It's half-way through the school year, and I am burnt to a crisp. Charcoal. I've got three days to get my grades done and rise from the ashes anew. Unfortunately, I'm not feeling all that phoenix-like at the moment.

I still have the cold from hell, and I'm still reeling from the nasty and mean-spirited comments one of my students wrote to me about journalism class. I like constructive criticism, and some of the things he didn't like are things I totally agree with, but many others are just wrong, like his indignation and anger over the fact that I won't let them use photos from the internet in the school paper unless they get permission from the photographer. Even then, I strongly discourage it because they aren't print quality, and because it doesn't encourage the same creativity as taking our own photos does.

He was in journalism last year with a different teacher, and he wants it to be like his old class. Only problem is that the paper has been just totally awful in almost every way for the last several years. It did come out more often, but that's about all that can be said of it. The students thought it was horrendous and made fun of it, and the staff felt it was an embarrassment. It was because of this that I was allowed to take over the class.

All this nastiness came from a student I've had in other classes, liked and been nice to, so it felt like a real kick in the teeth. I know the class needs more structure and stricter deadlines, and I'm still in the first stages of learning how to teach it, but man, that smarts!


Day four, in which we emerge from the fog

At approximately two-thirty in the morning, as I was finally deep in slumber, a demon rose from the bowels of hell and, taking the form of a dog, began to bark somewhere out there in the darkness. After about twenty minutes, just enough time to make sure I was thoroughly awake, he slunk back into the night and all was silent.

This morning I put feet on the floor, hefted my bulk to an upright position and staggered through a drugged haze to feed the dogs and get ready to face school where I must give two final exams. The song I found going through my head was an old classic, but unfortunately, I only remembered the first three lines, so the loop was short.

"Great green globs of greasy grimy gopher guts,
mutilated monkey meat,
french-fried flamingo feet..."

It was time to take a bath. As I relaxed into warm bubbly water and felt the crusted gunk start to melt away…the puppy whined to be let in. She had finished digging in the dirt and she really, really needed to come in just at that very moment. And when the whining didn't work, she tried out her new grown-up dog bark. BARK BARK BARK. Oh, hey, that was fun!

Time to get out of the bath.

It's almost seven a.m. and I have assumed human form, or as close as I'm going to get this morning. Pity my students.


the yuck report

Update from the land of gunk. My head feels like an ache-soaked sponge, there are huge cosmic thumbs pressing on my eyes and my face is pinched into a sour pucker of self pity. I'm fighting a strong urge to snarl and whine simultaneously. My bed looks like it is covered in flower petals, but on closer inspection sodden kleenexes have been flung randomly around the room. Extra-Strength Wretchedness has descended upon me. Strong drugs have been taken with no discernible results. This is the Superbowl Champion of colds.

Just now, in the middle of writing this, the phone rang. It was a tele-marketer mangling my name. My usual response is a terse-yet-polite request to put me on their do-not-call list. But today I paused—then let out a terrifying snot-inflected shriek and hung up.

And then I realized it was probably my doctor's office, calling to remind me that I have an appointment tomorrow...


germs uber alles

Those icky germs I mentioned in a previous entry, the one where the student showed up in my class in his pajamas and slippers, carrying kleenex, and his GERMS? Yup, got 'em. Thanks kid, thanks very very much you little &*%$#. Can you tell I'm in the 'mucous 'n' misery stage? It's a chest thing at the moment, with the cough option thrown in at no extra charge. And did I mention CRANKY?

Mrs. Beasley seems to understand. She did something she rarely does: curled up with me and took a nap. She prefers to be completely under the covers, and with her rhythmic breathing and warmth, it was like having a stuffed animal/hot water bottle combo to sleep with.

Unfortunately, puppy does NOT understand, and kept waking me up to be let out. In. Out. In. And then she needed to play. Really, really play play play play play. I called her little schnauzer friend, Oscar, but got his machine. It's a sad day indeed when you get a dog's answering machine.

I should be thinking about the finals I'm supposed to be giving. No, I should be doing more than thinking about them. All I want is fresh orange juice and sleep. Is that too much to ask? Apparently. Woof.


basic training

Bosco, the nine-month-old bulldog/boxer/pitbull/who-the-hell-knows puppy has a new game. It's compulsory. It's not enough now to give her a rawhide bone. No, I have to torment her with it, pass it right under her nose, dangle it just out of reach, tickle her whiskers with it, tuck it under her collar so that she has to gyrate like Houdini to shake it loose, drum on her fat little rump with it, pretend to eat it myself with great relish, and finally, throw it out the window so that she has to run through the house and garage, out into the yard to get it. Every day she adds another step in the tantalization process.

My punishment for not doing at least this much is that she puts it down, looks at me with those imploring puppy eyes and whines. My training is going quite well.


never a dull...

Internally cringing as I rushed to my Thursday morning office hours, I knew that in a mere half an hour I would face the class I've come to think of as the primate house at the zoo. What else would you call being locked in a room for an hour-and-a-half with twenty-five high octane boys between the ages of sixteen and eighteen? Squirrel cage describes the energy, but doesn't take into account the hormonal ozone or the sheer body mass involved. And did you fully grasp the fact that there is not one girl in this class?

Just as I got to my room, one of my little monkeys arrived, and something seemed to be going on with his feet, which had become huge and yellow, like giant marshmallow chickens, but no...they were slippers...in the form of.... Homer Simpson's head. And immediately after this revelation, came another equally alarming one. He was still in his pajamas. He was wearing the requisite backpack, which looked thoroughly ridiculous over his pajamas, and carrying a kleenex box decorated in moons and stars. Seems he's sick, you see, but he arose from his sick bed to rush in and finish the video project due tomorrow, and to pass along his icky little germs to all of us so that we can all come to school wearing PJs and Homer Simpson slippers.

More monkeys flooded into the room, flinging backpacks hither and thither, scratching themselves and making noises. With their usual foresight and planning, they had all figured on being able to use one of our three cameras today, because certainly the other twenty-one boys would have finished their videos by now. So naturally, since every last one of them had waited until the very last minute, a certain amount of squabbling and squalking had to happen, followed by whining and other variations on audible self-pity.

Mr. PJs seemed to be making a video starring several stuffed animals, behaving in ways I didn't want to imagine. I'm hoping he edits those parts out so I don't have to deal with it.

One student announced triumphantly that he had finished his video, and I went to have a look. He had managed to create a video totally lacking in plot, people and premise, the three required elements. It was just shots of a pool table, and some unseen person playing rather badly. The end. We had a gentle little talk about story-telling.

I'm not good at this. To paraphrase Scotty from a long-ago Star Trek, 'Dammit, Jim, I'm a doctor, not a zoo keeper!'


keepin' it real

Every Wednesday and Thursday, instead of having every class for an hour, we have half our classes, and each one lasts for ninety-five minutes. Depending on the class, this is either heaven or hell. There is no middle ground.

Today I had Journalism class, and even though I was wildly busy trying to keep track of what twenty different teens were doing, I really enjoyed it, because they're great kids, smart and funny and full of themselves.

Here's real dialog from today's class:

Teacher: "What are you doing?"
Student: " Keepin' it real! What are YOU doin'?

Teacher: (To a different student) "Why did you suddenly run from the room when we started reading your article out loud?"
Student: ".Uhhhh...(eyes flit side-to-side).....Uh, because I left the oven on?"

Then we decided that the front page should have a group photo of all the boys in the class, to go with an article titled, 'Guys,' so off they went with the digital camera, and instructions to take several photos, so if eyes were closed or expressions were goofy, we could fix them in photoshop.

We downloaded the seven photos and looked them over. It took two or three before they figured out that the really tall guy should probably stand in back. One boy looked totally asleep in all seven shots, which I could comment on here, but I'd better not.

So I was sitting around with several of the kids, looking through the photos, and someone noticed how one of the boys had unconsciously clasped his hands at crotch level, like he was protecting himself. And we all looked, and there was this silence, ...as we all saw at the same time, that EVERY boy was doing some unconscious variation of the same gesture. In every photo.

I can just hear it now: "Hi honey, what did you learn in school today?"


Long day, long life, long blog

My self-appointed alarm dog, Bunny Shmenkleman, got us all up at six a.m. as usual, pounding her tail against the wall with joy to announce breakfast time. And I began the day by yelling at her, as usual.

But even though it was Sunday, instead of going back to sleep as soon as they were fed and given pacifying rawhide chews, I got up and loaded us all in the car to make the two-hour trek up to San Francisco for a one-day outing.

The occasion was that my old friend, Norman, was in town with his seven-year-old son, Max. I met Norman when I lived in Brickbottom, an amazing artist's building in Boston, for eight years back in the mid-eighties to early nineties.

Brickbottom was an old A&P warehouse complex that artists had developed into 300 condo units of raw loft space. It was heaven on many counts. Great people, great spaces, just the right balance of privacy and community and underground heated parking.

We had a massive open studio and sale every year, but what really set us apart from other artist's buildings was our annual clean up day called the Ladybird Brickbottom Beautification Trash Round-up and Scrumptilliumptious BBQ. Every year we added a word to the title. The city brought garbage bags and we fanned out to clean up the industrial streets surrounding us. Afterwards we had a potluck dinner in our garden/courtyard and awarded silly prized for the most trash collected, most enthusiastic, best found object, best costume. Then, in dramatic culmination, a new trash queen (the title remained the same for either a male or female sovereign) was crowned by the previous year's queen, who was required to provide a custom-made crown for their successor. Being artists, there were some doozies over the years. Some outgoing queens, not content with mere crowns, also threw in hand-crafted scepters and once, a long cape with a train dragging behind, made of clear vinyl in which was embedded various bits of particularly lovely trash, artistically arranged.

One trash queen was especially memorable. He is a character among characters, a man who lives in a perennial Masterpiece Theater set of his own making, a man trapped in the wrong century, the wrong country, who bears it with grace and panache and a monumental sense of style. Being elected Trash Queen the previous year, he took his duties quite seriously, and showed up dressed in a military outfit that looked like he must certainly have nicked it directly from Tsar Nicholas's dry cleaners. White coat with gold epaulettes and buttons, white cap with a black visor and a white square of fabric attached at the back to keep the wearer's neck from the sun while reviewing the troupes. Suitable boots of the same vintage, riding crop, dress gloves. He was magnificent!

Striding into the courtyard, where several people were busy pulling weeds, he set up his gramophone, yes, really, and proceeded to favor us with some music from his collection while he mingled with the peasants, offered encouragement, kind words and advice, occasionally mopping his brow in ever-so-refined a manner with a monogrammed handkerchief.

Pier Gustafson, for that is the name of this unique individual, is also known as 'The Pen God' for the logical reason that he collects, restores and deals in old fountain pens. He can draw anything. Anything. And his humor is, well, perhaps you should visit his old site and see for yourself. My favorite drawing of his, on the site at least, is to be found here and the stamp he's included for those who scroll down a bit is special indeed.

If you're still with me, you may be wondering what happened to my friend Norman, the man who's been patiently waiting around since my massive digression in the fourth paragraph. He lived just down the hall with his girlfriend Debbie and ran a catering business while she went about the business of being an artist. Norman is a mensch with an edge, really nice and would do anything for you, but blunt and often delightfully outrageous.

In the decade since I moved back to California, Norman and Debbie got married, and at age forty-five, Deb had their son, Max. Today, as we were strolling on the beach watching Max and my dogs play, we got to catch up a bit, and I got to ask about many of the people we knew.

I remembered that Debbie had an amazing grandmother who had been busily planning her ninetieth birthday when I first met her years ago. The grandmother had been born an Italian Jew, and had become a doctor, and maried another doctor. During WWII they fled to Morocco and set up a medical practice out of their house, often treating people in exchange for chickens or other bartered items.

So I asked about the grandmother, assuming she was long dead, and was shocked to learn that she is very much alive. Apparently, she was in a car accident just before her hundredth birthday and suffered a broken neck, but recovered in time to celebrate the birthday. They've had some trouble with her in recent years, because her vanity was so strong that she refused to stop wearing high heels, and fell several times while negotiating stairs. Now she is planning her hundred-and-fifth birthday. She wants to have it in Morocco! I say, "Go for it, Grandma, kick up your (high) heels!"


before sleeping...

Finally finished sorting out over 600 photos I took in the last five days. I hadn't planned it this way, but my vacation in Vancouver turned into a manic photo safari. I just couldn't get enough photos, so every morning I would pick a destination or two that I wanted to see and head out, camera in hand. I must have been starved for creativity. I rarely do my own work, but the impulse has been creeping up on me lately, and it poured forth on this little soujourn.

I walked everywhere for the first couple of days, hours and hours of walking. Finally I began taking busses, as my adventures took me farther and farther outside the downtown area, and the last day I took the skytrain, which is their sexier name for the subway, and a ferry. Some of my favorite photos were taken right from my hotel window, and many at night.

I want to write in more detail, but the typos are coming fast and furious, which is one of many indicators that I should sleep NOW, so I'll have to put off the epic for another time. Meanwhile, I want to post links to the photo fest. Here are the different galleries. There is some overlap, just because...

• My own arty favorites are here

• A better feel for reality resides here, but they're still arty

• Masks from the Anthropology museum here, but I must warn you, many are blurred. They were crammed into musty cases behind full-glare glass in semi-darkness. This is the best I could do, and even this required massive clean-up, removing plastic holders that went in front of chins, glare, etc.

• And just for fun, some shots out the hotel window of lights at night, here.

Time to join three snoring dogs. No, I don't snore. I'm the only one who doesn't.