Sunday, December 28, 2008

One more second...

According to the Times today, whoever is in control of the atomic clock is tacking on an extra second to 2009 to take up the slack of our time-measurement instruments, so that it can catch up to our solar rotation span. Or else it's the will of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour, I forget which.

Sweet. I can totally use another second.

Lest it seem sort of pointless to make this particular vertical scratch on the wall, the article points out a few things that can be done in a second: "a cheetah can dash 34 yards, a telephone signal can travel 100,000 miles, a hummingbird can beat its wings 70 times, and eight million of your blood cells can die."

I can add to that list: In one second, I can bore a student to tears. I can find one fuckup of the Bush administration. I can remember that I forgot something. I can forget what I was doing. I can run 1/550th of a mile. I can make love to a beautiful woman. I can make a resolution. I can blow a resolution. I can absorb .35 ounces of carcinogens in a cigar. And I can cure world hunger.

Let's call this an upgrade: the year 2009.0001.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Enter: Two Stupid Dogs

It was a five-hour trip to Indianapolis, what with icy roads, idiot Chicago drivers and me stopping for five coffees to wake up. By the time I got there, I was dehydrated irritable, headachey and idly wondering how long it would take for me to reach Mexico and chuck the whole mess if I were to continue driving south.

Then, I swung into the prearranged Wendy's parking lot. Met a woman named Janet. And got my dogs.

Four hours back to home, and they were in like Flynn.

I used to hate dogs. Then I met my girlfriend's parents' dog. And their next one. And then my girlfriend got a couple of Chihuahuas that were the nicest couple of mutts you could ever meet. There are few enough creatures in this world who are so excited to see you when you come home, that they almost pee themselves.

Now, I've got two more of the little buggers. And while I'm on break, the time I usually spend reading, movie-hopping, binge drinking and vigorously massaging my scalp to prevent hair loss (futilely, I might add), is now spent going through the growing pains of being a dog owner.

It's pathetic. I'm saying and doing things the most schmaltzy, syrupy-sweet kindergarten teacher would throw up over.

For example: one of my dogs came with a Mickey Mouse harness. I took one look at it, rolled my eyes, and prepared to toss it in the trash. Then he growled. Apparently, he likes it. So I now walk my chihuahua in broad daylight in Disney regalia. I might as well be wearing a dress.

For another example, I'm trying to make damn sure they use pads when stuck indoors (it's been a typical ninth-circle-type winter so far here in the Midwest, with temperatures reaching twelve degrees below are-you-shitting-me?). Which means that, every time they use the pads correctly, I've got to carry on like they won the goddam Nobel Peace Prize or something. Sometimes, this interferes with my sleep. This morning, at 2 a.m., my dialogue with Dog #1 was like a James Joycean children's book:
"Good boy, buddy, now use the pad. Use the pad. Come on, ushe-da-pad! Who's a good boy? Huh? Who's a good boy? You are. You're the good boy. Yes you are, now use that pad. Good boy! You use that pad! You use it!"
I can sense my IQ, never all that high to begin with, plummeting as I strain to come up with euphemisms for "take a crap" so this damn dog will be able to dope out Doing My Business=Owner Very Pleased. It does seem to work, though. I may have a curriculum revision in mind next year:
"Who's going to do their paper? Oh whoshe-gonna-do-duh-paper? You are, Fernando. Yes, you."
Sad how a dog with a brain the size of a peanut can be taught better than Fernando, I think.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Hey Dad, if you're reading this...

Happy birthday. Post something to honor the occasion.

PHOTO: My old man, circa 1974, when he was an accountant for a major food services corporation. For some reason, they required their employees to pose for company calendars, although I'm sure it was totally legit.
There are fewer drugs more intoxicating than a snow day off from school. Normal snow days are one thing: if you get a Wednesday off, or something in the middle of the week, you usually wind up throwing at least a few hours of it away grading papers to get "caught up" for the weekend. I cry poormouth here, I admit, but it's still sort of a bummer to have to wait until nine a.m. to get plastered, instead of beginning the day's binging right at 5:15, when you get the call from your chair.

Today, though, is overpowering. I was supposed to give two finals today, grade them, enter final grades, post them, file my gradebook, print out a first-day-back lesson, and hit the pub with James Pepper, a co-worker. Now, though, I find myself with a day off before my two-week break, which means my lesson plans for first-day-back consist of giving the finals I was supposed to give today. Sweet.

So, to celebrate, I've drank two pots of Irish coffee, texted everyone I know who has to go to work today in order to sever any remaining friendships I might have ("I have a day off and you don't! Revenge is mine! Mwa-hah-hah!"), watched The Godfather, and am now contemplating some serious binge reading. No papers to grade. No assignments to plan. Just wallowing in my own crapulence.

This day is mine.

PHOTO: A snowy street in Chicago, filled with people who have to go to work, and therefore are having a suckier day than I am.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

This is why they shouldn't start school earlier than 8 a.m.

Not enough coffee this morning. Groggy. Bleary-eyed. Slushy streets. Red light. Had to brake suddenly. Crash.

Car in shop. Driving a shitty rental.

Still not awake. Still not enough coffee.

Friday, December 05, 2008

I am now Trained in Sexual Harassment...

Wait...that didn't come out right. Please don't sue

Every damn year, we educators, we of the coffee breath and glazed up-since-5 a.m. eyes, have to go through online training in communicable diseases and sexual harassment.

The disease training, I really have no problem with. Every now and then, I come into the bathroom to view a kid holding a tissue to his spouting nose (the air is extremely dry in our building), at which point I'm not certain whether I should
a) get him another tissue
b) report the situation to the nurse, to prevent the spread of whatever diseases the little bastard might have
c) ask him if it's a coke problem, and if so, where can I score some
Thankfully, after viewing the Communicable Diseases and You! video, I now know: Drop all belongings and run like hell. But seriously, the Dos and Don'ts of dealing with potentially fatal situations are always helpful, especially when you spend most of your time isolated in the classroom. It's easy to forget this kind of stuff.

But the sexual harassment takes the taco.

The program is on the Internet. A series of slides. Each has a lesson in sexual harassment, accompanied with cartoon people acting out the scenarios and panning words at the bottom, explaining what is and is not acceptable between coworkers. The lessons have audio, too. So that, if you're illiterate, you can't claim you didn't know. You click "Next" when you've absorbed the lesson, move on to the next, and at the end, you take a short quiz you can either pass or fail. And then you're certified.

That easy.

And yet...I struggle with the idea that, if you're seriously perverted enough to need lessons on "When is referring to your own penis socially acceptable," you'll be obedient and compliant enough to sit through a 40-minute visual aid showing how inappropriate touching can be a form of friction ("and we don't mean the good kind!") in the workplace.

No, I'm not kidding. Or exaggerating.

(Well, maybe a little. But damn sure not much.)

Here are some of the snippets I managed to copy down from my extensive forty-minute training, which, presumably, I needed, given the fact that they don't screen teachers enough to weed out oversexed dodos from working in a closed room with the taxpayers' children all day:
"Hector keeps asking Sally out for a date. But Hector needs to learn that Sally is an independent woman, who probably has a life of her own. Even if she doesn't, she still might not want to go out with Hector. Realize that Hector is Putting Himself in a Position." (I presume, not the good kind, right, Seminar Dialogue-Writers? Right? You're fucking-A.)

"If Linda asks her boss for a promotion in exchange for sex, is that sexual harassment?"

"Two co-workers regularly enjoy sharing ribald jokes. Neither is offended. And yet, if Tracy, in the next cubicle, overhears them, they've just crossed the line into Sexual Harassment...and they didn't even know it." (Bum-bum-bummmm!)

"You might be wondering if touching your own genitals is harassment. The answer is yes...if the other party doesn't want to see it." (Other party? Have people been spying on me in the men's room? Because seriously, sometimes a guy's got an itch, you know?)
Of course, being that we've had five months to complete the training, and being that I blew it off until today, the deadline approaching at 3 p.m. and my health supervisor glaring angrily at me from down the hall, I figured I'd doubleteam. Gave my seventh hour a video clip to watch. Then booted up the program. Not realizing that the audio they were using would soon be replaced with my training:
"How can you tell when you've been sexually mishandled by a co-worker?"
The words boomed across the room. Instant hysteria. Achin' pointing and laughing. A chorus of catcalls: "Oh Teacher, you been misbehavin'?" "Sir! Sir! I'm being mishandled right now! Come see!"

I guess I deserved it.

I'm working on my own sexual harassment comic book. When I'm on break, that's when I'll have time for the truly pointless.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Books I Plan to Write

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Advanced Babysitting: A One-Act Play

Setting: My classroom. No windows. No light. No hope.


Mr. Teacher: Carefree and blithe to enter danger; reserved and recalcitrant in the face of AYP

Cheryl Muffinhead: For the past five class periods, she’s been hunting in her bag for her cellphone, which she has forgotten that I confiscated some ten minutes before.

Stan Dupp: Aspiring Hollywood actor. Practicing his delivery skills from the second row.

Act 1, Scene 1.

House lights come on. an empty room, which gradually fills up with students. Mr. Teacher walks in last, carrying a billyclub and wearing mirrored sunglasses.

TEACHER: Good morning, my troubled little losers. You all failed yesterday’s exam.

CM: (interrupts her searching in her purse) I thought you said that test didn’t count! I thought you said you just wanted to see how we’d do! How we were progressing!

TEACHER: Yeah, well, tough. (twirling billyclub)

SD: Hey, look at the tough guy. “Eeeuw, look at me, I’m all tough.” “Eeeuw, look at me, I’ve got a billyclub--“

TEACHER: (brandishes billyclub threateningly)

SD: You can’t touch me, tough guy. I’ll have you busted.

TEACHER: (smacks self repeatedly with billyclub. Blood starts to flow. Chipped teeth fly in several directions.) Ow! Ow! Help he’s killing me!

Big men with walkie talkies burst into the room and haul Stan away. One big man with a walkie talkie sees Cheryl, decides her behavior is sufficiently suspicious, and takes her away too. Mr. Teacher picks up the phone.

TEACHER: Ok, I’m done here. Have the bus pick me up in ten minutes. We’re headed for the nudie bar.

House lights dim; half the audience files out in disgust.

The End

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Boss is In: Failure Fantasies

It's that time of year, with finals around the corner and adolescents' knees a-quakin'. And this is as close to the executive board room as I'll ever get.
Me: Johnson! Get up here!
Kid: Yes, teacher?
Me: You know why you don't fail this class?
Kid: Um...
Me: Me neither. You fail.

Me: Simmons! I got a riddle for you.
Kid: Yes, sir? I just love your class...
Me: Two people are in this room right now, and one of them didn't fail.
Kid: Well...that's not really a riddle...
Me: That's right! You fail.

Kid: Why do we have to read this dumb book?
Me: Because to not read it is to fail.
Kid: Okay, I'll read it.
Me: Too late. You fail.

Me: Simmons! I got another riddle for you!
Kid: You already failed me, sir. Remember?
Me: Okay, you don't fail. Now listen to this one: What's the difference between you and a kid who failed my class?
Kid: I give up.
Me: Nothing! You fail.

Me: Richardson! I want to talk to you.
Kid: You're an ass.
Me: (pause) Damn you. You win this round, Richardson.

Me: Get up here, kid. I want to fail you some more.
Aide: There's no one left. You failed them all.
Me: I did?
Aide: They're all in a study hall now.
Me: Okay, then you fail.
Aide: You're an ass.
Me: Woo. I want to go home. Somebody fire me.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Reasons Tso is an Idiot

File #1718

CARY--Twenty text-messages to that bastard. "Hey, Styx is in town!" "Come on, man, I only put it in a little!" "Oh come on, quit playing like you don't know the score."

Then I realize he's on a cruise with his loser family and loser friends. More importantly, he didn't invite me. Or send me a postcard. Or call the doctor about those tests we said we wouldn't tell anyone about.

He knows what I'm talking about.

So does Dewey, who only corralled me here tonight to transfer his wife's shitty music into a new laptop computer. The drink he gave me tastes suspiciously like chloroform, and there's a lot of rope and lubricant under the couch as I type this. I fear for my life. I fear I won't want to leave tomorrow morning.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

VIA E-MAIL--It's a damn good thing I didn't enter Congressional fantasy elections this year. I would have gotten killed.

I would have bet on Obama, but...Ohio? Indiana?

Fucking Florida?

And the Dems picked up those seats in the Senate?

I'm giddy.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Another campaign video. Somebody stop me.

Sandberg for President

An incompetent man for a meaningless position

Below is a campaign video and some posters for Mr. Sandberg. Remember the power of your vote on Nov. 4. Remember that you can make a difference.

Then remember that you can vote for him instead.

(Man, I love this Mac!)

Friday, October 24, 2008

Dear Senator Obama:

Today, I voted. I'm not saying I voted for you, and I'm not saying I voted for Senator McCain. And I'm definitely not saying I didn't get confused while voting and accidentally figure the booth to be a urine sample collection booth or anything. So for now, let's keep this all in the hypothetical.

Hypothetically, if I did vote for you, it was historic. The first ballot cast for an African-American candidate. I should frame the "I Voted!" sticker I got, except I've already got another "historic" one. The sticker from 2006. When the Democrats took over in 2006.

Okay, maybe that's not a fair comparison. I mean, the Dems have been in charge before, haven't they? Sure they have. And even if they hadn't, your meteoric rise to power is nothing short of staggering, regardless of how one views your political credentials.

But two years after the Democrats swept Congress, look at the state of affairs we're in. The economy. The continuing war in Iraq that nobody seems to want to call a war. Job losses. Property foreclosures. And so on.

I'm not blaming the Democrats, you understand. A lot of damage was done over a long period of time. I just haven't had the kind of leadership I'd thought I'd voted for, and that makes the whole situation dangerous. Because Americans are idiots, and if immediate gratification isn't delivered from the party that just took power half an hour ago, they'll start clamoring for "change from change" and go back to the party that wielded the whip and chair over the previous decade-and-change.

So my prediction is, whatever you do in your administration, you're going to catch a ridiculous amount of flack over it. Which is fine, as long as you stick to your vision. Which is also fine, as long as you have a vision.

You do have one, don't you?

Just checking. I thought you did.

It could be a total disaster with you in the White House. If I voted for you, I might have had this cross my mind. Economists quoted in the elite liberal media to which I subscribe avidly point out that Americans will save more money under your tax plan than McCain's, but they're scratching their heads over how you're going to pay for some of your proposed budgets. You're right in pointing out Bush's shortcomings, and McCain's similarities to him sometimes scare the hell out of me, but seriously, what is your better plan for Iraq? And how do you plan to hold the mortgage companies' feet to the fire to ensure a stable housing economy, so I can get my property the fuck off my hands?

(The Economist advises axing the home ownership tax exemption, by the way. Would save us billions. Maybe look into that? But let me sell mine first, okay? Thanks, big guy. Wink.)

Still, if I were to throw my chips behind you, I'd realize that a black man in the Oval Office is going to generate a lot of waves. Not all of them will be good. Many will be pointless and stupid (does Obama wear a pin? does Michelle Obama love her country? next week, do your children really love you or are they just mouthing platitudes? film at eleven). But I'm hoping that, if you take the reins of power, your vision will soon emerge and evolve into leadership. And Senator, I am so ready to be led.

Sincerely yours,

Another damned blogger

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

And on the horizon, a beast slouching towards Bethlehem to be born: A novelist

Oh crap. It's almost November.

Oh crap. That means NaNoWriMo.

Oh crap. That means I'm going to be dumb enough to enter the contest for a third year in a row.

I. Am. An. Idiot.

It all started with Tso. All stupid things do. He told me, "So quit grousing about your job and go back to grad school. What's the worst that could happen? You flunk out? Which you probably will."

So I did. And I met Wiggo. Who, four years afterwards, while we were both struggling secondary educators, told me about NaNoWriMo: a novel-writing contest where quality is eschewed in favor of quantity, and a loyal legion of "writers" churn out crap copy and clutter the blogosphere and wannabe-publishing industry with their deadline-enforced literary efforts.

"I can't get into that!" I whined at the time. "I've got papers to grade! Plus, I'm starting a unit tomorrow, and I really should take a look at the book. Who is this Joyce guy anyway?"

"If you're that behind, then this won't matter," he said breezily. "In fact, it'll help. Joyce wrote in stream-of-consciousness. You can write that too. You'll have an inside look at the writer's mind. You'll be a star, a stellar nova, a Cultured and Distinguished Man of Letters. The students will revere you. You'll widen their horizons."

"Yeah," I said distantly, trying to watch House of Payne out of the corner of my eye.

"And you can get a t-shirt. Cheap."

I was immediately in.

This was \ two years ago. I took last year off. I had to. It was that traumatic.

So now I've got to start all over again.

Damn you, Tso. You suck.

In all honesty, writing a novel without clear direction seems to me as dangerous as driving a car with your eyes closed. Last time, I got far enough into my piece to realize that November ending was the best thing in the world for me. Without a forced conclusion to the charade of my "creativity," I'd never be able to end the damned thing. Mine involved a couple of brothers: one an alcoholic high school teacher (they say write what you know), and one a defrocked priest, both home over an extended weekend to deal with a family situation. I never figured out what that situation was. I never figured out why the priest was defrocked. I did manage to recount, in excrutiating detail, what the teacher liked to drink (Jim Beam on the rocks), and what the priest was wearing (jeans and a t-shirt), and what they both did the first few hours of Friday afternoon (teacher drank at a bar and ignored cell phone calls from a putative girlfriend; the priest went to the father's house and learned that he'd bought a new car).

Ulysses, it ain't.

And yet, to be candid, I had fun messing around with it. It became a kind of halfassed game: How far can I sink into this putrid collection of free-association and agonizingly-direct characterization, before I either get so sick of the whole thing as to vomit, or run out of time, or both? Not very far, as it turned out. But once you make the decision to write it and enjoy writing it, as opposed to writing to win a Pulitzer some day, the whole experience becomes, if not rewarding, certainly more comforting. Like riding on a second-rate roller coaster. Cheap thrills, no discernible payback, but you can wear a t-shirt bragging about your endeavor and people will at least raise an eyebrow in approval.

Screw it. I'm in. Hear that, Wiggo? Get your pencils sharpened, bitch. We goin' to have a cage match.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Signs I might not be cut out to be a poet after all

Camping in October. It's been a while. I had to dig in the basement for my wool hunting hat.

In the past decade or so since I cut loose and slept in the great outdoors during that time of year when "yellow leaves do hang upon the bough," I've managed to destroy my back in a combination of sedentary suburban life, frenzied midlife crisis activity, and dominatrix hobbies...I've said too much. What is safe to say is, a bad back plays hell with the wonders of Mother Nature.

The pain and I are old friends by now; sometimes, he's good enough to tell me how long he'll be around, while other times I have to guess. Sometimes the pain can be dealt with by imbibing a pint of stout and a large piece of red meat (the kind of food that's going to land me in trouble further on in life, at least, according to my doctor, the quack), but the last time I tried self-medication like that, I wound up bloated, drunk, and still in pain. I might have still tried it, you know, for recreation, but the park prohibits alcohol. Along with bestiality and voting Republican.

Other times, the pain has miraculously disappeared by submersion in water: a swimming pool, a hot tub, the beach. This occurred to me, but when I cast a look at the lovely waters of the state park, my optimism withered on the vine.

(And what's this I hear about drinking the water brain causing to my damage? Bunch of ass garbage face ask you me.)

So, for all I could tell, I was stuck with a back that wouldn't let me recline comfortably, sleep, kayak, or otherwise relax. All I could do was walk.

Walking provided my muscles the stretching I needed, and furthermore, kept me doing something besides sitting and thinking, "Jesus fuck, my back hurts." So as I walked, constantly grumbling to myself about the book I could be reading could I concentrate, or the papers I'd tried to grade on the way but gotten sick over, whether because I was reading them in the car or because they're so bad my eyeballs wanted to hemorrhage, I couldn't tell, I started to remember some lines from Whitman.

Yes, I recall Whitman in the midst of nature. Does that surprise anyone? It should. I'm a relatively late bloomer to poetry. I always knew what I hated in poetry: anything I couldn't teach. Which was mostly everything. My first year teaching, I got stuck with a lesson on "Song of Myself," and it took everything I had in me to not take the New New Criticism route on that puppy: "Whitman is singing about himself. He likes himself. Remember that for the test." Later on, I heard of Whitman's penchant for young men, long rambles, free verse, and belief that Shakespeare wasn't the author of Shakespeare's plays. But for years, in some mental file labeled "Whitman, Walt," all I could come up with for the longest time was "He liked nature." Shameful.

I started reading Whitman more heavily a few years ago, and I've dove into him this month for reasons I'm not ready to divulge yet. But the more you read Whitman, the more you get to dig his way of looking at the world. Precisely because it seeks to empower your own:
He most honors my style who learns under it to destroy the teacher.
There's a quote I'm not ready to share with my classes, for obvious reasons. But how about this:
Stop this day and night with me, and you shall possess the origin of all poems;
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun—(there are millions of suns left;)
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books;
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me:
You shall listen to all sides, and filter them from yourself.
All of this is old hat to today's liberal arts public school educators: The student needs worlds to discover, don't step on their inner children (whatever that is), so on. But in his time period, it was revolutionary. And really, look at those lines! Roll them on your tongue. There are millions of suns left? And we can possess its goodness? On our own? Really? I have that kind of perspective in me? Golly!

So with those lines in my recent memory, little wonder they came to me this weekend. I only wished I'd had a copy with me: Whitman once remarked in a letter that "it makes such a difference where you read." He even almost got shitcanned from a printer's job because he took two- and three-hour lunches, loafing around with a book or chatting up dockworkers in Lower Manhattan or Brooklyn. My man. If only he'd been a drinker too, we could have been soul brothers.

Well, actually, as it happens, not quite. Because all in the space of fifteen minutes or so, I tried, and failed, to Become a Poet.

It wasn't as crazy as it sounds, to be honest. The Poet, by my way of thinking, doesn't wear dark clothes, smoke dope, feign an exhausted kind of boredom and world-weariness that may or may not be unique. The Poet, quite simply, sees. Writing it down is only a third of the job.

And I dig the idea of Seeing. It's such a plastic, tenuous thing. I "see" that my back is bad, and that I probably need medical investigation and rigorous physical therapy, but my actions belie my sight, as they do for most people, I suspect. (Not Kim, of course, who was off being an Explorer while I was a Poet--ask her about her neck therapy and you'll see what I mean.) I "See" the nuances of my life--we all do, it's not Divine Recognition or anything--but managing to capture it, via metaphor, symbolism, or otherwise engaging trope--is a skill I suspect everyone should have. We should all be poets. And then not tell anyone.

Others do it better than I. Honestly. I have my favorite poets. My casual acquaintance poets. My Poets I wish I knew better. My old favorite Internet poets and Internet poets worthy of new study. My friends who are poets but don't realize their own depth. And my friends who write poetry because they figure it's easier to insult me with haikus than their own halting vocabularies.

So here I was, a thirty-three year old male trudging a state park, surrounded by nature (and families, I might add, at least thirty percent of which were pretty trashy), finding myself untethered. The normal stresses of the week were gone. Thoughts of bills, lesson plans, obligations and trash to take out had flown the coop. All that was left was the singular voice in my head, and I decided this would be as good a time as any to put it to work. I would capture some of my surroundings, or what the surroundings gave birth to in my own consciousness. I would be a Speaker for the Ages. A Man with a Voice.

Here's what I came up with:
A back
that aches like my own sensibilities
like learning for the first time you're going to die some day


Why is it that those dysfunctional families are always the loudest?
Is it true that the squeaky wheel gets the grease
or is it simply that
some wheels don't roll properly?
Now, this isn't one of those "look how crappy of a sensitive side I have? hyuk hyuk" posts. I seriously tried to write some verse. Or at least, I tried to try. I don't know. Maybe my head wasn't in it. One thing I can promise, though--any verse I upchuck, unless it passes some sort of litmus test I can only imagine exists somewhere, will not rear its ugly head here. I've got enough sins on my head concerning wastes of cyberspace.

But it was sort of fun screwing around with it like that. I think I'd rather write iambic pentameter, unrhymed, exploring the haunting emptiness of a consumer-driven lifestyle. Clear, crisp verbiage; readily-accessibly analogies; allusions that will force even the most stultified, reality-TV-addicted casual peruser to sit up and go, "Whut? Whut's he talkin' bout? Gots to look that up. Where's mah Wikipedia?"

So, Becoming a Poet just made the List of Hobbies. Right between "Learn French" and "Re-learn the French you were supposed to have learned in college." I offer this not in the hopes of creating an audience, but simply because, like most things dealing with words, the announcement itself has power.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

For someone who prides himself on being a student (and occasional teacher and borer-of-students) of rhetoric, I've paid scant attention to the debates. In fact, the only one I watched start to finish was the vice presidential one, and I gotta tell you, What's the friggin' point? If all they're going to do is tout their running mates, that's not a debate. That's a couple of kids nosing up each other on the playground, arguing, "My dad could kick the crap out of your dad!" Entertaining, yes. Statesmanship? Give me a break.

In fact, I'm more soured about this election than I was the last one. I'm a pessimist. I'm not proud of it, but it's how I came out. My first birthday that I can remember, I thought to myself, How many more of these do I have to look forward to? Seventy if I'm lucky. At my senior prom, I was the one shoving Enya and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds to the d.j. And just the other week, I told a class of giggling girls to study their Nietzsche, to realize why they shouldn't be so giggly. For me, the glass isn't even half empty; it's also breakable, with water that will soon evaporate and is all-too-briefly enjoyed. So when Bush said, "Bring it on, Kerry," I thought, Well shit. The Lone Wolf is saddling up. Who can withstand that kind of persuasion?

But at least the last election afforded me the luxury of hatred. I hated Bush then. I hate him even more now. And now that he's on his way out of the office, I feel much like the CIA must have after the fall of the Berlin Wall. I've lost my scapegoat. My focus of contempt for the Republican Party. The anathema to conservatism touting conservatism. The boogeyman. And who do we have to replace him?

A smoov-talker and a war hero.

That's really all it's going to boil down to once the "filter" is cut through. McCain is selling a tax plan that every economist I've seen interviewed acknowledges is sticking it to the very middle class he purports to support. And Obama, as near as I can tell, wants to open the windows of luxury limousines and throw cash by the handful out the door to the starving masses. Pardon me while I vomit ebullience.

The debates (the scant portions I've seen) have told me nothing. When the moderators reprimand both candidates for dodging the question, you have to wonder how they'll stack up against Congress, or their national addresses to the nation.

The SCLM has told me little except that both candidates are prone to misrepresentations, and that they don't like each other. Also that Sarah Palin is entertaining, but possibly vapid. Hats off, folks.

And the polls? Don't get me started. If you polled every American on the face of the earth about the economy and the staggering and frightening dips the market is taking, make one of the questions, "How stupid are you with the economy" and watch the numbers rise. Vox populi my ass.

So my plan is simple: I'm going to find a hole, crawl into it, and come out in twenty years. By then, if history is any guide, we'll be through this recession-in-name-only, and well on our way to another major war, at which point we can focus on a new bad guy, let corruption run rampant and turn a blind eye to the financial sleight-of-hand that gave us prosperity in the short run yet stuck us in this cesspool of a situation at the moment.

And maybe by then, my pal Bush will be doing the lecture circuit or running for Congress. Now there's a fight I can win.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Reasons I can't tear my eyes away from pole dancing

Our culture is rapidly becoming destroyed by instant viewing video clips readily available. I'm good evidence of that. Sunday morning, I got a blast of the Sarah Palin impression on SNL. Two days later, some idiot put three bootleg clips of Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight for me to gawk at. As I pore over video clips, my bedtime gets later and later, the sun passes me by like a thief in the night, and the pride I feel about not watching any (repeat: any) TV in the last few months is erased by my eternal, burning shame at staring at footage of adolescents skateboarding and cracking their nuts on outdoor stair railings in the process.

So when I was on JibJab the other day, the Pole Dancing demonstration caught my eye. It was bound to happen.

I don't get pole dancing. I understand, intellectually, what's appealing about it, but as a male steeped in a tradition of woman-ogling, it does absolutely nothing for me. All I can think of when watching it is, "Hey, she must be in shape. I wonder if I could find out where she does her yoga." Or, "If she can pole dance like that, I bet she could jump rooftops like Spider-Man. Man, what I wouldn't give to be able to web swing like Spider-Man."

So why (and I speak in all candor, friends and neighbors) can't I immediately drag my eyes away? It's like watching a spider spin a web.

Put a guy on the pole, I wonder if it would be the same reaction. I suspect it would. Maybe. Crap.

I need to get out more.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Vignette # 1216: Florida trip

It's 1998. I'm a first-year teacher on holiday break, traveling to Florida to visit, among other things/people, my aunt and uncle. We've been driving steadily for fourteen hours; Tso has adamantly refused to let me behind the wheel, so I've been whiling the time away grading papers, reading a novel, chainsmoking Marlboros and arguing heatedly about the quality of the upcoming Star Wars prequel. Tso, meanwhile, finds his serenity chainsmoking my Marlboros and dismissing the paperwork I'm currently grading as "not worth a tin shit."

We're both exhausted, but there's no other way to do these goddam trips besides driving straight on through till the morning. The poets call it an experience that will expand your perspective. I call it an experience that makes your ass feel like a piece of granite. This, in fact, will be my last trip to Florida for years, possibly ever. Driving south through the Midwest in winter sucks. Getting into the south, however, is encouraging: the air grows warmer, you start to see palm trees, and suddenly you remember that you're about to see sandy beaches and drink My Tais in outdoor bars while getting chatted up by other tourist pleasure-seekers. Not a bad way to spend your spare time. Oh, there are better ways, to be sure, but we take our comfort where we can find it.

A little after eight in the morning, we pulled into my aunt and uncle's. I haven't seen either of them since they moved down here a year or two ago, and the house immediately impresses me. A mile away from the beach, scrubland surrounding it. Fritz, an expert landscape gardener, has been at work here, and it shows. Later in the day, they will walk us through the surrounding area, showing us where they walk, where they socialize. Another year in the future, Fritz will install an outdoor shower that my grandmother will use, describing the experience as "unique."

"I'm beat," I complain to Tso as he hauls our bags out of the bed of his truck. "How are we going to handle this?"

He shrugs. "They're your family. You tell me."

"Let's just tell them we need to sleep for a while, and that there's a dinner in it for them. I don't think they'll be too bad with that."

"Let's hope so."

We walk up to the front door, and knock. A moment later, my aunt answers us. Visibly pleased. Hugging me. Shaking Tso's hand. She's steady. She's articulate. She looks like she could go teach class herself. Behind her, my uncle walks over. His smile is amiable; his grip is firm. He looks like a man enjoying his retirement immensely.

We spend some time talking about the drive down, but all of us realize this is only banter. The words, "I need to crash for a while; do you mind?" are on my lips when my uncle slaps his hands together.

"What can I get you to drink? We've got several kinds of liquor. Perk you right up."

Tso and I exchanged glances. Well, I think, we are on vacation...

Many drinks later, we're carrying on like it's New Year's Eve. Which it almost is, anyway, and besides, the hell with it, it's a New Year somewhere in the universe, right? No one is outrageously drunk; there's a palpable feel-good atmosphere in the air, and I desperately wish to take some of it and bottle it for the long, cold drive home and the long, cold months of winter ahead. But all of that is in the future, and for now, the present is something I'm wallowing in.

That was the last time I saw my uncle, who passed away yesterday. I wish I could see him one more time. Many more times. I wish I'd made the damn trip down south like I'd always intended to. I wish I wish I wish. Lesson in there, I suppose. Learned too late for my uncle, but at least it was learned.

Friday, September 26, 2008

So here it is, friends and neighbors, a Friday morning, the sun shining, birds singing, the rumble of the expressway providing a soothing cathartic to the daily grind of suburban life, the recent skunk expulsions down the street wafting gently through the air, and me, with a head that feels like it's stuffed with cotton, a rumbling chest demanding instant expectorations, and a voice that sounds like every baliff in Night Court combined into one.

That's right. I got me the illness.

I was out two days already this week, and hoo-boy, I feel like it's been a month. Spent most of the first day reading a book (not too taxing); the second day, I leafed through another book, wondering morbidly how things were going back at school while I was gone. I didn't have to wait long, as it turns out; I went back the following day, believing it would be less work in the long run to be my own sub (an erroneous assumption, as it turns out--how do you tell a kid to "Stop fighting!" and sound credible when you have to wheeze it out in between nose-blowing into a hanky?). For every day you're out in this biz, there's another pile of crap to read, grade, weep over, yell at them about not doing correctly, or cast into the fire. Normally this process is lubricated with beer, but beer and a chest infection seems to me like throwing water on a grease fire. So all I could do was seethe inwardly. Probably the very character trait that's destroying my immune system in the first place.

Then, this morning. Croak. Croak. No voice. Head spinning. Air painful against my skin. Chest burning. Eyes watering. And it took me at least two minutes to figure out what time it was, as I gazed stupidly at the clock on the bedside table. Ugh. This did not bode well.

So, instead of traveling to scenic Spring Grove, Wisconsin to partake of some quality outdoor theatre, I'll most likely be in bed, drinking hot mixtures laced with ginger and God knows what, trying to recuperate enough health so I can spend my Sunday trying (futilely) to catch up on all the grading I otherwise would have gotten done this week.

Forgive the whininess of this post. It's just that a steady diet of cold medicine and broth tends to produce exposition of the immediate, rather than the abstract, the intellectual, or the somewhat-remotely-interesting.

OK, how's this instead? Comic book art software makes for an interesting hobby!

What happens next? Tune in when...I come up with something.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Sad day indeed, when the best political commentary comes from...
I’ve already heard that Obama and Palin are both fairly inexperienced. And I’ve heard that McCain doesn’t know how to use the internet. I’ve heard all the “pig in lipstick” and “I can see Russia from here” lines, because they’ve been repeatedly jammed down my throat over and over and over again. How could I miss them?

I don’t need to hear again about who was a Community Organizer, and who thinks that “Community Organizer” is a laughable position. I’m not concerned with how many houses someone has. I don’t need to be told that someone is a terrific speaker. I don’t care how anyone feels about hockey, and I don’t need to hear about what Priests a candidate may or may not have hung around at some point for some amount of time.

And if I hear “Hey, the bottom line is, she sold the plane” one more fucking time, I’m going to track down that plane, buy the shit out of it, and crash it directly into the White House, regardless of who’s living there. Test me on this.

I feel like all we’re getting are lies and lines, and no one’s talking about the issues and no one’s holding anyone accountable. Media, you’re supposed to be on our side. Stop repeating the same sound bites over and over again. In the history of forever, has a President’s ability to do his job been enhanced or impaired as a result of how they feel about moose-hunting? Then shut up about it.

I mean, is Adam McKay right? Is the media completely dead? Subquestion, why the shit am I getting the most honest and insightful political information from Adam McKay?
Oh yeah. I'm feeling the logic.

Sunday, September 14, 2008, the conservative's answer to what, I suppose, is a left-leaning Wikipedia.

Some routine searches:

William Shakespeare's life and works in about two pages' worth of text, with a whopping four sources cited (three of them web pages). Conservative academia?

Eric Alterman does not exist. Guess I saw that coming.

Barack Obama was "allegedly" born in Honolulu. Presumably, this means he might have been born in Kabul.

The war in Iraq had nothing to do with WMDs. (The only even tangential reference to that whole debacle: The site credits a Washington Post article pointing to a meeting between Bush and a Spanish prime minister who said Hussein was "open to exile" and such an exile might avoid war, but that "Bush made it clear in the meeting that he expected to "be in Baghdad at the end of March" (according to the former p.m.).

Helen Thomas is a "liberal anti-war biased journalist." And she wrote...what, exactly? Pamphlets? Protest songs? Or do we take you on conservaword alone?

In short, a conservative encyclopedia is a valuable reference long as you ignore some facts, truncate others, and shorten your entries to those meeting the attention span of a six-year-old. Color me unimpressed.

Friday, September 12, 2008

That damned left-wing media...

Pop quiz, sea monkeys! Who said the following quotes about the media?

1. "Don't believe the right-wing ideologues when they tell you the left still controls the media agenda. It does not any longer. It's a fact."
a) liberal comedian/pundit Al Franken
b) liberal fillamker Michael Moore
c) liberal Fox News commentator Alan Colmes
d) Fox News pundit Bill O'Reilly
2. [The] idea the media now tilt toward liberals is absurd."
a) CNN journalist Wolf Blitzer
b) MSNBC's Keith Olberman
c) Daily Kos' Markos Moulitsas
d) conservative analyst Bruce Bartlett
3. "[There's] this cottage industry [in the media] in which it pays to be unobjective. It pays to be subjective as much as possible. It's a great way to have your cake and eat it, too. Criticize other people for not being objective. Be as subjective as you want. It's a great little racket."
a) political commentator Jay Marvin
b) White House reporter Helen Thomas
c) Hardball's Chris Matthews
d) Weekly Standard's Matt Labash
4. "We have the media now."
a) New York Times' publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr.
b) Washington Post former editor Ben Bradlee
c) a secret cabal of pro-Israel newspaper owners
d) conservative pundit Ann Coulter
If you guessed "d" to all of the above, you win the grand prize: sight over ignorance! Truth over slander! And a date with me, at the NRA rally of your choice!


O'Reilly's comments: The No-Spin Zone, July 2005 (transcript currently unavailable on Fox's website)
Bartlett's comments:
Labash's comments: Interview on
Coulter's comment: Interview with Sean Hannity July, 2005 (soundbyte courtesy of Oliver Willis)
Research compiled by Eric Alterman. Sapere aude, indeed.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Lessons of the Masters by George Steiner


Mumblings of a Wannabe Pedant who Just Read Lessons of the Masters by George Steiner

I glommed onto this particular tome in a reference Alan Bennet made in an interview several years ago. A depressing amount of Steiner's arguments sailed harmlessly over my head; he uses allusions and casual references to Ovid, Schopenhauer, Nietzche et al with an ease I can only envy (at least, at this point).

Still, his monologue on the Teacher/Student relationship is worthy of consideration, especially in today's politically-charged pedagogical climate. In no particular order, going over this book in the only fashion I feel I could pull off worth a damn, I give you:

Ten Things I learned from this book

1. The transmission of knowledge is inherently erotic. I'm not sure how. Steiner argues that the student's intellectual submission before the Master is charged with eros, and to overlook this potential disaster/boon (witness Socrates and Alciabades, Abelard and Heloise, Plato and any boy with pecs...) is naive and limiting. I don't think current laws allow me to explore this matter any further. And Steiner, you'd better stay the hell away from my third hour.

2. A teacher can measure his success by his disciples' ultimate rejection of his tenets. "To teach greatly is to awaken doubts in the pupil, to train for dissent. It is to school the disciple for departure...A valid Master should, at the close, be alone." I buy that.

3. The study of the humanities is at odds with that of science and math. It's ridiculous to argue that we'd be bereft of radiation without Madame Curie, but we would not have the Sistine Chapel without Michaelangelo. I'd have to respectfully disagree here. Read Tom Stoppard: "What we lose to history will be picked up along the way...or rewritten in a completely different language. You should no more grieve the loss (of the books of Alexandria) than you should a shoelace lost on the sidewalk." (Paraphrased)

4. High school teachers suck. We have a "subconsciously vengeful mediocrity" and are "more or less amiable gravediggers" a la Yorrick. Hey, Steiner, no offense, but fuck off, all right? If you had any material on presentation besides lectures and q&a, I might be impressed.

5. We can thank Goethe for the eternal credo: "He who cannot, teaches." I'd cuss him out too, were he not already 176 years dead.

6. The charged relationship between Master and Disciple is dangerous (it can result in castration, like with Abelard and Heloise), a case of one-upmanship (Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler; Max Brod and Franz Kafka); it can seduce and destroy you (Mephistopholes and Faustus); it can kill you (Socrates); you can be good at it and still reviled (the strange, sad case of Georges Palante); yet all of these dizzying possibilities underscore the raw power, responsibility and rush (my new three R's of education) of the one profession without which there would be no other professions.

7. It is extremely difficult to figure a rate of exchange for sharing one's passions with students. At least, in the academic world.

8. Some teachers have had stringent requirements for their students, sometimes to their detriment (Pythagoras), sometimes beneficially so (Zen masters).

9. The fact that I need to reread this book (a third time, I might add) to even come close to absorbing it satisfactorally, is a testament to both my failures as a teacher, and my doggedness, which is one of my greatest assets as a teacher.

10. I have so got to read the following stories: "The Lesson of the Master," Henry James; "Of This Time, Of That Place" (author?); "The Lesson and the Secret" (author?); The Dying Animal, Philip Roth.

Friday, September 05, 2008

ALE HOUSE--Blogging from Dale's iphone. Beer and hypertext go suicidally well together. Kai is in town-rejoice! Tso is hiding at his parents'--loser.

Monday, August 25, 2008

((Insert appropriate noun here))head that I am...

It was supposed to be a walk in the park for a Monday morning lesson.

Famous last words.

I gave them Old English riddles out of the Exeter Book. It's the ultimate sleight-of-hand; getting through British literature and history is an uphill slog for a lot of these guys. Oh, I put on my dog and pony show to be sure, finding connections with their own mundane lives and the like, but in the beginning, it's all guts, glory and gold (Beowulf, Deor and other titles that, in my infinite stubbornness, I do not take off the syllabus). Today, it was just a riddle. A stinking riddle. That's it.
I saw a tree towering in the forest,
Bright with branches, a blooming wood,
Basking in joy. It was nurtured by water,
Nursed by soil, till strong in years,
Its fate snapped, turned savage--
It suffered slash, rip, wound
Was stripped in misery, chained dumb,
Its body bound, its head wrapped
In iron trim. Now it muscles a road
With head-might for another grim warrior--
Together they plunder the hoard in a storm
Of battle. The first warrior swings
Through dense threat, head-strong,
While the second follows, fierce and swift.

In case you're a complete, you know, idiot, the answer is a "battering ram."

"A what?" rumbled a history buff in the front row.

I made idiotic pantomimes with my arms. "A battering ram. For god's sake, you know, one of those large rams made from a tree you used to bust through a castle door!" Turning impatiently, I went to the board to do another one of my Award Winning Illustrations:

"See? They tied the ram to a fulcrum, and then swung it against the door."

"Yeah, but the riddle says its head was wrapped in iron. What the hell kind of tree is that?"

"No, see, Johnny, you've got it wrong. Because you're, you know, an idiot. They used metal to gild the head, so the ram would have more weight."

Johnny starts to get it. So do the wits in the back row. Everyone is getting it except for your Friendly Neighborhood English teacher, who decides they're just too groggy from the weekend to grok the idea of ironwork in the fifth century. So he adds the coup de grace:

That little mark on the tip was as far as I got. Then I stopped. Realized what I had drawn. Didn't realize earlier because I'm, you know, an idiot.

Cursed, erased hurriedly.

Too late. Bedlam.

Later, a colleague stopped me in the hall. "They really sounded involved last hour," she said, in a tone one part sarcastic, two parts disbelief. "How did you get them so engaged?"

Look at me, honey. What do you think?

"Oh. Another mistaken phallic entendre?"

Damn right.

Friday, August 22, 2008

The First Days of School

First full week and change

IN THE NINTH CIRCLE--I don't know. I just don't know. The mornings are getting tougher. The hours seem to have more minutes in them, and I'm encountering people in the halls who know me, but whom I don't know. Not just new teachers, either. Old students. Parents. Current students whom I mark absent, and then forget entirely that they exist later on. I stared blankly at a stack of papers for ten minutes today while eating my lunch, and then realized I hadn't touched them. I asked around and found that a lot of people were going through similar growing pains. But they're able to shrug them off, roll up their sleeves, and get back to work. Like Hamlet, I brood over them, and double their impact.

Last year's kids are swarming over me in the halls. "Oh teacher teacher, we miss you!" "Oh sir, our new English teacher is so mean!" "Oh man, could we please do some Confirmation Essays! Just one? I'm hurtin' for a fixin'!" At this, I can't help but jeer. "You were the biggest whiners in the world last year, and now you want to go back? Oh yes, I read your Facebook page! I saw the photoshop job you did on my butt. And now your dues have come! Moo ha ha ha!" At this point, they file out, sullen, abashed.

And then the new students file in. Sullen. Unabashed.

"I heard we're having a quiz today," one of them intoned irritably.

"You heard it from me,"I said. "It's on your schedule. And I wrote a reminder on the board. And I said the words as I wrote them."

"So it's true?" Sigh. "That sucks."

Two hours later, I'm in a Current Events class. The headline from Ted Koeppel's old show, circa 1979, reads, "Iranian Hostage Crisis: Day 101."

Hand raised. "I don't get it."

So I went into an old song and dance about the Iranian hostage crisis and how it hurt Carter's presidency but how Reagan capitalized on it in the first days of his presidency.

"But I don't get it."

"Well, Iran is a nation of meanies. Right now, we're trying to keep them from building a bomb."

"No, I don't get it!"

Well, what's not to get?

"What's a hostage?"

And other such events unfold. It could be worse. It has been worse, in fact. But it could be better, too. I could be just as clueless as some of them, for example. "This note says I'm an ass-face. Well, thanks! Thanks very much! I do have a sweet butt, now that you mention it."

See? Orwell was close: Knowledge is pain. Ignorance is relief.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

The First Days of School

First Day

S'BERG--Still on this weird cold remedy buzz. A wall has been established between me and the outside world, particularly the world of the high school. Behind this wall, I am strangely omnipotent. Like Brahman, I have established an all-knowing wisdom, while, retaining enough of myself, sneering at the goings-on in front of me. Were I without this wall, the things I hear in the hallways (on. the. first. day!) would send me howling at the moon:
"Man, my ass is toasted!"
"Dude, do you have Mr. (my name here)? Let's rush him."
"Tonight, I told him I wanted the whole fist."
"Who does he think he is, telling us not to sniff the glue? It's art class. I can express myself however I want!"
"Dude, did you see Mr. (my name here)'s car? Let's tip it."
"Man, your ass is toasted!"
"Who does he think he is, telling us transcendentalism was an offshoot of Romanticism? It's all about the sublime, rather than a historical period! Asshole."
"Pi squared, bullshit. Didn't Einstein prove Euclidian geometry is fallible? Give me another hit of that, will you?"
"It stopped bleeding. Now it just itches all the time."
"Dude, do you have Mr. (my name here)? Man, he is toasted!"
I feel strong. I feel pedagogical. I feel like taking a nap.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The First Days of School


Ten kids to orient. Nine showed up. I croaked my way through a rambling explanation of why journalism is important, why we should pay attention, why it'll help them in the long run, even if they don't want to be journalists. The entire time, Achin', who has a room across the hall, is flashing pictures of the Materials Director's face superimposed on pictures of Olympic wrestlers caught in unfortunate starting positions. The DayQuill isn't kicking in. Maybe because I forgot to take it. I think I need to go home.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The First Days of School

Institute Day

S'BERG--Now both our computers are on the fritz, so I'm scribing this in a notebook, for later transcription. Not that this matters a whit.

Having lulled my persistent cough and postnasal drip into a grudging slumber with a generous helping of DayQuil, I entered the building today in a middling haze, insulated against the shake-downs, schedule-shifts and other brands of fuckup-ery awaiting me. I tossed half my mail away, ignored several memos, nodded hi to a few coworkers, and settled into a corner of the auditorium for the First Meeting Back. In previous years, our administration had taken the time to point out several things to us: Why our school rocks, Why our school rocks but Could Rock Better, Why You Guys Rock but Need to Rock Harder, Why our government hates us but we need to Rock All Year, and my all-time favorite, Why You Need to Care About Who Thinks You Rock and Who Doesn't. Subtitle: Students (and soon parents) vote with their feet.

(Turns out I vote with my Foot. When it's Up Your Ass. You dig?)

Of course, this year we had so many new higher-ups, it would be difficult to get an immediate read on how the year would progress in that front. I'd spent much of the evening before drafting a few ideas of my own, but, surprise surprise, I was not called upon to give a speech. Others were. Here, in complete honesty, candor and forthcomingness, are my notes from the meeting:
8:05 a.m. First speaker reminds us we need to start on time (now)
8:11 a.m. Speaker starts
8:12 a.m. Speaker tells a joke
8:14 a.m. Speaker quits waiting for someone to laugh at joke
8:15 a.m. First speaker asks for a moment of silence for us all to remember friends, family, and especially coworkers who have passed on over the summer. "They are precious to us," he intones. "They cannot be replaced."
8:16 a.m. "Now let's meet who's replacing them."
8:22 a.m. Another shot of NCLB in the arm: our state test average has gone up .6 points from what it was in 2000, after a plummet in the years between.
8:23 a.m. We finish celebrating the .6 points. Speaker announces that, to celebrate and to show the school's appreciation of our hard work and dedication, Fridays will consist of community-fostering activities. This Friday will be Build-your-own-ice cream cone Day.
8:24 a.m. I pinched myself. That really is our reward.
8:26 a.m. Speaker announces our two percent goal. "If we can improve everything, tests, graduation rates, attendance, effort, everything by 2 percent, we'll accomplish the limits." Good. I can crack that out by the middle of September, and then I'm outta here.
8:27 a.m. Second speaker takes over. Quotes extensively from a letter from Lincoln to his son's teacher: "He will have to learn, I know, that all men are not just and are not true. But teach him if you can, the wonder of books.. but also give him quiet time to ponder the eternal mystery of birds in the sky, bees in the sun and flowers on a green hillside."
8:31 a.m. In my planbook, I scribble, "Friday--outside, contemplate birds in sky." Done. Take that, AYP!
8:33 a.m. Next speaker urges us to attack biased language. "When you hear a student complain about something being 'gay,' I think you should stand up and say, 'You know what, that offends me. I'm gay! I'm gay, straight, bi and asexual. I'm black, white, red, yellow, brown and orange. I'm man, woman, able- and disabled. I am Everyone."
8:34 a.m. Anson, a co-worker, sits next to me. "I came late," he whispers. "What did I miss?" I point casually. "That guy just came out of the closet."
8:38 a.m. New staff intros at this point: Two black men (unheard of in this district), phys ed aides. Two platinum blondes (Roma was all over both of them in no time). Two rehires (nodded wearily at being introduced all over again). Two who haven't graduated yet ("in October, I promise! Really! Teacher gives me lots of gold stars and happy face stickers!")
8:45 a.m. Awards go out for 10, 20, 30 and 40 years of service. Predictably, the non-teachers get the most applause. Especially Joy, the cafeteria worker.
8:50 a.m. Our motivational speaker, an old college drinking buddy of the boss, gets up to speak. He immediately calls for another round of applause for Joy. The crowd obliges more than willingly.
8:51 a.m. "Every time I've interacted with this school, I've been impressed." Naturally. We haven't crossed paths yet.
8:52 a.m. "Every time I think of school, of the years I've put in, I get a little lump in my throat." Wonderful. Now the profession is cancerous. "You guys work hard. I can see it. It has nothing to do with money. This place reminds me of a small school in Santa Fe, which has a large number of illegal immigrants. They risked their lives to get a good education, their teachers know it, they're proud of it, and that's who you remind me of." The Republicans in the crowd are daring to frown disapproval over this comment, but that's all they're daring at the moment. "I'd like to amend the first guy's Appreciation Friday idea: Wine Tasting Friday." The Republicans continue to frown. "Or how about Beer and Burgers?" Now they're smiling. All is suddenly well with the world.
8:59 a.m. "Once you get teaching in your blood, you never get rid of it. I don't care who you are, what you do. It never leaves you." Great. Another disease metaphor. "And if you can't find it, it's time to go do something else." Are you telling me to take a walk, buddy? How about I get a job giving first-day-of-school speeches? Take that Mr. Motivational Speaker.
9:12 a.m. Talks at length about passion: "Passion for what you do transfers into the classroom." I make a note: Passion has been nixed in this building in favor of the MEL-Con.
9:14 a.m. Closes with a set of scriptural quotes. Gets a lengthy round of applause. Joy is beaming, though: She's still got him beat for popularity.
As far as motivational speakers go, I've heard much worse. I'm still struggling, though. I've spent the last year taking classes, attending seminars and listening to worldly experts discourse on the role of the educator, and how we're not here to teach content, but skills. So I contemplate my position, in light of my new motivation:
I can motivate my students by motivating myself. I motivate myself by embracing my curriculum and wallowing in the power of words. My passion, according to mandated NCLB changes, sucks. Therefore, I suck when I teach fromthe heart, and as a result, my students stink up the classroom and I lose my job, thereby providing me the exit he subliminally urged me to take at 8:59 a.m. In short, motivation equals unemployment.
Hmm. Quite the Catch-22.

The rest of the meeting, representatives walked us through a new evaluation model. First, we have an observation. Then we observe them doing an observation. Then the observation gets observed again, and we write up a memo on it. If these are all negative observations and a follow-up is required, it's To the Arena:

At this point, the speaker reminds us that there will be a Teacher Training Day Training Day, where we get to Train for Training and Train the Trainers. All higher-ups will be out of the building. Joy is put in charge, to thunderous applause.

And that's about it. So I. Am. Out of here. For the evening. To return tomorrow triumphantly. Rested. Refreshed. High on DayQuill. And fully cognizant of where my room is and which key goes in which door. Like a poet once said, you gotta reach for the stars.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

My Dumb Vacation

Click here if you missed Part One | Click here if you missed Part Two

Part Three: The heady froth of Midwestern Culture. Plus, infant expectorations.

There are fewer things more depressing than approaching the darker side of your mid-thirties wearing a Cult Rocks! t-shirt, cutoff jeans and sporting three days' worth of stubble, only to throw up on yourself.

Trust me on this one.

We'd made the Black Keys concert by 10:30 p.m. Had a few beers. Had dinner. Had a few more beers. Had a breath mint. Had another beer. And at this point, I was steady as Senator Kennedy during a floor vote. I could have piloted a B-52 stealth bomber while playing chess with a chimpanzee.

But then Dewey (without whom there can be no late-night trip to a Black Keys concert, I might add) suggests we should eat something.

"Why the hell should I," I slur confidently. "What I really need is another drink."

Dewey tries to explain the concept of solid food absorbing alcohol, thus acting as a catalyst for its entrance to the bloodstream and further enhancing the pleasures it has to provide. I wave away his suggestions as if they're a swarm of gnats, but finally give in when he offers to pay for my 35-cent cheeseburger if I pick up the next round of Jim Beam on the rocks. I eagerly agree. Sucker, I think to myself smugly.

An hour or two later, we're taking what I like to call the Drunken Royal Express: the Blue Line to Cumberland, where my car sits, waiting like the world's most patient wife after Last Call. The landscape outside the windows is suddenly swerving and dipping alarmingly. It's not the beer. It's not the lateness of the hour. It's not the Jonas Brothers currently playing on the speakers (probably). It's Mickey D's, angrily battling with my gut for domination. I forgot how lousy their food is once you're not an undergraduate any more.

I get up, grasp onto a nearby pole, and try to fix my eyes on a stationary point: the floor. Which also, as it turns out, dips and sways alarmingly. When the train stops at Montrose, several stops away from our final destination, I turn a pleading gaze on Dewey. He sighs, gets up, and we exit. I just barely manage to make it to the platform edge, my 35-cent cheeseburger charging like the Germans at the Battle of Stalingrad. I pause, fighting for control. I concentrate. I summon every ounce of willpower and self-control.

Brap. My Cult t-shirt has definitely looked better.

Dewey stands ready behind me with an ace up his sleeve: a Black Keys Rock! t-shirt, newly purchased at the Metro a scant few hours beforehand.

"You're true blue, pal," I say, drawing a hand across my mouth.

Dewey shrugs modestly. "The day I don't help a pal," he says, "is the day I can't remember where he parked. And you're not sleeping on my couch tonight, so don't even ask."

Is there any substitute in this world for a good friend? You tell me.


The last I left you, Dear Reader, I was standing in my aunt and uncle's front driveway, teetering from exhaustion, ready to embark on a two-day binge of theater and Michigan culture. Which I did. I saw Julius Caesar with my family, fighting the urge to drop off for the first two acts, then watching wide-eyed as the remaining players in the tragedy ran themselves on their swords. My favorite scene: Brutus tells Lucius to hold his weapon, leaps upon it, and yells, "Sweet, merciful crap! I said the sword with the black handle, dumbass!" The blood spouting from his gut looked like Buckingham Fountain during the Taste of Chicago--how in hell they get such great special effects is beyond me. I also liked how Lucius managed to turn pale--how did they do that? with trick lighting or something?--and retch visibly as he was hauled away. I don't remember that line, though. Probably they cribbed it from a Baz Luhmann unused script or something.

That night, while my aunt and uncle stayed home and went through my bags for their New York gifts, I went back for All's Well that Ends Well. I got to see them rehearse a bit beforehand due to a special Discount Rate that I purchased without even knowing it. When Helena comes out to do her repartee with the Count, it got pretty entertaining:
HELEN: You have some stain of soldier in you: let me
ask you a question. Man is enemy to virginity; how may we barricado it against him?

PAROLLES: Keep him...uh, wait a minute, I know this line. Keep him...out! That's it!

HELEN: But he assails; and our virginity, though valiant, in the defence yet is weak: unfold to us some warlike resistance.

PAROLLES: There is, uh, none: man, sitting down before you, will...uh, do something nasty.

HELENA: Bless our poor virginity from underminers and blowers up! Is there no military policy, how virgins might blow up men?

PAROLLES: Uh, forsooth...thou...Hah! I get it now! "Blow up men," that's good!

HELENA: Jesus Christ, Franklin, learn your lines already, will you?
Ah, Franklin. You put Sir John Gielgud to shame.

The next day's visit to some high school to watch Fame! The Musical is a bit muddled in my memory. I don't remember any soliloquoys. Or dramatic monologues, or iambic pentameters. I do remember my uncle grumbling, "Somebody better run themself on a sword, or I'm outta here." And oh yeah, there was something about a Performing Arts high school. I gots to get me one o' them j-o-b's. Looks like all you have to do is periodically break into song. "These are my children...please take them away." I can see the rave reviews as I close my eyes.

And then it was time to take a train ride home. For four hours. Only to sleep for four more hours, and hit the Black Keys concert. And then sleep for four more hours. And then a drive to a wedding. A six-hour drive. To Saint Louis. Through...the Midwest.

Oh dear God. Not this again.

I hadn't been to a wedding in years where I had absolutely nothing to do but show up well-dressed (check), bring a gift (...hocked it) and dance with Kim and/or assorted female relatives (hey, it's not my fault every time a good song came up I had to go to the bathroom).

But the real scene-stealer, of course, was my nephew James.

James is the first newborn into my family since my brother was born three-plus decades ago, so of course he commands a lot of attention. He's already outperformed both my brother and myself at his age: he can say "da," he can clap, he can roll his finger across his lips and make a burbling sound, he can balance a checkbook, and he can even sort of dance, provided someone else does the motions and movement for him. At his age, my brother could roll onto his back. At my age now, I can barely avoid discharging fast food onto cheap concert t-shirts.

So it was no surprise when he managed to upstage practically every setting he appeared in. But the little guy got sick, probably due to the overpowering 100-degree heat (why the hell aren't August weddings outlawed already, anyway?) and so he wasn't too happy to put in an appearance at the church.

When the sitter and Kim arrived from the hotel with him in tow, I volunteered to get him from the car. My brother, who was standing at the wedding and was currently ushering, looked grateful. His wife didn't object. The sitter, whose last nerve was quickly unraveling, readily acquiesced. The only one who wasn't apparently grateful was James, who was howling lustily from the confines of his car seat.

Poor kid. He looked like an angel. A sweaty, full-throated, red-faced, two billion-decibel-loud seraphim.

I felt my heart fill to the brim with love for my nephew as I beheld him at his neediest. No fear, dear one. Your uncle is here.

I managed to unbuckle him, draw him out, hold him close. "I know, little guy," I crooned. "You just need a little understanding and love, and that's exactly why I'm..."

Brap. The little jerk threw up all over me.

"Well of all the..." Splutter splutter. "Somebody get this kid off me before I..." Splutter splutter. "Nobody ever told me babies vomit..." Splutter splutter.

My dignity thus discarded for the time being, I tucked him under my arm, sprinted to the church and lateraled him to my brother. As I grabbed the nearest box of wipes to rescue my good suit from baking in baby vomit, James shot a smug look in my direction. And as the bridal party descended on him to ooh and aah, clucking sympathetically over his soiled clothes, James leered appreciatively at his ready good luck, and my crappy situation.

Nephew: one. Uncle: zero.

I returned to my church pew sweaty, smelling a trifle vomitus and looking like I'd just ran a 10-K. My beloved, the Woman who Holds the Bottle Opener to the Beer that Is My Heart, cast a critical eye at the puke on my lapel. "Wow, twice in twenty-four hours?" she asked sardonically. "What are you, going for a record?"

Damn it. Got to stop telling her the stuff that embarasses me.

The ceremony ran longer than expected, so once we got assorted family and friends back to the hotel, it was time for a little drinky-poo. One turned into several, which turned into dinner, which then turned into a full-blown dance floor at the reception cum open bar. Charlie and the Nostalgia Number did live music, and it was right in the middle of a passable rendition of Journey's "Don't Stop Believing" that James made his triumphant return: cleaned up, bathed and in a new set of clothes. I, on the other hand, was wearing the same befouled suit, rumpled hair and harried manner I'd had before, relying, in the absence of soap and water, solely on vodka and tonic to disinfect myself.

"He is so cute, gushed a nearby bridesmaid.

I stood up straight, puffing out my chest in pride. "I'm his uncle, you know."

"You've got vomit on your lapel," she said without even looking in my direction. James, apparently overhearing, sneered at me.

A half hour later, I borrowed my nephew and stuck a finger in his direction. "Kid, you're lucky you're so damn cute," I growled. "Or you'd be swimming with the fishes right now."

He acknowledged my riposte by grabbing my outstretched finger and dribbling on my shoulder. Nephew, two; Uncle, zilch. My heart melted.

"All right, you get away with it this time. But when you grow up, you're taking me to a Black Keys concert. I'll explain why later."


Setting: New Year's Eve, 2069. Kim and I are sitting in the living room, poring over old photo albums. We've just celebrated our first twenty-four hours of wedded bliss. Yes, late bloomers are we, but you can't put a label on love, and now, as the fire on the TV screen crackles cheerily while the pollution and depleted ozone layer decimates the landscape outside, we exchange memories of Days Gone By, occasionally clasping hands and downing shots of Jack Daniels.

Me:"Look at this one. This was what's-his-name's and whosit's wedding that one summer in that city with the arch-thing, remember that place? You were so lovely."

Kim: "And you were a hunk stud. Oh, and look at James. Who'd have thought the future President of the United States would do so much upchucking on someone not working for the UN?

Superficial, worldly-wise laughter ensues here. Maybe some geriatric groping on the side.

Kim:"And here you are, warning him not to throw up on you again. Just so cute!"

Me:"And here he is, dancing with a bridesmaid."

Kim:"Is that the bridesmaid you were flirting with?"

Me:"Flirting? Me? Hell no. I bragged about being his uncle."

Kim:"Sure, to a hot bridesmaid. What about all the old ladies hovering around him?"

Me: "Listen, woman, know your place! The Marriage Santification Act, passed by President George W. Bush hours before he left office (HR 2172-2 Section Seven Paragraph 2), makes it a crime for me to be spoken to like that in my own home!"

Kim: "Your home? You damn mooch! When are you going to start pulling your weight, get a job and pay me some rent?"

Me: "I told you, I'm in a transition period!"

Kim: "And I told you, I was only allowing five decades for you to find a job singing in a musical. I don't care how senile you are now!"

Me: "Why" Brap.

I forgot. Nonagenarians shouldn't drink after only poached eggs and Soylent Green for dinner.

Geriatric bickering ensues. By New Year's Day, 2070, we're filing for divorce, and I'm sleeping on Dewey's couch. Guess we should have seen that one coming.

Monday, July 28, 2008

My Dumb Vacation

Click here if you missed Part One | Click here to go ahead to Part Three

Part Two: The glory of the open road...with no rest stops...

Rental car agents are retarded. Why would I need insurance? I have insurance, not to mention a license, two working eyes and a swank set of wheels just waiting for me.

"I just don't think it's a good idea to drive a convertible cross country," she was telling me for like the fiftieth time. "They're not fuel efficient, and there will be lots of wind resistance."

"What there won't be any of will be babe resistance," I said nonchalantly. "Can you just picture me behind the wheel of that Mazaratti? I'll have to beat them off with a stick."

Unfortunately, the Mazz was taken, so I was stuck with a Ford monstrosity. No matter. It's late July, there's a Michigan Shakespeare festival starting in fourteen hours, and the open road is beckoning me. As the Bard himself might paraphrase, The weight of this sad time I must obey/ Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say:
What I feel: "I am going to tear this road apart!"
What I ought to say: "Screw the festival. How about a hotel and ten hours' uninterrupted sleep? In a, what do you call it, a bed?"
Heresy. Sheer heresy. I've been going to the Michigan Shakespeare festival for nigh on four years now, and each time I go, I remain undissapointed. Oh sure, those high-ended cake eaters in the Big City can have their Shakespeare in the Park, their bi-yearly trips to England's Globe Theater, their BBC subscriptions, blah blah blah. Give me Jackson Community College any day. They know how to do it: Merchant of Venice in a 1920s motif, Henry V circa World War I style, Hamlet as a bitchy college dropout. I'm addicted, I tell ya.

Of course, no small part is feeling like a bigshot whenever my aunt or uncle leans over, nudges me, and whispers, "Who's that guy again?" If I didn't know better, I'd swear they were playing the innocent in an effort to puff my deflated ego. Ha. Not likely.

So there's no way I'm about to miss this cultural phenomenon just because a mere 800 miles or so separates me from my loved ones and the Bard. Which is why I'm renting a car to drive the distance in a marathon ten or twelve hours' time.

The car rental place is dubious about whether or not I can make it. I've got three days' worth of Manhattan living weighing me down; I hate driving; I can't remember which states border Michigan; and my hand is visibly shaking as I sign the rental contract. "We've got road maps available, you know," the agent tries again. "We can even tack them onto the cost of the rental. You won't be out anything extra."

"Look, honey, this isn't rocket science. As long as I drive towards the setting sun, I know I'm going west, right? Nuts to thou."

Outside, the sun is glaring into my eyes, and a parkway looms before me. Oh crap, I thought to myself, which way is it to the turnpike? No, can't show weakness in front of these schmoes. Got to hit the road with confidence.

Getting out of New York City, as it turns out, is a lot less complicated if you avoid the city altogether. For me, this meant a leisurely detour northwards on 678, past Yonkers, losing the freeway in Connecticut (Highway 15), reconnecting with 80 way up north, and recontinuing westwards a mere three hours after I left the airport, all the while passing deformed banjo players grinning at me and pointing towards river tour trip signs. What, me worry?

I managed to keep a more or less consistent log of the journey in hour form. Of course, they tell you writing anything while zipping along at upwards of 80 mph is dangerous, but I think the record speaks for itself in proving this a bunch of crap:

Hour One Feeling good. The sun is out. The grass is green. Never traveled cross-country solo before. Only on those Florida road trips with Tso and Todd and all them. Hmm. Wonder what those guys are up to? I should call them. Anyway, I'm off to see America!

See? Isn't it grand?

Hour Two: Hmm. Sun being out not such a great thing when it's right in your eyes. No matter. I'll play the radio to distract myself.

Hour Two point Five: God, radio sucks out here. Didn't Debbie Gibson retire her career a decade ago?

Hour Three: What the hell are they talking about, no Starbucks drive-ups? This is the East coast, right? It's not? I'm in rural country? Then why is Debbie motherfucking Gibson still playing so much?

Hour Four: God, my back is killing me. Must keep driving, though. Got to escape...Debbie Gibson.

Hour Four point five: Am I even on the right road? Bah, what am I, a sissy? Men blazed trails out here without any maps! Of course, a lot of them wound up eating each other to survive...

Hour Five: I should probably stop over and eat something. Bah, no time. Running out of time before the first show starts. Maybe I can rehydrate with the windshield wiper fluid. Got to stay sharp. Revel in the glory that is the open road:

Hmm. Seems sort of monotonous. Hope I'm not lost.

Hour Six: That bastard Tso. "Oh, you should go out East." "Oh, you should go to New York." Now I'm driving this ridiculous trip. It's his fault. Everything is his fault. I'm going to kick his ass when I see him next. And what does he mean, the news is left-leaning? I'll lean on your left, asshole.

Hour Six point five: If I had to, I could eat Tso to survive out here. Better not tell him that.

Hours Seven: God, the Midwest is so boring. Can't believe there isn't a landmark or a theme park or something.

Hour Seven point two: Wait a minute...what's that in the distance?

Hallelujiah! Something to actually say I saw while seeing America!

Hour Seven point two two: Almost there...

Erm. That can't be right. Maybe I need sleep.

Brief interlude for sleep in Youngstown, Ohio, where my mother and uncle were raised. I haven't been to the town for about fifteen years. The last time I was out here, I was a whiny teenager with a face full of acne. Now I am approaching my mid-thirties with a back built like a child's tower of blocks. While I should be sleeping, I examine my hairline to see if the drive is making it recede. As near as I can tell, it is.

Hour Eight: Going on three hours' sleep. Fueled by coffee. Drink it in lieu of food. Go go go.

Hour Eight point two: Damn. Need to pee.

Hour Eight point three: Gah. Too much coffee.

Hour Nine: Oh Christ, how much longer? And how much longer until I can get some more coffee? This sucks.

Hour Nine point one:

I hate this place.

Hour Ten: "Hello, Tso? When I eat you? I'm starting with your eyeballs, fignuts." Click. Showed him.

Hour Ten point five: Standing in aunt and uncle's driveway. Seeing double. Need to pee. Need to eat. Need to sleep. Five years taken off my life. But I made it. Victory is mine.

Aunt: "Nice to see you. Now shake a leg. Your uncle's car isn't going to wash itself."
Uncle: "You drove all that way for a lousy play? What a rollicking social life you must have."

Okay. All right. Vengeance will be mine.

Next: Part Three! The exciting world of Jackson Shakespeare! A beach bar with no beach! A Broadway musical in a high school auditorium! And I suck out Tso's eyeballs and eat them with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.