2011 in review

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The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2011 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 1,700 times in 2011. If it were a cable car, it would take about 28 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

The Long-Awaited Announcement

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SYNECDOCHE.  I first caught word that something was up when I saw that a friend had asked a question on Facebook[1] about President Obama’s impending news conference.

It was right around 7:30 PST on that first Sunday evening in May: I had procrastinated all weekend and had to start thinking about tomorrow’s lesson plans, but was on Facebook reading and commenting on my friends’ Status Updates instead.  The kids had been put to bed, but were making their nightly trips to the living room to complain of tummy aches and insomnia.  And our next door neighbor and my wife were at the front door exchanging stories from each other’s weekends as the dog jumped about in gleeful excitement.[2]

As I told the kids a second or third time that they’d better get back in bed before I count to three,[3] and I tried to listen in on the hushed conversation at the door, I began searching all the typical news sites – CNN, LA Times, Google News – for any information other than the simple fact that President Obama was scheduled to make an unscheduled announcement at 7:30 PST (10:30 EST).  There was speculation in response to the initial Facebook inquiry that Osama bin Ladin had been killed, but I could find nothing to confirm or deny this theory.  And this one post was the only mention of it that I saw on Facebook.  No one else, not even my more politically conscious friends, had posted anything about it.  I really, really wanted to turn on the TV to see what was going on – it was already fifteen minutes past the 7:30 announcement time – but the kids were still coming out of their room at regular intervals and my wife was still at the door.

My wife soon wrapped up her conversation with our neighbor and we double-teamed the kids[4] to get them back in bed.  I mentioned the President’s imminent announcement to her, so we flipped on the television and tuned in to the first available news station, probably MSNBC or CNN.[5]  The words “BREAKING NEWS” were in bold, white letters against a red banner just above the ticker at the bottom of the screen.  The talking head on the screen – not anyone I recognized; after all it was the Sunday night swing shift of a New York-based cable news broadcast – told us nothing we didn’t already know: the President had called, but had not yet given, an unexpected news conference to make an important announcement, which – according to several unconfirmed reports – was most likely that Osama bin Ladin had been killed.

As the 8:00 hour approached, we turned to one of the network channels in hopes that the news conference would happen soon and that we could then watch that night’s episode of one of our favorite reality shows.  Instead what followed was nearly an hour of stalling by the news anchor[6] who asked variations of the same four or five questions to three or four guest “experts” who were stationed at the White House, Pentagon, and other strategic locations in Washington.  The next hour was filled with speculation of what exactly the President would say, confirmation from unheard-of Congressmen and other government officials of basically irrelevant bits of information, expert analysis of the minuscule amounts of confirmed information and of the speculation by the other experts being interviewed, and repeats of the speculation and unconfirmed information for those just tuning in.[7]  But in the end, we knew little more than we did when we first turned on the television: the President was about to make an important announcement at any moment, that announcement was most likely that after nearly ten years of hunting him down, Osama bin Ladin had been killed by US military forces, and that the delay was likely due to the necessary preparations to make this a worldwide, and not just a nationwide, announcement.

Finally at about 8:40 PST (nearly midnight on in Washington), over an hour after the unscheduled news conference was supposed to begin, the news anchor had to cut off the analysis by the foreign affairs expert as the camera feed at the White House went live and President Barack Obama strolled confidently down a red carpet toward the podium and microphone.  At the start of his nine-and-a-half minute address, Obama confirmed what we were all waiting to hear: Osama bin Ladin, the mastermind behind the Horror[8] of 9/11, and been killed by American soldiers.  Few details were given; the information he presented about the intelligence leading to the raid and the actual covert operation – apparently the Pakistani government did not even know we had entered their country to take out the target – was all on a very high level of vague abstraction.  He praised the efforts and diligence of the intelligence agencies and military forces who, after nearly a decade on bin Ladin’s trail, finally brought the most wanted man in the world to justice.  He gave his heart-felt condolences to the families of those affected by the Horror and reminded the nation and the world that their pain and suffering has not been forgotten.  And finally, he reminded Americans that the death of this one man who had declared war on this country by using our own airliners as weapons against us did not mean that the War on Terror was over, and that we must continue to be vigilant in the protection of our people and our home.  Then, as quickly as he walked up to the podium to make the announcement, the President turned around and walked back down that red carpet and out of the camera’s sight, with a little more swagger than on his approach.

The end of the announcement brought back the network news anchor, who offered a summary of the speech we had just finished watching, speculation into exactly how the operation in Pakistan went down, and live footage of gathering crowds of Americans who took to the streets of Washington – and presumably just about every city in the country – to celebrate the death of our worst enemy.  In these video clips, celebrants waved flags, gave hugs and high-fives, and could be heard chanting “USA!  USA!”[9]

At the top of the hour, regularly scheduled programming resumed.  As we watched our show, my wife had Facebook open and recounted the responses that began to pour in.  One friend wrote about neighbors who were driving up and down the street honking horns and yelling out of the windows of the car.  Others posted and reposted patriotic axioms.  Some of our church friends were quick to post reminders of the “appropriate” Christian response; that we ought to feel satisfaction in justice, but not rejoice in revenge.  Several friends showed their newly reborn patriotism by changing their profile pictures to pictures of our flag or bald eagles.[10]  What better way to say “God bless America” than with illegally copied and uploaded photos and trite patriotic quotes that are fewer than 400 characters?

That night, as my wife and I lay in bed waiting for sleep to come, an odd mix of emotions began to settle over me as we talked about this historic event.  I think we had both breathed an internal sigh of relief as we felt a bit of closure.  The Horror had changed our nation and our lives forever, and that night’s announcement gave a sense that one chapter in this narrative was finally over.  Honestly, I was skeptical that this day would never come, that this announcement would never be made.  Nearly a decade had passed since that September morning, and it appeared – at least to the public eye – that the trail had grown cold and that bin Ladin was more likely to die from old age than from a Special Forces’ bullet.  So I expressed a bit of pride in our armed forces and in their tenacity and determination that had brought this day to pass.

But these passing events also brought a rather unsettled feeling for both of us.  With this news came a flood of questions: What does this mean for our future? Are we actually one step closer to real victory in our War on Terror?  Is our country truly safer now than twenty-four hours ago?  Or will this merely inspire a new wave of attacks, perhaps on a much smaller, but just as effective scale? What’s to stop some pissed off Al-Qaeda sympathizer from getting up the next morning and putting on a suicide bomber’s vest under his sport coat as he heads off to work and exacts his own form of revenge?  Did Al-Qaeda have contingency plans set for when or if this day would ever arrive?  What dastardly plots would fill the headlines in the days and weeks to come?  Under the surface of pride and closure lay an uncertainty that would sit heavy as we dozed off to sleep.

By the next morning, the jubilant patriotism had turned to sarcasm and cynicism.  Last night’s statements and Status Updates of support for our troops and our Commander-in-Chief on Facebook had turned into bin Ladin jokes, things like “Waiting for [Donald]Trump to ask for the death certificate,” “I guess bin Ladin shouldn’t have tweeted ‘just chillin’ with the homies at my compound in Pakistan,”[11] and “bin Ladin: all-time hide-n-seek champion, 10 years.”

Later that next day, and into the following week, our collective cynical side began rearing its head.  Questions about the President’s timing and other circumstances surrounding this announcement filled the airwaves and cyberspace.  Was Obama trying to capitalize on this event for his own political gain and to help bolster his reelection bid in eighteen months?[12]  Did the fact that we found and killed the Horror’s mastermind somehow justify the “enhanced interrogation” techniques used to obtain the leads that led to his death?  Was the GOP simply bitter that a Democrat was the one to make the announcement?  It seems we can’t simply revel in the fact that the good guys won one this time; we have to wonder about motives and question the intentions of our elected officials.

It certainly didn’t take long for the true post-modern-Gen-X American spirit to come out, one that celebrates our victories and will keep us strong even through our darkest days.


[1] For many of us, Facebook seems to be the first place we turn for news and information.  Need to know the weather or the latest breaking news?  Forget CNN or MSNBC, go to Facebook.[back]

[2]Our little half-poodle-half-bichon canine companion can get loss-of-bladder-control excited when certain visitors, including our next door neighbor, come knocking at our door.[back]

[3] I’m not always sure what will happen if I do get to three before they scamper back to their bedroom, but I typically hope the threat of something unpleasant will be enough to get them running back down the hall.  Sometimes reaching two is enough; other times it takes getting to three and starting to get up from my chair to do the trick.  One thing’s for sure, counting to three gets the dog all riled up.  She’s very protective of the kids.[back]

[4] Aside from the financial obstacles and the fact we only live in a two-bedroom condo, one of the primary reasons we stopped after two kids is I don’t want to be outnumbered, especially when they hit the teenage years.[back]

[5]We have only the most basic cable television package that does not include a converter box or on-screen programming.  So we have to flip channels old-school style to see what is on.[back]

[6] Again, an unfamiliar face.  Whatever this announcement was, it was important enough to preempt over an hour of primetime television, but apparently not important enough to call the Nightly News anchors in on a Sunday evening.[back]

[7] The whole news-anchor-stalling-while-we-wait-for-the-real-news-conference was very reminiscent of watching a high speed chase live on the evening news, except without the footage of the car chase.  The newscasters just droned on and on, trying to fill the time while they waited to the video feed from the White House to go live.

At one point I commented to my wife that I was starting to feel sorry for the news anchor at the center of all these discussions.  The guest experts at least got short breaks when the anchor moved on to talk to someone else, and all they had to do while on the air was look pretty and answer the same questions over and over.  The news anchor had the more difficult job of having to come up with additional thought-provoking questions to ask these experts he was interviewing.  While he began to get very repetitive after about ten minutes of this holding pattern, I grew to have some respect for the guy and his ability to think on his feet for such a prolonged period of time.[back]

[8] This is the name David Foster Wallace gave to the 9/11 attacks on his essay, “The View from Mrs. Thompson’s.”[back]

[9]The following morning’s news radio broadcast played a recording of the reaction of crowds at a Major League Baseball stadium when the news broke.  That afternoon’s broadcast played the reaction from a World Wrestling Entertainment event.  Both were a raucous of cheers and chants.[back]

[10] Peaking in popularity is the showing of support and raising awareness for various causes by changing one’s profile picture.  Perhaps my favorite of these was the change-your-profile-picture-to-a-cartoon-character-to-raise-awareness-for-abused-children day (because cartoon characters scream “help abused children” like nothing else can?).  On this occasion an old friend replaced his usual picture with one of Homer Simpson with a chokehold on Bart.

I must confess that I’ve never participated in these awareness raising events, just as I have never forwarded those chain emails that one is obligated to forward if one truly loves Jesus.  I prefer to share my faith in more practical, less socially annoying ways.[back]

[11]The following week’s Time magazine revealed that one of bin-Ladin’s neighbors had inadvertently live-tweeted the actual attack with this post: “A huge window shaking bang here in Abbottabad… I hope its not the start of something nasty.”[back]

[12]After all, he hardly even mentioned “The Shrub’s”* efforts in laying the groundwork for hunting down bin Ladin.  And many commented on the apparent overuse of the first-person pronoun in Obama’s speech.

*DFW’s name for former president George W Bush in his essay, “Up, Simba.”[back]

The Pale King Release Party @ Skylight Books

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What does one wear to a book release party, exactly?  This being my first one, I stood before my open closet for a good five minutes trying to decide what to wear.  Despite the unseasonably warm weather,[1] I assumed long pants were in order.  But should I wear khakis or jeans?  After a short internal debate of the merits of each, I settled on my nicest pair of jeans.  But what shirt to go with them?  I have several Hawaiian shirts, but thought I should wear something a little more “artsy,” given the nature of the event.  I have a black and gray bowler shirt, but it sort of screams “Charlie Sheen” and I wanted to avoid those connotations.  I opted for a dark pseudo-Hawaiian shirt with palm fronds in various shades of green to go with my dark blue jeans.  After finally getting dressed, I grabbed the Google Maps directions and my copy of The Pale King,[2] and was out the door.

After topping off the gas tank, I was headed down the freeway toward Skylight Books in Hollywood.  Some forty-five minutes later I found the store, circled the block after seeing Vermont Avenue lined with parking meters, and found an unmetered open curb about a half mile away.  I grabbed my TPK and notebook, and walked back toward Skylight.  Walking past several sidewalk cafes, I turned into the most incredible indie bookstore I’ve ever set foot in.  I was – I thought – a few minutes early, so I decided to browse around a bit.  Something about the dark, rustic wooden bookshelves up against plaster and brick walls made any book on them at least four times cooler than it would be on the shelves of a big chain bookstore.

A few minutes after 2:00, I walked over to the information desk to ask about the event.  I didn’t see the type of pre-release-party preparations one would expect to see right before the start of such an event.  Was I in the right place?  At the right time?  I hesitantly inquired about when and where the party would be happening.  The woman sitting there had a rather perplexed look on her face as she told me that I was in the right place, but that the event was not until 5:00.  I was three hours early.  Apparently I was misinformed by the Facebook announcement I had received several weeks ago.  The woman at the info desk gave a sympathetic smile as she told me there was a movie theater next door.  I thanked her and walked outside to think over this turn of events and to make a few phone calls.[3]

My original plan was to attend the party that I thought was scheduled from 2:00 – 5:00, and then meet an old friend for dinner afterward.  But now… should I hang around for three hours and still go to the event?  It would be a long wait, but having spent over four dollars per gallon to fill up my car, I didn’t want to just turn around and drive home.  And with the event starting at 5:00, that would mean a much later dinner than I had planned.  My already tired muscles were starting to stiffen up from helping load and unload a 22-foot moving truck just a few hours before.  I ducked into the quasi-alley a few doors down from the bookstore and came up with a plan: I would hang out in Hollywood until the party, but call my friend to see about postponing our dinner plans until later in the week.[4]   I called my wife to let her know, then texted my friend to let him know that the plans had changed.  He was very understanding.

Entering the store for a second time, I felt a great deal of shame over having a second job at a big chain bookstore.[5]   But if I kept my head down and avoided eye contact with the clerks, perhaps no one would catch on.  I walked up and down the narrow aisles absorbing the quirky, artsy ambience of the place.  A journal notebook with “HELL IS OTHER PEOPLE” in block letters on the front cover was the first item to catch my eye.  I later noticed that they had properly shelved Stephen King’s On Writing in the “Writing Reference” section.[6]   There was a collection of poems by one of my favorite poets, Steve Kowit, which I have found only online.  Near the poetry shelf, lying stretched out in the window sill was Franny the cat, the store’s mascot.  I had to deduct a few “cool points” when I saw the complete Twilight series and several Ellen Hopkins novels on the Young Adult shelf, but those points were regained when I found the Freaks & Geeks Complete Scripts Volume 2 on another shelf.

At least an hour passed as I examined each title on each shelf, then I left the store a second time to see what else Vermont Ave. had to show me.  About three blocks away, past several posh boutiques and swanky sidewalk cafes was a Starbucks.  A cold drink and an air-conditioned lobby seemed appealing, given the heat of the afternoon.  Inside I ordered a venti iced tea, found the one empty chair, and settled in to read The Pale King The time passed rather quickly as I distractedly read about ten pages of chapter two.[7] At 4:45, I left my comfy chair and headed back to Skylight.

In the time since I left, the staff had decorated the store for the party.  Behind the “stage” area, which consisted of a metal podium and a microphone, was a very cool streamer made of assorted tax forms and giant King of Clubs playing cards.  One table had an assortment of Wallace books along with staff-picked “if-you-like-Wallace-you-might-like-these-books-too” books; another table was graced with bottles of wine, cheese and crackers, and other delicious snacks.  Several folding chairs were set out, and a small crowd had already gathered.  I grabbed a chair toward the back and anxiously waited for the festivities to begin.

One of the clerks stepped up to the microphone and, after the necessary sound check, welcomed the crowd of about twelve to Skylight Books to celebrate the release of The Pale King.  She previewed the festivities for us, which would include a recorded reading from Brief Interviews by Dave himself, followed by an open mic time when celebrants could read their favorite passages from his works.  Also in her introduction were at least three invitations to enjoy the refreshments set out on the table.

After the welcome and introduction, she played the seven-minute recording of Wallace reading “Death is not the End.” [Click here to listen to the recording]  This story had slid to the back of my memory, overshadowed by some of the more widely discussed stories contained in BI.  It seemed an odd choice at first, but then it all started to make sense and listening to it turned into a rather poignant and moving experience.  The story really isn’t a story at all, but rather the description of a washed-up former Poet Laureate sitting poolside drinking iced tea and flipping pages of a magazine.  What struck me first was the overly monotone tone of Dave’s voice as he read.  I wouldn’t call him the most dynamic or emotional reader or speaker, but his tone was – for lack of a better word – boring as he was reading the non-story of the boring non-life of a formerly great writer.

It was in pondering the title within the immediate context that I was moved emotionally.  The word “unfinished” in the description of The Pale King looms ominously as a reminder of tragic end to Dave’s life.  I don’t know of a Fantod out there that doesn’t consider this book a gift, but it is bittersweet in the receiving.  We were all gathered to celebrate the gift he left for us.  But he wasn’t able to finish the work he started, so we will never see the novel in its completed form, as he intended it to be.

But, as the title of this beautifully selected story reminds us, his death was not the end.  Not for his work.  Not for his legacy.  Although his death left a hole in the hearts of many and a void in our literary landscape, his death was not the end.  His death came – in the minds of so many – far too early, but at least he never an end like the washed-up Poet of his story.  And besides, he left behind a number of gifts: David Lipsky’s 300+ page transcript of his five-day interview of Wallace during the Infinite Jest tour, his senior philosophy thesis, and now The Pale King.  Even in the midst of our sorrow, we have cause to celebrate.  His death was not the end.

After a moment’s pause, E—[8] stepped up to the microphone and read the stinkin’ hilarious segment from Infinite Jest, “Mario Incandenza’s First and Only Even Remotely Romantic Experience, Thus Far.”  I have not read much of IJ, and don’t know where this scene fits into the overarching narrative, but the lively, joyous reading made me really want to give the book another try.[9]

E— was followed by C—, who read a snippet from Everything and More, Wallace’s non-fiction work about the history of infinity.  The book sits on my shelf, but if there is one book in Dave’s bibliography that scares me more than Infinite Jest, this one would be it.  Anything by Wallace requires utmost concentration to unwrap and unravel, and that is when he writes about things I do understand.  But I haven’t taken a math class in fifteen years – and it was only College Algebra – and I got a C for the semester.  So I’d imagine that 90% of Everything and More will just go straight over my head.  But what I did hear in C—‘s reading was Dave’s very distinctive voice.  I didn’t understand a word of it, but I could tell from the start that he had written it.[10]

Next was B—, who read a short passage – the exact part escapes my memory – from Brief Interviews and then shared with us an original poem.  Then J— read a darkly affecting segment from the “Octet” chapter from the same book.  Both captured that raw depiction of humanity that is the signature of Dave’s fiction writing.

While they read, I thumbed through a copy of A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again to find something to share with the group.  After the applause for J—, I walked up to the podium to read the first few pages of the title essay.  This had been my introduction to Wallace.  By the end of my first reading of that chapter, I was hooked.  This being my first DFW event, I wanted to share with the others in the room the words that won me over.  I struggled and stammered my way through the text, exceeding my two-minute time limit.  After placing it back on the display table, I returned to my seat with the feeling of officially being initiated into the Fantod community.  I have been reading and writing about Wallace’s works for almost two years now, and I have been a semi-active participant on the Wallace-l discussion board for over a year, but this moment felt like a true rite of passage.

The emcee took the mic after I sat back down.  She capped off the open mic time with a reading from The Pale King, then gave another invitation to enjoy the refreshments on the table as we hung out and enjoyed each other’s company.  There were a few minutes of awkwardness as we strangers introduced ourselves.  But we soon found common ground in the books we have read and loved.  Given the reason for our celebration, the topic of our conversation quickly turned to our Man.  Our favorites of his stories and essays.  Our common friends on Wallace-l[11] and the experiences we’ve shared.  And the few who had the privilege of meeting or corresponding with Dave shared stories of his kindness and graciousness.[12]   We stood around talking for almost half an hour, sharing and laughing and celebrating the writer and his words that have left an indelible mark on each of us.


[1] I never saw an actual thermometer that Saturday, but it must have been close to 90° by noontime.  I spent the morning helping my in-laws pack and unpack a moving truck as they were moving out of their house of 34 years and downsizing into a mobile home.  They normally have a pretty accurate indoor/outdoor thermometer in their dining room, but of course this was in a box labeled “dining room” that was, at the time, who-knows-where.  All I know is that I sweated more that morning than I had in months and that each of us on the moving crew complained at least fourteen times about how my father-in-law picked the hottest day of the calendar year for the big move.  My best estimation is the actual temperature was somewhere around “pretty damn hot.”[back]

[2] I realized that it is probably considered uncouth to bring a book purchased elsewhere into a bookstore, and that there would be plenty of copies at the store, probably ones that could be borrowed to follow along should someone be reading from it.  But I wanted to have my copy with me.[back]

[3] Even though I was in the heart of Los Angeles – the proverbial birthplace of obnoxious cell-phone-talkers – I could tell that pulling my phone out in the middle of this store would draw the look of death from booksellers and patrons alike.  This was way too cool of a bookstore to even think of committing such a sin.[back]

[4] It was the start of my Spring Break, so my schedule was pretty flexible for the next seven days.[back]

[5] And my Rewards Membership card in my wallet felt like a fifty-pound in my back pocket.  I would have taken it out and set it ablaze as a grand display of repentance, but I like my 40% discount on books and beverages from the café.[back]

[6] It seems obvious, but my big chain bookstore employer puts it with the rest of his books in the horror section.  Why?  After nine months on the job, I still don’t know.[back]

[7] Admittedly, a crowded Starbucks lobby is not the ideal place to read The Pale King, or any other work by DFW.  His is not casual reading that can be done in distraction-heavy settings; reading almost anything by him requires too much focus and attention.  With each turn of the page, I resigned myself to the fact that I would have to reread every word my eyes were passing over.[back]

[8] I will refer to those I met by initial rather than by name.  I do this in part because I don’t want to be accused of misrepresenting anybody’s words or actions.  I also do it because I don’t remember (and didn’t write down) everyone’s name.[back]

[9] I began Infinite Jest about 18 months ago before I even had any aspirations of starting my Letters to DFW blog.  But my reading was halted about fifty pages in when I started having some health problems.  I had to drop almost all extra-curriculars and focus on getting healthy again.[back]

[10] Which made me a little less apprehensive about reading it in the near future.[back]

[11] We all spoke of our shared jealousy of those who were able to make the pilgrimage to Austin, Texas, to enjoy this momentous occasion with other fans at the Harry Ransom Center that houses the Wallace archive.[back]

[12] One woman shared the story of helping to arrange a speaking engagement for DFW at a local venue and having the chance to meet him and talk to him briefly.  She spoke of sending him a book – I don’t remember if she mentioned a title – and a thank you card.  He then sent back a thank you card for the thank you card, with notes about his favorite parts of the book she sent to him.  Is it any wonder so many people want him considered for sainthood?[back]

A Supposedly Fun Cake

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Last weekend my wife made me a birthday cake inspired by DFW’s essay and this blog’s namesake.  Pictures and footnotes are over on my Letters to DFW blog:

http://letterstodfw.wordpress.com/2011/03/25/there-must-be-a-12-step-program-for-this/

I thought you all would appreciate this.

 

Ryan

The Name of the Game

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The last available parking spot on a winter’s Monday evening was accessible only by sucking in the Jeep’s gut and squeezing in next to a steroidally muscled-out pickup truck embellished with a “gut deer” bumper sticker, in the recognizable design and typeface of the popular American milk ads of our time.

Fortunately, tight spots are a speciality in these parts.

The Bataan Death March from the Jeep to the building offered similar back-bumpered aphorisms: If It Flies, It Dies.  When You Only Have Seconds, the Cops Will Be There in Minutes.  This Vehicle Protected by the Second Amendment.  You Can Keep The “Change”: McCain Palin ’08.

Gun Control Means Using Both Hands.

Surely I’m not the only one wondering what I’m doing here.

The class was held inside the back warehouse of the rural power company, conducted over a backdrop of road signs and coils of cable.  We pulled Church-bingo style folding chairs off a cart and squeezed in to the semicircle formed by a hundred other chairs, all occupied with others from our region interested in obtaining a hunting license, the prerequisite for which was attendance and completion of this, a state-sponsored and volunteer-led weeklong hunting safety course.

I’m new in town and only here part of the time, and as such, haven’t yet managed to chisel away at the insularity.   I reek of city, evidently, and as I’ve since learned, country people have singular olfactory talents.  I don’t know how; I’m as filth-drenched as the best of them, and even more tattered, but they can spot me.

It’s the brain thing that shows up not unlike stigmata, or a ruddy breastpocketed letter A, or a lightning-bolted forehead:  I’m the sucker in the room whose attendance was spawned from a mental red alert thanks to the coupling of the words “free” and “class” in a flyer at the village supermarket.  They’re here for the promise of flesh between their teeth.

A disclaimer: I have no personal interest in hunting.  I don’t even eat meat (though not for sanctimonious reasons, so rest assured mine isn’t the voice of a PETA-inspired candid camera games of gotcha.  Let’s leave it at “you eat what you want and I’ll do the same”), and am the sadly self-admitted sort of animal person who coos at goats and rains from the eyes at the sight of limping birds.

But it seems a civic duty to know what’s legitimate running-around-armed-in-the-woods behavior and what’s not.  One doesn’t have to participate in an activity to be curious about it.  Which is closer to the real reason I’m here, a reason that doesn’t wave its hands in front of the old noodle until it has gone all the way down Retrospect Way. I’m fresh off a passel of catastrophe reading, book after book of environmental disaster and economic collapse, and it’s evidently started to weigh on me: if it should ever come to pass that I’m shooting raccoons to feed myself, I wanted to be licensed to do so.    Because, of course, when calamities collide and we’re left making raccoon stew for basic subsistence, the only enforceable civil servants will be the game wardens, checking stamps on one’s license.

Give me a break: I’m vegetarian and taking a class to get a hunting license; logic needn’t apply.

But let’s drift back to the class: the semicircle’s chairs are occupied by a surprisingly diverse group of people, when judged along broad strokes of gender and age.  An ardent boy of six-or-so is barely contained in his front-row seat, continually up and admiring the collection of long guns on display at a front table.  The backs of the chairs immediately in front of me are embellished with pink thongs that barely protrude through, attached to freshly graduated nyphettes, in their early twenties accompanying men much older, but about whom much more can hardly be said, because any reasonable mind (of any sexual orientation) positioned in bird’s eye view of pink thongs stays with the pink thongs.

The man in charge, introducing himself as Eric, has made one singular point obvious, if not by his brilliant orange vest, then by his proud and exclusive handling of the terrifying-sized arsenal at the front table.  Before beginning the class, before even introducing himself, he explains the one rule of the assembly:

“Whenever I say “What’s the Name of the Game?” no matter what’s going on, no matter who’s talking, no matter if I’m in the middle of a sentence, you’re to stand up in your place and shout, as loud as you can, “Muzzle Control!”  Let’s try it.”

He tries it.  I remain seated, obdurately, which goes unnoticed (thankfully).

For those unfamiliar with the patois: “muzzle control” refers here to the concept of never pointing your gun at anything you’re not willing to fill with lead.  Which sounds obvious, until you go hunting with the likes of Dick Cheney or actually try to handle a gun.  You might try it with a stick: pick one up and pretend it’s a gun– go ahead, nobody’s around to politically judge you.  Then walk around with it, put it down and pick it back up, pretend to load it, or clean it.  It can be difficult not to inadvertently let its barrel point right at the dog, the radiator, or the ceiling upstairs and the people dwelling in the apartment above it.  As such, the whole “muzzle control” principle is drilled-in early and often, and is generally accepted as the most important rule in any firearms safety training.  Which is why reducing it to a cheer seems offensive, if not fatal.

Again he shouts: What’s the Name of the Game?

I remain seated.

He assures us, for the first of what will be many times this week, that if we just follow his lead, we will all score 100% on the test to be administered at the end of the week, and we will all be certified to hunt this state’s woods just in time for deer season.

“Now, who here keeps a loaded weapon in their house?”  A few scattered and enthusiastic hands shoot up, before Eric’s resulting scowl sends them to discover sudden itches, stretches, and other more reticent gesticulations.  “There is absolutely no need to keep a loaded weapon in the home.”  For once, I’m starting to think this guy and I might be of like minds about something, a sensation so welcome that I have to reach up and stop my pupils from dilating to a place far beyond my head.  But he continues:  “here’s why you don’t keep loaded guns in the home.  Let’s say you leave your firearm lying around loaded.  And let’s say your wife, or your girlfriend, or your mother, comes in to do some cleaning, and pulls out her dust cloth to dust off your gun for you.  What might happen, if she’s doing a good job dusting your loaded gun, really getting into the finer spots, and reaches into the trigger guard?”

There are moments whose better endings, when mentally replayed, seem obvious to script, moments whose actual existence is an embarrassment on reflection.  Instead of standing up as a resident loudmouthed gender equality advocate speaking on behalf of half the room’s population, I was, shamefully, caught in the headlights.  Gutted and field dressed in disbelief that this attitude could still be present, much less vocalized, much less vocalized by an authority and representative of the state.  There were probably not a few lachrymal events due to the surprise, and probably no small amount of fidgeting, and not much else is remembered of that night, other than the ways in which I might’ve handled it better.

At the next evening’s class, which I attended only out of pure petulance, the gun table was fully loaded and covered with a new arsenal.  Eric began right away, spending thirty minutes presenting a piece from his collection and asking the group to guess what sort of action the gun possessed.  Again for those for whom this language is foreign: the “action” is the mechanism by which rounds are loaded into a chamber.  It’s either the Terminator or Rambo movies where a movable part is on the barrel of the gun is shoved back and forth to chamber a round, and instead of holding the firearm still and pushing/depressing a pump, Terminator/Rambo holds the movable part and shakes the gun in a cinematic display of bravado?  This is a “pump” action.  The kind where you break the barrel at a 90-ish degree angle with the stock of the gun and the shell pops out (and if you’re me, hits you in the forehead 75% of the time?)  This is a break action.  There’s a bolt action, with a little bolt which, when turned and slid back, extracts a spent shell and allows you to load a new one (n.b. snipers in the old war movies, if memory serves), before turning and sliding again.  Eric’s display includes lever actions as well, and a few that resemble those found in battered old mafia photos from 1940s Chicago.

There are others.  Handguns have revolvers and semi-automatic guns have other mechanisms.  Tanks have whatever tanks have.   But deer aren’t hunted with tanks, so Eric went on and on, with the same wormy six-year-old in the front row jumping out of his seat and his skin to answer (and get a closer look at) every piece presented.  I wasn’t sure why being able to identify a specific type of action on a foreign firearm was important to being able to safely kill a deer, but given that I don’t plan to kill a deer, it’s not a problem I had to solve.  The best scenario I could imagine was something like this: I’m walking through the forest in the off-season.  The Bad Guys here are engaging in some poaching-type activity (by rote, see, since it’s the off-season), and I’m going to be Rambo, or the Terminator, or better, Ellen Ripley.  So the bad poacher empties his load into the woods, and I have to somersault, caterwauling off a tree branch and landing with a foot to his head in a go-to-jail blow to his consciousness.  Now, I can’t do this unless I know what his hands are up to during the re-chambering process, which I’ll only know if I can identify the action on his gun,  So it may not help me with the deer hunting I’ll never do, but my good Samaritan side has to know this stuff.  Fine by me.  I’ll learn it with the six-year-old, but without his enthusiasm.  Unfortunately, none of the firearms on display are poison dart guns, so this kid keeps at it.

This, as it happens, is how every night’s first half of time is killed.  There’s a different spread of weapons presented every day, and it’s not unlike spending a week with a professional chef and ingredients of your fridge; god knows how he thought to spice things up using the same hunk of moldy cheddar that’s been in there for six months, but it’s different every day, and by the end of the week, I know what to look for to spot a bolt or a pump, and my visions of saving the world from evil poachers now involve a full gymnastic swing on the tree branch followed by a full-twisting dismount before delivering the knockout kick (identifying the action so effortlessly buys me the time for such physical ostentacity).

The second half of each evening’s class is Movie Time.  If you took a driver’s education class in the US in the 1980s or 1990s, you likely were subjected to one of life’s most sadistic of cinematic experiences.  The firearms safety analogue isn’t much different.  In one example, a pair of adolescent pals (boys, of course) enters the woods to shoot cans with their father’s rifle, which they’ve of course appropriated without his knowledge.  We all know how it ends (and for those who don’t, one kid never returns from the woods Unleaded, as it were.  Never.), but we, Eric’s class, are meant to shout out at will the behavior that gets them into trouble:  they should never travel into the woods without adults knowing what they’re doing!  When walking through the woods, the carrier should always keep the Muzzle Controlled!  One shouldn’t have his finger (yes, his) inside the trigger guard, until ready to fire!  Just Say No (rather, if one is not comfortable with one’s situation, graceful backing down can be done (without feelings of emasculation))!    Just because it sounds like a turkey, it doesn’t mean it is a turkey!

The next night, a different movie but the same:  One shouldn’t drink beer while hunting!  One should respect a property owner’s “posted” signs!  One shouldn’t go hunting in a group so large that one cannot possibly maintain a line-of-sight on a target without also being within line-of-sight of fellow hunters (the Cheney problem?)  Ad ridiculaneum!

We suffer through a week of this, and it’s a week whose daily trips to the class are immediately followed by trips to the warmly obliterative bar, and you only have to make it from Monday to Friday for a state-sanctioned test to be administered, and for the entire ordeal to be behind you for life.  And, as is wont to happen, Friday does come, eventually.  And with it, test day.

The test, we’re told, is multiple choice.

The innately, almost uncannily adept test-taker in me, at this news, knows that this will be about as challenging as operating a new toothbrush.  But the subsequent enumeration resulted in what was hopefully not too audible of a wince:

“I’m going to administer this test a little different than what you’re used to.  I’m not going to be biased against those who don’t do well in testing situations.  Or those who can’t read.  There are a hundred questions on the test, and a hundred of you.  Now, we’re going to go around the circle, row by row.  I’ll read the questions and possible answers, and when it’s your turn, you tell me the answer.  And if you’re wrong, the class will correct you.  We’ll do this together, as a team.  That’s how hunting is done safely: when the group works together.  Do you understand?”

A sample question (recalled, admittedly, from memory, and maybe ever-so-slightly exaggerated for the sake of anecdote): “Your gun is jammed up and you’re not sure why.  Do you: A) first open the action to see if a cartridge dislodges, B) Shake it, or C) look down the barrel?”

And on it went, snaking through the rows amongst the literate and the not-so-literate.  On the rare occasion an incorrect answer was supplied, the group collectively groaned in the Amateur Night at the Apollo style, prompting immediate corrections until, as predicted, every last person in the room had one hundred correctly placed circles on one hundred choice answers.  And with that, we were told to keep our exam papers for future reference.  Participants under the voting age were given one final task: to deliver themselves to the local rock quarry the next morning and prove themselves capable of safely shooting a .22 caliber rifle without forgetting The Name of the Game.  Those of us who’d seen a few election cycles were promptly plied with Certificates of Completion and sent on our respective ways.  Bumper stickers were not distributed along with Certificates, a final blow.

Re-entering the world as license-ready hunters and huntresses, it was hard to miss the sight of the garbage can just teeming over with freshly discarded exam papers.  “Future reference” as exhibited here would have to be had in the continued hosanna for Muzzle Control.  But when Wild Boca season comes around, I’ll be ready.

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Miette Elm purrs through the world’s finest works of short fiction as creator and host of Miette’s Bedtime Story Podcast (www.miettecast.com). With a distinctive lilt whose origins are best described as the result of continental drift, Miette began narrating books as a way to get under the hood of great writing to see how it’s made.

Sometimes, she’s also a writer.

 

2010 in review

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The stats helper monkeys at WordPress.com mulled over how this blog did in 2010, and here’s a high level summary of its overall blog health:

Healthy blog!

The Blog-Health-o-Meter™ reads Fresher than ever.

Crunchy numbers

Featured image

A helper monkey made this abstract painting, inspired by your stats.

A Boeing 747-400 passenger jet can hold 416 passengers. This blog was viewed about 1,600 times in 2010. That’s about 4 full 747s.

 

In 2010, there were 9 new posts, not bad for the first year! There were 3 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 135kb.

The busiest day of the year was July 30th with 148 views. The most popular post that day was What is “Supposedly Fun Things…”?.

Where did they come from?

The top referring sites in 2010 were thehowlingfantods.com, facebook.com, letterstodfw.wordpress.com, mail.yahoo.com, and mail.live.com.

Some visitors came searching, mostly for disneyland tickets, supposedly fun things, old disneyland tickets, disneyland ride tickets, and disneyland coupon book.

Attractions in 2010

These are the posts and pages that got the most views in 2010.

1

What is “Supposedly Fun Things…”? June 2010

2

The Man is Everywhere: I Was a Disneyland Grad Nite Chaperone June 2010

3

Encounters at the End of Main Street July 2010

4

A Morning with the Bi-Polar Monkey Puppets: Some Thoughts on Nostalgia and Family July 2010
2 comments

5

No Matter Where you Go, There You Are August 2010
1 comment

Becoming Something Joined To or Connected With Chicago’s City Colleges, A Process That Goes On For What Seems Like A Sidereal Day

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by Diego Baez

Getting used to speaking frankly with a roomful of dark-skinned students about Standard Written English and the conspicuous disadvantages of growing up with dark skin in the inner cities of the world’s wealthiest English-speaking nation proved way more taxing than asking them to stop droppin’ their gs from the ends of words like speaking and getting. It helps to at least be brown. Which is part of the reason I found myself in New Jersey in the first place.

I moved East to pursue what faculty advisers assured me was a terminal degree, and started teaching at Sussex County College the same year. A friend and peer in my MFA program recommended me to the Chair of Humanities at Sussex, an intimidating Brazilian man with a title bound by impressive honorifics and crazy diacritics, who hired me to teach English at the sub-100 level. (These are classes taught by people who expect to be called Professor but possess only a BA in English or an MA at best, and are in many cases much, much younger than some of the students themselves.) Remedial English courses at SCC service large populations of black and Portuguese-speaking students (and I hesitate not to hyphenate black, because variations of BVE are more commonly spoken and a greater language barrier in class than your standard learners of ESL), students whose secondary educations in no way prepared them for the demands of academic inquiry.

 Plus trying to convince students who tag “Find the Tools You Need to Succeed at Sussex” banners on campus with slogans meant to imply various configurations of sexual congress that, while job interviewers and future employers expect correct punctuation, close attention to language is valuable for reasons beyond the strictly utilitarian. That they not only need these skills (for which they’ve paid me indirectly through the school’s system of bureaucratic disbursement) to get a job and make money, but should want to learn how to use language to express themselves fully as US and world citizens in ways other people will recognize. This rhetoric breaks down the nearer you orbit the ellipsoidal center of any Humanities Department, as administrative duties and fiduciary matters accrete persuasive  mass. For these and other reasons convincing especially to Deans and Chancellors, curricula at SCC gear more toward vocational, and very seldom liberal, educations. I hadn’t realized SCC was typical in this respect, if only because I didn’t understand the model.

 Turns out that 9 out of 10 community college educations are strictly vocational, and SCC was no exception. So I was expected to provide a kind of education I did not myself receive. My first entree into the professional sphere was far more poorly determined. (I graduated from a small school in downstate Illinois with a strong liberal arts emphasis and former Methodist affiliation. Dual degrees in ENG and ECON got me a job writing copy for Lynch Hangam & Sway, a Web design agency in far, far west Chicagoland. [As the agency’s Online Marketing Manager I managed the marketing needs of big-name clients like Kids Inc. and State Farm Insurance. I worked mostly with acronyms. Email and SEM, SEO plus basic HTML. Lots of absentminded QWERTY contemplation. My own corner office plus full name and OMM on a sign for reserved parking. The kind of workplace people dream of or see only in movies.] This was of course before I went back to school to start teaching. Which in retrospect means I left an incredibly low-stress, rather well-paying albeit not always rewarding 9 to 5 for a stipend and $500/credit hour, and tried to survive in one of the most expensive cities in the continental US.) I got the job at SCC when an adjunct just abandoned his class. Which sadly isn’t surprising (adjuncts gone AWOL, that is).

 Adjunct professors, by definition, can’t claim the kind of professional affiliation Full or Associate or Assistant professors can. We can’t really claim to profess anything at all. We can, at best, lecture part-time or instruct as an adjunct, i.e., teach to supplement whatever other income’s coming into the family household. Most I’ve found have a spouse and large debt; most of us end up in about the kind of financial straits you’d expect someone employed only every 15 weeks on a contractual basis. Which could make adjunct instruction sound less like part-time employment and more like some exciting, acroamatic world of fluid identities and very few Truths, of which I like to imagine Jean Reno a part, dispensing street-savvy tutelage to a young Natalie Portman at the rate of $500/credit hour. Of course, it’s never so glamorous, or gritty. But when I returned to the Chicagoland environs from which I relocated in the first place, I learned the closed-circuitry of HR departments in higher education the hard way.

 I’d all but signed a contract to teach two courses of what Dick Daley College (yes, the City names even schools after him) calls Developmental or remedial English, exactly the kind of courses I taught in NJ during grad school. But when my interviewers returned from a visit upstairs to clarify some administrative fine print, they informed me that, unfortunately, a new district-wide policy prohibited the hiring of applicants with an MFA. So my terminal degree actually prevented me from getting a job for which I’m otherwise qualified.  But of course I didn’t go to grad school expecting to find work.

 At least not at first (i.e., I didn’t expect to get a job right out of grad school and didn’t attend expecting any great increase in future job prospects). But after several revisions of the ol’ CV, plus way too many cold calls and let downs, I landed a gig teaching pre-credit courses at one of Chicago’s City Colleges.

 Part of the City Colleges’ hiring process includes a daylong orientation in different classrooms with identical desks and all the newly hired faculty kind of squeezing into the undersized seats, trying their best to look pleasant. C. 8:00 a.m. we meet with full-time faculty from our respective Departments to discuss departmental procedures, expectations, etc. Everyone in my cohort clutches white styrofoam cups with DD in orange and pink on their sides, the cups’. Dunkin’ Donuts is inexplicably popular here. Likewise misplaced apostrophes and a burger chain called Steak ‘n Shake (which extends only so far east as PA, I understand). No Wawas anywhere.

 The Chair of the Department of Communications Media and Theatrical Arts, of which pre-credit courses are inexplicably part, explains the school’s SOP when students show up late or upset or potentially armed. All of us adjuncts pretend to smile but manage at best only weak bruxist winces. Lots of covert expulsion of bodily gasses. Early AM light blasts the cinder block walls painted a pale shade of beige. An oddly aromatic, citrusy BO, also. The lot of us yawn asynchronously, but not from weariness or boredom. The Chair reviews basically verbatim the Adjunct’s Handbook and directs us to complete a “brief” online survey, before adjourning nearly four and one half hours later, for lunch.

 DD-induced tachycardia buzzes everyone through lunch (an Amerikaans feest at one of Uptown’s finest Ghanian grilles), except now everyone’s sleepy from yekeyeke or kelewele and the better part of a day’s worth of orientation and lectures. We have one last session entitled “Administrative Policies And Governing Practices of Administrative Governance, & You”, according to the half-page handout I have to read twice to believe. Why they’d reserve the driest and most hypnogogic talks until the lot of us are just about asleep anyway escapes me.

 The panel on APAGPAG do their best to make eye contact and keep our interest, but most of it’s midlevel admins reiterating info I thought we’d acquired during the web-based survey we were supposed to have already completed. No one seems to acknowledge this. The Dean of Instruction, a portly black man with no neck and a navy blue Bears tie that secures head to torso, has the same Ontarian accent (via S. Minnesota) as Vince Vaughn. It’s uncanny. The Dean sounds just like Match from Back to the Future as he introduces the school’s top IT guy, Mr. Vernon MacDonald. Whereas everyone else sort of slinks up in front and tries to breeze through their speech, Mr. MacDonald wheels out an A/V cart with overlarge IBM laptop from c. Bush Sr.’s presidency plus overhead projector. He flashes a grin unmistakably coprophagous. He’s in a tight-fitting button-down a denim shade of blue and fast approaching gerontological discounts on things like bus fare and movies. He unspools the cart’s power cord and plugs in the computer. He introduces himself as “Vern”. Apparently the Dean of Instruction doesn’t know Vern very well.

 Vern boots up the CPU and lets the projector’s lamp burn as he delivers verbally info that was, again, already reviewed in this morning’s brief online slideshow. It occurs to me that maybe nobody else actually completed that portion of this morning’s activities per our instruction. The projector’s beam catches mostly the blank square of screen in the middle of the room’s largest wall, but also illumines one half of The Dean’s raisinette face, contorted in the halogen beam. The Dean raises a hand and squints in the direction of Vern, who’s got his back to the panel and squats down in front of the AV cart’s power supply. Vern has the kind of male pattern baldness you see a lot of in certain Chicagoland regions with high concentrations of Orthodox Jews. Skokie, IL, e.g.

 The CPU and projector exchange information and project a digital copy of the school’s approved logo. The school’s full name materializes in a low-res resolve to the tune of some midi track probably pre-bundled with Vern’s PC’s HD. It becomes immediately apparent that Vern’s PowerPoint is the kind with corny sound fx and animated Clip Art that HS teachers tell you absolutely to avoid. None of the admins even blink. They’ve seen this before, probably already a couple times today. Sounds best described as ZIP! and PING! in cartoon italics emphasize the movement of poorly clipped bitmaps. The backgrounds change with every slide. Newly hired adjuncts to my left and right try their best to look not disinterested. The whole spectacle is immaculate. I’m two rows behind Vern and can see pink (the presentation) on the laptop’s LCD screen, but like lavender on the overhead. Likewise, the oranges look yellow, the reds rather orange, the whole color wheel’s off by a radial. Vern delivers a speech so well rehearsed, he uses no notes, nor even a glance at his own presentation. Which maybe explains his oblivious presentation of the speech.

 “Your syllabus must contain the word syllabus.” Vern projects enlarged PDF versions of course documents onto the screen, schedules and sample syllabi, copies of which we in the audience possess. I notice several misspellings and syntactical errors, things you’d expect people asked to supply sample schedules and syllabi to correct. Vern reviews alternatives to the most common file formats, and pronounces every letter of the acronym by which most people refer to Graphics Interchange Format. I can’t tell whether he does so for our sake, or says it like that on the regular. The sloppy sample syllabi give me both hope, and pause. Hope, because even experienced instructors lapse from time to time, and so maybe the Chair will exercise some administrative leniency when it comes time for my own personal one-on-one observation. And pause, for exactly those reasons.

 “Because you haven’t lifted the curtain yet,” Vern says, referring metaphorically to restricted files. An animated curtain accompanies the long-voweled sound of canned audience reaction. He’s obviously put a lot of work into this. I don’t know whether to feel offended because it feels like Vern here treats us like children or superior because Vern’s earnest explanations strike me as too step-by-step and simple, which means my employer’s veteran IT expert is less an expert on information technology than one of their novitiate employees, and really, then, the more childlike. Superfluous lags the veteran onstage, or something.

 E.g., Vern goes out of his way to explain a red asterisk that signifies a required field. This is info I take for granted as obvious. (I learned at Lynch Hangam that basic to your standard free-answer web form are fields which require completion and a few bits of code that check to make sure that every required field has a value. The coders and programmers and even design guys were real helpful in getting me used to the unfamiliar environs of LH&S. [The “Lynch” of Lynch Hangam refers to my mother’s youngest brother, a late ‘70s graduate of an East Coast Art School, VP and co-founder of one of the Web’s very first start-ups, dedicated Apple customer (post-Jobs and con Jobs), one titular third of Lynch Hangam & Sway, and my first full-time employer. Also my landlord plus housemate, but more on that later.] I ended up learning more at LH&S about the tech sector and business in general than from any of my undergrad ECON classes.) I don’t know how much any of my fellow new faculty hires learn from Vern’s presentation.

 The cart’s Harmon Kardon speakers make the obnoxious Microsoft sound for what Dave Wallace would’ve called a Windows boner. Not because Vern’s clicked something incorrectly or entered a bogus command; this is part of his PowerPoint simulation of a program called GreenSlate, something part- and full-time instructors alike use to facilitate online learning. One of GreenSlate’s more user-friendly functions is the ability to post documents for student consumption. It looks as though Vern has assembled screenshots from like fifteen discrete steps in the process and created a slide for each step. The demonstrative screenshots vary imperceptibly from slide to slide, since it’s mostly just menu and item selection, but the backgrounds change every time. Maybe he’s an IT expert after all: he’s managed to make a web tool for teaching remarkably more tedious. Plus, since he apparently prefers PCs to Apple, Vern must’ve learned how to operate the Print Screen function that has so far eluded my computational comprehension. So kudos to him.

 Nine or ten slides into the GreenSlate portion of Vern’s presentation, an Asian instructor (that is, an instructor who looks Asian or Asian-American; I have no idea what he teaches) cuts Vern off mid-sentence to correct something he’s said about something I surprise myself by not possessing the capacity to care less about. The sudden outburst startles one of the senescent instructors, about 3/4 of his way to REM sleep in front of me. The Asian man is mad gesticulative and doesn’t seem to hear a single thing Vern says. The Asian instructor’s English isn’t great, and I can’t say I understand what the fuss is about. Vern exhibits visible difficulty trying his best not to condescend. Nobody intervenes, which I think is weird. The spat ends with the men exchanging the ocular equivalent of mutual mephitic feelings.

 I scribble furiously in the margins of my orientation materials. I feel increasingly more decidedly pissed about being forced to sit through this old school IT guy’s shitty PowerPoint slideshow. It’s so shitty and old-school because the City Colleges don’t pay shit -can’t afford to pay- for some young tech guru fresh out of undergrad. The talented information technologists all gravitate to high-paying mobile programming positions in the private sector. Lucky ones find work in California or government. The luckiest end up in business for themselves. (My uncle started Lynch Hangem & Sway with a couple buddies from art school before the Web was even anything. The Internet had been around for decades however, and LH&S foresaw its emergent utility [literally; like electricity or cell service, something people need to use]. But what began as a small-scale operation in an office the size of a broom closet became a highly sought-after design boutique with offices on three coasts, 30+ employees and a five-story imitation Spanish hacienda on land the size of a small Baltic state. [After college I moved into the basement, or “Z Wing” of Casa Linchamiento, and in so doing avoided the old tech sector cliché of living in my mother’s basement {by moving into my mother’s brother’s}.])

 The words aye carumba pop up beside an unlicensed image of M. Groening’s B. Simpson.

One of the more vocal adjuncts interrupts Vern to open the floor to debate over preferred file formats. Proponents of Portable Document Format propound the deficiencies of Microsoft Documents. The availability of Acrobat’s Reader arises as an issue. The debate consists really of maybe two or three people speaking solely to themselves. There’s no clear consensus as to what exactly works best. Vern gets kind of excited and accidentally kicks the projector’s power cord’s plug from the cart’s power strip’s socket, killing the image overhead. Everyone acts at least mildly amused and Vern hams it up with a “whoops”. And this so clearly excites him, the audience and attention. I can’t imagine what it must be like when full- and part-time instructors invite Vern to deliver mid-semester time-consuming in-class demonstrations to hordes of disinterested undergrads, mostly young people light years beyond Vern’s IT expertise. It’s gotta be nice, or at least preferable, to present to a room of people conscientious enough to ignore, and even silence, their cell phones.

 Even so, I have to believe most of us in attendance today must feel a little foolish; here we are hired by people who trust us with the next generation’s educations, but don’t trust us to upload an image or access the school’s intranet. Or maybe the Chancellor and Deans really value their adjuncts, and so risk insulting our technological savvy in order to ensure everyone’s on the same page. Either way, it seems like they expect us to pay attention to someone who thinks he knows what he’s talking about, but doesn’t.

 And this is what it must be like: to listen to someone who thinks he’s a writer try to convince you that reading and writing are even worthwhile. I’ve not thought about my own classes this way, what I look like up there, careening around and scribbling notes on the board, speaking too quickly, trying my best to entertain their attention and also maybe teach something. Like deliver a lecture on sentence construction, direct class discussion, or attempt repeatedly to explain that grammar and spelling aren’t just boring sets of pre- and proscriptions, but systems of units that possess the ideas of action. That words can mean something. That I think it’s interesting that entertain means “to hold within,” and educate “to lead out.” That teaching is a contradiction. That I mean to inspire but not to blow smoke up their asses. To catch them before they choose to devote themselves to one thing in particular. I realize I’ve been unselfconsciously recording the room’s idiosyncrasies and now see this story emerge. Which means maybe Vern managed to make something mundane just interesting, despite his best efforts. That perhaps Vern’s presentation wasn’t so mundane in the first place.

 And Vern kicks the cord out again.

 I glance over at two new English hires I recognize from this morning’s departmental orientation. A woman who introduced herself as Julie from Boston looks really attentive and makes tiny affirmative nods, but doesn’t take notes and exhibits a sartorial savvy absent from everyone else in the room, yours truly of course excluded. A guy named Garry but who pronounced it like Gary explained earlier it’s a Gaelic thing. He sits and looks like he thinks about nothing, and does so very convincingly.

 The Asian man, who I hope to God teaches science or math, keeps speaking out about students’ persistent disinterest and lack of initiative and just general overall dereliction, without really any regard for students’ respective life situations, at which point the Vince Vaughn imitator interrupts and goes out of his way to reiterate the school’s stated concern for the unique situations and lives of its students. I imagine the Asian mathematician getting kicked out of some prestigious East Coast school for wildly inappropriate conduct. But then, that’s not fair.

 I realize the cheesy sfx ended maybe five slides ago, and that it’s not Vince Vaughn at all, but Billy Zane in Back to the Future.

 Vern ends his slideshow with vintage end titles and a flickering fin. He solicits a few questions and I realize just how many of the new hires speak ESL. Non-rhotic accents and non-standard emphases betray Southeast Asian and West African origins. Also, the weird tangy smell that sometimes accompanies a meeting of anxious people seems to have stuck around. Vern answers most of the Qs during the Q&A with crossed arms and variations on a theme of unawares. The room awakens, everyone stirs at least slightly. Way back in the back, a man in the northeast corner of the room sports an eye patch without any observable irony. He’s seated at the end of both his row and his column, with the patch facing the room. He’s the only thing touched by the last natural light. Overhead fluorescents relight the room and absorb the man and his patch from the light low and orange in early autumn’s evening.

_________________________________________________

Diego Baez is way busier than he thought he’d be.  He considers hip-hop mobsters at readrapright.tumblr.com.

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