When life throws you lemons, thank it for the snack

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

May 2012 Squirrel of the Month: Slappy Squirrel

Okay, I know some people pick their "[blank] of the [month/day/week/year] at the beginning of said time frame. However, I wanted to pick it toward the end of the month. I will most likely--if I can remember--try to keep it around the 28th of the month, as all months have a 28th. So, it's time to build upon my earlier "Squirrels" post.

Image borrowed from http://webspace.webring.com/people/wd/danichg/0063.jpg. I do try to post my own original pictures when I have them. Of course, given that this particular image has also been "borrowed" from the original copyright owners, I think I might be forgiven for sharing in this case.... 
For the Month of May 2012 I highlight Slappy Squirrel from the 1990s cartoon series Animaniacs (and a brief appearance on Pinky & the Brain, as well as the Animaniacs movie Wacko's Wish). Slappy, voiced by Sherri Stoner, is an old bitter spinster aunt to Skippy (he may be highlighted in another month, so stay tuned). She likes her naps--always valuable to anyone at any age--and suffers no fools. She does care for Skippy, just in her own way. She shows us that 1) you're never too old to be funny and 2) one-liners never go out of style. Anyone who can revive the fast-paced bullet puns from the bygone era of comedy (think Abbot & Costello or Martin & Lewis) and pull it off in squirrel form deserves their own pedestal. So, thank you, Slappy Squirrel, for teaching another generation of kids that it's okay to be funny AND smart, that sometimes a well-placed slap can bring you back to reality, that there are many ways to care for your loved ones outside the expected conventions, and that sometimes an explosion is just the sort of solution a problem needs. Oh, and thank you for reminding us that naps are awesome. :-)

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Wonders of YouTube

I know, I know, everyone and their grandmother knows all about YouTube. It has become an everyday household world like Google and Facebook. There are many reasons why YouTube is a valuable resource, beyond its entertainment value. There are many reasons why some people consider YouTube a work of evil. This is about positivity, so I'll focus on the good points, specifically two points: education value and nostalgia value.

In one of the courses I teach my students have to create a personality profile on a fictional psychological professional. Characters such as Dr. Ben Sobel from Analyze This and Analyze That are fair game. They just have to have a psychology degree and, preferably, be "working" in some psychology-related field. That's not too hard to do, since there are over 50 divisions of the American Psychological Association, representing thousands of career opportunities. Recently, one of my groups [waiting to the last minute, of course] discovered that they could not obtain their source material (i.e. the original movies in which their character appeared) and I did not have a copy. So, I did a quick search on YouTube for the [character] + [movie] and found several clips from the films in which their character appeared. They will hopefully be able to observe enough of the character's behavior to put together a decent personality profile and it will probably end up saving time in the long run since they won't have to watch the entire movie, just the main clips with their character. I will admit, though, that I hope more of my students will plan their projects better (I give them the entire semester to work on it) and not have to resort to this, but I am glad that YouTube is there as a last resort so I don't have to fail anyone.

Also in the teaching category, while I do try to show The Simpsons [see previous post] in my classes as often as possible, sometimes I can find a quick, shorter video on YouTube that illustrates one of our topics more quickly with a similar entertainment value. One of the two videos I've used most frequently is a clip from "A Bat Divided" (Batman the Brave and the Bold) showing Batman split into the three parts of Freud's personality--id (slacker eating nachos), ego (logical science), superego (raging crime fighter). The other clip I like to use is a short segment from Robot Chicken involving a giraffe progressing through Kubler-Ross's five stages of dying--denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. The ideas stick in my students' minds so that all I have to do when we review for a test is mention the clips and all the information comes flooding back to them.

On the nostalgia front, raise your hand if you are a child of the 80s/90s. I am. I, like many others of my generation, grew up with a lot of great cartoons. Do you remember Tiny Toons, Anamaniacs, or Freekazoid? I know a lot of the old shows we watched as kids have been released on DVD and I'm glad because I can relieve my childhood while sharing them with my daughter. Sadly, many studios--Warner Brothers, especially!--have not gotten around to releasing their shows to DVD, Netflix, or syndication. But I was lucky enough to find clips from these and other shows on YouTube. Now my daughter understands a little bit about my weirdness and she loves the shows just as much as I did. Sure, sometimes you have to sift through a lot of detritus to find the treasure, but the nuggets found are worth it.

What do you use YouTube for, mostly?

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Simpsons

The Simpsons has been running so long for a myriad of good reasons. The storytelling is great and multileveled, which makes re-watching episodes a joy instead of a nuisance. The characters have developed quite a lot over the years, while still maintaining the core of their personalities, much as a real human being would. The only difference is that they don't actually age. If they did age, Bart or Lisa (the timing of their births is a little weird and hard to pin down exactly) would be my age. I think one of the success secrets of the show is the acknowledgements of the fans that they slip in every now and then--referencing past episodes in later ones, openly questioning things as a fan would ("Which Springfield?!" "Wait, if Marge is 34 and Bart is 10, then she didn't have him right after high school!" "'I thought you were dead.' 'No, I've just been gone for a while.'"). It's a geeky show with a main stream appeal. The Simpsons is the first family show we shared with our daughter and she's just as hooked as we are.

What appeals to me the most, however, is the fact that I can use the show to illustrate concepts in my classroom. There is at least one episode for every major topic in psychology. Stress and coping have several episodes ("Simpsoncalifragilisticexpiala[annoyed grunt]cious", "Hurricane Neddy", "Make Room for Lisa" are just a few I use in my classroom). There are many that concern therapy and mental disorders (e.g. "Stark Raving Dad", "There's No Disgrace Like Home", "Fear of Flying"). I have found episodes that are appropriate when discussing intelligence, critical thinking, work and team development, vocation selection, parenting, morality, compliance, conformity, obedience, cults, mob rule, hypnosis, drugs and hallucinations, sexuality, gender issues....The list goes on and on. I'm pretty sure that I could design an entire psychology course centering around The Simpsons and still get the point across to my students. In fact, I hope to do just that some day, when I'm not too busy working on my pet research project or teaching classes/grading papers. Sadly [or maybe, since this is an optimistic blog, luckily], only the first 14 seasons (and season 20) are out on DVD at the moment, and some of the more recent episodes fit in to some topics better than older ones. Yet, I still try to incorporate an episode in my class whenever I can. It breaks up the monotony of lecturing. Infusing humor into a class also helps my students see a lighter side to these sometimes heavier subjects.

Perhaps the show works so well as a teaching tool because it doesn't try too hard. I'm sure the writers did not design the episodes to work hand-in-hand with my lectures. They just naturally fell into place that way. I mention many other shows in my class and many characters, books, movies, etc., as illustrations of the topics, but nothing is used more often than The Simpsons. It's just endured for so long for so many good reasons. I would not mind it sticking around for another 20 years, as long as the quality of the storytelling stays at the same level it has since the beginning.

Friday, May 11, 2012


 Yes, I am thankful for squirrels. Perhaps it's my strange experiences, perhaps it's just the friends I've gathered over the years. It's certainly affected by Pixar's Up, but that was just more fodder for the joys of squirrels (and before you argue with me, I know there were no actual squirrels in Up, but the lines forever cemented them as a part of my life).

I'm willing to bet that anyone reading this post has some kind of story to tell or can think of a squirrel they've come across at some point in their lives. I'm going to relate a couple of semi-rambling stories of my own, in no particular order, just to show you (and me, really) how much I've been influenced by squirrels. This list is nowhere near comprehensive and, much like the squirrel and the attribute I identify with most, it is relatively random and not overtly organized. That, by the way, is what I love most about squirrels and the idea of a squirrel. They jump all over the place in no apparent pattern. They skitter quickly and then sit and relax, only to take off in a new direction once again. And they are not always looking for food. Sometimes they just wander for the sake of doing something. This, by the way, is what my mind is like. Being a mental nomad means my mind has a tendency to wander around, sometimes returning to an earlier thought, sometimes venturing way out into the unknown for no particular reason, sometimes just relaxing long enough to find energy to take a 37-degree turn and wander off again. So, if you can handle it, let the wandering squirrel tales begin (and feel free to share your own squirrel tale in the comments).

Many college campuses are populated by squirrels. I don't like to think of them as rodents, even though they technically are. They are certainly fascinating to watch. The first college I attended was UNT in Denton, TX. It was there that I formed my first real friendships. I'm extremely introverted, not attractive (fat automatically means I'm ugly based on my personal experiences and the way I was treated by others), and occasionally overly verbose, so it's no surprise that I didn't have too many friends before I turned 16. Oh, yeah, I went to UNT as a junior in high school. It was quite an experience to be away from home for the first time, especially since my family was all I really had. I talked to kids in school, but after school the only ones I had were my family. That, by the way, is how I determine whether or not someone ends up in the friend category versus the acquaintance department--if I only interact with you in one type of situation, then you're an acquaintance, but if we interact outside of work/church/whatever, then you might be moved into the friend realm. Getting back to UNT...I wasn't the only high school student who skipped those last two years of traditional high school for an opportunity to start college early. TAMS (Texas Academy of Math & Science) was designed for that purpose. My graduating TAMS class had about 200 of us. I ended up befriending a small handful. I guess it's a lot easier to make friends when your fall-back (my family for me) is hundreds of miles away. Okay, okay, I'm getting to the squirrels, I promise. Anyway, even with friends I still managed to take random moments to watch the squirrels on campus darting around doing their squirrelly things. Sometimes my closest friends noticed me and joined me in watching them--yes, weird people are drawn to other weird people, go figure. David seemed to notice my fascination more than the others. He even used the squirrels to help me get rid of one of my bad  habits. I'm a almost obsessive gum chewer. I have been since I got my braces (ironic, I know) in the 7th grade because I became overly self-conscious and paranoid about bad breath and food stuck in my teeth. Unfortunately, gum doesn't retain it's flavor forever and my jaws get tired after too long, so I used to spit it out into the grass. I was thoughtful enough to avoid sidewalks because I've stepped in many wads myself and didn't want to do that to anyone. However, the grass isn't always the best place either. David tried to convince me that I needed to throw out my gum in a proper receptacle. When I didn't see the harm in what I was doing, he pointed out that a squirrel could inadvertently pick up my discarded gum and choke on it. "Do you want to be responsible for killing that squirrel," he'd say while pointing out one after I spit out my gum. I didn't really believe it would come to that, but I got his point. In fact, that was probably the only New Year's resolution--to dispose of my gum properly--that I've ever kept for any length of time. No, I don't spit my gum out on the ground, any ground. So, thanks David and the UNT squirrels for breaking that nasty habit.

Another squirrel experience at UNT lead to my significant dislike of April Fools Day. [Wait! This is supposed to be a gratitude blog! There's no hate in thankfulness!...I'll get to the silver lining, I promise.] The first time I really had cable was when I went to college. It was never a necessary expense for my parents, and that was probably a good thing. We spent enough time watching TV as kids without 100s of channels. My greatest personal discovery on cable was the Cartoon Network. I happen to have time after classes to watch shows like Johnny Quest (the newer version) and the Cartoon Cartoon offerings [another post for another time, I assure you]. Well, I only had 1 class (or maybe no classes, I honestly can't remember) on April 1st that year and I was looking forward to a relaxing afternoon of watching my favorite shows. I turned on my TV in the morning and I saw a "Screwy Squirrel" cartoon playing. I thought, "This is kinda neat. I get it, it's an April Fool's Day cartoon. How cute." Then the show repeated immediately after finishing. I knew sometimes channels repeated shows back to back, so I though nothing of it. After over an hour (I'm naively optimistic sometimes) of watching the same cartoon--I was doing homework, too, okay!--I started to feel aggravated. I went to lunch with my friends and told them about my day. Of course they laughed at me and explained that I had fallen for an April Fool's joke. My optimism, however, hoped that it would only last the morning and I would be able to at least catch Johnny Quest before my night class--3 hours of physics is easier to sit through when watching cartoons beforehand. Unfortunately, the Screwy Squirrel played right through Johnny and everything else that day. So, I don't care for April Fool's Day. The silver lining is that I am more cautious when people tell me things that are shocking, extreme, or somewhat unbelievable. I am more likely to look for more data before deciding to believe. So, in a weird way, thank you, Screwy Squirrel, for leading me on a path toward critical thinking.

This post is perhaps getting too long, so I shall try to wrap it up with just a few more points about the influence of squirrels in my life. For one thing, the picture above was taken on the campus where I am currently employed as I was on my way to my office. I saw this little guy munching on something and I just had a moment in which I felt compelled to stop and see what he was doing. He was munching on a large mushroom by the edge of the sidewalk. I stopped to snap a picture, he (or she) almost ran away, but proceeded when he noticed I wasn't going to chase after him. It turned into one of those days that I just took my time with things and decided to stress less about my always growing to-do list. While I spent my Star Wars day working the entire time and not getting to the fun I had planned, at least I was able to accomplish my work without frustration or anger. Thanks squirrel!

I use "squirrel" often in my class, too. Remember in Up every time Dug or the other dogs were distracted. They would say "Squirrel!" and look away, then come right back to whatever they were doing before the interruption. I do the same in my classroom. When we get off topic I will say "squirrel" and then redirect the discussion back to the point. Squirrel moments are nice in class because it breaks up the monotony--even fascinating subjects like psychology can have long lecture moments. I think it helps my students express their thoughts, also, if I allow a few squirrel thoughts to run wild in the classroom. When too many are set loose, we just reel them in and move forward. It lightens the mood and they can see that I am a human being, as well.

Okay, rambling is over for the moment. I'm putting my squirrelly mind to another task. But, I always have squirrels around me to keep me on my toes and looking for new or rediscovered things to interest me. Perhaps I can share more squirrel tales, perhaps I'll forget. But I bet you can think of your own squirrel stories now.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Gifts from My Daughter

Today--and every day--I am very grateful for my daughter. She is most likely a miracle in a myriad of ways. She will soon be turning 10 years old, and yet her character reflects many more years of experience than her actual existence in this reality on this planet.

I know it is a parent's job to enrich the lives of your children and teach them all that you know in order to prepare them for the real world. I am smart enough to know that I do not have all the knowledge she will need for every contingency, but I do try to give her what I can. However, in the 10 years I have had the privilege to know her, my daughter has taught me many life lessons that I have either forgotten or never had the opportunity to think about.

She has certainly helped me on my way to learning true patience. Nothing is more frustrating for me than trying to teach someone something that I find second nature. It is too easy to forget how long it took me to learn a skill set or come to understand a concept. I know it now, I use the knowledge on a regular basis. I don't remember, or don't want to remember, how hard it was to gain that knowledge. And yet, when I look at my daughter and see that she doesn't instantly "get it" when I try to explain something to her or show her how to do something, I realize that we all have a learning curve. Very rarely is that learning curve steep (instantaneous grasping of the concept or skill). Learning tends to be more gradual with a few leaps and bounds thrown in for fun. Any time I see her struggle, any time I see the pain and frustration on her face when I start to get frustrated by what I initially interpret as lack of progress, I am reminded to step back and put myself back in her shoes. I am reminded that I love her too much to hurt her that much. Yes, I do want her to gain the knowledge and experience, but I don't want her to suffer too much on her journey to enlightenment. This patience sometimes even leaks into other aspects of my life. While I am not the kindest or most benevolent teacher, any time I remember my daughter's lessons in patience I tend to be more understanding of my students--to a certain extent; I still want my students to take the majority of responsibility for their own education in my college courses.

She has also encouraged me to think before I act (or react, as the case often becomes). We very seldom stop to think about the consequences of our actions. We very seldom think about the impact of our words or method of communication on other people. As a species we seem to be rather self-centered. It's not easy to see the world through some one else's eyes. I believe this is the first important lesson that God was trying to drill into my thick skull, but I never fully understood it until I noticed how my daughter reacted when I raised my voice, used "the look" or smiled at the "right" moment. She has brought me closer to self-actualization by opening my eyes to the ways in which my actions, thoughts, behaviors, words, etc. affect her (and consequently others). Don't get me wrong, I have generally been sensitive to the ways others' perceptions of me are shaped by my behaviors. However, it was always in a selfish light--how they see me, what they think of me, whether their interactions toward me would be positive or negative. My daughter has taught me that the other side of the coin is not only how others react to me, but how those reactions actually affect them and their psychology. I spent so much time looking down upon the hypocritical selfish people, never realizing that I had slipped into the same trap. My daughter brought me back from that black hole, back to the path of personal growth.

My daughter reminded me how to enjoy life, in big ways and small ways. She showed me that there are simple pleasures in cute fuzzy things and innocence. She showed me what it is like to feel true unselfish pride in someone else's accomplishments, how to really feel happy for someone else's happiness. She reminds me that at the end of the day it's how much we love the person that is more important than why we love them. She reminds me that even though there are things that need to get done, there are seldom things the MUST be done right that second. There are times to stop and hug or laugh or tickle or stare. There are times to hold back the anger and there are ways to turn seemingly bad days into rays of sunshine. My daughter has taught me that sometimes putting work aside for family will not cost me many more hours to catch-up later (although, interestingly enough, I DO end up with extra hours of catch-up work when I goof off for selfish reasons; go figure). She has reminded me how to look at old ideas in new ways and she has inspired me with her creativity. She has also shown me better ways to give feedback, criticisms (I use this term in the technical manner, not with the negative connotations), comments, etc. in a way that will enrich the individual and give them an opportunity to grow without tearing down their self-esteem. She has also helped me understand that teaching someone is not the same as expecting them to do things the exact way you think is correct. I have learned through her personality that it is possible to learn something from someone and find a way to adapt it to make it your own. She has also taught me how to let go--grudges, expectations, anger, hurt, negativity, and many more things that can pull me down.

My daughter is only 9 (almost 10) at the time of this post, and yet I have discovered that she has been her own separate entity since the day she was born. She has a powerful (not overwhelming take-over-the-world powerful, but strong and confident) personality, a strong character, and a heart bigger than most people can handle. She is my guiding light, my inspiration, my anchor, my miracle when I need it most. I may not tell her every day, but I thank God for every moment He allows me to have her in my life and I thank Him for the chance to learn what real unselfish LOVE really is. Perhaps God doesn't give children to those who need to learn patience, but He does send them to people when they need to be reminded of His love and the endless possibilities that it can bring. I used to bemoan the fact that I may never have another child, that my daughter will grow up lonely as an only child. Then I realized that if I never do give her a sibling then she will be an even bigger miracle, an even greater gift, for having her in my life.