Tuesday, November 30, 2010


Back in the day when I was shelving Literature for Borders I used to look at Robertson Davies books all the time and consider buying them. Here I am 16 years later finishing my first Davies novel, and preparing to enthuse about it.

Fifth Business
refers to characters in operas or dramas who have no counterpart of the opposite sex, but who somehow hold the outcome of the plot in hand. Typically there's a hero and a heroine and a foil or temptation for each, and then the other dude in a largely background role who perhaps kidnaps or holds hostage or snitches or otherwise interferes in the plot to significant effect. That character is called fifth business, and the term fits Dunstan Ramsey, this novel's central consciousness, to a T.

Dunstan is a Jamesian sort of lead: he's leading a rich life in some respects but in many ways he's observed life rather than participated in it. That's not to say he's done nothing: he's a war hero, an educator and author of note, and he's met and interacted with some rich and famous folks. He's largely self-made, but seems to have drifted through life rather than having forged his own glorious destiny. But unlike a similar Jamesian hero, he's not regretful about it. He's content to have fumbled his way. He may be unmarried and lonely, but he's got his curious passions for saints and illusions and his work and he doesn't have any particular damning revelation that life has passed him by without being lived fully.

I'm going to avoid saying anything concrete about the plot because it's hard to manage without spoilers, and you may indeed want to read this. Let's just say that Dunstan witnesses an appalling deed when he's a child and that far in the future that appalling deed still weighs on his conscience. He never imagines, however, that this knowledge will dramatically influence others late in his life.

Dunstan's fascination with saints and guilt and abstention and medieval churches has a lot to say about his inner turmoil. I'll leave it to you to put the pieces together. I'd rate Davies' book with other clever and dense metaphysical mysteries that read breezily--say, those by Iris Murdoch.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Day #51

Not bad today, considering the kids had four days off. I thought they'd be nuts. They were no worse than usual.

I think the lesson we did today was the reason. In order to finish off our Pigtown expedition I had one more learning target to cover: "I can arrage chronologically the industries which impacted Pigtown settlement over time." Instead of standing in front of the class and teaching the industries, I typed them up with descriptions and dates and cut them out and had the kids make timelines onto which they pasted the industries. Can they put them in order? Easily assessed! And the kids like nothing better than cutting, arranging, and pasting shit. It's magical--you bust out the markers and glue sticks and safety scissors and the most reprobate bastards will stay in their chairs with tongues in the corner of their mouths, carefully piecing things together.

Tomorrow we'll use the findings today to make inferences: people used to flock from all over the world to work in Southwest Baltimore because of the B&O railroad. Now there are few jobs available. What happened? I'm curious to see what the kids come up with.

Man, I haven't been sick yet this fall, and I've felt so lucky. I had some minor sinus stuff which didn't even count back in September, but while the rest of the staff were hacking and snuffling I felt hale and hardy. But something caught up with me yesterday: weak, feverish, sneezy, achy. Seems better today but I can hardly breath. Screw it! I asked today for some of my accumulated sick time from the last few years to be paid out in cash. That will make for a nice bump.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Day #50

Man, I'm done. I need a nap, a drink, a massage, a blunt, a hug. The kids were pretty good today until a fire drill second period and then they went haywire. But whatever, I wanted to go haywire too. I got them to watch a video of a couple old dudes who grew up in Pigtown. They talked about the pigs being herded through the streets, and stealing coal off the train cars and getting chased by the dicks. When they said they got chased by dicks the kids paid attention for once.

Four days of a different type of exhaustion are just what the doctor ordered.

Sunday, November 21, 2010


So again we have an unwitting unsuspected cast member taken over and manipulated by Voldemort, and again Harry and crew unravel the mystery just in time, and again there's a magical battle in an isolated place. I found this installment a bit dis-satisfying because it felt like the first volume warmed over, but I did enjoy the Elf's scenes of self-abuse (that sounds wrong).

I suspect this volume served to allow some space for Harry to start thinking about his role and his destiny in a way which allows him to make more important and interesting discoveries about his nature later on, but that remains to be seen.

At the pace I read these in French it's doubtful I'll finish The Prisoner of Azkaban before the end of the year. But I've heard tell it's the best book in the series.


This year marks my 4th in B'more City as a public school teacher. The first year was as a student teacher/trainee. Because I went through the GEI program and the City paid for my certification and 2nd Master's Degree, I was obligated to them for three years of service. That obligation will be up next June.

This year I'll face an enormous decision: should I stay or should I go? Yes, I'm in a much better environment now than previously. Yes, I love the kids and want to help. But teaching is not my passion. Teaching is something I do because I need a paycheck. Sometimes I'm good at it, sometimes I'm not very good at all, and occasionally I might be great. But I don't have the calling.

I leave work each day dragging my ass. I've worked construction jobs, retail jobs and restaurant jobs where I regularly put in 50 to 60 hour weeks on my feet, and I've never been so exhausted when I walk out the door. On the weekends I don't want to stir from the bed, and I can barely get through planning and grading without naps, let alone socializing or exercising or taking weekend trips. I feel weariness down to my bones. I've let housekeeping slide and barely have time for the things which sustain me: books and my wife. I haven't touched my guitar in months.

I don't know what my calling is, but I'm sure I can't ever go back to a desk or cubicle job. I'd jump out the window! Perhaps I should accept that I need some sort of career at this point, and even if I don't feel it in my heart I can at least do teaching fairly well and help some kids. But should I do that in B'more, or should I go into the Peace Corps, or onto a reservation, or should I jump up to high school level and get away from the middle schoolers?

I've got almost a year to think about it.

Saturday, November 20, 2010


I'm at home and hosting a large party. There are guests throughout the house and outside as well. Somehow I'm also proctoring an exam. There are former college students and current middle school students and they're all taking the same test--even some former employees of mine are turning it in. I try to grade one but I'm frustrated to realize that I've given a mish-mash of old tests from previous classes to the current kids. There are vocabulary words in Arabic, Tagalog, English, and French--the kids couldn't possibly know all this shit. I've been too lazy to write a test for their current learning.

As all this is going on I realize the ceilings and walls in the house are growing damp. I go upstairs and some woman is in the shower and water is all over the floor. I think "yeah, it's always something," and go upstairs. There's a fantastic blond in our bed. I recognize her as my best friend from childhood in Pennsylvania. We ran the town together until age 7, and when my parents divorced I did not see her again until I was 21. We kind of huddle up in bed and reminisce. I ask: "Do you remember the last time I saw you? When we were both working at Hunt Valley Mall?" She is sitting behind me with her legs around me and her head on my shoulder. "Did we fool around?" she asks. "No. But you came into McDonald's and several employees were staring at you and making comments. I came up to see what all the fuss was about and you immediately knew me and called me up. We hugged and had a nice chat." Cha walks in and walks around the bed talking about something and leaves, and the blond removes her clothes and displays herself to me. After this we start kissing. I think I shouldn't do this because I'm married, and I get up and walk away to continue grading tests and I'm fretting about the water damage. The blond on the bed meanwhile masturbates herself to orgasm. While this is happening Cha comes in wearing a jester costume and carrying sparklers. She walks between the girl and I but only looks at me. Then I wake.

Friday, November 19, 2010


I'm not in my 70s like the unnamed narrator of this novel, but I have begun thinking like him. Until three years ago I was running 30 or 40 miles a week, I felt more fit than I was in my 20s, and I imagined remaining that vigorous into my 50s. Then: hip problem, knee problems, long periods of rest, a sudden renewal followed by a summer of 5-mile runs and P90X, and then knee problems again. Now I'm lucky to catch an hour of cardio a week on my bike and I'm quickly losing my endurance and I'm starting to think about aging as something I'm not avoiding anymore.

Roth's Everyman is about the decay of the body and the not-so-gradual descent to death. But it's not a glum or morbid meditation. If you've read and loved his other stuff, you'll likely dig this, though the pacing is not as breathless as the work I regard as his peak: I Married a Communist, Sabbath's Theater, American Pastoral, there's still that charmed poignance, the sly wit, that awesome ecompassing consciousness of the American experience. Dude's on an unparalleled roll.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Day #45

I was in despair yesterday. I felt confused and uncertain about what I was supposed to teach, I felt like I wasn't teaching well, I felt like the kids were disengaged and disinterested and that I wasn't differentiating and doing all I needed to do. And then after talking with some long-time vets I admire who said "I feel the same thing every day. But you just keep trying," I felt infinitely better today.

We read a story about an Irish girl and her family in steerage class crossing the Atlantic in the 1800s. I gave the kids vocabulary words from the story for a quiz next week, words like 'stagnant' and 'gangplank' and 'retch.' As soon as I told them what stagnant meant, Otay raised his hand. "Yo Mr. G, I got a new pack!" he said. When I asked what it was he said "them shoes be stagnant." "Your hairline be stagnant," Nimoy replied.

The seventh grade boys were silly as usual, but they were good today. I read the story with them and they made it all the way to the last page before they got restless. I let them get up and I made them all gather on the carpet at the front of the room. One of our vocabulary words was "jostle." I told them to make a crowd and I would attempt to "jostle" my way through to the other side. Their job was to stop me. After a 90-second war of me fighting my way through about 19 7th graders, Nimoy grabbed my shirt and then the Punisher helped him put me down. Then I had 21 kids pig pile me. I let about 3 other kids try to "jostle" through the crowd before I made the kids go back to their seats so we could finish the last page of the story.

I know that 100% of them will remember the definitions of "stagnant" and "jostle" at least.

Sunday, November 14, 2010


Stephen Dixon is one of my very favorite writers. I find his voice and his curious mannerisms and tics enchanting and touching and hilarious. When I found out his uncollected stories were being collected I was ecstatic and as soon as I got the book I devoured it.

The stories rule, except for the "Yo-Yo" one, which didn't quite work for me, though it had all the earmarks of Dixon's work it was mostly a failed exercise. My favorite is the one about a prostitute chosen by Hitler to service him on a trip to a small town. Only Dixon could make that scenario funny. The rest are typical Dixon fare: riffs on break-ups, riffs on aging parents, riffs on shitty jobs and on the creative process.

I'm sorry to say that the small press that published this book left it riddled with dozens of typographical errors of a variety of types. I'm sure this bugs Dixon, because when he signed a copy of Frog for me at a book signing I hosted at Borders ages ago he immediately flipped to two different pages and hand-corrected typos on them. The cover art and design also leave a lot to be desired. But who cares? The stories count. I hope he is working on a new novel, because it's been a while, and I love his novels more than his short fiction.


In this clear and engaging discussion Marie-Louise Von Franz explores creation myths through the lens of Jungian analysis. Creation myths, she argues, are not really about the making of the world, but usually describe the birth of conscious awareness of ourselves as separate from the world. This of course happened to our species in the depths of Time (and the event is nicely re-imagined in Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey). But each of us goes through the process in our youth as well (with quite a few exceptions, alas).

I found her descriptions of the neurotic processes creative people fall into when they cease making Art quite interesting. Now I understand why I've been a basket case much of my adult life. The creation myths, according to Von Franz, give us clues about how the artistic mind functions, and I found a few passages to which I could relate:

there is a type of creative personality who has, in spite of his or her creative gifts, succeeded in adapting and conforming to collectivity and has built up a strong ego consciousness. Such people generally need a smashing-up experience before they can create again.

Hear, hear! I always wanted as a youth to "walk the Earth," as John Travolta said in Pulp Fiction; I dreamed I'd roam around and absorb and write about whatever I experienced. Buying a house and all that other adult bullshit has sealed my Muse in an icy tomb.

Von Franz describes this type of person as one who will gradually cut himself off from contact with friends and family until his isolation drives him to depression and despair, at which point he can start creating again. Or, at which point he starts drinking too much. Sounds familiar!

At any rate, this book is the second Von Franz I've read, and I'm very excited to tackle her Grail Legend, written with Emma Jung. It was recommended to me by a painter friend who is undergoing analysis, and who found it useful himself in un-blocking his creativity.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Day #42

The flu is blasting through the staff and administration, mowing them down left and right. Tuesday this week there were no administrators or any counselors or support staff available. Yesterday the other middle grades Humanities teacher called out sick for today, so I helped a para set up lessons to cover her classes today. This morning that para called out so I had to hook up another para with lessons to cover for the other para covering for the original teacher.

I gave a gigantic map test today to all three classes, and felt for the first time like a Social Studies teacher. Continents and oceans! East Coast states! Major European countries and capitals! Compass roses and longitude and latitude! The kids were freaking out. They need to be freaking out, because this is the biggest grade on their upcoming progress reports, which I finish writing tonight and turn in tomorrow. Good rule of thumb: if you fail the map test, you fail the progress report!

This is a tough point of the school year, but we're almost 25% done!

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Day #41

Some days teaching urban kids are just miraculously fun. These days are still exhausting, frustrating, aggravating, and disturbing, but the crazy things which come out the kids' mouths are so weird and off the chain that I reap big entertainment rewards. Ahh, intrinsic value!

I'm not sure the kind old docents at Mt. Clare Mansion feel the same way. I think by the time I brought the last-period seventh grade boys over that they were about done.

It's amazing that each time we lined up at the door and one of the docents opened it the kids would immediately cluster around me in fear, asking "do she live here?" or "Is she a ghost?"

Other highlights:

LaKia and Shan'non going bonkers when they saw a powdered ladies wig in a glass case. The docent explained that Mary Clare Carroll wore a similar wig as did many ladies of the time. LaKia was all "dem crazy rich white bitches had tracks!" I almost fell out in the 250-year-old dining room.

LaKia strolling directly up to a Charles Willson Peale oil portrait of Barrister Carroll and tapping it on the face with her gel pen and saying "who dat?" I was sure the docent was going to be sick in the nearby chamber pot. "That's a Charles Willson Peale, my dear," she said tremblingly, hoping to discourage touching of priceless art by name-dropping. LaKia was like "Well Charles Pealy Whatever look nasty."

Speaking of chamber pots, when the docent on my second tour asked if anyone could guess what it was for Akeel said "that for dookie."

Standing before a case of Carroll silver and having the purpose of a marrow spoon explained to them, Ariq said "ew, who eats marrow? My dog eat that shit!" and Akeel said "My sister need one of those cuz she love marrow. I'm tired of hearing her trying to suck them bones." This of course lead to much double-entendre.

Upon seeing Mary Clare Carroll's dress with wide hoop on the hips, Jerry commented that her booty must have been "truly epic." I wonder: was Mary Clare's ghost flattered to hear this?

Each time the 200-year-old French mantel clocks chimed the kids jumped about 3-feet in the air. I've never seen such terror. Snakes could not be more effective.

The top five questions today:

1) Is this place haunted? (literally dozens of kids asked this)
2) How many people died here?
3) Did the Carrolls get shot?
4) Can I still collect the reward money if I find Dr. Carroll's runaway slave?
5) Why they no flatscreen up in here if them Carrolls so rich?

LaKia and Shan'non started jawing at each other in the dining room chamber upstairs as the docent described portraits of Tilghmans and Carrolls. LaKia was tired of Shan'non talking when she was trying to hear, so she told Shan'non to shut up. Shan'non said "Fuck you bitch you shut up" and then it was all Ghetto Girls Gone Wild in a house seen by John Adams, the Marquise de LaFayette, and Martha Washington. I had to grab and restrain them and take them out to the stairwell for a dressing down in front of Peale's late 18th-century landscape of the manor's Georgia Plantation.

But all-in-all the kids were engaged, they completed their worksheets, they asked good questions, and they had fun. The 7th grade boys wanted their money back because they didn't think it was fun. But they don't think anything is fun.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Day #40

Just a comedy of errors this morning. I'm taking my kids to Mt. Clare Mansion tomorrow to continue our expedition into Pigtown/B'more history--it's great because we can walk there in about 10 minutes and really get a sense of how important B'more is and was in U.S. history.

In order to tour three classes through the house in three shifts I made a deal with the docents that I would show a video they usually show as part of the tour in my classroom. That way I'd have walking time to and fro and sufficient space to get back and get my next class ready to go, etc.

But the complications started early. I use my laptop and LCD projector in school every day. A couple weeks ago an overly curious 7th grader pulled a cable out of my 5-year old VAIO which pulled the internet jack out and destroyed it. Not a big deal, considering it's a wireless computer--but there's no wireless signal at school, so now I can't show websites or whatever unless I borrow the school's Cricket, which plugs into a USB port and gives me fast and reliable service. So I requested the Cricket for today so I could show the Mt. Clare video on my laptop via their website. But it turns out the Cricket was borrowed and the teacher who borrowed it is at Outward Bound with her kids in the woods somewhere and nobody knows where the Cricket is. So, no biggie, I borrowed a school laptop with a functional internet port and plugged it up and did a trial run on the Mt. Clare website--no problems until I clicked on the video link and the B'more City schools filter shut it down as an "adult video."

The welcome video to Mount Clare Mansion is easily the least racy video on the internet.

So after a while trying to find someone who could get through the filter I got no where, but finally figured out that if I added an 's' to 'http' I could get past the filter and show the video. How stressful!

I hope the kids behave at the Mansion tomorrow. They were ridiculous today--all three classes! Lots of drama and fussing and pushing and throwing things. I'm going to enjoy writing the behavior portions of their progress reports this week...

Saturday, November 06, 2010


I'm in a hitherto unknown wing of our house. I see along a crumbling baseboard a tiny critter which I believe is the mouse I saw climb into our stove the day before. I throw something at it, it stops, and waddles back to a hole in a window well. As it scrapes around a bit at the hole I realize that it is in fact a hedgehog, and then the window well collapses and reveals an exquisite, well-lit kitchen and more beasties, which all rush forward trying to enter the house. An elaborate black and red tufted bird flies directly into my hand, which I put up to stop the surging managerie, and several angel fish, somehow swimming in the air, and other rodents, and a few adorable poodlish dogs variously scamper, swim, fly, hop past me. A Disney film has erupted in my house! I see movement in the strange kitchen ahead and a matronly black woman is looking at me through the hole. I ask if she has a pet bird, and she is surprised by the question, and looks in where the bird is hopping around on the floor by the baseboard and smiles. Then she walks away into another room and I wake up.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Day #37

The special educator at our school has been testing the reading levels of the 7th graders--the kids we took over from the school whose building we moved into this year. The situation is pretty bleak. The average reading level for the 22 boys in my class is 3rd grade. The highest reading level is 5th grade. There are several 2nd grade level readers. This data kind of set me off; I fired off an email exchange with my Humanities counter-part (I teach 6th grade and the 7th grade boys--she teachers 8th grade and the 7th grade girls). We're both in agreement that we should shelve the Pigtown/Immigration expedition with the 7th graders and teach them how to read instead. We had a nice meeting today where we thought up a plan of attack--now we have to sell it and get some extra resources in place.

It's so nice to be at a school where I can feel comfortable saying "screw the curriculum" and asking for resources to just teach reading. That doesn't mean we'll get what we want, but we're in a place where it's likely. Instead of trying to teach these kids at my old school, I'd be yelling at them all day about behavior. Yes, I have to do that regularly with them, but they are by no means on the level with my previous class room experiences.*

Once upon a time I'd have chimed in on the election results. Once upon a time I gave a shit. Let's just quote Mencken, whose Prejudices are out in full flower from the Library of America:

Has the art of politics no apparent utility? Does it appear to be unqualifiedly ratty, raffish, sordid, obscene, and low down, and its salient virtuousi a gang of unmitigated scoundrels? Then let us not forget its high capacity to soothe and tickle the midriff, its incomparable services as a maker of entertainment.

H.L. Mencken, On Politics

*I've been informed by several people that the lack of fighting, violence, and rude behavior by my kids this year has rendered this blog far less entertaining. Thank God!

Tuesday, November 02, 2010


I dreamt last night that I was in my childhood home. We left there when I was 7 and my Mom divorced my Dad. We returned once for a brief attempt at reconciliation, and I went back a few times on visitation weekends before Dad sold the place and moved to an apartment. It was strange to walk around in there again. The house was fixed up and repaired, and altered somewhat from its original layout, which I noted in the dream. There were windows which weren't there before, and a new deck, and a lot more light got in the house. My mom was on the dream tour too. Impressed by the state of the place, I said "we should buy it," and she smiled. She put a lot of work into it--a new kitchen, a new master bath. Of course that was all more than 30 years ago.

Although I had a rotten Dad I still had a pretty great childhood in that house. I had great friends and the run of Stewartstown, Pa. Usually when I dream of that place it's all gloom and doom. Something must have clicked.