Saturday, August 28, 2010

Tech Your Way to Fitness

A week ago, I stumbled across this article on the NY Times website. I will confess I was almost immediately inspired. As many readers know, I've devoted a huge portion to this summer working to develop healthier eating habits. For the most part, that work has been successful. I've managed to incorporate significantly healthier foods into my diet. I've become mindful of what I put in my mouth and still not go to the crazy extreme of completely banishing foods that I love. This week, I began working out again at a local fitness center. It was hard seeing how out of shape I've become compared to what I used to be able to handle at the gym a couple years ago, but I've felt amazing over the course of the past several days feeling muscles coming to life and burning those calories.

I have kept coming back in my mind, though, to the NY Times article. I like the sort of accountability this author created -- a sort of "check in" where he (and others) could watch his progress or see his stumbles. If I have the Twitterverse to account to, will I be more likely to pass by the French fries and grab that side salad instead? Will I go to the gym so I can report it to my followers?

I've decided to experiment with it, so I created a Twitter account called "GettingMelFit." Feel free to follow me and watch my progress. The more followers I have, the more incentive I'll have to keep it up.

Friday, August 27, 2010

I'm Still Here

Friends, the 2010-2011 school year is officially underway. It's been a long week as I've struggled to get back into the swing of things. There have been a lot of changes in room 207 this year. I have more sections of my English Fundamentals class than ever before. We've completely revamped our English I curriculum. There were a lot of things that I was really a bit concerned about as I walked back into my classroom.

So far, though, so good. Despite the fact that Fundamentals students tend to be on the lower end of the academic scale (in other words, juniors and seniors who are not particularly stellar students), my classes have been responding well to the first week of lessons. My freshmen are crazy about The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. The biggest challenge I've faced this week is time management. After a summer of a pretty lax schedule, it takes a little time to get used to balancing prepping for three different courses, particularly when I've added more work for myself through the introduction of journals into all my classes except Speech.

I am also hosting a student teacher for the first time ever. She's a terrific young woman from my alma mater -- eager, enthusiastic, and full of incredible ideas. I'm almost jealous of her getting to stand on the threshold of this career path and that optimism and hope that envelopes you at that stage in your career. I'm still passionate about my career, but there are definitely some bruises on that passion after having been battered about by apathy and hostility during the ten years of my career. There are days when I have to work harder to see the good in some kids and when my patience appears to have taken the first coach outta Dodge.

But I'm still here.

This week has been full of reminders of why that passion still burns inside me, though, despite the bruises. There is the exhilaration of having your students remember even the most trivial details from a presentation. Or having a student come running in to class to tell you how much he loves the book we're reading in class. Or getting emails and phone calls from former students to tell you how wonderfully they're doing in college.

And then there was my day's end today. Yesterday, we had our first Drama Club meeting. Forty-two kids packed themselves into my classroom to get audition information for the fall play, cheer loudly when I announced the spring musical (Grease), and elect their officers. After school today, a young man (let's call him Antonio) came into my room to get audition information. I'd seen Antonio at the meeting last night, and I have to admit I kind of thought he was maybe there with a friend.

A little background.... when he was a freshman, Antonio was in my English I class. In the entire year I had Antonio, I don't think I heard him say even one word. He was so quiet and shy, very insecure. A lot of that stemmed from the fact that English was not Antonio's first language, and he was struggling mightily with school because he lacked the basic vocabulary teachers took for granted he would have. Many teachers worked to help Antonio, providing alternate versions of tests with an easier vocabulary, after school tutoring, et cetera. Antonio managed to work hard and pass English I, and I only saw him in passing last year as he headed down the hall to his English II class. I heard through the grapevine that he was working hard and doing well.

And now, here was Antonio asking for audition information. He looked at me with these amazing big brown eyes of his (he's kind of a little guy but cute as a button) and said so earnestly, "I want to be an actor!" He went on to ask me questions about the play -- would he have to sing? Did any of the characters have accents? His enthusiasm and earnestness floored me. If I hadn't known better, I would never have believed this was the same Antonio who was a virtual mute his freshman year. I nearly wept after he left and I explained to my student teacher why Antonio's presence was such a total shocker.

Now, I'm not claiming any responsibility for Antonio's transformation. I haven't been his teacher for over a year, and clearly the people he worked with last year guided him through some pretty amazing stuff. But I love the fact that Antonio sees art as a pathway for him, a way for him to become more engaged in life at our school, and I love that I get to maybe help him take those first steps, even if it's just getting him up onstage for an audition next week.

Because of Antonio and the dozens of other kids like him who walk into my room every single day, I am most definitely still here.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

You Go, Girl . . . Eat that Pasta!

Ah . . . summer! It's a time filled with cookouts, fresh fruit, and summer blockbusters. The past few years, Hollywood has seen the value in what you could call "counterprogramming" during the summer -- releasing movies that don't involve explosions or robots or any of the mindless stuff we usually have shoved down our throats. One bit of "counterprogramming" that seems to have caught on is the release of movies geared towards adult women. I think of these films as literary chick flicks since they are based on books and feature women as their central characters; my sis refers to it as "You Go, Girl" cinema in that she says that is the response she imagines the audience is supposed to give when watching these tales. Last year, we had Julie and Julia, where Julie Powell and Julia Child found fulfillment through food and writing. This year, we get Eat, Pray, Love. If the audience I was part of this afternoon is any indication, the Vera Bradley-toting women of America are flocking to theaters en masse to gobble up one of the few films made with them in mind.

The film is based on a memoir by Elizabeth Gilbert chronicling her post-divorce quest for healing and enlightenment. This quest finds Gilbert spending a year in Italy, India, and Bali (funded by a healthy book advance) where she does exactly what the title implies -- eats a lot, prays a lot, and eventually finds a way to love a lot.

I read Gilbert's book earlier this summer. I quite liked it. I found Gilbert's voice completely engaging; at times, she reminded me a lot of my best friend. I could relate to Gilbert's quest for some sort of spiritual fulfillment, and I appreciated the sort of holistic approach she took to spirituality. She wasn't advocating a particular faith, just describing what worked for her. I loved the people who populated her adventures and the warmth with which Gilbert seemed to approach life in general. I looked forward to the film if only to see the places and people Gilbert described so beautifully brought to life.

In many respects, I quite liked the film. Ryan Murphy created a lovely film to look at -- incredible scenery and the way the food was filmed makes it a must-see for fans of "food porn." (I went home after the movie and immediately made a huge plate of pasta with fresh herbs.) He keeps the most memorable characters and manages to keep things moving along at a decent pace. The film clocks in at over two hours, but it felt like a pretty quick two hours. The third act did feel a bit rushed compared to the other segments, though, which is unfortunate in that it is during her visit to Bali that Liz finds potential love with a handsome Brazilian, played here by Javier Bardem. Bardem's Felipe is so charming and richly portrayed that I wanted more of him. (Well, when isn't more Javier Bardem a good thing??) I would have preferred to see the opening scenes with Liz and her ineffectual husband (Billy Crudup) and her young actor lover (James Franco) cut down more to allow for more Bardem.

My real issue with the film, though, was Liz herself. I loved the Liz Gilbert of the book -- wry, intelligent, and conflicted. I rooted for her and identified with her. In the film, though, Liz takes the form of Julia Roberts. I'm not one of those people who rolls my eyes at the mere mention of Julia Roberts. In fact, I typically like her. When she's firing on all of her acting cylinders, you remember why she's the biggest female movie star of the past twenty years. There's a joy she brings to the screen, a glint in her eye, that can be infectious. The problem is that it's hard for Julia to become lost in a character the way that other actresses are. You never, ever forget that you're watching Julia Roberts because she rarely if ever strays from that Julia Roberts formula -- that smile, that laugh, that vocal inflection never change whether she's playing a hooker with a heart of gold, a crusading legal aide, or a writer on a spiritual quest. She's ALWAYS Julia Roberts. Because she's always Julia, you never really worry about her because Julia always pulls through and wins the guy, defeats the evil corporation, or finds peace. With another actress in the role, perhaps Liz's angst would have seemed a little more real and silenced the critics who are writing the movie off as the tale of a self-centered yuppie whiner. Because no one can ever believe that Julia has any significant problems (and certainly would never have any issues with her conscience), it's hard to believe in Liz's crisis as portrayed by Julia. There's also the fact that Julia is about a decade older than Gilbert was when she went on her own journey. For some reason, the existential angst that Liz faces seems more realistic coming from someone in her early-to-mid 30's than in her 40's. The part would have worked better in the hands of, say, Amy Adams or Jennifer Garner, but Amy and Jennifer can't open a movie like Julia can, so there you have it -- Julia Roberts as Liz Gilbert whether it works or not.

I don't want this to sound like I didn't like the movie; I really did. Unlike many who've criticized the movie, I didn't find Liz self-serving or lacking in sympathy. I could relate to her need to work out a new definition of who she was and who she wanted to be. While most of us couldn't afford to take a year off to explore foreign lands (or be lucky enough to wind up in Javier Bardem's bed), I refuse to begrudge Liz because she did. Take the film for what it is -- entertaining escapism -- and leave it at that, and you'll find yourself vicariously living a pretty cool adventure through some beautiful terrain. What more could you want on a summer afternoon?

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Lazy Days Are Numbered

This time of year is always a bittersweet one for me. Today, I began my last full week of summer. Next week will be packed with unpacking my classroom, meetings, and getting things ready for another school year. On the one hand, I love this time of year. I truly love my job, and I miss my students during the summer. I love the anticipation of this time of year, wondering what the year will hold, what my new freshmen will be like, and how classes will go. I already know some new and different challenges lie ahead. We're adding two new books to our English I curriculum this year -- Elie Wiesel's Night and Sherman Alexie's awesome The Absolutely True Diaries of a Part-Time Indian. I'm adding Catcher in the Rye to my English Fundamentals class. I will also be hosting a student teacher this fall for the first time ever. She's a student from my alma mater. We've exchanged some emails, and I am meeting with her next week. I hope I'm a good mentor!!

On the other hand, there's also this part of me that is devastated to see the summer end. Because nine months of my year are so packed with teaching and directing and coaching, these months of summer are a welcome respite of blissful nothingness. I do love sleeping in and staying up late to read. There's also this sense of disappointment in that I often start the summer with such high hopes and plans, and then I get to these last days and realize I've not done much of what I intended. Did I paint my storage shed in the backyard? Nope. Did I undertake the Herculean task of organizing my library? Not a chance. Today, I did break down and spent two hours in the kitchen cleaning and organizing cabinets. I'm hoping later this week to tackle my linen closet which threatens to bury me under towels and sheets every time I'm brave enough to open it. I have to admit, though, that a lot of what I thought this summer would involve has not come to pass . . . and try not to beat myself up too much over that.