26 February 2016

Try Teaching the Defiant: Public School Teachers, Part of the Solution, Not Part of the Problem

I actually heard this directly today: teachers are at fault for how stupid many people are. It was said to me directly, by a teacher. The speaker teaches ESL to adults at the same school I do. (In terms of teaching this is a cushy job.) He was referencing public school teachers. I was one for 25 years. This sort of sentiment is always in the wind. Sometimes expressed, usually by conservatives and others who look for easy scapegoats. Because, you know, it’s way too hard to think through complex problems. How about the same logic for wars? The US lost in Vietnam, it was the soldiers fault. Right?

Most people have no clue what it's like to teach in a public school, particularly an urban one. You probably have about 130 students. If you’re lucky you have one class with just 20 students in it. More likely you have a class of 30. Maybe half your students just show up because they have to and all they’re interested in is a passing grade. Some don’t even care about the grade. Many of them are disruptive. You have to figure in discipline into your lessons and teaching methodologies as a whole.

Where I work now some teachers complain about those students who “aren’t serious.” Boo hoo. I always thought it was the role of the teacher to reach those who were less interested. To inspire. To create life long learners. Teaching people who want to learn is easy. Try teaching the defiant.

But someone who hasn’t been near a public school in 20 years says that teachers are generally poor. Over the course of my career I encountered a few bad teachers. They didn’t last. There is an extremely high attrition rate among teachers who are in the first few years. Many see they can’t hack it and go on to an easier, softer profession. Others are weeded out in the evaluation process. Those who survive a few years are universally dedicated, hard-working people who are forever trying to grow as professionals. They take pride in their work but understand their fallibilities and limitations and are humble enough to hone their craft.

I’d speculate that very few of society’s idiots, morons, derelicts and Fox News commentators got that way because of bad teachers. It’s pretty hard for a teacher to make a mess of a person. At worst we fail to impact them. As a middle school teacher most young people came to me pretty well fully formed. There were some who were destined for the Ivy Leagues no matter what we did and others who were prison bound regardless of our efforts. Here’s the thing, with that later group, we tried like hell. We wanted to “save” students. After a few years we see that our success rate with troubled young people is going to be pretty low but we had at it nonetheless because it was the right thing to do — albeit the harder thing to do. It's nigh on impossible to find a lazy public school teacher.

Many of those more difficult students came with some serious issues. Maybe they were being raised by one parent. Maybe that parent was an addict. Maybe they were being raised by an exhausted grandmother or an abusive stepfather. Maybe the student had been sexually assaulted. Maybe a student was already using drugs. Many were angry or depressed or both. Many had serious anxiety. Many had parents who were not only difficult for them to deal with but were difficult for us as teachers to deal with. For every 130 students there would be seven or eight parents who were a pain in the ass. Trust me, that’s a lot. The pressure could be overwhelming at times for teachers.

Add to all this the real possibility that we had an incompetent administrator who made our lives even more difficult. A bad administrator does way more damage to a school than one lousy teacher. Or two. But you never hear society’s ills pinned on school principals. Nope, its those goddamned teachers who screw everything up.

Of course the job can be pretty peachy if you’re working in a high income area with manageable class sizes, all the supplies you need and students who are much more likely to come from supportive, stable home environments. It’s still a grind and you’ve still got challenges and you’re still underpaid but the headaches are fewer and farther between.

People who criticize teachers are usually like sports fans who’ve never played a sport criticizing athletes. They are more likely to mouth of and far less likely to know what the hell they’re talking about. Parents who complained about a teacher or a school were usually those who never visited the class or the school. It's easier that way. You can make shit up.

I’ve done some things in life I’m frankly ashamed of. I’ve done a lot more things I’m proud of. One of the things I’m proudest of is my service as a public school teacher. I wasn’t the best but I was dedicated and possessed of a passionate determination to better the minds and souls of my students. In this respect I am just one of many. To have worked with the teachers I did, who perform near miracles under extreme pressure on a daily basis is a source of immense gratification to me. That these fine souls are often blamed for our problems just pisses me off.

(Dedicated with kind thoughts to Jessie and Michael and the other fine teachers at Willard with whom I had the privilege of working.)

24 February 2016

All of Bob's Problems are Solved, a Poem in Verse Form, a Love Story

And now the purple dusk of twilight time
Steals across the meadows of my heart
High up in the sky the little stars climb
Always reminding me that we're apart
-- From Stardust by Mitchell Parish and Hoagy Carmichael

Bob was somewhere else. He didn't know where he was supposed to be but this was definitely not it. To be somewhere was to be anywhere but this felt like nowhere.

He was curled into the fetal position naked. Not really scared, more like baffled yet resigned.  Memories were of soft daffodils swaying in the breeze. And popsicles.

Nothing made sense. Least of all his own life. Bob the pronoun he. He was afraid to unwrap himself and stand. What if there were people about? Bob realized his eyes were closed. So he opened them. He saw voices. He saw them trail upstream from the pit of the mountain top over to the empty room where his heart beat.

"Bob?" A voice finally asked. Bob felt his eyebrows furrow. A tear formed somewhere and dropped on Bob's cheek.

"Bob? Bob!" The voice was female and it was insistent. But soft. But strong. He liked the voice Bob did.

"Why won't you answer me?" The lovely pleading voice asked.

It was a good question. Just why hadn't he answered?

"Please, Bob." There was a hint of desperation in the voice now. Bob really didn't want to let this woman down. She sounded nice. A little sexy even.

Sex. There was something Bob could remember. A pleasant feeling. The word 'orgasmic' came to mind. It sounded like a good word.

Well, Bob reckoned, it was about time he said something. But the power of speech eluded him. He'd forgotten how to talk. "Aargh uck plffft," was all that came out.

"Oh Bob, thank god."

Who was this God of whom she spoke and what was he to be thanked for? Or she. This eluded Bob although on further reflection he was sure he'd heard of God before. A square yet oddly circular ethereal object who ate mountains.

"Bob? Can you say anything else?" The voice was full of hope but still a little desperate. Bob thought that he loved the voice.

(Here our story takes a strange turn.)

There was no question but that life was a struggle for Bob. He had trouble tolerating other people. They were forever doing things that annoyed him. It seemed that every time he looked at someone they were picking their nose, or chewing gum or talking too loud or making an inane comment. He hated inane comments, particularly those that were passed off as pearls of wisdom. Stupid, stupid people thinking themselves sagacious when they were just more rabble. Every time Bob heard someone say: "it is what is" he wanted to scream.

Bob was thus perpetually unhappy. To his few intimates Bob would rail about the idiocy of others. Bob struggled to find the good, the worth in other human beings. Friends and family still loved Bob because, despite his misanthropic nature, he had a good heart and would help anyone in need. Bob also boasted a wonderful sense of humor, which, despite his views on humanity, he rarely directed at other people. Indeed many of his jibes were self directed. Bob had no enemies, never had. Few people had ever had much to say about Bob.

Bob was a market research analyst. Consequently much of his work day was spent alone. There were weekly meetings and encounters with co-workers in the lunch room and at the water cooler; but for the most part Bob was a loner. Still, he got on well with everyone and was regarded as a nice chap, if not a particularly interesting one. Bob liked the solitude of his job, though he looked forward to the infrequent interactions with colleagues. The job paid well and Bob desired neither promotion nor a different position or different employer. He was fine.

Home life was serene. There was his wife of 18 years, Rhonda and their teenager daughter Elizabeth who Bob, but no one else, called Lizzie. Lizzie was a straight A student with a tame social life and few interests outside of school, reading and films. Rhonda too was quiet and shy and it seemed perfect to all who knew her that she was a librarian. What else could she possibly be better suited for, friends said. So for Bob, home life and work were smooth and easy. It was the rest of it that was such an awful bother.

Commuting was at best irksome and at worst infuriating for Bob. People jostling, pushing, making noise, emitting odors and saying the stupidest things. Oh the comments he overheard, the ridiculous conversations, the insane opinions. Day after day Bob thought his head would explode from any further exposure to rude, pushy people. He would just absolutely bloody scream if he had to hear one more ill-conceived remark or banal observation. Oh and the whistlers and hummers and people who tried to sing and then there was the noise from ear buds, all so irritating. Just got right under Bob's skin. Rhonda once politely suggested that Bob see a therapist. He scoffed at the idea. Imagine. Talking to some idiot who just wrote notes and stroked his beard. Telling them about masturbating or wetting the bed or dreams. Utter rot. Nope, Bob would continue to just face life head on and make the best of it. He'd made it to 45 with no trouble so he figured he could manage the rest of his life without help. Meanwhile there were the idiots on busses and subway cars and on the streets and in elevators and everywhere else. Most of the giant pains in the ass.

So it was that one day it all became too much.

First someone on the subway platform holding a cup of coffee bumped Bob, spilling some of the beverage on Bob's pants. Then on the sidewalk there was an idiot rushing to catch a bus who nearly knocked poor Bob over. Next, as he entered his building, Bob had to listen to some blowhard pontificate on the economy and every word he was saying dead wrong. Finally on the packed elevator he was stuck next to a moron loudly chewing and popping his gum while standing in front of him was some idiot who evidently had bathed in aftershave and was humming some tired old show tune. It was more than any man could be expected to take. Bob cracked.

(And now our story reveals itself.)

"Bob! Try to speak. Say something. I know you can do it."

That sweet, sweet voice again. Bob thought he must be in love with it and the person who it belonged to. He felt duty bound to give it what it wanted. Words. "Urf. Blapstch. Kondulinkister." These weren't words but they were all he could seem to manage.

"Help is coming Bob." The voice assured him.

Then I must stand Bob reasoned. And so he did.

Bob was aware of his profound nudity. Not what was profound about it, just that it was. He was also aware that he had an erection. A hard proud one that was pointing straight ahead. Bob swayed to and fro and felt like fainting. But Bob did not faint. He righted himself and looked into the eyes of a tall beautiful woman who was regarding him with sad deep blue eyes. She was Mona. His secretary.

"Bob, people are almost here. They'll help you. Just hang in there."

Bob realized -- or thought he did -- that he loved Mona very much and probably always had. This was, Bob further realized, hardly the time for such a realization, what with his profound nudity and accompanying erection. Then again, maybe it was the perfect time. Time, what an odd concept. There really wasn't any. Not at all. It was all just a big blob. Bob swayed some more.

Outside the door to Bob's office, people were standing about whispering trying to see and trying not to see, wondering what had happened, pretending to be concerned for Bob but mostly just curious. Finally men in uniforms brushed them aside and entered Bob's office. Mona moved to a corner.
Bob held a thought in his mind. Squeezing it. But what it was he couldn't see. Articulation of complex ideas seemed impossible. Other than his love for Mona. But, Bob wondered, aren't I married? And why is the room so radiant? Why is the ceiling falling sideways and why is my desk smiling? Bob felt sure that he should be frightened, but he was mainly just curious.

The firemen were talking to Bob, calling him sir. One wrapped a blanket around him. Bob thought the men to be gorgeous. He could never remember feeling that way about males before. He also thought that Mona was both behind and in front of him and that she had crawled in through his belly button and possessed his mind. He could see her here in his brain. How odd, Bob thought. No, he decided, that's perfectly normal. How delightful, Bob thought.

Finally Bob was helped into his clothes and put on a stretcher and taken out of the room and into the elevator. Where was Mona now, he thought. Realizing she wasn't with him on the elevator, Bob let out a loud and terrible scream that briefly terrified his rescuers. Bob's scream lasted for as long as he could maintain it. When he could no longer make a sound and was being put into a vehicle, Bob felt just fine. It was wonderful to have taken flight and to be at all places forever and ever and to be able to see the creation and talk to God and nestle against the sun. It was all so very grand. The scream had allowed every bit of it to happen. The scream had opened a big door that Bob's purple brain had bound through. He'd have to remember to scream again sometime. Wow, remembering, it sounded nice.

The hospital was a brief distraction. So were the doctors and the pills and Rhonda's visit. All were distractions. Like the questions he kept being asked that he could in no way answer. They were nonsensical, not that he cared. He didn't care about anything. Not with the transcendent whirlpool chanting his name while swirling above him. It was beautiful.

When the last of the distractions was over and it was dark and quiet, Bob descended deep into his mind, where for the rest of his days he could do as he pleased and dance with Mona and never talk and always laugh at the tall green and orange tree that spoke softly and caressed his mind while he was somewhere else. Nothing to bother Bob. Blissful, shining angels tapping on his heart creating magical peals of hot bells. Yes this would all be fine.

Home again.

21 February 2016

Do the Dead Surf the Internet? A Diatribe on Cell Phone Overuse and Multi Tasking

I’m on the treadmill today in the early stages of what would be an eight mile run, when a woman gets on the machine next to me.  She turns on the TV screen that is at eye level on many treadmills, then she opens up a magazine, then she searches for just the right music on her iPhone. It takes awhile but eventually she’s all set. To do what? Jog lightly while she alternates between the magazine article and CNN (captioned) all the while listening to tunes. Some workout.

I’m a bit of an eccentric. When I go to the gym its for the purpose of exercise. No, seriously, call me crazy but that's what I do. The TV I watch at home. I read at home or on public transportation. Same with listening to music. Kooky, right? I hate that treadmills and elliptical machines and cross ramps and stair masters have TV screens now. I hate that people think they “need” music in order to work out. I hate that everyone has to multi-task all the time. (Full confession: while writing this I’m watching The Godfather and reading War and Peace and listening to Chopin and showering). I wonder if people listen to music while they meditate. I wonder if people check their cell phones for text messages while they meditate. I wonder if some people have figured out how to update their Facebook status while sleeping. Do the dead surf the internet? Do the deceased compose emails while binge watching Orange is the New Black? Do the dearly departed listen to music while cloud hopping?

Is there anything left that people do without doing something else? Do people check their cellphones while making love? Can people sit and read a book (remember those?) without stopping to check Twitter or Instagram or ESPN every minute?

I realize that cell phones are addictive. I see this in my job. I teach ESL students from all over the world. Most are in the early 20s. A lot of them have a deuce of a time not getting out their cell phones every two minutes. When I walk into the classroom a few students are usually having a chat while the majority are staring at their phones. Once the break starts and once class ends the phones come out. If there’s any lull in the class you can see students reach for the phone. No one can have an empty minute, or second. Nothing to do for 30 seconds? Check your phone. They even like to check when there are things happening. I’ve seen students put their cellphones inside books on their desk, behind pencil cases, in handy coat pockets, on their laps and sitting atop open purses and backpacks. It’s amazing that they think they can get away with it. I’m a wily old veteran who is not easily fooled. I suppose their misplaced confidence comes from the fact that they get away with it so often with so many other teachers.

I observe teachers now and the young ones are variously blind to cell phone use in their class or don’t care. At a recent teacher meeting I reminded colleagues that letting students use their cell phone was not only bad form and bad teaching but against school policy. You should have heard some of the youngsters bellyache. “But its the world we live in!” one of them whined. In a sense he’s got a point. We do indeed live in a world in which cellphone use is addictive and good manners are increasingly rare. But we are — or should be — responsible for our classrooms and insist that the focus in classrooms should be on lessons, not on their stupid phones.

Why can't we wait in line or for a bus or for an appointment without seeing "the latest"? It's scary that we need so many little fixes constantly and can never just be.

All this rambling comes from a man who loves his iPhone 6. My daughters gave it to me last Father’s Day and as a person who grew up in time of rotary phones, computers the size of large rooms and TVs that got five channels, I’m still amazed at how much you can do with an object that fits comfortably into a front pocket. Not so many years ago the notion that you could not only carry your telephone with you, but that you could take photos and videos with it and write messages and look up words, tell the correct time and see when the next bus was coming and have a flashlight and access to the internet would have been met by an astounded person asking: what’s the internet? As for the rest of it, well the whole idea would have been ludicrous. A phone that not only fit in your pocket put took photos and videos and that you could watch movies on? You'd have been thought to be on drugs, crazy or possessing one helluva an imagination.

Speaking of crazy, it’s just frickin’ crazy what the damn things can do. I can take a picture, post it on instagram and a person in Belgium can see it -- all within 30 seconds. A decade ago if I wanted someone in Belgium to see a photo I’d taken, the process would have absorbed a week or more and required trips to film developers and the post office and cost some dough in the bargain. We live in an age of miracles.

I love twitter and instagram and emailing and getting live sport scores and watching videos and all the other cool stuff that you can do with a phone. But I know to keep the thing in my pocket when someone is speaking to me. I know, old fashioned, right.

(By the way thanks for not getting me started on idiots who have loud cell phone conversations in public places like busses. You do not want me to go off on that because for one thing it’ll be awhile before I can stop.)

I started this tirade off with the evils of multi-tasking. I think it’s bad practice. Focus on one thing. Do it well. Appreciate it. Involve yourself in the moment. It’s better for your brain. When I run I want to be attuned to my body and that’s not possible if I have Supertramp blasting in my ears. I also want to let some thoughts get out and others get in. I do a lot of important thinking while I’m running. Mostly I clear my head of all the garbage that has accumulated there. That’s impossible if your piling more noise and information into it.

Of course one of the things that’s going on here — as my wife would hasten to tell you — is that I’m stuck in my ways. Yeah I suppose, but then again that’s okay when the ways your stuck in are the right ways.

19 February 2016

Hey Look, It's My 1,000th Post

Celebrating my 1,000th Post
My 1,000th post? It seems like only yesterday I had 999. So it was. I thought I should do something special for this momentous occasion. But then I think a lot of damn fool things and this is just one in a long string. Its such a long string that I’m forever getting tangled in knots. Knots are not knots unless not undone, or words to the effect.

I’ve long had a love affair with the English language — but don’t tell my wife, she’s the jealous type. My love affair with the written word goes back to my wayward youth when girls wouldn’t have anything to do with me. Words were always there. Words like lonely, sad, alone, despondent, depressed, ignored, forgotten and shunned. They stuck by me. Words gave me comfort, succor, companionship and a means of self expression. Words have been my primary means of self expression, ever since I flunked interpretive dance.

In my time I’ve written news articles, opinion pieces, blog posts, short stories, tweets, novels, essays, checks paid to cash, missives, epistles, captions, jokes, memos, notes, plans, lessons, lesson plans. I’ve even writ large. I have misspelled, failed to punctuate, dropped words, dropped hints, been verbose, effusive, abusive, silly, will nilly, pretentious, presumptuous, pre supposing, predictable and unpredictable and irrational and rational and obvious and oblique. In short I’ve been all things to all people at all times sometimes with rhymes and sans crimes.

But I digress….

Since I was about nine years old I’ve fancied myself a writer. Trouble is virtually no one else has. I spent a few precious years as a journalist and was a good one but walked away from it because I was a damn stupid idiot (feel free to disagree with me anytime). Of course my stupidity led me to the teaching profession where my lazy, malfunctioning brain has been on full display. Okay enough self effacement. I’ve obviously done some things right as a teacher and made my mark. I’m actually proud of my decades teaching and I’m sorry for going all sentimental here. Teaching has been a wonderful way to feel really alive and like I’m participating in the world. Without it I don’t know where I’d be other than having had more time to write more novels that would remain unpublished (some day, I swear it).

I’ve lived over half my time on this planet (wait’ll I get to you Neptune). I can honestly say that despite some rotten breaks I’ve had, thus far, a wonderful life (I’m going all George Bailey on you now). Having been married for nearly three decades to the love of my life and having sired to fantastic daughters and having enjoyed excellent physical health, I have every reason to be satisfied and humbled if not downright ecstatic about my life. But that would be boring. There is — as a wise man once said — always something to keep one from floating on air. Gravity for instance.
I continue to have my share of the always somethings but on the bright side they help me appreciate the bright side. I couldn’t really be happy without a little misery now and then. And I mean that in earnest (and Ernest isn’t too happy about the whole arrangement).

Misery loves company because without it it gets pretty lonely. It’s bad enough to be misery, to not have company and thus have to go it alone is unthinkable, now that I think about it.

Life is said to be a journey rather than a destination which means we’re all going nowhere fast and I hope I get there soon. Yes it is a journey, fortunately one that allows us to stop for meals. Eating is something I’ve longed hungered for. Life is also a long strange trip according to a rock group that I never cared for. It’s long if you’re lucky and its strange if you’re very lucky. I’d hate to be on an ordinary trip or a normal one or an average one or a pedestrian one or predictable one. Strange is good. It makes you think. Like poetry. Thinking is good for you and its always surprising how little of it a lot of folks do. They allow commentators, politicians and religious figures do it for them. Saves them a lot of bother, I suppose. I for one like the bother of having to ruminate, contemplate, ponder and wonder and mull and puzzle over and deliberate and especially wool gather whilst wearing my thinking cap.

Now as I’m getting older — which come to think of it I’ve been doing since about the time I was born, if not sooner — it seems that the years, months, weeks and days go faster (unless I’m on a crowded bus in which case time seems to veritably stand still. Actually you can remove the veritably and the seems from that, it downright comes to a screeching halt). Yes time flies and its going first class while we go coach. In fact I’ve got another birthday coming up in about a week. I’ve been having them on an annual basis. Actually I’ve been thinking about changing things and having two birthdays every 24 months. I’ll keep you posted.

But it's true. I still can’t believe my wee ones are grown women. That happened fast. There’s a misnomer that pervades our culture. When a couple (more or less, sometimes its just one person and I suppose at other times three or more) are expecting a child it is said that they are going to have “a baby.” Well yes at first it is a baby, but that generally only lasts about two years and then you’ve got yourself a toddler. Later its just a regulation child often identified by year as in an eight year old or by school year as in a fourth grader. You subsequently have a pre teen, then a teen and lo behold you don’t have a baby but an adult who still calls you daddy and asks for money. Indeed you have an adult for much longer than you have a baby. But once again I’ve digressed. You’re welcome. I’m very very happy with my two former babies as I am with their mother. This is a point I made earlier and it bears repeating.

I started this ramble by revealing that this was post number 1,000. I don’t know that it qualified as an achievement or not. I actually don’t take credit for the badly written or misinformed posts so this is more like number 12. I started this blog in May of 2008, which is so long ago that I was still a public school history teacher in a middle school. Months later I left that noble profession to pursue full time blogging. No that’s a lie. I left to do something new and so I have. I now teach (there’s a switch) ESL to grown ups in an expensive international school. I fill some of my free hours by pecking at a
keyboard and posting the nonsense on this blog. I love it. I love the freedom to express myself and to do so on a variety of topics. I’ve even taken to fiction. Besides my wildly unsuccessful and unpublished novels, I write short stories and put them on the blog. This is fun for me if not for anybody who mistakenly reads one.

I don’t know if I’ll ever get to 2,000 posts. I’ve learned that life is unpredictable. It took me nearly eight years to write 1,000. Maybe Donald Trump will be elected president and free speech and blogs will be banned. You never can tell.

Anyone I’m having fun and not hurting a soul. That, my friends, is good for the soul.

15 February 2016

So You Want to be a Teacher (what are ya, nuts or something'?) an Old Veteran Offers Advice

Thinking about entering the teaching profession?  May I take a minute to advise you before you take the plunge? I stumbled blindly into this profession some 30 years ago and being a reflective person, believe I have some insights you may benefit from. Most of the past three decades I was a middle school history teacher in a city school with a diverse student population. But for the past five I have been an ESL instructor for adults from various parts of the globe. In many respects teaching is teaching. Sure every class and every subject and every age group is different, but the basic principle remains the same -- instruct and inspire.

Now then I'm assuming you're serious about teaching. Or perhaps you've already begun and are in the "what the hell I am doing this for I must be crazy" phase. I feel that. First of all going into teaching is like wanting to get married, if there’s any doubt, don’t do it. You’ve got to be 100% sure. After you’ve taught for a few years, or a year or a month or a day, doubts may creep in. Assuming of course you’re a normal human being. For many, many, many people those first doubts lead to quickly abandoning the teaching biz. Many take the plunge, few stay in the roiling waters.

You’re still sure this is the path you want to take? Ask yourself this: do I think I can teach absolutely everyone? Do I think I can save the lost? Do I think I can succeed where others have failed? If the answer to all three of these questions is a resounding yes, then you may precede. Mind you, later on you’ll discover that you cannot in fact teach absolutely everyone or save everyone or succeed everywhere that others have failed, but that’s for another time. You have to enter the process convinced of your own infallibility else the first time you encounter a difficult student you’ll accept defeat and become cynical, jaded and bad teacher. I started teaching certain that there was no cretin so insane nor any deviant so pathologically defiant that I couldn't turn the little bastard into a Nobel Prize winner. I learned (boy did I). But entering with that fire in my belly was the proper way to start. Once I came across the first immovable object I took the lad to be an outlier and carried on undaunted. Eventually I encountered others but was so inspired by my modest successes that I did not let a little reality keep me from my mission.

Next. Have you a personality? Because it really, really helps. Students, regardless of what age or what subject matter or what goals, hate having a self aware doorknob droning on. You do not have to be the life of the party type but you should exhibit some signs of life. An occasional smile, a personal anecdote, a ready quip. In fact, every — and I do literally mean every — good teacher I’ve ever had possessed and demonstrated a good sense of humor. Likewise has every good teacher I’ve worked with. There may be an exception or two out there but I for one do not want to meet such a person. Demonstrate some warmth. It does not mean being best buddies with students, it just means not appearing robotic. Students are far more interested in listening to someone with a personality than  listening to Siri.

Move. Don't sit behind a damn desk, you're not an accountant. Circulate, make eye contact, show them your ambulatory. Vary your voice. Put some life into it. Dramatic pauses, accents, stage whispers maybe even a bellow. But seriously, get from behind that desk. Give yourself a workout.

On a related topic, you are not a performer. Dazzling wit and charm and even flamboyance are a veritable requirement but don’t fall in love with your act. Students (whether they show it or not and whether they know it or not) want to be — first and foremost — taught. Many teachers fall in love with the sound of their own voice. It’s easy to do a standup routine or spin long yarns but remember you are there for them, they aren’t there for you. The impulse can be to entertain, resist it. Teach.

This brings up another point, you’re being paid to teach them, they are not there at your service. They never owe you anything save respect (which, by the by, you must insist on). Students do not “owe” you work, they owe it to themselves. You collect the work, record that it was done and grade it and then you return it to them. It is theirs and the class is theirs. You are the facilitator, not the lord and master. Yes, you keep order and discipline but for their sake, not your own. If you are “punishing” an errant student say by having them serve a 20 minute detention, they do not “owe” you 20 minutes, they owe it to themselves to be there as part of the learning process. You are there to ensure the 20 minutes is served.

Discipline is vital. Have rules and stick to them and administer fairly and consistently. Find the balance between being a martinet and a pushover. Students will appreciate it. Also, look at discipline as a necessary evil. If you find yourself boasting about how tough you are, it's likely your compensating for some other issues. Either see a shrink or go into another line of work but don't take enormous pride in being a drill sergeant. Avoid singling out students and embarrassing them. If you have had to call out a student in front of others, look for the next possible opportunity to praise the student publicly.

Here’s an important tip for teachers and really anyone else who is addressing a group of people: know your audience. Are you giving your students what they want and what they need? If not you're wasting everyone’s time. But another question of paramount importance is this: are your boring them to death? On countless occasions I’ve seen a person prattle on totally oblivious to the fact that virtually no one, or in some cases literally no one, was listening. Students will hang in there with you as long as human endurance allows if your lesson is relevant to their needs or interests. Indeed students are rooting for you, they want you to be really good. Students don’t want you to fail, they don’t want you to bore them or stumble or stray too far off topic for too long. Mind you, if you let them down, if you show weakness, they will pounce. Don’t give them that opening. You do not have to do the old soft shoe but virtually any topic or skill at any age or level can be imparted with verve. All you need is enthusiasm. If you are at all passionate about what you are teaching, that passion will come through. Be interesting and make your topic interesting. It’s your job. You have a dull topic? Liven it up. I taught middle school history for 20 years and believe me that’s a tough sell. But I found ways to present yawn-defying lessons. I don’t claim that I was always successful but I always tried and I was mindful of the attention spans of young teens and their level of interest in the Louisiana Purchase.

In keeping with the above another tip is: don’t talk too much. Teachers talk too much for a variety of reasons, these include: 1) they don’t know what else to do, lacking any alternative ideas they just prattle on; 2) they have fallen in love with the sound of their own voices, this is in all likelihood a case of being oblivious to an audience; 3) they’re afraid to let go, many teachers are afraid of what will happen if they stop talking. It’s okay for students to talk, in fact it can be a really good idea. Let them share ideas, opinions and information. Most lessons lend themselves to student interaction and many types of courses and age groups are similarly well suited for pair or group work. Young people in particular can only and should only be exposed to a limited amount of lecture or teacher centered instruction. Guided student interaction should not be just a break from the norm but an integral part of the lesson.

And in keeping with this, remember that in a lot of classes you are as much a facilitator as anything else. The master of ceremonies, the coordinator, the ringmaster, the guide. You do not always have to be cramming information into peoples’ heads. You can be helping students help themselves and you can be teaching them how to learn from themselves. This is a large part of what I do as a teacher of ESL to adults. I provide lessons designed to help them improve their English on their own. I show them how to use films, TV shows, music, You Tube, articles, and walks around the city to bolster their language skills. You know, give a person a fish and she eats that day, teach her how to fish and she eats for a lifetime.

Once you start teaching, stay humble. Initially this is easy as you stumble and tumble out of the gates, but once you get the hang of it you might start thinking you're pretty good. Don't. I've never met a good teacher who was arrogant. Being a teacher is a constant process of not only helping others learn, but learning about your craft. You're never going to get it right but if you're good you'll keep trying. You'll have some things that you do on a regular basis for your entire career. But if there's a lot of routine to your teaching you're a routine teacher and that's not good. Bad teachers fall in love with some successful lessons and techniques to the exclusion of trying anything new. You've got to innovate. You've got to learn from colleagues. You've got to go to professional developments. You've got to pay attention to those damn annoying latest educational trends because every so often there'll be a good one or one you can adapt or employ. Getting one simple idea out of a 90 minute professional development that will inform you as a teacher is golden. Take pride in your work but that ego needs to be shut off. Learn from your mistakes. Resist the temptation to brood over misfires and instead learn from them. Also, you're just a teacher, you're nothing special in this world, you're no better than a janitor and no worse than a doctor. Cut the crap about touching the future and making a difference. Sure there's truth to it and yes it is a noble profession but don't let it go to your head. Get over yourself.

Be a good colleague. Share and listen. If you're a veteran you owe it to the new kids on the block to share your -- as they say in 12 step programs -- experience, strength and hope. And if you're a veteran you need to see what the kids are up to. You're an old dog that has to be able to learn new tricks. Beg, borrow and steal from one another. Also share your failures. Getting things off your chest is good for you, plus you can often figure out what went wrong by sharing. Teachers are isolated, alone with their students in a room for long stretches of time. But teaching is also a collaborative process. You've got a bunch of other people in the same building having similar experiences often with the same exact people or at least with the same demographic. Support each other. Teachers are not rivals, they are part of a brotherhood/sisterhood. Lean on one another.

If you want to be a good teacher its really important that you find ways to effectively relieve the stress. Exercise, meditation, yoga, playing an instrument, gardening, social activities, whatever works for you to take your mind off your cares. It's way too easy to bring work home with you. I don't just mean papers to grade, I mean issues and incidents to ruminate over. Your brain can wrestle over what happened today and what to do tomorrow for hours on end. You need to shut that crap off for awhile. You'll better serve Timmy and Tammy if you don't think about them all the damn time. Obsessing over failed lessons and errant students and trials to come are the death knells for good teachers. Give your brain a rest.

When I was teaching middle school I used to say (and others knew what I meant and felt the same way): "I like all my students, even the ones I don't like." No matter where or what you teach you're going to come across some people you just don't like. Period. But when those people are in your classroom you owe them your best. You have to treat them just like you do the teacher's pets (and you'll have some of them). My classes became, in my mind, like a family and in family you get along with everyone. So what if Cousin Jimmy is jerk, he's family. So it is with students. One of the most satisfying experiences in teaching is liking a student who you'd taken an instant dislike to (not that it always happens). Yes, there will be exceptions. I've had a few students who were sociopaths and I could have no more have liked them than I could a rattlesnake but they total less than one percent of all the students I've ever had. The vast majority of your students will be sweethearts. If you find yourself disliking or hating a lot of your students, its time to leave the profession.

Remember to have fun. Teaching should be enjoyable for you and your students. If you're bored or disinterested in a lesson, imagine how your students feel. Create lessons and a classroom environment that you'd enjoy if you were taking the class. When students are really getting into a lesson they're learning. Also they'll like you. Being liked by students is a big plus. No, it's not a personality contest, but if students like you they're going to be more open to what you have to say and more willing to do what you ask. You want to work with students. Yours should never be an adversarial relationship.  It's a cooperative endeavor. Both you and the student are in positions that demand respect. Also remember you're dealing with two different dynamics: you and individuals and you and the class as a whole. The more students who you have on your side, the more likely you've got the whole group. That's key because groups are infinitely harder to manage than individuals.

Think on your feet. Call audibles. If students are getting bored you may need to switch activities sooner than you planned. Alternatively if students are enjoying something you may want to extend what you're doing. Also you'll have to sense that some lessons need to be modified. You'll have to develop an instinct as to whether to deviate from your lesson plan. It gets back to my earlier point about knowing your audience. Read their faces, look for yawns, look for eyes wandering, note if you're getting a lot or no questions, note if students are puzzled or engaged. Body language will tell you exactly how they feel. Of course if they're expressing puzzlement don't just move on and don't just repeat. You have to find another way to explain or illuminate.

Be a cheerleader. You're on tour students' side, aren't you? You want them to succeed, right? Give them encouragement and praise whenever possible, even if it's not totally sincere. Praise individuals and the class as a whole. Buck up their confidence. In some instances instead of a pat on the back you'll need to give a kick in the arse but your overall strategy, or for that matter your mien, should be that of a pom pom girl, albeit one of towering intellect. When students are struggling a pep talk can be as important as more instruction. Be an ally.

Breath mints. Pop one just before class. No one likes a teacher or a dentist with bad breath. If you had tuna fish for lunch, take two.

Don't be a flake. Show up everyday and show up on time and show up prepared. Of course if you're being ravaged by an intestinal virus stay home. And if things get rough you may need to take the occasional mental health day. But make that very rare. It's your damn job so show up and do it. Good teachers are not slackers. They don't bitch and moan and make excuses, least of all to students. You got a sniffle? So what, come to work. You got a hangover? What the hell were you doing drinking heavily on a school night? Show up. Had a big fight with your mate? Shake it off and come to work. And don't bellyache about your personal life to students, they don't want to know. And for god's sakes don't tell them about your diarrhea, just apologize for having been out. The only personal complaint I've shared with students was a sore throat that limited my speaking and they could have figured that out themselves. Students expect you to be there and lose respect for teachers who saunter in late or are out a lot or leave papers at home. Do your damn job.

A final word on teaching. It's rewarding. You'll feel good about your work. You'll recognize when students have learned. Sometimes they'll even tell you. A lot of them will thank you, in some cases many years after the fact. It can take time to be appreciated but you will be. The appreciation, the human bonds, the classes in which everyone is engaged and everyone is getting it and you're getting through, those students who you turn around, that all makes up for the, let us say, mediocre pay. I'm tempted to close by writing: good luck, but luck has nothing to do with it. Disabuse yourself of that notion. It's never luck, it's you.

10 February 2016

The Vietnam War All Up in My Head

“I keep thinking about all the kids who got wiped out by seventeen years of war movies before coming to Vietnam to get wiped out for good.” -- From Dispatches by Michael Herr

Reading about Vietnam in Michael Herr’s Dispatches, listening to Hendrix, remembering watching In the Year of the Pig and Hearts and Minds in the last week, both Vietnam War documentaries. Got the war on my mind. The quagmire. The light at the end of the tunnel that turned out to be machine gun fire, the piles of dead bodies, medicvac, helicopters buzzing and whirling above and the napalm desecrating the skin and the assurances by U.S. Politics of the righteousness of the cause and then more bombs still more and still the North did not quit and “Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh the NLF is gonna win.” And they did. And bombs on Laos and Nixon’s lies and Johnson’s lies and The Quiet American and Apocalypse Now and Platoon and The Deer Hunter and body bags and disgrace and throwing away medals and blood, blood everywhere and the stench of death in the fetid pools of jungles and explosions after an innocent leg trips a wire and the draft. Oh man the draft. Sending our boys over and the goddamned stupid domino theory and rape and how the My Lai Massacre was just one of many such travesties and rice paddies and “it’s one two three what are we fightin’ for, don’t ask me I don’t give a damn, next stop is Vietnam!”

My formative years with the war and the rending of the nation and protests and deceit in the background. From pre adolescent through teen years, junior high, high school first two years of college there was that war and I protested and yelled and got tear gassed and became radicalized and watched the news Walter Cronkite telling it like it is and all the pictures and video from the war and arguments about the war. I’d argue with you if you were for it. Big question then: are you for or against the war? The fors were just so wrong, so square, so uncool, supporting American imperialism and dead babies. What you racist? You for the establishment? You for the military? You a hawk? Come on man be a dove. Peace. Make love not war. Why would you make war when there is love, the dove, peace and harmony and racial justice and the Panthers and liberation and music. Man. How can you side with LBJ or Nixon or those other bastards? General Westmoreland and John Wayne and Senator Everett Dirksen and Goldwater and the military industrial complex.

Complex. No. Simple. Out.

Buddhist monks self immolating. A different kind of selfie.

Drugs. Drugs and the whole scene went together. Soldiers smoking and dropping, protesters smoking and dropping. People high, very high and some dead.

Read and watch and listen. The stories are heart wrenching. The deaths the maiming the paralyzed. The Vietnamese. We made villains out of them. Gooks, slopes, slant eyes, Victor Charlie. Beaucoup VC. Search and destroy. Patrol. Take that hill. Clear that village. Fire in the hole. Bring in the choppers. The only good….is a dead….Send the B-52s. Bomb them back to the stone age. Savages. Value of human life. Tiger cages and bring home the POWs and Paris Peace Talks and that scum Kissinger and Gulf of Tonkin incident my aching ass. Liar! Terminate with extreme prejudice. Agent Orange. Defoliation. Mining Haiphong Harbor. Bombing hospitals and levees and schools. We were the enemy. We lost and we were the bad guys. America now Amerika. Da Nang and Mekong Delta and Ke Sahn. The Tet offensive. Here come the Chinooks and the Hueys and lock and load boys.

Daniel Berrigan. Daniel Ellsburg. Senators Wayne Morse and Eugene McCarthy and William Fullbright and Bobby Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King and those last two names didn’t have to go to Nam to be killed in ’68. The Doors sing:
This is the end
Beautiful friend
This is the end
My only friend, the end

We could go back to the battle of Dien Bien Phu. 1954, that was it for the French. Adieu. No need to stick around, asses kicked, back home. US in. Advisers. CIA pops in. Ike got us in. JFK took it up a notch but was he going to bail? Was that why he was killed? For sure Johnson brought down his presidency and legacy by going all in and Nixon introduced even more and more and more bombs and added to the big stinking heap of lies that Johnson had made so big and ugly. Lies. No truth for the people. Can’t handle or don’t need or would get righteously pissed if they had.

Vietnam. Get students from there now and want to say: really sorry, I had nothing to do with it, hell I was against it. They were born after it all wrapped up, but still.

So glad we learned and would never again send American troops to a foreign land for vague reasons….Okay so we didn’t learn. The US never will. All that was learned was to stop the draft. Americans won't have that. Draw the line there.

Fascinating. Horrible. Strange and sad and messy and those poor dumb soldiers and those heartless officers and those fucking pilots playing video games dropping bombs that burn and demolish and kill and lay waste.

What a waste. What a wonder. What a blunder. What a history. In here it is rattling around in my brain. Insane.

07 February 2016

Recalling a One-of-a-Kind Friend, Ed Burns (Not the Famous One) Who Embodied Many Types in One Fascinating Persona

He was called an inside out oreo cookie -- pasty white on the outside but culturally African American on the inside. He was also a Chicano who spoke fluent Spanish. He was a cowboy who loved country and western music and wore a cowboy hat. He was politically a radical. He was an ex Marine who when I last saw him had re-enlisted. He read poetry and literary fiction. He drank beer copiously. He was soccer goalie on his college team. He had one testicle. He didn’t just march to the beat of a different drummer, he followed an entire percussion section. His name was just plain old Ed Burns and he was one of the most unique characters I’ve ever known and one of the best friends I ever had.

I knew Ed vaguely before college. We played for a short time on the same soccer team. He looked like a pretty square dude and your first impression of him would be that he was an ordinary joe who was more likely to be pumping gas and fixing trucks than anything else. I can still hear his voice. It was uninflected and fairly flat, a little high pitched. I’d have guessed he was from Oklahoma. Ed was a likable sort but seemingly dull as dishwater. He was anything but.

A few years later he came to Chico State where I was variously matriculating and partying, he was the backup goalkeeper on the soccer team. It was then I got to know him. Ed was good time waiting to happen. Every party he showed up at was more fun for his presence. Every bar he walked into got a little livelier and more interesting. Every conversation he had could go into any number of directions. He would extoll the Black Panthers and discuss soul music. He would then talk baseball. Then Latino heroes. Then the US Marine Corps. Then he’d just laugh. Ed loved to laugh. His was a delightful cackle, more like a child’s laugh. Ed was the least boring person I ever met.

We once hitchhiked all the way from Chico to Orange Country to attend a wedding. It’s an entire story in and of itself. I wouldn’t have thumbed such a long way with anyone else. We actually got dropped off by a truck driver in the heart of Compton at night. We called our friends and asked them to pick us up there. It was a long haul for them and so we sat, again, at night, at a bus stop, the only white people around. Ed had a greater sense of the possible dangers than I did and was clearly nervous. Several suspicious cars offered us rides that we politely turned down. When our friends arrived after nearly an hour, they begged us to get in the car quickly because they wanted to get the hell out of there.

Ed was a party animal and an intellectual who could hold opposing political views in his mind at the same time and understand both. He was not dogmatic or an ideologue. Most of all Ed was an enthusiast who pursued life with vigor. But he was also troubled. Ed was of so many types, so rich in character that he could never settle into life. He lacked direction and focus. Thus he was unable to settle on a major in college. He wanted to learn about and do everything so the notion of a single field of study, a single pursuit, was totally unappealing. For all that Ed did and thought and cared about he was also sad. I don’t remember what his home life had been. I just knew that he’d grown up fairly poor in Richmond in an unstable home. Ed had to fend for himself at an early age. He could never manage a long term successful romantic relationship. For all Ed’s vitality he was shy around women and clearly had some insecurities.

It took me years to understand why he went back to the Marines before finishing college. Ed had always spoken of the Corps as an awful experience. This despite his appreciation for the Marines which came despite his predominantly left wing political views. I finally realized that Ed needed the structure of the marines. Outside the service he couldn’t function effectively. There was too much freedom and he had too many directions to go. He needed stability and structure and the marines gave him that. Perhaps his second tour gave Ed time to find himself, to settle on one overriding passion. Maybe he just hid out there. I don't know. Life is like that. There's a lot we don't ever get to know.

Ed was in some ways a creature of his times. He grew up in the Sixties and was heavily influenced by political and social movements and the ethnic groups he was surrounded by. He was a potpourri, adopting what he liked of this and what he liked of that and what he liked of those things over there and these things here. Mostly he appreciated people and absorbed what they knew and listened to their perspectives. Ed Burns thought for himself but he partied with everyone.

It’s been over 35 years since I last heard from or of Ed and I haven’t the foggiest notion what became of him. I’ve tried to google him but with such a common name, and one shared with a famous actor at that, it is next to impossible to dig up anything that is conclusively about him, not everyone leaves a cyber trail like I do. I’m ridiculously easy to find. there is currently no one on the planet who shares my name and I have a blog with my email address on it. I couldn’t be easier to track down. I look forward to continuing to hear from you long lost friends and associates and co-workers and classmates and teammates, especially you, Ed.

I hope that Ed used has used his intellect and found a focus in life. He would have made a good partner for someone and been a good father. I’m pretty sure that he needed counseling and I hope he got it. I hope he is happy and still making others around him happy. The world needs more Eds. But not too many, we wouldn't his type to be common place.

For my part I wish that I could have stayed in touch with Ed. He was special. To quote Jack Kerouac: “the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.” That was Ed to a tee.

04 February 2016

This Time in College When I Met a Vietnam Vet who was Selling Weed and How Strange it all was

Junior year at Chico State, this is in the mid 1970s, I go with this friend of mine, Gary to some guy’s house. Gary is going to buy some weed. The two of us had been sitting on his front porch drinking beer for the last hour and needed to do something. It was too early in the day to get roaring drunk.

So we go to this guy’s house. It’s pretty nice, at least compared to what I’m used to as a college student. Gary raps on the door and I hear this voice yell, “who is it?” like he’s half angry and half annoyed. Gary hollers his name and looks down intently at his feet. I’m kind of looking around at the yard and the trees and noticing the well groomed lawn. I’m seeing everything through a late afternoon beer buzz which makes the world a little duller but also a little nicer.

Finally we hear footsteps and the door swings open. “Hey Corbyn,” Gary says real friendly, which is the way Gary is with everybody.  Corbyn kind of mutters a hello and says for us to come in. I’m introduced and Corbyn acts like he couldn’t give a shit about meeting me. He doesn’t look like my image of a guy who — as Gary told me before — sells a lot of weed. He’s got short hair, a mustache, and glasses and wears a plaid shirt and brand new jeans and shuffles along in real fancy looking slippers like your rich uncle would wear. He’s got tawny skin like he spends a lot of time in the sun. In fact looking at Corbyn you think he's an accountant on his day off, a well-to-do accountant who jets to Bermuda all the time.

Corbyn sit and indicates we should do the same. He finally bothers to look at me and its like he sees right through my bullshit right away. There’s something about this guy like you can’t fool him and he’s smarter than everybody else and there’s no way in hell you could win an argument from him. I look at Corybn and think: “would it kill this motherfucker to smile once?” He really does look like he hates everything and anything he has to do — especially for someone else.

“So what’s your deal, man?” he says to me. I’m thinking, what the fuck? I mean who ever says that to anybody especially someone you just met. “Me?” I finally say which I know is not exactly brilliant, because of course he’s obviously talking to me, but like I said I got a pretty good beer buzz going.

“Yeah, man. You.” He says the “you” like he’s spitting some shit out of his mouth.

“I’m just a friend of Gary’s come along for the ride, so to speak.” I’m thinking there’s no way that answer can’t satisfy him but there's no way any answer could satisfy him.

“What’s the deal here, Corbyn?” Gary wants to know, still grinning like he always does.

“I don’t know that I feel all that comfortable with him here,” he says eyeballing me.

I’m offended by this but there’s also something about this dude that makes me think maybe I shouldn’t be here, maybe I need to figure out what the hell is wrong with me. If he doesn't like me maybe it's a reflection on me.

“He’s cool,” Gary insists.

Corbyn looks at me like he’s studying a suspicious package. Then he shakes out a Winston from a pack he’s got on this wooden coffee table we’re sitting around. Finally he turns his attention 100% to Gary and it’s now like I’m not there. What a mind fuck.

The two of them talk for awhile then Corbyn goes to another room for a minute and comes back with the marijuana. “Mendocino Red,” he says and drops in on the table. Gary gets a wad of cash out of his wallet and hands it to Corbyn who doesn’t bother counting it. I guess people know not to try to fuck over the guy and I guess people who buy from him know that whatever he’s selling his quality shit.

I’ve been sitting there getting bored and feeling the buzz dissipate. “Let’s go back to my place and fire some of this shit up,” Gary says, breaking into an even bigger smile than usual, which hardly seems possible.

As we get up to leave I look at Corbyn like we’re gonna shake hands or at least say goodbye but he’s just studying his cigarette. Meanwhile I still have this feeling that he sees right through me. How can anyone have any secrets from this guy? I wonder. Fucking be impossible, I respond.

So Corbyn mutters a goodbye and Gary and I step outside and there’s this kid looking up at us. He’s like about six years old and has a snot bubble coming out of one nostril. “Hey Lonny,” Gary says, but the kid just stares at us with this goofy expression like he’s nuts or something. When we get into his car Gary tells me that Lonny is Corbyn’s kid and that Corbyn is the dude’s last name and his first name is Virgil but he prefers everyone call him Corbyn. He also says that the guy did a bunch of tours in Vietnam and saw a lot of combat and a had lot of buddies get killed and saw some real horrible other shit, which I suppose to be guys getting their nuts blown off or their legs or whatever by stepping on land mines. He also says that Lonny is a little bit retarded and that his mom isn’t married to Corbyn but they live together and she’s a nurse. I ask why Corbyn was so rude to me and Gary says he figures that having been in Nam will mess with anyone and sometimes he's just like that with people he's never met before. But, Gary adds, the guy sells primo weed and doesn't jack up the price.

By the time we get back to Gary’s my buzz is pretty much gone, plus I’m suddenly starving and just basically feel like shit. Having an afternoon high die off will do that to you. Gary’s pretty much feeling the same so we fire up a doobie, have a beer and go to Taco Bell where we order and eat like half the menu.

After that I’m feeling pretty good again and so too is Gary so we head over to a party a friend of ours is having. It’s kind of a bummer because there aren’t a lot of chicks there. Still Gary hooks up with this girl he dated once and I end up drinking tequila shots with some frat boys.

It’s sometime after midnight and I’m totally wasted and dancing with this skinny chick who’s looking nicer and nicer by the minute when the door swings open and there’s Corbyn. Gary has just come up from the basement where I guess he’s made it with the girl he was with. He immediately asks Corbyn what’s up as does this guy who lives in the house who doesn’t know Corbyn and isn’t crazy about some uninvited stranger suddenly appearing so late in the evening. Corbyn says nothing but pulls out this big ass gun and points it straight ahead and then slowly moves it to one side and then the next like he’s showing he’s got us all covered.

“What the fuck, Corbyn?” Gary says and for once he’s not grinning.

Then Corbyn takes the gun and sticks it into his mouth and pulls the trigger. But there’s just a click. Half the room probably just about shit their pants. Corbyn laughs like a total lunatic and then turns and leaves. That gave us all something to talk about and wonder about for the rest of the party which we did. Much to my chagrin the skinny chick took off right after Corbyn's bizzaro visit.

Gary and this girl he’s with drop me at my place around 3:00. On the way Gary’s talking about how weird the whole scene with Corbyn was and that obviously the guy has mental problems. By this time I'm sick of the whole topic and I feel like I really hate Corbyn and wish I’d never seen the asshole. More and more I'm remembering how rude he was to me and how shitty he made me feel and I really could give a crap he was in Vietnam -- that's not an excuse for being a dick.

It was three weeks later when I go into this bar after my class and see Gary nursing a beer looking real somber. I ask him what’s up and he tells me he just heard that Corbyn was taken to a mental hospital after pointing his gun at Lonny and laughing. Lonny’s mom loved Corbyn and all but evidently she wasn’t having any of that shit, now way.

“That’s a real bummer,” I say. And I genuinely mean it even though I hated Corbyn. It totally blows that anyone has to go to the loony bin and that the little kid and his mom had to deal with that. So I repeat, "that's a real bummer."

“Yeah,” says Gary. “Now I don’t know where I’m gonna get such good dope.”


02 February 2016

An Appreciation of the Younger Female Generation at Work Leads to a Rare Positive Insight About the US

Yesterday I rode the usual bus from work at the usual time through the usual streets to catch my usual train to my usual stop from which I’d walk my usual route home. This time a young woman from our student services office boarded and sat next to me. She’s one of those happy people in her very early 20s who is enjoying early adulthood and has myriad possibilities for the future, all of which are quite interesting and exciting. She has in fact already traveled a lot and has a university degree. She is very pretty, smart and fun to be around. If I were a young single man I’d be smitten. As it is it’s decades since I’ve been either and I have daughters her age and older. So I just enjoy her company.

There are a lot of young women about her age who work at the school. It makes me happy to be around them (for that matter many of our students are females in that age group). They are attractive and bright and wonderfully free of the type of cynicism that a lot of people let seep into their pores as they get older. They’ve got a good enough job and have endless possibilities ahead of them. Some have already found love and the others will have no trouble doing so.

I gravitate to these women because of their optimism. They take work seriously but not themselves. They still know the importance of having a jolly good time whenever life allows. They like people and trust them and are ever hopeful. They appreciate me because I’m “nice” and funny and I suppose, fatherly. In my salad days I was much the same though with a tendency to over indulge in the good times and possessing a precocious world weariness and premature cynicism. In many respects I was damaged goods, scarred by a difficult childhood and starting to be beset by various mental and emotional maladies that I struggle with — though thankfully to a far lesser extent — to this day. But generally men are much less carefree, less trusting and more likely to be burdened by ego.

Many people, as they age, yield easily to bitterness, regret and pessimism. The world is full of middle aged people who, to quote Oscar Wilde, “know the price of everything and the value of nothing.” Behind every bright cloud they see dark ones looming. Anything, they suppose, that can go wrong likely will. Many such people have been victims of love gone wrong. The one true one left them or never showed up.  More commonly they have not attained fame and fortune as seemed their predestination not so many years ago. Having to settle can be an awful lot. Life has many ways of knocking the hope from a person. It takes a strong character to absorb those blows and carry on with a smile and faith.

My dad managed that after mom went bonkers. It was a horribly cruel blow but he persevered and in so doing provided me a life lesson for the ages. I myself have gone through various incarnations and while badly bloodied and a bit bowed, know to forge ahead. My sense of humor has been invaluable. Family has also proven an immeasurable blessing. The absence of a happy one leaves one vulnerable and sometimes bitter.

Some of the middle aged people I work with cope by not embracing anything. Love and devotion leave a person exposed. Being cynical and mocking sentimentality are ways of forming a hard shell to protect oneself. It's like preventing romantic heartbreak by never dating.

There are other factors besides dashed dreams that can scar a life. Addiction, disease, illness, accident, loss and the blood brother of all those, bad luck. It’s remarkable to see anyone get past 30  without being afflicted by some horrible misfortune or other.

I work with older people (though not as old as me) as well and for the most part enjoy their company.  There’s one bloke who makes my skin crawl. He is — to me, at least — 100% affect. I don’t believe him. I don’t mean what he says, it’s likely his words tell the truth. It’s more his being which to me seems totally put on, straining credulity. Of course this is merely my take and I note that he gets on well with others. Be that is it may I have some appreciation or even affection and respect for the older set at work. But it is those “kids” who I enjoy being around. It’s not at all, as one of my daughters supposed, that they make me feel young. Indeed if anything they make me wistful for my youth. It is their genuine bright-eyed bushy tailedness that I seek. Of course this is coupled with their outspoken admiration and appreciation for me and my hijinks. Call it a mutual admiration society. I also make a point of checking in with those hard working souls in the office. Just a daily, "how's it going?" can mean a lot.

It seems also there is something very American about these women (even though, or maybe partially because, they hail from a wide spectrum of backgrounds). I am just about the last person on Earth to praise anything for being American, especially when it is personified in a person. So it surprises even me to acknowledge that their unfiltered joie de vivre coupled with a belief in positive outcomes, is a uniquely American trait. There is a lovely sort of naiveté to it all too. I guess this is something I can say for the US, there is a fundamental belief in the soul of this still young country that the pursuit of happiness is not just a phrase in the Declaration of Independence and that anything that needs to be done can and will be done. These women embody it. I like that about them.

It’s just darn nice to be around happy people.