My Convertible Life

Friday, March 19, 2010

Friday's Five: My Favorite Utility

I know, I know -- I've been completely absent from blog reading and writing, then I finally reappear on a sunny Friday at the start of the NCAA tournament and I'm writing about utilities? And no, that's not a clever euphemism for something else.

But a) I warned you that it would be a lean blogging month and b) I really do have a favorite utility (with apologies to friends and family who work for other utility companies).

PSNC Energy, our natural gas company, is awesome. After moving twice in a 12-month period and having to deal with all the stopping and starting of utility services, I developed some pretty strong opinions about the ones that make me unhappy (ahem, Time Warner Cable, I'm talking about you) and the ones I love best.

At every turn, even when they weren't giving me good news (as in, "Ma'am... we're going to have to shut off your gas so you have no hot water for a week because of a problem that is not your fault and not our fault either"), PSNC Energy has remained my favorite. Here are five reasons why:
  1. Every single person I've dealt with, from the person who answers the phones to the service and repair people to the sales staff, is nice, polite and professional. They never seem irritated, even when you've called them out in the rain on a Saturday. Even their contract employees are just as focused on delivering such quality customer service.
  2. Sherman's smiling face. Okay, so you may not get Sherman every time you call for a repair or service. But if you do, you'll remember his warm, bright smile and his amazingly clear blue eyes. He's been to our house a few times over the years and his happy face always brightens my day.
  3. They are super prompt -- sometimes even early. Particularly if you call to say you think you smell gas (even if you're not sure), they'll be at your house within 30 minutes, no matter what time of day. Or if you have a scheduled appointment, there's no waiting around for a four-hour service window -- they'll give you a time and they'll be there.
  4. They offer an in-home energy audit for only $25 to any customer with a regular gas bill (meaning you have something more than gas logs, like your water heater, stove/cooktop or heat). The friendly auditor spent three hours at our house, checking everything from the attic to the crawl space to see where we were losing energy and offer suggestions to help. Then he gave us $25 worth of CFL light bulbs, faucet aerators, outlet insulators and other tools, all of which were included in the fee. And he didn't use the audit as a way to up-sell us to buy lots of PSNC appliances and services -- it was strictly information for us to know how we can save money by not wasting energy.
  5. When we had to replace our water heater (due to faulty installation by a previous homeowner) and our home warranty company refused to cover any of the costs, the PSNC service man gave me the direct line for his supervisor, who in turn spent much time and effort helping me lobby said pain-in-the-ass home warranty company. His effort resulted in no monetary gains for PSNC Energy, but definitely helped me when the warranty company finally agreed to cover some of the costs. And if you do want to buy appliances from PSNC (as we did when we had to replace our water heater so that they could reconnect our gas service), they offer reasonable pricing and fast installation. Plus, I liked the confidence of knowing that everything was done properly, the city inspection would go through without trouble and I wouldn't be left without hot water again.
So how about you? Do you have a favorite utility? Or do you have another favorite customer service company that keeps you loyal?

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Recipe: Crockpot Coca-Cola Chicken

If you're tired of reading my long, soapboxing posts, I've got good news for you. March is likely to be a lean month here at My Convertible Life.

Yesterday I started a new, part-time job in an office (marketing, communications and new media for an education non-profit) and I still have the old, part-time job at home (research and writing for a different education non-profit) -- and of course there's the whole wife-mom-friend-daughter job, too. I'll still try to get some posts in here and there, but didn't want you to worry about me (because I just know you're waiting every day for a new post) if there's not much to read this month.

So in keeping with a busier lifestyle, here's a recipe that I stole from another friend's blog that is hands-down one of the easiest ways to cook chicken in the crockpot. Just start it up in the morning, then add some broccoli and ready-made mashed potatoes (I recommend Country Crock or Bob Evans) to the plates at dinnertime and voila -- well-balanced, healthy meal with minimal effort (and minimal touching of raw chicken) that the whole family will eat.

Crockpot Coca-Cola Chicken

  • 1 whole chicken, about 3 pounds (I used 4 boneless chicken breasts, but my friend used a 6 pack of chicken drumsticks)
  • 1 cup ketchup
  • 1 large onion, thinly sliced
  • 1 cup cola, Coke, Pepsi, Dr. Pepper, etc. (we used Coke Zero)
  1. Wash and pat chicken dry. 
  2. Salt and pepper to taste. 
  3. Put chicken in crock pot with the onions on top. 
  4. Add cola and ketchup and cook on LOW 6 to 8 hours (less time if it's boneless breasts, maybe more time if it's something else).

Friday, March 5, 2010

Friday's Five: Funny Books for Bedtime

Phew. Nothing like a good 'ol fashioned Friday's Five to break the tension after some serious posts.

Today's list includes five funny children's books that we've discovered at the library over the past few years. They're either clever or cute or just plain silly. Whatever the style, hopefully they'll bring a smile to you and your little readers -- we sure like laughing along with them at my house.

Here they are, in no particular order:
  1. Mrs. Piccolo's Easy Chair by Jean Jackson and Diane Greenseid: Mrs. Piccolo's easy chair likes to eat cheesy puffs -- and it's not afraid to swallow anyone who gets in the way.
  2. Milo's Hat Trick by Jon Agee: Milo's magic show is failing until, one day, he finds a bear in his hat. (Also funny and by the same author, Terrific! and The Retired Kid)
  3. Imogene's Antlers by David Small: Imogene wakes up one morning with antlers on her head. Hilarity -- and much fainting by her mother -- ensues.
  4. Grandpa's Overalls by Tony Crunk and Scott Nash: Grandpa wakes up to discover his overalls have done run off, so everbody takes off after 'em. Can only be read in a country accent.
  5. Duck in the Truck by Jez Alborough: Duck and his truck get stuck in the muck. The rhyming alone is funny, but that sneaky Duck gets the last laugh.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Lessons Learned, But No Easy Answers (Part 2)

Continued from Part 1

I don't know if my students believed me or not -- some probably still thought that I'd rather be teaching a room full of little white brunette girls, but I think most of them understood my point. Most of us would be offended if someone accused us of only associating with "our own kind" because we'd assume they were calling us racist. But the truth is that we all do that, it just depends on whether we define our "kind" by politics or race or motherhood or economic status or favorite hobby or faith or whatever category fits at the moment.

During lunch with Shana, I was reminded of that classroom experience -- one of those ordinary days that took me off my lesson plans and into serious discussion for this young teacher and her students. It's so easy to stay in our "own communities," however we define them -- it's safe and comfortable and sometimes even important. And enjoying that comfortable space does not by definition make us racist or classist or any other-ist. But it's not an honest way to live a whole life.

My teaching career at West Charlotte lasted for only two jam-packed years, but the impact stays with me because those years took me out of that comfortable space into a place where I was constantly learning. From honest discussions with a whole class like that one about Mr. Lindner to personal conversations with students like Shana to defending my students in front of other faculty, West Charlotte changed me. The school has a rich history as one of the few black schools that stayed open during integration -- alumni from decades back still take pride in their time at WC.

West Charlotte's success was not because of its diversity. It was successful because the school was filled with administrators, teachers, students, parents and alumni who were committed to making it a great school -- but part of what attracted all those people to the school, part of what made everything work was its diversity.

No one claims that the school was perfect, but West Charlotte served as a national model for integration in the 1970s and 80s, avoiding the violence witnessed in other cities at the time and bringing together students who otherwise might never have crossed paths. Today, with the community-based assignment "choice" plan in place since 2002, West Charlotte's student body has become mostly black and mostly poor, and the school has endured significant and painful turn-over among teachers and administrators.

* * *

I'd invited Shana to lunch that day because I trusted her, trusted that she would be honest with me. I'm well aware that, as a white, middle-class woman who attended predominately white schools as a student, my voice can sound really different than hers in the discussion around issues of diversity in schools. What I found in our conversation was common ground.

"Being at West Charlotte affected who I am," Shana told me. "Even in middle school, I always made sure I had friends who didn't look like me. Now I want that for my kids -- it's important for them to have that in their schools." She shared stories about her two children -- her son has experienced greater diversity in his preschool and elementary school classes than his younger sister has at a different preschool. Shana already sees differences in their behavior and is disappointed for her daughter.

As moms, we both want our children to be close to home. Because Shana is a teacher, her son attends the school where she works -- but if she weren't teaching, she told me she would not want her son riding the bus across the county in the name of diversity. And yet we both agreed that sending our kids to schools "in their own communities," to borrow a phrase from Hansberry, wasn't the solution. From a practical teacher's perspective, we know that students in high-poverty schools won't get the resources they need over the long term. But through our vision as moms, it's something even bigger than funding: We want our children to learn from each other, to learn with each other, so that they can understand the world both as it is and as it could be.

Turns out that Shana didn't have the answers either -- and that became the profound lesson for me from our conversation over lunch. There is no silver bullet. There is no simple solution. And anyone who tells you there's an easy way to make all this work is either lying or fooling themselves.

Wake County's approach to maintaining diverse schools for the past few decades wasn't perfect. But moving to a system that isolates students into high-poverty schools is not the answer. If I've said it once, I've said it a thousand times -- it's NOT about having rich kids sitting next to poor kids or about white kids sitting next to black kids. It's NOT about finding that one brilliant school that defies the odds and turns into another Stand and Deliver movie to cheer about, while other schools collapse under the weight of those same challenges. It's NOT about spreading kids around in order to hide their poverty or their race or their test scores.

I believe in setting an entire school up for success instead of stacking the deck against everyone in the building. I believe in using our very limited resources in the most efficient and effective way possible to help all students achieve their best. I believe in the importance of a strong principal and empowered teachers in every school to give students the tools they need. I believe in making every single school in the district a safe and effective teaching and learning environment so that any parent would be happy at any school. And I believe that these things are not possible in a district divided into high-poverty and low-poverty schools.

This is not a partisan issue; this is a community issue. And on this issue, I do not define "my own community" as Lakemont or Midtown or North Raleigh -- my community is all of Wake County, including every one of the 140,000 school children within the district. It's not enough for my kids to be fine -- and I really do believe that they will be fine in spite of all this mess. The public schools -- and the board that sets the policies for those schools -- must work for all children.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Lessons Learned, But No Easy Answers (Part 1)

When I took my first teaching job, I was 22 and working at West Charlotte High School with 11th grade students who were only about five years younger. The phrase "trial by fire" doesn't begin to capture that year, as many first-year teachers will tell you. When the students walked into my room on the first day, one of them looked me up and down quizzically, then blurted out the question everyone was thinking: "You the teacher?"

I had a lot to prove that year, partly due to my age and inexperience, but also because I was a white teacher in a historically black high school. Thankfully I found strong teachers in my department to guide me and I had some wonderful students who (maybe without knowing it) gave me as much encouragement as I tried to give them. I survived and even came back for a second year before school leadership changes required me to find a different school.

That was 15 years ago. Last month I had lunch with one of my students from that first year -- we've stayed in touch off and on over the years, even before the magic of Facebook. Shana is now a mom and a teacher in the Wake County Public School System. She's also African-American -- and not shy about laughing along with me about my severe and profound whiteness. I figured she would have a unique perspective on all this diversity vs. neighborhood schools mess, given where she went to school and what she can see now as a teacher and a parent. I was looking for answers and hoping she might have them.

 * * *

During my years at West Charlotte, my favorite lessons came from a unit I developed about Harlem Renaissance poetry and the Lorraine Hansberry play A Raisin in the Sun, named for a line from a Langston Hughes poem called "A Dream Deferred." The play revolves around a black family in the 1950s and what happens when the family's matriarch buys a house in a white neighborhood (not to make a statement, but simply because the house happens to be cheaper).

When Karl Lindner, a representative from the white neighborhood association, comes to their apartment and offers to buy them out, he says: "...I want you to believe me when I tell you that race prejudice simply doesn't enter into it. It is a matter of the people of Clybourne Park believing, rightly or wrongly, as I say, that for the happiness of all concerned that our Negro families are happier when they live in their own communities."

Their own communities. That's the line that jumped off the page for me. My students immediately hated Lindner, branding him an obvious racist. And they were right. But then I posed a question.

I asked my students if they stayed in "their own communities" when they were on campus -- in the cafeteria, during football games, after school in the parking lot. Well, sure...but those are our friends, they protested, that's different. And they turned the question back to me.

"For real, Ms. S. Wouldn't you rather just teach students who are like you?"

"Yes," I replied. "I would."

My students looked at me like I might be even crazier than they'd suspected, before I continued: "I'd rather teach students who are interested in school, who like learning, who pay attention in class, who do their homework on time and ask good questions. That's my school community -- that's a student who's like me."

* * *
(To be continued...)