Saturday, March 30, 2013

In The Air

I've been counting snowfalls since we got here Nov. 1. As someone who has always lived in the warmer part of the world, snowfalls were rare.

There have been 16 measurable falls, measuring more than five feet total, in the last five months. It's been fun.

But I think it's over.

The official high temperature here today was 56. That's supposed to be the norm for most of the next 10 days. By then, baseball will be back in baseball-mad Beantown.

Summer is coming. Winter is dead.

It felt great to get outside today. I'm ready for more of this.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Get Auf

I generally presume that the only people who read this are either friends who I prompt to it from social media or family members who use it to stay up on what's happening here in the exotic New England outpost.

However, Blogger provides measurement tools that show what browsers viewers use, their nation of origin, the number of visits, etc. I wish it broke down visits by state.

I would like to think that I have a global audience, but outside of Australia and Canada, I know I don't. Yet, still I have visitors from around the world. I'm not sure why, and I suspect something nefarious but also, too sophisticated for me to figure out what. Nevertheless, according to the analytics, I've had readers in (from most to least) Germany, Russia, the UK, Sweden, Poland, France and Malaysia.

To my friends in Canada: Keep reading, eh?

In Australia: Kiah, you rock.

In Germany: It's conceivable that part of my family originated there. Hope to visit some day. Lighten up.

In the UK: My daughter and I are both fascinated by you. Thanks for the awesome music and for Love Actually.

In Sweden: Loved the Dragon Tattoo, Saabs and Peter Forsberg. Send the next Forsberg to Dallas after Nieuwendyk gets fired.

In Poland: I'm interested in your history. Any recommendations?

In France: Some of us from the U.S. aren't so bad. We owe a lot to you. Couldn't we be friends?

In Malaysia: I don't know what possibly would bring you here, but come back any time, and hope you enjoy it.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

On My Last Nerve

Being cold. C'mon, Spring, stop dicking around.

The teenager upstairs who stomps around his house like he's wearing cement shoes.

Dog 2's Butt Disease.

Employers who won't hire me.

Boston drivers.

The Harlem Shake.


Feeling tired.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013


My brother's birthday is in a few days.

Happy birthday, Curd.

As we've gotten older, we've grown somewhat apart. This is sad but also just something that happens. You're not the same person you were at other times in your life. He has his family, and it's large and takes up a lot of his time. And now, we're 1,800 miles distant. It's harder to keep dialed in.

Here are some of my favorite memories of my baby brother:

* The first memory I have is of the day he came home from the hospital. Since his birthday is March 30, I'm going to presume he came home on April Fool's Day. Just because I think that's funny. But, the first thing I ever remember in my life, is his life.
* When he was small he was anemic. Curtis looked very pasty, which is kind of odd now because as an adult he has a nice dark complexion. But we were worried about him when he was little. Now, he's a 6-6 giant.
* When we were little, we looked like such derpy brothers. It's kind of funny. For a few years, it was just us two and mom. My mom remarried, but my stepfather died when he was 47. In a lot of ways, it's always seemed to me the family was just us.
* Curtis helped me get my first stitches. We had been outside playing in a sprinkler, and when we came in, we were sopping wet. He started to tickle me when I was on a wet floor, I slipped and hit my head and got stitches. He probably doesn't remember that. I ain't mad, bro.
* By the time he was in late elementary school, he had started to flash the star quality I never felt I had. He was the star of the school play "Bye Bye Birdie" and my grandmother made him this amazing gold lame suit to wear for his big scenes. It was a scream. I grew up pudgy and shy, but he was already mastering athleticism. He would have been a great football player, and was in our backyard and street games, but he took to basketball. At the time, that was a brave path to take in football-obsessed Texas.
* We went to the same school when he was in grades 1-4 (while I was in 4-7), then again when I was a senior in HS and he was a freshman.
* It turns out, the little scammer had cut himself a car key and would take my car out at night. Brazen. I'd be mad, except I'm more impressed by how someone not old enough to drive had the guts to do it in the middle of the night.
* When I graduated high school, I thought that we'd start to grow apart. But I was thrilled when he decided to go to the same college as me. And since I'd gotten behind academically, we wound up living together for almost three years at a very interesting time in our lives. We had amazing times, I got to know him less as a little kid and more as a young man.

As we became "adults" (technically, anyway) we continued to interact as much as possible but in starting our own families, sometimes it became tougher to make that time for one another.

Nevertheless, at several important junctures in my life, Curtis has been there for me. We've helped each other move, he's helped me too many times to count when I needed a place to stay or respite from some other crisis. I like to think I've been there for him, too.

He helped me get a pretty good job once, and for 15 months, we worked at the same place. That was quite an experience, although it was probably more fun for me. Our professional styles are a little different, I think. He likes order, I seem to invite chaos. It was interesting to say the least.

Anyway, my brother is 51. Happy birthday brother...


My parents were divorced by the time I went into the first grade.

Before that, both of them worked. I guess daycare centers existed in the early 60s, but my younger brother and I didn't spend any time in them. Instead we were looked after by a black woman named Corrine Wilson.

I don't remember that much about Corrine. She was big, but when you're very small, everyone and everything seems big.

This recollection was sparked by a recent viewing of the movie "The Help." I don't consider West Texas part of "the south" but prevailing attitudes were more southern than enlightened in the early 1960s.

Little Rock was just a few years before. The Freedom Rides were in 1961. The March on Washington was in 1963. The civil rights movement was in full swing, but change was slow.

My mother was on the new wave of women's rights in that she had an actual career. Before 1960, there weren't as many women in the workplace unless they were in stereotypical roles such as teaching, nursing, or secretarial. My mom worked as an accountant. So somebody had to look after the kids after my brother was born in early 1962.

I realized a divide, although I was too young to understand it. But on a few occasions my father would drive Corrine home. Her home was on the other side of the tracks, in a segregated part of town. Once, in the summer, I remember my brother and I being over there. My brother was tiny, no more than three or four. Corrine's house seemed old and huge, with a single big tree for shade out front and scattered empty, dusty lots in the patchwork neighborhood.

I asked my parents for their memories:

"She was a good girl, She lived in the flats. Near where the train hit some folks. (NOTE: There was a railroad disaster recently involving a military parade in my hometown of Midland, Texas.)  
"She was a religious girl. She took care of y'all. We probably paid her very little, maybe $50 a week, something like that. Our first house payment was less than $100 -- 1110 East Spruce was our first house. (NOTE: I did not know this.) We moved to Erie and the payment doubled.
(How did you find her?) "I guess we put an ad in the paper. Your mom interviewed three or four black gals. She was religious so we went with her, hired her. She stayed with us a long time. She helped a bunch, raised you two. She called Curtis (my brother, whose middle name is Edwin) Curtis EGWIN. She was probably about 45 or 50."


"How weird to think of her at this point in time! I thought about her a few years ago and wondered if she was still alive and where she might be but had no Internet to even think about searching.
(I remember thinking she was from Hartford, presumably Connecticut.) "I know nothing about Hartford. Could it have been Hartford, Arkansas? She wasn't married but she had some children. I remember a daughter and I think she had others but have no recollection of them. She lived literally on the other side of the tracks east of Midland by that tank farm out there and she got to work every day on her own and I took her home every day with you guys in the car. She started working for us when I went back to work in August of 1959 and worked until the divorce changed my financial condition so much I couldn't afford to pay her. I was sad to let her go but had no choice.
"She was pretty dependable and didn't miss many days. She did some housework for me. Something funny was that she would eat all the good food in the house! Like, if we had steaks, she'd eat them and I'd find out I didn't have two in the freezer when I got ready to cook. But she never stole anything.
"When Curtis came home she had double duty and handled it well. Curtis was allergic to milk and until we discovered that and put him on soy milk he would be pretty good during the day while she was there and I would walk the floor with him at night and have to work the next day with very little sleep.
"I guess she must have been in her early 40s when she was working for me, but I'm not sure. Her daughter must have been about 20 or maybe a little younger, and her other kids were younger than her daughter.
"I remember when James Meredith was trying to get into Ole Miss, she called him the n-word. I asked her why she used that word and she said 'N's use the n-word all the time on each other." That was the first time I'd ever heard that.
"She was a very positive force in my life and I was amused when Curtis started trying to talk, my father said 'You know who he sounds like, don't ya?' and he was right -- Curtis started speaking like Corrine."

Friday, March 15, 2013

AWOL From A Wall

Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is not considered one of the world's greatest art museums.

But it may be the most compelling.

The museum, the vision of its namesake, was created from scratch around the turn of the 20th century (1903, to be precise) by the eccentric heiress. The building, its architecture, the collection, and exhibit design were all to Gardner's specifications. Its internal courtyard was designed based on Venice's Palazzi Barbaro.

It is truly worthy of the word "breathtaking."

If your name is Isabella, you get free admission. And there are other qualities that separate the Gardner from any other museum you will ever see. All of them stem from the stipulations by Gardner that the museum collection, display and arrangement remain in perpetuity as she designed. Upon her death in 1924, Gardner's endowment to run the museum stated that should anything be altered, the collection was to be sold and the proceeds donated to Harvard University.

That requirement has created perhaps the museum's most intriguing story. Gardner resided in the top floor of this four-story structure, and the building has an unprecedented intimacy. Art is not just hung on walls; sculpture, furniture and other historic, eclectic pieces are literally at every step of a visit.

It feels like Gardner's vision was that art is to be experienced wholly, not just from one staged area to another. Because the walls, grounds and traditional installations are continuous, the experience is immersive.

It's like going to Disney World -- you can't possibly soak all of it up in a single visit.

(Sorry, Mrs. Gardner, that I compared your life's work to a Florida amusement park.)

Some of the rooms are so congested with works that if you don't linger, you will surely miss something amazing. Additionally, the lighting for each display area comes from either natural sources, or room lighting purposely subdued to reduce harsh, damaging exposure. The rooms are shadowy; the natural light will vary not just from season and season and day to day, but moment to moment. This makes every visit to the Gardner very personal, unique and specific.


The museum grounds have been expanded beyond the main building, and it is there that the museum operators have been able to expand upon a collection and activities that a modern audience with changing attitudes since 1924 can find relevant.

The concept of a gift shop just didn't really exist in 1924.

But it's not just a gift shop that the new facets of the Gardner offers. There's a library and areas for learning, study and special exhibitions. The concept of the beautifully executed interior garden has been carried to the surrounding grounds also, and the new structure also has a dedicated space for the museum's horticultural work. Another spectacular feature is a concert venue, Renzo Piano-designed Calderwood Hall, that brings interesting, small acts to the stage. The structure's incredible vertical cube design includes three levels of single-row seating overseeing the performance stage.

One of the recurring programs is called "Avant Gardner."


In 1970, Parker Brothers unveiled a board game called "Masterpiece." I love board games and this one was fun; two dozen glossy, nicely reproduced images of famous artworks came with a deck of value cards that could be shuffled so that each piece would have a different value, including the worthless value for a forgery, for each game. Contestants then would try and acquire a collection from other players, not knowing if they were being cheated or oversold.

It wasn't a great game but the quality of the images was the main attraction. It exposed great art to young people, and that's a lot more valuable than learning how to blow up warships by firing random bombs.

I'm no art scholar. Art isn't my life. I see things that appeal to me, and that's what I like. At the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, I was lucky enough in 2008 to see an amazing collection of Kahlo's work. But what really hooked me was a painting by Mark Rothko. The starkness of its bold colors appealed to me.

Warhol's work is expressly American; I relate to it. In the unlikely place of Bentonville, Arkansas, I saw Rosie the Riveter; it is a treasure. In Dallas I saw a Renoir exhibit that was hypnotic.

Some art snobs will scoff at such simplistic appreciations. Art and artists are deeply important to these people.

But we live in a world where both types can agree that art is something that can be meaningful to the sophisticate and the inexperienced. It is something shared, a common ground that bridges the knowledge gap... or even the gender gap, the wealth gap or any other thing that divides us.

Which makes the Gardner's great tragedy even more painful to accept.


Among the museum's collection spanning millenia are popularly known works by masters such as Matisse, Whistler, Titian, Botticelli, Michelangelo. Original Dante manuscripts, as well as handwritten texts from Eliot and Oliver Wendell Holmes, are on display.

But I guess the work that touched me the most was a self-portrait by Rembrandt. The piece itself, while excellent, is poignant because of its position looking across the room at two large, blank frames. Beneath one of the frames is his name.

The frames are empty because early on the morning of March 18, 1990, two thieves disguised as Boston policemen conned their way into the museum, and stole 13 pieces valued at $500 million from the Gardner. Three of the pieces were Rembrandts, including one, The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, that was the artist's only known seascape. Coincidentally (or not?), Rembrandt's works were created almost 400 years ago, around the same time a city in the new world, Boston, was founded.

Works by Degas and Manet were also part of the theft. Vermeer's The Concert is perhaps the most single valuable piece that was taken.

The works remain missing, and the trail is ice cold, despite a $5 million reward for information leading to their recovery. The thieves were granted entrance (against museum policy) after 1 a.m. as St. Patrick's Day revelers neared closing time. The two amateur museum guards were quickly tied up and kept quiet while the thieves took their sweet time in the museum. For well over an hour they worked to liberate extremely specific targets; many works of greater value than some of those taken were left unmolested.

And then they were gone.


The Rembrandts were large works, and the empty frames make an astonishing statement. Against that backdrop, the Rembrandt self-portrait looking, mute and forlorn, at the rape of his work, perhaps forever, is heartbreaking.

It made me angry.

These artworks may have been destroyed -- a terrible possibility. They could be stashed someplace, decaying and wasted, as the criminals couldn't fence them or for whatever other nefarious reason. Or some rich waste of human life has them secretly displayed, stealing from mankind in a case of incomprehensible selfishness.


As the 23rd anniversary of the crime approaches, stories about the open investigation are beginning to bubble up here. But 23 years is a long time. As each day goes by, the trail goes colder, anyone involved  grows older, and the likelihood of anyone in the general public ever seeing this works in person shrinks.

The Gardner is not to be missed if you ever find yourself near Boston. You can spend hours there marveling at these magnificent creations.

You'll see the best part of humanity. And, sadly, the worst.

Friday, March 8, 2013

A Boston T Party

Awaiting the Green line at Park Street, 21 Jan 2013.

If you live in greater Boston, you're familiar with the T.

It's the pet name for the area's public transportation system, operated by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Association, or MBTA.

The system operates buses, trains, boats. It's ubiquitous. About 1.3 MILLION use the T each weekday. That's more people than live in the entire city of Dallas.

Growing up in Dallas, I didn't have a lot of experience with public transportation. When I was a child not many people rode the bus. And it wasn't encouraged. Gas was cheap and plentiful, as was parking. Why ride when you can drive?

As an adult, Dallas developed a decent light rail system, although at the time I used it, there were very limited lines. I lived near a station so I used it a little, but it was more of a novelty than a viable option.

For a while I lived in Los Angeles. Public transportation there is probably among the worst for a city that size. SoCal is definitely a car-centric place, with its mega-freeways and notorious traffic. As entertaining as it was, the movie "Speed" has a ridiculous premise: No bus could sustain an average 50 mph speed in LA for more than a few minutes. It would have been the world's worst, shortest and most unsatisfying thriller. The bus hits 50 mph on a freeway, traffic snarls, the bus blows up. The movie would have had 20 minutes of setup, three minutes of time on the bus, then a bunch of people picking up the remains of the passengers. However, that'd mean a lot less Keanu Reeves "dialogue" so maybe it has its merits.

Sorry. Tangent. "Speed" wouldn't work in Boston, either, FYI.

M is from Montreal, and the public transportation there is exceptional. The Metro system can get you pretty much anywhere on the island in no more than 45 minutes. The system is so affordable and efficient that M didn't learn to drive until she was 26.

Northwest Arkansas has a decent bus system, Razorback Transit, mainly because it's free. But, its schedule is entirely tied to the University academic year, so it doesn't run some times. A second bus line, Ozark Regional Transit (ORT),  was decent and affordable, but in an area that small, you didn't need public transportation that much.


In Boston, the streets have accurately been described as "tangled." As I like to point out, civic planning as a concept just didn't seem to exist in the New World of the early 17th century. Just a few days ago I was on a street that was more or less a straight line (a real rarity here) and the road changed names three times in about a five-mile stretch.


I've touched on the "Masshole" problem before, but the summation is this: people drive like dickheads here. I used to think the worst drivers in the world were in Oklahoma or Springdale.

To those people, I now apologize.

Some of the preferred road-sharing methods here include double parking, squeezing last-second into tight lanes or passing on too-narrow streets, parking on a sidewalk or curb or halfway out in a street, box-blocking... name any selfish road maneuver you can think of, and someone here routinely uses it. Wednesday, someone just kind of pulled somewhat close to another parked car, at a weird angle with their ass sticking out in traffic, and parked. YOLO!

My immediate feeling was to just stop right there, block the only remaining clear lane, abandon the car and wander off to get a donut or something. Because it doesn't seem like these parkers have any concept of a shared space whatsoever.

I can exaggerate, but in this case I am not. People drive as if the landscape includes only them and everyone and everything else is some random video-game obstacle, not human. I see it every day I am on the streets. A lot of drivers here are just irrationally selfish. It does a lot to cement the perception that the people in this part of the world are jerks. Box-blocking is particularly popular... people just decide to become the ass-end of a lane crossing an intersection when the light changes, preventing those crossing with a green light from getting through the intersection when it's their turn. A few weeks ago this guy did this to us at an intersection. I kid you not, he looked like Antonin Scalia in a white Mitsubishi SUV, angled in front of us as he turned left and blocked our lane. I laid on the horn, and he flipped me off. Because how dare I vent at someone doing something illegal and antisocial.

I am greatly surprised by two things that I would imagine should happen here more but apparently do not. For one, this place seems ripe as hell for daily serious road-rage incidents. This may explain the restrictive gun laws here. If people pulled this shit in Texas, there'd be no room for non-road-rage news on local broadcasts. You'd have all these shooting incidents, one minute for weather, one minute for sports, and now, Letterman!

And the risky driving maneuvers should have auto body shops working around the clock. My uncle George runs a body shop; he should move here. Not only is there a big Greek population, but he'd be a millionaire in a short time.

CONFESSION TIME: I want to state that since coming here, I've also engaged in some driving tactics that normally I would not. However, none of the things I've done have included anything that is like the transgressions described above. I'd say my biggest sin has been the impromptu U-turn. Sometimes there's just no choice. I pulled one the other day instead of being stuck crossing the Mass Ave. bridge. There wasn't a vehicle within 200 yards of me either way so I didn't put anyone at risk.


Clearly, there are strong arguments for public transportation. If you could get by without a car -- and many people here do -- you've saved some serious money. No car payment. No gasoline costs. No insurance payments. No risk of some ass hitting you. You can always get a Zipcar or a regular rental.

A lot of people ride bikes here. Curiously, I haven't seen a lot of scooter use; it would seem viable. But, it may be a theft-risk issue; people lock up their bikes here and remove a wheel, handlebars and the seat to discourage theft.

Thus, the huge ridership of the T.


Unfortunately, the T has money problems. T officials expect to lose at least $120 million in 2014. That's obviously not sustainable; authorities are scrambling to find a way to make the program solvent, and naturally, that means fare hikes. The governor, Deval Patrick, has a budget proposal that would provide about $150 million a year to fund the T's budget shortfall and allow for improvements and service expansion. But that $1.9 billion plan hasn't been approved yet.

The buses and trains are functional, but cruddy and old. Some of the trains look pretty beaten down.

And if your transportation program is losing money, improvements just aren't in the immediate future. The MBTA has to do everything it can just to keep costs down. Two days ago, a local news source said that one proposal would cut weekend schedules.

Right now it costs $1.50 to ride a bus, and $2 to get on a subway. The commuter lines connect outlying areas to the city, but you can pay as much as $11 per ticket. That can get expensive, plus, those routes don't run as frequently as those in the city.

A fare hike proposal of 33 percent wouldn't lift prices that much... bus rides would go to $2, and subway costs would increase to $2.60. The T had a fare hike just last year, and ridership actually increased. One source says that about a third of people in the area use the system, and 1.3 MILLION people a day ride.

I think the T should hike fares even higher... the times I've ridden, the vehicles have been packed. Other times when I see the trains or buses from the road, also packed. People use the T. If the fares doubled, it'd go a long way toward solving the system's funding problem.

In December I planned to go downtown for a meeting via the T. But the day of the event, it was pouring, and I didn't want to walk a few blocks in the rain. So I drove. My 90-minute parking, while conveniently located across the street from where I was headed, cost me $30. A T trip would have cost me $7. So it still would have been a bargain at $14.


Not long after arriving here, we took the bus to Harvard Square and then hoofed it the rest of the way to see "The Game." That crowded bus yielded an interesting experience with a crazy girl.

I first rode the actual subway in January as we decided to visit the Museum of Fine Arts. This Boston arts district is home to the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum within easy walking distance of one another, and near Northeastern University also. To get there, we took the 73 bus to Harvard Square, then caught the Red line to Park Street. There, we were able to access the Green line train that would take us to the Museum. Four stops on the red, seven on the green. The entire trip took less than an hour; I should have timed it.

The station at Harvard Square is gigantic. It's a bus/train hub that sees a lot of traffic. Although it's a bit grimy and dank, the novelty hasn't worn off for me at all so it's a wonder. I was lucky to have M as a guide because the place has so much going on that it would be easy to get a little confused as to where you need to be.

Once on the train, you will see things that are peculiar, and not just the people. One chair was unfilled on the crowded car; closer inspection revealed what (hopefully) was a small pool of spilled soda on the seat. Standing in a crowded car requires awareness... if you don't grab a support strap or rail, the lurching of the train will result in a forced introduction with a random stranger. For unfamiliar riders, establishing equilibrium is a crucial skill to develop.

You're almost certain to have awkward situations. When we shifted onto the Green train, it was packed. It may be better to be standing than sitting in those cases, because you never know who's ass you're going to get a face full of when you're sitting. If you get crop-dusted, you're not going to be happy.

Some of the ride is above ground; those are preferred, for me, because then I get to sight-see a bit.

The day we went, the Museum was offering free entry, so it was packed. Too packed, in fact, so we wound up going to the Gardner. More on that later.

But the transit experience, overall, was enjoyable. I'm ready to go again.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Music and Memory

Every day you get to listen to music is a good day.

In the last year, one of my goals has been to enter all music we have into iTunes. This is not a universally appreciated idea. My musical tastes are a little less discerning than M's. As a consequence, there are some things that I really like that aren't popular elsewhere in the house.

Some of these discriminations (Dread Zeppelin, Primus) I understand. Others (Bowie, Pink Floyd) are harder for me to reconcile. But our blended musical family includes a few characters I could live without as well (I'm looking at you, John Mayer, and you too, Raveonettes).

Truth be told, though, we've both won a few battles. I actually find a handful of songs by the Raves pretty good. If I felt the same way about John Mayer, I'd never confess to it.

I mean, anyone who wrote "Your Body is a Wonderland" deserves to be scorned forever, right?

There was a time when M absolutely could not tolerate Steely Dan. Now she likes them. I'm doubtful that I will get her to accept Bowie, but at least I won with Steely Dan.

We've got close to 13,000 songs into the archive. That's a pretty big list -- more than five weeks' worth. But as Willie Stokes told Thurman Merman, "They can't all be winners, kid."


Music has added a lot to my life. It's fun. One of the things I love about it is how it can conjure a memory of a specific time or a place. It truly is a transportation device.

While working on some things this morning, the shuffle dialed up a U2 song, "Red Hill Mining Town." It took me to a place I couldn't find now if I tried, and to people who I no longer know.

And that's fine. The first time I heard The Joshua Tree was at Noxon's. We were co-workers, not friends, and he lived in a ratty house in Arlington. There was a party there, but his girlfriend Nancy was  the real attraction. Me and Rico went.

I can remember that night, but solely because it was the first time I heard that album. Albums were still the dominant musical delivery method in the first half of 1987. The party was raging, but seeing that iconic Anton Corbijn cover art captured my eye more than Nancy did. I liked Nancy; I loved U2.

I bet none of those people remember that night. They probably don't remember me. But that song came on, and I was right there all over again.


And I've got many songs that do this. "She Loves You" takes me back to jumping on my parents' bed in 1964. "Bohemian Rhapsody" puts me in a car passing in front of Hill Junior High on a warm summer night in 1976. "Love Lies Bleeding" takes me to my first concert. "I Ran" is a wrongly ridiculed song, and I like it a lot, but hearing it takes me to a funny episode with my brother, who was playing it so loudly that we couldn't hear the landlord knocking at the door.

And certain artists are associated with people. Walk loved Jackson Browne, so I remember her when Jackson Browne shows up. Cephus loved REO Speedwagon. That's his.

Then of course, there's "The Waiting," which changed my life. That story's too unbelievable, but totally true.


Because of the things that have happened to me, and the way a particular piece of music can imprint itself forever in my memory, I would prefer to have it around more often than not. Because you never know when it's going to stick, and maybe even make a difference.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Seventh grade

I guess I liked seventh grade. It was different in my day, though. My school had grades 1-7. Junior High was 8-9, and High School was 10-11-12.

It was odd to walk around the school and be among the wing with little 6-year-olds.

Now, districts across the country split their classes in a variety of ways. Most high schools are 9-12, but beneath that are a lot of different approaches.

In the district where I sub, middle school is 5-8.

On Wednesday there was a generic "teacher" opening at the middle school that I signed up for. But on Thursday I did a little further research, and the sub was for a Latin teacher.


Despite my contact at the district saying it would probably be OK to sub in a one-off situation, in my initial interview the district rep told of someone subbing in a French class where the sub had zero knowledge of French. I didn't take the Latin job.

So Friday morning I figured would be a good day for chores. I'd made the coffee, started vacuuming and had a load of laundry in the wash when the phone rang at 7:30 a.m. They needed an aide for a block of seventh-grade classes. I decided to do it, and blitzed my way to get there by a few minutes after 8 a.m.

I got a full taste of the curriculum, sitting in on English, World Geography, Science and Math. On this particular day, the schedule included a section of P.E. I didn't have much to contribute there.


Right off the bat, the day astonished me.

In English, students were working on essay-writing, and had been for a while. The topic was to write about someone they admired. At this stage, they were working on a summation paragraph. I asked a student if I could read what he'd written so far. As I read, he told of his subject, an uncle who had an unusual name. I said "Hey, I used to work with a guy with the same name."

It was the same guy.


What are the odds? I worked with this man 15 years ago, 1,800 miles away. Before this youngster was born. And now, not only am I sitting next to him, but just happen to read his essay that mentions his uncle by name.

What does it mean? What if I hadn't read the essay? What if I hadn't accepted the position?



In science class, the students were in a computer lab, and the topic was climate science. We discussed weather and seasons, and then the students were able to work with a software program modeling different dynamics that could occur with slight (or dramatic) shifts in the earth's rotation, orbit angle, orientation and more. Naturally the instinct for some kids was to greatly manipulate these factors and turn earth into Hoth or Mercury. It reminded me of my daughter playing Rollercoaster Tycoon. After learning the basics, she would invent rides that hurled park visitors into the air and to their demise.

The science kids melted the ice caps, boiled the seas, or otherwise made the planet uninhabitable. No doubt they have a glorious future working for the Kochs.


Teaching is a lot harder than it looks.

Every person in America should be required to spend at least a week around schools and teachers. I'd wager pretty easily that well more than 90 percent of people have no idea how difficult a job these educators have.

The job can be humbling. It's a responsibility to help educate these kids, and at any point when I do something wrong or amateurish, I feel bad. In conversing with a student I said "ain't" and immediately felt ashamed to use such a low-rent word. School is not the place to relax into colloquialism.

And, particularly in the math class, I felt anxiety. I don't know what it is about math that daunts me so. I was sitting next to one good kid who I remembered from my time there in December (Dec. 14... a bad day for schools). And I told him that math was essential, that it teaches one how to process information, and that all the most successful societies were skilled in math -- but that it can be very hard and wasn't my favorite subject. He said he didn't like it much either. But he was really good at it.

Not long ago I watched a few minutes of "Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?" for the first time. I didn't like the show or the premise. Do we really want to celebrate how generally stupid we are?

But in these classrooms, sometimes I think we're not that smart. Fortunately these kids ARE smart, and getting good instruction.

In the World Geography class, the kids were working on identifying nations, capitals, landforms and bodies of water in Asia. Tough stuff.

Now, some people look at this and say "big deal, it's just some memorization and then it falls away." And to some extent, that's true. But I think it's important that every one of these students are at least looking at different parts of the world and learning things about them. The instructor showed a variety of images from Chinese New Year celebrations. Maybe in six months these kids will forget the name of the capital of Bangladesh. But on the other hand, that information has been accessed and processed in their minds. It's there. That has to be a worthwhile achievement.


Random notes:

* One girl had a shirt with John & Yoko on it. That's encouraging.
* In offering guidelines for a project, a science teacher said "presentation matters." Yes it does. But, it will take a long time for that to sink in with some people. It took a while with me.
* I re-watched the only Jack Black movie made, "School of Rock," last week. Amusing still. But the scenario there is part of the problem that people have with the idea of school... they just have no idea what the day-to-day is really like. The idea that a sub could come in and be that unchecked is impossible. It just wouldn't happen.
* In "School of Rock" "Mr. Schneeebly" immediately raids a student's food supply. I didn't eat Friday during the day. Mistake. Note to self: Next time, take some food.
* The teacher's role is one of overt leadership. Being an aide is tough in trying to determine the correct balance to strike. You have to find your spots. I spent two minutes mentally crafting a question to ask in the English class that I thought might provide a positive alternative way to see the topic. The teacher responded encouragingly, so it was worth it. But finding the proper mix is something I hope to improve upon in time.
* And last, there was my encounter with "Allison Reynolds" during my brief lunch break. This was the name of Ally Sheedy's character in The Breakfast Club. Since I didn't bring lunch and didn't want to go through the cafeteria line, I instead found a bench in the school's primary hallway that links the lunchroom, auditorium and main office. I checked my phone and "Allison" approached me. She was tall and you could tell she was a little different. But nice. 

Allison: Do you know what a paradox is?
Me: Well, I know more in my mind what it is than my ability to define it. I think it's something that seems true but isn't (fumbling). Let's look it up.

I Googled it, and came up with several examples. The best one we saw was of the person who says "I always lie."

Then she left. It was totally random. And totally why this is a damned interesting way to spend a day.