Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Teachers have reason to smile

As a part-time teacher and part-time journalist, I have a lot to balance. One day I’m teaching 100 students how to craft a story and the next day I’m trying to craft a story of my own for the weekly paper for which I write. Half my week is spent lecturing and grading papers while the other half is spent researching, interviewing and writing for The Pinnacle. It can be stressful, but it’s a good stress. I like the pressure and the deadlines of reporting. I like that I have to be creative to come up with stories every week. I also like the pressure and deadlines of being a high school teacher and newspaper/yearbook advisor. Not all of the kids are excited about journalism, but most of them like expressing themselves, so the challenge of melding those two tasks makes my job worth going to every other day. That’s why I wasn’t surprised to read that a Gallup survey released today showed that teachers registered the highest levels of well-being among 11 occupational groups – with business owners coming in a close second. The results, reported in the San Francisco Chronicle, showed that people with manufacturing or transportation jobs had the lowest level of contentment. Teachers posted a score of 71.7 out of 100 on the well-being scale, while manufacturing workers had a 60.6. Most of the teachers with which I work seem to really love what they do. Of course there are some who are in way over their head or who are just riding out the final years until retirement, but the vast majority enjoys imparting knowledge and interacting with teenagers, who are a challenging, frustrating, entertaining bunch. Journalists weren’t listed among the survey results, perhaps because of our dwindling numbers in the print world. Despite the low pay and deadline pressure, I consider myself lucky to be able to write for a newspaper, even though the industry is suffering.
Would I love to be making a lot of money? Of course I would – and I plan to some day. Until then, I’ll take the psychic income that my two part-time jobs pay. For me, well-being is worth more than being well paid. (photo courtesy of [etoile]'s Photostream at

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Christmas can't loiter

Well, that was fast. Just more than 24 hours after the last present was opened and the last bit of packaging recycled, Christmas officially ended in the Breen house like it always does -- in a whirlwind clean-up that returns the house to normal. As much as we love the holiday -- you have to if you have a tree in your living room, family room, kitchen AND youngest son's room -- we don't want it to loiter. The tradition in our house is to put away anything Christmas-related on the 26th. Every indoor Santa, stocking, tree, light and card is gathered, packaged and returned to the storage unit, not to be seen until next December. It's not as much cathartic as it is refreshing. Putting away Christmas is like remodeling the house or getting a new wardrobe. The holiday spirit came and went and now the new year is looming, so the fresh start of shooing away Christmas is a perfect segue. It might seem to some that our family doesn't do the holiday justice because we let it go so quickly. But in reality, we aren't letting it go; we're just telling it "thanks for visiting, see you next year, we've got bowl games to watch." What's that dear? I haven't put away the exterior holiday decorations? I'll get to those right after the bowl games. Where's your Christmas spirit? (photo courtesy of Pescatello's Photostream at

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

What's in a name?

My wife and I consulted one of those baby names books when we were considering monikers for our children 15 and 13 years ago, respectively. Ultimately, though, we chose names that we thought worked well with Breen, not necessarily what had the deepest meaning or was the most popular that year. Our oldest son, Michael, has a name that always seems to appear on the top baby names list. This year, according to, the name Michael was No. 18 on the top 20, behind such names as Caleb, Brayden, Caden, Jayden and the top name -- Aiden. There's something about the "ayden" sound that must appeal to today's parents. My grandfathers' names -- John and Raymond, are nowhere to be found (though "Jack," which my paternal grandfather went by, is No. 10. My dad's name, Tom, isn't on the list; nor is Adam. And I kinda like it that way. Our younger son's name -- Andrew -- doesn't appear on this year's top 20 either. If my wife was expecting a child in 2010, would we feel pressure to make sure our son's name included the "ayden" sound like four of the top 20 names did this year? Probably not. If one of our boys would have been a girl, however, our top choice -- Isabella -- is No. 1 on the top 20 girls' names list, ahead of No. 8, Chloe, which is the name of our cat. If we had a girl, the chances that our daughter would be in a classroom with other girls of the same name would be much greater and we wouldn't feel as creative. But alas, a decade-and-a-half after their names hit the birth certificate -- Andrew is not in the Top 20 and Michael is down to 18, though they're tied for No. 1 on Mom and Dad's list. For another look at the complete list, check out The Mommy Files blog. (photo courtesy of sashafatcat's Photostream at

Monday, December 21, 2009

A cheesy promotion

The word first came down in a text from my wife at around 10 a.m. today: "Round Table Pizza 2day 11 a.m.-11 p.m. ... $2.26 lg pep or cheese pizza ... Should get one for boys dinner." Her friend had seen the ad in Friday's Pinnacle newspaper and mentioned it to my wife, who mentioned it to me, knowing that dinner was my responsibility tonight. By 11 a.m., the newspaper's advertising rep and a couple of callers to the newsroom were talking about a line snaking from Round Table's door, around the sidewalk and over toward the Hi Outlet -- maybe 100 people deep. At 2 o'clock I interviewed Round Table owner Mike Sicoli about the promotion, which, it turns out, was originally a company-wide plan to celebrate the chain's 50th anniversary. No all of the restaurants decided to take the financial hit and participate, but Mike and his wife, Allison, thought it would be a great way to spread a little Christmas cheer -- and some tomato sauce -- to thank the community for their support over the past 32 years. In those first three hours, 600 pizzas had been sold. At 8 p.m., I was still getting reports of a huge line outside of Round Table. Check out Friday's Pinnacle for the full story on the clever promotion. It was an expensive one, it seems, but it's nice to see a local business give thanks to a loyal customer base by giving them a crazy discount on a really good product. (photo courtesy of The Pizza Review's Photostream at

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

My first e-card of the holiday season arrived yesterday. The Hallmark E-Card featured an online slideshow of a snowy, bucolic setting, interspersed with the saying, "Through every moment of the holidays, every day of the new year, may peace and happiness be yours." As the slideshow played and the Hallmark-y saying flashed on the screen, holiday music played in the background. Then, a personal message from the sender followed. It was a nice sentiment that I truly appreciate. It was flashy and creative, particularly for someone who hasn't received one of these before. That being said, I'm pretty sure the same e-card was sent to everyone else on this person's e-mail distribution list, which seems a bit impersonal to me. Even though the only real difference between signing a store-bought card, putting it in an envelope, addressing it, putting a stamp on it and putting the whole thing in the mail is the effort and expense involved, the message lost some of its personal touch when I read it on the computer screen. I could hit the "Play Again" button and watch the slideshow and listen to the music again, but I can't put the e-card in my door-hanging Santa card holder in my living room -- though I guess I could try to print it out. Still, it's not the same. The part that truly bugged me was not the fact that this person sent me an electronic card -- I really do appreciate it. I don't like being told "Now it's your turn to make someone smile," which Hallmark's e-mail suggested I do. With one click, I could purchase photo cards, e-cards, paper cards and invitations and announcements. Now, I'm being marketed to while I'm being wished a happy holiday season. Bah humbug! A regular Hallmark card that comes in the mail doesn't include an ad suggesting that I be a good person and go to Target to buy another card for someone else. But on the Web, where everything is just a click away, I can't even receive a thoughtful holiday message without also receiving a sales pitch. Luckily, the delete button is just a click away. Happy holidays. (photo courtesy of Adam Buteux's PhotoStream at

Saturday, December 12, 2009

One degree of separation

Here's a snippet from my weekly column in The Pinnacle. For the entire text, click here.

Jack Frost doesn't just nip at my nose in the morning during the winter; he takes a full-on bite.
This week's freezing temperatures finally put me into winter mode, which inevitably leads to friendly heater battles with my wife. When I get home from work and it's as cold as it has been this week, I am fine with setting the heater at 65 degrees and getting the house relatively toasty.
I even throw some logs onto the fire and get the family room heated up so we can enjoy some family time in front of the television. So far, so good.
Then bedtime rolls around and I turn the thermostat down by one degree, to 64, figuring that we'll all be tucked warmly into bed and we can spare the extra degree and the extra expense associated with it.
If my wife gets out of bed before falling asleep and walks down the hall, it's safe to assume she'll bump the heater back up to 65. Since I usually stay up later than she does, I'll often make a second trip down the hall to push it back to 64. Wow, what a victory.
Since I also usually wake up first in the morning, I'll then bump the thermostat back to 65 because, again, that one degree really makes a huge difference, I tell myself. (see what happens next in The Pinnacle)

(Photo courtesy of EditorB's Photostream at

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Watch out, your plate is hot

Nearly every time I eat at a Mexican restaurant, the waiter or waitress tells me "Watch out, your plate is hot" as they place it on the table in front of me. I appreciate the warning, because I don't like burning myself. The trouble is, every time they say that I am compelled to touch the plate to see just how hot it is. It's like I'm a little kid who is told not to look under the Christmas tree at all the presents that are there for me. While in the server's mind he or she is offering a friendly warning, in my mind they are daring me to see if they are telling the truth. The touching of the hot plate has become such a ritual that my teenage sons now touch their allegedly hot plates when we are out to eat. They shoot me a knowing glance when they do this, full of pride that they took the imaginary dare and stared danger in the face -- with danger in this case being a taco and burrito combination plate. This week, as we ate at Jardine's in San Juan Bautista, the waiter gave us the standard hot plate warning, which I appreciated -- then immediately ignored. The plate was warm, for sure, though not hot. My son's friend's plate, however, was actually beyond hot. It was fajita plate hot, where the food is still bubbling or sizzling when it arrives at the table, even though he just ordered two burritos. To my shock and surprise, the hot plate warning actually was real. Since there were three teenage males in addition to my wife and me at the table, we all had to touch the plate. "Ow!" one of us said. "Wow, that is hot!" said another. We were impressed and undaunted at the same time. An actual hot plate at a restaurant; the first time the warning actually made sense. It wasn't the smartest thing to do, but again, 80 percent of our table was male. Had they warned us not to touch the candle in the middle of the table because it was hot, we probably would have tried to touch that too just to see for ourselves. (Photo courtesy of Beverly and Pack's Photostream at

Monday, December 7, 2009

A Christmas lights inferiority tale

If there were a Christmas Tree Lane in my town, it would be my street. Starting on Thanksgiving and gearing up in earnest this past weekend, our quiet, tree-lined residential byway becomes a slow-motion highway of holiday revelers driving 3 mph up and down the road to check out the cool holiday displays. It's really cool to live on such a festive street, as it makes every nighttime sojourn to the store or to basketball practice a trip through a (California) winter wonderland. Most of the homes on my street are of the two-story variety and three-fourths of them are strung with lights and festooned with every possible Christmas-y decoration, from mangers to wooden character cutouts to inflatable snow globes. On any other street in any other town, my house would be appropriately decorated. Our nicely-decorated living room Christmas tree fills the front window and two small, lighted Christmas trees border our garage door. Our gutter is lined by a string of lights that is simple, yet festive and we soon will drape some bushes with white lights and place a lighted snowman in the front yard. But compared to the rest of my street, my house is the Charlie Brown Christmas tree: simple, bare, sparse, yet symbolic of the season. Despite peer pressure from my sons that we add enough lights so that our home is visible to the International Space Station, we will keep it simple and modest, even if it means our driveway remains the turnaround point for holiday lights gazers. Simplicity was good enough for Charlie, and it's good enough for me. Good grief. (Photo courtesy of Ted Murphy's Photostream at