Monday, November 24, 2014

Don't I know you from another life?

For about the millionth time in recent history, I'm laid up sick. Not surprisingly, I seem to have contracted cat scratch fever.  Other than a very short burst of actual fever, I feel fine, but my forearms are ridiculously swollen and I can't drive or do much of anything. Typing hurts too, but I'm bored.

I've lately discovered that I'm highly susceptible to binge-watching. My latest thing has been ghost hunting shows, which has led to another interesting discovery: the only dead people who insistently come back are long-haired women from the Victorian era in white (occasionally black) dresses. They account for easily 90% of reported apparitions.

It struck me as odd. I mean, do flappers and Colonial belles simply not have the amount of unfinished business held by their Victorian sisters? I think I've pieced it together.

a) Most of the supposedly haunted houses are themselves Victorian, so it makes sense.  Why Victorian houses? Well, the architecture of the day was pretty freaky. If anything screams "I AM HAUNTED!!!" it's one of those carpenter Gothic or Queen Anne horrors.

b)White or black dresses, because photography was black and white.  Some pictures were hand tinted, but most people have only seen Victorian women in what appears to be a black or a white dress.  The dress may actually have been pale blue, but it looks white in the photo, so... that's the mental image people have, and they're not shaking it.

c)Long hair--well, I still don't get this one. Almost all women of the Victorian period DID have long hair, but they also dressed it elaborately; it rarely just hung down the back.  So, it wouldn't have LOOKED especially long.

d)Always women, because the picture of a woman in an elaborate dress pining away in a ruined mansion is much more romantic than one of a doofy middle aged male banker.

e)Most people in the US don't really fully understand what "Victorian" means.  Victoria reigned (and not in this country) from 1837 to 1901. At that, the freaky architecture most associated with being "Victorian" was really a result of the 1880s and 90s, nearing the end of her rule.  However, in the first twenty-five years of the 20th century, fashions in everything became much simpler.  Architecture finally got a hold of itself, and women's fashions became less elaborate--and shorter--for skirts and hair.  The average person now simply thinks that anything "REAL old" is Victorian. Woman in a long dress, even one from the 1780s? Victorian. Old house (built 1745)?  Victorian. Long hair (1972)? Victorian.

This is not perhaps a universally applicable assessment. In Virginia, where we are obsessed with our glorious Colonial past and to a slightly lesser extent with the Recent Unpleasantness, people are forever seeing the ghosts of Jefferson and Lee.  Our lady ghosts tend to be English nobility visiting their relatives in the Colonies or a Wartime belle proudly serving her children bread and water while the Yankee guns threaten Petersburg.

That last, though, really WOULD be "AVictorian Lady."

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The Barbies of Richmond

When Barbie turned fifty a few years ago, it seemed like every city in the country came up with its own Barbies.  Richmond joined the bandwagon too.  Last night I was explaining this concept to a friend who hadn't seen them.  We agreed that the problem with the Richmond list was that it didn't really include much of the city; most of the Barbie variations hailed from the suburban and rural areas.  I decided it was necessary to create Barbies who actually lived in Richmond.  After all, a real Richmond Barbie, no matter her socioethnic background (you'd be amazed how snobby plastic can be!) would have NO use for a Barbie who came from outside the city, whether that  "outside" meant Sandston or Goochland County.  So here we go--the Barbies of Richmond.

Monument Avenue Barbie is still hot at age 40 after going through two husbands--the ill-advised Senior Year Beach Week Ken and Surgical Intern Ken.  Husband #3, Investment Banker Ken, moved here from Atlanta two years ago.  Monument Avenue Barbie grew up in Virginia Beach but this Ken enabled her to live on Monument Avenue, where she now spends a lot of time making sure that her interior design "preserves the grandeur of the home but works with a modern lifestyle." This means that she's painted everything white and has Picasso knockoffs and one Persian rug.  Since Investment Banker Ken works about 80 hours a week, she has time to befriend Iraq War Burnout G.I. Joe, who works in her modernized yet tasteful garden--usually with his shirt off. Accessories: Prada-inspired suit, shoes and evening gown, annoying yappy dog, Joe's baseball cap (under her bed).

Boulevard Barbie is a girl on the go.  She lives in an apartment with three other women she met at the corporate meet-n-greet after she was hired at the JMU career fair. Pair her up with Boulevard Ken, who lives in a similar but much grimier apartment with three college buddies. Accessories: Honda that Dad bought her to take to college, mix-n-match business pumps and Reeboks, ficus tree, cat, keg.

Fan Barbie wears an exquisite caftan crafted in a third world country.  She and Start-Up Ken discovered Richmond back in the late 80s.  Her accessories include more caftans, a sari, a Little Black Dress, two dogs, four cats, a New Yorker subscription and a coffee mug. She likes to hang out at independent coffee shops and keep up on the latest insightful articles--but she's voted Republican since the day she turned 30.

Church Hill Barbie is the Barbie you don't want to run into at a party.  Her accessories include a pair of Boyfriend Jeans, a power drill and several chickens.  She is actually from an old Virginia family but grew up in Cleveland.  She was very excited about moving back to Richmond because of all its history and looks down on the Fan because it's so bourgeois and doesn't have REAL history like Church Hill (which explains why she has gutted the first floor of her house so she can have an Open Floor Plan).  Her Life Partner is VCU Art Professor Ken. She is on every neighborhood committee ever created, which is why all of her neighbors hate her.

Windsor Farms Barbie might be getting on in years, but she's still a knockout in her Ann Taylor knockoff. Her accessories are almost innumerable since she's Junior League, is on the Symphony board, the Art Museum board, garden club, Garden Week board, Women's League, and has at some point attended every charity ball, cotillion and "At Home" since the dawn of time. She comes with a silver cocktail set that was a wedding gift to her grandparents in 1913. She uses this every day since she strongly suspects Tobacco Company Exec Ken is having things to do with his secretary. Sold separately: Dream House, an exact replica of Berkeley and is furnished with period Virginia furniture, including three portraits of Byrd family members to whom she is actually, but very distantly, related; black Lincoln Town Car.

Westhampton Barbie is always perky in her coordinated Ship 'n Shore outfit! There's not too much to say about her because she's been in a bad mood for ten years.  Her accessories include an English Sheepdog and genteel ladies' sporting equipment. (Sold separately: Lincoln Navigator, which she uses to bully people who don't live in Westhampton.)  She's happiest with Trinity English Teacher Ken, but she's married to Corporate Lawyer Ken--who is having an affair with Botetourt County Stretch Armstrong.

There you go, you cretins--there are the Barbies for the tonier parts of town.  Tomorrow, because we're very equal opportunity here at the Colonial, we'll examine the Barbies from less fashionable climes.



Friday, September 26, 2014

I'm a lonesome little raindrop.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J-An8vpshLc

...so y'all really need to start leaving some comments before I go all Jewish mother and whine about sitting alone in the cold and dark.  

Venting Sanitary in the classroom

During the eighteen months or so that I worked on the Historic Ships in Baltimore, my favorite assignment was USS 423, the submarine Torsk.  I do love the Constellation, but since my interest in military history is all 20th century stuff, Constellation is pretty much a giant piece of floating furniture.

I had the very good fortune to work with a man who'd been in submarine service and was obsessed with subs and their history. He was a very good resource for actual information (much of which the museum's management did not know) and interesting stories about submerged life.

My favorite little fact is that, at least on Tench-class submarines (of which Torsk is one), the sanitary tank can be blown or vented through the boat's horn.  Let me make that blunt: you can clean the shit tanks by blowing their contents out of the horn.  My esteemed colleague always followed this tidbit of information with the tagline "Now that's a shitty sound!"

In the past week I have discovered the latest teenage "thing."  Remember how "hella" used to be the thing to say? At least, if you're either a teenager, really ghetto, or live surrounded by teenagers? (If you don't, it's a superlative.  Pizza is hella good, that test is hella hard.)

"Hella" is verba non grata these days.  Now it's "shitta."  Which, I suppose, raises the concept a notch or two since "shit" is a naughtier word than "hell," but unfortunately it sounds even more idiotic--mostly because it sounds like you're saying "shitty."  So, when discussing shoes (an eternal touchstone in the eye of the American teenager), one might compliment a friend by saying "He got shitta shoes."  To the casual observer over seventeen, however, it sounds like the speaker is making a reference to either the cleanliness or the quality of the shoes in question.  I wouldn't find it flattering if someone told me I had shitty shoes--I'd try to remember if I'd just walked across the median on Monument Avenue, which does tend to be a dogshit minefield.

I predict that the next logical development will be "fucka" except that's already in use. Still it will need to happen, so the linguistics of the Clearasil set are apt to become very interesting in the next year or two. 

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Convenience food is the Port-a-Pot of the edible world.

As the school year kicks off, I find myself in the same boat with every other teacher in the nation.  This, sadly, is not a big Cunarder or a Compagnie-Generale-Transatlantique liner.  It is a boat filled with rocks to sleep upon, gigantic waves trying constantly to founder it, and nothing resembling edible food.

You see, no matter how carefully you may have planned during the summer, your plans won't happen.  Your administration will decide that you should teach something else instead.  The city or county or whatever system under which you are in thrall will employ some drastic new "technique" that you must obey, never mind that its software doesn't actually work.  You are going to spend the first month in a weird limbo where everything almost makes sense, but doesn't quite.

In other words, you can throw your normal life out the window. (Two codicils:  a)don't actually throw your life out the window--think of the indignity when THAT hits the Times-Dispatch. b)One thing that doesn't change is happy hour. If it weren't for the Charles Village Pub and Joe's Inn, I'd have been at the bottom of the James years ago.)

There is never enough time in this first few weeks to approach normal food for yourself.  Sure, you can eat at restaurants (you're probably already there for happy hour), but that gets rather expensive.  You have probably stocked up on real food, but then, you will do as I did last week: look at all of the real food in the fridge, waiting to be turned into something wonderful, and then say "oh, screw it" and eat a bowl of Cheeri-Os.

Thus, I offer this analysis of some basic "convenience" "foods."  Why the quotes? In the grand scheme of things, they're rarely too convenient, and even more rarely are they food.

a)Hot dogs.  I love hot dogs. Always have, always will--they're tasty and even if you nuke them, they make you think of baseball games and county fairs.  They're also nature's perfect food. Why? Because there isn't a damn thing in them that's natural, so you're saving the environment.

b)Box O' Mac-n-Cheese.  Here's where I question the "convenience" part. You know, it's not too damn hard to make actual macaroni and cheese. You boil the macaroni, add grated cheese and butter and some milk. If you want to get crazy maybe you make a white sauce and then blend the cheese in.  Get crazier, you then add some chopped onions, some bread crumbs, bake the whole mess. Still, it ends up taking maybe fifteen minutes.  But no, you want it easy, so you get the box kind.  You still have to boil the freakin' macaroni and then you add the powdered cheese stuff which, I have come to realize, is salt that has been dyed orange. The whole process still takes nearly ten minutes.  Damn, dude. Just do the real thing. (Oh, yeah--but the Box O' Crap costs 33c.)

c)Prepared sandwiches from the grocery store/S'leven.  These are invariably as dry as Cleopatra's coochie and probably have less flavor. The cheapo mayonnaise they include, if they do, doesn't help because it's not Duke's but always Bob's Tas-T Mayo or something.  Also they put lettuce on them.  Lettuce does not do well when it's been wrapped up on a sandwich for several hours; it's like a slice of pool-table felting.

d)Hot pockets.  These things are just vile.  Worse, they are incapable of being nuked evenly, so you will always have one bite that's volcanically hot followed by one that breaks your teeth because it's still frozen.

e)Lunchables.  Wow, I remember when my Mom was feeling really lazy and gave me bologna and cheese slices and crackers for lunch! Wow, Mom could be EVEN LAZIER now because the Kraft people or whoever have done the same damn thing, except that it's all encased in plastic and costs ten times as much. Seriously, y'all.  Bologna, cheese and crackers.  It is not difficult to accomplish this on your own.

f)Spaghetti-Os.  What, even, IS this shit? the tomato sauce may involve a little bit of ketchup somewhere, but as far as I can tell it's just red sugar slime.  Take out the O's, which are the consistency of recently-deceased mealworms, and you pretty much have cherry Jello that hasn't set up right.

g)School lunch. NOPE.  Nope, nope, nope.  Did that way too often as a teenager, not doing it again. I can perfectly well hold out for the free munchies during happy hour.

Thank you for tuning into this week's edition of Cranky Teacher Follies.

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Stupidification of Education

Stupidification, you say?  It's a perfectly cromulent word.

I especially chose a word that doesn't actually exist because that's precisely what is going on in the world of education.  It's been going on in some fashion for years but it's hitting a crisis level.

When teaching stopped being a profession of those who loved a given subject matter and became the province of people with degrees in "education," the book was closed forever on actual instruction.  Everything became a "best practices" exercise.  I am specifically reminded of a spelling "program" that was foisted upon me as a fourth grader. There were eighteen levels of expertise and because I am one of those freaks of nature who can spell easily, I passed every last one. I was the only kid in the class who could and the poor teacher--who had doubtlessly grown up in cute little Baltimore County Maryland and went to Baltimore's cute little teacher's college on cute little York Road and now taught at a cute little Baltimore County elementary school--had no bloody idea what to do, because she'd been indoctrinated in the wonders of The System.  Throwing up her hands in frustration--literally, I watched it--she went to the principal who gave her a spelling book from the 50s to use with me.  It was just as ludicrously easy as the System that had been developed by a Team Of Experts, but I'm sure the principal then thought of herself as a Problem Solver.  The sort of frightening aspect was that they were both actually angry at me because I fried the system.

Although I have great students this year, I really don't get to actually teach them very much.  I need to use so many various aspects of "technology" that I have no time to cover actual material.  These are every bit as foolish as the spelling program, but they're all electronic.

Let me point out that my county does not actually have a curriculum.  It has a "framework."  This supposedly gives the teacher considerable freedom; you can pick your own works of literature, for instance--but very little guidance.  The framework says "We expect you to teach this concept.  Now go find something to teach it with."  If you ask what works of literature should be used, the usual response is "Oh, there's all KINDS of stuff online!!!"  (I'm hoping that you can picture the perky face of the person saying that.)

Here's a breakdown of all the things I'm expected to use on a daily basis.  I have eighty minute long classes, so you do the math and figure out how much time is left for actual instruction.
--Attendance must be taken online.  The same program ostensibly functions as a gradebook but doesn't seem to work very well, yet.
--Each student is issued a chromebook.  The county mandates that students participate in twenty minutes of "SSR" daily.  (This stands for Self-Selected Reading.  Acronyms apparently embiggen us all.) They are held accountable through a live Google form.  Google docs are the darling of the county.
--County-wide use of vocabulary.com is mandated.  I'm being tracked to make sure I'm using it.
--There's a different application that helps students with writing.  It actually isn't a bad thing, but once again, I'm being tracked to make sure it's being used.
--One class is an entirely scripted reading program.  I pretty much just press "play" a lot.
--Yet another beast called "Edmodo" is supposed to function like an academic version of Facebook.  It's about as user-friendly as a demonically-possessed chainsaw but I'm supposed to post all of my assignments on it.
--I'm supposed to be using a system called Edmentum that provides tutorial lessons and assessments.  Some of its information seems to be pretty good, but I'm not entirely sure because I only get to see a dummy version of it--so I don't actually know what it's telling my kids.  I helped one student with an assignment on this thing and the test answers were wildly incorrect.

Years ago I worked in an office at Johns Hopkins.  My boss was a woman who thought of herself as being very tech-savvy (and grotesquely enough actually used the word "savvy")  Unfortunately her actual knowledge base had pretty much stopped with ENIAC so what she usually accomplished was the creation of a complete mess.  The concept of shared drives was completely foreign to her but she loved the idea of them.  She ended up sending files all over the university because she just couldn't get how it worked.

Education has disintegrated to a similar point.  Everyone at higher levels is in love with the idea of technology but they don't really understand how it works, or in many cases, that it doesn't.  We are, in effect, trying to use a Pianola to replay .mpg files.  Technology can be a wonderful tool, but simply throwing it at teachers and students for the sake of being able to say it's being used is rapidly destroying our children.




Sunday, September 7, 2014

THIS CAR DOWN... fin

...and, finis.  


“You evil creature. You don't want him back. You didn't want a dog. You said that a dog would just stink up the apartment. You don't love him and you don't want him. You just want to take him because I love him.”
“Be that as it may, I'm going to take him. Don't make me take steps.”
“Take steps. You cunt.”
She hadn't even turned around. She stood, still looking out of the window, while she told me that she expected me to give up my dog. Like she might have expected me to give up my alarm clock, or my orange juice pitcher. Another accessory. I'd managed to close my jaw, but now I stood working it, not able to find anything to say. I looked around. At her desk. The chairs that were just upholstered enough that you wouldn't mind sitting in them, but that wouldn't allow anyone to be comfortable. And she still wouldn't turn around to look me in the eye.
“If you've left the key, you can go. I think we're through, here.”
I was looking at the award, or whatever it is, from the bar association that sat on her desk. It was one of those lead-crystal diamond-shaped things that seem to be on everyone's desk, these days.
“You're right, Carolyn. You're through here.”
I picked up the lead-crystal diamond and, with her award for legal brilliance, caved her skull in. I don't know if she saw it coming, but I hope she did. She didn't scream or protest or threaten a suit. She did have a surprised look on her somewhat-damaged face, surprised that I'd had the audacity to kill her. There was a gout of blood and she fell forward, almost noiselessly, slumped against the window. From the size of the bloody dent in her mean-spirited head, there was no chance she'd survived. A smear of blood,where she'd slid down, was already drying on the glass, thanks to the efficient air vents beneath it.
I ran out of the office and there was the elevator waiting for me, and then there was the earthquake, and there I sat almost an hour later, waiting for them to come and get me. And then for them to really get me.
The voice on the other end of the intercom came back a couple of times to check on me. I was still fine, I reassured the voice. And I was, more or less. I had to pee and I had just murdered my recently-turned-ex girlfriend, but I was fine. Just when the emergency light was starting to grow dimmer, the voice came back. It seemed that the building's systems were safe enough to run and the power would be coming back on. Thank God for that, I thought. This whole mess was bad enough without having to sit in the dark. The lights flickered back to life and—damnit--so did the piped music. Outside, I heard voices and a variety of noises that sounded, I suppose, like rescue workers doing their job. The elevator moved downward a little bit, probably only about fifteen feet, and the doors cranked jerkily open.

There was a group of people outside the elevator doors, waiting for me—some maintenance types, fire and rescue workers, and three Richmond city cops. I was trying to decide what I should say. By this time, somebody had to have found Carolyn. My guilt was obvious. But the cops said nothing. Once I was out of the elevator, they lost interest and walked away. I overheard one of them saying “OK, that guy's out. I think we've still got a couple of people trapped upstairs, let's get this rolling.” An EMT walked up to me and told me where to go so they could check me out for any injuries. I reassured him that I was fine, just fine. He looked a little skeptical, so I told him that a staple had poked me in the ass on the elevator floor, but really I hadn't been hurt. He told me that I'd have to sign a waiver, though, in case anything seemed wrong later, that I'd refused emergency care, and waved me toward the front desk, which seemed to be their command center.
The woman handling the paperwork was still wearing her gear and was clearly exhausted. I told her that I was fine but that I was supposed to file a waiver. She gave me a couple of triplicate forms. I asked her how bad it was outside. She told me that it looked worse than it was.
“It's damn lucky this happened on Saturday, or it would be hell out there. Every window in this building blew out.” I looked outside and, indeed, the lobby windows had shattered. There were a couple of ambulances on the street.
“A lot of casualties?”
“Not really, thank the Lord. One poor guy down Main street, he got hit by a big chunk of marble that fell off the Mutual Building. And oh dear sweet Jesus, the marquee on the Empire Theatre collapsed and crushed a bunch of poor souls just waiting for the bus. Lots of people hurt by flying glass but nothing too serious. One in this building though. There was a woman who must have been looking out of a window when it hit, she was way upstairs. When the windows blew out, she fell. She must have been pretty far up, because...well, there's not much left. Poor thing...bless her heart.”
I, who knew who it was, did not bless her heart at all. I finished filling out the waiver and walked out onto 10th street. I had to get home and take Rusty for a walk.


Wednesday, September 3, 2014

THIS CAR DOWN--part deux


The next installment.  What'chall think so far?

I'd been in the elevator for, maybe, half an hour when the intercom crackled on. It made a little popping noise and reminded me of the walkie-talkie set I'd had when I was a kid. It always made this little pop and then crackled, and after that you could hear the other person's voice. Then you pushed a button, and you could talk, but couldn't hear the other person until you were done. I wondered if I was supposed to push the button again. Just to be sure, I did, and said “Hello?” I felt a little dumb for saying “hello,” but then if there was any particular etiquette for being trapped in an elevator, I didn't know about it. A voice came on. “Sir? This is building security. Are you in one of the elevators?” No, you dumbass, I thought, I'm in the Twinkie aisle at the Winn-Dixie. “Yes, it's stuck.” “Which elevator are you in?” “Umm...the one that's stuck?” And I'd thought saying “hello” sounded dumb. “Sir, if you look above the indicator lights above the door, you'll see the number of the elevator.” “Umm...it's B-4.” “How many people are there with you?” “It's just me. What's going on? Did we have an earthquake?” “Yes, Sir. There's been some major damage to the building, but you should be safe where you are. Do you have any injuries?” I thought about telling him that I'd been poked in the ass by a staple but figured that humor wasn't really a wise option now. “No.” “Well, um, if you're not injured, Sir, I hate to say this but you aren't the first priority right this minute. They'll be getting to you soon. Hold tight.” Why was this guy telling me to hold tight? I was pretty definitely not going anywhere.
So it was an earthquake. I could hear sirens, quite a lot of them, muffled by the walls around the elevator. As if I didn't have enough on my mind, I started worrying about what was going on outside. What did the guy mean by “major damage?” I wondered if there were a lot of people hurt. If my apartment house was even still standing. If my dog was allright. Hell, this was Rusty's fault anyway. Dude, don't blame the dog! I told myself. It's not like he told her to pull this stunt.

The only reason I'd been in the damned building in the first place was to give Carolyn my key to our apartment. Her apartment. Since she'd made me move out a week ago, her apartment. She'd given me an ultimatum the Friday before: move out or I'll throw your stuff on the street. I spent a couple of nights with a buddy. It didn't take long to find a new place. While she was at work I went back over to the old apartment, got my clothes and some books and Rusty, and left. I wanted to trash some of her stuff, but that time at least, good sense won out. Carolyn was a lawyer. A fairly powerful lawyer. And a vindictive person. It wouldn't take more than one broken lamp for her to file suit. I don't know squat about law, but I knew Carolyn well enough to know that if I so much as left the toilet unflushed, she'd come after me.
I met Carolyn about two years earlier. We had mutual friends who'd just gotten engaged—I was one of his friends, she was supposed to be one of her bridesmaids, and they were having an engagement party. As it turned out, she wasn't one of the bridesmaids because she had some kind of fight with the bride-to-be a week before the wedding, and refused to participate in it. Which made things plenty awkward when the wedding rolled around, and I had to go because I was one of his friends, especially because Carolyn tried to talk me out of going. I pointed out that I couldn't very well not go, and she said that I owed it to her, since they had been rude to her. I mentioned that he hadn't been rude, and that it wasn't really his problem, only her friend's problem (“Former friend,” she said). That got me two days of silent treatment.
Anyway, we dated for a few months and then moved in together. Other than the spat over the wedding that she wasn't in, things went pretty well. She didn't really like my friends that much, because she hated the bar we all hung out in--”it's just like a cave in there. A dirty cave.” – but that wasn't a deal-breaker. She was fine with letting me go hang out there without her, and that gave her time to hang out with her friends. We spent most nights at home anyway. No complaints about sex; everything was fine there.
After we'd lived together about a year, she started pressuring me to get a new job. She'd drop some not-very-subtle hints about some of her friends' jobs, that they had openings. “Entry level, of course, but it's a good start.” Then, she started on me about my degree. How it was going to waste, and surely I wanted to do something besides work in a bar. I reminded her that I was working on my writing, and so my degree wasn't going to waste, but I needed to work in a bar to pay the bills. “That's just it,” she said, “that's the only way you're paying bills. When was the last time you had anything published? Oh, that's right—never.” I couldn't really argue with her, because it was true. Still, it stung. I wanted to write. I held out hope that maybe, just maybe, I'd get something published and I wouldn't have to work in a bar forever. But Carolyn kept pushing.
It turned out, after a month or so of this, that a couple of her clients who had met me at one of the firm's parties saw me at work. And that's what set her off. It's true that the bar where I work isn't one of the most stylish places in town. Well, to be honest, it's a dirty old place just off Broad that caters to ancient war vets and tired salesmen and broke grad students, but I don't think that was the problem. The problem was that it “got back to her” that they'd seen me at work and recognized me as her boyfriend. And it Didn't Look Good for someone in Her Position to have a boyfriend who worked as a bartender and sometime-bouncer.
She kept on needling me throughout the rest of that spring and summer until finally, in August, she showed up at the bar right before my shift ended. She was still wearing her gray flannel suit and black pumps from the office. Some of my regulars had dubbed her “Miss Corporate Look 2011.” I came down to the end of the bar, where she sat looking like she didn't want to touch anything. I was about to mix her usual when she gave me the infamous line, “We have to talk.”
I pretty much knew what was coming, so I told the other bartender I was going to clock out a couple of minutes early, and sat down with her. I'd always wondered what she must be like in a courtroom, and now I knew. She didn't give me a chance to say much of anything. It didn't sound like a rehearsed speech, but she made all of her points quickly and nastily. For a year now, she said, she'd been trying to get me to realize my potential. And I'd done nothing. It was bad enough that I'd given up on myself, she said, but she could see that I also didn't care enough about her to change. She had a career to think about. If she wanted to get anywhere, it just wasn't going to work out to be hitched up with a bar bouncer. She couldn't exactly show up at meet-and-greets with some dolt who may or may not have a black eye from a bar fight. And, people in her firm thought she was just using me for my dick. She realized now, she said, that she pretty much had been doing just that, but that if she were going to buy a piece of dick, she needed somebody who wouldn't be an embarrassment. And that since I wasn't going to make any changes, she was. I'd better be out of the apartment tomorrow.
After that little deposition, I had no interest in changing her mind, or in ever seeing her again. Afterwards I guess I could have told her that she didn't need to treat me like a rentboy, that my education was just as good as hers, that creativity is just as good as power-brokering, but I'd gone from complacency to not giving a shit in about three minutes, so I told her I'd stay elsewhere that night and get my stuff while she was at work on Monday. I did. Luckily one of my buds knew someone who had just moved to Roanoke and needed someone to sublet his place. It's not a great apartment, but it's reasonably clean and things can suck worse than living on Sheppard street.
Friday night, the phone rang at the bar. I had the bad luck to answer it. It was Carolyn, who, without bothering to say “hello,” told me that I still had the key to the apartment, and to bring it to the office the next day. I told her I could bring it by that night, but she said that she didn't want me at the apartment, that she'd be in the office tomorrow.

I'd never been in her office. There hadn't ever been any need for me to go there; even when things were going well with us, I knew that she was too busy to have visitors at work. I knew that it was on the 18th floor of the Jefferson Building, but that was about it. When I got there, the firm's suite seemed empty. I called out for her. “Back here.”
The office was not big, but it did have a window looking over 10th street, and you could see the river. It dawned on me that she really must have been moving up in the firm, while she was giving me hell about my non-career. It was furnished in a style that matched the Corporate Look clothes she wore for work—gray upholstery, gray carpeting, a big mahogany desk, chrome lamps. All very sleek, and all of the inviting nature of a hornet's nest. She stood looking out of the window. “You can leave the key on the desk. And I'll be over later this afternoon to get Rusty.”
My jaw may have actually dropped. “Get Rusty? He's my dog!”

“And I paid for his adoption fees and his shots. Because you couldn't afford it. He's mine and I want him back.”  

Saturday, August 30, 2014

THIS CAR DOWN

OK, y'all, I'm trying something a little different.  Thought I might post a few of my short stories on here, in installments.  This way I get to feel all published and stuff, even though it's just on my own damn blog, but also I can get some critical feedback from y'all--and hopefully, entertain you a bit as well.

THIS CAR DOWN

When the elevator started shaking wildly, my first thought was that divine retribution was happening very, very quickly. The elevator doors had been open, on the 18th floor, when I ran into it and pushed the “L” button over and over. I have noticed that everyone seems to believe in the power of the elevator button: the more times you push it, the more frantically you push it, the sooner the elevator will do your bidding. It doesn't, though. It never does. I was the only person on it—after all, it was a Saturday, and there are never many people inside an office tower on Saturday. Even so, I was running a cold sweat as the sterile, corporate-looking thing made an insipid bing for each floor it passed. I was staring at the indicator above, so I knew that I was somewhere around the lobby's mezzanine when the shaking started.
The elevator made horrible shrieking noises. Somewhere over my head, there was ominous crashing. The elevator came to a stop in its tracks—on its cables—whatever it is that elevators have, so suddenly that my gut felt as though it were still traveling to catch up with the rest of me. The lights blinked a few times and went out. Thankfully, the cheerful and barely-audible music went out with them. I have never understood why building management companies feel the necessity for music in elevators. It's always something awful anyway. Maybe they figure that if it's music that nobody likes, there's no risk of annoying any one person more than anyone else, because everyone will hate it. Then why have it at all? I know that music is supposed to keep you calm, but is anyone ever really that upset in an elevator? Or, at least, is anyone normally that upset in an elevator? This time, I was, but the music certainly hadn't been calming to me in the least. It was a particularly awful version of “Brandy,” which hadn't been a great song anyway and was rendered that much more awful by some crappy string orchestra. The emergency light came on, its dim bluish light producing a light that reminded me of way too many horror-movie scenes.
The shaking kept up for a few more seconds. I had figured out that this probably wasn't God's way of getting me, figured that it must be an earthquake. But that's stupid, I thought, we don't have earthquakes in Virginia. Once the shaking stopped I took a couple of deep breaths and tried to stay calm enough to figure my options. (“Brandy” was no longer around to help maintain calm.) It didn't take long; you don't have a lot of options when you're stuck inside an elevator. I could sit there and wait, or I could try my cell phone, or I could push the “emergency” button. No matter which I picked, I was good and screwed.
Better to get it all over with, though. I rang the emergency buzzer. I heard a bell sound somewhere below. There was an intercom, but when I pushed its button too, I got no response. I tried the cell phone, but 9-1-1 just gave me a busy signal. Maybe this really was an earthquake. If it was there probably wasn't much chance anyone would get here anytime soon. I sat on the floor. Most of the big downtown office buildings have glitzy marble tile floors in their elevators, but this one was a relic of the 70s and had grey carpet. A bit more comfortable to sit on, anyway. Except—damnit! Something bit me in the ass. A staple. I contemplated the person who must've dropped the staple. Yesterday, when she was taking reports to a different office. Or home to work on. And she's probably sitting at home out in the West End somewhere right now, maybe working on the reports and pissed off that they came unstapled. And wondering what the hell that was, that just happened. And I'm stuck in this elevator, waiting for them to come and get me—and I do mean come and get me—getting my ass poked by the staple she dropped.
It was then that I started wondering what was going on outside the building. I could just make out the sounds of sirens. The elevator must be pretty near the lobby, then; if I could hear them. Terrorists crossed my mind, too. After 9/11, every time somebody farts, you think about terrorists, but that couldn't be—even if terrorists had bothered to find Richmond and attack it, they surely wouldn't pick a Saturday, when there wouldn't be many people in the financial and government districts.
I probably sat there, sweating and trying to avoid staples, for another fifteen minutes or so. I tried 9-1-1 again with no luck. Maybe I should just call around, I thought; someone will be able to tell me what's going on. I tried a few numbers in my phone, but every try gave me either a busy signal or that damn boop-boop-BOOP sound and “We're sorry, but...”

I gave up on the cell phone. If only I had something to read. This was getting boring, even given my state of mind. Few things are more annoying than being in a situation where you're waiting for something inevitable and you have nothing to take your mind off of it. I'd already read the little placard that informed me the elevator had been inspected by C. Howell of the Commonwealth of Virginia. I was perversely pleased to note that, for a fairly high-rent office building, the certificate had expired a couple of months earlier. I wondered if the inspection included checking to see if the thing would be safe in an earthquake. I supposed not; since (as I'd already said to myself repeatedly), Virginia just doesn't have earthquakes. I wondered what they do with elevators in California. Probably nothing extra; there's probably not much you can do to an elevator that makes it any more earthquake-proof than its building. Besides, aren't you supposed to use the stairs in an emergency? Well, I hadn't known this emergency was coming, or I would have used the stairs. If I had I'd be home by now. And still waiting for someone to come and get me.  

Monday, August 18, 2014

The more things stay the same...the more they change.

I loathe change. Anyone who has spent more than three minutes in this blog can probably decipher that.

Let me jump back to my Super Seventies childhood for a moment and talk about the word "hate."  I was instructed (not by my parents, who were born in the 30s and had a slightly better grip on things) but by my teachers and the somewhat younger parents of friends, that I should NEVER say I hated something, or someone, because "Hate is a very strong word." Well, friends, Richmonders, countrymen, lemme tell y'all, I know it is.  And if I say I hate something or someone, I really mean that I hate it. I don't dick around with this and yes, it IS a Very Strong Word, which is precisely why I employ it.  This is one of the beauties of the English language:  we have a wide variety of words that address almost every known condition. So yes: if I've said that I hate you, that probably means that I actually really, strongly hate you.  Not enough to kill your pets, because I like animals a lot more than I like people, but enough to rescue your pets from you because you're an awful person, find them a good home, and then kill YOU.

Oh, crap, I was talking about change. Or at least I meant to, until I got all sidetracked because I was thinking about the dude who cut me off on Route 113 last night. As the kids would say, "my bad."

I am now at my favorite beach resort, Cape Henlopen City...um, I mean, Rehoboth Beach.  See, it was initially incorporated as Cape Henlopen City, which actually sounds a little bit more impressive, but then the Methodists got into the act and found some Biblical crap so here we are with a perfectly nice beach town that nobody can spell unless they are from here.  It's not made easier since there's a small town somewhere on Maryland's Eastern Shore called "Rehobeth," thus frustrating every attempt at spelling anything at all.

Every year when I take my beach week, I revel in the joys of this old resort.  No matter how many new generations of Like Totes OMG Washington suburbanites "discover" the place, it is still full of people that I have known since the earth's crust cooled.  I can count on attending Mass at St. Edmund's church, and run into three Baltimore families and at least one person I know from Philadelphia.  Invariably when I stop for ice cream at the Royal Treat--which many of us still think of as the "Hotel Royalton"--I'll bump into somebody from Frederick or Allentown or Richmond.

So, every year when I come to Rehoboth Beach, I think "Oh, look, it hasn't changed a bit."  It has, though, and this is the strange thing.  In Richmond, when one lousy building gets torn down, I die a little.  Even if it's nothing but a 1915 tire store on Broad street, I think of the Broad of years gone by; I mourn the Richmond that no longer is.  I imagine my grandfather buying new tires for his Buick there and taking a happy motor trip to... Rehoboth Beach, where, I also imagine, everything looks Just The Same as it did in 1915.

It doesn't, though; it doesn't even look the same as it did in 1985.  The difference is that since I only see the place for a week or so every year, it's not as immediately obvious. I figure that of all the buildings on Rehoboth Avenue, the main street of the town, about one has been ripped down and replaced every year since I was a teenager.  Since that's thirty years now, and Rehoboth Avenue is about five blocks long, that means that pretty much the whole Goddamned town has been torn down and replaced, or at least completely rebuilt.

Thankfully, the "feel" of Rehoboth Beach is the same.  It's still a pleasant beach town full of the "nice people" of Baltimore and Philadelphia, with occasional Richmonders and Pittsburghers thrown in.  (Washington people visit here too but there's no such thing as a "nice person" from Washington.)  We all sit around on porches in madras shorts and drinking way way too much gin: it's a lovely summer life.

Yet I wonder about the "things don't change" idea.  Since I seem to insistently believe that Rehoboth doesn't change, even though it quite clearly does, do other people feel the same way about Richmond, or Baltimore?  And does the change matter as little to them as Rehoboth's changes seem to matter to me?  Every time I go downtown I shudder when I see the empty lot where Thalhimers stood, and nearly break into tears when I see the Colonial's beautiful facade with no theatre behind it.  I know that there are thousands of people in Richmond who feel the same way about those particular buildings, but.. what about the nice little houses on Navy Hill that got ripped down for I-95? (Oh, right, I forgot that in the 60s those houses didn't count 'cause of how colored folks lived there.) Or that Council Chamber Hill--one of the Seven--was wiped out entirely for the same project?   and really, can I still pretend that 2014 Richmond is the same city I inhabited in 1991?

I think that most of us don't really want to see, or even imagine, that change has come to us: it means that we're getting old.  I may be a special case (and by that I may mean one who should be down at Central State) in that I don't want things to be any different than they were in 1921.  (I'd go earlier, but I need the Colonial to be open.) Aren't we all a bit nostalgic?  Even my Baltimore friends who grew up in not-so-fashionable neighborhoods recall a restaurant or a store that, while not elegant, had good food or cheap beer or the penny candy that everyone loved.

I haven't yet seen too many awful changes in Rehoboth Beach, yet.  Mind you that I just got in last night, spent all day on the beach today, and all evening drinking and dining with my best friends right in our own (rented) beach house.  I'll see the town itself tomorrow.  You know what doesn't ever change? the singing of the million different bug species, the sighing of the pine trees and the crashing of the Atlantic.  (Oh, and also the occasional Gato Del Stink.  Despite its  many delights, Rehoboth got skunks.)

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Death and Life in Petersburg

This evening I was farting around on Facebook (am I supposed to do the TM thing with Facebook or does everyone just get that?) and noticed that my friend J. from Dayton posted a link to an article about the death of the shopping mall.

"Mall" is a weird word in that it took on new meaning somewhere around 1970.  Before that it was a large, open promenade.  Baltimore had one (well, HAS, it's still there but no one remembers it) in Druid Hill Park;  Richmond has one in front of the big Memorial Carillon.  Most famously, of course, we have the Mall in Washington, which at some point around 2000, people started calling "The National Mall."  Now, I didn't grow up in Washington but I did grow up in Baltimore which is all of thirty-five miles away, and I can tell you that NO ONE who is from this part of the country calls it, or ever did call it, "The National Mall."  It's just "The Mall."

It is particularly frightening but indicative of our culture...er, our National Culture--that in recent years people from other parts of the country show up in Washington and want to find the National Mall.  They're aghast when told that they are standing on it, because what they're looking for is a big shopping center.  Fuck the museums, fuck monuments--we want a goddamn Wal*Mart, y'all!

Anyway I never really thought much of shopping malls. I grew up in the faded glory of Baltimore's huge department stores at the Busy Corner (that would  be Howard and Lexington), and when you've shopped in the ten-story wonder that was Hutzler Brothers, the charms of a brown-tiled floor and umbrella-shaped blue-tinted fountains are pretty dim.

When William and Mary elected to give me a diploma (a strategy, I suspect now, to just get me the hell off campus), I worked at one of Richmond's similarly huge and elegant department stores.  Thalhimers had its mall stores, too, but we cast a dim eye upon them, preferring our gigantic flagship at Sixth and Broad.  Malls were for the Little People; Proper Richmonders shopped on Grace Street.  (Our store, like our rival Miller and Rhoads, fronted both Broad and Grace.)

Among our suburban mall stores was one at Walnut Mall in Petersburg.  If you are Virginian, or a student of the War of Northern Aggres...um, I mean, The Recent Unpleasantness, you know of Petersburg.  Sadly for that poor city, no one else does anymore.  Petersburg, if you don't know of it, is a small city about twenty-five miles south of Richmond.  It was once a very wealthy town and has the great architecture to prove it; but its glory days are no longer in the memory of anyone living.  It is large enough to have had a mall, though, and Walnut Mall was its showcase in the early 70s.

Walnut Mall was the first mall I knew that just plain closed.  At the time, we'd closed our Walnut store and opened a newer, fancier store at the larger mall in nearby Colonial Heights.  Even though I was a downtown child through and through, I did grow up in the mall era and so it was just unbelievable to me that an entire freaking mall just up and died.  I took it as a rather sad sign of Petersburg's long descent into oblivion: the poor town was so beat up and ruined that not only was Sycamore street dried up and abandoned, but even its MALL had closed.

Little did I know at the time.  Petersburg, a forgotten ruin that was once the Confederacy's seventh largest city, was a forerunner in a new trend--the death of the shopping mall.  Malls are going the way of the dodo and are being replaced by little fake downtowns out in suburban areas.

There's a second chapter to this, but I've been sucking down gin and tonic for six hours and I'm tired.  Cheers to Petersburg, though--after a century it got to be on the cutting edge again.

Friday, June 20, 2014

How to Become A Grand Duchess.

This is, in part, a shout-out to those few people from Russia and the Ukraine who apparently keep reading this.  Hey, folks, I love y'all, even though I'm not sure what intrigues you about weird crap being posted from Richmond.

Among the more classic cases of "wrong place at the wrong time" are the stories of the Royal House of France and the Imperial House of Russia.  The Bourbon and the Romanov were minding their own business, not doing a particularly wonderful job of ruling their nations--and ended up having their heads removed (case 1) and being brutally shot to pieces (case 2).

I do understand that civil strife can lead to a lot of unpleasantness, but being so incredibly brutal is just horrifying.  The murder of the Imperial Family of Russia continues to astound me but, I must admit, fascinates as well.  The Tsar, Tsarina and their children were shot repeatedly, bayoneted and rifle-butted.  The Tsarevitch, in his death agony, tried to clutch at his father's shirt until someone noticed he was still alive, and shot him through the ear.  Even the Grand Duchess Anastasia's pet spaniel was clubbed to death--because, of course, the poor dog had been responsible for multiple wrongs against The People.  One of the murderers even wrote that he could "die happy, because I have squeezed the Empress's ____.  It was still warm." The word was blacked out in documents, but I think we can figure out what he meant.

Many years ago, Robert Massie wrote the definitive biography/history of the last Imperial pair and their reign.  My reading this week is his follow-up work; The Romanovs: The Final Chapter.  While much of the book is devoted to the discovery of the Imperial Family's remains near Ekaterinburg--which I steadfastly refuse to call Sverdlovsk--there is a goodly bit of text devoted to the various pretenders to the Throne, and particularly the women who, over the past almost-a-century, have claimed to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia.

I have always been curious to know why all of these women wanted to be Anastasia.  The youngest of the four Grand Duchesses was known to be a happy girl and a very clever young woman, but why not elegant Olga, brilliant and exotic Tatiana, or breathtakingly lovely Marie?  Apparently, one of the claimants did make an effort to be Tatiana, until a relative of the German Imperial House visited and said "She's too short to be Tatiana." She then decided that she was Anastasia after all.

It is interesting as well to note that when people discover they are a reincarnation of a previously-deceased person, they are invariably the reincarnation of a very well-known historical figure.  No one is just the reincarnation of a Maryland farm boy; everyone is Cleopatra, Marie Antoinette, Bismarck or Augustus Caesar.  After all, if one is being free and easy with one's past life, it must be considerably more impressive to be the Queen of the French than to be an 1880s housemaid in Lynchburg.  If everyone currently alive who believes that he (or she) is Napoleon's reincarnation, then Napoleon must have had the most incredible case of split personalities ever to appear in the DSM-IV.

I suppose that it's comforting, in a rather morbid way, to know that poor murdered Anastasia has been such a cult figure over the decades.  What an honor, after a horrid death, to be the object of so much attention! But what of Olga, who was denied her debut because of the War? What of Alexey, who in his death agony tried to reach to his Daddy for help?

I don't know that I believe in reincarnation, anyway; it seems a pipe dream meant for those who just can't get over the idea that when you're dead, you're dead.  That said, perhaps it does exist--and if so, I'd like to think that the Imperial Family has been reincarnated in the unspoiled form of happy domestic pets, or pretty songbirds, and not in the form of grasping people who want to cash in on their terror, pain and awful deaths.



Thursday, June 19, 2014

Repost from a year or so ago. You'll find out why, shortly. Bwahahaha.

(Originally posted on my old blog, grafonola.blogspot.com, in early 2013) 

I was catching up with The Oatmeal, one of my favorite online cartoon(ist)s, this evening. Mr. Oats pointed out that, as an internet-based author, he's not taken seriously--that is, if he says he's a writer, people are impressed until they learn that he works online rather than on paper, at which point they assume he's just a college kid with too much time on his hands.

 The idea of your job/career as a basis of your worth as a human is, I think, mostly an American concept. Europeans don't really seem to give a damn what you do; though they may ask as a conversation-starter sort of thing. If you tell a German that you shovel alligator dung for a living, he'll probably tell you about an interesting zoo he visited once. Tell an American the same thing, and you'll get "You're shitting me, right? Get it? Haha. No, seriously, what do you do?" 

Assuming nothing ridiculous happens in the next six days, I'm going back into the classroom. A bit earlier than I'd intended, but the time is right, and the position presented itself. When I read The Oatmeal's post, it made me think about the various careers I've had and the reactions I've gotten thereto. While I've always considered the Q&A format to be the most juvenile of journalistic methods, I'm also feeling a little juvenile, so I'll present these as hypothetical (not really) bar/party conversations I've had. Assume that each of these conversations starts shortly after introductions, when Random Person at Bar (henceforth RP) has just asked me what I do for a living. 

ME: ... I work at Thalhimers. (For those under 25 and/or not from Virginia, it was a big department store in downtown Richmond.) 
RP: That must be great! I bet you get GREAT discounts.
 ME: I do. 
RP: So which department do you work in? 
ME: The credit office. 
RP: (has lost visions of glamorous men's bathing suit model or guy who can get her makeup discounts) Oh.

 ME: ...I work at the Bank of Baltimore. 
RP: (Impressed, envisioning solid respectability)Oh! Must be great pay. Are you in the main office? 
ME: The pay's OK. No, I'm in the operations center.
 RP: (not quite so impressed) Well, still, that's a solid company. You'll really be able to build a great career path. Banking's a GREAT field. 
ME: Haha--sure hope so! 
Harsh Reality: The Bank of Baltimore was swallowed not once, but twice, and disappeared from the face of the earth, so no, it was a shitty career path. And it paid me about $21 K a year. If the company had stuck around, I might have been able to build a decent career with a real salary, but it didn't. 

ME: ...I work at Johns Hopkins. 
RP: (glazed look, as if he's just met the Tsar of all the Russias) WOW! that's such a great school. You must LOVE it there!
 ME: It's OK. It's just temporary until I find a really good job. 
RP: But you must have a great job at Hopkins!
 ME: Haha! I'm just a clerical slave, but if I stay with the university, there are some cool positions that come up sometimes... 
Harsh Reality: If you grow up in Baltimore, you know that Hopkins really isn't THAT great of a school. Especially if you went to a much better school. What it IS great at doing is marketing itself--which is why the rest of the world thinks it's a great school. If you work there and you are not a doctor--and I mean the medical kind, not a mere PhD--you are considered subhuman. Oh, and it paid a whopping $24K.

 ME: ....I work at T. Rowe Price. 
RP: (look that says 'you must be crazy rich; I will totally sleep with you') Wow, that's GREAT. You must make really good money. 
ME: (thinking, 'wow, transparent much?)Umm, well, I'm still pretty much entry level, but I'm learning a lot. 
RP: (seeing illusion fade, but holding out hope)It's a great company though. And I hear their benefits are awesome. 
ME: (smiles and nods)
 Harsh Reality: Again, this job paid about $24K. Oddly, I really DO like investments; it's like playing Monopoly except that there are no little wooden hotels, and the Reading Railroad hasn't existed for fifty years. And if I'd stuck it out it would have been a good career. But: again, the pay was shite. They hire kids right out of college who are willing to work for peanuts because they want experience. Said kids think the benefits are great because they've never worked anywhere else and don't know better. Other investment companies call the place "Churn N Burn" because people burn out there after three years and go to a different firm or a different career entirely. Which is what I did... and became... 


ME: ...I'm a high school English teacher. 
RP: (warm, fuzzy look that bespeaks a missionary zeal) That's awesome. I have SO much respect for you guys! Teachers definitely do NOT get paid enough! 
ME: Actually, I wouldn't argue with a bigger paycheck, but Baltimore City pays pretty well. 
RP: Omigod, you teach in THE CITY???? Aren't you afraid? 
ME: (avoids telling random person that s/he is either a giant racist, a suburban asshat, or both) Why should I be?
 RP: But aren't the kids... 
ME: (cuts random person off) Teenagers like they are everywhere, yeah. I was a dick when I was a teenager; it's just sort of what teenagers do.
 RP: I really admire you. I've always thought it would be great to be a teacher, but... 
ME: You might enjoy it! Haha! (thinking 'you wouldn't last a week in my classroom or ANY classroom, you little cocksnot.') 

The upshot here is that almost all of my various career paths have been something that, on the face of things, is Something of Value and Importance. Banking and finance are supposed to make a lot of money and therefore must be good careers. They're also supposed to be stable, but in reality, they're not at all. Anything to do with education is "noble,"  although most Random Persons are more interested in Good Jobs that Make Money than they are in Noble Professions.

 Conversely, one of my best friends is a steamfitter.  A RP at the local bar, talking to both of us, gave me the Warm Fuzzy business about being a teacher. When my friend (who, incidentally, is taller and much better looking than I am) said he was a steamfitter, RP did the head-tilt and curly-lip thing: "What's that?" He explained it to RP, who promptly dismissed him and went back to talking to me. Which was really dumb, because I might Do Something Important, but my steamfitter buddy--while he occsionally sets himself on fire at work and often has dirty hands--makes three times more than I will ever make as a classroom teacher. Because he is also a member of a very strong union, he's pretty much guaranteed to keep his job, and has actually good benefits. And while yes, education is important, so is having heat in the wintertime, plumbing and water pressure. When the hospital loses heat and your mom's in ICU, who's more important--the teacher, or the steamfitter? I was happy for the attention and all, but that chick really screwed herself out of a good deal by thinking a teacher's a better catch than a steamfitter.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

How to (not) watch a silent picture.

I hate (not really, I don't) to harp on a constant theme, but people are really dumb.

I am whiling away a hot summer night in Richmond by watching a great German picture from 1919, "Sumurun."  I'm certain that no one ever considered it high art, but it's a pretty good movie, and features some of my favorite elements: exotic locale, fun costumes, and Pola Negri. Damn, that chick was HOT, and she plays an itinerant dancing girl which means she wears not very much and...oh, yeah, back to the blog.

This isn't a discussion of a particular movie because really, you should just watch it yourself; it's on YouTube.

Last week I was reading a blog about horror movies, which I'll not name because I don't want to offend anyone.  The blogger usually has pretty good reviews of horror pictures but one entry on "The Bat" really yanked my chain.

He went on for some time about how he "couldn't watch silent movies" because he's not good at reading lips and the title cards didn't tell him what people were really saying.  Dude: you're dumb.

"Sumurun" is a German movie.  I can speak German (haltingly), can understand German (if the speaker isn't from some weird rural place whose dialect I don't understand well) and can certainly read the German title cards.  What I cannot do is read lips when they're speaking German.  And yet--o miracle of miracles! I can understand exactly what's happening in the movie.  Because, you see, that's what movies ARE--watching action.  If you need to rely solely on voices, perhaps you should investigate radio drama.  I'd not be surprised to learn that the same blogger couldn't understand radio drama, because he couldn't see what was happening.  I'm reminded of my student many years ago who told me "You kain unnastan what be goin on cause it in black and white." Um. OK.

I find it hard to believe that we're so used to talking pictures now that the silent screen makes no sense.  Why? Before the dawn of the galloping tintypes, the most common form of public entertainment was the stage, which--you guessed it--has both visual and aural stimuli.  Somehow, people were able to comprehend the movies, even though they didn't talk.  No one read lips on the screen, unless they were deaf and were used to doing so in everyday life.  (Famously, Clara Bow was forever in trouble with deaf audiences who could tell every time she said "Fuck," which was pretty often. She was from Brooklyn after all.)

Anyone who knows me personally knows that I am indeed both classist and elitist, both socially and academically, but this is not an example of my snootiness.  Motion pictures, especially in their early years, were very much intended for the masses.  I'd be surprised of Kronprinzessin Cecilie ever saw "Sumurun."  It was intended to be seen by factory workers, farmers, the milkman and the office worker.  If any of the aristocracy or cultural elite saw the thing it was happenstance.  A movie made in 1919 purely for that audience wouldn't have done too well at the box office.

So, here's my lesson for How To Watch A Silent Movie:
a)Don't try to think you're watching some Great Art. It's just a damn movie.
b)Don't try to read lips.  Even if they're speaking your native language, you'll get distracted and you might see somebody say "fuck."
c)Just watch what's going on. You'll figure it out.
d)Listen to the music. It's there for a reason--it sets the mood.
e)Read the goddamn title cards. They're there for a reason, too--to advance the action and to help people who are a little simple and aren't quite following the action. Or, those who can't read lips, apparently.
f)Have fun! Some of the most wonderful stories on film are silent.
g)If you can, find a real movie palace. There are a few left that occasionally screen a silent. It's easier to get sucked into the movie's world if you see it in its natural habitat.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Let's Eat Grandma (or why punctuation is important and you shouldn't move cross-country)

This year we had a poster in the English hallway that hyped the importance of punctuation. It said simply "Why punctuation is important: knowing the difference between 'Let's eat, Grandma' and 'Let's eat Grandma." It might be an extreme example, but honestly it's the kind of mistake I see pretty regularly. Kids love to say "You know what I mean," and if I saw this my answer would be, "Yes, I do. You intend to chop your grandmother up and make her into stew, which is not only diabolical, but impractical, because I've met the lady and she's pretty skinny."

On the heels (preferably uneaten heels) of removing this poster at the end of the school year, I scored a nice big pile of books from the school library's purge.  The librarian was distraught; she didn't want to get rid of books but had to make room.  One teacher's tragedy is another's windfall and I wound up with some really cool stuff.  

Not the least of these was a historical novel about the Donner Party.  Since tales of the gruesome fascinate me to no end, I scarfed that one up like a cannibal at a retreat for overweight missionaries. 

Snow Mountain Passage turned out to be a passable, if not wonderful, read.  I'm not sure that I really want to recommend it; the most compelling aspect was the subject matter.  An inherent issue with historical fiction is that, if based on actual events, you pretty much know how everything turns out and that was the case here: settlers make long series of incredibly bad decisions, encounter insane difficulties that they really should have known about, get stuck in twelve feet of snow and end up eating dead folks.  It takes a pretty skilled author to put a new spin on this sort of thing and I felt, here, that author James Houston relied upon the fascinating grue of the facts without adding much to it. 

In the modern era of four-hour flights across the United States I understand that I'm a bit of an anomaly; I just don't really feel the need to leave Richmond that often.  By "that often" what I actually mean is "ever;" travel is fun and God knows I love my trains, but it just seems a lot of effort when I am perfectly happy to stay right here on my porch with gin-and-tonics and a stack of good books. Therefore, I am at a loss to understand the motivation of people in the 1840s to make that trek to California.  (Please note that I did not use the expression "arduous trek," two words that seem to be inevitably paired.  I'm assuming you already know that the trek would have been arduous without having to resort to an irritating cliche.)

It is particularly noteworthy, I think, that the vast majority of people who did make that trek in the mid-nineteenth century were not poverty-stricken.  They couldn't have been, really: the cost of equipping yourself and your family for what was, at least, a four-month journey through completely unsettled territory was exorbitant.  The sale of your land would probably cover it, but you'd need to have a pretty heavy asset base to even think of the undertaking.  

And I simply can't imagine why anyone would want to do it.  The prospect of leaving a comfortable home in the East where you have things like, you know, other people and cities and department stores, just to piss off on a four-to-six month trip without roads, through deserts and over mountains, only to live--not visit, live--in a place you've never seen and really know nothing about does not strike me as a particularly brilliant venture. 

It says something about either the uncrushable spirit, or perhaps the sheer insanity, of the people who did make the move that their accounts after settling indicate that they found the ordeal to have been completely worth it.  I don't buy it, but that's probably because I'd get there after all that desert and mountain crap, discover that there wasn't one decent bar in the whole place, and become rapidly suicidal.  

Adventure is all very well and good but I'll take mine onscreen at the Byrd Theatre.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Спасибо, Россия!

Even though I'm terrible at actually using Google Analytics to do anything productive--which is sad because it seems like it should be pretty easy--it's lots of fun to look at statistics.  Remember a while back I discovered a couple of readers in Poland? Imagine my surprise when I checked my stats today and I've had eight views from Russia.  I do know a couple of Russian people, but they live in Baltimore.  Maybe someone went home on vacation?

Also the stats page shows you which browsers were used to access your blog.  Usually it's all Explorer and Chrome but today there were several unfamiliar ones, including one called Opera.  Therefore I'm assuming this is one of the Russian folks.

Naturally this gives me the impression of a bunch of people sitting in a box at the Mariinsky Theatre during intermission, reading the trials and tribulations of a slightly-deranged Richmonder.  (If this is the case I've always wanted to see the Mariinsky. Please take a webcam shot and post.)


Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Let's watch Gibbs try to post from a phone...

...because it's the modrun thing to do, donchaknow. Really, I have students who attempt to write papers, as in research papers, on their damn phones. Remember these are kids who try to type on an actual keyboard using their thumbs. Seriously, people. Take a couple of weeks and learn to touch type. Until I went into the classroom, the most valuable class I ever took was Mrs. Gibson's typing class at Walkersville High.

Anyway, I felt the need to try this because I want to see how hard it is (result:annoying as hell) and also because I just read a hilarious essay online about why the author will never take her kids to Planet Disney.

I couldn't agree more. While I loved the full length Disney pics as a kid, the newer ones leave me cold as a welldigger's ass. The characters are hatefully smart-assy, and they've abandoned tried and true fairy tales for a bunch of utter crap. I mean really--what were Pocahontas and Mulan but a couple of half-assed attempts at political correctness that still ended up being stereotypical?

I also resent Disney's role in destroying the real amusement park. Amusement parks were once these happy little places that existed in almost every city of more than twenty thousand. You took a streetcar to them, spent the day on rickety rides that cost a nickel, drank beer and ate hot dogs and went home.

Disney got everyone convinced that an amusement park should be a Destination and an Experience. Instead of a streetcar ride in your own town, cheap thrill rides and a bologna burger (that's a Richmond thing) you fly across half the bloody planet, stay in a $300/night hotel, buy $75/day tickets to the park, and eat $15 burgers. Also all those sweaty college students dressed as Donald and Mickey give me a raging case of heebie jeebies, which probably only complements the raging case of heat rash those poor dudes have inside those costumes.

I wonder how many people actually make a return trip to Disney World. After one round of a flight and a hotel stay with children I'd be done--never mind even one day of the broiling-hot Florida sun in a theme park with hour-long lines for rides.

The more indulgent parents of  my generation are welcome to it. When the drowsy summer days roll in, I'd much rather go to Baltimore's long-gone Bay Shore Park--or sit on my Richmond porch with a gin and tonic like a civilised adult.
Apparently I have little to do in the morning except read billboards, but cut me some slack, folks--I-95 is just not the most exciting drive in the world.  Except of course when a car nearly flips off the bridge into the James which seriously almost happened a couple of days ago, but that is not the kind of excitement I need at 6:15 in the morning.  To be quite honest, I need no excitement whatsoever at 6:15 in the morning because what I need at that ungodly time is to be still in bed.  Hell, I've never even understood the supposed delights of morning sex; I'd much rather have another hour of sleep.  Getting laid is all well and good but I've heard that you can never really recover a sleep deficit and it sounds like a legitimate argument to me.

Yesterday morning I was cruising down 95 trying not to stare at the gas burnoff at the city wastewater treatment plant, which fascinates me for some unexplained reason.  I observed that there is another billboard with a hotline for Jesus.  This one was specifically about Jesus, not God. Being officially Cathopalian, I understand that they're the same deal. Hey, Christianity rocks; we have a deity with multiple personality disorder! I was imagining the differences if you call the Jesus line instead of the God line:

"Yo brah. This is Jesus, what's shakin?"
"Hey, Jesus."
"You are SOOOOOO glad  you called me instead of my Dad. He is such a douchebag. He like for realz doesn't GET it, amirite?" 
"Sure, Jesus. Whatevs.  But yeah, like he serial wouldn't even turn the Mayo Bridge into a jujube for me last week, you know?"

While I was pondering this and probably pretty much ensuring a lightning bolt in my near future, I saw a billboard for Cracker Barrel that derailed my extremely heretical thought train.  It says "Home Made Doesn't Cost Extra."  I wonder if anybody at Cracker Barrel's marketing department has actually considered the meaning of this billboard. Just like the folks at Toyota and their "Everyday" campaign, I don't think anyone really gets what this implies.

Obviously, Cracker Barrel is trying to tell you two things: a)their food is home-made, though whose home is not quite clear--and b)that their food is reasonably priced. Unfortunately, the message that I get is "It's cheaper to eat at home, so don't bother going to a restaurant."

Which brings me to my actual point for the day: good food is not actually expensive.  I know that I've spouted, in the past, my disgust with those who say "Eating healthy is expensive."  Two more points, y'all: a)That is a grammatical nightmare and b)NO IT ISN'T.  The kind of people who make this claim are most often 325-pound people who find it acceptable to wear grungy pink terrycloth bedroom slippers in public anyway, but their insistence that decent food is expensive probably also explains why they weigh that much and wear gross slippers all over the place.

The assumption goes hand in hand with a culture that simply can't process the concept of preparing its own food.  "Eating healthy" at restaurants--real restaurants, that is--is usually a bit cheaper because well, chicken and salads are cheaper than lobster and drawn butter.  But of course these are people that don't eat at real restaurants.  Let's face it, M'Kayla from South Richmond ain't exactly rollin' into the Hotel Jefferson for a luncheon with the Junior League.  When she does actually get off her ass to make food, it's probably going to be along the lines of opening a bag of Fritos, dumping canned chili and a bag of pre-shredded cheese on top, and microwaving it until it looks like Hopewell.  (Sorry, Hopewell, but you DO have a reputation.)

With this in mind, I conducted a small experiment.  I think this will be an ongoing series of experiments just for the sake of debunking the expensive-good-food myth.  I had to go to the Kroger anyway because I was out of mixers so I figured I might as well go ahead and get food for the next day as well.  I picked up a chicken breast, a bottle of wine, and some Brussels sprouts. I already had some Jello at home, so I saved on dessert. Including the bottle of Coca-Cola I'd gone to pick up in the first place, my entire check came to less than eight dollars (it was a really cheap bottle of wine).  The last time I actually bought anything from KFC, it came to about the same total.  Had I bought sufficient amounts at Kroger to feed three or four, it probably would have come to about twelve dollars; the same at KFC would be closer to twenty--and a lot worse for me.

I'll continue the experimentation, but I don't want to have to actually eat the fast food to do the comparison--anyone willing to take one for the team?

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Next Week on This Screen! -- sequels and sadness

I hate sequels.  They have the feeling of a serial that didn't know when to quit.

I think a problem inherent in the sequel as a literary form is that, all too often, it seems to be an afterthought, and I have the distinct feeling that the last two I've read are exactly that.

The concept of the sequel is not to be confused with the extremely popular--and extremely profitable--"trilogy" genre, which seems to have taken over the world of young adult literature in recent years.  Those things aren't really sequels--the authors know well in advance that they have a longer story to tell, but divide it into partres tres for the easier digestion of their younger readers.  I suspect too that having a story in three parts is in no small part a marketing angle as well; you get to sell three books instead of one longer one, and you also get to make three different movies out of them.

The sequel was always a bad idea with movies--other than maybe, and I stress maybe, Star Wars--has there ever been a sequel (much less a continuing saga) that was worth a damn? It's not a new development; the earliest one I can remember is "Son of the Sheik," a 1926 follow up to the smash hit "The Sheik."  Valentino looked pretty great in all that fake Arabian stuff, but the original wasn't that great and the sequel was abysmal (though the presence of Vilma Banky sure helped).

I've harbored this opinion for years and so I don't know why I had to pick up the sequels to The Shining and The Talisman this year.  Really I do know why; when I'm not wearing my official English Teacher Hat (which actually takes the form of a tweed jacket with elbow patches) I love reading horror stories.  I particularly loved The Talisman when first I read it thirty some years ago.  I had already developed a fascination with the idea of alternate worlds or alternate realities, and Talisman is a definitive in the genre.  Besides its protagonist was more or less my age, so his journey through worlds really hit home.

Black House, its recently published sequel, could only disappoint.  Except that it really didn't, or it wouldn't have as a stand-alone novel.  I so badly wanted a couple of evenings' escape to the fascinating world of the first novel  that, when the sequel promptly didn't really have much to do with it, it was primed for failure in my eyes.  The young protagonist of the first book is all grown up now; what was once an otherworldly quest has pretty much turned into a detective novel, albeit a really long one that involves some supernatural crap thrown in.  Oh, it works, and it's a pretty good read--but just as Taco Bell is delicious as long as you don't try to think of it as being Mexican food, Black House is a great novel as long as you don't try to think of it as the continuation of The Talisman.


What does a ghetto classroom sound like?

This, pretty much. 

If you ever end up teaching a, let's just say disadvantaged, population, be prepared for the fact that these kids (who claim they can't afford pens and paper) will ALWAYS, and I mean every damn period of every damn day, have a plastic bag (usually from Aldi) full of sodas and small bags of Cheetos (TM) or corn chips.  It takes about twenty minutes to consume one of the snack bags because the chips are eaten very daintily, one at a time.  So there's the constant rustle, because twenty different people start eating at different times.

Just don't allow food in the classroom, you say?  You've never heard these kids whine.  It's like asking them to gouge their mothers' eyes out.  I'd spend more time telling them to put the fucking chips away than I'd ever spend teaching, sort of like the cell phone thing.  So I just put up with it.

Sadly, the chips are an example of two things.  First, as what's obviously a primary food source, they explain why these kids are invariably overweight and in poor health.  Second, they explain why the kids are stuck in an economic rut. Snack food is more expensive than real food.  Buying six small bags is more expensive than buying one big one.  Since they obviously had to go to a store in the first place, they could have gotten a pre-made sandwich for less money, which would be healthier.

Also it wouldn't make that infernal rustling.