Friday, September 26, 2014

I'm a lonesome little raindrop. 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 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


...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.” “'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.”