Haddock Crateful

C.J. Cregg: You guys are like Butch and Sundance peering over the edge of a cliff to the boulder-filled rapids 300 feet below, thinking you better not jump ’cause there’s a chance you might drown. The President has this disease and has been lying about it, and you guys are worried that the polling might make us look bad? It’s the fall that’s gonna kill ya.

The West Wing, “The Fall’s Gonna Kill You” (5/2/01)

NEARLY ICKY IMAGE ALERT: If you’re my brother, don’t look at the end of this post. Maybe wait a few weeks and then come back. For everyone else, be warned that this post is long and rambling and, if I had any smarts, would be more than one post.

So my brother (the one mentioned in the previous paragraph) was recently injured in a fall at work. I told you a little about this a couple of posts ago. The fall wasn’t from a huge height, but it was a complicated one, enough so that Wile E. Coyote would be proud, I think. So, he had a broken pelvis requiring surgery and some interesting shenanigans in the rehab center that I don’t think I’m supposed to talk about.

When he first got hurt, his wife called me to tell me what had happened, and I don’t think she got more than a few sentences out before I started going through checklists in my head outlining what I needed to do in order to get down there. My brother, being pretty wise to how I think, had already issued a strict order for me NOT to come down, since there really wasn’t much I could do anyway. I took him at his word and stayed away, for a few weeks anyway.

As it happened, I’d already arranged for a visit to Beacon College, which is located in Leesburg, Florida. Leesburg is about an hour or so northwest of Orlando and just under two hours’ drive from my brother’s place. So when I set my visit date, I did it with an eye toward making it a long weekend so I could visit my brother.

Let me digress for a minute and talk about Beacon College: it’s a college which, like Landmark College (also mentioned not that long ago), is designed specifically for students with reading difficulties, with ADHD or who are considered to be somewhere on the autism spectrum. Their entire approach to educating students lies in determining how the student learns, how they process information, and then coming up with a plan of action that aims directly at that learning difference. The school itself is composed of several buildings in the downtown Leesburg area, such that you’re not entirely sure where the school ends and the town begins. Anyway, it’s a great school (and, if you’re interested, one of only a couple in the nation–and one of only 23 in the WORLD–with an Anthrozoology program) and worth considering if you suspect you’re smarter than your grades might indicate.

The folks at Beacon were amazing, and the 60-90 minute tour I’d expected turned into three hours of touring and some in-depth chat, and I’m hoping that they can pair up with my high school for some future project.

From there, I headed down to my brother’s place. I gotta say, I was pretty exhausted by this point, because I drove almost straight through from Baltimore to Leesburg, a 14-hour drive under the best of circumstances. I left around 8:30 PM on Tuesday and had no choice really but to stop in a couple of rest areas and do some catnapping (one of those catnaps was nearly three hours, in a gas station parking lot). So by the time I arrived at my hotel on Wednesday, I was pretty tapped out. I managed to get some sleep Wednesday night, but I don’t have the bounce-back skills I used to. I checked into the hotel near my brother’s house, then went to see what he was up to.

We had a happy little reunion, and ordered some takeout food from a place nearby. After dinner was a little more chatter, and he started talking about how he’d like to get out of the house for awhile, if I don’t mind. Hey, anything you want, amigo. We made plans for a couple of potential destinations on Friday, and I was back at the hotel.

Friday morning, I got to his place, and he wanted to visit his place of work. Now, getting him anywhere involves him using a walker to get to the car, and him using a wheelchair to get anywhere else once we arrive. I figure out a way to fit the wheelchair into my trunk, throw the walker into my backseat, and off we go…back to the Scene of the Crime.

Let me tell you something: they really like my brother over there at his place of work. I don’t think I’ve ever been greeted with that level of enthusiasm, anywhere (never mind at my job). He was chit-chatting with people before he even got out of the car. If you check out Frank Hagney's career on IMDB, you'll see that he has many more uncredited roles than credited ones. And in the office and the warehouse, it started to feel sort of like a scene from A Hard Day’s Night. I started to feel a little bit like the guy in It’s a Wonderful Life who does nothing but stand behind Mr. Potter and push his chair around. But it was pretty clear that they wanted him back as soon as possible, even if it was just part-time. My brother, being extra macho and whatnot, opined that he’d like to come back on a full-time basis if possible.

Our other destination was to see the water. That’s all; he just wanted to see the water. So from his workplace we headed down US19, and then a road called Alternate 19, which splits off from the main road in the town of Holiday and runs a little closer to the water. All the way down, we talked about how the area has changed since we were younger. I noted to him that there was a period of time where I’d constantly get lost because so much had changed during the year or so that would pass between visits. That actually happened to me on this visit, because I didn’t know that a road in his town had been completely re-routed to accommodate the expansion of a park.

As we got closer to the town of Tarpon Springs, he suggested that we make the turn down Dodecanese Boulevard, along the Anclote River toward the Sponge Docks. Dodecanese Blvd. is the heart of Tarpon Springs’ tourist industry, and hardly a day goes by that isn’t thronged with people who come to buy natural sponges, eat Greek food or just take a stroll along the docks to see the sponge boats doing their thing. You can even take a sponge-diving tour, where they give you the whole story of how the industry started in the late 1800s, and how the process of harvesting and preparing sponges hasn’t changed substantially since then. In fact, the Sponge Docks area hadn’t changed substantially during most of that time: the first time I visited was as a 12-year-old in 1975, and it was much the same until I was deep into my adulthood. Then along came a storm (I can’t remember which one) which, between the storm itself and the water surging up the riverbanks, pretty much wiped out the entire area. The town got a huge pile of money from the government to re-build, and nearly every building was restored.


Don’t let the nice paint job fool you; that paint may be the only thing keeping the insides of this building inside.

One building survived the storm, and oddly enough it was very close to the river. That building is called Sponge-O-Rama, and it’s the home of a couple of free exhibits that will teach you about the history and heritage of the local Sponge Industry. This comes in two flavors: Flavor One is the movie they show you, that loops around about every fifteen minutes. The film is dated, they’ll concede, but they keep it around because it’s such good documentation of the stuff they do. This film looked old in 1973 and it’s not looking much better, having been transferred from film to video tape and now to DVD from the video, so you’re treated to scanning errors and color bleeding. From there it’s on to the Sponge Museum, which is a labyrinth of poorly-lit full-size dioramas set behind plexiglass that’s so old, it’s started to fog up and is harder to see through every year. This area looks exactly the same way it did in 1973, and I’m pretty sure that the only thing keeping this part of the building together is the termites holding hands. And yet…it’s so goddamn charming that I can’t not go there when I’m in town. Except this time, of course, because my brother can’t get out of the car without a hassle and this was just a side trip, anyway. So after a pass through the area in each direction, we returned to Alternate 19 and continued down another couple of miles to the Honeymoon Island Causeway. We drove down the causeway, taking our time, until we got to the point where, in order to proceed, we’d have to pay a toll. Well, once again getting out of the car and into the sand wasn’t on the agenda, so I turned the car around and cruised back up the causeway. At one point I found a break in the railings and took my car down to the beach itself (about where the arrow is in the picture above), where I backed up against the rail and we sat there, chitchatting and watching the water. After awhile we headed back up the road (waiting for a sailboat to come through the drawbridge) and hit the local supermarket to get stuff for me to make dinner. He’d found a recipe in Food Network Magazine he was hot to try, but since he couldn’t stand up long enough to cook, we figured I could do the cooking and he could help with prep. (Go to the link; it’s good stuff!)

So while he was up and getting ready to cut up some peppers, he said to me, “Hey, wanna see the scar?” I, being no fool, said certainly. He told me that he hadn’t even seen it because he figured it’d make him woozy. So if you’re my brother, don’t look! Here it comes!

That's his right hip you're looking at.

Oh, and here’s some good news: he’s making his return to work, part-time, today! Go get ’em, man! They’re eager to have you back!

Too Cool School

Sue Heck: We have to do something to help. I gave up my trip, so they don’t have to pay for it. And you guys better start thinking of ways we can save money, too.
Axl Heck: No way! It’s their fault. They don’t know how to budget. They should’ve stopped having kids after me. You guys are the real money drain with your braces and your special school.
Brick Heck: I don’t go to a special school.
Axl Heck: You don’t?

The Middle, “The Hose” (10/17/12)

This week I made a visit to a college in Vermont. Not for the benefit of Daughter, who is long-graduated, or Wee One, who’s already been accepted to a school in Pennsylvania, but for the benefit of my students.

Specifically, I was invited to visit Landmark College in the town of Putney, VT for their Professional Visit Days. Landmark isn’t just any college, oh no. Landmark is a school entirely geared toward students with learning differences, including reading difficulties, ADHD, and even students who fall on the autism spectrum. Most of the students who attend there have flunked out of some other school, because that school didn’t really have a handle on their learning style. So in a way, it’s a college version of the high school I’m working in, with the overage and under-credited kids. And even with the disproportionate number of Special Education students, although they’re at 100% where we’re more like 30%.

Landmark bills themselves as “The college of choice for students who learn differently,” and everything they do is geared toward that fact. The first thing they do with students is try to figure out what that difference is, what their learning style is, how their minds work. They put a lot of neuroscience research into this, and have come up with their working definition of Executive Function (short version: it’s how your brain controls all of your processes), which they use to help the students plan a means of approaching their education. And one of the first things they do is focus on the student’s STRENGTHS rather than their deficits. So, for example, if a student has a low processing speed, that’s reframed as the student working deliberately and taking their time to get the right answer. (I usually tell them, “you’re not fast, but you’re accurate” which is a step in the right direction, I think.)

At any rate, Landmark has a very low staff-to-student ratio, and a class of 15 is considered to be pretty big. There’s an emphasis on coaching the students without constantly holding their hands (they’re still responsible for college-level work, after all), and on Universal Design in Learning, something which I’ve argued for for a long time, and frequently gotten pushback over (“If you’re accommodating everybody, then you’re accommodating nobody!”, which is crap). And while they’re not on the cutting edge from a technology standpoint, they do have a very good handle on what works with their students and what doesn’t.

Props to Craig Froehle for this image
This illustrates it well, except that it assumes that the problem is with the people, when in fact it’s also a matter of the terrain they’re standing on that’s providing hassles. Also there’s a fence, and maybe that should be removed altogether. I dunno, something’s vaguely wrong with the metaphor here, but in the end I do like it, even if I’m overthinking it.

As I noted earlier, Landmark is located in Putney, Vermont, which feels like the middle of nowhere but really isn’t. It’s only a few miles from Brattleboro, and also a stone’s throw from Keene, New Hampshire, where most of the bigger stores are (e.g. Walmart). Many students, despite their age, don’t have transportation of their own, so the school arranges lots of field trips to the movie theater, or over to Keene, or other traveling-based activities. Plus, there are lots of things to do on campus as well. For a school with only about 500 students, there is definitely more than its share of things to do.

One of the revelations I had when visiting this school was the way that the students, almost to the last, all gave me some version of “I knew I had a disability, but I really didn’t know what that meant/how it related to me.” All of them have stories about being given medication, or someone else doing their schoolwork for them, or being excluded from their own IEP meetings. From that standpoint, I have to say that again, we’re ahead of the curve a little bit, since I insist that students attend and participate in their own meetings (there’s not much I can do with truant kids, but if they’re in the building, sure). I have more work to do in this area, to be sure, but it’s good to know that I’m better than most.

Next week I’ll be visiting Beacon College in Leesburg, Florida. That visit won’t be as comprehensive as Landmark, but I still hope I’ll learn a lot and have some exciting stuff to share when I return.


Escape from a Baltimore City School

Homer Simpson: Cure me! Cure me!
Brother Faith: Brother, I sense you are feeling trapped and desperate.
Homer Simpson: Yeeeah… and I gotta bucket on my head.

The Simpsons, “Faith Off” (1/16/2000)


(Note: because I don’t use TypePad’s software to write my posts, it wasn’t until I published this post that I realized I’d written the one below. So you can probably skip the first few paragraphs, since it’s the same story and they’re therefore just preamble.)

You’d think one or the other of us would learn our lesson, but no.

I took this picture while hanging halfway out of my car window while parked catercorner from the building. I nearly got my head knocked off by a truck. When I first joined my current school in August, the office I took over was a consummate mess. Slowly I took on the task of straightening it out and triaging the messes within. I’m still not really done, but the worst of it is gone, I think. However, whipping that office into shape AND doing my regular job meant that I put in a lot of extra time. More often than not, I stayed in the building until someone called over the PA system that the building was closing for the night and we had five minutes to high-tail it out. That usually happened somewhere between 5:30 and 6:00.

One fine evening in October, I was working hard, I was on a roll. At 5:30 I started keeping my ears open but just kept on working till the 5 minute warning came. The problem was…

…it never came. I was so buried in what I was doing that I didn’t have a lot of awareness of time going by. Next time I looked up, it was nearly 7:00. I looked out of my office, through the anteroom and into the hallway, which was dark. I, being ridiculously clever, thought “Ooh, this could be a problem.” Sure enough, I went downstairs and that level was dark as well. I walked over to the alarm panel and sure enough, the system was armed.

Not pictured: a timely arrivalBack up to my office, where I turned my computer back on and looked up the number for the School Police dispatcher. I gave her a call and let her know what happened. She, being the consummate professional, replied, “You what?” She promised to contact a sergeant and get back to me, telling me to stay by the phone.

Sitting by the phone wasn’t really a problem, I reasoned, since I’m in my office. But as time went by and the phone didn’t ring, it suddenly occurred to me that unless the call is coming directly to that phone, it doesn’t ring. The display next to the phone button will flash, but it’s not obvious and the phone itself doesn’t ring unless it’s transferred to my line. I called again and they said someone was on the way. I told them I’d be waiting near the front door.

So I get my stuff and I head downstairs and into the school’s atrium. To get there you have to pass through an open set of double doors. From that point you can go in three directions: to the left is the gym, to the right is the auditorium, and directly in front of you is the front doors. They can close the double doors during an “event” to keep people from wandering around the building. As I step into the atrium I hear a beep. But it’s not just a beep. It’s a long, continuous beeeeeeeeeeeeep kind of beep, the kind that says something’s about to happen. I stepped back over to the alarm panel and sure enough: I’d tripped a motion detector that was in the atrium. Well, that’s it, says I. All hell is about to break loose.

About 90 seconds later I could hear an alarm horn going off, very softly. I thought, Great. I’m disturbing the entire neighborhood with this. However, listening more closely I realized that it was actually playing through the PA system and was quite muted. A few minutes after that, a School Police officer showed up at the door. I let him in and then he re-set the alarm, and we left together.

The next day, I learned that the principal hadn’t heard about what happened, so I told her. She actually thought it was a little bit funny, and even by that point, some twelve hours later, I had to admit that it was kind of funny after all. Later in the day I talked to the custodian who usually closed the building. It turned out that before making the announcement he usually looked into the parking lot to see if there were any cars that weren’t his own out there. Because I’d parked in the street in front of the school and not in the parking lot, he didn’t see my car and therefore he thought I was out of the building.

So a few things happened since that day: first, the custodian paged the building every day to give the five-minute warning, things settled down in the office, and perhaps most importantly, Wife’s father became gravely ill. This really affected my schedule, as I had to get Wee One from school more frequently, and many times I actually left school no more than a half-hour after most of the students do. In the meantime, other teachers were staying later and later, as the Seniors needed to work on projects to get themselves completed with their outstanding school work so that they would get to to all the cool Senior activities like Prom and Overnight Trip and maybe even a little thing called Commencement Exercises. This happened a lot in recent weeks especially because of all the snow days we’ve had this year, which means that time is getting short for them that much faster. Some weeks, the school is even open on Saturday mornings for students who want to come in and work on stuff.

My father-in-law died last week, and I wound up missing several days’ work as a result. Consequently I was a little behind the 8-ball, work-wise. So I’ve been putting in some extra time each day. On Friday afternoon, I pondered coming in on Saturday morning, but Wife reminded me of plans that made that tough to manage. So I stayed late and printed out a bunch of stuff that would help me get work done over the weekend.

armedAt one point I looked out into the hall and noticed that it was dark, but shortly thereafter I heard the principal paging someone, so I figured someone just jumped the gun about turning off the second-floor lights. Finally, around 6 I was done. Still early-ish, but not so much that the “building’s closing” page had happened yet. I packed up my stuff and headed downstairs to the first f

…which was also dark. Son of a bitch. I’d been locked in again.

This time, I went into the main office and sat down at one of the desks. I fired up a computer and looked up the number of School Police. The first time I called, the dispatcher had to put me on hold. After several minutes of waiting, I hung up. A few minutes later I called again. the dispatcher was apologetic and noted that she was the only one on duty. I told her my predicament and she promised to get someone out to the building. I told her I’d be in the main office (no Atrium for me this time, thanks) and sat at the desk surfing the web.

Maybe 35 minutes later, I called her back. This time around, she noted that something was going on and it could be awhile. She suggested I just exit the building, make sure the door is secure and they’d respond to the alarm whenever they can. No problem, says I, and I told her which door I’d be using.

And somehow I managed to trip the motion sensor anyway. The panel was beeping as I left the building. Oh, well.

Ring My Bell

Sue Sylvester: Sandy, how is it that you manage to sneak into this school without setting off all of the fire alarms?

Glee, “A Night of Neglect” (4/19/11)


I’ve been working in a new school this year, and it’s been a ton of effort on my part.

My office looked approximately like this when I started. The short version is, my predecessor either wasn’t very good at her job, or she mentally checked out sometime around April. Or, perhaps (and more likely) both. Consequently I walked in on both a literal and figurative mess. The office consists of four rooms: a larger anteroom with a conference table surrounded by file cabinets. This is where the students’ Special Ed meetings took place; the file cabinets were filled with records going back to at least 2006. Atop the cabinets were cases of files from before 2006, awaiting destruction. Then there is an office which was commandeered by the Assistant Principal; I don’t know what it was used for last year. The other two rooms were taken up by my predecessor and her assistant. They had separate rooms to work in. Spacious! Except for the fact that all three of the rooms given over to my department were a huge mess. I was clearly going to be working late for several weeks. This doesn’t really bother me; I’m more productive between 3:00 and 5:00 PM than I am the whole rest of the day. And the other upside is that Wee One is a cheerleader in her high school now, so her practices wrap up just a short time after I’m officially booted out of the building by the custodians.

Most schools have two custodial shifts. The first one comes in early, opens the building, makes some rounds, etc. and just ensures that the place is ready to go when everyone else arrives. Then there’s another shift that starts a couple of hours later and is usually responsible for some cleanup stuff that can only be done when nobody else is in the building. The two shifts have a lot of overlap but that’s usually how they go. There are variations of this, of course, but that’s the basic model.

These were the custodians in my high school when I was a student. It was a big building. In my school, the second shift usually ends around 6 PM. Sometimes it’s earlier, like around 5:30, and sometimes a little bit later but not usually by much. When the custodian is ready to go, he gets on the PA system and says, “Attention teachers: the building is now closed.” Click. End of announcement. That’s pretty much my five-minute warning to get my act together and get out. Usually I’m on a bit of a roll at that point but that’s the way the ball bounces. In this respect I’d be happier in a building that closes at 8:00. More often than not, I’m the only person left in the building, although a couple of times I’ve found myself leaving with another teacher.

So tonight I found myself on a bit of a hot streak. I was preparing mailings to go home to parents and I was printing notices on one printer, printing cover letters on another, loading the printer with envelopes and printing the addresses directly on those…I was on a roll, and it was going to be cut short, I just knew it. At some point that announcement was going to happen, and I was going to have to stop, dammit. I started prioritizing the pieces so that the most important ones would be done first.

And then…a little while later…I was done. Done! I’d done them all! I can go home and it’s only…


7 o clock

…oh, that can’t be right. Unless maybe the custodian is working late tonight. I looked through the anteroom out into the hallway and realized Hey, that hall’s pretty dark. This might be a problem. So I went downstairs to the first floor and located the school’s alarm panel.

Sure enough, the system was armed. I’d been locked into the building and I couldn’t leave without setting off the alarm.

Fortunately, I’m not the panicky type. I got on the phone and called the School Police. (Yes, Baltimore City Schools has its own police force.)

“School Police Dispatch, this is ______.”

“Good evening, _________, this is Claude at School #NNN. How are you this evening?”

“Oh, I’m fine, sir. How are you?”

(Yes, we really did exchange pleasantries first.)

“I’m well, but I have a problem. It appears that the custodian has locked me in the building and set the alarm. I can’t get out.”

“Oh, my!” she said. “What number are you calling from?” I gave her the number. She then said, “Someone will get to you.”

I asked, “OK, should I go to the lobby of the building then?”

She said, “If you want,” then thought better of her answer and said, “You should stay by the phone.” We hung up and I started packing my stuff.

A few minutes later, it occurred to me that, if the phone should ring, I won’t hear it. The phone in my office doesn’t ring unless a call is being transferred to me. I called the School Police again.

“Hi, it’s Claude, the guy in School #NNN? It just occurred to me that—” the officer who answered the phone immediately handed me off to someone else. For whatever reason I had to explain my predicament again. This time he said “OK, someone’s enroute, they should be there in a couple of minutes.”

“OK,” I said, “I’ll be in the building’s lobby.”

My school has a lobby that can be closed off from the rest of the building by a pair of double doors. This way, you can enter the building and turn right, into the Gym, or left, into the Auditorium, and not enter any other part of the school. The doors are typically open at all hours unless there’s an after-school event in one of those spaces. I went back to the first floor, with my stuff in my hands, and walked past the alarm panel and through the doorway for the double doors.


Uh-oh. I’d forgotten about the possibility of there being motion sensors in the entryway. I’d set off the alarm, and now the panel was waiting for me to enter the code to clear it, which I didn’t know, of course. Every ten seconds the panel would change, telling me how much time I had left to enter the code. You know, when you’re just staring at the panel and waiting for all hell to break loose, sixty seconds can be a long time.

Or maybe this happened. At the end of the minute, I heard a warbling tone, but it wasn’t especially loud. Funny, I thought. I guess the alarm horns are only on the outside of the building. It took me a minute to realize that the sound was actually coming from the PA speakers overhead. For whatever reason, the alarm rang very softly through the PA system. Well, at least I’d called before I tripped the alarm.

Several minutes went by, and still no sign of the School Police. I called them a third time. “Look, I guess there’s a motion sensor down here because I don’t know if you’re aware of this—and judging by the response, you’re NOT—I’ve already tripped the alarm. Can I just leave the building anyway?”

The School Police officer is at the building,  I was told. Just sit tight.

Sure enough, a few minutes later, I heard the sounds of a key in the front door. My hero! I told him what had happened and he cleared the alarm, then re-set it. Then we both had to beat it out of there. How this will play with my principal in the morning, I have no idea. Stay tuned.

Suicidal Behaviors

Given Waldo’s definition of suicide below, I’m quite the suicidal fellow. However, this particular version of self-annihilation I’ve used as a springboard.

I spent an inordinate amount of time in this building. When I was at C. W. Post and working on my Master’s Degree, I was in a cohort with nine other students. Because we took all the same classes at the same time, we got to be quite the well-known little group among the Education Department staff, not to mention the Speech Department and a couple of others. And as we came to be a known element, we each slipped into our own roles within the group. One of us, the only other guy, was the rebel Bad Boy type. One was the Ivory Girl because she reminded you of the women in those commercials,  a sort of fresh-scrubbed All-American type. One was the Mom (naturally). One was the Organizer, who set up the graduation party we threw ourselves.

NEVER did I make it look this good. One of our professors dubbed me The Divergent Thinker, because nobody knew what was going to come out of my mouth at any given time. I had this odd habit, and a “tell” which the others learned to watch for: I’d take a point from the lecture and start turning it over and over in my head, run it through a few permutations and then suddenly I’d have a question. Of course, it was several minutes later, so the question, while reasonable, usually felt as though it was out of the blue. My tell was that I’d start biting on my pen. Once I did that, I was told, they knew that my hand was about to go into the air.

This is still a habit of mine, although I’m learning to channel it into making my own work better. Start with the intention of imitating, then work it and massage it and make it into something a little more mine. By the time it’s popped back out, the originator would have very little idea that it was their own work that was the nucleus of what I’d presented. And while good writers borrow, and great writers steal outright, perhaps it’s time that I spent a little more time seeking the Original Me.


Imitation is Suicide. Insist on yourself; never imitate. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Write down in which areas of your life you have to overcome these suicidal tendencies of imitation, and how you can transform them into a newborn you – one that doesn’t hide its uniqueness, but thrives on it. There is a “divine idea which each of us represents” – which is yours?

Sixty-to-One Ratio

First Soldier: Are you suggesting coconuts migrate?
King Arthur: Not at all. They could be carried.
First Soldier: What? A swallow carrying a coconut?
King Arthur: It could grip it by the husk!
First Soldier: It’s not a question of where he grips it! It’s a simple question of weight ratios! A five ounce bird could not carry a one pound coconut.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)


When I was in college and working at the now-dearly-departed WBAU Radio, I got to be pretty good at producing short pieces for broadcast. I had a slightly different approach to the task from that of my colleagues, however: while most of them would create several discrete pieces and then piece them together into a coherent whole through editing (and remember, this was the days of magnetic tape, razor blades and splicing tape).

I was very good at editing tape, but I didn’t like to do it if I didn’t have to. So my approach was often to work with as little editing as possible, doing everything as though it were live and on-the-air, but with the safety net of knowing that I was not, in fact, broadcasting.

It looks like an 8-track, but it usually only held two tracks and was better designed. This one looks pretty short, maybe about 20-30 seconds in length. So I’d set up the music on turntables, reel-to-reel deck, instant-start tapes (called “carts”, short for cartridge), and I’d mix the whole piece as I went along, starting and stopping music or sound effects while reading my script into the mike. This wasn’t always easy, especially working with the carts, which were usually designed to fast-forward in order to re-cue themselves. When they did that, they’d often stop with a THWACK that the microphone would pick up. This meant that I had to stop the carts manually as I started something else. And, if I screwed up my recording, I’d have to wait for the carts to re-cue before I could take another pass at recording. Not a huge pain, but a pain nonetheless.

I was also remarkably self-critical when it came to my broadcasting work. Often I’d record over thirty takes and then settle on number seventeen as the one that “sucks the least.” But one rule that seemed to hold true was that, no matter how long the piece was that I was recording (unless it was an entire show for later broadcast), I maintained a 60-to-1 ratio of time expended-to-air audio. So, a thirty-second piece would take me a half-hour to cut. A sixty-second bit would take me an hour. The 60:1 Rule seemed to be immutable, or at least tolerated only small variations.

Flash-Forward to this century:

A couple of weeks ago, Wife wanted to work on a project with some of the students in her school. The theme was War, and she wanted to make a video. I wasn’t sure what kind of video you can make that would involve a bunch of sixth-graders, but I had a few suggestions for her, including something that looked like this:

This, specifically, would be a little ambitious for ten year-olds (especially the French at the end) and obviously you couldn’t use the same gags, but you get the idea. Wife liked the idea of doing some kind of lip sync, however, and started looking around for songs that she could use. Some of the songs she thought about were John Lennon’s “Imagine”, Edwin Starr’s “War”, Garth Brooks’ “We Shall Be Free” and the Black Eyed Peas’ “Where is the Love”. She showed the students a set of lyrics for each song and they selected “Where is the Love”.

Over a few days’ period, she put together some kind of concept for the video: that it would start with a news broadcast, that there’d be a mock UN Summit, war protestors, kids getting drafted and a few other odds and ends, interspersed with images from historical conflicts. And anything that wasn’t an historical image would feature the kids lip-synching to “Where is the Love”.

Ah...no. Different kind of Flip Video. Better, thank you. She then borrowed a Flip Video camera and shot the students in these varied situations, often letting the same place stand in for assorted locations. For this four-minutes-and-change video, she shot most scenes twice, about forty clips in all. With that, plus the historical footage, there was plenty for us to work with when it came time to edit the video.

The big problem was with several of the kids who, despite knowing that they wouldn’t be heard on the finished project, wouldn’t sing. Not at all. There’s no lip synch if there’s no lip movement at all, you know? And at the point where Wife brought her raw material home for us to work on a couple of evenings ago, there was going to be no opportunity for reshoots or pickup shots, or inserts, or anything else. Whatever we had as far as the kids, was what we had.

So Wife and I sat down and downloaded the clips to my laptop. Then, using the Windows Live Movie Maker, we stitched together a video that, in most places where the students are on camera, they actually look sort of like they’re singing.

We started working at around 9:00 PM. A little after 1:00 AM, we had a finished video. 3:49 for the song, 12 seconds for the intro and outro video. Total elapsed time including breaks: just a shade over four hours.

The 60:1 Ratio lives on.

Teachers Pet, But They Don’t Let Students

Dr. Kennedy: And how do see your place in this family?
Dewey: Well, I’m the favorite. You know, the one everybody loves the most. The cute one, the one everybody looks out for and gives presents to. And sometimes they even make the birds sing to me or the clouds spell out my name.

Malcolm in the Middle, “Clip Show” (4/28/02)


If you have a license to teach in Maryland, and you’d like to keep that license, the state requires that you take some courses in Reading every now and again. With all the time I spent working on my Administrator I endorsement, the reading courses fell by the wayside. In fact, I completely forgot about them until I submitted my paperwork for the Admin I. It came back with a note, telling me that I couldn’t get the endorsement because I hadn’t completed my Reading requirement. What’s more, my license was about to expire. But, no worries: the State has magnanimously given me a two-year extension to get the reading coursework done.

Cool, says I. I’ll take them this summer and all will be well.

UniversityCap_Diploma Then the other shoe dropped. While the state was willing to give me two years, the City wasn’t. My boss told me that, according to Human Resources, I needed to have that coursework in-hand by July 1 or else I was going to lose my position. Nothing personal, it’s a city-wide requirement for certain level positions. The really bad news was, I learned all this in early January, so I not only had to get registered for class, I had to register for TWO similar classes for the same semester.

I started calling schools but kept running into obstacles, most of them related to the fact that the first week of January is a pretty crummy time to call a college. CCBC, Morgan, Coppin, BCCC, and a couple of others all added up to nothing that day. Either nobody was answering the phones, or the people I needed to talk to were unavailable. (To be fair, two of them did call me back later on but neither one could help me this semester.)

img_notre For whatever reason, I’d been avoiding calling the College of Notre Dame of Maryland, perhaps because I’d just finished there and just wanted to go elsewhere. I like the idea of going to different schools as a means of keeping one’s education from getting too inbred. But after all these No-Go phone calls, I caved in and called CND. Naturally, they answered the phone AND the person I needed to speak to was right there.

Bonus points: the courses were both open and, because I’d last attended in May, I was still considered an “active” student. So, no application fees or any of that rigamarole. However, CND is a relatively pricey school and the courses were going to be about $1200 each. I went in to register, and the registrar’s office, under the impression that I’d get a 50% reimbursement, took $1400 off my hands (including a couple of unavoidable fees) and let me attend the classes. I did get some reimbursement, but I also got a bill for $900 in the mail a couple of days ago. Booger.

Now, over the past couple of years I’ve heard complaints about these courses, about how they’re a waste of time and such. Not surprisingly, these complaints are coming from the same people who paid $75 to take the course on the fast-and-dirty track. I’m actually doing some work here, baby.

I’m not a shy guy in class. I do like to particpate and I’m one of those folks who actually enjoys going to school. But in one of my classes, most of the group is pretty quiet, so it sometimes seems like I’m the only person who’s participating. The teacher asks relatively simple questions and they all look at her like it’s a trick question. So I’ll pop up with the (obvious) answer. Lately, I’ve noticed that I’ve become the teacher’s “go-to” guy for answering some questions. She’ll ask the class as a whole, then call on me specifically. Tonight I got that feeling like I was monopolizing the conversation, and finally started burying my face in my notebook, taking copious notes which did little more than parrot the handouts we’d just been given. (This sort of activity helps me remember things, but still.) No eye contact means maybe I won’t be the guy who drags the rest of the class into the conversation.

At the end of the class, as we started to break up, the woman who sat behind me called me back to her. I leaned in to see what was on her mind. She asked me, “Have you had Dr. X before?”

I said, “No.” Then it hit me what she was getting at, so I added, “I don’t know why she’s calling on me so much, either.” She smiled. “I don’t know!” I repeated.

Just a few more weeks of class, and then…I don’t know. I need to figure out my next steps, educationally.

Head Line

Bart Simpson: That place is weird. A man in the bathroom kept handing me towels, until I paid him to stop.
Homer Simpson: [holding a stack of towels] Should have held out longer, boy!

The Simpsons, “Scenes from the Class Struggle in Springfield” (2/4/96)


Restaurant This evening, when I got home, Wee One told me that tonight was No Cooking Night.

“No Cooking Night” is a fundraiser for her school. Each month, a different restaurant in the area sponsors a No Cooking Night for the school. The idea is, the family goes out and has a meal at the restaurant, and the restaurant in turn kicks a piece of its take for the evening over to the PTA. It’s a pretty successful program, and it’s allowed the PTA to do some nice things for the school.

Wife was upstairs with a headache, so it was going to be just Wee One and me. And, because Wee One has her tumbling class, we had to leave right away. I didn’t have time to take off my tie, change into sneakers or much else. Back out the door we went.

This also meant that, by the time we got to the restaurant, I had to use the rest room. But since time was tight, I had to wait until after we’d ordered our meals. At that point I finally made the proverbial beeline for the Men’s Room.

At first, I was in there alone, using the only urinal in there. Shortly thereafter, a young boy came in, perhaps in the third grade. “Hi,” he said. Now, as it happens, I spend a lot of time in Wee One’s school, so I thought that maybe he’d seen me go into the bathroom and knew who I was. Plus, I was still wearing my ID tag from work. So I simply replied, “Hi there.”

Then he said to me, “My name’s Bobby*, what’s yours?”

I said, “I’m Mr. Call.”

Bobby went into the bathroom stall and said, “Hi, Mr. Call.”

I asked him, “Do you go to "[Wee One’s school]?”

He said, “No! I’m going to the bathroom!”

Made my night. Thanks, Bobby.

*Not his real name, of course.

Getting Faced

[In Frank’s wedding video, Frank is about to cut the cake]
Trapper:  Look, even then he didn’t know how to hold a knife. [Laughs]
Hawkeye: [Laughs] Watch the cake die of malpractice.

M*A*S*H, “There is Nothing Like a Nurse” (11/19/74)


Kim Lewis is one of the Bigger Wheels in the Baltimore City school system, and while I don’t work in her department, I do work with a lot of the people who are. Ms. Lewis will be participating in the Polar Bear Plunge this weekend, which raises money for the Special Olympics. Her goal is to raise $10,000, which will allow her to take the plunge 24 times in a 24-hour period. She’s pretty close to her goal, and it wouldn’t be too tough for you to help push her over the top.

Today, as part of her fundraising efforts, a bake sale was held at the Puzzle Palace. Among the goodies were cupcakes, doughnuts, homemade cookies, and, of course, cakes. One cake in particular was the centerpiece for this whole thing, but I’ll come back to that in a second.

As you probably know, money’s been a little tight since September, but Wife and I do our best to help out with some charities here and there. And since Special Olympics is rather close to my heart, I did want to contribute to Kim’s cause, but I wasn’t sure I could really afford it, what with it being post-Christmas and all. However, after doing my taxes this past weekend (what? Shut up), I decided that I could afford to kick in a few bucks to the cause.

Now, there are a few ways to help out if you work in the school system. You can go to the second floor and hand some money over to one of two people delegated to collect on Kim’s behalf. Boring. You can go to the website and do the electronic thing. Easy, but also kind of impersonal, especially inasmuch as I work in the same building with her. Or, I could do something a little weird at the bake sale, like buy an entire pie or something.

So there I am at the bake sale and they’re maybe two hours into the thing, so there’s definitely not as much on the table as there was the first time I looked. The centerpiece cake, however, was still mostly intact. The reason for this is that it was one of those half-sheet size cakes which had a photo on it. I’m sure you’ve seen that type. The photo on this one, of course, was a picture of Kim Lewis standing in front of a poster for the Plunge. For some mysterious reason, the ladies who were serving out food were cutting around the picture. This, of course, became my target. How could it not?

I came in close to the table and greeted the ladies. Then I said, “I want some cake.” As she started to make the cut, I said, “No, no, no, no. I want her face.”

They were actually a bit taken aback at this. They looked at each other and looked unsure, as though there was some kind of rule that would be broken. I persisted: “I’ll pay extra for it.” Now, I was going to haggle with them a bit. I had a set amount in mind that I was going to spend altogether, but I wasn’t going to give it up easily. One woman said to the other, “He will pay extra…” The other woman said, “Twenty bucks.”

“Done,” I said, and instantly plunked down a pair of ten-dollar bills that were in my hand. This, as it turns out, was what I’d planned to spend in total.

They still couldn’t believe it. “You’re really going to give us twenty dollars for a piece of cake?”

“If it’s the face, yes,” I said.

kim cake They went for it. In fact, they gave me a slice about twice as large as typical, because they had to cut way into the picture to get the face. If you look at the picture here, it’s hard to tell that there’s a seven-inch paper plate underneath that hunk o’ cake.

Neither of the women could remember my name, so I said to call it an anonymous donation. I took my cake and brought it into a meeting in the Board Room, which was right behind the bake sale table. About two minutes later, Kim came into the Board Room and said, “Somebody just paid twenty dollars for a piece of cake!” Of course, the piece was still intact in front of me (I’d just snapped the picture), so she figured it out right away. She gave me a hug and thanked me for supporting the Plunge.

Now, here’s the odd part. (Because eating a colleague’s face isn’t weird.) When I worked at Helen Keller, all of the classroom aides were Puerto Rican, and they had a superstition about birthday cakes. Specifically, you had to smear the person’s name across the cake before you cut it, so that you weren’t cutting into the person’s name and giving them all kinds of bad luck. This kind of carried with me, and now I do it. So I had to smear Kim’s face before eating the cake. My way of wishing her luck as she makes the Plunge this weekend.

And in case you missed it, here’s the link to donate once more.

Synchronicity, or, Back From the Dead

Peasant: She turned me into a newt!
Sir Bevedere: [suspiciously] A newt?
Peasant: [long pause]…I got better.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)


i told you so stoneOddly enough, I’m not the only person in my universe whose health is in much better shape than that which was assumed by others.

A couple of days ago, a friend of mine from high school posted to his Facebook account that one of the teachers who was around back then had died. Not only that, it was his understanding that this teacher had died a couple of years ago and he’d just learned about it. A few of us said some nice things and clucked with the retrospective sadness, much like some folks did when I posted that Garrison Keillor joke. Later on, he came back and noted that he’d been mistaken and that the teacher was still alive. In fact, said teacher even took the time to say “Hi” to everyone in the same thread.

I, like the others who were caught by the error, said a couple of kind things about him in that thread. In my case it was specifically that I’d learned a lot from him and that I still remembered most of his remarkably bad jokes. I also noted that I was disappointed that I couldn’t attend his surprise retirement party several years ago. As it turns out, he retired from teaching in Kings Park (New York), not from teaching altogether, and this may be his last year. After all, he’s been in the business for 44 years now. I wrote a piece that was intended to be shared with him at the party. I don’t have that piece anymore, but I hope he got to read it. I presume he did; I’d emailed it to his wife (whose name, oddly, is NOT “Raquel”).

At the time of his retirement, I was working for the Leader Newspaper Group in northern New Jersey. In addition to being a reporter for the group, I wrote an occasional column to fill up space on the Op/Ed page. I took the occasion to write a tribute to him around that time, and they published it in the July 6, 2000 edition (PDF document).  My column is on Page 5, and I’m only linking because it turns out that I was the guy who wrote that week’s editorial as well. So, if you click the link you’ll see part of my journalistic career. Remember that this column was pre-Facebook and pre-My Space, so Classmates.com was about the only way you had to get in touch with anyone from your past, and it wasn’t a free service.

Here was my column:

Sad news this week: I'm getting old.

Okay, perhaps you don't care about that. So are you, but I have a column to whine about it and you don't. The point is, it doesn't occur to me that often.

There's a big computer company (whose initials may stand for I'll Buy Macintosh) that's been using actor Avery Brooks in its television ads. Apparently Captain Sisko has gotten off of Deep Space Nine and has returned to Earth to hawk "serious software." In one of the commercials he explains to the viewers, whose vocabulary development has been repressed by watching too much TV, what an "epiphany" is.

Well, I've had an epiphany or two myself in recent times. Most of them are connected to the fact that I'm no spring chicken anymore. I'm not talking about the usual aches and pains that come with getting older; I can deal with those. It's when you suddenly realize that the song you're listening to, you heard for the first time when Gerald Ford was in office and it dawns on you how long ago that was. In my case, it was a note from someone I'd never met before.

I spend some time every week on a website called Classmates.com. You go to the site, put in some information about where you went to high school, and you can communicate with a whole bunch of folks you didn't want to associate with back then. The site has a bulletin board system wherein you can send notes to everyone from your home town.

A short while back, I saw a note that said that Mr. Weidig, my Algebra teacher, is retiring after this school year, and that a surprise party was being arranged for him. What! Mr. Weidig is old enough to retire now? Why, he was such a young fellow when he taught me back in…back in…


[The reader will please note that this is the part where I cut out a bunch of words that one doesn't ordinarily see in a family newspaper. But the gist of it was: "Golly, it's tough to believe that I was in ninth grade that long ago.”]

Mr. Weidig was one of the reasons I became a teacher. He was one of the few I knew who actually seemed to really enjoy the job. So many others seemed to be going through the motions. Mr. Weidig had a gentle way of prodding you along without pushing the issue. He had ways of making you pay attention without your knowing that that's what he was doing. And his jokes were soooo corny that you just had to repeat them later on. I still know most of those shaggy-dog stories. And yes, I have told some of them to my students in the past. I'll probably burn in Hell for that, thanks a lot.

So the retirement party has come and gone: Mr. Weidig is no longer teaching Math in Kings Park, NY, and it's up to somebody else to take his place. That's not as easy as it sounds. Mr. Weidig was part teacher and part clown. In either role, the shoes to be filled are very large.

In addition to the corny jokes, Mr. Weidig also had a habit of “asking himself questions” as a means of moving a discussion forward, or perhaps letting everyone know that this is something we should be wondering about. He’d walk to the back of the room and sit in a vacant chair, then raise his hand to get attention. Then he’d walk up to the front of the room and call on himself. Then he’d walk patiently back to the seat and ask a question. Then he’d walk to the front again and, before answering, say (and here’s where the entire class would chorus in): “I’m glad you asked.” I’ve pulled that stunt a couple of times, too.

Frankly, I don’t remember what I wrote in the piece that I sent to Mr. Weidig’s wife, other than to suggest facetiously that he tell a story called “The Parade Joke” one more time. And no, I won’t tell it to you here. Maybe I’ll relate the Parade Joke as the last post ever to this blog…