Monday, October 13, 2014

A Modest Proposal

You learn a lot when you grade exams.  Mostly you learn how much of what you say doesn’t really translate into what your students hear, which can be a humbling experience.  But a stack of exams can also provide inspiration for the astute educator – a catastrophe is just an opportunity viewed from a different angle, after all.  So with that in mind, I have a proposition for the world.

I think there needs to be a course entitled “How To Be A Student.”  It should be offered at every university in the world, and if you can’t pass the class you won’t be allowed to proceed to a degree.

It will have units such as:

How to Take a Test.

This unit will cover such things as putting your name on the front page, remembering to answer all of the questions (even the ones on the back page), and answering the easy stuff first so you don’t run out of time and lose points for no reason.  There will also be an entire week devoted to reading directions, with prizes for students who can successfully explain that yes the professor is actually serious about that and will in fact take off points for not following those directions, just as said professor promised to do beforehand, and no, you should not expect to bargain those points back onto your score afterward no matter how sorrowful you strive to appear.

How to Read a Question.

This is related to the first unit, but will focus on specific examples, including such things as “How not to say that the Spanish-American War was a war fought between the US and any country other than Spain,” “How to correctly identify the starting date of the War of 1812,” and “Why World War II cannot possibly have been the first one.”

Studying: What’s In It For You?

A fair amount, it turns out, as this unit will cover.  For as much as your professors enjoy those plaintive little notes halfway through the exam essay questions confessing your sins and saying you’ll study harder next time (honest!), we’d enjoy coherent answers even more.  And so will you, come grade time.

You’re Not A Physician, So Write Legibly

Doctors can get away with scrawled notes that look like the last staggering efforts of a swarm of drunken spiders on their way to Teetotal Bible Camp after one final bender, and when you have your MD and can blame pharmacists and nurses for misreading your instructions then you can get away with that too.  In the meantime, remember that anything the professor can’t read on your exams or homework is by definition wrong.  If you were right, you’d have made it legible enough to get credit.

How to Read a Clock

This is for advanced students, those who have somehow managed to enroll themselves in other classes.  This unit will cover such topics as “Class Start Time: Suggestion or Damned Good Idea?”, “Class End Time: Why It Does Not Start Earlier Than It Does,” and “You Are Not Powerful Enough or French Enough to Stroll In 15 Minutes Late to Anything.”


Why Cheating Is More Work Than It Is Worth

The subtitle for this unit is, “Your Professors Know How Google Works, Too.”  We can check up on things.  We know the “corrupted file” trick.  We can tell when your writing suddenly switches voice, cadence, vocabulary level, and grammatical expertise.  If you really want to get away with cheating you are going to have to do a considerable amount of legwork, and if you’re going to put in that much work you might as well do the original assignment.

This class will be offered every semester, including summer sessions.  It will be offered at night for students who work during the day, and during the day for students who work at night.  It will be offered online, face-to-face, by mail, and by semaphore for all the ships at sea.

And universities across the world will function more smoothly for it.

No need to thank me, citizen.  It is merely a service I offer.

Friday, October 10, 2014

News and Updates

1. I am deeply annoyed at the world right now because – for reasons I am not about to get into in this forum – it has decided to be exceedingly unkind to a number of people I know and love.  It would be nice if we could rewind things back a bit and get a do-over, but the world does not work that way and so I am left to be annoyed at it.  Deeply, deeply annoyed.

2. It is a strange feeling when a reporter from another city calls you out of the blue to ask you questions about a political matter.  But there it is, published and out in the world.  I’m nearly famous.

3. I may have made a tactical error in having all of my classes take exams last week.  The stack of ungraded exams has haunted me ever since, and eventually I will either finish them off of they will do the same to me.  In either case, I am hoping that there will be refreshments.

4. The weather is now consistently cool enough for me to enjoy my tea without feeling uncomfortably warm.  The fall is the best season of the year.

5. Apparently it is coming on time for me to renew my driver’s license, and if I wish to provide a small stack of supporting documentation – one that appears to be only a quarter the size of my ungraded exam stack, or thereabouts – I can get something called a REAL ID instead.  I am not sure what this says about my other options, as I am far too old to need a fake ID to get into bars. 

6. We’re coming up on the election here in Baja Canada, and it seems to me that Governor Teabagger (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries) is feeling a wee bit defensive, if the sheer volume of his signs is any indication.  On my commute to Mid-Range Campus I am finding it harder and harder to see any of the rolling countryside of Wisconsin, hidden as it is behind signs lying to me about how wonderful a leader Governor Teabagger (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries) has been and will be in the future.  I find this hopeful, actually, as I had not seriously considered the possibility that he might be defeated. 

7. My students ask lots of questions.  I like it when they ask lots of questions, because it means they are listening and want to learn about things that interest them.  But it does make it hard to get through the material.  It’s a nice problem to have.

8. One of the joys of having an older child who still likes it when you read bedtime stories to them is that you get to read much more interesting stories.  Lauren and I are now on the second of Jasper Fforde’s Nursery Crime series, and we’re having a very good time with it.  It’s our time together, just the two of us, and we like it.  Fforde’s mind must be a fascinating place to live.

9. The NHL season has started.  The EPL is in full swing.  There’s a new season of Doctor Who in progress, and the new Doctor has gotten some good writing to back up his acting skills.  I have a stack of books in the to-read pile, waiting for me.  It is good to remember things like that, when I am annoyed at the world.

Friday, October 3, 2014

A Life on the Cutting Edge

So when did The Nightmare Before Christmas become a thing?

I remember when that movie came out.  I went to see it in the theater with some grad school friends of mine, and we were practically the only people there.  I have no idea why the place was that empty – it was a great movie, and this was a college town full of students just eager as all get out to demonstrate their cutting edge cultural bonafides.  Granted, it was Iowa, so perhaps the cutting edge was a bit blunter than it might have been elsewhere, but still.  College students are college students, and the fact was that it was a great little movie.

I really loved the main character, Jack Skellington.  He had such a goofy expression for most of the film.

But whenever I would try to talk about it with people, most of the time I would be greeted with puzzled stares and blank looks.  “What movie?” they’d ask.  “Are you sure that’s a real film and not some whiskey-induced hallucination you’re trying to ret-con your life around?

You have no idea how weird it is for me to have seen a film that others had not.  Usually it’s the other way around, and usually with films a lot more popular than the latest animated Tim Burton movie.  There was a period of my life – stretching from, oh, all of it to the rest of it – where I was fairly unlikely even to see the Oscar winners, let alone anything less mainstream.  And yet here I was, a proto-hipster shilling for a film nobody else seemed to have heard of, except that I really wanted them to have heard of it.  I’ve never understood the whole thing about only liking the obscure and unpopular.  It seems to me that if you like something you should let people know so that whoever made it might be inspired to make more things like it.

And now it’s a thing.

A big thing.

I went over to the nearby Big Chain Drugstore the other day to collect some small subset of the pharmaceuticals which course through out house and what should appear before my wondering eyes but an entire endcap of Nightmare Before Christmas tchotchkes.

You can get your own Jack Skellington figure in sizes ranging from a hand-width up to taller than you are.  You can get Oogie-Boogie Man dolls that light up (no word on whether they come with their own sawmill blades).  You can get notebooks, mugs, and other assorted paraphernalia.  I keep thinking I should get one of those Jack Skellington figures to hang in my office.

It’s kind of a cool thing, really, to see the film become so popular so long after it was released.

I should go watch it again.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

One Thousand Little Stories

This is my 1000th post here at 4Q10D.

I’ve been a bit worried that it wouldn’t happen, given the chaotic mess that this month has been.  I started out trying to post every day, and then it became every other day, and then it became every third day.  It’s been a “beat back the alligators” kind of time over here recently, and while this is a very good thing – in that it represents full employment in my chosen field, my classes are going very well, and I’m being treated well by all of my various employers – it does mean that there has been precious little time available for blogging.  I’m down to weekly of late, and that has to change.  It will, soon enough, I hope.  At least back to every third day, or so.  I’d like that.

I miss it when I don’t write, much more than I thought I would when I started.

It’s taken me a bit over six years to reach this point, and there was a point this summer when I thought I might be able to time this post to that anniversary.  Didn’t work out that way.  When I started I was unemployed and had a lot of free time – something not so now, clearly – and my previous blog that I had begun in 1999 had petered out about four years previous (2004, if you don’t care to do the math).  Tabitha was just about to start kindergarten.  Lauren was still at the daycare.  Things were different.

I never really knew what to expect from this.  It started off as a place for me to write stories, and that’s pretty much what it remains.  It is a place where I write down what I hope to remember, where I share stories with whomever cares to come along for the ride, about the things that seem to be of concern.

There was a period where I wrote a lot about politics, because that was what was on my mind.  I’ve largely moved away from that now, as I find that it just makes me angry and convinces nobody.  I’m sure I’ll get back to it again at some point.  It does get onto my mind even so.  Mostly I just write about whatever interests me, though.

My family interests me.  The absurdity of normal life interests me.  History interests me.  A lot of things interest me, which is a good way to be, I think.  When nothing is interesting, you might as well go back to sleep.

Along the way I have met – both virtually and, on occasion, in meatspace – quite a few good people.  For that I am grateful. 

And it’s easier to write things here and put photos here than it is to make copies and send them out to all the people I’d like to show them to.  That’s how the first one started too – a central repository of stories and photos.  If there is a better definition of a blog, I haven’t found it.

So I write what I can when I can.  I wish I could write more.  At some point I will.

There are a thousand little stories here, all filed chronologically even if their subject matter veers haphazardly across time and space.  There is an illusion of order overlaying the chaos of ordinary life, and ain’t that always the way?

What a long strange trip it’s been.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Eating Better

So I’m trying to eat better now.  Or at least I’m trying to “Eat Less Crap,” as I title my diet plan.  It’s been about six months now since my doctor did that little finger-waggle thing that doctors do with middle-aged men who eat like graduate students.  And so I’ve been trying to be good.

It seems to be working.  There is less of me now than there was then.  I have had no undue health crises in the last six month since my visit.  Not that I was having any at the time either, but the continued absence of such things is a good thing to have.  Rah team, and all that.

But there is a cost.  There is always a cost.  And in this case the cost is fairly clear – I am no longer eating a lot of things that I would much rather have continued to eat.  The doctor was quite clear on how this would be the path toward better health.

In particular, he was quite clear about how I should “cut down” on salt.

I took this to mean, “don’t eliminate it completely or do anything drastic, but do get down to a rather more civilized level of the stuff” and I have been fairly good at this, I think.  But there are things that no longer make the cut, and I miss them.

So here is a list of my current situation.

Things I No Longer Eat:

1. Salty snacks.
I had no idea how many of these things I ate until I stopped eating them.  Potato chips.  Pretzels.  Fluorescent orange concoctions with the word “cheez” in their names.  Salted nuts.  On and on.  The easiest way for me to cut down on salt was simply to eliminate these from my diet, and for the last six months I have done so.

This has been a real challenge for me, because not only do I really enjoy such things, but just in the past year or so American potato chip manufacturers have decided to branch out from the same six varieties that had served them so well since the 1980s and start offering interesting flavors like they do in Europe, although thankfully not quite the same flavors.

I don’t think “Sizzling King Prawn” would go over very well in the midwest.

There are two exceptions to this rule.

First, I allow myself one small snack-sized bag of something on a long road trip.  Last month when we went east I had a bag of fluorescent orange concoctions with the word “cheez” prominently displayed on the wrapper.  I bought it on the way out of Wisconsin and carried it all the way to the Jersey shore and back.  It was nice just knowing it was there, waiting for me when I wanted it.  And when I finally opened it up on the drive back?  It was heavenly.

Second, all bets are off on Super Bowl Sunday.  Because, MERCA!

2. French Fries

I know that you can eat french fries without too much salt, but what would be the point of that?  Take away the salt and all you are left with is grease and the outward shape of a potato slice.  I’m probably better off just avoiding them entirely.

If I get to the O in Pittsburgh, however, I will have their fries, because O-fries are just the greatest french fries in the western world and if you haven’t had them then you need to make a pilgrimage to the O right now.  It’s a student hangout on the campus of the University of Pittsburgh, and it looks like it.  At one point back in the early 90s I knew a fair number of people who worked at the O.  None of them would use the bathrooms there but they all continued to eat the food, which I took as a good sign about the food at least.  I ate there a lot when I was in graduate school, because an order of fries the size of your head – fresh cut from the potatoes while you watched and then deep fried to golden brown – cost about a buck and a half.  Two bucks if you wanted extra ketchup or cheese.  That’s about what graduate students can afford.  It’s gone up since then – a couple of years ago we stopped and the same order was now about three bucks, but still. 

That’s a Small, by the way.  They go all the way up to Extra Large, which is enough to feed four or five teenaged males comfortably.  I think I will stick with the Small, should I find myself at the O again.

Fortunately for my health, I get to the O about once every four or five years these days.

Things I Eat A Whole Lot Less Often Than I Used To Do:

1. Canned soups.

I used to eat a lot of these.  I was particularly partial to the chicken-and-rice varieties, but almost anything that didn’t have seafood or too many tomatoes would do.  They’re really, really good, and if you don’t think about them too much you can convince yourself that they’re healthy.
Except that when you read the ingredient list what you find is that those things are essentially salt water with noodles.  Last year I tried eating the low-sodium varieties and discovered that they were perfectly fine if you added more salt to them.

So it’s probably best if I just skip them.

2. Bacon

I find that I don’t miss this nearly as much as I thought I would.

Mostly I keep it as a condiment on my burgers now.  The best hamburgers in the world come topped with bleu cheese, bacon, and sliced pickled jalapenos.  And those too, I eat a whole lot less often than I used to do.

Things I Have Cut Back On Somewhat:

1. Pickles

Pickles are good.  Kim made some homemade spiced dill pickles this year, and they are just the most amazing things.  Also, real sour pickles – extremely hard to find, these days – are a thing of beauty and should never be taken lightly.

I can cut back a bit on these things, but so far that’s about my limit.

2. Sausages

This is a broad category that includes everything from hot dogs to summer sausage to smoked sausages to pepperoni.  I love sausages and I always have.  When I was a kid my parents would take me to the mall -  a relatively new invention in the 70s, as far as we were concerned – and invariably I would make a beeline for the Hickory Farms store (can you imagine an entire store devoted to meats and cheeses in a mall today?) and get a meat-sicle, an inch-thick slice of summer sausage on a popsicle stick.  That was high living.

I’ve been eating less of these things, but my guess is that next year the medical finger-waggle will expand to include them too.  I’m going to enjoy them while I can.

Which brings me to:

Things I Will Likely Continue To Eat Until Directly Ordered By A Physician To Stop:

1. Cheese

I love cheese.  I especially love hard aged cheeses – cheddars so sharp you can shave with them, parmesans, asiagos, and the like.  I also love soft strong cheeses – bleu, gorgonzola, and the like.  They’ve got protein though!  They must be good for me.  That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

2. Pickled peppers

Most things that combine vinegar, salt, and hot peppers count as a delicacies to me and I end up piling them onto just about everything from salads to sandwiches to meats.  Sometimes I just eat them plain.  Pepperoncini.  Pickled slices of jalapenos.  Also, I include hot sauces in this category.  I use hot sauces like most midwesterners use ketchup. 
 They make just about everything taste better.

So I’m doing better than I used to, as far as eating healthy things is concerned, but better is a relative term after all.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

News and Updates

1. I am feeling oddly triumphant (in addition to my usual state of feeling, as my friend Richard put it, “triumphantly odd”).  Kim got me hooked on the computer game 2048 while we were driving east last month.  It’s a fun game, simple in concept but maddening in execution as most good games are, and we were all convinced that it was not actually impossible to complete.  But no – last night I decided that I was no longer any good for grading essays so I took up the cause once more and hey, presto: victory.  I should have bought a lottery ticket instead.

2. There is a first time for everything.  This week one of my students came up and asked to be excused from class for a week next month in order to go to Spain to attend a beatification.  Honestly, how could you say no to something like that?

3. Sad times over at the chicken coop these days, as Candy has gone to his reward.  He’d been looking kind of wilty the last few days, so we took him out of our neighbor’s flock and penned him up in quarantine while we tried to figure out what to do with him.  Today that problem became moot.  On the plus side, it means we can move Birdie over to that slot again and no longer have to figure out how to give him away before we have to butcher him.  So Candy’s loss is Birdie’s gain.  Also, Candy will be headed over to our friend’s other farm where the barn cats will no doubt be happy to see him.  It’s the part of the circle of life that somehow got cut out of The Lion King.

4. If I can make it to Halloween I will be amazed.  Teaching five classes for three campuses at two different universities – one of which campuses is more than an hour away – while at the same time still doing the Performing Arts thing and also trying to eat, sleep, and be a parent and spouse, is seriously cutting into my lounging about time.

5. Carpooling is a wonderful thing, especially when you have a friend to do it with.  Makes the ride go by much more entertainingly.

6. We have been so busy here that we have fallen behind in our Doctor Who.  This is not acceptable to any of us.

7. This time last week it was July.  Yesterday it was November.  On the whole, I’ll stick with November.  I can drink my tea without sweating.

8. Sometimes you see things pop up in your email that you never, ever thought you would see.  Other times things pop up in your email that even if you had thought you’d see them you probably thought you could have lived a full and happy life without ever doing so.  Sometimes both of those things happen in the same email, and it is then that you feel very, very glad to be a mere spectator to the outskirts of the lives of others, and not an active participant.

9. So far the score in the anti-mouse campaign stands at Humans 4, Cats 0.  I’m thinking the cats had better learn how to teach classes at this rate so we can switch jobs officially, otherwise there will be no use for them at all.

10. I now have a snazzy new office chair to replace the one that has sadly deteriorated over the last few years.  It is actually high enough to maintain a healthy angle for my wrists as I type, and there are no holes in it anywhere other than where there were designed to be holes.  Thanks, Kim! 

11. Kim’s brother Geoff and his partner Dave came in from San Francisco this past week, so we had all sorts of family events.  We spent the day over at Kim’s parents last weekend – our slightly delayed Labor Day – and Geoff and Dave came down Tuesday/Wednesday for a brief stay on their way back to the airport to continue the next leg of their journey.  It was fun to see them.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Felis Inutiles

There are moments in every cat owner’s life when you have to question precisely why that status should continue to apply to you.

I’m not really talking about the random barfing moments that make each day such an obstacle course, though I suppose I could be.  Mithra has taken to barfing on our bed these days, for reasons which are not entirely clear.  Fortunately for me she prefers to leave her gifts on Kim’s side, and at moments when I am either so far gone in exhaustion that I don’t even hear her or actually physically gone (in which case I definitely cannot hear her).  So I can overlook this. 

For now.

No, I’m talking about events that make me question the very purpose of owning a cat.

The cat was domesticated, I am told, because of its prowess in hunting vermin.  Ancient humans looked at this small predator and said to themselves, “Huh.  If I can keep one of those creatures in my home, it will eat all of the unwanted critters that currently eat my stuff.  This sounds like a good deal.”

And it is, when it works. 

Yet the useless lumps of felinity that populate my own home seem to have missed this message.  Mithra is a “catch and release” hunter, happy to bat mice and other small creatures around for a while but ultimately uninterested in any more permanent actions.  Midgie, on the other hand, is the sort of cat who makes you wonder how the species ever managed to evolve in the first place.  Surely there were not ancient cat food vendors out there in Mesopotamia or the Indus Valley supplying kitties with treats.  Or maybe there were, but at some point in history there must have been cats capable of hunting for their supper.

I do not own such cats.

This was brought home to me with especial force this morning, when I went to put on my shoes.

I stuck one foot into a shoe and things were unremarkable.  It was as if I had done this many times before with similar results.  In point of fact, it was exactly that situation.  So when I stuck the other foot into the other shoe and felt something soft and fuzzy, I thought to myself, “This does not seem to be the usual sensation.  I shall remove my foot and dump out whatever is blocking my progress, so I may investigate the causes of this unusual situation.”

Or words to that effect.  Bystanders may not have heard exactly those words, but that was the gist.

So I dumped out the shoe, heard a thump, and went to turn on the light to see what it was. 

It wasn’t there.

Now there are only two possibilities at that point.  Either I didn’t actually feel or hear anything – not very likely, given the multiple sensory pathways through which this knowledge has been acquired (see how I use my pedagogical jargon?  someone owes me a gold star) – or whatever it was had run away on its own power, which had certain implications.

And sure enough, there was the mouse, hiding in the corner.

Freeloading cats!  What good are you?  You are not protecting my home or the things in it from all of the unwanted critters that currently eat my stuff or sleep in my shoes!

I eventually trapped the mouse in a cup and tossed it out onto the lawn.  No doubt it has found its way back in by now, but so it goes. 

Maybe one of the cats will find it first this time.