Thursday, March 31, 2016

Quarterly Review

We've come to the end of the Better Living Through Criticism blogging challenge.  This professional critic declares it a success.

Now, on the heels of a busy month of scintillating reviews, I've decided to start another new blog feature, which is the Quarterly Review.  It's going to be a series of little lists, and I know everyone will enjoy them.  I aim to do them at the end of March, June, September, and December.

Here we go:

The Three Best Books I Read in the First Quarter: 
  • The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin. A middle grade novel certain to captivate. Sweet, emotional, heartfelt, and convincing.
  • Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell. A Harry Potter nerd's paradise. Sisters, first love, coming-of-age.
  • The Martian by Andrew Weir. Super sciencey, but also hilarious and suspenseful. A total package. And the movie stars my celebrity boyfriend, Matt Damon.
Three YouTube Videos Recommended by Shef and Mac:
These kids can entertain themselves for hours with YouTube.  I don't personally recommend any of these videos:

Three Blog Posts by Other People that Really Rocked It:

  • Requiem for a Crock Pot Dish by Pronto Pup. Features the usual humor, but also with a hilarious dash of failure. This is the only recipe Pronto has featured that resulted in a trip out for dinner.
  • Sankalpa 4 by Leeway. Something about The Bachelor contestants living a wide awake life really makes me laugh.  Also, it makes me laugh that Lee talks about texting her husband while competing on The Bachelor.  This reminds me of how Dan and I discuss how our hometown dates would be really fun: "I really hope Krystal likes my wife and kids. If she doesn't, it could be a real deal breaker."
  • New Yorker! by Rachel. My sister has really excelled at being a new blogger.  This entry about changing the address of her New Yorker subscription is spot on.
And that's it for the first quarter of 2016!  I'll think of some other lists for the next installment.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Professional #TwinTuesday Literary Travel Critic

I'm not really a sci-fi gal in general, and neither is my #TwinTuesday artistic partner, Lee.  That's the beauty of this week's offering.  Obviously, as literacy educators, we're all about books (expected), but not really all about sci-fi (unexpected).   Next, pair the books we haven't read with a little leather, and we've got an edgy combo.

Speaking of edgy, let me professionally review the first three books of The Selection Series by Kiera Cass.

As you might guess from the covers, the books are sort of silly and overwrought.  Ordinarily when a series captivates a large percentage of my students, I'll read the first installment and then beg them breathlessly to tell me what happens in the others.  I've done this with Marie Lu's Legend series, Veronica Roth's Divergent series, and Robert Muchamore's Cherub series, to name a few.  But The Selection!  Cass winds romance, jealousy, violence, rebellion, and class warfare into the irresistible story of the fetching and fiesty America Singer, a struggling low-caste musician who enters The Selection - the competition to become the wife of Prince Maxon Schreave.  I read the first three books one after the other, even purchasing the third for myself because I couldn't wait for the school library copy. Cass's writing becomes crisper and more lively as the books progress.  The plot, while predictable on a basic level, also twists and shifts pleasurably.  These are solid three-star books.  Silly, yes, but also addictive, clever, and super fun. If not for the covers, I'd even think Shef would like them.  Maybe the publisher can reissue the series with the male leads on the covers?  That's my suggestion to increase readership with the male-identified.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Professional Road Trip Critic

The children and I made it back from Chicago and are on a one-day travel reprieve until we sally forth to Vail, Colorado.  I will now professionally review our first 2016 spring trip.

Navigation: 5 of 5 stars for my beautiful and talented sister, Mary.  She sat by my side while I piloted the miniature van. She expertly and efficiently consulted Google maps and assisted me in paying my tolls online.  I paid online on purpose because who wants to stop and pay tolls?

Companionship: 5 of 5 stars.  There was minimal arguing and deft cooperation at almost all times.  The children preferred to Uber rather than walk, which was kind of disappointing as I'd rather perambulate of my own power. Still, we balanced the options accordingly to optimize everyone's happiness and comfort.  Of course, I reveled in the constant presence of my sister, who tends not to live in Minnesota or even the USA.  She still gets 5 of 5 stars, even though I have abandonment issues.

Sights, Attractions, and Dining: 5 of 5 stars.  Have you been to Chicago?  It's really one of my favorite cities.  This time, I visited some old stand-bys - Frontera Grill, the shops of Michigan Avenue - and had some new-to-me adventures, including SkyDeck (formerly known as The Sears Tower) and Lou Malnati's Chicago-Style Pizzaria.  I keep wanting to go to the Shedd Aquarium and not going to the Shedd. I know I'll be back in Chicago soon, however, and the Shedd will top my list.

Accommodations: 5 of 5 stars.  When we got to the Renaissance on West Wacker Drive, we were surprised to find the lobby stuffed with Iowa State basketball enthusiasts.  "What's happening?" we asked.  "The team is staying here," the crowd replied.  Sure enough, right during the chaos of check-in, very tall and headphoned individuals streamed off the elevators and high-fived the throng.  At this point, the desk agent tried to assign me a room with only one bed.  "That won't work," I said amiably. "I have four people, as I indicated on my online reservation."  The agent retreated to the office and came back with the news that I'd been awarded a complimentary upgrade to a huge-ass suite with a full view of the Chicago River, and less desirably, Trump Tower.  Huzzah!

Overall: Clearly, this trip was 5 of 5 stars.  Because the children were charming and agreeable and mostly appreciative of the experience, I felt like planning another trip.  "What city should we visit next?"  The answer was quick and definitive: LA.  Noah and Rachel, we're coming for you.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Professional 37 Critic

As you may know, I turned 38 years old this week.  I'll now review my 38th year.  That was last year.  It seems like it should have been my 37th year, but after thinking about it carefully for at least 60 seconds, I've deterimned it was my 38th.

In any case, the year has been momentous for many reasons.  First, we introduced Teddy Bridgewater the Goldendoodle to our family.  I'm pretty much the only one who loves Teddy here, but that's okay.  He's my dog.  He's exuberant and filled with potential.  We've had a set-back in the last couple of days in that I decided to skimp on my chew budget and fed him sub-par rawhide sticks from Target.  Explosive diarrhea ensued, and I now have an occasion to professionally review a cleaning product called "Anti-Icky Poo" by MisterMax.  I'm giving it 5 of 5 stars.

More momentousness came in the form of my long-lost siblings Rachel and Noah who are now no longer lost, but are rather on speed dial.  It's a miracle.  I give them both 5 of 5 stars.

A final momentous moment is now.  I'm on a family trip to Chicago with my sister Mary and my two wonderful and amazing children. All three of my companions earn 5 of 5 stars.  The drive was utterly splendiferous with sunshine and blue skies and peaceful riders who refrained from arguing for a full seven hours.  Our Chicago-style pizza featured mild sausage and a buttery crust.  The pool delighted my younger companions, and Mary and I only got in minimal trouble for sipping Chardonnay on the deck. The trip is 5 of 5 so far, and I expect this to continue.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Professional DIY Critic

Today for #TwinTuesday, Lee and I have Easter-related items and pastry brushes.  Mine's made of silicone.  Funny you should mention silicone because I need to review my DIY project from yesterday.

Here's what I did: I replaced my bathroom faucet.  Let's consider the aspects of this project.

Research: I give myself 3.5 of 5 stars. I watched YouTube videos and texted my friend Robin, who is a DIY machine.  Could I have done more reading about plumbing terms like gasket and flange?  Probably.  I still can't, even after perusing Wikipedia entries and scouring Google images, positively identify a flange.

Shopping: I give myself 5 of 5 stars.  I selected a reasonably-priced faucet by Delta that met Dan's specifications.  His specifications were, "I actually don't like separate handles for hot and cold water." 

Direction-Following: I give myself 5 of 5 stars.  I followed all directions to a perfect T.  I paused the YouTube video after each step and followed the my online coach's instructions exactly.  I felt powerful.  Actually, I felt invincible.  I removed the faucet and put a new one in its place! Bring on foreign policy and climate change!

Trouble-Shooting: Sadly, even after I followed all of the directions, my faucet still leaked at the connection to the basin.  I tried reassembling it.  I tried adding more plumber's putty, which I learned about precisely for this project.  I tried using teflon tape, also a product I didn't even know about until yesterday.  I'm sorry to say that, at this moment, my sink is leaking at the bottom of the basin.  Nevertheless, I give myself 3 of 5 stars for trouble-shooting.  It's not my fault that my efforts have failed. Next, I'm buying a washer.  Could I have done a better job of researching washers?  Maybe.  That's why I only earned 3.5 stars on Research.

Patience and Sticktoitivenss: I deserve a solid 4.5 stars.  Is it annoying that a job that should take 45 minutes to an hour has taken me over three hours?  Yes, it is.  Is it annoying that even after all of those minutes spent on the project, my sink still leaks?  Yes, it is.  But, have I given up and called a professional? NO. NO, I HAVE NOT!  And I won't!  I can DIY with the bottom 25 percent!

Monday, March 21, 2016

Professional Music Critic

Oh, dear.  What's happened is, it takes a lot longer to write these thoughtful reviews than it does to dash off my usual flippancy. Therefore, March hasn't been super prolific.  Luckily, I went to a concert last night, which I will now review.  To prep for this work, I've listened to a podcast featuring a music critic and read a couple of reviews on music sites.  It's clear from this research that I have neither the content knowledge, nor the passion to effectively review the concert.  However, I won't let these barriers get in my way.

yMusic opened for José González at the Pantages Theater in downtown Minneapolis last night.  yMusic is a chamber ensemble, producing swirling atmospheric sound. Brass, winds, and strings meld and careen.  The back-lighting catches the loose bow strings of the cello and violins. Rhythm coalesces and then spirals out. One piece, "Music in Circles," echoed the sounds of an air conditioner (this was the actual, reported inspiration of the composer) and seemed also to incorporate sonic whooshes of a sneeze.  Later, I'm going to listen to this piece again.

I was expecting a rock concert, so the avant garde classical vibe really threw me for a loop, and I couldn't stop laughing.  This had nothing to do with the quality of the performance and everything to do with my own immaturity.

After a few pieces, González took the stage.  I dug his intricate, spider-webby acoustic riffs.  His voice is whispery and understated.  He sat stage right and as if by magic, yMusic reappeared after a few songs.  Together, the seven musicians mesmerized.  The flautist started singing.  The trumpet player swapped that instrument for a French horn.  A wind player interchanged an oboe for a sax for a clarinet.  It wasn't a rock concert, but it was really something.

Am I glad I went to the José González show?  100%.  Do I wish I were smarter about musical style and technique? 100%. Increased skillz would have increased enjoyment in this case, almost certainly.  And that's saying something because I did really enjoy it.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Professional Green Smoothie Critic

I'm still kicking with the green smoothies three or four times per week.  The reason I'm no longer a daily drinker?  It's laziness, pure and simple.  It seems like soooo much work to get the ingredients and blend the smoothie.

The key component of a green smoothie is the greens.  I like a specialty mix of baby kale, spinach, and swiss chard. I push the frozen greens into my single-serve blending receptacle first thing. My milk choice is a coconut/almond blend, poured almost to the top of the greens.  Half a banana adds silkiness and drinkability. In terms of the frozen fruit, I prefer mango, pineapple, or peaches. Do you know what's disgusting in a green smoothie?  Berries.  This is personal preference, but it's also the truth.

For stir-ins, I'd steer readers to a vanilla protein powder which lends just a bit of sweetness.  Mel turned me on to Orgain protein powder, which is thus far, my clear favorite. In the last week, inspired by re-reading Born to Run by Christopher McDougall,  I've been adding Chia seeds. Chia is the superfood of many a distance runner, including the endurance superfreaks of the Tarahumara tribes in the Copper Canyons of Mexico.  The issue with adding Chia?  The seeds don't get pulverized in my Ninja blender, and instead the little pellets get stuck in the grooves of my molars. This irritates me, but it doesn't negate the nutritional benefits of Chia. I'm sure there's Chia powder, but I haven't yet investigated this.

Overall, I give give green smoothies 4.5 of 5 stars.  They're excellent, but I don't make them each and every day.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Professional Assembly Critic

Each Monday we gather - all 350 of us - in the auditorium for a community assembly.  It's impeccably organized and student-run, and it includes all of the announcements required for a full and happy Middle School life.

Yesterday, however, it went off script.  First, a serious and stern science teacher stood and admonished the boys for not flushing their poops down the toilet.  His announcement incorporated the well-known adage, "If it's brown, flush it down."  I blinked and raised my eyebrows. "It also makes me think you're not washing your hands," he scolded.


Just when I thought the misery had ended, the librarian stood and made the same announcement, but directed at the girls.  "Some of our toilets are low flow," she explained, "so you need two flushes.  Make sure the toilet is clean before you leave the stall."

For real?

After the second defecation-related reminder, the Assistant Director continued his planned remarks, accompanied by slides.  Unfortunately, he had arrived at the Inspirational Quote segment of his presentation, and regretfully, yesterday's inspirational quote was, "Make today your masterpiece."

Nobody could handle it, including me.  "And if you do make a masterpiece," the AD deadpanned, "make sure you flush it down."

This, my friends, is just another moment at my job.  My professional place of employment.  The work to which I have dedicated my career and for which I have incurred graduate school debt.  Changing lives and influencing the youth of America.  For real.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Professional Box Lacrosse Critic

You might not have known about a sport called box lacrosse.  It's like lacrosse, widely considered the most violent youth sport on record including football and hockey, except it's played inside a hockey rink.  Nets hang from the ceiling and attach to the plexiglass above the boards.  Turf covers the surface area normally frozen with ice.  Kids race up and down the field with fiberglass sticks.  When one kid manages to secure the ball - racquetball-sized, but more dense than a baseball - the others give chase and whack the carrier intermittently with their sticks.  This is legal.

Every once in a while, the ball carrier makes it past the defense and takes a shot.  A heavily-padded goalie blocks most of the target, but sometimes kids wing one past him and the crowd of sports-crazed parents erupts.

In terms of spectator enjoyment, I'd give box lacrosse four stars.  It's fast-moving and predictable, with three 15-minute periods and running time.

In terms of quality of cardiovascular exercise, I'd give box lacrosse five stars.  Shef was quite sweaty at the conclusion of the games.  He also displayed a powerful thirst, and his face remained thoroughly flushed even thirty minutes past the final whistle.

In terms of player safety, I'd give box lacrosse 3 stars.  Concussion and cognitive impairment seem unlikely; however, bruising and breakage seem imminent due to the stick-whacking aspect of the sport.

Overall, I give box lacrosse four stars.  Why not?  It's pretty good.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Professional Fashion Critic

Early in the week, I wore a long-sleeved, knee-length shift dress with black tights and ankle-boots.  I accessorized with a gray-scale infinity scarf and silver earrings.  About five people told me I looked "so professional," in admiring tones.  5 stars.

Yesterday, I arrived at work in bright blue pants and a quirky intarsia-knit sweater featuring three large pairs of eye-glasses.  It was a cool outfit, I have to say.  Something worn by someone in a creative field.  A creative, fast-paced field like teaching spring-fevered sixth graders.  Anyway, I discovered my pants were dirty only when the fluorescent lights hit them, at which point I immediately identified three stains and a patch of dirt.  Further, I developed a bright red zit an inch and a half above the bridge of my glasses.  2 stars, tops.

Some days, you nail it.  Other days, you teach in dirty pants with pimple in the middle of your forehead.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Professional Coffee Critic

Fair: The free, industrial coffee supplied by my employer does the trick when no other option presents.  It's warm, brown, and has a taste reminiscent of coffee.

Satisfying: The coffee we make at home is fair trade and flavorful.  We grind it on site, and although we haven't replaced the filter in the machine in over-long, this coffee propels my morning.

Delightful: A parent donated a Keurig single-cup coffee maker to our faculty. We keep it in the lounge.  Although I feel guilty about the individual plastic cups, I have to say the Donut Shop flavor increases my happiness exponentially. There's something quite satisfying about placing my travel mug beneath the spigot and watching the coffee accumulate just for me. I keep the K-cups in my mailbox, and I share them occasionally to pay it forward, which makes me feel righteous on top of everything else.

Decadent: Once or twice a week, I purchase a Flat White from Starbucks.  It's a latté, but with an extra shot of ristretto espresso and smooth whole milk.  This thing is just the ticket.  Just the ticket for a sleepy morning when all-day, every-day middle school seems like a questionable life choice.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Professional #TwinTuesday Critic

The combination of shark and passport is truly unexpected.  While my photo highlights some interesting elements - contrasting colors, monochromatic objects in the family of blue, transparency and reflection, it lacks the polish of Lee's photo, below. 

Look how the texture of the fabric echoes in the patina of the passport.  Light from the left illuminates both the metallic lettering and the dorsal fin of the charming, yet imposing whale shark.  

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Professional Birthday Party Critic

We attended a surprise 50th birthday party last night.  The spouse of the birthday honoree thoroughly planned in advance and chose a venue conveniently located in our neighborhood.  Each invited couple prepared a set of six trivia questions - two sports-related, two music-related, and two to do with history and/or politics.  The quiz bowl provided an element of competition to ground the event.  The sharing of conjectured answers lent humor, and Dan established and repeated several one-liners throughout the game.

How did we do?  There's no way to sugar-coat it: We tanked the trivia, which leads me to the one flaw of the evening.  While the Mexican fare was flavorful and satisfying, the pilsner crisp and slightly effervescent, the company comfortable and warm - the trivia questions were just simply too obscure. There's no way I would know who hit a go-ahead home-run in the 1986 American League championships AND the name of the pitcher off of whom it was hit.  That's ridiculous.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Professional Hockey Play-off Critic

The stakes are high in the District 3 Peewee C hockey district championships.  Tonight the #9 seed Minneapolis Orange team faces off against the #4 seed Minneapolis Black team.  Before you count out the Oranges, of which Shef is a member, let's consider their play-off record so far.

En route to the final four, they've taken down #8 seed Delano, #5 seed Wayzata Gold and, last night, #3 seed Wayzata Blue.  They've fallen only once, and that was to the Evil Empire: Osseo Maple Grove Black, the #1 seed, in this double-elimination tourney.

The play at this 11 and 12 year-old level rose to frenetic as we wore down the Trojans in the final minutes of the 1-goal game. The passing ticked up considerably, the refs were markedly inconsistent, and the adrenaline blinded, forcing silly and potentially costly mistakes.  My yelling in the stands remained supportive and constant, although slightly derivative of the cheers lobbed around me.  Sometimes, I felt embarrassed to have aped an exact phrase from a neighbor, but let's be honest - the boys couldn't really hear me anyway.  Present and enthusiastic, I remained a portrait of a sane hockey mom.  I think.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Professional Self-Help Critic

Today, I'll review the chapter entitled "Inner Censor" on pages 12-15 of Dani Shapiro's book, Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life.  Shapiro's premise is that a devious hater sits on her left shoulder and tries to make her give up writing and feel terrible about herself.  That little wench is named "Inner Censor," or I.C.  In Brené Brown's book, the I.C. splits into a polymorphous crowd of misery called The Gremlins. Elizabeth Gilbert calls them just plain FEAR in Big Magic.

Not surprisingly, all of these writers suggest we flick away the despair carried in by anthropomorphized self-doubt and carry on with our creative lives. Dip your toe into the stream, Shapiro urges.  "[F]eel the rush of words there," she continues. "Words that are like a thousand silvery minnows, below the surface, rushing by. If I don't capture them, they will be lost."

I mean, duh.

What kind of self-help book would encourage you to just flipping give up?  But, I guess the reminder serves.  It's nice to know, I guess, that professional, published writers who have books instead of niche, unsponsored, unfamous blogs also struggle daily to just keep going.  I mean.  I guess.  Lee's got some Shapiro on her blog today too, FYI.  Check it OUT.