Sunday, December 2, 2012

Stuff I Saw

As I continue to work on the final revisions to That Hidden Road, I'm also thinking about how I'm going to assemble the different narrative pieces. Most of the book consists of long chapters that "cross cut" between my experiences on the road and various memories, but there are also shorter chapters that will pop up from time to time, like the "FAQ" writings that I've posted here.

And then there are the comics. My plan is to sprinkle throughout the book several different comics--a couple of multi-page stories as well as some one-pagers. One group of these one-pagers is a short series called "Stuff I Saw," which I intend to appear a little rough, as if from a sketchbook. I did all of the layout, lettering, and art myself. Most of the images are based on pictures I took, and observant readers may notice two of them that already appear on this blog. Anyway, here's a preview of four of the "Stuff I Saw" comics:

A little gruesome, maybe, but I had to pay some kind of tribute to all of the dead animals that I saw. By the way, coming across roadkill while biking is about a hundred times worse than while driving. First of all, there's the smell. Second, there's the fact that I was moving slowly, so I had plenty of time to take a good, long look. Third, there's not much you can do to avoid it. I tried to move around a dead possum in Missouri and almost got hit by a pickup truck.

I love roadside kitsch, and to my mind, there's none better than big statues of fake people. My two favorites are on the bottom row, both found in the tiny Illinois town of Metropolis. The best part was that "Big John" is about ten feet taller than Superman.

Comics are good at amplifying the quiet moments of life, and I tried to keep that in mind when I sketched these landscapes from various parts of the trip. I'm the least happy with the "Tennessee" panel; all of that dark stuff is supposed to be kudzu, which grows crazy-fast and has taken over thousands and thousands of acreage in the South.
Not every dog was my enemy. I made some canine friends along the way, too, and I wanted to get them into the book in a unique way. 

I'm planning to post more of the comics if there's any reader interest, so let me know!

Sunday, November 25, 2012


As far as entertainment goes, it’s tough to beat people watching. It’s free, easy, and you can do it just about anywhere. Sure, some places are more rewarding than others—the airport, Las Vegas, Black Friday sales—because you can always count on the fact that at any moment someone will do something completely devoid of common sense, self-consciousness, or even a rudimentary understanding of basic civil conduct. For my money, though, there's somewhere that tops them all.

The sidelines of any kids’ sporting event.

I’m not sure how many of my kids’ games I’ve attended or coached, but the number is pretty high. And in terms of parental behavior, the sports can differ quite a bit.

At one end of the spectrum is cross-country. The courses are often hilly, twisty, and extend way beyond the bounds of any field of play involving a ball. So, it’s incredibly difficult for parents to observe the entire thing; the best that the most ambitious of us can manage is to jog around to different points in the course so that we can get a quick look at our kids zipping by. This has two main advantages (from our kids' point of view, no doubt). First, parents like me are usually too winded from running from place to place to do much more than clap and offer a “Woo-hoo, [insert son or daughter’s name here]!” And second, there’s something about the sport that invites shouts of encouragement only. When your child is only doing one thing—in this case, running—you don’t really have much to offer in the way of detailed advice. Plus, they’re not listening anyway.

On the other side of things is baseball, where I’ve seen some of the worst parental behavior on display. One reason, no doubt, to the length of the games. After sitting out in the heat by a dusty field for a couple of hours, even the meekest of souls might be stirred to take someone’s life—or at the very least, to do some serious maiming. Also, baseball is a “narrative-rich” game. There are all kinds of little stories going on, and these stories provide way too many opportunities for parents to insert themselves. Consider an at-bat: all those pitches, and with every pitch, the story (and, of course, the shouts of advice) changes. Then there’s the story of a hit ball, the story of a fielded (or not fielded) ball, the story of a steal. For each of these stories, there are multiple characters and perspectives—the team at bat, the team in the field, the various players who become involved in any given play, and naturally, the parents of all these kids. Sometimes after coaching a game, I’d have no voice left because I’d spent most of the time trying to make myself heard over the shouts coming from the stands.

When you study something long enough, certain patterns emerge, so without further adieu, I’d like to present a few characters—all dads—that I’ve encountered over the years. There are more, but these are my favorite. And by “favorite,” I mean “least favorite.”

The Analyst

Anyone with a child on a sports team knows that parents are required to show up at least sixty minutes before game time. Sometimes more, depending on the sport. While the kids warm up, the parents look for something to do. For me, that usually means setting up my folding chair and grading papers. For others, it means chatting over the tops of Starbucks cups. For the Analyst, it means checking out the conditions of the field, listening in on the coach’s pre-game advice, and studying the other team as they run through their drills.

A couple of Saturday mornings ago before my younger son’s soccer game, I was trying to in vain to find something resembling a thesis in one of my students’ papers when one of these dads saw me. I was hunched over, pen in hand, brow furrowed in concentration. So of course he assumed that I wanted to talk. Or rather, to listen.

“This is gonna come down to our midfielders,” he said, nodding.


“Last time we played these guys, they killed us in time of possession. They got some big guys. Big, but not fast.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Field’s pretty sloppy in the center.” He paused here to point out some dark spots on the grass. “There, there, and there. If our guys are quick to the ball, they can use their guys’ size against them. Didn’t hear Coach mention that though.”

“You should say something,” I said. And let me get back to grading.

“Yeah…yeah, I think I will,” he said, nodding, as he trudged across the sub-par field, pausing to more closely study the spots that would figure in to his unbeatable strategy.

The Macho Man

For some odd reason, this dad has linked his own sense of self and masculinity to his son’s performance on the field. Sadly, this psychodrama usually plays itself out publicly and almost always involves tears. The son’s, of course.

I’d see it all the time in baseball, usually when a kid got plunked at the plate, or caught a grounder with his chin, or was hit in the back as a base runner by an errant throw. When you think about it, baseball with young kids is insanely dangerous; they’re unskilled, usually hopped up on some post-school sugary snack, and wielding aluminum clubs and rock-hard orbs.

Once, one of my players was at bat, turned toward a high, inside pitch, and took it square on his left cheek. Now I’ve been hit with a baseball before. It hurts. And this kid started howling. Another coach and I ran over to him with our league-issued ice pack, and before we got to him, his dad was at the backstop fence, fingers locked into the chain link. He had sunglasses on, and I assumed that behind them was a look of concern. I was wrong.

“Suck it up and get back in there!” he shouted to his son. “Be a man!”

We iced his face, calmed him down, and got him back at the plate. He was terrified of the ball (and who wouldn’t be?), but I think he was more scared of his dad.

Mr. Advice, aka “Captain Obvious” (this nickname courtesy of my son Tony)

This is the dad who knows exactly which kid should be doing what and how. He’s not the coach, mind you—No time with work and all, out of town a lot, you know how it is—but that doesn’t stop him from liberally dispensing pointers at the top of his lungs.

During an 8am basketball game one Saturday morning, in a gym that was so cold it might as well have not had a roof, I was sitting next to a Mr. Advice. While most of us were trying not to succumb to hypothermic shock, this guy was on his feet for nearly the entire game. I couldn’t really gauge the breadth of his basketball knowledge because he was concerned with only one thing: how often the kids would pick up their dribble, get swarmed by the defense, and turn over the ball.

Now, this was rec ball and these kids were pretty young, so the scene described above pretty much sums up every game. Most parents accepted this, but Mr. Advice was dead set on helping out.

“DON’T PICK UP YOUR DRIBBLE!” he’d yell from in front of me. Then he’d catch my eye.

“Why do they pick up their dribble?” he’d ask. I’d shrug. He’d turn back to the game.


In the spirit of full disclosure, I have to cop to being a Mr. Advice in my past. With soccer, no less, the sport about which I know the least. I had all kinds of tips for the kids, and I didn’t hesitate to share them during game time. Then one season, my son Nick’s coach had a fun idea for a practice: kids versus parents. I jogged out on the field, confident in my ability to carry out the very obvious instructions I’d been shouting every Saturday morning (Get there! Kick the ball! Stay with him!). Ten minutes and two handball calls against me later, I’d fallen to the ground twice (once while trying to Kick the ball!), been completely unable to keep up with kids a third my size, and suffered a simultaneous attack of vertigo and hyperventilation that I was convinced was a mild stroke.

From that point to precisely the present, my sideline comments have been nothing but enthusiastic support.

It should be noted, however, that people might not share your conception of “support.”   For example, I discovered the hard way that shouting “RELEASE THE KRAKKEN!” is not universally seen as a rallying cry.

One last comment. There are plenty of different types of moms on those sidelines, too, but they frighten me too much and I’m not about to tick any of them off.

Friday, November 16, 2012

FAQ Check, Part Deux: Godfather Time

Here's another question that I've been asked about my cross-country bike ride: "Did You Get Bored out There?"

And here's my answer:


Biking for six, seven, even eight or nine hours a day—often on seldom-traveled roads in wide-open landscapes—I had to invent ways to keep myself entertained and distracted.

For instance, I’d make up little stories about the things I saw on the side of the road.

A water bottle filled with cloudy yellow liquid became a trucker’s emergency bathroom, filled while driving and then tossed out the window. He’d been breaking the speed limit all night long ever since he’d checked his phone in Phoenix, saw that his daughter had left a message, and heard only part of a garbled sentence—You’d better get back here fast—then nothing else.

A plastic triceratops was a teenage boy’s revenge on his younger brother, who was getting all the attention on the family vacation and generally making the car trip miserable. I could almost see the younger brother napping, the older brother snatching the dinosaur and then dropping it out the window of the moving car.

A broken syringe was cast off from a young couple—rail-thin and heroin-addicted—on their way south, following the road by day and wrapping themselves in an old blanket at night.

During a five-mile stretch near Jacumba, California, I spotted a red onion or two about every hundred feet. The reality was that they had probably squirted loose from some truck’s cargo, but reality can be boring. I preferred this: a husband and wife are on their way home from the market, where they’ve stocked up on red onions for pickling. The basket sits between them in the front seat. The wife looks out her window while her husband divides his attention between the road and the back of her head. He’s losing her, he knows. In fact, he’s pretty sure she’s already gone, thinking of someone else. He reaches a dirt-caked hand into the basket and pulls out an onion, feeling its heft. He squeezes it and asks a question. When she answers with what he suspects is a lie, he tosses the onion out of the window and grabs another. Onion after onion out the window. I was just getting to the part when that basket is empty, but then the road dipped precipitously and I suddenly had other things to worry about.

These were games, and I’ve always loved playing games—especially with my older brother, Vince. “Ker Plunk,” “Sure Shot Hockey," or "Life.” Home Run Derby with a wiffle ball and bat. Nerf football outside with some of the neighborhood kids. Vince, being several years older and wiser than the rest of us, was always head coach and quarterback. We’d invent games back then, too. Once we found an egg-shaped superball. It was as hard as a little rock and bounced in violent, unpredictable ways. So naturally, the game we came up with involved throwing it at each other. I stood at the top of the stairs, Vince stood at the bottom, and we whipped it back and forth for either a direct or ricocheted hit. We called the game “Acid Egg,” and if a guy got hit, he had to writhe around on the ground for a few seconds as if his flesh was burning.

There were no acid eggs on the trip, but there were awful winds, and during one brutal stretch in Kansas, I decided that the thing to do was sing every television theme song that I could remember as loudly as possible. The trick was not to swallow any bugs. I started in on the easy ones first, shows that Vince and I had spent hours watching together, sprawled across the gold shag carpeting of our living room. Gilligan’s Island, The Brady Bunch, The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres. Next was a Norman Lear medley. All in the Family, The Jeffersons, Maude, Good Times. After that, random songs that I knew most of the words to. WKRP in Cincinnati, Welcome Back Kotter, Laverne and Shirley, The Love Boat. When the words escaped me, I’d make something up. My brother has always had a gift for getting all the words to a song the first time he heard it. Naturally, he hated when I improvised. Pedaling into the wind, cornfields on both sides of me, trying to remember exactly why Chico shouldn’t be so discouraged by the Man, I could hear Vince’s voice cut through the whistling in my ears.

If you can’t sing it right, then don’t sing it.

But my favorite game, which I invented on my fourth day out while riding from Glamis to Blythe through southeastern California, was called “Godfather Time.”

About seven miles into the ride that morning, I was already tired, fighting the strongest headwinds that I’d ever experienced. I had a long way to go that day, and as I stopped to catch my breath, I took note of the time: 7:00 on the head. Later that morning and still far from my destination, I stopped again at the ominously-named Three Slashes Road. I checked my clock again: 9:55. I’d gone a little over twenty miles in two hours and fifty-five minutes.

The exact running time, coincidentally, of my favorite movie, The Godfather.

I could have watched the entire Godfather in the time it took me to bike those twenty miles in that desert wind tunnel.

From then on, when I needed to distract myself from some pretty miserable biking, I’d measure out the ride in Godfather units.

Less than a week later I was headed to Tuba City, Arizona, through desert terrain in high-90 degree temperatures, approaching the end of my first eighty-mile day. I saw a billboard for a Tuba City McDonald’s proclaiming that it was JUST 15 MINUTES AWAY.

In a car, schmuck!

I looked down at my speedometer. On an uphill grade, as loaded down as I was, as tired as I was, my top speed would barely reach above four miles per hour. Just fast enough so that I wouldn’t tip over into the ditch. I was looking at about another hour, assuming the grade didn’t get any steeper—an assumption, I’d learned, that it was neither safe nor smart to make.

In Godfather time, an hour would stretch from the film’s opening line—I believe in America, delivered in blackness—to roughly when the crooked cop McCluskey breaks Michael Corleone’s jaw.

In other words, a long god(father)damn time.

In the time it took to climb to Wolf Creek Pass and reach the Continental Divide in Colorado, I could have watched from the opening line to just past Sonny’s brutal death on the causeway. One hour, fifty-seven minutes.

In the time it took a biker I’d met to explain his philosophy of nutrition to me one endless evening in Missouri, I could have watched up to the scene where movie producer Jack Woltz finds his beloved horse’s head in his bed. After thirty minutes of this guy prattling on about sugars this and breads that, I was picturing his head—and not the horse’s—lying on top of Woltz’s bloodied silk sheets.

In the time it took me to bike on the I-40 in Arizona from Ash Fork to Williams, on a grade so steep that I passed two semi-trucks catching their breath on the shoulder, I could have watched up to the scene where Don Corleone calls in his favor with the undertaker, Bonasera, showing him Sonny’s bullet-riddled corpse. Look at how they massacred my boy...

And in the time that I spent climbing on the Cherohala Skyway, a punishing ride through the Appalachian Mountains that twisted and turned through what seemed like eight hundred false peaks, I could have watched The Godfather twice. Twice. The whole time climbing.

Anything five minutes or so—pedaling from one end of Dodge, Kansas, to the other on a quiet Sunday morning; getting from the Longbranch Coffeehouse to the Bicycle Surgeon in Carbondale, Illinois; taking a bathroom and sunblock-reapplication break near White House, Tennessee—was a “Baptism of Fire.” To the uninitiated, that’s the five-minute bravura sequence near the end of the movie that crosscuts between Michael in church, standing as godfather to his sister’s newborn son, and a series of violent gangland executions that he has ordered.

I saw this scene for the first time at some point in the 70s, when The Godfather made its network television premiere. The piece that struck me the hardest was when Moe Green, naked on a massage table, gets shot in the eye. One lens of his glasses spiderwebs, blood flows from beneath it, and his head slumps forward. I’d never seen anything like it, and for a second I kind of believed that they’d actually murdered a guy on camera.

“What happened?” I asked Vince, who was watching with me.

“Easy,” he said, shrugging. “Blood pellets.”

It wasn’t much of an explanation, but I felt lucky to get a verbal response at all. Most of our conversations at the time went like this: I’d ask a question and he’d make a face. College was on the horizon for him, and I was still in grade school, so while I’d be looking up to him, he was looking somewhere else—probably at a future that didn’t include an annoying little brother.

Despite its impact on me, the “Baptism of Fire” sequence is not my favorite part of The Godfather. Neither are any of the film’s other famous scenes. No, my favorite part is one that most people don’t notice, and the scene itself doesn’t even last long enough to serve as any kind of useful measure in my little game. It doesn’t, in fact, really mean anything the first time you watch the movie; it’s only when you watch it a second time do you become aware of the loss that it registers.

About halfway through the film, Sonny and Michael are going over the final details of their plan to kill Sollozzo, the drug dealer who put out a hit on their father. In a few minutes, Michael will be picked up by Sollozzo and his bodyguard for a sit-down where the two of them are supposed to negotiate a truce. But a gun has been hidden for Michael at the restaurant where the meeting takes place, and he’s going to use it to kill the two men. Right after, Michael will be whisked off to Sicily to hide out until everything blows over. Before Michael leaves for the meeting, he says goodbye to everyone, saving Sonny—his older brother—for last. Sonny agrees to “smooth things over” with both their mother and Michael’s girlfriend. The two brothers look at each other and then embrace.

As they hug, Sonny and Michael think that they have all the time in the world, that somewhere down the line, they’ll get together again.

But they don’t; a few scenes later, while Michael is in Sicily, Sonny is gunned down, and that embrace of theirs turns out to be the last time that they see each other. Whenever I watch that scene, I tighten up.

For me, it’s not as much about death as it is about drifting. When we’re young, the world sometimes seems like an endless series of games. Everything makes sense and problems can be solved by checking the rules on the inside of the box top. That security is a sham, of course, but it’s easy to fool our younger selves with tidy explanations. Easy. Blood pellets.

But things change when we get older. We have to work harder to explain the things that confound us. We gather obligations. Our lives become messier. Through all of this, brothers can drift apart. I think about this with me and Vince. I think about this with my sons, Nick and Tony. Like me, like Vince, the two of them have only one brother.

So is there any other way I can watch that scene in The Godfather? Sonny and Michael hug all too quickly, and I want to say to them, to those two brothers, “Pay attention, guys. It might not ever be like this again.”

Sorry…what was the original question?

Sunday, November 11, 2012

On a Positive Note...

I feel like I need to offer a little bit of balance to some earlier posts—including the last one—about the state of today’s college students. Yes, it’s fun to focus on problems (like not bringing books, paper, or even a pencil to class), and yes, it’s much easier to entertain with these little anecdotes than with the feel-good stuff, but it’s also important to give credit where it’s due, and the truth is that I have encountered some incredibly motivated and talented students over the last fifteen years.

Before I get to my woefully incomplete list of these students, though, I have to say a few words about teaching.

To put it bluntly, I love my job.

In fact, I’m so grateful doing what I do that I try not to talk about how great it is; at best, it would seem like gloating, and at worst, I might jinx it. But the truth is that I get to talk to students about ideas, enrich their lives through reading and writing, and help them define and reach their goals.

And I get to do this at a community college—the most truly democratic institution in our educational landscape in that it has a 100% acceptance rate, affordable tuition, and outstanding instruction. If one believes, as I do, that a broadly educated populace makes for a healthy society, then it’s the community college that will help get us there.

But back to my students. Below is just a fraction of recent students who are doing amazing things since passing through my classroom:

One is working on her teaching credential and is currently doing classroom observations at a local middle school. She’s one of many of my former students who have chosen to go into teaching.

Another just transferred to UC Riverside, where he’s already been accepted as one of a handful of fiction editors on their literary journal.

Another, also interested in writing, transferred to UC Berkeley to study creative writing. Next semester, he’ll be one of thirteen students who was accepted into a workshop that will be taught by Joyce Carol Oates.

UC Berkeley was the destination of another former student. While at Palomar, he started our English Majors Club. After graduating from Berkeley, he worked at Google for a while and is now heading to law school.

Yet another one of my former creative writing students (who was also an editor on our literary journal) is currently in a master’s program at Portland State University.

It’s not all about books and writing and literary stuff; one recent student, a navy veteran, is currently enrolled in business school at UC San Diego.

Another one just started a Ph.D. program in Socio-Cultural Anthropology at Cornell (after finishing a Master’s degree program at Columbia). She’s already published one article with a second one on the way. When she was at San Francisco State, she put together a collection of creative and personal writing by women that she had worked with in the community.

Okay, so we’re back to writing.  Here are two more:

One woman entered my creative writing class several years ago as a returning student. She’s been working as a tutor in our writing center for the last few years, but she’s also been working on her own projects. She recently published this book, and is hard at work on her second.

And another student took a couple of composition classes from me as a sixteen-year-old. She transferred into the USC film school (no easy feat), received her degree, and recently published her first novel with Simon & Schuster. Her second novel is coming out in the spring, and both are the first installments in two separate middle grade/young adult fantasy series.

My apologies to the many other former students of mine that I haven't listed here but who have nevertheless worked hard to achieve their goals. I’d love to hear stories from others about your positive experiences as either student or teacher and how your hard work (on either end) has paid off.

Monday, November 5, 2012


A few weeks ago in one of my classes, we were discussing what is perhaps the greatest piece of argumentation ever written, Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Our focus on appeals, structure, and imagery eventually gave way to a conversation about larger issues of inequalities in our society, the nature of protest, and empowerment.

Teaching at a community college, I see these issues—especially the last one—as central to my students’ lives. For the most part, my students find their way to my classroom for two obvious reasons: they can’t afford four-year school or they couldn’t get into a four-year school. There’s another reason, too; they believe, as I do, that education is empowering.

The problem is that a lot of students define “empowerment” in purely economic terms. That is, an education equals a job, and a job equals better pay and financial security.

There’s no denying that people with a college degree have greater earning power than those who don’t, but that’s not the only way that the educated are empowered. A well-rounded education fosters an attitude of active engagement with the ideas and issues that shape our world. Provided, of course, that students are willing to become engaged.

Some of my students are still working on this, as I found out last week.

As a rule, I avoid discussing election specifics, but this year there’s a ballot measure in California regarding educational funding that directly impacts my students. If Proposition 30 fails, the public K-12 and higher education school system is going to face massive, mission-altering cuts. The number of courses alone—coupled with the inevitable spikes in student tuition and fees—will derail most of my students’ educational plans. Some will be derailed permanently.

So when I asked who was eligible to vote, almost every hand went up. And then, when I asked who was actually registered to vote, about half came down.

For a few seconds I was speechless. Then I let them have it.

I told them that a big reason why education has dropped so far on the funding priority list is that people their age don’t vote, and lawmakers know it. As long as young people choose to remain uninformed about the political issues that affect them and refuse to make their voices heard at the ballot box, then there will be little incentive in the halls of power to change things. Public education—the “great equalizer,” in Horace Mann’s words—will continue to get strangled out of funds, test scores will continue to drop, teachers will continue to be blamed, and education will become more and more expensive until access will be limited to the wealthy.

Their responses were predictable. I don’t know who to vote for. They’re all crooks. My vote doesn’t matter.

These were just examples of lazy thinking, and I told them so.

If people try to silence your voice, that’s one thing. King and his fellow civil rights activists knew how to respond to that.

Silencing yourself, though, is something else entirely, and if today’s students hope to be truly empowered, then they need to realize that education is about more than a piece of paper, and it’s about more than collecting a bigger paycheck. It’s about finding out what’s going on and taking part.

One way to do that is to be an informed voter. It’s not just our right; it’s our obligation.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

No Easy Rider

A vivid memory from my cross-country bike ride (yes, it's an excerpt from the book):

It was getting late on my fourth day out, and I’d stopped at a gas station called “Wheelie’s 76” in Palo Verde, California.  I’d just inhaled a S’mores-flavored energy bar, a Milky Way, a banana nut muffin the size of my fist, a pint of chocolate milk, and a one-liter bottle of fruit punch Gatorade.  I didn’t know it yet, but some version of this obscene caloric intake was going to become a typical midday meal for me, and even though an hour after consuming it I’d be hungry again, those first few post-snack minutes always left me sated and, sometimes, a little woozy.  That I was standing in the heat and the wind didn’t help.  As I walked to the bathroom behind the building, I could hear the liquid sloshing around in my stomach, and I could picture little chunks of muffin floating in a sea of brownish-red fluid—or whatever color chocolate milk and red Gatorade make when mixed. 

This soupy mixture lurched as the stench from the bathroom hit me.  The best I can say about that space was that it was almost big enough to accommodate the pile of sanitary pads and dirty diapers on the floor by the garbage can, the half-eaten burrito by the sink, and the used clumps of toilet paper that fell a little to the right of the toilet itself.  I breathed through my mouth as I swiped a fresh coating of Chamois Glide over my saddle sores and reapplied sunscreen over the exposed parts of my legs, arms, and face.  I got out of there as fast as I could and was just about to roll back onto the road when my phone chirped.  It was a five-word text message from my buddy Jerry in Chicago: Dude, Dennis Hopper just died.

Flashback to me as a kid, circa 1979.  I was in the sixth grade, and every day after school I’d be spread out on the gold shag carpet in our living room, the television tuned to Channel 7 for The3:30 Movie.  There was a different theme each week, but I only remember two:  “Animals Amok!” (Frogs, Night of the Lepus, Food of the Gods) and “Jack Nicholson.”  On the last day of Nicholson week, they showed Easy Rider, and even though it was edited for television—ridiculously edited, I’d find out years later—I was immediately caught up in the story of Billy the Kid and Captain America and their idea to just drop out and hit the open road. 

It was beyond me then to pick up on any cautionary messages about the hazards of that open road or the complexities of freedom; I didn’t dwell too long on the image of both men dead alongside their burning motorcycles, and I’d completely missed Peter Fonda’s line, “We blew it.”  At that point in my life and for many years after, I absorbed road stories through a filter that blocked out everything except that thrill of doing your own thing and to hell with what anyone else thought.  I watched the scene where Hopper, Fonda, and Nicholson get harassed by the anti-hippie guys in the restaurant, and I let myself believe it was a reflection of my own life, where I saw The Man hard at work bringing me down at school, at church, and at home.  Spelling tests and phonics workbooks.  Report cards and parent-teacher conferences.  Dressing up on Sundays.  Chores.  The monotony of my parents’ lives and jobs.  Dad to work at seven.  Dad home at five.  Dinner at six.  Hey, what’s your dad do, anyway?  I dunno.  Goes to an office.  Weekend chores.  Two weeks’ summer vacation spent on another driving trip to New York to see the same relatives and friends.  Rinse and repeat.

All those rules and all that regularity weren’t for me.  On the road was where things were happening.  As long as I stayed out of the South and away from guys with shotguns in pickup trucks, I’d be fine.

So I began hitting that open road.  Of course, it wasn’t on a motorcycle; it was on the banana seat of my metallic orange AMF Roadmaster Renegade.  And by “road” I mean sidewalk, and by “open” I mean carefully bordered by trim lawns and little fences made of white plastic posts connected by white plastic chains.  I would have liked a helmet with the stars and stripes on it like in the movie—it seemed wrong even though I couldn’t say why—but they weren’t for sale in my suburb.  The best I could do was my plastic Chicago Bears helmet.  Back then kids didn’t wear helmets at all, so after a few taunts from some older kids on the other side of our townhouse development, I tossed it back in the basement.  None of that dampened my enthusiasm or the guitar riffs of “Born to Be Wild” that I felt in my chest. 

I brought the road inside, too.  In one of my comic books, there was an ad for posters.  Farrah Fawcett in that orange swimsuit, John Travolta in his white disco finery, Bruce Lee and his bare chest.  They were the big sellers, and they sat atop a few columns of tiny typeface.  And there, hiding in that small print, were the words  Easy Rider.  I talked my mom into writing a check for me, and six-to-eight weeks later I was standing on my bed and thumbtacking into the wall a full-color image of Fonda and Hopper tooling down the road.  If my parents had known a little more about movies, or about 1960s drug culture, or about my growing restlessness with the predictability of our normal lives, they would have been upset about much more than the holes in the unblemished tan wall, which is what my dad yelled about when he got home from work.

I’d lie on my bed and stare at those two on their bikes and imagine myself on that highway.  Only maybe not on a motorcycle.  Maybe in an old car.  Or hitchhiking.  And maybe not even a highway, exactly, but something like it, where the whole point would be to roam the great unknown and have adventures and not have to deal with ordinary, everyday bullshit.  Thumbtack holes?  Gimme a break.

In the Wheelie’s 76 parking lot, the wind blew hot across my face, pulling me out of my memory.  As I read Jerry’s message again and tried to come up with some suitable response, my right knee grew stiff bracing myself against the dry gusts that had been pummeling me all day.  The sugar I had ingested was starting to congeal in my gut, and I took a long drink of water to wash the stickiness from my mouth.  I put my phone away.  Palo Verde didn’t amount to much, but its geometric fields were green and lush and a welcome change from the white desert that I’d just pedaled through.  I had a little bit further to go to get to Blythe, a bigger town on the Colorado River, which I would cross the next morning.  I hoped that I’d have the energy to get where I was headed.  

I knew I should get back on the road, but I couldn’t move.

What was I doing out here?  Why wasn’t I back home with my sons, relaxing in front of the TV or taking a walk or doing any of the things that normal people do?  I was a forty-two-year-old man on his bicycle.  This wasn’t Easy Rider.  How the hell did I get here?

The answer wasn’t simple.  Before I left, ten different friends would ask me why I was going, and I’d have ten different answers.  The one that had the most traction was direct and simple:  I want to see if I can do it.  Many of these friends knew me for being politically active at school, which meant fighting with the administration.  They’d also seen me through chemotherapy.  Locking onto a challenge like a cross-country bike ride must have seemed to them like a natural extension of my personality.  But in my head I was a lot less sure.  Part of me was doing it because cancer had made me feel weak, and I wanted to do something big that would make me feel strong again.  Part of me wanted that big adventure that I’d dreamed about when I was younger.  Yet another part of me was starting to really understand the truth that our most precious resource—time—is irreplaceable and constantly being spent, and once I got the idea of a cross-country bike ride in my head, it was joined by a vivid and frightening image:  me, as an older man who’d passed on the ride, thinking, I should’ve done it. 

And then part of me felt like I’d had some solid ideas about who I was, but they turned out to be not as solid as I thought, and what I needed was to find a new way to see myself, where I was, and how I’d gotten there.

I held my phone and waited for something to come, but those five words seemed to say it all.  Dude, Dennis Hopper just died...

Digitize This!

It’s a common scene in today’s college classroom.  The students file into class, the professor begins to discuss that day’s reading, and out come the electronic devices.  The students aren’t being rude, mind you.  Well, maybe that one guy in the back with a laptop is actually checking Facebook or looking for hubcaps on eBay (this has happened before).  But the rest really are looking at their reading, because more and more students engage with the written word as a digital text, more or less on part with an email, or a text, or a tweet.  The problem from my perspective is at least twofold.  First, they come to regard all of this writing on par with each other, so it's not unusual for them to turn in academic papers with "i" for "I" and "u" for you.  Second, reading complex texts on a screen prevents them from doing something that they desperately need to do:  practice active reading, especially in the form of marking up texts with underlines and asterisks and plenty of marginalia.  When unsophisticated readers--hell, even sophisticated readers--encounter difficult material, they need to work hard to get the most out of those texts, but they don’t see it that way; most of my students—the ones who do the reading, anyway—just want to consume the assignment as conveniently and painlessly as possible.

Now, I’m no Luddite.  I’ve got an iPhone, I use social media, and I can program my DVR with my right hand while I’m checking with my left.  I’m not, in short, like the rest of my family: my parents, who have never owned a computer, and my brother, who still uses a VCR (the Walgreen’s by his house has stopped selling VHS tapes, so he hoards the three or four that he has left like it’s the post-apocalypse and they were cans of tuna).

I do, however, draw the digital line at books, and not just because e-reading works against my students’ best interests.  It’s also because I’m a reader who loves to hold books, feel the pages turn, smell the rich scent of ink-infused pulp.

All of which makes the release of Chris Ware’s Building Stories earlier this month the publishing event of the year.  At least to me.

For the uninitiated, Ware is the James Joyce of comics, pushing the boundaries of the form to their limits, and then some.  This latest book of his is about the lives of four people who, for a time, share space in a Chicago apartment building.  But it’s not simply a “book”; instead, Building Stories is fourteen separate comics that come packaged in a box about the size of a board game.  And the comics themselves take different forms.  There are a couple of little hardbacks (one of which looks like one of those “Golden Key” children's books), fold-out strips, a newspaper-style pamphlet, a huge poster whose central image is a life-size drawing of a baby, and others that defy easy description (see picture above).  With no direction in terms of how to order these stories, it’s up to readers to create their own master narrative; with fourteen different books, the number of different combinations for that master narrative is over 87,000,000,000 (that’s a factorial right there, baby).

Some comics readers find Ware’s work to be a little remote and a lot depressing.  In Building Stories, though, he shows how effective comics can be in revealing the humanizing details of our lives.

It’s difficult to reduce this book to a simple explanation, which is part of its point.  It’s also impossible to reduce this book to a digital copy, which for me, is a huge part of its appeal.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

FAQ Check

When people find out that I rode my bike across the country, they ask me lots of questions. Often the same ones. So in today's post--the first in a planned series--I'm going to answer one: "Were you chased by dogs?"

I was in Prescott, Arizona, sitting in a booth wedged into the corner of a Mexican restaurant, a little hole-in-the-wall place that didn't serve alcohol but let you bring in your own. The owners provided some help to the handful of diners who entered with bottles and paper sacks: hanging on the wooden posts throughout the place were corkscrews and church keys. I had just made use of one myself, prying the cap off of an icy cold Sierra Nevada that a guy named Dave had passed to me.

I'd met Dave about three hours earlier. He'd been out for an afternoon ride and was coming down the switchbacks south of Prescott as I was heading up. I was at the tail end of a long day of climbing. Dave, a seasoned tourist, took one look at me and my loaded rig and made a laughably off-the-mark assumption. He thought I knew what I was doing. Later, over dinner, the truth of my inexperience came out. I was a guy who knew a little bit about biking and even less about touring, and I was trying to forget how little I knew with a string of Sierra Nevadas.

Still and all, Dave was interested in my trip, and he fired all kinds of questions at me. Eventually, the conversation zeroed in on the hazards of the road.

"Been chased by a dog yet?"


He leaned back, smiled, and raised his bottle as if he was making a toast. "Don't worry. Before this trip of yours is over, it'll happen."

He was right.

But before it happened--and holy shit, it happened a lot--I'd thought about what to do. My original plan was simple: in my handlebar bag was a pepper spray fogger that I figured would work on dogs, provided I could dig it out in time.

But then the advice started rolling in from people I met along the way. Dave showed me his hand pump, which he strapped to the top tube of his bike. The pump was a little bent, and it got that way beating back an unleased Rotweiller in Kentucky some years before. The clubbing approach was a popular one; two days later, when I mentioned to a ranger at the Grand Canyon that I was going to cut through the northeast corner of Arizona, she told me to be sure I had a stick. "For the rez dogs," she said.

In Utah, at a gas station, a guy approached me as I leaned against the building and wolfed down a package of Twinkies. After he asked about flats, he asked about dogs. He'd done some biking himself and favored a water bottle--not for clubbing, but for squirting. "A good shot of water in the face'll turn 'em every time."

A lot of advice came from Colorado bikers. A young guy that I met somewhere between Durango and Pagosa told me that whenever he saw a barking dog ahead, he'd pedal right at him and "back the sonofabitch down." It made sense, but I wondered how it might work in a flank attack. Another guy was brief and direct: "Pedal your ass off." Two days later, a couple I stayed with warned that I should never try to outrun them because it just makes them charge harder. The thing to do, they advised, was to stop and let them know that I wasn't scared. But what if I was? I thought. Any dog worth his kibble would see right through that shit.

And in eastern Colorado, on a stretch of road where the mountains had melted into plains, I met a young guy who'd been on the road for a few months. The back of his bike was stacked high with supplies, all covered with brown tarps and trussed tight with bungee cords. A crumpled cereal box poked out of the top. Sun and rain had faded its multi-colored four letter name into a single, sickly hue of pinkish-gray, but I could still read it: life. Under a clear sky, train tracks to our left and alfalfa fields to our right, he told me that dogs were pack animals, so they always obey the top dog. "Just bark at them," he said. "They'll back down if you're louder." It sounded reasonable to me at the time, but it turned out to be the single worst piece of advice that I received on my trip.

I kept waiting for a dog to charge, even in remote areas. I didn't want to be caught unawares. I made sure that I could unclip my foot quickly, in case I had to deliver a quick kick to some mutt's chops. On empty stretches of road, I'd practice my barking. I felt like I was honing myself into a combat-ready biker, prepared to meet any and all canine challenges. God help the dog that dared attack me. My tactics were spiritual, too: whenever I stayed with someone who had a dog, I'd make a point of becoming its best friend, trying to build up good doggie karma. This plan led to some unwanted leg-humping, but I endured it in the name of appeasing the four-legged, tail-wagging gods.

It wasn't until Kansas that I got the first chance to try out my bark. A big red chow came through a hole in his fence, making a beeline for my rear tire. Or foot. It was hard to tell. I turned on him and started to bark--a staccato burst of ugh-ugh-ughs that I'd sharpened into what I thought was a perfect announcement that I was Top Dog, Leader of the Pack, the One Who Must Be Obeyed.

It wasn't.

He looked up at me and began to snarl and slobber in earnest. As our eyes locked, an unmistakable message passed from his to mine. Now I'm going for that ankle, you sonofabitch.

Three things worked in my favor: it was early (so I had energy), the road was flat, and this chow had no doubt been living a cushy life of couch naps and snausages on demand. I resorted to instinct. I pedaled like hell.

It took a brown boxer in Missouri, three pointers in Illinois, and a golden retriever in Kentucky to learn a very simple lesson: never, ever, never bark at dogs that are chasing you.

Sometimes dogs would appear out of nowhere, as if materializing out of the land itself. Other times I'd see them coming and have all kinds of time to chart their angry trajectories. Still other times I'd hear them behind me, and I'd force myself not to look and see how big, how close, how fast and angry and committed they were.

Is it too much to say that when you're alone on a bike and contemplating the world and your meager role in in it, that dogs take on a higher significance? That, like some of the disasters that befall us, they're small and manageable? But like others, they roar out of nowhere and scare us shitless? That we can go crazy trying to figure out how to deal with them, but in the end, all the advice is just useless talk? There are no shortcuts or easy solutions; only experience provides what we need to face all of those things out there that mean to do us harm.

I finally figured this out when I hit North Carolina. It was my second day in the state; I'd spent the first day climbing for six hours, and my ass was thoroughly kicked. That morning, though, seemed more promising. I was heading through the Nantahala Gorge, on a road that was just starting to fill up with canoe-topped jeeps and SUVs. The sun was out, but the gorge was deep--so deep that the shade forced me to take off my sunglasses. Right after this, as I rounded a bend, I saw them.

Two big dogs--one dark brown and the other with spots. If I was standing next to them, they would have easily come to just under my waist. They were leashed together with a chain, but not to anything else, and between this crazy configuration and their studded black collars, they looked like characters from an all-dog version of The Road Warrior. As soon as they saw me, they started barking and lumbering down the hill to my right, picking up speed. I thought for a second about the damage that the two of them and that chain stretched tight between their thick necks could do to me.

And then I thought about the nine states behind me. About crossing the desert and climbing the Rockies. About those Godawful Kansas winds and Ozark rollers. About eight straight days of rain through Missouri, Illinois, and Kentucky. About climbing back up the eastern part of the country--the Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee and the Appalacians.

And these two fuckers thought that they could take me on?

I slowed as they charged.

"No," I said. I didn't shout. My voice was even and clear and sounded a little strange to me.

Amazingly, they pulled up about twenty feet away and stared.

"No," I said again, and like the first time, I heard--no, felt--something in my voice that I hadn't before. A conviction that these dogs had no choice but to stop, and if they didn't, I was going to show them what almost fifty days on the road, a human brain, and two opposable thumbs could do. If it's true that dogs can smell fear, they didn't catch any scent of it from me that morning.

They looked around, at each other, and then circled each other and whined. The chain snaked between them, clinking over itself in the low grass. Dark Brown noticed something in the weeds to his left and ambled over. Spots followed, not that he had much choice.

And that was the end of my dog problems.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Keep Your Eye on the Ball

When my boys were younger, I coached their little league teams. Most of the time running practices and managing games were the highlights of my day, but sometimes--sometimes--the experience of working with squirrelly boys was a teeth-grinding exercise in self-restraint.

It's my considered opinion that baseball is the craziest sport to try to teach kids. First of all, there are the rules, which can be mind-boggling for someone new to the sport (How come I have to tag him? Last time I just had to touch the base!). Second, there's the down time, which allows kids to discover all kinds of fun alternatives to paying attention: digging holes in the outfield grass with one's shoe, asking to go to the bathroom four times during the second inning, spitting sunflower seed shells at each other. And third--maybe the biggest problem of all--is that one of baseball's fundamental components is, arguably, the hardest thing to do in all of sports.

I'm talking about hitting.

The beginning of every season was rough going. Several kids had swings that looked like they were trying to club a bird in flight. Some would spin their whole bodies around when they batted. One kid, James, always closed his eyes as the pitch sailed toward him. He got plunked. A lot.

I felt a little lost. My bag of tricks was limited to what I'd seen of other coaches, so I made my players do the same lame drills like hitting off of a tee or soft toss, and I gave the same lame advice like Throw your hands at the ball! or Keep your eye on the ball! Finally, I decided to do some research on what they did in the big leagues.

What I discovered blew me away. Turns out that there's not a whole lot of difference between how amateurs and professionals get better. The same basic drills, the same basic advice. One of the greatest hitters of my generation--Padres legend Tony Gwynn--once remarked that he always hit wiffle balls off of a tee to improve his swing.

It also turns out that professionals have a tough time hitting. If you're a major league baseball player with a .333 average, then you're a beast, and one who's probably in contention for a batting title. I can't think of any other profession where failing two-thirds of the time constitutes greatness. That's how hard hitting is.

I think about those days that I spent on the dusty, hard-packed infield, my elbow numb from hurling batting practice, whenever I talk to my students about writing. Or rather, whenever I talk to them about why they hate writing. Which they do. Not all of them, of course, but a lot of them. What's most frustrating is that their feelings are based on the misperception that writing is easy. They think that experienced writers churn out words with ease, are always confident, and always get it right.

Utter bullshit.

Writers work hard at what they do. They wade through draft after draft, throw LOTS away, pull out their hair, and are convinced at least twice during any given sentence that the words they're spewing out are steaming turds. A former student of mine who just sold her first book said that she wrote twenty drafts of it prior to publication. Twenty.

My students are convinced that their problems are unique, but for every excuse they come up with, there's an answer:

I suck at grammar.
Honestly, I couldn't have told you what a subordinating conjunction was until I started teaching the stuff. Practicing good grammar is not the same as knowing grammar terms, and it's the latter that students equate (wrongly) with writing. The simple truth is that good writing takes practice, and a big part of that practice is reading. If you read, you'll absorb a lot of grammar. Good writers might not be able to tell you the precise difference between a compound and compound-complex sentence, but they'll know how to vary their sentences to create lively prose.

I can't think of anything to say.
No one can the night before a deadline. There's a reason why baseball players don't walk out of their cars and onto the field at game time. In order to deliver their best, they need to warm up. The same goes for writers. Freewriting, drafting, reading, sharing, and discussing are all things a writer can do to invite ideas. It's true that you can't force inspiration through your door, but you can coax it a little bit and be ready to pounce when it appears.

I procrastinate.
Get in line. I started this blog over a month ago, and by this time I'd planned to have more than three posts. Next to my laptop is a legal pad with a list of things I intend to write, but this list is growing way faster than I'm able to make myself work. The problem is that it's easy to waste time. I can't tell you how often my fingers will be poised over the keys when my mind suddenly asks, What's the difference  between gelato and ice cream? or Have you ever seen any cool videos of leopard seals? or Who have the last thirty number one NBA draft picks been?

I ramble too much.
Hoo boy, here we go. An early draft of this particular post was a shapeless, meandering, overlong version of the paragraph above. The plan was to describe my problems with procrastination by detailing how easily distracted I am with the internet, but it got out of hand fast, rambling on for pages about my obsession with fantasy football, how much I love lists, a half-baked analysis of the impact Len Bias and Hank Gathers might have had on the NBA, and something about missile silos in Kansas. Any point I was trying to make got drowned out by all the noise, so I scrapped it. Still, though, it was good to write. It helped me find what I really wanted to say.

It's tempting to think that the books we read tumble effortlessly out of an author's imagination, but it just ain't so. Another thing that just ain't so is that Miguel Cabrera woke up one day with a perfect swing. That swing, which just won him the first Triple Crown awarded in my lifetime, took a lot of work, and it still misses the ball's sweet spot more than it connects.

The trick is to not give up. Take James, my player who closed his eyes. He'd convinced himself that hitting a ball was something he couldn't do, so why bother to watch? But then a funny thing happened. In a late-season game against the Diamondbacks--a team that had run up the score on us the first time we played (their manager was a total douche)--I told him that he kept getting plunked because he closed his eyes. Apparently he'd had enough welts and bruises, so James kept his eyes open and cracked a real beauty that sailed over the manager's kid's glove, went into the gap for a double, and sparked a nine-run inning that avenged our earlier humiliation.

Letting ourselves believe that a vast universe exists between superstars and us mere mortals keeps us from putting in the work that needs to be done if we're going to get anywhere. If my writing students could have seen James's big-league smile that day, they'd quit their grumbling and hit those keys.

Monday, October 1, 2012

The Sound of One Hand Typing

I was in writing lab the other day, trying to answer my students' questions about their graded papers, which I'd just handed back. These questions were fairly typical: "What should I do in my introduction?" "What do you mean by 'more details'?" "What's this word you wrote here?"

Eventually, they hunched over their keyboards and got to work on their revisions. While they wrote, I tuned in to the sounds of the room. Shuffling papers. Mumbled conversation. The drone of the air conditioning. A static-y hum from the overhead projector. And the soft, steady taps of fingers on plastic keys.

This last sound dominated the others, but even so, it was muted, and that bothered me. Like what was being written lacked energy. Well, I knew that was the case for the most part; I had, after all, spent most of my weekend writing things like "vague" two hundred and fifteen times on their papers. But there was something else bothering me. Something about the way things change.

It's been a long time since I heard an old typewriter. It's a beautiful sound. Lots of sounds, really. The clackclackclackclack of your fingers on the keys, the pinnng! as you approach the end of a line, the whirrrr as you slap the carriage back to the right, and the satisfying thock as it locks into position, ready for action again. When you wrote on a typewriter, you cracked through the silence of whatever room you were in and made the kind of racket befitting the struggle of what writing is--wrestling thoughts into words.

When I think of old typewriters, I think of my parents' kitchen. In a house filled with 40-watt bulbs whose dim glows were swallowed by brown and burnt-orange lampshades, that kitchen table was the brightest spot in the house. It was the place where I did my homework, and it was the place where my mom did her work, too.

Her work was writing letters. She was the one who kept tabs on our sizable Italian family. Aunts and sisters and nieces and nephews and cousins and cousins' kids emanated like spokes on a hub where the hub was Brooklyn and most of the spokes led to New York's other four boroughs. Some spokes reached further. Jersey, Florida, California, and Chicago, where we lived. My mom was the one who knew that Uncle Vito's son Vincent had just bought a house in Yonkers, or that Antoinette and Jerry's girl Martha was engaged to a "very nice guy with a good job," and that her cousin Tony wasn't talking to his son because he and his Irish wife didn't name their first son after him, as was the custom.

As my dad watched the news or a ballgame in the other room and I agonized over story problems in the kitchen, my mom would lug what looked like a giant tan suitcase down from upstairs, set it across from me, flip open the top, and reveal the old Royal typewriter inside. Then she'd pull out the small stack of letters she planned to answer that night, roll a sheet of paper onto the carriage, and start in. My mom didn't know QWERTY, but she had some system of her own that let her hammer steadily away at the keys, stopping only every so often to unjam two typebars that had the nerve to clunk together.

The noise of that typewriter perfectly suited my mom. She's a woman who, for most of her life, would have been affectionately described by the people close to her as loud. When she wasn't writing letters, she kept everybody entertained as her quips and comments tumbled out in a thick Brooklyn accent. And sometimes they had a little edge to them.

Once, years ago, a neighbor complained to my mom that her kids went through twenty rolls of toilet paper in one week. "Twenty rolls!" the woman had shouted in a nasal twang. After that point, whenever my mom referred to this poor lady, it was never by her real name (which I can't even remember). Instead, she had become "Twenty Rolls."

When I was in graduate school, my dad had to have bladder surgery. I drove up from Indiana to help out for a few days, and on the morning of the operation, I drove them to the hospital. Before we left, my mom and I were sitting in my car, waiting for my dad. He was walking slowly around his Sable, looking at the tires, checking the doors, running his hand over the hood. My mom nudged me with her elbow and deadpanned, "Your father's saying goodbye to his car."

But all of that's changed now.

In early 2009 it became clear that my mom was suffering from dementia, and her decline since then has been slow but steady. Once possessed of a formidable long-term memory, she could remember who wore what to some wedding forty years earlier, and she could recite verbatim what people were whispering about it. Now, while she still recognizes immediate family, she'll arrive at family gatherings, ask the same two or three questions, then sit quietly until she's ready for my dad to take her home. Conversations are impossible. Since she's in Chicago and I'm in California, our main connection is a phone call every week or two, and that call is dictated by a tight script that fills about thirty seconds before she has to hand the phone off to my dad. Even less if I ask too many questions that require more than a yes or no.

As my students typed stories from their lives, it occurred to me that our lives are stories, and while we'd like to believe that we're writing them, the truth is that sometimes they're written for us and don't always end with a satisfying resolution. My mom's story is one of those, slowing and fading as if it's being typed with one hand on a soundless keyboard.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Teaching the Dude with No Stuff

Teaching has been taking over my mind these last few days.

Maybe it's the Chicago teachers' strike, or maybe it's a couple of ballot measures in my state that could profoundly change public education (Yes on 30!  No on 32!), or maybe it's that the college where I teach just wrapped up the fifth week of the semester and I've got stacks of papers to grade.

I should be working, but I'm thinking about teaching, so I'm going to write about that.  About a student. 

One of the reasons I love teaching at a community college is that my students are so diverse.  It's a rare semester when I'm the oldest person in my class, and there's a wonderful mix of cultural background and life experiences and points of view that I never experienced in my own schooling.  I've taught first-generation college students, single parents, newly unemployed heads-of-households, the physically-challenged, and a whole host of others.  By and large, I get energized by my students--their stories, their questions, their observations.

But there's one student that I'm starting to see way too often in my classes.

I call him the Dude with No Stuff.  He shuffles into class late (when he bothers to shuffle in at all), slumps into a seat (usually in the back), and sits there with his hands folded across a desktop as blank as his mind.  When we discuss the reading, he pulls out neither book nor handout; when we do in-class writing, he leans to a neighbor to borrow paper and pencil.  This really gets me.  I've been known to ask the Dude with No Stuff, "Would you go to a P.E. class without shoes?"  Uh, no...  "Then why would you go to a writing class without something to write with?"

Sometimes a little embarrassment does the trick, and the Dude with No Stuff becomes the Dude with Some Stuff--in other words, a dude that doesn't raise my blood pressure.

I say "dude," but this behavior cuts across gender.  I've seen both men and women in my classes without any class materials.  One of their favorite activities is to stare down at their crotches and smile.  It took me a while to figure out that they're texting a friend.  Something really important, I'm sure, like class soooooo boring wt r u up2.  At least, I hope that's what they're doing.  Maybe they just like their crotches.

Before I embarrass them, though, I'll give them the benefit of the doubt and ask them (privately, of course), if they're waiting either for financial aid money to come through or to get paid.  But this question is kind of a formality.  The students that are financially strapped and dedicated to their education have already been in touch with me, asking if copies of the books are on reserve or in the library or available anywhere else.  Those are the students who understand that nobody should care more about their education than they do, and that getting that education is not a right; it has to be earned through hard work.

No, the Dudes (and Dudettes) with No Stuff are just sleepwalking through higher education in much the same way that they probably drifted through high school.

So how do I teach the Dude with No Stuff?  I don't.

Oh, I give him a chance to change.  I'll discuss the value of education and the work it takes and the options that it creates for those who do the work.  I'll talk with him about effort and expectations.  

But if he still shows up with no stuff, then I'm done.  He's welcome to take a seat (he--or someone--paid for it, after all), but my energy is finite and I'm spending it on the people who at least take the trouble to bring their book to class.

I've been thinking about the Dude with No Stuff in light of all the news and debates and forecasts about the state of education.  How public schools are failing.  That if a business produced such a shoddy product as today's graduate, why, they'd be put out of business and damn quickly.  This is my least favorite popular misconception of what it is teachers do--churn out a "product."  Schools aren't factories for lots of reasons, but the biggest one is that in a factory, workers can at least expect a certain level of quality raw materials.  

The materials that a teacher gets to work with--the students--are hardly "raw" and far from perfect.  They exist in complex, often challenging family and socio-economic conditions that sometimes exert tremendous force against the learning process.  They may come to school tired or hungry--two conditions that make them extremely resistant to any kind of "molding."  They may not get much support at home or from friends.  Or they may just be lazy and see nothing wrong with showing up to class with nothing but a cell phone.  

As a teacher, I can assign reading and homework, but I can't go home with them and force them to crack open the book.  I can tell them everything I know about writing--that it's a process, not a night-before-the-paper-is-due-frenzied-typing-crapathon--but I can't force them to give that process a try.

The problem with most educational reform plans--other than the fact that very few actual educators are involved in their writing (they're too busy teaching)--is that they're based on the assumption that everything is within the teacher's control.  Low test scores?  It's the teacher's fault.  Poor grades?  Blame the teacher.

The problems that face education--like most things--are complicated.  But the biggest problem is that we live in a society where people want simple answers and someone to blame, and our politicians are more than happy to provide both.  The truth is, there is no quick fix and no obvious culprit.  

Well, there may be a culprit.  The Dude with No Stuff.  That guy really bugs me.