Monday, October 31, 2005

Dr. March

Everyone who takes Dr. March’s human rights class ends up falling in love with him a little. It’s his passion for the subject that gets to you. Unlike the many burn-outs checking off days till retirement, March is that rare teacher who lives and breathes his subject 24/7.

He comes into every class session energized, laden with handouts and ready to spark another day’s discussion of the death penalty in Texas, children working in sweatshops in Asia, imprisoned rape victims in the Middle East and any of a thousand other examples of bruises on the soul of humanity.

Dr. March is a true believer in doing the right thing. And one of the right things he does is to expose his students (under- and grad) to the horrors human beings have inflicted on one another. The usual subjects come up—the Holocaust, Pol Pot, Chechnya, the Sudan—but he is careful to include events such as the Indian Removal Act and the Rape of Nanking that too often are left out of high school history books these days.

I remember the night in class that Dr. March screened footage of woman being stoned to death by a jeering crowd of men in a street in Jordan. It was so horrifying and graphic that a woman in our class vomited and then passed out at her desk. Every Monday night, we’d stagger out at 10 p.m., heads throbbing and stomachs churning from his description of what it’s like to die by lethal injection (he’s witnessed many) or from watching a documentary about Cambodia’s Killing Fields.

Every December, Dr. March takes a group of students on a tour of the Nazi death camps. Only someone this dedicated could celebrate Christmas by visiting Poland’s bleakest sites in the dead of winter. But it’s what he does to make sure new generations know what happened.

Year after year Dr. March has enjoyed a reputation as one of the toughest but finest professors in the history department. His classes on the Civil War, Civil Rights Era and “Struggle for Human Rights” fill up quickly, despite warnings that he requires mountains of reading, half a dozen research papers and up to 20 hours of outside volunteer work for a human rights organization (I volunteered to help a Somalian refugee earn legal immigrant status, which she eventually did).

The man is all business and no-nonsense in class. He doesn’t kibitz about anything trivial, which makes him something of a mystery. Only through the campus grapevine does one hear this or that about his private life—that he might have a girlfriend, that he lives in a house filled with books and legal papers. It all helps to bolster his image as enigmatic, slightly romantic hero.

One January, just before spring semester began, he left town to protest the death penalty on the steps of the Supreme Court, something he’s done many times. The Capitol cops arrested him and held him without food, water or requisite phone call for several days (or so the story went around school). In class, he talked very little about it, except to quote the cop who cuffed him as saying, “The First Amendment stops on these steps.”

When Henry Kissinger was welcomed to campus for a speaking engagement that paid a bundle, March and a few others occupied the campus’ tiny “free speech zone” to protest the presence of the man many from the Vietnam era still regard as a war criminal.

March talks the talk and walks the walk—but without ego and without bravado. Whether he’s visiting another Death Row prisoner in Huntsville or serving as head of Amnesty International, he’s quietly serious and sincere.

So why would a university try to oust such a role model? For his politics? Surprisingly, no.

Back in the day, during a protest, March was sprayed by police directly in the face with mace, nearly blinding him. He wears Mr. Magoo glasses and admits to being colorblind. So a few years ago when the school switched to a new computer program for entering students’ grades and other info, March realized he couldn’t make out the shaded areas on the screen, much less the tiny print.

For this he was out, he was told. Can’t get those grades in on the computer? Buh-bye.

Then someone in HR was reminded that you can’t fire an employee for a disability. Ouch. An assistant was provided to help Dr. March enter his grades—a solution so screamingly simple, it’s no shock that nobody thought of it earlier.

How do I know about this? March never mentioned it in class. He wouldn’t, probably, because he’d rather spend time on what he believes are bigger issues. But he shared it with writing students who interviewed him for class assignments. The first time I read about his almost-firing in an interview paper, I burst into tears. (March was so generous with his time for my writing students that I sometimes warned classes not to swarm him asking for interviews.)

Idiots, I thought. They’re idiots.

Dr. March likes to end the semester by telling his classes, “Now you can never say you didn’t know.” I tell you, it gets you right in the solar plexus.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Word Nerd Fun #10

Last week's winners for best neologisms (it's a tie) are Dr. Bear and Alicia. Email me your addresses at and I'll get your prizes out to you.

OK, this week's fun with English lingo goes like this. Some of our golden oldie figures of speech and folksy sayings are getting lost. Only a few students over the past four years -- exactly one, actually, and she was in her late 20s at the time --knew "A stitch in time saves nine." Only a handful per semester had ever heard the phrase "as the crow flies" and what it meant. So here's a little puzzler for you. I've reduced five well-known sayings to their first letters only. Example: ABITHIWTITB is "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush."

And there's an extra step. After posting your answers to the five I've given you, post one of your own and let the rest of us guess. Best puzzler gets a Family Guy (TV show) keychain.

Ready, steady, go:

Friday, October 28, 2005

Come back, Little Sheba

I have not forgotten to blog. Just too many things in the way this week. Plays to review, jewelry orders to fill (I'm making necklaces and bracelets out of "taterquoise," faux turquoise made from chunks of dried potato and painted to look like stone... really, you have to see it) and suddenly I have many freelance stories to type.

The weekend promises some free time. I'll be back with a short writing exercise and an essay about "Dr. March," the heroic human rights prof the school tried to fire for the stupidest of reasons.

Check back. New words will appear shortly.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

And you wonder how they get like that?

Highland Park is the swanky neighborhood that surrounds the university campus. HP High School sends many a grad to the place. Wonder how the kids get to be snotty, elitist punks? Check out this story from the neighborhood paper. (Linked via our friends at The FrontBurner blog at D Magazine.)

Brian Williams, Tom Brokaw and their worst interviews ever

Good story at Women's Wear Daily.

Back later with this week's Word Nerd fun and a new essay. Weather's too nice to stay inside! And who knows how long it will last? So I'm outtie with my camera to explore the wonders of autumn.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Writing Workshop Lesson 10: Fat Questions

To get to the meat in an interview, you have to ask fat questions. That requires some prep time beforehand and it also takes some moxie and good sense of timing. You don't want to jump in with the prickliest query right away. You work up to it, sometimes gently, sometimes forcefully. But you never, ever leave without asking what you're there to ask.

When I ask students for names of great interviewers, I get the list of the usual suspects: Oprah, Larry King, Barbara Walters. They're wrong, of course. Those are three of the worst interviewers in the biz.

Oprah seems too interested these days in what she has to say, not in what her subjects are saying. And she is so syrupy and obsequious with other celebrities that she practically apologizes for asking them anything (examples are her recent empty exchanges of air kisses with Jennifer Aniston, Tom Cruise and Maria Shriver).

Larry King? Mister "I never prepare"? He doesn't read the books or see the movies and he's proud of doing it cold every night. Often, like old Joe Franklin of local Manhattan TV in the 1960s and '70s, King jumps wildly from topic to topic, seemingly unaware of who's sitting across from him in that Lite-Brite studio. (A writer-friend was on his show a few years ago and reports that King has terrible breath and a rather audible flatulence problem. Poor old bird.)

And Baba? Dear Baba. Her movie star interviews are such heavily scripted affairs, orchestrated by powerful flaks who pre-screen every word that will be uttered, that when someone in the interview chair dares to offer an honest or surprisingly candid answer, Babs looks like a bunny in headlights. If you want to see a daily orgy of "we won't go there" interview techniques, watch Baba and the other gals on The View.

Among my choices for mainstream media interviewers to study: Charlie Rose (the PBS guy at the big round table), Howard Stern (love him/hate him, he asks questions nobody else would dare to), Mike Wallace and everyone else on 60 Minutes except Lesley Stahl (lose the shiny wig!).

Linda Ellerbee tells a great story about being part of First Lady Betty Ford's press contingent in the '70s. FLOTUS appeared one day with an announcement about some drug-prevention initiative. Polite questions were asked and answered. Then, with Mrs. Ford ready to step down from the mike, Ellerbee took a shot and asked, "Has anyone in your family ever smoked pot?" (Or something close to that...I can't locate the exact question.) With the White House flak shooting a "don't answer that" look at the First Lady, she stepped right up and said, "Yes," and then elaborated with a candid story about her then teen-age kids and their experiments with substances. It made big headlines the next day and went a long way toward humanizing both the First Family and the First Lady's interest in drug prevention. She would later found the Betty Ford Center, where Ellerbee overcame her own problems with alcohol (as Ellerbee has written in her autobiography). It was a fat question that Ellerbee asked that day. Maybe not polite. But there was nothing wrong with asking it in that press conference and it was certainly brave of the First Lady to answer it honestly.

Can you imagine anyone in the WH press corps these days daring to ask about the Bush kids' problems with substances? They'd be marched to the Rose Garden and shot at dawn.

Check out this piece from the Poynter Institute about asking questions of the president.

Now, here's a short assignment: If you could question any of today's major newsmakers--the prez or anyone else considered a world leader; a famous author or athlete; a rock or movie star; a billionaire such as Bill Gates or even Oprah; or anyone else whose name we'd recognize--what "fat questions" would you want to ask? Post your questions in comments here.

I love reading your posts. I've never had more creative students!

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Surprising that her name isn't Ashley

The story of the Wal-Mart heiress, Elizabeth Paige Laurie, who paid her roommate $20,000 to do all her college work for her, is all over the 'net today. Check out this story. Or listen to it on NPR. And here is John Stossel's story about it on ABC's 20/20, subtitled "Cheating Has Never Been Easier--Especially for the Wealthiest Students."

Werd Nerd Exercise 9: A Scotchtoberfest of Neologisms

Craptacular. Origin: The Simpsons. Meaning: Crappy to a spectacular degree. First used to describe the supposedly defective Christmas lights that Homer purchased in "Miracle on Evergreen Terrace."

Neologisms are invented words or short phrases that typically arise from slang. They are coinages that cease to be neologisms once they are accepted colloquially. Think carb, cube farm, Wifi, zarch and jump the shark.

This week's craptacular word nerd exercise (with one fabtabulous prize!) is to create at least five neologisms related to the college experience. Like, the remedial math class: Jolly Numbers. The boring lecturer: Dr. Ambien. The transparent excuse for missing an exam: dead granny defense. Pulling into a faculty slot with the risk of getting towed: panic park.

You could coin a word or phrase to describe classroom decor, dorm rooms, cafeteria fare (ever eat mystery meat?) or whatever you choose. If you're too long out of school to remember such things, invent some neologisms about your workplace.

Best list gets a set of "word blocks" you can arrange on a shelf or coffeetable. Kinda like those sticky words you put on the fridge, except they're cute little wooden blocks. Winner to be determined by me. If you've won Word Nerd competitions over the past month, please play but let someone else win.

Last week's winners are: Brooke and Laker Fan. Send me your mailing addresses ( and I'll get your Found magazines off to you.

Have a craptacular time, everyone!

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Down the hatch

The drinking was a problem, as I saw it. The whole point of some of the impromptu faculty get-togethers was to allow certain members of the department to get a buzz on.

When you're an adjunct hoping to work your way into the full-time ranks, you try to play the reindeer games. You knit everyone a Christmas scarf. You buy birthday and sympathy cards. When someone's out for surgery, you step in and guest-teach a class or two. You go to the going-away parties and you chip in for the shower gifts.

It's a delicate dance, trying to act like you're part of a group that you're really not part of.

So if you're not a drinker and your boss pops her head in the office and says everyone's meeting at the pub at 5, what do you do?

I went a few times, hoping for a little collegial fun. But there wasn't much happy at these happy hours. Everybody drank fast and with fervor. Tongues loosened by alky-hawl, they tore into students--naming names and gossiping like little old ladies at a mah jongg table--and then they ripped into whatever profs hadn't come along. Now you know I like me some juicy tidbits, but I got uncomfortable at some of the vitriol (I didn't always agree with their asseessments) and I knew that if I weren't present, I'd probably be getting the red-ear from all the sniping being done about me in my absence.

The department chair was never in a good mood at these after-work tipplings. Personally, a divorce weighed heavy on her. Professionally, she was on a constant trawl for money to feed into her department. This new tack--every department on campus raising its own budget money--made her dollar-crazy. She always wanted to know who the wealthiest students were among the new majors and if we thought their parents would like to pour some shekels into the department's coffers. She got loud when she drank, too.

Pub time would extend into dinner time and the drinking would continue. I'm not a drinker. I think in the past year I've probably had three glasses of wine and one margarita. It just doesn't interest me. But dept/chair liked her cocktails and she could really put them away.

Drinking with co-workers has always made me hinky. In the early days of my journo-career, my colleagues would repair to a crummy Manhattan dive called Fleet Street. We'd occasionally run into Jimmy Breslin there, which was enough of an incentive to frequent the joint. But the bar also sold cheap beer and had free eats, including the worst Swedish meatballs ever made. I didn't drink much then either. And I never had the same respect for my married boss after I saw him get liquored up after work and hit on the woman who sat at the desk next to mine. I just went along to go along. And to maybe share a "howya doin'" with Jimmy.

As my years as an adjunct ticked by, I stopped going along so much. Some profs seemed to be drinking more and earlier in the afternoons. Stories from students about how much this prof or that one boozed up filtered back to me. On one school-sponsored trip to NYC, one of the profs got so blotto, two students had to help her stumble back to the hotel. One of the girls was under 21 and was so fritzed out by how much the prof/chaperone drank, and how she wrangled students into drinking along with her, the girl called her parents, who offered to let her fly home immediately. This same prof showed up one semester with her arm in a cast. She'd gotten blitzed and tripped over a fireplug, a story she didn't seem to mind sharing.

"Who here likes to drink?" asks one of the department's tenured teachers on the first day of classes. When students raise their hands, she says, "You guys will be my favorites. I like to drink."

Another teacher routinely holds evening classes at a nearby pizza joint that serves beer and wine. She doesn't mind if students drink during class sessions there. She does, too.

One of the kids in my class went to a study-abroad thing this summer. A pair of married profs were in charge of the program and one weekend took some of the students to Amsterdam. "They smoked out right in front of us!" the student told me. "I guess they thought it looked cool."

I don't think this is cool. But I'd like to know what you think. What are your experiences, either as student or teacher? When does drinking with colleagues or in front of students go from casually cool to uncomfortably crude? Post your musings. I really want to know.

Writing Workshop Lesson 9: The Art of the Interview

"A good interview comes down to secrets." -- Honour, a play by Australian dramatist Joanna Murray-Smith.

A good interview is like a good first date. There's chemistry. Information is shared. A relationship is built. You get to know a person. If you're lucky, some secrets spill out.

But an interview, though it may feel like a seduction, is really a one-sided affair. All the information (or most of it), all the secrets, come from the interviewee, who then hopes he or she doesn't end up getting f-ed over for the effort.

The art of the interview lies in the skill of the person doing the interviewing. There's a hoary old maxim among reporters: "Treat stars like nobodies and nobodies like stars." But in today's media-sodden world, everybody acts like a celebrity when they have a microphone in front of them. The canned answer abounds. The empty prounouncement spews forth. Now it's a struggle to get anyone to sound "real" and unrehearsed.

The interview is the most basic skill new reporters must master. You hear about the five W's (who/what/where/when/why), but unless you're gathering facts for a news brief or a police blotter, those W's just aren't enough. A "profile" story must also explore how, how much, who else, why not--and much more.

We're taking baby steps here, so I'll just hit on a few of the elementary ways to prepare for an interview.

1. Research. Learn as much as possible about your subject before the interview takes place. Google and Wikipedia are starting points, but don't rely on the info you find in an online search to be accurate or up-to-date. Read previous stories published about your subject; read his or her book (if you're interviewing an author); get a resume or CV and read between the lines. You don't want to go into an interview and have the first question be: "Where were you born?" or "Where did you go to school?" You should know those things going in. With facts in hand, you can move past the W's and into the really good stuff that will reveal your subject more fully to your readers.
2. Prepare open-ended questions. The yes/no question will kill an interview. You want anecdotes from your subject, expansive answers (if that's the sort of story you're writing) that capture personality and authenticity. (Ditto first-date convo, by the way.)
3. Get your tools in order. Tape recorder (or digital thingy, if that's what you like), pen and paper (for noting details such as gestures, wardrobe, tics, twitches and belches), watch (don't overstay your welcome).
4. You dress nicely for a first date, so do the same for that interview. Don't show off your fanciest accessories. Remember, the interview puts the focus on the other person, not on you.
5. Shut up and listen. Don't step on answers. Try not to weigh in with your opinions. Don't fill all the silences (that's a Baba Walters tip). Be patient, particularly with subjects who haven't been interviewed before. And if you hear the words, "I shouldn't be telling you this..." or "I've never told anyone this...," then hold your breath and keep the tape rolling; you're about to strike gold.

Following on the courtship theme, a nice follow-up to either an interview or a social assignation is a thank-you call or a written note (never an email, which is just too impersonal). Just a few lines will do: "Thank you for making time in your busy schedule for the interview. I really enjoyed talking to you." Yadda, yadda.

If you're doing an interview for publication, it's not kosher to promise the subject a first-read before the story comes out. You can promise to fact-check. But even if a celebrity's PR "flak" threatens you with bodily harm (and you don't want to get into fisticuffs with a Peggy Siegal or a Pat Kingsley, two of the snarliest flaks in all of flakdom), you do not give anyone but your editor the right to cut or add things to your story.

OK, baby steps make me tired. So that's all we'll do today. For reading purposes, here are two of the best celebrity interviews I've read in a while. The first, "Strange Love," is the infamous profile of Courtney Love by expert interviewer Lynn Hirschberg for Vanity Fair. This was the first big piece about La Love and it prompted Kurt Cobain to threaten a "hit" on the journalist. The second is a more recent piece, and one of the few really revealing profiles of a celeb that I've read since the rise of the flak-catchers made real journalism in glossy mags almost extinct. The W magazine sitdown with Katie Holmes this summer gave a startling insight into what being Tom Cruise's girlfriend is really like. Katie sounds like a pod person. This story is a case of getting the real story from what isn't being said.

Enjoy, everyone!

And if you'd like to link us to other good interviews you've run across, please do so in the "comments" section. Questions are welcomed also. Post a question and it automatically is emailed to me. I'll answer asap.

Monday, October 17, 2005

A big welcome to offspring of fat, balding blowhards

More evidence of the Bush Library/Welcome Karl Rove to campus connection. Herr Karl was sighted last week being shown around the uni with his son, a prospective student. If there were a red carpet long enough to extend from the entrance all the way back to the quad, it would have been rolled out in their honor. As it was, the groveling toady factor was off the charts. Or so I'm told.

Dr. Phil's kid, by the way, is now in his first semester as a frosh. He lives in a dorm on-campus in a room that I hear is fitted out pretty sweetly, complete with flat-screen TV. Dr. P's oldest boy is a gradjeate of the law school, soon to be known as the alma mater of the newest member of the Supremes, Harriet "My perm is worse than Condoleezza's" Miers.

Our next step in the study of writing for newspapers and magazines--an intro to the art of the interview--will go up here Tuesday afternoon. I've reviewed four plays in three days and my fingers are so gnarled from carpal tunnel that I'm considering typing with my hairy toes.

Back soon.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

And over there, Highlights for Children

How much does a certain university want to be home of the G.W. Bush Presidential Library? The school is one of two local finalists. The other is a much smaller but more academically challenging university, one that doesn't mind the "liberal arts" appellation, which will probably hurt its chances. The conservo-uni has been hustling like mad to make the campus ready for the presence of his Holiness (by which I mean James Dobson or some other Christian prez-polisher). It's a kiss-up fest over there like you have never seen.

Back when I still got a paycheck from the place, I heard a lot about the enticements the school was offering to the Bushies--don't forget, the FLOTUS is an alumna--to assure that the library/museum/conservative-think-tank (oxymoron alert!) would end up here.

To clear the acreage needed for the library complex, the school evicted a few hundred residents of an apartment community the school had acquired over on the easternmost side of the school. Some of the ousted residents were elderly, owned their apartments and had lived there for more than 20 years. They were given no choice. Out by July. The school's reason for the sudden evictions? Mold.

Details of the library offer haven't been made public, but the scuttlebutt among the faculty has it that besides building Bush an enormous pile of bricks dedicated to his achievements as president (wait, I think I threw up a little in my mouth when I typed that), the cronies, er, "staff" assigned to the place will have posh living quarters provided. (President Clinton's library/museum in Little Rock includes a penthouse for him.)

Worst tidbit I have heard about the Bush Library plan is that Karl "I'm the hand up Kermit's ass" Rove would be awarded a permanent, endowed chair in some department (the academic equiv of a featherbed job). He'd mostly likely land in Corporate Communications/Public Affairs, since even the poli-sci department is wary of his infectiously slimy way of doing the poli-biz (watch out for mold!). I heard more than one prof say that if all this came to pass and Rove's fat head floated into view, faculty wouldn't exactly greet him with open arms and tea parties. Is it any coinkydink that one of the rising stars among the public affairs tenure-trackers made tracks for another school this summer? What did she know?

And here's another piece of the puzzle. A Department of Education was quickly tossed together last spring. Adjunct faculty were hired and although there is no office space, classroom space or even a corner of a building dedicated to the new major, it now exists. Why the sudden need for education majors? Ah, back to the Bush library again. What I've heard--and from some folks in the know on campus matters--is that a requirement of a school housing this presidential worship center, er, library, is that it must have an education major. Voila! The Ashleys now can major in PR with a minor in elem-ed. No rich child left behind.

Seems inevitable: The Busheviks will get their library on the campus. And the football team will continue to suck. Can I hear an amen?

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Learning Plotteeez

"Are you confused?" asks the teacher. "Do you need me to show you?"

"No. I just can't do it. Sorry."

"You will. It just takes time."

I would have to be reincarnated with a different set of joints to be able to bend that way.

We are doing Pilates. I have done Pilates before. But not in about a year. I used to be able to do "the cat" and "the 100s" and all the other moves without feeling as if my spinal disks were as brittle as fresh Pringles.

I look around. The other five women in the class are college students. The gym is right by campus. They are all 9 feet tall and weigh 48 pounds. They look good in their spandex. I imagine that from behind, my from-behind looks like two angry bulldogs fighting to get out of an onion sack.

Class is 10 minutes in and I'm sweating from the ends of my hair. Soothing Enya music plays from the speakers. I think I hear her singing, "Yooorrrrr stooopeeed to try theeeees."

"Rock up and thtand!" says the teacher, a very bendy woman with a slight lisp.

I cannot rock up. I crawl onto my hands and knees and stand up slowly, like an old washerwoman after a long night scrubbing linoleum.

By the time I get on my feet, the teacher and the class of thin bendy-girls are back on their mats. They seem to be sitting on their tailbones with their torsos and legs in a "V" pointing toward the ceiling. They are breathing with sharp little "huh, huh" sounds. I marvel at their bendiness.

I lie flat on the mat like a pancake--and begin to think of pancakes dripping with butter and syrup. Maybe after class I'll go to IHOP.

Now everyone is on their sides, drawing huge circles with their top legs. My circle is more of a zig-zag. My leg is a leaden appendage. We turn over and do it on the other side. My other leg is encased in concrete.

"Thtand up, rolling one vertebra at a time!"

There was a time I could touch my toes. I know there was. It was when I was in 9th grade and Miss Costin, the gym teacher, made us do calisthenics every morning at 8 a.m. before drill team practice. Does a person really need to touch one's toes? Do we not have knees so that we may squat to retrieve things at toe level?

The girl in front of me is standing bent over with her hands flat on the floor and her forehead pressing on her knees. She's a human paper clip.

Bent over like this I can see my calves up close. Those three-blade razors aren't as great as advertised. Or is it bad to use one for more than six months? My toes are hairy. There is green paint on my ankle.

We finish and the bendies glide out the door. I can barely get my shoes on.

Blueberry pancakes. And a side of bacon, please.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

While adjuncts work for chump change...

Here's what the college prez-folk are getting.

Woid Noid Exercise 8: Greek Style

Play a game of synonyms that stem from the three main sources of our words: Anglo-Saxon, Latin and Greek. These words may not mean exactly the same thing ("synonym" may be defined as two or more words of the same language having the same or nearly the same essential meaning in some or all of its senses). Fill in the blanks with the correct words matching its root language.

Anglo-Saxon: foretell
Latin: predict
Greek: p-------

And the answer is: prophesy.

Writers of the first TWO sets of correct answers posted in "comments" with all the missing words on the following list will receive a copy of Found magazine #1. The six previous winners aren't eligible (you know who you are, but play along anyway, OK?). I have provided the first letter of some of the harder words.

Winners to be determined by me.

AS= Anglo-Saxon
L= Latin
G= Greek

1. AS: madman; L:-------; G: maniac
2. AS: worship; L: adore; G: i------
3. AS: ----; L: volume; G: tome
4. AS: true; L: g------; G: authentic
5. AS: forgiveness; L: pardon; G: a------
6. AS: ----------; L: sorcery; G: magic
7. AS: fiendish; L: infernal; G: d---------
8. As: heavenly; L: c--------; G: ethereal

Answers will be posted next week.

Finding the Found guys

Now that you've discovered Found magazine--a publication made up totally of "found" notes, letters, drawings and photos--you should see the live version. Found-founder Davy Rothbart puts on quite a show (I brought him to campus four years ago and he was a big hit). He's currently on a 51-city fall tour. Here's where he'll be in Texas:

Friday, Nov. 11: DALLAS, TX
Lakewood Theater, 8 p.m., 1825 Abrams Road, 214-821-7469

Saturday, Nov. 12: AUSTIN, TX
Alamo Drafthouse, 9:30 p.m., 409 Colorado Street, 512-476-1320

Sunday, Nov. 13: HOUSTON, TX
Aurora Picture Show, 8 p.m., 800 Aurora Street, 713-868-2101

He's crisscrossing the country, so check out his schedule and try to see his show. Bring your finds! He always invites audience participation.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Writing Workshop Week 8: Building a Pyramid Upside Down

Time to get your words into print. Starting this week I’ll be sharing lessons in journalistic forms of writing. Up to now you’ve been noodling around with the writing process and methods for getting the creative juices boiling. Now it’s time to put them to good use.

If you haven’t written for a newspaper or magazine before, maybe this is the time to think about it. One of the best ways to become better known as an author is to start writing guest columns for your local paper or feature stories for that alternative weekly or city magazine. Show off your expertise. Get some bylines--and some freelance checks.

The secret to getting paid for your nonfiction writing is knowing what publications are looking for. That means getting to know their content, formats and deadline schedules. We’ll get to all that later on in the semester.

For now, we’ll begin with how to write the basic news story (a format you can also use for writing simple press releases).

Since the Civil War, newspaper writers have churned out short news stories in the “inverted pyramid” style. Think of a pyramid resting on its tip and you can visualize the shape of this type of news story.

The origins of the inverted pyramid continue to spawn arguments among historians. A prevailing theory has it that battlefield reporters sending dispatches by telegraph from the Civil War fronts knew they couldn’t always trust the wires to get the complete story to their newspaper offices before a glitch interrupted the transmission. For that reason, they led each story with the most important facts about the event they were reporting. At the top went the key info. In each succeeding short paragraph, the information grew less and less important. Writing this way meant that the most important stuff made it into print.

Others say it had to do with the old hot lead type. If stories ran too long, the typesetters just ripped up the story from the bottom up, without bothering to read any of what they were cutting. Writers knew that if they wanted readers to get the goods, they’d better write it from the top down.

You can see the inverted pyramid style still being practiced in AP wire news stories. You can hear it on TV newscasts. It’s terse, frill-free and straightforward. The first couple of paragraphs give the reader the 5 W’s: Who, What, Where, When and Why (and sometimes How).

So here’s your exercise in writing a simple inverted pyramid news story. Think of a fairy tale that you know well – Cinderella, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Sleeping Beauty, Hansel and Gretel, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast. In only 10 to 15 lines, rewrite the story, putting the most important facts first and working your way down to incidental details. If you look at news stories, you’ll see a lot of facts and figures at the top, along with a quote from some “official” providing the info on the scene.

You’re really spoofing the inverted pyramid with this task, but it does let you see how it’s done. When you have a good ’un, post it in “comments” here.

Here's mine. (I just saw "Wicked," so I have witches on the brain.)

Wicked Witch Melts
Kansas girl douses western tyrant, freeing Oz from terror

In the end, a bucket of water was all it took to destroy the Wicked Witch of the West. The much-feared sorceress melted shortly after midnight yesterday after being doused by Dorothy Gale, a 12-year-old Kansas farm girl who arrived in Oz under mysterious circumstances several weeks ago, according to officials in the Emerald City.

During the Wicked Witch of the West’s reign of terror, she enslaved hundreds of flying monkeys and is thought to have ordered the murders of scores of innocent Munchkins.

Eyewitnesses to her death said the witch’s last words were, “You cursed brat! Look what you’ve done! I’m melting.”

Reactions to her demise ranged from stunned silence by the Mean Apple Trees to jubilant cries of “Ding, dong, the witch is dead!” by the witch’s own security guards.

“It’s wonderful to be free of her evil spells at last,” said Myron, captain of the flying monkeys.

Gale, whose falling house killed the Wicked Witch of the East, spurring a wave of violent reprisals, is expected to return to Kansas. No charges will be filed, according to law enforcement officials.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz issued a statement expressing his relief that the witches’ brand of terrorism had come to an end. He then announced his retirement and asked for cooperation in the handover of power to Scarecrow.

Glinda the Good Witch of the North flew in by bubble to reassure residents that rumors of other wicked witches building an insurgency were unfounded.

Glinda joined the Mayor of Munchkin City, the Cowardly Lion and the Tin Man in leading a parade of little people down the yellow brick road to celebrate their freedom.

Emerald City business owners already are considering erecting a monument to Gale. Many Munchkins said they now consider her a hero—and her little dog, too.

The witch’s castle has been closed to the public temporarily.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Tiny Dancer

She just lets it slip one day after class. “You know, I dance,” says Lorilei. “Like, in clubs and stuff.”

I had figured that out some time ago. Don’t ask me how.

“Yeah, I thought you knew,” she says, twirling a sprig of curly black hair. “I just don’t, like, like everyone to know. It’s none of their fuckin’ business. I’m not a whore but they’d think I was.”

As usual, as she talks, she works a wad of gum in her mouth fat as a baby’s fist. She can snap that gum and make a clang like a Zildjian cymbal.

Lorilei is a senior. She has been in a couple of my writing classes and she’s a sharp little cookie. Gets her work done early, makes A’s with seemingly much less effort than it should take to get those A’s. Her writing is clean and original. That much puts her in the top 5 percent of the students I know. She has a hard little face—black eyeliner under and over, eyebrows waxed into dramatic peaked arches. Her mouth is always scrunched into a tight little grimace of determination. She squints out of the corner of her eyes whenever one of the bottle-blonds starts in on The Real World’s latest cast changes or the cliffhangers on The O.C.

Line her up with the Ashleys and Laurens and Megans and you’d see real quick which of these things is not like the other. Lorilei’s denim skirtlets are microscopically short, revealing bare thin but muscled gams and slightly knobby knees. She wears clattery high-heeled sandals from Payless’ Star Jones line and carries designer lookalike Louis bags. She frequently wears several thin gold ankle chains, trash jewelry I hadn’t seen on a Southern girl since the slutty roommate I lived with in the Carter years.

You’d probably notice those wardrobe details last on Lorilei. First your eyes would go to her pectoral area. At least a third of Lorilei’s body weight sits on her chest in the form of two enormous, globular implants. They are as round as Texas cantaloupes and are usually straining the fabric of thin baby tees or strapless tops that defy Newtonian laws. And probably break a few local statutes for decency.

I find Lorilei deliberately confrontational and endlessly amusing. She’ll snap back at some comment by an Ashley with a take-no-shee-it attitude. More than once I’ve heard her tell another student, “That’s crap. You don’t know what you’re talking about.” You only get that kind of confidence two ways—selling used cars or taking your clothes off for money.

Lorilei works at a place I’ll call the Tycoon Saloon. It’s just up the road apiece from campus and caters to flabby bidnessmen who take three-hour lunches there on Fridays—and not just for the $5.95 pitch-till-ya-win buffet spread.

As topless clubs go, it’s neither the nicest nor the sleaziest in town. I went there once for a story about strippers when Demi Moore's movie Striptease came out. After a pretty decent lobster tail salad, I watched the entrees shake their tailfeathers in G-strings with pube-patches the size of Cheez-Its. The girls were young and pretty—some with fake ones, some real. None looked older than 25. The girls, that is. Few of the men in the club looked younger than 40. And is there anything sadder than an old dude with a greasy comb-over getting a lapdance from a bored 21-year-old at 2 in the afternoon?

Lorilei, popping her gum and shifting from heel to heel, seems eager to spill, so I let her. We mosey down the hall to my office, where she flings her fake Louis onto the floor and freshens her chaw with a few new pieces.

“Yeah, I started dancing when I was 17 but don’t tell anybody. They’d croak in this school if they knew about it. I don’t know--I’m from, like, this total Church o’ Christer family and when they found out I was dancing, they kicked my butt out. I moved in with my Meemaw till I finished high school. I didn’t tell her what I was doing either, but she probably knew. I paid for everything when I lived with her. Did I tell you it was in a trailer kinda place? Like, it was one of those gigantic double-wides that’s cemented down. Just butt-fuckin’-ugly. But Meemaw was so proud of that thing. It was just me and her and her two rat terriers. I think we were the only people out there who weren’t running a meth lab in our bathroom. So anyway my junior year of high school I got real good SATs—like, 15oo or something--and I took AP tests and did so good that I started getting scholarship offers from all these Texas schools. So that’s how I came here. Except my junior year they cut my scholarship down to almost nothing—I tried to fight them about it, but you can’t get anywhere with those people. I had been good for my first and second years. I even lived in the dorm—how funny is that? So right before my junior year, my Meemaw died and left me her dogs and a little bit of money, like, $1,000—and that wadn’t gonna be enough to keep me here. So I had to go back to dancin’—you can’t earn enough waitin’ tables to get through here by yourself. Dancin’ I can make $1,000, $2,000 a weekend, cash. Cash. And I never did drugs—oh, I tried stuff, who doesn’t?—but I needed tuition money, so I couldn’t, like, do that. So I’ve been dancing since last year over there. It’s really not bad. I wear a wig and stuff when I’m onstage because a lot of boys from here go there after the games. Shee-it, they go there Thursdays, Sundays, you name it and they're in there watchin’ the titties. I don’t know if they know it’s me or not. I keep a pretty low profile around this place.”

That’s what she thinks.

“But I’m getting’ out in four years and that was my goal. Actually I’m graduating in December because I did summer school twice to get ahead. My internship was with an ad agency and they’ve offered me a job at their Houston office. (pause) I know some girls who dance in Houston and they make crazy money down there.”

But you’ll stop dancing when you move there, right?

“Oh, yeah. I plan to. But you never know. I mean, if I just danced on weekends, I could buy a house in a year with what I earn. It’s like, four hours a night.”

She works at her gum for a few seconds.

Well, you’ve done fine work in my classes, I tell her. You certainly never let your extracurriculars interfere with your studies.

“Ha! Sometimes I’m so tired I drink three espressos before I come here.”

You, too?

“Anywaaaaay. I just wanted to tell you I enjoyed your classes. And thanks, you know, for not ever saying anything about, you know….”

It’s one of the last times I get to talk to Lorilei. She earns a well-deserved A in my class. She graduates. Moves to Houston, I guess.

I admire the girl's grit and her work ethic. Paying for college on the pole. Man o’ live, a’livin’. You hear those stories of strippers shaking their moneymakers to pay their way through school, but you also hear that they usually end dropping out, snorting the profits up their noses and falling into porn or bad marriages with pock-marked guys named Diesel or Larry Earl.

But little Lorilei made it. She did it her way, the only way she knew how, dance by dance, semester by semester.

Crumpled bill by crumpled dollar bill.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Fall Break! No exercises this week

Just read some good stuff this week. Send links to anything you'd like to share with your fellow Word Nerds. I'll post more stuff as soon as I get some paperwork off my desk.

One writer-photographer's chronicle of Katrina

Have spent a good part of the afternoon reading this writer's photo- and prose-blog about his family's life after Katrina. I invite you to visit his wonderful work.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Catching the fabulists

Writer Adam Penenberg, the man who busted Stephen Glass for fabricating stories, now gets to expose college plagiarists. Here he explains how he does it. Good story.

The answers are Yes, No and Are You Kidding Me?

"Professor, would you mind if I left class early today? I have a doctor's appointment."

"Will you tell us what's going to be on the test?"

"Do I really need to know this?"

"Can I retake the exam if I don't do well?"

"I'm really tired--can I take the exam with your afternoon class instead?"

"I'm leaving early for fall break. Can you give me the midterm when I get back?"

"I'm really swamped with assignments. Can I turn my paper in a few days late?"

"Could we meet in your office to discuss my grade?"