the destination based on the time, day, my levels of hunger and thirst and my wardrobe (more on that later). Here are my thoughts on the four shops at which I spent the most time:

Lux

Photo by Jennifer C. on Yelp

I spent by far the most time at this über-chic bastion of hipsterdom. The shop recently upgraded to much larger digs adjacent to the tiny spot it once inhabited next to Pane Bianco on Central Avenue just south of Campbell. I never went to the old Lux, but it must have been packed to the gills based on how many people set up camp in its vast new building. The decor is worn-out thrift store furniture juxtaposed against modern plexiglass tables and chairs. So, retro modern.

Most days I chose Lux for three reasons: the ample seating, the staff’s indifference toward patrons spending five hours in the same spot after buying little more than a cup of joe and the joe itself, which is served in proper cups with saucers. I hate the distinctly American tradition of pouring every coffee in a to-go cup, so it’s a nice change of pace to get actual china (or ceramics, or whatever the cups are made of). A cup of good house coffee with soy milk costs under $2 — can’t argue with that.

Lux is definitely a scene. You won’t get kicked out if you show up with your Dell laptop, but you might be silently scorned by the legions of Macbook users. I am about 10 years older than most of the patrons, but it doesn’t really matter, as most are glued to their laptop screens. A DJ spins an eclectic mix of ephemeral house and indie music and ’80s new wave standards at a perfect volume. Lux offers a nice but small array of sweets and a selection of food items (quiches and the like at breakfast and a few dinner specials at night). I never had a meal, but I indulged in my fair share of cookies. Delicious. Although the place is always crowded, and the lines can get a little long, I never had trouble finding a comfy chair in a relatively quiet corner. And the 10p.m. close every day makes it the perfect choice for evening marathon work sessions.

Sometimes, though, you just don’t want to go to a coffee “club.” For that reason I ventured to a few other local spots.

Lola Coffee

Photo by Si R on Yelp

If Lux is the coffee shop for hipsters, Lola is the coffee shop for the hipsters’ older siblings. Lola is on the small side, with just one bright room filled with couches, arm chairs and some perimeter bar seating. The music is good and the coffee is tasty, although it runs a touch pricier than at Lux. Lola also serves up a number of pastry options; I indulged in a flaky butter croissant one Sunday morning that did not disappoint.

Spending time at Lola does not take as much effort as at Lux (I saw plenty of PCs there looking perfectly at home). The staff is friendly and I find it hard to believe they would kick someone out for over-staying her welcome, but its limited seating makes it hard to blend in and get too comfortable. I wouldn’t feel right staying there for more than an hour or so on one cup of coffee. That, and the fact that Lola is only open until 7p.m. on weekdays and 2p.m. on Sunday, kept me from spending too much time there. But it’s a great choice for grabbing a quiet cup of coffee on a Sunday morning.

Copper Star Coffee

Copper Star Coffee

Photo by Dave B.

I found out about Copper Star a little late in the game and some Yelp reviewers claimed the wifi was a little spotty, so I only spent one evening here. But if my internet troubles had lasted longer, I likely would have spent a lot more time here. It’s also small, even smaller than Lola, and the seating is all tables and chairs. But it has a casual atmosphere befitting a coffee shop located in an old gas station. I spent a few hours there one evening alongside only a few other patrons, all of whom were studying or working or something. The music was good, but not too loud, and the staff was friendly. The coffee was tasty — the priciest so far (but not by much) — and I also enjoyed a yummy piece of pumpkin (or was it banana?) bread. I had no trouble with the wifi. As I said, when the need or the mood strikes for me to take my work outside of my home, I’ll head back to Copper Star. There was just something about the relaxed vibe that made me feel I could spend a decent amount of time there being ignored (in a good way).

Starbucks

Starbucks 7th Street

Photo by Had R. on Yelp

I know, I know. With all the cool, local coffee shops to choose from, why would I go to Starbucks? Two reasons: #1: It is the closest coffee shop to my house, and there were times that proximity was the most important feature; #2 I can go to Starbucks in my “I-hope-I-don’t-see-anybody-I-know” clothes. Laugh if you will, but it’s an important feature at times. So as much as I believe in supporting the local guy over the big bad chains, I do concede that Starbucks omnipresence and convenience serve a purpose. Like now, when I’m writing this while drinking a Starbucks soy latte because the closest local coffee shop to my current location, Fair Trade Cafe, was closed.

So what did I learn from all of this? Not have access to the internet really, really sucks. I realize, now more than ever, that I am 100% addicted to the internet. But it’s comforting to know that I have a number of cool, local coffee shops to choose from when I need to get on the World Wide Web (and get a tasty caffeine kick while I’m at it).

and in your teeth, you’ll find enlightenment

After avoiding it for over 10 years, I’m finally having my wisdom teeth removed tomorrow. I don’t know what it is about this whole ordeal I find so terrifying — I don’t have a problem with the dentist and have breezed through many minor-major dental/orthodontic procedures with little trouble. Okay, so maybe the crazy coconut cream pie addiction I picked up while I had braces — getting those wires tightened is no joke! — was a bit disconcerting. But it ended as quickly as it began when my braces came off (and when my San Francisco pie pusher, Bepples Pies, closed its doors…what a sad day that was).

I think I’m afraid of the general anesthesia (a first for me) and I know I’m afraid of the subsequent pain, the tales of which have become legendary thanks to everyone I know having some story of dry socket or TMJ or another equally horrific sounding mouth malady. But maybe, just maybe, I’m suffering from the Samson syndrome. Is there a corner of my brain that believes I will come out of my post-surgery haze with markedly less wisdom than when I went in? Do those insanely long wisdom tooth roots hold some as-of-yet untapped enlightenment that I would be loathe to forgo?

Not likely. But the image from this cheesy 1996 made-for-TV version of Samson and Delilah starring Dennis Hopper and Elizabeth Hurley has done much to put my mind at ease. I mean, if the gorgeous Elizabeth Hurley can survive starring in what looks like a stinker of Biblical proportions, than surely I can survive having a couple of teeth pulled, right?

oh summer, you double-edged sword

It’s 7:38 a.m. I’m enjoying a smoothie made from fresh fruit and vegetables I bought at the farmer’s market, and a nice cup of coffee. This morning I’ve cleaned the pool and my yoga mats and taken Maggie for a walk. I’m listening to my iTunes on shuffle, tapping my toes to the beats of Mike Doughty, The Joy Formidable, Empire of the Sun, The Crocodiles, Kid Cudi and The Strokes (wait, how did that Ashlee Simpson get in there?).

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why it’s so hard to be a teacher

While sipping my Sunday morning coffee and perusing my Facebook feed, I came across a thoughtful New York Times column by 826 National tutoring center co-founders Dave Eggers and Nínive Clements Calegari on the problems associated with low teacher pay. Eggers and Clements Calegari liken teachers to soldiers: both groups are “in the trenches” working to improve conditions for our country. But unlike soldiers, who are revered for literally risking their lives (and rightfully so), the authors argue, teachers tend to take the blame for the failing public schools campaign. They write:

When we don’t like the way our students score on international standardized tests, we blame the teachers. When we don’t like the way particular schools perform, we blame the teachers and restrict their resources.

Compare this with our approach to our military: when results on the ground are not what we hoped, we think of ways to better support soldiers. We try to give them better tools, better weapons, better protection, better training. And when recruiting is down, we offer incentives.

I had a visceral reaction to reading this column, not because I didn’t already know and agree with all it had to say, but because I just signed my life away on Friday for a ninth year of teaching. And when I say signing my life away, I mean it. Teaching, at least for me, is all-consuming. There are very few moments in the day that I’m not actively teaching, thinking about teaching, grading papers, planning lessons, running teaching-related errands or worrying about teaching. I even dream about teaching. I spend, on average, 10 hours a day on my school campus, and at least an additional hour each night once I get home. I don’t take a lunch — I typically have students in my room working or there’s other prep work to be done — so I shovel whatever frozen meal I’ve brought that day down my gullet at my desk, and I rush to the bathroom whenever I can during the seven-minute passing time between classes. I’d love for anyone who has a traditional “desk job” to spend a day with a teacher, just so they can appreciate the non-stop action of a typical day at school. And while many outside education point to the summer vacation when teachers complain about their tough jobs and low pay, the truth is I spend a good deal of my summer teaching at workshops, revising lesson plans and meeting with my newspaper and yearbook staffs to prepare for the coming year. Outside of my summer teaching gigs, this time is unpaid. (Still, I won’t lie, summer vacation rocks.)

I am not complaining. I have come to accept these conditions as part of the job, and I don’t have a problem with that; I often kept long hours in my previous career in public relations, and it’s just in my nature to take my job very seriously. No, what has worn me down is not the hard work or even the embarrassingly low pay. It’s the increasingly insurmountable obstacles that are being placed in teachers’ paths at every turn, which make it nearly impossible to do the job in a way that we can feel good about. It’s not solely about the money, although, as an American, it’s really hard not to equate my professional worth to my salary. It’s about the conditions under which we are expected to do our job — and let’s remember that the job is to educate our young people so that they may go on to contribute to our society in a way that will help us maintain our status as a world superpower and shining example of democracy. The Arizona legislature this month voted to cut $180 million from the state’s education soft capital budget for fiscal year 2012, after cutting $165 million in 2011. What does this mean for teachers? Well, I know at my school it means another increase to class size — we are likely to top 40 in many of our classrooms next school year; less money to provide transportation, fix equipment and buy textbooks and classroom supplies — I spend about $300 of my own money each year on things like markers, construction paper, magazines, rewards, etc., for my classes; and most unfortunately, fewer curricular choices for our students. Cutting the budget means doing away with programs that do not have huge numbers and are not required for graduation — you know, the ones that often help students find a career path they wish to pursue or that provide some other creative or physical outlet other than taking notes and writing essays (I’ll admit I’m especially sensitive on this subject, as I teach elective journalism courses). Continue reading

rediscovering a source of inspiration

When I was in 8th and 9th grade, I was obsessed with the movie Lean on Me. I was so inspired by the story of Principal Joe Clark and the crazy tough-love tactics he used to turn around his New Jersey high school. After my grandpa met Clark I even hung the autographed movie poster he brought me on my bedroom wall.  I’m watching the movie again after a number of years and am wondering if a seed wasn’t planted in the back of my brain, way back then, that eventually led me down the path to becoming a teacher. Although I teach at a school of relative privilege, my students face many of the same challenges as those in the movie — drugs, violence, teen pregnancy — and if I can do just the tiniest bit to steer them in the right direction, I suppose I will have accomplished what I set out to do. And maybe Principal Clark would be proud.

Here’s one of my favorite parts of the movie, featuring ’90s R&B group Riff:

my go-to iphone apps

This isn’t exactly breaking news, as my Verizon friends have had plenty of time to become acquainted with their new iPhones. When I started this post nearly a month ago, I thought it be helpful to put together a list of my favorite apps to help guide them through the learning curve. They are probably all more iPhone savvy than I am at this point, but figured I should finish what I started.

It’s not surprise that many of my most-used apps also happen to be everyone else’s most-used apps. But that just means they are so good they are worth mentioning again. So here is my list of my favorite apps, both the well-known and the less popular gems. All apps are free (I’m an app cheap skate) unless otherwise noted.

The Necessities
Facebook:
Obviously.
Google and Google Maps: Again, obviously.
AroundMe: Looking for the closest dry cleaner around you? Need to find a bank? A sushi joint? Find it on AroundMe.
Yelp: The go-to for restaurant suggestions wherever you happen to be. The GPS map is particularly helpful when you want suggestions outside your neighborhood.
Skype: This free or low-cost (depending on who you are calling) internet phone app is a life-saver when the husband is traveling, especially when he is out of the country.
The Weather Channel: There’s nothing I hate worse than being inappropriately dressed for the weather.
Wikipedia: I hate not knowing something.
IMDb: I hate not knowing something about movies and the people who star in them.
Sirius XM: I can’t live without my Sirius Satellite Radio in my car, in my house, on my phone.
Alarm Clock Pro ($0.99):
Keeps me punctual by gently waking me up to my favorite iPod playlists.
Nike+ GPS:
Record every mile you run, get time and pace updates, even hear words of encouragement from your favorite running idols (like Tracy Morgan!). If I take a run without it, I feel cheated — like it didn’t even happen.
New York Times and NPR: Of all my news apps, these are the two I check the most.

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