Thursday, April 30, 2009

Monday, April 27, 2009

"Kindergarten Sous Chef"

If I do no other good in this life, at least I have had a part in creating this one:

He didn't want to speak because the onion fumes irritated his mouth--this in addition to his eyes and nose, but he didn't have a "gaping maw" goggle on hand.

Since he's certainly not getting off the hook as my kitchen helper, I guess we know what to get him next Christmas.

A mouth plug.

Friday, April 24, 2009

“Try Honoring Thy Child for Damn Once”

While I like to pretend that I channel Julie Andrews as Maria Von Trapp and yodel through life as though I’m about nothing more than playclothes for the children and enjoying myself high on a hill with a lonely goat-herd,

the truth is I do get irritated sometimes.

Early in life, I got irritated when my brother and sister would sit on me or trespass into my personal space. In retrospect, I’m irritated that so many photos of me pinned beneath my siblings exist because this meant my mom continued taking pictures instead of intervening to help me get a single breaf in my body.

Not that, um, I have any photos of my own children in distress that I insisted on taking because it cracked me up.

Later, I got irritated when a junior high counselor looked at my 5’ 6” body at 120 pounds and called my parents in for a meeting to ask, “So, do you think her weight might be a problem?” The deeper piss was that I then had to sit there and endure the three adults in that meeting finding grounds for agreement--as though that wouldn’t still be affecting me, hmmm, let’s see…doing the math…carry the two…30 years later.

Past that, I got irritated in high school when a pushy police officer (no sense of boundaries at all) confiscated the bottle of sloe gin I’d just stashed—at no small risk to myself, considering the prickers—under a yucca plant on the edge of town.

Even later, I got irritated in college when I received my one and only “C.” I got the grade in Russian Literature for a paper over which I’d labored, an essay that examined the symbolism of hair in the Russian novel. Apparently, the professor didn’t buy my thesis, which argued: “Ineluctably, Russians use vodka to cope with the reality of pervasively bad hair, which ranges from scraggly beards to horrific dye-jobs.”

In my twenties, irritation set in when the gay bar with the best music and every possible good vibration would close at 2 a.m. when I was nowhere near ready to be done dancing. Small solace was the fact that the Wendy’s drive-thru was still open at that hour, so I could savor the balm of eating $1 chicken nuggets while propping my bare feet up on the dashboard.

A new kind of irritation was born along with Girl, whose longest stretch of sleep in the first ten months, whether being held, nursed, or driven around, was 45 minutes. Certain that it couldn’t be worse the second time around, I was stunned when Paco was born and trained me into genuine irritation with his 20 minute spurts of sleep.

In recent years, my irritations have centered around: the works of best-selling putter-of-words-on-the-page-but-notice-I’m-not-actually-calling-her-a-writer Jodi Picoult (I only threw one of her books once, and even though the sound of it hitting the radiator woke Groom with a start, I’m pretty sure my restraint qualifies me as surprisingly tolerant, as the book actually deserved a bonfire); the Fox Network; a president who derailed anything I still believed the U.S. stood for; and overcooked pasta.

Oh, yes, and one more thing: parents who actively try not to see or know their own kids.

It’s a rare breed, this type of parent, and (to generalize completely) all too often it’s fathers who opt out. Caveat: pretty much, the fathers I hang with rock the parenthood, especially His Groomishness, who has been our stay-at-home for the last nine years; however, in my many and varied eavesdropping spy pursuits in public places, I have observed Fathers Whom I Do Not Know Personally failing to step up. For example, let’s say two-year-old Jo-Jo is at the library, playing at the train table in the kids’ area under the watch of his father. So long as he’s by himself, Jo-Jo works happily on forging an unnaturally-close bond with a locomotive named Thomas, going so far as to bathe the engine in saliva; during this time of contented individual play, Dad can and should keep his head buried in Distracted Codger magazine. However, when another child approaches the table, and Jo-Jo then throws his torso across the table full of engines, covering them possessively and shouting out “No, me no share. You no touchie,” and Dad doesn’t stir or look up to correct his child’s behavior, I get irritated. I rather want to sidle up to Dad and note, “Say, this looks like a time when you could let your kid know that he doesn’t own the world. What he’s doing over there is a kind of passive bullying, you know.”

This little scenario plays out in many venues, but the underlying point—that Parent On Duty just can’t be bothered—gets in my craw, and the words “Heave off your ass, LazyPappy, and take charge of your kid” burble around in my mouth.

Twenty-seven guesses, then, as to how I responded during a quick phone conversation I had the other day, when I called to RSVP for Paco/Niblet to attend a classmate’s birthday party.

Me: “Hi, this is Paco’s mother. My son is in your son’s kindergarten class and received the invitation today for Sonny’s bowling party on Friday night. Thank you so much, and you can count on Paco being there. He’s really excited!”

Sonny’s Dad: “Real good then.”

Me: “So, yes, he’ll be there, and as long as I have you on the line, I was hoping you could give me a few ideas of what Sonny is into, so we could get him a present he’ll really enjoy.”

Sonny’s Dad, dismissively: “That’s more his mom’s department. Call back after 5:00 when she’s home from work.”

Me, starting to gently and repetitively pound my head against the wall: “Oh, yes, I see, of course. As it turns out, though, we were about to head out for an afternoon of running errands, and I was hoping we could pick up something this afternoon while we’re out, so even some general ideas…”

Sonny’s Dad, brusquely: “Like I said, I wouldn’t know.”

Me, still thinking I might force an admission out of this man that he’d actually met his own child, even in passing, say, in the bathroom: “I’d guess since he’s turning six, maybe some Legos would be appealing, or would it be nice for you all to have some more outdoor toys? Do these seem to be things Sonny might enjoy?”

Sonny’s Dad, clearly peeved now: “It looks like you might just have to get him whatever you think.”

At that moment, I reached up and grabbed my tongue between two of my fingers and held it still, lest it begin flapping angrily, “Correct me if I’m wrong, but you do share a house with the boy, don’t you? And since I know you do, might it be possible that you’ve ever had to swear loudly when you’ve tripped over a random, misplaced toy on the floor--as you’ve stomped from your plasma tv in the den towards the kitchen to retrieve yet another beer from the fridge—and when you’ve looked down to see what the offending object is, you’ve noticed that it’s something that the child begot of your own loins plays with some times? Then, as you have plucked it out of your foot, have you ever noticed something specific about it, such as the word ‘Pokemon’ or ‘Star Wars’ printed across it? Assuming any of this has ever happened, could you be bothered to take one second out of your day right now and mutter those words at me so that I don’t spend my money on a badminton set when all Sonny really wants is an Ariel Barbie?”

Me, releasing my tongue and wiping my fingers on my pants: “Yes, indeed. It would seem we’ll have to wing it on this one since Sonny’s preferences remain a mystery to everyone. Thank you so much for your time.”


Ultimately, Paco chose something for Sonny that he, himself, would like (a newly-released trading card game). Two days later, at the bowling alley, when Sonny opened the gift, he hugged Paco and exclaimed, “Cool! I totally wanted this!”

Right about then, Sonny’s Dad, having swung by the party for a few minutes--as such irritating fathers do--wandered up to Paco, tousled his hair absentmindedly, and commented, “Happy birthday, son. Darned if you don’t look more like me every day.”

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

"I Find Myself Hard to Tolerate for Seven Whole Minutes, So You're Not to Be Faulted for Skipping the Video and Just Going Straight to the Question; However, Skipping the Video Means You Will Not Be Hearing Styx Today--Unless You're Humming 'Babe, I'm Leaving/I Must Be On My Way' As You Click Over to Another Blog"

The upshot is this: I need to re-invigorate my Ipod playlist so that I am motivated to run faster than a snapping turtle whose feet are caught in a mixture of quicksand and molasses.

While you ponder what kind of evil genius stirred the molasses into that quicksand and then plunked a turtle into the whole thing, could you suggest a few get-up-and-go songs?

Saturday, April 18, 2009

"Pas De Deux"

During my youth, I took ballet and modern dance lessons for 9 years from a delicate woman named Miss June.

Because it was part of her job, Miss June spent those years chiding my solid self to "just tuck in your tummy as tight as you can, dear,"

and to this day, I still wish I'd had the wherewithal and presence of mind to reply, as I gestured to the scars behind her ears,

"Kind of like you had the skin on your face tucked and tightened, Miss June?"

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

"Shouldn't I Get An 'A' Just for Enrolling?"

Every semester, I am asked by students--with increasing frequency as the term chugs along--if I have any extra credit activities for them.

When they ask this, it's very hard for me not to start the hollerin'.

Here's what I have discovered over the years:

1) the students who will actually complete and submit the extra credit activity are those who are already earning an "A";

2) coming up with, answering questions about, and grading an extra credit activity will require more time on my part than the sum total of all the students' efforts;

3) I find the idea of "extra credit" in college to be antithetical to everything the place is supposed to be about (exercising personal choice and motivation to apply oneself to attaining the gem that is higher education--not that I did this myself so much during my time at The Ivory Tower, but at least I accepted the basic premise and placed no blame on anyone but Chuck Woolery and his damned unfailing charisma when I was unable to attend class due to an all-consuming need to watch "Love Connection" instead of attending my 18th Century Novels class).

Of course, realistically, I know college, particularly for many community college students, is often fueled by the sentiment of "I didn't have anything else going on, so I came here for awhile"--and I mean this in both the " that's why I'm going for my A.A. degree" and the " that's why I came to your class today" ways--than a diligent tread toward knowledge.

But still. Extra credit in college grates on me. I have, thus, developed a little speech over the years that I toss into the faces of those unsuspecting students who wander up to the lecturn after class and ask, with bewildering innocence, "I know I didn't come to class for about eight weeks, and I didn't turn in two of the four papers, and I know the semester ends in two days, but what I really want to know is if you offer any extra credit because I really, really need this class to graduate, and so I'd like to pull my 'F' up to a 'B' by Friday. How can we make that happen?"

Surprisingly, my speech of response does not start with the words, "I swear I could shake you silly right now, Gomer." Rather, I give Wide-Eyed Absentee a few pat sentences about how the successful college career is built upon a premise of thoughtful work turned in consistently, on the date it is due.

Then, only in my head and never, not ever, in real life (except one time with a frat boy named Calvin who was drunk anyways), I slap their porcelain cheeks 'til blood flows into their Trapper Keepers.

At least, for more than a decade, the Extra Credit minuet played out in this way, semester after semester. They bowed; I curtsied; they dipped; I beheaded.

Finally, though, a few years ago, I caved.

But on my own terms. If they want extra credit, me thought, I shall design something that the schmoes who really need it might actually do. I shall design something that requires them to have listened at least once. I shall design something that requires forethought and planning on their parts. I shall design something that pleases me, that allows me to cackle in their faces. I shall turn the desperate into my playthings.

In such fashion, the "Extra Credit for Wearing Kleenex Boxes on Your Feet When You Come to Class" assignment was born.

As random as this seems, the idea does grow--extremely tangentially--out of some classroom material. See, the first paper of the semester is a Division/Classification essay, in which students are asked to examine "types of something" or "parts of something." They get to choose their own topic, and then they need to come up with an "organizing principle" from which they then define their categories or components. To get things started, I do a little example up on the projector:

First, I show them a possible topic; then I express the organizing principle, come up with three types of drivers based on that principle, and, with a flourish and a spin, finish by tossing out a thesis for them.

Just in case the first example didn't stick, I give them another. (sidenote: they like this topic quite a bit, as, all too often, it ties into their own lives; invariably, there are knowing glances exchanged in the third row when I read aloud the various types of dysfunctional romances. This semester, one female student even put her head in her hands and muttered, "Oh, Kevin. You were so wrong for me.")

Of course, two examples rarely do the trick. A third, more-official breakdown of the assignment caps things off. Actually handing them a copy to take home and not just presuming they've copied my examples off the projector, I can feel assured that they have the information firmly tucked away...someplace, in some folder, somewhere ("maybe it's under my bed?") where they'll never find it again or reference it when writing their own essay. But I have xeroxed; I have tried.

It is out of this printed example that the Kleenex Box Assignment grew. First, I explain the introduction and placement of the thesis, and then I launch into the body paragraphs and how to provide specific examples to back up each point. For the case of "obsessive wack-jobs" in terms of bodily perceptions, I trot out the fabled, perhaps apocryphal, example of Howard Hughes in his later years, when, lost in lunacy, reluctant to be dirtied by the touch of others, feeling it was cleaner for his person to remain untouched, he refused to cut his hair, fingernails...and toenails.

Naturally, if one doesn't cut one's toenails for years and years, and they extend for two inches or more,

one might need to get creative about footwear, right?

One might, in fact, need the wide open spaces offered by forgiving Kleenex boxes, right? You feel me?

From thence it came, my sole extra credit assignment: Before the end of the semester, if you come shuffling into class wearing Kleenex boxes on your feet a la Howard Hughes, I will give you five points.

A startling number of students come sliding into the classroom on final exam day, hoping those five points will compensate for a 500 point deficit. For those who protest their feet are too big, I direct them to the open-toed sandal box option. A few years ago, one particularly creative lass not only had the boxes on her feet, but she also made herself a dress out of all the tissues. She looked like Tinkerbell on acid, and it delighted me no end.

Thus, every semester, as desperate Kleenex box wearers sit for two hours and type their final exams, hoping that five extra points might hike their grade up to passing, I kick back,

survey the room,

chuckle a little evilly,

and blow my nose with great gusto.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

"Thus Sprach Jocey-thustra"

I've been framed.

Monday, April 06, 2009

"I Can Help You Birth Your Baby, But Please Don't Ask Me to File Your Taxes"

From the teaching life:

I have had a student sit in my office and sob about how she was stuck living with her no-account boyfriend who used their money for anything but rent, who hated the fact that she’d chosen to go to college, who sabotaged her every effort to change her life. However, she sniffed as she wiped mascara off her cheeks, she had no money to move out and was feeling too proud to call her parents and ask for help. During all this, I handed over Kleenex after Kleenex, patted her on the shoulders, and told her, from my perspective as a parent, that it would be an honor for my children to come to me with their pain and allow me to be of help in escaping negative life situations. That afternoon, she left my office, wrote her parents a letter, and they immediately floated her a loan for her own apartment. They also helped her pay for her textbooks and got her a new fuel pump in her car. Less than a day later, she emailed me and thanked me for acting as a “mother figure” when she needed on. Since I’m pretty sure I’m only 24, that thank you was more sobering than uplifting, but I took her point. Last week, she emailed me from Mexico, where she's on vacation. She's very sorry she forgot to take the quiz.

I have had a student turn in a three-page essay that was one continuous sentence, without a whit of punctuation in it until the bottom of page three, where a lone period reared up. When I returned the paper to the student with the comment of, “I can’t grade this until you show me some sentence boundaries and add in the necessary punctuation,” he responded with a bleary, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

I have had a student come into my office for a required one-on-one conference and tell me, dry-eyed, about how he and his wife had become addicted to meth the year before, after the whole family was involved in a car crash, in which their 3-year-old son was killed. On the day of our meeting, this student had been clean for six months and was trying to turn his life around, despite his wife’s continued addiction. It was all I could do not to gather him unto my bosom and rock him like a baby. Because he was 26, and because I hardly knew him, that would have been infinitely creepy, though, so I simply told him, repeatedly, “I don’t have words for how much I respect you.”

I have had a student stand in my office for 45 minutes, monologuing like an evil genius, about how he and his girlfriend and their baby were going to get off welfare so they could afford a better car. When he finally wrapped up and left, one of my colleagues (it was a shared office space) called out across the room, “You are a saint. I was ready to kill him after 10 minutes.”

I have had a student write a series of journals throughout the semester that capitalized upon the liberties of “freewriting” to the point that every entry contained the words “I wake up every day with morning wood” or “Being hung like a donkey is hard work…” No, son: grading your writing was hard work.

I have had a student who, as part of her efforts to leave a significant position in organized gang life, was forced to submit to ritualized torture sessions periodically. In the face of this, she never missed a class but rather limped in after her weekends "away" and handed me her homework, no excuses.

I have had a student who worked as a stripper to pay her tuition. She managed to get herself off crack and stay off it, even when male patrons insulted her to the core. When she was raped by a former boyfriend, however, her life began a slow descent into panic, and she fought retain a kernel of her self through writing.

I have had a student who, with two tours of Iraq under her belt, just wanted to be a firefighter. As someone who lived in an apartment, she begged to come over and do yard work for me, so she could wear a 50-pound pack as she shoveled and, thusly, get into shape for the CPAT, a physical fitness test required by firefighting departments. After priming herself all summer, she came up short of the $250 required to take the test as part of the interview, so she now works part-time making soup at a restaurant in town and part-time straightening merchandise at Target.

I have had Mindy.

I have had a student who stayed after class to tell me she knew I was treating her differently because I was white, and she was black.

I have had a student stay after class to thank me for never making him feel like the only black person in a room full of whites.

I have had a student from China who, shaky in her English skills, had someone write out her final exam essay for her ahead of time; she then memorized that draft and typed it up, straight out of her head, during the final exam period.

I have had a student (raised as part of the Christian Coalition in Colorado Springs) tell me I could save myself by reading John 3:16 (at which point I quoted it to him), that AIDS was only inflicted upon those who deserve it, and that he had these feelings inside of him that made him feel unclean.

I have had a student come to my office and ask me if I could give her a passing grade, despite her lack of attendance or work submitted, because she was bipolar.

I have had a bipolar student—someone who never missed an assignment or class—meet me at my office door at 7:55 a.m., quivering, and announce, “I’m tweaking right now. I’m not okay. I think I’m going to hurt myself. Is there anyone who can help me?” Although 24 other students awaited me in the classroom, I assured her we had more than enough time to get her to a counselor.

I have had 90 papers submitted on the same day by students who then inquire, “Will we get them back next time?”

I have had a student who, every time I walked past his desk, would slip me a note. Usually they read something like, “I want to become a lounge performer in Las Vegas.”

I have had a beloved student die.

I have had her daughter, also a student, call me and bawl and bawl, telling me, “My mom loved you so much. I need you to come stand by me at the memorial.”

I have had hundreds of students shuffle into the classroom wearing empty Kleenex boxes on their feet as shoes—for extra credit. Long story.

I have had a colleague snarl at me in a departmental meeting, “I’ve been teaching for twenty years, and if the administration thinks I’m going to hand over my teaching materials to a young pup like you, they’ve got another thing coming.”

I have had a dean give me an evaluation so passive-aggressive that I had to go back to my office after it and cry for half an hour.

Clearly, I have a job that is often emotional and taxing and vexing.

How can it be, then, that the most challenging thing I've ever encountered in my career

has been filling out an expense report?

Friday, April 03, 2009

"If You Would Be Kind Enough to Ignore My Oily Skin, Greasy Hair, and Hawkish Profile"

Although last night I was on the treadmill at the Y, running like the cops were chasing me and trying to confiscate my plastic glass of watery keg beer, listening to .38 Special sing "Fantasy Girl," the truth is I'm no longer young.

In fact, recently, a very kind optometrist (a young woman with eggs so viable I could hear them chattering about their new platform wedges and skin so smooth you could smash a piece of silly putty onto her cheek and then peel it off without there being a single line--or bit of newsprint--on it) put her hand on my knee (ROWWWR!) and gently asked, "So, are you feeling like you're ready to make the move to bifocals?"

In a certain way, that's a moment, right? That's a moment of "Hell, I is old." On the other hand, for me it wasn't that earth shattering, as I have crazyass eyes so bad that I was put into bifocals at age 7 and kept there until I changed to contacts in junior high.

As 1970's songbird Charlene might croon, "I've been to bifocal/But I've never been to me."

At this point in my life, I've been to bifocal, and I've been to me, and it wasn't nearly as sunny there as I'd hoped, so now I'm going back to bifocal.

Naturally, if one is getting new lenses, one should also, clearly, get new frames.

Frame shopping is the fun part of being legally blind (the downside part is when, without your glasses on, you don't recognize which of your two children is the male one. 'Cause then you try to braid his hair before school one day, only to find, strangely, that it's really short and can't be braided, which then makes you wonder if mean kids at school circled your "daughter" and chopped off all her locks in some group hazing ritual, and that's why she's been left shorn and bereft of her crowning glory, and you feel a little sob catching in your throat as you bravely strangle out some assurances that her beauty comes from within, until suddenly a little voice pipes up and says, "Mom. MOM. I'm the boy. I always have short hair").

In short, what I'm trying to say here is WOO-HOO, I got to go frame shopping this week!

Except, wait an echolocating minute, I can't actually see what I look like when I try on frames in the store. In case you didn't catch it before: I'm legally blind. Without my glasses, I don't even recognize which one is my own house; I have to start with the house on the corner and go up to each successive house on the block and feel out the numbers nailed to the front next to the door, until I get to the magical numbers that are my own address. One time, though, I started doing the feeling thing and didn't realize the neighbor lady was standing right there on her front step, and I was actually grabbing her breasts and trying to figure out if they made a "4."

Oddly, they read more the shape of a 38C.

She and I have been very, very good friends since that day.

As I was saying, before you starting interrupting with all these distractions, Gentle Reader, is that I can't actually see what I look like when I'm trying on glasses frames; thus, I have to take along a compatriot and even, in recent years, a digital camera. One time, when a friend of mine was taking pictures of me trying on different frames, and the flash went off repeatedly in the store, a crowd gathered; eventually a large woman in a flowing scarf emerged from the pack and tentatively asked for my autograph. Writing directly on her scarf, I signed, "Life has been hard without Ronnie, but at least I still have my china. Best--Nancy Reagan." She thanked me and backed away, so I guess the joke was ultimately on me because what the hell that I managed to pass as Nancy Reagan, and I wasn't even wearing red?

Anyhow, this week, Groomy went along, and so did Niblet, and of course there were the nice ladies who work in the store and who each own 27 pairs of frames themselves, so I had ample feedback.


Once we narrowed it down to two final contenders, we reached an impasse. We were so stuck that The Nice Ladies finally said, "Let's just pop both pairs in a baggie and let you take them home for a few days. With an expensive decision like this, you should be really sure."

HOOHAH, but the fun of trying on frames had just entered a new dimension, one called Now I Get to Walk Around the Neighborhood For a Couple of Hours and Take a Survey of Everyone's Opinion, and If We're Doing a Survey, That Means Girl Gets to Come Along and Bring a Clipboard and Record the Votes Which, In a Way, is the Best Birthday Present I Could Ever Give Her.

22 votes later, we had a winner--not a clear winner, mind you, as the votes split about 2/3 for one pair and 1/3 for the other. In some ways, the two frames are alike, for they're both greenish and rectangularish. In other ways, though, they differ. Which pair do you think should have won?

Oh, and I would remind you, at this juncture, of the title of my post.

This is Picture A of the pair we called "Ridges":

Dude, yea, I know the writing on the lens is soooo awesome and helps the overall effect! In fact, when I get real lenses put in my new frames, and they leave off that writing, I fully plan to get a little tattoo on my upper cheek that mimics those words exactly, so I can rock that look for always.

And here is Picture B of "Ridges":

All right, I'm going to switch it up now, so if you need a palate cleanser, rub your eyes and give them a cracker.

This is Picture A of the frames we called "Circles":

And Picture B of "Circles":

I have, in fact, placed the order for one of these two pairs. If you guess the correct frames, I will send you exactly one kabillion dollars plus, for a limited time only, as a shout out to glasses and being blind, a "Twelve Days of Christmas" shotglass pack:

Oh, yea, and turtle wax and Rice-a-Roni.

Plus a Ginsu knife.

And a Snuggie.