Monday, July 09, 2012

I've changed locations, at least temporarily. Find more recent posts at

Monday, June 25, 2012

Books #18, #19, and #20

The reading this year comes in fits and starts. I’m bored by books for the first time in my life. More later about this?
  I read this on the Kindle Fire (and iPad3). I like the way the book was formatted to focus on one frame at a time if you choose, or the entire page. It’s interesting to read V for Vendetta as a first-timer after seeing OWS and Adbusters use the Guy Fawkes mask to such effect. Will the radical change of consciousness Chomsky believes necessary before an anarchist revolution actually occur, or are we too distracted and complacent even now? I fear we’re going to have to deplete the Earth even further before we can make positive change.
  Got this for my classroom library. YAWN. The characters are boring and predictable types, the supernatural aspects of the story are tired cliches, and the art was uninteresting. Kids who hate reading might like it, which is all that matters I suppose.

  Picked up a donated copy for the classroom library and read it on a whim. It was, after all, one of the books by which I can measure a good chunk of my near-decade as a bookseller. How many copies of this did I ring up? How often did I stack it at the Info Desk? Who knows? It wasn’t a bad book by any means, though at the time it was hot I had a snooty kind of attitude, something akin to “the Herd is reading this, it can’t be good.” As a descriptor of perennial truth it’s not too shabby. I wonder if the Celestine Prophecy is as good? Will I find out? Likely not.

Monday, June 18, 2012

@ the Wickerman Burn Festival

We returned yesterday from 3 days at Four Quarters campground in Artemas, PA. We were there for something called the Wickerman Burn Festival, which is a mid-Atlantic knock-off of the Burning Man Festival. I liked camping with friends and having a little area all our own for people to visit and trade things. I enjoyed being outside and doing out-doorsy things. I liked seeing (some of the) freaky people, and meeting and talking to a few. But the music wasn't that great, the arts and crafts were sadly lacking, and I'm past the age when glow-in-the-dark bracelets or battery-powered jewelry might interest or excite me. We did get to dance a bit, and there were naked people, and the fire itself was a thrill: a huge effigy burned atop a gigantic pile of timbers, followed by a bit of hedonism. We took a long nap next to the conflagration once it had shrunk enough to get near. I watched burning embers climb a smoke ladder into the starry sky where they vanished, and wondered about early hominids doing the same and creating the underpinnings of religious and mystical thinking re: the heavens above. I would love to camp at Four Quarters again, but I'm not sure about Wickerman Burn. It wasn't a negative experience by any means, but I expected more...creativity? Paganism? Fun?

Friday, June 01, 2012

Day #178

It's close now, the end of the 2011-2012 school year. So close I can taste it. I'm trying not to act like I'm on summer vacay yet, but it's hard. There's so much left to do: complete final assessments, write report cards, plan next week's mini-course on international travel, DJ the end-of-year picnic, rehearse and set-up and break-down and get through the 8th grade passage ceremony at UMB, create the center pieces for the tables at said event, coach my homeroom through their portfolios and student-led conference presentations, look at the end-of year benchmark reading and language data for the 65 kids I have currently and will see again next year, begin planning next year's three academic expeditions, think of final products for said Expeditions. I've got to take courses this summer to keep my certification: Teaching Reading in the Content Area I and II. Yuck. And I just found out that on the new facilities map my room is moving across the hall and down next to the library. This makes room close-out a much more complicated process, and one of our pack-up days has now been co-opted by a School Leadership Team meeting. Oh, and Culminating Event is today. I need to get ready for that, because I haven't, and in a couple hours parents will be touring my room with their kids. I'm starting to choke on it all. I'm going to be the Humanities Team lead next year and I don't feel up to it. Insomnia all week hasn't helped. I'm so tired I bombed out on the Push-up Wars: I only did 67, which is terrible for me, and I came in second to one of the counselors, who did 84, a number I normally crush. I don't like losing those challenges. At least I beat the Phys Ed teachers. Ugh. What will I do with the students in my reg classes next week? I have nothing left to give, but I don't want to show movies. Maybe they can help me clean up. Yesterday on the playground before school: Morganna: "Mr. Geoff, I'm bored." Me: "Why are you bored Morganna?" Morganna: "There's nobody out here I like." Me: "How can someone your age ever be bored. Look around you. The world is an interesting place. What about your imagination?" Morganna: "If I imagine I'll be a big weirdo."

Monday, May 28, 2012

Book #17

For my thoughts and reactions to Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma, you can stroll on over to my school blog. Down the side are links to what my 6th and 7th graders had to say about the book.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Book #16

"words which are but breath to me will last into eternity"--a paraphrase of Sappho Before I decided to become a certified public school teacher I was accepted into the graduate English program at College Park. I'd intended to get a PhD in literature, and had proposed a thesis idea about the paranoid authorial consciousness in Henry James, particularly in works like The Turn of the Screw and The Sacred Fount. Ramsey Campbell's latest takes a similar track, but in reverse. I shan't explain further for fear of wrecking the surprise premise. Seven Days of Cain combines the psychedelic prose and unreliable nature of perception found in his earliest, best work with elements of Pygmalion and Frankenstein. The result is a mostly satisfying novel. Andy is a photographer working for his folk's portrait studio. He and his wife Claire are trying and failing to conceive. As the novel progresses we find out that Andy was once an aspiring writer and that his imagined characters may be haunting more than their author. Occasionally the book gets bogged down in Campbell's late-phase tomfoolery with awful puns and exchanges of misperceived dialogue, but I enjoyed it. The opening half is the strongest work he's done in some time. If you want a thoughtful, moody horror novel, give it a try.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Book #15

Nobel Laureate for Physics Michael Beard is one of the least pleasant protagonists I've encountered. He's a glutton, he's self-centered, he's arrogant, he's devious. He rides on an early achievement and uses it to move from sinecure to sinecure, enjoying a rather lavish life style. He cheats on his spouses and on his lovers. He covers up a murder and steals the work of a colleague in order to get wealthy from patents involving synthetic photosynthesis--while all along caring not a whit for the environment. The novel is peculiarly episodic, and feels more like three novellas stitched together than a cohesive fiction. As always, McKewan's prose is gorgeous and pulls you along even though the work is not up to the standard of Atonement. I thought the same thing about Saturday. McKewan must have read (re-read) Confederacy of Dunces recently--this is the same type of satire, minus the belly laughs. But Beard gets his comeuppance, which provides a measure of satisfaction. I'm a bit puzzled as to what McKewan hopes to skewer in this satire. Environmental scientists? Complacent bastards coasting through life? The current state of Western civilization? The biggest point of Solar seems to be that assholes are a clean, renewable resource.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Book #14

One of my very favorite voices! Stanley Elkin goes off on wild riffs and when he gets rolling it's a prose thrill-ride. This one ain't a top-notch Elkin like The Dick Gibson Show or The Magic Kingdom, but Ben Flesh is a captivating narrator who criss-crosses the country checking up on his numerous franchises, hustling all types of people and dealing with his own deteriorating physical condition and a strange assortment of god-sisters and god-brothers who are all triplets or twins. Yeah, the Flesh is weak, but he's successful nonetheless in this fraudulent facade of a culture where the closest thing to home is a double in the Holiday Inn and your best friend ever is an asshole Brit occupying the same room in the ICU.

Friday, May 04, 2012

Book #13

About 19 years ago I took a short story course with Phil Stevick at Temple University. I was getting my first Master's--it was a peculiar hybrid of academic MA and fiction MFA. Stevick's class was centered on the modern short story, particularly inovators of the 20th century. I was turned on to Calvino, Garcia-Marquez, Borges, Gordimer, Coetzee; this was a mesmerizing course. We were tasked with finding a new potentially important writer who might make a mark on the pantheon some day. I found, via a brief NPR story, a young Native American named Sherman Alexie. The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven had just come out. I read it and critiqued it for the class. I don't recall what I said, and likely could no longer even use that jargon any more. I know I panned the book a bit. It was too precious, too contrived, too redolent of "writer's workshop"--whatever.But there was a spark, an appealing potential... So nearly 20 years later I find The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian in the latest Donor's Choose addition to my classroom library. Home run! I love the voice, the authenticity, the portrait of a young man going through his early teens with all the requisite suffering that age entails, coupled with all the requisite suffering that age entails growing up on the rez. It's funny and sad and full of touching flourishes. I already know which students I'm going to recommend read it.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Book #12

I can't gin up much excitement about Ender's Game. I found it rather wooden and uninteresting. The prose was monotonous. I'd recommend it for several of my middle schoolers who think about war and violence in interesting or surprising ways--it can help kids think through thorny ethical issues I suppose. But it's not my cup of tea. Are the others in the series more of the same?

Friday, April 27, 2012

Hotel Cassiopeia at Single Carrot

How many times has Single Carrot knocked me out? How many times have they vaulted casually over the high expectations bar I bring to their shows? Hotel Cassiopeia was shockingly good. The performances were deep and warm; Nathan Cooper is earnest and open and is taking on more of the burden the dearly departed Brendan Reagan used to carry around stage. Nathan used to be the go-to for goofy or quirky guys in extremis--now he's the sophisticated well-rounded lead. Katie Rumbaugh danced her ass off as the Ballerina, and was creepily sensual to boot. The cast were all great, and not only did they have to act, they had to perform intricate and well-timed choreography using elaborate props. The Carrots often make deliciously innovative use of their tiny North Ave space, but this time it was off the chain. Genevieve de Mahy served as director of this extraordinary and absorbing work, and I was fully involved for all 100 breakless minutes. The play itself is numinous and challenging. It is intellectual and layered and by turns funny and deeply troubling. It had a profound effect on my dreams. I wish I could see it again, but the show is sold out for the remainder of its run. I hope you have tickets.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Sorry--I feel like I've betrayed Blog-Sothoth! I've been blogging for my middle school kids--who are writing blogs this trimester--over at my Middle Grades Humanities site. We're learning about food and nutrition and GMO and all that jazz, and reading Michael Pollan together. Check it out if you're so inclined. The students' blogs are linked down the side!

Monday, April 23, 2012

Book #11

A very enjoyable travelogue of a journey along the old Silk Road from China west to Turkey. Thubron is adept at writing interesting characters, his scene-setting is superb, and his grasp of current events and tribes and situations and shifting boundaries makes for lively and engaging reading. Interspersed with all this are the fascinating historical bits about disappeared civilizations and cities decaying and wasted in the sand. I found his text quite useful for research as I was teaching middle graders about the Silk Road, and as a personal narrative of a difficult journey in troubled times it ranks near the top. He's certainly no Patrick Leigh Fermor, but who is?

Saturday, April 21, 2012

I love my 6th grade reading group

"Don't inarupp me gurl, it makes me stutta," Bre says. She starts to read again, and fumbles three times through the word lecithin. "See!" It's Myja's turn. "Them potatoes have..." Bre: "THOSE potatoes!" Myja: "Gurl, that's what I said!" Bre: "You said THEM potatoes." Myja: "Whatever! Those potatoes have several notorious..." Bre: "Gurl, NOTICEABLE!" Myja: "I said noticeable." Bre: "Gurl you said notorious. Mr. G--she said notorious, didn't she." Me: "Myja, you said notorious.: Myja: "Whatever!" We're reading the youngster's edition of The Omnivore's Dilemma. Kesha rushes over and grabs a Cheetos bag out of Myja's hand. "Dag, it DOES have corn in it. We full of corn!" Bre: "I don't cur. I like curn." Myja: "girl, it's CORN." Bre: "Yeah, curn. I said CURN." Kesha: "CORN, Bre, CORN." Bre: "Curn. How you say curn Mr. G." The Cheetos bag doesn't have Cheetos in it. Myja's been chewing sunflower seeds, which is expressly forbidden in school, and spitting the husks into this bag. Kesha realizes this as saliva and husks drip out onto her arm. It takes a few minutes to get back to reading time.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Day # ?

I've lost track of how many days into the school year we are. I think it's 137 or something like that.

We're restructuring our leadership model at school, and I got to participate a little bit in the leadership team meetings around this work, and now we're interviewing candidates to fill three new administrative/mentoring/education leadership positions. I'm finding the work a bit rewarding because I think my main contributions to the school thus far have been academic; now I can bring many years of HR and management skills to the fore. These skills have been long dormant, to the point I thought they were fossilized--but of the 13 questions we settled on for our interviews, I wrote 4 (and 16 people sit on this panel). I think I said some provocative, challenging, important things today--and I even felt the return of a certain eloquence and persuasive power I've been missing even in the classroom of late.

It's a big drain however--several hours a day after school, and a bruising 12 hour day today! A gorgeous Saturday afternoon spent under florescent lights...

I'll need to bring more skills to my practice and my school over the next few months and into next year. There will be change, and I'm no longer "new" to the school or to urban ed--I'm a veteran in the middle school now, I'll be teaching two classes of the same kids for the third consecutive year plus a new 6th grade class, and I may have to take on leadership of the Humanities committee. If my planning partner gets promoted, I'll lose the most fruitful professional relationship I've ever had--and that means working with a new partner, someone we haven't even hired yet. Ready or not....

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Book #10

I read a handful of books by Dean Koontz about 25 years ago--I found it extremely peculiar a few weeks back that I could have spent so much time with an author and yet I could not remember a single title or character or even a plot outline. Even when I looked at a list of his books I couldn't remember what I'd read. I do remember him having a certain facility with action sequences, but that's about it--I also think he had a story in Harlan Ellison's Dangerous Visions.

So I picked up Odd Thomas, if one can pick up a novel on the Kindle. And it served its purpose as a breezy Spring Break read. Koontz is better than he was back in the day--he's got some humor, and a bit more depth to his characters than I recall. But this book is at best a light entertainment; it's predictable, and the villains are a bit banal and unconvincing to say the least. The narrator is amusing-perhaps next time I decide to slum it I'll pick up another in the series.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Books #8 and #9

This paperback was listed as forthcoming on Amazon for ages, and then it never forthcame and the link disappeared, so I bought a UK edition used via Amazon. Even though his novels tend to be uneven, I enjoy Campbell's prose so much I don't like to miss them. I enjoyed Thieving Fear because it reminds me of many old-school Campbell books about a malevolent dead person trying to invade the world by using the living: The Nameless, or The Influence, or The Grin in the Dark, or half-a-dozen others. But Thieving Fear also includes elements of my fave Campbell novel, Incarnate, where dreams bleed into reality and really wreck everyone's day. Thieving Fear is not as good as the early ones, but it's pretty good. I wish Campbell would rely less on misunderstood dialogue as a method of characterization because it's too difficult for a reader to try and go back and figure out who was supposed to have said what, but I dug it. The climax is over-the-top and somewhere between Clive Barker and HPL, but that's half the charm.

This historic novel posits that Josef Breuer and Frederich Nietszche worked together to create the "talking method" with young Sigmund Freud coaching Breuer at dinner. I enjoyed it quite a bit. The Antichrist never met Breuer, but he could have, and the co-founders of psychoanalysis were indeed mining some of the same territory as the often incapacitated Zarathrustrian fetishist. So the verdict is fun, if you're into novels about psychoanalysis. It's certainly no The Manticore, but it's pretty damn good.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012


I gave up blogging about politics ages ago, and gave up following politics closely shortly after that. But I recall calling that the health care bill would result in a Republican sweep of the House and that the Supreme Court would likely strike it down. The first prediction came all too true. Here's the original post.

And now it seems quite likely that my second prediction is imminent. I'd love to be wrong!

Some wise commentors refuted me; I think they were absolutely correct given a reasonable Supreme Court. But this Court has a bought-and-paid-for majority.

Which way will Kennedy swing? After his Citizens United decision I have little faith he'll do the right thing.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Book #7

I started reading The Civil War in early 2011, planning for what I thought would be a spring trimester focused on said conflagration. I had the idea I'd finish Foote's trilogy by the end of the school year last year. But we switched, largely at my impetus, our focus from the Civil War to John Brown, and though interested and engaged by this book, I languished in its completion. One could be forgiven for taking a year to read this book given its scope and length, but it's certainly not the best approach to so complex and wonderful a text. Foote writes with a novelist's sense of character and timing--allowing weeks to lapse between readings causes one to lose the delicate threads of plot and character, and though Foote draws his generals with exquisite and often endearing precision, it is still without daily readings quite possible to forget who is whom after an absence of some days. So read this--it's fabulous, but read it when you have the time and endurance to stick to it daily. I plan that approach as I continue with Volume II.

Monday, March 12, 2012


If you're a fan of the documentary Hearts of Darkness, you should check out Burden of Dreams. Francis Ford Coppola's awful experiences in the Philippine jungle just might pale in comparison to Werner Herzog's in Peru.

While shooting Fitzcarraldo, Herzog indeed seemed to be cursed. When a huge portion of shooting was complete, he lost his star Jason Robards to a punishing amoebal infection. Robard's co-star Mick Jagger had to part due to Tattoo You tour obligations, and Herzog was forced to go to his backers and beg for more money and time. He was so impressed with Jagger's performance that he had to cut his character from the film and re-write entirely, replacing Robards with his "best fiend" Klaus Kinski and starting from scratch. These problems were only the beginning.

Herzog contends with intertribal politics, rumors that he wants to repeat earlier German racial atrocities in the Amazon basin, Catholic priests who advise him to provide whores at his camps, three rusty river steam boats, environmental catastrophes, oil and mineral and logging companies, the Peruvian military, plane crashes which wipe out crew members, arrow attacks, sickness, insects, serpents, a flat soccer ball, engineers who think his plan will kill dozens of natives, a Brazilian TV star, and Kinski. He tells his backers that if he can't complete this project, he will be a "man without dreams. I refuse to live my life that way."

Of course Herzog maintains his jolly disposition for half a decade in the jungle, giving cheerful pep talks about Art and Beauty and Meaning:

I find Werner's musings endlessly entertaining. I recommend this film even if you've not seen Fitzcarraldo.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

At the Charles...

A very wise film, and timely, as it focuses on an age when the world underwent financial crises and upheavals, as new technologies disrupted and derailed traditional modes of communication and entertainment and it seemed the center could not hold...

And now we're in a similar mess with many of the same troubling variables making life by equal measure more convenient and more vexing. And The Artist gives us space to reflect on what's lasting in these eras of transience; it's charming, sad, quaint, and quite beautifully shot.

Yes, there's more than a bit of A Star is Born, Singing in the Rain, Sunset Boulevard, and even some Purple Rose of Cairo in the mix--but The Artist is not derivative. I really lost myself for a while, and it felt good to sit at the Saturday matinee with a few dozen other old people.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

And what rough beast, its hour come at last...

Things are no longer so lovey at the lovey dovey hippie charter school. We absorbed the 7th and 8th graders from Diggs Middle last year when we took over their building, and worked our asses off to integrate them into our system with some success. A couple of those chuckleheads are headed to City and Poly because of us! But others struggled and are now lashing out. We have only a few weeks left until the last of those students are gone. They want to graduate 8th grade as Diggs students, and they're acting out against the SBCS system. One put a boulder through the Science teacher's windshield and got suspended for two weeks. A few of the more charismatically thuggish boys have gone to some $5 tattoo dude and had their names inked crookedly up their forearms in a neo-Gutenberg Bible script. This of course sends electric charges down the spines of the 7th grade girls, who are drawn to bad boys. Once the 7th grade boys see the 7th grade girls drooling over thugs, they have to step up their street game, and suddenly the sweet sheltered lovey-dovey charter school kids are running gang initiation fights behind the skatepark next to our building after school.

So now I'm running around jazzed and edgy pulling kids apart and getting between kids about to throw down again. I've had a couple years off from that shit and it is not making me happy to be thrust back into it. Especially when I see my former students at the March attending another candlelight vigil.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

My Old School in the news a lot recently, and not for good reasons.

I didn't teach Monae, but I taught the older brother and cousin of one of the boys arrested for shooting her. That's a very rough corridor over East, and I often think of the kids over there. Too many of them end up on the news.

At the end of this year, all the sixth graders I taught at the March will (I hope) graduate the 8th grade and get the hell out somehow.

Friday, March 02, 2012


Hooray for my school. The Governor dropped by today to kick off our new library renovation! You can see some of my co-workers and a few of my 7th graders in the background!

Video here.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Dayzed and Confused

The last period sixth grade class went off the rails today. Within the first half hour I'd sent a third of the class to complete behavior reflections in Student Support. There was a lot of street drama; girls were fuming and threatening to get their crews and stomp someone or other. I was breaking up a fight between 4 foot 2 inch boys when the Big Cheese strolled in my room just as another fight was breaking out behind me--a girl grabbed a boy by the hair and pulled his head down while kicking him viciously in the shins.

After school I was commiserating with some other staff in the math teacher's room. We shared horror stories. "All I accomplished with the sixth graders today was getting them to copy three questions on a piece of paper. That took an hour and 15 minutes!" the math teacher said. Another teacher, from Cameroon, had been called a "black African monkey" by a young African American who threatened to kill this wonderful human being. The Big Cheese walked into our impromptu gab fest. "Take a big breath y'all. It's the long stretch between Xmas break and Spring Break, it was a delicious warm day, and the kids are bonkers. It's totally appropriate at this time to step back and hand out workpackets if they are not available for learning. You have my support!"

To complicate things a semi-autistic student of mine found a dime bag on the floor of my room after school as I was cleaning up. He and another student were marveling at it and saying "I think it's weed" when the autistic kid turned it over to me. A bunch of thoughts burned through my head, primarily among them the idea that both of these students had very active PTO parents who were going to hear about this immediately. So instead of ditching the evidence, I had to turn it in to the Big Cheese, who was like "just flush it--or smoke it," until I told her the kids who'd found it, and then she was like "OMG I have to file a police report just so I can tell those parents that I did something!" Baltimore's finest were bemused. "You should have just flushed it," they said. And then I had my formal observation debrief, which went swimmingly.

Tomorrow the Gov is visiting our school. I'ma hug him for signing the Gay Marriage law in MD!

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Day #112

I might teach at a lovey-dovey hippiefied charter school, but we're still a Title I institution in a rugged urban area. A few weeks back some 8th graders smashed out a teacher's car windshield with rocks. Over the past couple weeks we've had some kids from other schools roll up and start fights with our students over Facebook bullshit. Students have been busted giving fellatio in the project room, laptops, phones, and wallets have been stolen, etc, etc.

Today after last period I went down to the main office to pick up a package, and immediately my sixth sense started beeping. I stepped around the corner from the stairwell right into a whirlwind. Girls were banging each other in the face outside the front door and the conflict had spilled over inside the lobby. Parents were screeching at and threatening one another, there was blood, and I just kind of put myself instinctively between combatants. Things were cooling off by the time I arrived.

The fight was centered around T. Woody and her wanna-be thug shenanigans. She kept messing with an 8th grader who's typically on the straight and narrow, but who finally had enough and stood up. T. Woody popped her nose and bloodied her lip for her before the parents got involved and the staff got between them.

T. Woody lives to create problems. Her soul purpose in life is to sow dissension and strife. She's stout, surly, unattractive, and reads on a 2nd grade level in 7th grade. She has no charm or grace or wit, and yet she has a posse of much more intelligent girls who pay court to her and do her evil bidding. I don't have the intelligence network that I used to have over East or back at the Book--I need to find out what Woody's got that makes her so powerful. She got the hookup for dime bags? She is always at the root of every girl fight or conflict, and typically she's got much smarter girls punching each other for her sake. Today she actually threw down herself. It will take days to cool this situation down.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Day 110

It's ok to be in a funk. Sometimes you'll do an efficient, adequate lesson without all the glamour and glitz--it can be effective. Not everything needs to be exciting and inspiring or some combo of the two.

If I could accept this my life would be so much easier.

Saturday, February 25, 2012


This might be my new favorite comedy by the uproarious Werner Herzog. When a glassmaker dies in a German town where his secret red glass formula employs most men, the owner of the factory goes mad, the local prophet sees Europe collapsing into an abyss, and a dimwit woman who carries a duck dances nude.

Several scenes in the film are gorgeously lit like Northern Renaissance paintings--faces straight out of Breughel and Memling, candle light, somber Puritanical interiors.

The finale is set in one of my favorite places, a spot where I had prophetic visions of my own, and where I was nearly killed by a gigantic sea bird.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Book #6

John Shirley has given us a Hunger Games for adults. Or for adults who liked the Hunger Games but who want more things the Hunger Games doesn't have, like blow jobs.

In the near future, a gigantic tsunami wipes out much of the California coast. The imaginary coastal town of Freedom is mostly destroyed. Those who survive are trapped between the sea and the town's ferociously Libertarian mayor, who refuses any "big government" help. Aligned with a group of meth-head thugs, the mayor attempts to establish his own New World Order, and Lord of the Flies breaks out.

Shirley is a fine writer and his characters are engaging. I enjoyed this grim romp through our near future. I may need some more optimistic futuristic fiction soon, however.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Book #5

Just beautiful. You know the story, of course, but will be surprised at its new setting in the Ming era. Xing Xing is quite appealing as the stepdaughter who works her ass off only for scorn. Demons, dragons, reincarnated fish parents, clever linguistic touches and puns--a treat for YA readers and oldsters like me!

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Weird--after a long hiatus I'm hooked on Frank again, this time via the Sinatra/Tommy Dorsey collaborations. It's peculiar that music from decades before my birth can make me feel a powerful and melancholic nostalgia. Also, In the Wee Small Hours, which I used to find too ballad-y, is just fucking great.

As I typed this, iTunes shuffle play suddenly went Sinatra-mad, running three tracks in a row. Someday I'm going to write about iTunes and synchronicity.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Books #3 and #4

Off to a slow start this year! The first e-book I ever read is one of the first classics of world literature I tackled. I read Notes from Underground (a different translation) in 11th grade and wrote a paper about it; I recall having to write a synopsis of my paper and present it at some event at the Cockeysville Branch of the Baltimore County Public Library.

I think I had more cogent things to say about it then! The narrator is disarmingly aware of his own flaws and the absence of a sturdy moral foundation in the Age of Reason has confused his moral compass and set him adrift. If nothing is meaningful or worthwhile, than the old mores and systems are no longer valid; stuck between a desire to fit in and a desire to mock and destroy, the Underground Man festers like an unlanced boil. His treatment of Liza is particularly brutal. This translation is much less clunky than the one I read decades ago; I also recommend their Brothers Karamazov.

I never read YA fiction until it became a professional necessity. Sometimes I wonder why I read anything else!

The Kite Rider is just a blast, with family intrigue, seedy docks, Mongols and Chinese, the mighty Khan, boats, kites, dragons, spirits, omens and oracles, gambling, and characters drawn with the delicate finesse of a fine calligrapher. Next time I teach ancient China the kids will do a novel study and I'll make them record evidence of culture and traditions. Loved it!

Monday, February 06, 2012

So today I totally stole my lesson from Ms. P. We've been learning about the Silk Road and ancient China and in order to learn about cultural diffusion and globalization she'd compared the Internet of today to the Silk Road of the past. I thought that was clever and interesting and totally ripped it off. Of course I didn't have to steal it because Ms. P sent her graphic organizers and PowerPoint to me when I asked.

At one point we were discussing what the Internet gives us and allows us to do, and one of the boys in the back of the room said "PORN!" I had to smirk and say "Let's keep it school appropriate please!" while inside I was itching to have that conversation. What are the ramifications of globally homogenized desire and standards of beauty/attraction? What are the consequences of young girls and boys watching gonzo porn from an early age? What expectations will they have? What myths? What roles will they adopt? Will people viewing porn around the world have happier, more liberated sex, or will they be trapped in someone else's idea of what's hot? What evidence do we have of a globalization of porn? Bukake? Amateur videos created in Indonesia, Africa, Europe, and the Middle East featuring the standard tropes of California porn?

Were I still teaching at the University level, we'd have had that conversation. I can't do so with middle school kids.

My job challenges me no end. I've never had a job where I felt out of my league so often, continuously puzzled about how to do it and get it done well, where I worked 50 hours plus routinely and had to pick and choose what I could get done. But the challenges not intellectual challenges. I crave intellectual stimulation beyond discussions of pedagogical or behavior management methodology. How much longer will I be able to sustain interest in middle schoolers? I signed up initially for high school placement, but went where I was sent. Now I'm in a school I adore but there's no high school attached to it yet. I'm getting restless.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Milk Milk Lemonade

So last night we finally saw Milk Milk Lemonade at Single Carrot, and I almost plotzed. Genevieve plays narrator, un-developed twin trapped in living twin's upper thigh, a baby doll owned by a young rural boy with gender issues, a poisonous black spider with ghetto attitude, and a chicken-to-English translator. Jessica plays a remarkably philosophical chicken with the soul of a poet, aware of its own sad fate and yet uninterested in escape. Aldo plays the young boy on a farm with talent show dreams and a predilection for barnyard sex play between boys. Gitti plays a neighborhood bully who abuses sissies and wimps while joining the protagonist at "playing house," and Elliott plays grandma, wracked with cancer, who feeds chickens to a slaughter and packaging machine and attempts to make her grandson more masculine.

This is the exact sort of material Single Carrot nails, and they did indeed last night. With choreography! People from DC were waiting in line for the loo with me, gushing about how much cooler Baltimore is than DC because of theater like this.

That's right, bitches!

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Day something or other

So I'm running back and forth between class and the Special Ed office. I seem to be the regular educator of choice during IEP meetings lately. I had 2 meetings yesterday and 2 this morning. They almost always take place during my teaching time so I have to arrange coverage or lessons for my paraeducator (if one is available).

The IEP meetings can be so depressing. Sometimes parents don't show after promising they will. Sometimes they won't even answer the phone when they have an opportunity to be on conference call during the meeting. And sometimes you get them on the phone and you wish you hadn't, and the reason for much of a child's problematic behavior becomes apparent. I don't want to judge anyone, and I'm aware that many families have extraordinarily disastrous situations far beyond anything I ever had to endure. But man some parents are a trip! You leave these meetings sometimes wishing you could just pull out your VISA and adopt the kid.

But I've had a positive week after a pretty painful January. I felt the creative juices burbling, my attitude improved, and I became more lyrical again in the classroom. For example, today class was simultaneously disrupted by a kid sneezing two gigantic green streams of goo out his nose another kid farting like a dirt bike revving. The boogers attached themselves to the one kid's coat, hanging thick and sloppy from either nostril and jiggling like ectoplasmic tendrils. That blew up one table just as the other kid farted loudly and it was FOUL. So it took a minute for me to rein in those 7th graders and I said "I think boogers are funny. I think farts are pretty funny, too. But I know when it's appropriate to laugh about them and when it's not. That comes with being mature. I'd advise you that my Humanities class is not the place or time to laugh at boogers and farts.Unless I'm laughing, in which case it's ok. I'd like to pass you on the 8th grade as kids who are serious about getting into City, Poly, or Western high schools, rather than as the straight-up clowns you were last year."

A friend introduced me to this comedian via Facebook. I run a small reading group of 5 6th grade girls for 30 minutes each day. We're reading Lost and Found from the Bluford Series. Funky Dineva would fit right in.

Sunday, January 29, 2012


This franchise continues to satisfy a basic need for cheesy horror. The story works well given the constraints: we only see what the characters manage to capture on VHS tapes. I like the clever introduction of the video cassette recorder on an oscillating fan base--it's fun, and allows for even more delayed gratification, which is something these films do pretty well.

The best thing about Paranormal Activity 3 is its loving recreation of the 80s. The hair, the clothes, the decor, the architecture, the toys, the gadgets and gizmos--it's a nostalgiac romp through what really was another era of peculiar tastes and attitudes. With demons.

Kindle Fire is a great way to stream flicks like this. The picture was excellent, the sound via headphones is perfect, and if I needed to get up and get a beverage I just carried the thing with me without pausing. Take that, 1980s!

Haint That a Shame Part XV

We went to Nichi Bei Kai last night with Cha's folks. It was a favorite restaurant of her Dad back when they had a location on York Road. Cha had a gift cert so we trekked over to Columbia together.

It wasn't so hot. I'd never been a fan of the old one either. The experience is more geared to theatrical cooking than quality cooking. Even Dad felt the same. The steak was too expensive in his opinion for the quality of the meat. Mom enjoyed her shrimp and salmon, and even ate vegetables. Since her stroke she rarely eats vegetables.

We came back to our place and Dad said he needed to use the restroom before they drove home to Towson. Cha said she would wait in the car with Ma until Dad came back, I came inside with Dad. He took the restroom on the first floor. While he was still in there, Ma and Cha came in--Ma had decided she'd better use the restroom too. They went upstairs to the second floor. I went to the third floor and changed my clothes.

Cha yelled up the staircase to me from the second level: "I'm going out to the car to tell Dad Ma is in the bathroom!"

"I think he's still in the bathroom downstairs," I yelled back.

"No, I just looked downstairs and saw him walk toward the door. I heard him go out!"

I started walking downstairs. I heard Cha open the door and go outside. I met Ma on the 2nd floor landing and walked her down the steps. Dad was just coming down the hall from the bathroom when we got downstairs. Cha came back inside, surprised to see Dad in the house.

After her parents left she turned to me. "Who did I see walking?" she asked. "Who is in the house?"

Sunday, January 22, 2012

I want to take a moment to talk up a great Xmas gift. I just used it for about an hour and a half--and without moving I was able to read a chapter of Thubron's The Silk Road, a few chapters of Notes from the Underground; I was able to check FB several times and play Scrabble, I looked at the news, watched a substantial part of a film called Ip Man, watched part of Persona on Netflix streaming, and downloaded for free or pennies a copy of The Secret History by Procopious and a history called The Fall of the Roman Empire. Then I downloaded in seconds novels by Ian McEwan and William Styron.

Pretty cool!

Of course it's not an iPad; you won't create a lot on the Fire. But you can easily highlight text in your books and look up words and make marginal notes. And yes, Amazon is a competition-killing behemoth. We should watch it carefully.

But, pretty cool!

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Book #2

I'm not ashamed to name-drop: I hung out with Russell Banks a few times back in '93, I believe. I was in the MA in English program at Temple University. The MA had a focus in fiction writing and Banks was a visiting writer one semester. Hanging out with Russell Banks and Toby Olson several times when when I was an aspiring writer was a special opportunity, and though I never actually pursued being a writer after grad school I still think fondly on those days. At that time Banks was working simultaneously on Cloudsplitter and Rule of the Bone. "Rule of the Bone is my leisure time, my fun," he said. "Cloudsplitter is my work."

Rule of the Bone is leisure writing? Have you ever read Rule of the Bone?

But here's Banks with a new novel, Lost Memory of Skin. It reminds me of Rule of the Bone because of the voice of its narrator, but the book ranks with Banks's most complex moral fictions as well. As befits the author of books like The Sweet Hereafter and Affliction, his latest is rather discomforting.

The novel's narrator is called The Kid. Usually if a book's narrator is called The Kid I'm in for a good read. Sam Delany's astonishing dystopian novel Dhalgren had a narrator named Kid. Toby Olson's magical (sur)realist novel The Bitter Half had a controlling consciousness called The Kid (although sometimes the dog's consciousness took over). My high expectations for The Kid-narrated novels were met and perhaps exceeded by Lost Memory of Skin.

I'd have to be in top blogging form to review this book fairly, and I'm not in top blogging form. I did 400 pushups today and drank a half bottle of Lirac watching the Ravens game. Not top blogging form. But here goes!

All the characters in this book are archetypes. The Kid, The Professor, The Wife/The Widow, The Writer. The last archetype's physical description is quite obviously a reference to the real writer's author photo on the book jacket. The Kid is guilty of a grotesque crime, a sexual crime against a minor, and he is wearing a tracking bracelet for the first of 10 years. The Professor muses about weighty matters such as the causes of homelesses and the plight of sexual predators after conviction and their near-inevitable eventual homelessness. The Wife/The Widow I'll not discuss, and The Writer is a kind of deus-ex-machina who drops in to help make manifest the various threads of moral ambiguity at play in the narrative.

So Banks, fearless in the face of deep ethical questions, uses pornography and pedophilia and questions of freedom and responsibility to create a probing exploration of what America's promise has become. We've gone from shining city on the hill to I dunno what, but Banks could tell you. Everyone's trying to get back to Eden but they're distracted by porn and cell phones.

I'm sorry--I owe this book more than this treatment. Too much vino! It's really good, however. I also recommend The Relation of My Imprisonment.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Haint That a Shame Part XIV

I didn't even want to write about this one. I waited a few days. This one felt different. It happened when both of us were completely awake and in the same place. It happened early in the evening on a school night. The lights were on. The TV was on, some insipid fare like "Man vs. Food," I believe. I don't know for sure, because I was seated on the left end of the couch, absorbed in a novel (Russell Banks's The Lost Memory of Skin). The arm of my halogen floor lamp was swung at eye level over the book on my lap. A couple feet to my left, at a 90 degree angle to the couch and along the other wall, sits a love seat. My wife was standing in front of the love seat and facing it, folding laundry into piles and stacking them on its cushions.

Between the couch and love seat sat a folding wooden TV table. It's not a luxurious item by any means but it's sturdy and pretty well-made--Crate and Barrel perhaps? At any rate it's solid wood. Upon this table sat a pint glass filled nearly to capacity with seltzer water. Just next to the pint glass was a tumbler with limeade in it. I'd glanced at the table several times, my eye just able under the glaring lamp of the halogen arm to look at the cold tumbler and consider taking a sip of the limeade. It's not worth the reach quite yet, I'd thought. I'll finish this chapter first.

I'd just glanced at it, in fact, and returned to my novel when the table moved a bit more than half a foot in my direction. There was a substantial noise, the table moved, and I glanced up at Cha, thinking she'd bumped it with her hip while folding clothes. She was staring at me a bit oddly, but I thought that was because she'd almost knocked over a couple glasses, the contents of which were currently sloshing back and forth. I went back to my book.

"Geoff," she said. "That table just moved."

"You bumped it with your hip," I replied. "You were bending over to stack T-shirts and you bumped it with your hip."

She made an incredulous sound with sudden air in the back of her throat. "Look where I'm standing. There is no way I bumped that table."

I did look over; I pushed the arm of the halogen lamp aside and looked over. Cha was a good two feet away from where the table had until recently been positioned. Even her marvelous and substantial badonka-donk could not have bumped the table. She began probing with her foot along floorboards to see if a loose one might have rocked the table. "It didn't rock, it scraped along the floor," I said.

"I know."

We both saw and heard it. We both witnessed it at the same time and in the same way. We were completely awake--involved in tasks, yes, but totally cognizant of surroundings, half-watching TV, etc. etc.

This is the first incident inside the new house.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Day #74

It's really a struggle to get back in the swing this year! I'm not physically tired right now; I spent the entire winter break focusing on unclenching the clenched fist my body had become. I hung upside-down a lot, took a dozen super hot baths, and even went to my massage therapist twice. I read and actually absorbed what I read for the first time in months. So physically I feel really good right now, and spiritually too.

But something's amiss. I don't have the creative spark. I'm struggling to come up with lessons which are coherent and engaging and meaningful. I'm at a loss. I have to teach ancient China and the Silk Road and I'm just not able to pull together a sequence of lessons to get it done. Instead, I'm rushing around in the morning before work throwing something together at the last minute. So far, that's actually worked pretty well, but I need the lesson plan faerie to drop by and give me a boost ASAP. Hopefully she'll be wearing boots.

My boss asked me the first day back how I was doing. "Rested, but not refueled," I told her. She sent me a long email that night checking in and asking for a meeting because she felt the same way. My boss is awesome. It's great to have a boss who can also be a confidant and friend when you need it.

The kids have been squirrelly too. Today I had chaos 2nd period, and they disregarded my repeated requests for quiet until I smashed the bottom of my fist into the board at the front of the room. Papers hanging from magnets jumped to the floor and the LCD projector screen flapped up dramatically. Kids jumped out of their chairs. Hale and Hardy said "why y'all got to make that man so mad!"

"I'm not mad," I said very quietly. "I'm play-acting right now. Hopefully you'll never actually see me mad." I had no further trouble from them. Wish I could say the same for the 6th graders last period!

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Day #70

Had fun teaching today for the first time in a while. I gave a small test on Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery," which we read this week. We talked a bit about tradition and ritual and human sacrifice, and it was hard to get the kids to go as deep into the story as I would have liked because they're in middle school and they've not lived enough to really get its theme; actually, that's bullshit. I wouldn't have spent three days on it if I truly thought that. Some kids made potent connections to The Hunger Games, some thought of our work with the Holocaust last fall. Some asked serious questions about what motivates people, because the idea of a village doing something like The Lottery isn't really that shocking--and that's what makes the story shocking.

Before I gave the test I showed a fun 1969 film done by the Britannica folks. I'd been thinking the kids didn't give a shit about the story, that they hadn't "got" it, and yet they knew each character as they showed up, and often yelled out the dialogue in advance. Old Man Warner was a hit on screen, just as he was in print: "Crazy damn fools!"

After the vid I put a desk in the center of the front of the room and I put a big black box on the desk. I called each kid up by their last name and gave out the test from inside the box. The kids were somber at first and then started shouting dialogue or calling each other "Tessie" or "Mr. Summers" or "Davy."

After the test I called them up again and made them draw a slip of paper from the box. Jon got the black dot first period, and he tried to hide under a table as we all pelted him with paper ball rocks. It was a birthday present for him. 2nd period Gasbag got it. He sprawled face down on the center table in my room as the kids beaned him with paper wads. At one point my principal came in to check out the reason for the cacophony, but when she realized it was sanctioned somehow she let it go.

Monday, January 02, 2012

Book #1

If memory serves, I read a short story collection by Denis Johnson back in the mid-90s--I think there were stories set in an ER? One perhaps about a guy with a screwdriver in his head?

Now he's won a National Book Award for a novel I put in my Amazon cart years ago and forgot about, and he's written Train Dreams, which perfectly inhabits the desolate prairie between Flannery O'Connor and Cormac McCarthy. A fantastic little read to start off the New Year.

Now: back to work, and I'm not ready at all.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Book #46

I close out 2011 with Joan Didion, her subject the lamentably short life of Quintana Roo. Like its predecessor The Year of Magical Thinking, Blue Nights is a deeply sad book, but it is never dreary. Didion at one point writes about her inability to get into the old rhythms of writing, and yet her paragraphs still drift by, the occasional sentence repeating again for rhetorical affect,her pain palpable. Her prose reminds me of Duras with its asequential chronology and impressionist effect. There are quite lovely passages about Quintana which had me turning the book over often to look at her photo, thinking about what I'd read.

I must choose books to read carefully next year, given how Nigh is the End. What books does one read in 2012 when we find out how it all ends? I'll begin the year finishing the books I've substantially started but not completed--that's the hope.