Thursday, July 28, 2005

Meet the Brads

Like products of some secretly funded in-vitro-eugenics-genetically-modified-Mattel-Clairol experiment in human breeding, the Brads stride forth among their peers as near-perfect specimens of the white American male of the early 21st century. They stand as tall and golden as stalks of wheat, with body fat ratios in mere single digits. Walking advertisements for top-shelf orthodontia and early-onset trips to a good dermatologist, they are smooth of cheek and belly, with voices that haven’t quite found the husky, whiskey-soaked timbre of their dads’.

As first sons or only children, Brads in their 20s retain the prettiness of their mothers, a trait alluring to their Ashley counterparts. It will be decades before a Brad’s hairline recedes even a centimeter or his six-pack abs lose their ripply definition. In their 40s Brads will swim and run and bike and crunch with fervor, for they are Brads and Brads are made of muscle.

Truly, there is no more beautiful sight on a bright spring morn than an Ashley and her Brad loping across the quad, shoulder to shoulder, slim hip just barely bumping slim hip. They emit a special glow, these well-bred show ponies, as if a spotlight is always aimed at them from on high and they know just where and how to move to stay within it.

Brads are the “legacies” who populate the frats their fathers and grandfathers pledged. These are the boys who run for Student Senate and glad-hand their way to easy victories. The university provost invites them to special receptions for visiting dignitaries because they will wear their crisp blue blazers and decorate the room like the shiny trophy children they are.

The Brads are beautiful. The Brads are popular. The Brads are plentiful.

If only they weren’t so dumb.

Perhaps it is nature’s way of keeping Brads from emerging as some sort of all-powerful, unconquerable super-race able to bend the rest of us to their mighty will. Beyond their astonishing good looks and ability to pick just the right shade of Polo shirt to set off their and their girlfriends’ tans, there’s just not a lot of there there with these lads.

They’re not Forrest Gump, mind you. Beneath the glossy surface, Brads are brilliant at being conniving little creeps. Think Eddie Haskell by way of Abercrombie & Fitch. They do too many shots of Patron Silver on weeknights and they expect to get their cocaine free because they are, after all, Brads. They frequent strip clubs, using fake IDs to get past the bouncer. They gamble on sports and turn in fake theft claims to their parents’ insurance for plasma TVs and satellite radios that were never stolen – using the money to pay off their debts to the bookie named Flaco who handles the action on frat house row. Porn, racist jokes and “he’s such a fag” put-downs amuse them no end. They knock up their pretty girlfriends and get Daddy to “take care of it” with a check for the abortion (and a few grand extra as hush money). They crack up the Boxter and talk mom into a new one because “it wasn’t my fault.” They ski in Aspen over winter break, scuba in the islands for a week in spring. As a summer “job,” they might lifeguard at the country club or hang out in daddy’s firm hitting on the junior interns from Vanderbilt and Tulane.

They aren’t book smart but they are good studies at the art of manipulation. Oozing charm with teachers, they often get away with coming in late or skipping too many classes. Brads convince smart, ugly girls to do their homework for them. Or they cadge papers by culling through the fraternity’s files, that repository of exams and research papers frat guys have circulated among their own for, lo, these many years.

Brads take short cuts. They assume the rules don’t apply to them.

A colleague tells of the time she assigned her students to interview professors in other departments. Each story was to be a brief profile of bio material, plus accompanying anecdotes told in the prof’s own words. As she graded the results, she was astonished to read a paper turned in by one exceptionally slick Brad. It was an interview with Professor McX, a regionally famous art historian known for recovering and restoring several paintings that had been thought lost or destroyed in a museum fire. The Brad’s story was well written, full of detail and loaded with colorful quotes by Professor McX. It deserved an A, except for one little detail.

My colleague called Brad aside after class. “Excellent paper,” she told him. “Tell me, how did you get an interview with Professor McX?”

“Uh, um, well,” Brad stammered. “I, uh, asked around and, uh, well, uh….”

“I was just curious about that,” my colleague continued. “No one has talked to Professor McX in a long time.”

“Really?” said Brad, feeling the ax about to fall on his long smooth neck.

“Professor McX died in 1989.”

Smell that? Mmmm, the lovely aroma of a Brad’s goose being cooked.

I have taught many a Brad. Flunked a few, too. There were even a couple for whom I had hope. On the rare occasion, a Brad or an Ashley will shake off the stereotype and become a real scholar. But dadgum it, all too often they follow a predictable script – coast through college with unremarkable grades, hope to graduate in six years, go to work for daddy’s corporation or mommy’s PR firm, marry well (“Brad, do you take Ashley?”) and spend Sundays brunching with other B’s and A’s.

One of my favorite Brads, one who might yet evolve (he shows promising signs, like moving out of the frat house), confronted his own innate Brad-ness early this semester. On an editing quiz, I listed a dozen names that appear frequently in news headlines. The task was to circle the names that were spelled correctly. One of those was Condoleezza Rice.

Brad stared at the quiz for a long moment, then brought it up to my desk. He leaned down and pointed to “Condoleezza.”

“Yes?” I said.

“I’m not from the South,” Brad whispered, looking worried. “I’ve never eaten this kind of rice, so I’m not sure how it’s spelled.”

Jambalaya. Condoleezza. Me, oh, my, oh.

A nibble from People but that's about it

This week's adventure in criticism takes me to a Latino comedy show and a production of Cabaret. Read my reviews of both in the Dallas Observer

Got an interview request via email from a freelancer for People magazine. They're doing a story about bloggers fired from their jobs. If anything, I'll end up in the sidebar. But since their last question to me was, "How old are you?" I figure I'll get cut from the whole round-up because I "skew too old" for their readers. Look for the center of that little bit of frippery to be the young bimbette fired last week by Ladies Home Journal for blogging about all the freebies her editors suck up on the job. Shoot, I could have written that stuff 20-odd years ago when I was slaving for Good Housekeeping. The beauty editor used to get stacks of pretty gift boxes from Tiffany and Hermes filled with crystal this and silk that, all sent by cosmetics companies vying for editorial mentions in the magazine. What a racket.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

For word nerds

Language Log, my new favorite website.

And this shows why the NYT's Maureen Dowd is who she is. Could there be anything harder to write than the first column after a beloved parent's death? Many columnists feel compelled to do it. Few do it with this much humor and grace.

Overheard at my health club

College girl #1: I met a new guy.

College girl #2: Yeah? And?

#1: At first I thought he was just some guy and then we went out and, like, he's a real guy, a guy's guy. You know what I mean?

#2: Exactly. A nice guy.

#1: Right.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Outside at Starbucks in 100-degree heat

Met another former prof the other evening at one of the 705 Starbucks within a five-mile radius of my place. Around here when someone says, "Let's meet at Starbucks," you have to be precise about location. In one two-block stretch there are four, flanking both sides of the street.

So I meet my friend in the late afternoon and because we're rehashing our years at the U. and don't want to shout over the racket of the frap blenders, we sit outside at a little iron table on the hot sidewalk. It's about 100 F. when we get out there and my first venti cup of iced green tea goes down sweet but too fast.

We start by filling in a lot of blanks. I used to see her in the halls or at the mirrors in the ladies' room, but a few years ago she disappeared from campus. I didn't know if she'd quit or retired but it turns out she'd lost her job in a change of department chairs -- three department heads in one year alone. The new guy didn't renew her three-year contract and she was out after a dozen years as a full-time lecturer (the step up from part-time adjunct). Lecturer is still a miserably low-paying place to dog-paddle in the academic status pool. Her first year as a full-timer, around 1993, she made only $18K, a salary so pathetic she was audited by the IRS because they didn't believe anyone teaching at a private school known for its sky-high tuition would earn that little.

"Do you miss it yet?" she asks. I'm not sure. So many students are still IMming me and phoning up for lunch and such that I haven't felt separation pangs yet. I sure don't miss teaching summer school during the sizzling months when the classrooms in our building smelled of rotting grease traps from the dining hall in the basement.

She's kept a lot of stuff from her years teaching writing: student papers, story ideas, emails. She shares some of the best with me. We laugh hard over similar experiences.

"They're so dumb about how they cheat!" she says. "I'd give a take-home exam and make them sign the honor code swearing they will do their own work. Then I'd get four exams with the same incredibly wrong answers. Like, `Name four types of mainstream media,' and I'd get something like `TV, radio, comic books and Morse Code.' Four papers would say `comic books and Morse Code.' Like, they wouldn't think I'd know the four of them got together and thought up the same stupid answer?"

We laughed about term papers that came in smelling of spliff smoke from the very students who lectured classmates on "morals and values." We shook our heads remembering the good ones who got away -- the really smart kids who, for whatever reasons, just couldn't cut it in college. We had some of the same students over the years. She remembers names better than I do.

We both had stories of undergrads having scary zone-outs in class. One time, a girl who talked nonstop in class and out (if I didn't cut and run for the bus stop right after class was over, she'd tie me up for two or three hours talking a blue streak in my office) showed up for class wearing skates. She hopped up on top of a desk, pulled off her t-shirt, revealing a skimpy gym bra, and went into a breathless spiel about how she used to be a competitive skater. I jumped up to play spotter in case she took a header off the tabletop and the rest of the class sat dumbfounded. It was terrifying, but also kind of exciting watching somebody with eyes spinning like pinwheels perform a nonsensical monologue. As she skated out of the room, everyone sighed in nervous relief. I never saw the kid again that semester. She showed up outside my office the following year. She had dropped out and was only back in town to gather up paperwork from the three shrinks she'd been seeing while she was enrolled. Even now, when I run into a student who was in that class, inevitably he or she will say, "Whatever happened to that girl on the skates?"

As shadows grew longer on the sidewalk at Starbucks, the other ex-prof and I kept right on talking. She told me about an advertising teacher who quit to go to work for one of his former students, a job that offered much higher pay and more security. And she had a great story about the time she lectured a class on journalistic "conflict of interest."

"A boy started waving his hand, like he suddenly understood what I was talking about," she recalled. "Then he gave an example."

To paraphrase (and with a few identifying details slightly altered), she said he told about how such a conflict once arose at his family's very own dinner table. They were entertaining a VIP who was a prospective new business partner of daddy -- let's say the guest was the president of ABC Cola Giant -- and at dinner, the butler arrived at the table with a big cold glass of XYZ Cola for the VIP instead. "Of course, we had to fire the butler," said the student, not realizing that his story had less to do with conflicts of interest than conflicts of social class.

The evening wore on and we got refills on the green tea. Up the street from Starbucks, two cars hit head-on in the rush hour traffic and our conversation was briefly interrupted by the screams of sirens from two firetrucks and an ambulance. A young boy with Downs syndrome walked by several times with a black Lab on a leash. A woman in Daisy Dukes stood on the sidewalk talking on her cell for well over two hours without ever entering the coffee place. Ten minutes after the first car crash, there was another one at the same intersection. Back came the firetrucks. It's cliche to call something Fellini-esque, but the scene at this place was completely surreal.

As everything happened around us, my friend and I kept right on jabbering in the way you do when you're making up for lost time. She's a freelance writer and editor now, still dealing with conflicting feelings about her years in the academy.

She and I both choked up remembering the ones who really got it, those students who tried and achieved against academic or financial odds. And we let fly a few choice obscenities about the bullshit politics that separate the tenured and non-tenured, and the difference in working for departments the dean favors and the ones she despises.

We dished some dirt on celebrity offspring. She once taught the daughter of a member of the O.J. defense team. I had the daughter of a mega-huge best-selling author and screenwriter. One of the nastiest little pieces of work I ever had in any class has a father who's a Christian self-help guru. Not the "7 habits" guy, but close.

And as we downed the last sips of iced tea and headed off into the summer evening, taking special pains to avoid the intersection of death, my pal and I cast a little hex down on one recently hired faculty member, a retired business executive not known for his people skills who was lured to the U. for reasons no one can figure out. He teaches one small upper-level seminar per term (that's two courses a year, no summer school) for a salary of $125K plus bennies. It's the academic version of a featherbed job.

May IRS auditors swarm down upon his caravan and charge him interest and penalties on all his fat, furry camels.

Email from the "Strait A Student"

A big city university prof sends along a favorite email from a matriculant. Here it is verbatim. Enjoy.

Hello, I just checked my exam score and was extremely unhappy and shocked by it. Here is the deal. I am a strait A pre-med student. was majoring in Bio but my life practically evolves around psychology (read a ton of books and LOVE learning it), so I thought might as well major in it. I had psychology in high school and to me it was the most interesting course where I did the homwork bcuz i want to not bcuz i had to. First exam (75.3%)- I kept up w/ reading for each lecture, had two other exams at same time so didn't get to reread like I wanted to, just spent all night going over main points. Exam felt to be extremely difficult. probably bcuz of lack of sleep and that i didnt reread those chapters. 2nd exam (79%)- once again kept up with reading, in a coarse of two days reread and perfectly understood all the material, got a normal night of sleep. Honestly couldn't have been more confident! Did the exam and still thought pretty good about it, maybe the lowest expected score around B+. Alright, I thought about it and I think i know where the prob. is, on this exam as well as on the previous one, about 10-12 questions were completely confusing the way they were stated. Those were not the conceptual questions (i pick up on those very well), they seemed to be bad becaues of wording, sentence formation and the worst possible examples used. I am not trying to put anyone down here, but you know, for your intelligence level (not just my opinion!!!) it seems like you're trying to sound smarter than you really are. Your lectures are sooo pointless, you just read and repeat what the book says (boring, I read it!), you have trouble answering any question that is not exactly from our textbook. Loving psychology so much, honestly you're discouraging me. i dont want to give you a bad review at the end, I dont want to warn people about you. I just want the exams to be from the material I study, and frankly straight forward questions make the professor sound a lot more intelligent than the one with twised questions. Now, there's still 3 more exams left, I still have a chance to get an A in this course. Also, what is the deal about not getting scantrons or exams back, I am learing here!!!!!!! so i want to know what I did wrong. I appologize if you find this letter offensive in any way to yourself, it's not my intention, I am just giving some constructive criticism here. I have a LOT MORE difficult classes that would axcept a B in, but not this class. I would really appreciate if you could take this into consideration. Please reply, I would like to know your feedback! Thank You! Sincerely, xxxxx

Another quiz: Homonyms

This comes from another prof here in Dallas, with a couple more added by me. Reminds me how often students confuse "then" and "than." Answers follow.

1. Government bodies said (A. eminent / B. imminent) domain proceedings were a last resort.

2. Mary said she had an (A. outer-body / B. out-of-body) experience last night.

3. The doctors discussed the merits of (A. preventive medicine / B. preventative medicine).

4. It was a no (A. holes / B. holds) barred discussion.

5. The Ironman competition tests an athlete's (A. mettle / B. metal / C. medal).

6. The river (A. teams / B. teems) with trout.

7. Before it crashed, the plane clipped a (A. guy / B. guide) wire with its wings.

8. It's too early to declare that this team is special. But it can be if given time to (A. jell / gel).

9. Charles Barkley commented on the new design of Allen Iverson’s (A. cornrows / B. cornrolls / C. cornroles).

10. All (A. and / B. in) all, the company’s policies were sufficient.

11. The boss decided the office manager could no longer cut the (A. muster / B. mustard), so the employee was let go.

12. The coach was the one to (A. meet / B. meat / C. mete) out punishment to players who broke rules.

1. A. eminent – rising above other things (imminent – likely to happen without delay)
2. B. out-of-body - of or marked by the psychological sensation of perceiving oneself from an external perspective
3. A or B. both are acceptable, although preventive is preferred
4. B. as in wrestling holds
5. A. mettle – quality of one’s character or temperament
6. B. teem – to be full, as though ready to bring forth young; abound; swarm
7. A. guy – a rope, chain or rod attached to something to steady or guide it
8. A or B. both are acceptable
9. A. cornrows – an African hairstyle of tight braids separated by wide parts
10. B. all in all – as a whole, considering everything
11. B. mustard, not to be confused with "pass muster," an old military phrase.

12. C. mete -- to dole out in small doses.

Thursday, July 21, 2005


Today's lesson: Neologisms. Ah, those colorful inventions of language that efficiently and creatively describe something for which there previously was no apt word or phrase.

Reader Jeanne Everton says that since the end of Sex & the City, our language has been lacking in new lingo. So, collected by Jeanne and others (if any of these are from copyrighted sources, we're not aware what they are):

a.c. pee: n. The nasty drip from an air-conditioner.

barnese: n. 1. An obscure religion based on a devotion to Barneys New York and the belief that spiritual enlightenment can be found on the store's upper floors. 2. Followers of this religion. ("Smart, funny, cute -- if only he were Barnese!")

boroughbred: n. The rare New Yorker actually born and raised in Manhattan.

carbon dating: n. Going out with a lookalike for a former lover.

condenversation: n. The exchange of sweat by people in close quarters (i.e., dance floors, cramped elevators). See also: filmic moment.

despair conditioning: n. An unexpected waft of cool air (e.g., from a passing bus) that is at once disgusting and welcome in 90-degree heat.

filmic moment: n. A glistening sheen of sweat on your body or belongings, and the realization that the sweat may not be your own. ("That messenger and I shared a nasty but hot filmic moment in the lobby.")

galzheimer's: n. Condition suffered by a man on a date when he runs into a former g-friend in a bar and can't remember her name.

glute glue: n. The cohesive agent that develops on the backs of thighs in July, forcing one to peel them off park benches, pool chairs, car seats and barstools.

hybris: n. Excessive pride based solely on one's hybrid car.

little white line: n. Thong outline on girls wearing the wrong white pants.

pit-fall: n. 1. The unavoidable underam stains one gets from wearing tight, nonbreathable tees; 2. One's inability to avoid wearing tight, nonbreathable tees.

p.u.i.: n. Planning under the influence, as in making plans late in the evening, especially with friends, for the next day's shopping and brunch.

restau-romp: n. A date that gets out of hand at a dinner table and/or bar area. ("After two bottles of Cristal, my date turned into a full-on restau-romp.")

self-valetdation: n. Every now and then, when one parks one's own car.

skimplify: v. To reduce the amount of cloth used to cover the body. ("Summer's here -- time to skimplify the wardrobe.")

snack amnesia: n. The inability to remember any foods consumed between meals.

spramp: v. Sudden splash of cold water, facial toner or cologne to refresh oneself. Source: Jack McFarland, Will & Grace.

OK, you got any?

Here's your sign

Dumbth is all around.

From a reader:
Some coworkers of mine found the following posted on the door of a restaurant where they were going to eat lunch:
"Sorry, were be closed do to electical proplems"


The late comedian-composer-author-actor-everything Steve Allen once wrote a book called Dumbth, about how stupid America is becoming.

Here's one for you, Steve. On a Post-It note stuck to the inside of the plastic tube at the bank's drive-in teller machine was this handwritten four-word message:

Solly speaker not wilking

Nutty professor

In so many ways he's like the Jerry Lewis/Eddie Murphy character -- before the transformation by elixir, o' course. Every campus has one. At least one. Maybe every department has one. Maybe I was the one in my department. I don't know.

The one I'm thinking of has been on this campus for at least a quarter century. He's tenured, a Ph.D. For many years he wrote serious arts criticism for local newspapers and magazines. He published in the right journals and hosted film festivals at the student union. His lectures were witty and insightful, very James Wolcott-without-the-self-referential-twaddle.

Around about 1992, I saw this professor change. He started showing up on campus dressed in enormous faded overalls over T-shirts. On his feet, rubber shower sandals, no socks. He grew a scraggly beard and started doing the combover hair-nest with what was left of his greasy salt-and-pepper strands. Sometimes he wore a straw cowboy hat. His trifocals looked like he'd dipped them in mucilage. His nose erupted into shiny red gin flowers.

After gaining a great deal of weight -- maybe 100 lbs., maybe more -- he started listing to one side, as if melting westward under his avoirdupois. The overalls just got bigger and baggier.

His classes, once among the toughest courses for undergrads, began to become known as "guts," easy A's. He grew sloppy about assignments and forgot to give exams.

"He fell asleep in class again today," a student told me one day. "His head just sort of dropped over and at first we thought he was reading his notes or something. Then we were afraid he'd had a heart attack, but he started snoring. Finally, people just sort of tiptoed out of the room." She went up to the desk and said, "Is class over for today?" He looked confused, she said. So she left, too.

Just today I saw Dr. "Oshkosh" standing at the bus stop near the shopping center. He looked overly sweaty and rather agitated. If you didn't know he was a college professor, you'd think he was a homeless guy catching a ride down to the Stew Pot for a free meal.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Old foam

Clancy writes: Love your blog. Just wanted to say, though, that I graduated from high school in 1993, and foam parties were big when I was in college, too, so they've been around at least that long.

Well, it does take a while for trends to get to Texas. Women down here still wear big bows on their heads. They do. I've seen it. And it makes me sad.

And another correspondent says:
I graduated in '04 and at that time foam parties were old news. Usually, the fraternity or sorority that sponsored the foam party would have been looked on as "lame." Girls who go atre considered trashy and guys who go are considered perverts. Love the blog -- keep up the good work!

Gee, you guys, you're bursting my bubble. Bursting! Bubble! GET IT?

Blame it on the heat.

OK, maybe I had foam parties confused with "furries," at which the attendees dress up in those fake-fur mascot outfits and then have sex. I saw that one in Vanity Fair. Kinda makes you wonder if the "Longhorn" gets the most action.

Hi, Bob -- revisited

Alex from Detroit corrects our version of the "Hi, Bob" rules:

The way you play it, you pass a beer around and whoever has it when a character says, "Hi, Bob" takes a swig. You chug whatever is in the bottle when someone says, "Hi there, Bob."

That way makes it more of a game. Your way does have certain advantages, of course.

It was a great Saturday night lineup, wasn't it? Got me through law school--Bob Newhart, Mary Tyler Moor and Carol Burnett. They hold up quite well even though the subject of every plot wasn't who was going to have sex with whom. Of course, Mary Tyler Moore could sit there in a burlap sack and read from the phone book, and I'd watch, rapt and fascinated.

You're so right! And that was the last era when Saturday night TV was worth staying home for.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Foam home

Foam parties. The new rage among the college set. A bubbly alternative to those themed bashes called "Pimps and Ho's," "Dirty Doctors and Naughty Nurses" and "Trophy Wives/Husbands."

Don't think I didn't learn a few things over the years from my students. From them I learned how to play "Moose" and "Moose 2," drinking games that are just updates on "Quarters."

Get this, the fave booze-up game in my day was "Hi, Bob." You turned on The Bob Newhart Show on Saturday night and every time Emily, Howard, Carol or Jerry popped in the door and said, "Hi, Bob!," which was about every 14 seconds, everyone had to guzzle a beer. Sigh. We were such innocents.

If you wanna see what foam parties are and what they look like, go here. Hey, at least at the end of the bash, you're clean. Looks like fun!

Monday, July 18, 2005

Journos on film

From July 19 NYT story by Caryn James:

A Gallup poll released last month showed that public confidence in journalism had reached a new low, with television news and newspapers receiving the same dismal number. Only 28 percent of those polled said they had a great deal of confidence in those media.
The more that confidence plummets, the more likely movies are to portray reporters unfavorably; and, in a snowball effect, the more unsavory reporters appear on screen, the more that image takes hold.

Click here for the rest of the story about the history of journalists on film.

The case of the missing projects

On the last day of the summer term, the grad students and upper-level undergrads in the advanced class turn in their PR media projects. In lieu of a final exam, they have had to prepare fairly elaborate collections of idea pitches to media outlets on behalf of the clients they've been working with all summer. Some have done PR work for non-profit arts agencies, some have represented individuals around campus trying to get media notice for something -- a book, a new bit of research worth crowing about, a collection of art pieces.

So in they come, 20 students, laden with notebooks, CD-ROMs, storyboards and videotapes. Everything goes into a big empty photocopy paper box retrieved from the Xerox room. One of the swimteam guys, Lars, helps tote the box and other stuff over to my office. We leave all of it on top of the desk.

On top of the desk. Important to know.

It is after 5 and I don't want to start grading the stuff yet. It takes a while to get through all of the projects. You have to read the written materials word for word, examine the layouts, watch the tapes and listen to the CDs. Lars' project is on top. He and a buddy are trying to market a new line of surfer tees and he's personally tie-dyed a bunch of samples and then silkscreened designs on them to show what he'd send out in a real media kit to the fashion and sports press. He also has nifty photos of student models posing in the shirts. Good stuff.

This crop of students has worked particularly hard. Thinking I'll give them a better shot at high grades if I'm not so dead tired, I leave the box on top of the desk and go home for the night.

Wait. You're jumping ahead, aren't you? Because you know how things go in the academic wing re: Murphy's Law.

The next morning I arrive early, ready to plow into the projects and get grades posted by the end of the day. I unlock the door to the little adjuncts' office and flip on the light. The box is right there on the desk where I left it.

But it is empty.

Everything goes into excruciating slo-mo. Wheeeeeerrrrre arrrrrrre theeeeee prooooojeeeeeects?

I look on the floor, under the desk. I pick up the empty box 10 or 12 times, thinking that the things might magically reappear.

Then it all starts to click. I punch numbers into the phone. Janitorial department. What happened? Where's the dumpster? I will jump into the dumpster if I have to.

A few minutes later a lady supervisor appears in the doorway. Too late, she says. All the trash was picked up the night before. There's no point in dumpster diving. The projects are at the landfill by now.

Many apologies from the supervisor. She explains that there's a new crew on campus and they don't all know the cardinal rule of academic offices: Never throw away anything that's not in a trash can. Professors are pack rats. Papers and magazines and journals and books get stacked everywhere. Except for emptying the trash containers, nothing else should be touched in a prof's office.

The clean-up crews these days all wear red and brown uniforms adorned with the logo of an outside company contracted to do janitorial work on campus. In the old days, even the janitors were full-time university employees. They and their kids were eligible for tuition benefits, the same as the kids of the administrators, professors and office staff. Many a grad can boast of being the first in his or her family to earn a college degree, thanks to the years of hard work by an immigrant dad who waxed floors all night or a mom who shelved library books. And if they wanted to, the janitors and other service employees could take classes, too, earning degrees by studying under the same profs whose offices they tidied.

In the business world they like to use the phrase "ownership." The company's widgets will turn faster and last longer if the employees who make them feel a sense of ownership over the product. Those janitors of the past who worked all night bent over buckets and floorwaxers had a stake in what they did at the university. Because they did the grunt jobs, their kids could study alongside the Benz-driving Ashleys and Brads and after graduation wouldn't have to sling mop water or empty garbage. The old janitors had tremendous pride in their work. We knew their names and we knew their kids.

I don't remember even noticing the changeover. When did the new service come in? What budget-cutting bean counter finally noticed that the university could save X-thousand dollars a year by getting cheap labor from the outside who wouldn't qualify for tuition bennies?

The workers in the brown and red uniforms from the Acme Cleaning Service (or whatever it's called) feel no ownership. It's just another crummy job to them. Some do it well, some don't. Turnover is high. You never learn their names. Nobody brings a cake for the janitor's birthday the way we did in the old days. They're just anonymous worker bees.

A box of papers and stuff? Looks like trash. Out it goes.

Professor J. sees me in my office, looking stunned. I tell him what's happened. He has a story, too. Just a week earlier, he'd told his students to slip their research papers under the door by midnight on deadline day. He was surprised the next morning to find no papers and assumed that his students had blown off a big deadline en masse. Until he figured out that the cleaning crew had scooped the papers off the carpet and tossed them.

Students start dropping by my office around lunchtime to check on grades. One by one, I break the news. They do not have to create duplicates. Nobody's made a copy of anything because who could have predicted something like this? It's not their fault.

I feel terrible. But I know what I have to do. I turn toward the computer, type in the codes to get to the grades input page for the class. Twenty names, 20 A's.

Friday, July 15, 2005

A prof of note

It could be a script for a Frank Capra movie circa 1940: It’s Christmas Eve, and a curmudgeon is driving a truckload of toys. He doesn’t like Christmas, has a W. C. Fields-like attitude toward kids, and hates to drive, especially long distances. Nonetheless he has bowed to the pleas of a charity group and is taking his pickup truck loaded with toys to an orphanage 65 miles away. The director of the children’s home with the Hollywood-appropriate name of Happy Hills Farm tells the bah-humbug volunteer, “Oh, man, that’s a nice pickup you’re driving. I wish I could find one like that for the farm. Ours is broken down.”
“It’s yours,” says the owner, tossing the keys to the startled director and hitching a ride home with another volunteer.
The scene isn’t fiction.
“They needed a truck, so I just left mine there,” said Allan Saxe, a political science professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, explaining his spur-of-the-moment gift of 20 years ago as matter-of-factly as if he’d left nothing more than a pen from his pocket that someone had admired.

Read the rest of writer Betty Brink's terrific story in Fort Worth Weekly.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Pieces of flair

More of your "movies that get it right":

From Shaun:
The Big Kahuna gets it so right. It encapsulates my first "real" job out of college (after working retail) as the marketing manager for a hardware sundries company. The "close acquaintances" friendship between the salesmen and their "teaching the new kid the ways of the working world" was spot on.

S. chimes in:
I'd have to say that Office Space is really one of the most accessible movies there is, really. Most anybody who's ever had a job can relate to a bit of it. For example, I've worked in factories for 3 summers to pay for college. This year, I'm working in a place that bases pay largely on the piece rate system - there's the base rate, and if one produces more than the base, one earns more. My boss came up to me after I'd been there about a month to review my performance. He pointed out that my output recently had hit a plateau, and "we'd like to always see our employees improving." Also, I was working at about 115%: "We really like for everybody to work at at least 130%." I had a very powerful flashback as he said that - to the "pieces of flair" scene in Office Space!

Alex says:
Welcome to the Doll House was so accurate about the junior high experience, at least for people who went through that stage the way I did, that I walked out of the theater shaken; I didn't do that age very well. I remember at that age knowing that something was going wrong but having no idea precisely what it was or how to change it. It replicated the junior high experience sufficiently well that while I was glad to have seen it, I have carefully avoided it when it's on TV. The last thing I want when I'm watching TV is for the magic of movies to bring me back to Norup Junior High School.

From Michelle:
Clock Watchers captured the temp experience perfectly. No one bothers to learn your name. You're in the office, but you're not of the office. You want a real job at the company, but they won't hire you. I've been out of "the real world" for ages now, but this movie brought it all back for me.
(Excellent performances,too, from Parker Posey and Lisa Kudrow.)

Amber writes:
This sounds a little too depressing, but Where the Day Takes You is one of the best accounts of living on the streets that I've ever seen put to film. It takes away all the glamour of running away from home, leaving the reality of how absolutely soul sapping [it is] just getting through a single day completely on your own, when you should still be living at home. While it's been over a decade since I had to live that life, watching this one the first time a few years ago on cable brought me back to my teenage years like nothing I've seen since Drugstore Cowboy. I highly recommend it, though I do have a habit of liking my movies depressing. I think the reason why so many people get Office Space is that even if you don't work in a cubical farm, there are so many basic ideas in it that appeal to so many people, such as the Hell of working somewhere that needs "Flair" or just plain hating your job.

From Tabitha:
Me without You is the movie that perfectly captures the relationship I have with my "best friend." Had we not been placed together as infants, I'm sure we would have never truly become friends in any other circumstances. We have a love-hate relationship, just as Holly and Marina do, that is never free of jealousy, competition, and an addiction to each other's presence. I wouldn't be surprised if other people saw their own relationship with their lifelong best friend while watching this movie. Some people questioned the ending because Holly and Marina remained friends through all the vicious drama they heaped on each other. I thought it was a perfect example of dysfunctional friends who are so much like sisters (or brothers), they could have a 99.9% match on a DNA test.
(An early version of this theme is Old Acquaintance starring Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins as best friends who battle through life, men and careers.)

And from me: How about some movies about the writing life? The Paper captures how it feels to be on deadline for a big story (time seems to devolve into slow motion). All the President's Men shows how much basic slogging it takes for reporters to get the truth in a story. Author! Author! features one of Al Pacino's comic performances (alongside a giggly Dyan Cannon and a twitchy Tuesday Weld), playing a Broadway playwright who just can't get the problems of Act 2 solved. And watch for two new films about Truman Capote, one starring Philip Seymour Hoffman as the tiny terror -- and what great casting is that?

From the productivity bin

Your choices for movies that get it right. Keep them coming!

From Melissa:
Circle of Friends got my love life "spot on." Benny, the chubby, amorous, overlooked gem of a girl--who partly knows she deserves the perfect, blue-eyed golden boy and partly can't believe her luck--possesses a familiar blend of amiability, humor, confidence, and self-loathing. In the end, Mr. Perfect dumps the affectionate, intelligent, marriage-material Benny for the spoiled, lustful, hot best friend, but later realizes what he's done and crawls back. I confess that I prefer the book, but the movie still rings true.

Ianqui writes:
Laurel Canyon was the movie that best captured being a graduate student for me. Not the situation that the movie depicts, per se, but the attitudes of the grad student, Alex, who's writing her dissertation on genomics, and her dialogue when she discusses her dissertation and research.
(Great Christian Bale performance, too. Way before he donned his Batman suit.)

"First-time Caller" says:
You're wise to pick Mean Girls as your rhetorical gambit for the ideal high school movie. Because it was. When I read a lot of the positive reviews for it, they always added the caveat that its charm came from "the film's complete absurdity." The sad thing is, when I watched it with a pal from my awful little corner of teenage hell, we recognized way, way, way more moments of uncomfortably hilarious verisimilitude than of whimsy, including a 30-minute conversation where we pegged each "plastic" to a girl we knew, and recounted our uh, glory days on the debate team (mathletes much?). But my other pick is the only other thing I know well -- collegiate angst. For that, I nominate a quartet -- Kicking and Screaming, Metropolitan, The Last Days of Disco and The Rules of Attraction. On the latter, I loathe Bret Easton Ellis as much as the next biped, but he captures the desperation, the debauchery, and the completely inhuman (which is not to say inhumane) social relations in that strange world, the East Coast liberal arts college. To qualify though, the movie still sucks. The other three are of course either Whit Stillman movies, or in the case of Kicking, someone who gets compared to Stillman a lot. Kicking absolutely nails lonely, post-grad angst, with a great deal of kindness, and very little sentimentality. Metropolitan and Last Days are perfect urban portraits. Both do what I find funniest, echo uncomfortable, yet now hilarious moments in my life -- the former reminded me a bit too much of Thanksgiving spent with an ex's very Park Avenue family, and lower-school pals; the latter, a vicious frenemy I worked with at my campus paper, and my own experiences social climbing.

Corporate Monkey sends this note about her enviably fun job:
About 5 months out of college, I discovered that cubicle farm micromanagement is NOT for me. You mentioned ad agencies as likely culprits, but I beg to differ. An ad agency is actually my refuge from the hell of Office Space.The secret is to work for an "interactive" (read: Internet) agency. Everyone here is so young that havoc rules. When clients are about to visit, we get emails to "cage the monkeys" -- literally the flying monkey slingshots that zoom around in our developers' area. After 6 months, I still find myself daily dumbfounded by what is allowed around here. At first, it was the freedom of expression everyone was allowed with their work spaces -- one gay coworker displays a Ken doll wearing a wedding dress, others make beaded curtains out of discarded computer mice or sculptures out of prototype soda cans. Today I find myself amazed at the jokes, both verbal and practical, considered kosher here. While a manager is away on vacation, we've been slowly covering his entire cubicle with post-it notes. Most office pranksters would use blank ones, but people here can't resist the challenge of putting a joke on every single one. No trait of this beloved coworker is sacred -- his vegetarianism, his lazy eye, his wife, his choice of suburb... all are fair game. I'm sure some of the others in this building are every bit as hellish as Initech. Even in Dallas, though, there's a tiny little haven where we all get big corporation benefits but behave more like a big family. It gives me faith in the idea that there are cool people (and maybe even cool jobs) to be found everywhere, if you're looking.

WSJ covers the Prep Felon

From today's Wall Street Journal (to read entire story online, subscription required)

July 13, 2005; Page A1

At 19 years old, Douglas Cade Havard was honing counterfeiting skills he learned in online chat rooms, making fake IDs in Texas for underage college students who wanted to drink alcohol.

By the age of 21, Mr. Havard had moved to England and parlayed those skills to a lucrative position at, one of the biggest multinational online networks trafficking in stolen personal data. Having reached a senior rank in the largely Russian and Eastern European organization, he was driving a $57,000 Mercedes and spending hundreds of dollars on champagne at clubs and casinos.

Now 22, Mr. Havard is in a Leeds prison cell, having pleaded guilty to charges of fraud and money laundering. The Carderplanet network has been shut down.

As other similar groups thrive and proliferate, Mr. Havard's case provides a rare insight into the underground marketplace for stolen information, a surging white-collar crime of the 21st century. It affects as many as 10 million Americans at a price tag of $55 billion to American business and individuals, according to industry and government studies.

While banks typically compensate customers for fraudulent losses, victims can spend hundreds of hours repairing the havoc wreaked on their personal records and finances and often end up paying legal fees to do so. Sometimes, ID-theft victims are forced to pay off the debt racked up in their name by fraudsters. In the most insidious cases, they are arrested for crimes committed by the person who stole their identity.

Most identity theft still occurs offline, through stolen cards or rings of rogue waiters and shop clerks in cahoots with credit-card forgers. But as Carderplanet shows, the Web offers criminals more efficient tools to harvest personal data and to communicate easily with large groups on multiple continents. The big change behind the expansion of identity theft, law-enforcement agencies say, is the growth of online scams.

Police are finding well-run, hierarchical groups that are structured like businesses. With names such as Carderplanet, Darkprofits and Shadowcrew, these sites act as online bazaars for stolen personal information. The sites are often password-protected and ask new members to prove their criminal credentials by offering samples of stolen data.

Shadowcrew members stole more than $4 million between August 2002 and October 2004, according to an indictment of 19 of the site's members returned last October by a federal grand jury in Newark, N.J. The organization comprised some 4,000 members who traded at least 1.5 million stolen credit-card numbers, the indictment says.

(More at WSJ online, but subscription is required.)

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Watch it, Lumbergh's coming

Some movies get it so right. Office Space does, but you only know that if you've lived it. Students often rate this as one of their favorites, but I always wonder what they like about it. The leading man -- Ron Livingston, also of Sex & the City -- is handsome but flawed in that puppydog way that's sexy as hell. The script, by King of the Hill creator Mike Judge, who also directed, is smart and funny. But the subject -- that special ring of hell where underpaid employees stare at computers in gray cubicles and the smarmy, overpaid boss wants everyone to come in on Saturdays -- is so specific to that environment that you can really get it only if you've been there. Most college-age folk just haven't been there yet. The only one I ever met who had was a kid who supplemented his scholarships by working the lobster shift shuffling papers at Comcast cable, a job I imagine is only a few ticks higher on the soul-suck scale to serving as a guard at Gitmo.

Oh, yes, I've been in those office spaces, my friends. After college, I temped for several years, clocking in 8 to 5 at Mobil Oil, Republic Bank, Dresser Industries, USAA, Rockwell and finally Hearst Publishing, where I got my first taste of the magazine business and thus began what would become my real career.

Companies became cubicle farms in the 1980s. When the ugly plastic walls went up, relations among employees disintegrated.

At J.C. Penney headquarters in Plano, where I was hired by the hour as a technical writer for employee manuals, I had a boss who hated cubicle-to-cubicle conversation so much that she banned it altogether. If you wanted to talk to a co-worker, you had to wave a little yellow flag above your cubicle and ask permission. It was like Cool Hand Luke: Talkin' it up here, boss!

No one had a red stapler there (a piece of deskware that plays a central role in Office Space), but there were skirmishes over access to the locked-up photocopier and fax machines and I seem to recall that bathroom breaks were strictly monitored. At Christmas, the boss lady, who used the phrase "and/or" between every two or three words in a sentence, called our department into the conference room for a "party." We dreary few took our seats around the big table and waited for the celebration to commence. Boss lady ripped open a cellophane bag of unshelled peanuts, tossed it onto the center of the table and said, "Happy holidays, everyone."

With only a few exceptions, corporate America is Office Space to the power of 10. It could be an insurance company, a PR agency or a daily newspaper newsroom. Wherever you go, there's a Lumbergh (the ghastly supervisor in the movie, played to perfection by Gary Cole) and a little group of employees fantasizing about a palace rebellion. The soup in the company cafeteria tastes like dishwater. The air vents above the desks spit mysterious black fibers that surely will cause lung tumors. And every week begins with a cheerful receptionst in a flowered polyester blouse chirping, "Looks like you've got a case of the Mondays!"

What movies do you think get it right? Is The Paper Chase the best flick about law school? Did Mean Girls define high school in the 21st century? Tell me your picks and your reasons and I'll post them.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Fun quiz from AdAge

Think you're up on all things media? Check out Simon Dumenco's quiz.

Happy 40th Birthday, Slurpee

In line at the 7-Eleven by campus, an Asian Ashley. Gorgeous, head to toe.

Her wardrobe choices: Jimmy Choo clay-leather lace-up slingbacks ($405 retail); size 0-2 cropped Moschino jeans ($435); black eyelet halter top, possibly Catherine Malandrino ($162); black, fringed La Boheme hobo bag ($950), black Missoni crystal wraparound sunglasses ($538); French manicure ($30).

Purchase: 1 can orange-vanilla Slimfast ($1.99).

Mode of payment: the student debit card, accepted at most local retailers and restaurants in the area.

Communication device (in constant use while in store): Motorola Razr V3 ($400).

Mode of departure: spanking clean Porsche Cayenne SUV with "W" sticker on lower left of rear bumper ($89,000).

My wardrobe choices: dog-hair-covered black yoga pants (Target sale rack, $9; dog hair, free); black Gap V-neck Tee ($4.99); two-year-old black rubber flipflops ($1); brown Sportsac shoulderbag (garage sale, $2); faux tortoise shell sunglasses (freebie from MTV "Summer Beach House" presskit eight years ago).

Purchase: Big Gulp Diet Coke with squirt of vanilla and lots of ice (89 cents); USA Today (75 cents).

Payment method: two $1 bills still wet from laundry because I forgot to take them out of jeans pocket and found them clinging to the inside of the washing machine, whereupon I thought, "Yippee! Free money!"

Mode of departure: bird-poop-covered 1998 Toyota RAV with squeaky rear brake, chip in windshield and sticker on back window that says "Chee-chee! I talk to squirrels."

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Word from London

Several of my former students are there right now studying in a summer program. When I awoke to the news on Thursday, I thought of them immediately. The campus they're on sits close to the Baker Street and Edgware Road tube stations.

An email from London today from J., one of my fave kids. He says he was in the Underground on the Piccadilly Line, about three trains in front of the one on which the bomb went off. He was coming up out of the King's Cross station when he noticed the lights dim. People thought it was a power outage. He went on his way and made it to his train to the coast and then a ferry to Ireland for the weekend. He writes that some parents of the kids who are over there studying offered to fly all 50 of them home for safekeeping. Everyone chose to stay.

The flashbacks to 9/11 are all too obvious. These students were in high school when that happened.

I remember we had been in classes only a few weeks that fall semester. I was teaching an 8 a.m. lecture class of more than 100 students when the building's technology supervisor popped his head in the door and said, "A plane has crashed into the Pentagon." That's all he said.

At the time, we couldn't get cable TV or internet connection in that lecture hall, so I excused the class early, with everyone fidgeting like mad to get out of there. It was the last class of the day. When we adjourned, everyone rushed to TVs in other parts of the building or in the student center or dorms. I found one just as the towers started to crumble and I remember saying out loud to no one in particular, "Nothing will ever be the same again."

At noon that day, hundreds of students, professors and administrators gathered under bright sunshine on the quad. There were prayers and "God Bless America." There were TV news crews taping the whole scene. It was eerie. No one knew quite what to do or how to behave. Over the grapevine came the story that within a half hour of the first tower being hit, the Secret Service had swarmed onto campus to grab the grand-daughter of a former president out of her class and spirit her off to some safe location.

By the next day, we were back to the regular schedule, urged by the administration to carry on as usual, but to let students talk about how they were feeling.

In the lecture class were four Muslim girls -- sisters from Saudi, two from Bahrain. They wore long skirts and headscarves, but in every other way behaved like every other student. I spoke with "Naheem," one of the sisters, after class that second day. She said her parents back in the Middle East wanted her to drop out and fly home immediately. They were afraid of what would happen to her here. I urged her to stay, but she ended up going home for a couple of weeks and then returning to finish out the term. She had changed. Now she asked to take her quizzes and exams in my office because, she said, she was too nervous and distracted to be in a crowded classroom during tests. She often fell asleep in class because she didn't sleep well at night. She all but stopped answering or asking questions about the material.

After that semester, I never saw any of those girls on campus again. There seemed to be far fewer Middle Eastern students that spring. You can't really blame them. It was an uneasy time to be one of "them."

Later I'll relate the story of "Patrick," who used the tragedy of 9/11 to go walkabout from school for a few weeks.

But for now, send some good vibes to those 19- and 20-year-old kids spending their summer in an un-air-conditioned dorm in North London, probably sleeping a little more fitfully these nights. In their young lives they've experienced more than their share of terrible events.

Friday, July 08, 2005

A dose of reality (TV)

A plug for my other blog, on which I muse mercilessly about reality TV shows. Yes, yes, we're all too intelligent for such things. But I'm obsessed and can't stop watching them. And come on, you are, too. But it'll be our little secret.

And everyone needs one of those

Fancy sign posted outside the palatial new gym-spa complex now under construction on the east side of campus:

"Constructing lifestyles for the future."

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Ralph Edwards says...

When I was a kid there was a TV show called This Is Your Life, hosted by Ralph Edwards, who had a thick toupee the color of maple syrup and a jack-o-lantern grin. Unsuspecting subjects would be led into the studio, where they'd be plopped on a couch and told by Edwards, "This! Is! Your! Life!" Then he'd open this big scrapbook and start the skip down memory lane.

In recent weeks, as I've typed more and more stories about my college teaching experiences, faces and voices from my own college years have been reappearing with alarming frequency. Last week I got a call from Dr. S., one of my most beloved undergrad profs and the one who had the most influence on my own teaching style. She'd seen some of the publicity and wanted to get the lowdown firsthand.

Retired now, Dr. S. sounds like she still has that double-bubble energy that made her such a dynamic instructor. I remember her turning a full cartwheel in class one day (and she had to be in her mid-50s even then). That was an eye-popper but hardly surprising. She was in tiptop shape and made her diction, speech, oral interp and phonetics classes into mini-boot camps. We had to "dress to move" and she moved us around but good. She was always in a good mood, always had something new to talk about and never failed to provide at least half a dozen hearty laughs in every class period. Her aura is white-hot. Love her. Every time I hear myself say to a class, "We have so much to learn and so little time!" -- that's me channeling Dr. S. She has that sense of urgency. She brings such excitement to the subjects. You never wanted to miss one of her classes.

Email arrives from T., a frosh when I was a senior. We fell out of a touch a few years ago and now that he and his partner are moving back to Texas for new jobs, I look forward to seeing them again. When I was a poor, struggling journo-gal in NYC back in the 1980s, interviewing fading soap stars for the tabloids and cadging movie screening tix from my evil boss-editor, T. was my running bud. We ate baked potatoes (all we could afford) and watched every episode of Brideshead Revisited on PBS, cranking up the volume to drown out the clanking of the radiators in T's Riverside Drive apartment.

Today, escaping the dreadful news from London, I clicked to a silly teen comedy on HBO, some Risky Business rip-off about a kid whose new neighbor is a porn star. So in one scene the kid goes to the bank and who's playing the teller? One of my old suitemates, the one who thought she was going to be the next Meryl Streep. She'd be late 40s now and I guess the career didn't play out as she'd hoped. Back in the 1980s she landed a big part on a daytime drama. By the third year, her character was in a coma and her performance was confined to a hospital bed, with the camera shooting right up her nostrils day after day. Eventually, through plot twists only daytime TV producers could think plausible, her comatose character fell out of a plane over Alaska. But she didn't die. After being nursed back to health by friendly grizzlies -- OK, I made that up, but come on -- she returned to Pine Valley or Midvale or wherever it was. They killed her off a second time. She just couldn't stop pissing off the show's writers!

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Summer shout-outs

Allow me some nods of appreciation on this fine summer day.

To my pal Chris, a fellow prof and a darned nice fellow. He was one of only two professors in the division I worked in to speak to me following my "we're not inviting you back next semester" letter and the brouhaha-ha-ha that followed. For that, I tip my sun visor and offer him another round of nachos at Gloria's, one of Dallas' finest Tex-Mex tostadarias. And here's a link to his t-shirt company, which specializes in sports logos of teams from yesteryear.

To my writer-friend and all around great broad, Roberta DeBoer, who writes a smart, funny, of-the-moment column for the Toledo Blade.

To my dear bud Ed Martin, who writes a brilliant media column for the online media mag The Myers Report. Want to read the best take yet on the Tom Cruise silliness? Check this out.

To my former student Tiana, who was brave enough to be my confederate for a trip to the Scientology Celebrity Centre last week. See this week's upcoming Dallas Observer to read about what we found. (Link will follow when it's published.)

And to Bobby Brown and Whitney Houston, for letting cameras film their life for Being Bobby Brown on the Bravo cable channel (Thursday nights, with many reruns). This can hardly be called reality TV, as the Houston-Brown family seems unfamiliar with any aspect of reality. My new fave phrase comes from Whitney (via the show's subtitles): "Hell to the no!" As above-mentioned Ed says, this series is "the Liza and David show that never was." I'd call it a train wreck but that doesn't begin to describe the twisted wreckage we witness as these two fading stars hurtle toward oblivion.

To my comedian/filmmaker friend Linda Stogner, who actually survived being hit by a train. And built a stand-up routine around it.

To my writer/filmmaker friend Ed Stone, who begins production on his film Griffin & Phoenix in NYC this week. He wrote Happy, Texas (an under-appreciated comedy starring Jeremy Northam, William H. Macy and Steve Zahn) and was the rewrite man on a slew of animated comedies.

And to everyone who knows not to call me when ABC's Dancing with the Stars and Fox's Hell's Kitchen are on, I thank you. Miss these shows? Hell to the no!

Now put down that book and go outside and play. It's summer!

Mitchell can't say

By law now, college instructors are not allowed to discuss a student’s grades or class progress with parents. Under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), parents have access to their kids’ academic records only if the student has signed a waiver allowing them to.

That doesn’t mean calls and emails from “concerned” parents have slowed up any. Sometimes I’m introduced to a parent’s voice on the phone or find his or her email in my in-box before I’ve ever even laid eyes on the darling son or daughter.

Such is the case with Mitchell, a tall, shy young man with big blue eyes and a mop of curly blond hair that hangs almost to his shoulders. Days before I meet him in the media writing class, I receive an email and a phone call from his mother – I’ll call her Ruth.

Hearing Ruth describe her son, I get a picture of an outgoing, talkative young entrepreneur with a penchant for public speaking and the personality of a budding Donald Trump. Even as a high school senior, Ruth tells me, Mitchell had found a mentor in a vice-president of a major advertising firm in the area. The man encouraged Mitchell to major in corporation communications “because of the great job potential” (Ruth’s words).

So on the first day of class, as I call the roll, I am eager to see how Mitchell matches up to his mother’s glowing description. I spot him sitting on the back row by himself. One by one, the other students sing-song their answers to the usual “Who are you and what’s your major?” questions. I usually throw in something odd, too, like “Tell me your most recent brush with fame” or “Who is funnier – Leno or Letterman? Give reasons for your choice.” (This is a great way to differentiate the bright kids from the mediocre ones. Smart ones pick Letterman. And the really smart ones say, “Neither. It’s Jon Stewart.”)

When we get to Mitchell, I am surprised to see him blush a deep crimson and give me a sort of nervous wave, as if to say, “Skip me, please. Don’t make me talk.” I think I say something like, “OK, we’ll come back to you later.” But by the end of class that first day, he still hasn’t spoken up.

That night I grade their first-day quizzes (see the post below for a sample). Mitchell fares poorly, missing more than 60 of the 100 multiple choices and fill-in-blanks that assess basic skills in grammar, punctuation and spelling.

At the next class session, I discreetly hand back the papers (long gone are the days when students grade each other’s work – an “invasion of privacy” that someone decided embarrasses the dumb ones unnecessarily and therefore can’t be allowed).

“Anyone who missed more than 50 percent of the answers should seriously reconsider taking this course,” I tell the class. “Unless you get outside tutoring or spend every evening in the Learning Enhancement Center, you will have big problems with the writing assignments and probably will not pass.”

Mitchell looks stricken. After class I wave him down toward the front of the room. As I gather up my notes and folders, I ask, “What are you going to do, kiddo? I’m not sure you’re up to this.” His score was the lowest of the 40 students in the two sections. I don’t tell him that.

“I n-n-n-n-know,” he says, blinking hard as he struggles to spit out the words. “I’m n-n-n-n-not the b-b-b-b-b-best writer. I n-n-n-n-need a t-t-t-t-t-tutor.”

Ah. The problem. Mitchell has a profound speech defect. He doesn’t just stutter. He blocks. I’m no speech pathologist, but I can tell this is a lifelong, severe impediment. It could account for his poor grammar and punctuation skills, too. If the kid never spoke in high school, if he couldn’t communicate or ask questions, he probably fell behind long ago on the basics.

I don’t like to blow smoke. I’ll tell a student the what’s-what right to his face. But I can’t just kick the kid out of class on the second day. He assures me he will keep up with the assignments and get outside help. But already I dread the day the class makes their oral presentations. What will he do?

Back in my office that afternoon, I get another email from Mitchell’s mother, Ruth. “I am surprised about the number of items that he missed on the test,” she writes. “But he is definitely up for the challenge.” I guess Mitchell has already talked to her about the test.

Then the phone rings. Ruth again, wanting to discuss Mitchell’s test score further. We have been in class only twice this term and already I’ve had four communiqués from this mother.

I listen to Ruth tell me again what an outstanding communicator her son is. Then I tell her in the most general way that students who have fluency problems, either written or spoken, have a tough time passing a class that requires so much writing and speaking. And I’m a tough grader, I tell her.

Ruth is indignant. “As far as his fluency difficulties, Mitchell was never even sent to speech assistance in his entire 12 years of school,” she says, not quite shrieking but close enough. “In high school, he gave speeches in class, interviewed people, was in a singing group and performed in school plays. He is very conversational in his classes and always has been. Perhaps you are intimidating to him. I don’t know. But I have heard from another teacher who said he had no idea that Mitchell had any difficulty with speech.”

Denial. Pure and simple. The son has a profound speech problem, not to mention sub-par skills in the basics of writing, and the mother doesn’t acknowledge either. Excedrin headache No. 31.

Ruth isn’t finished. “Mitch would really be upset if he knew that I contacted you and had mentioned his speech. I guess as a mother we never stop worrying about our children. He is an only child, which probably does not help.”

After she hangs up, I Google her name. Ruth is a special education coordinator for a large metropolitan school district. Sigh. Whatcha gonna do?

It’s a tough semester for Mitchell. He does try. He writes and rewrites, but never really makes much progress on the page. He exhibits some signs of dyslexia, transposing letters and numbers. Because of the stutter, he can't read aloud without difficulty. I don't ask him about any of that. Unless I get a letter from the university's Office of Services for Students with Disabilities telling me that a student needs extra accommodation because of a learning problem -- and I have no such letter about Mitchell -- I never bring up such things directly with a student. You really can't.

In Mitchell's case, I give him some slack. He asks and I agree to let him do an additional written assignment rather than his having to get up in front of the class to give the required speech. On the days the others do their stand-up presentations, Mitch ditches class. We both understand why.

I feel for the kid. By midterm he and I both know he isn’t suited for the major or, probably, a career in corporate communications.

We do have some good chats in my office before and after classes. He is a sweet boy with a sunny outlook on life. What he'd really like to do, he tells me, is own his own motorcycle shop. Every story he writes for the class is related to motorcycles. One-on-one, as we get to know each other, he relaxes and his stutter isn’t nearly so bad. But he never says a word in class. He smiles. He shrugs. But he doesn’t talk.

How might Mitchell benefit from some serious work with a topnotch speech therapist? They have excellent methods for overcoming problems like his now. One involves the stutterer listening to his own voice in an earpiece as he speaks. There are breathing techniques that can be learned. Heck, about all I know is what I see on ABC’s 20/20 (co-hosted by John Stossel, a former stutterer), but I know that stutters like Mitchell’s can be controlled and conquered.

Mitchell has done none of these therapies. His mother won’t let him. Perhaps at home he doesn’t stutter so badly. Maybe the pressure of college classes makes it worse. Maybe he feels like he'd be letting his mother down if he admitted he even has the stutter.

He earns a passing D in my class and moves on to major in some other department. I never hear from Ruth again.

It’s certainly not impossible to make it in media with poor writing skills and a speech problem. (See Bill O'Reilly for the former and Campbell Brown of NBC's Today show for the latter.) But sometimes there are bigger obstacles that stand in the way of becoming a whole person. Mitchell will have to overcome one particularly difficult impediment to his future success if he’s ever going to be an independent adult capable of living his own life. It has nothing to do with how he talks.

The Day One Quiz

Here’s a taste of the first-day writing proficiency test that I give to sophomores and juniors in the beginning media writing class. We do follow AP Style. See how you do. (Answers are at the end.)

Correct the punctuation and spelling errors:
1. Whose the schools choice for assistant principle?
2. The cat had it’s tail caught in the ladys purse.
3. Didn’t you read that their arriving at three PM?

Insert commas where needed:
4. Your ability to say the wrong thing at the wrong time is I believe amazing.
5. If the other team wins again our team will not make the finals.
6. Running around the house the dog hearing the mailman arrive made quite a racket.

Punctuate these sentences containing quotations:
7. “Sally is studying hard in school this semester” said her father.
8. “No” the waitress said “grilled octopus is not on our menu.”
9. “My favorite book is Valley of the Dolls” said Marcia.

Choose the correct adverb or adjective:
10. Her voice sounds (beautifully, beautiful). We heard it (perfectly, perfect).
11. He is a (sensible, sensibly) person. He acted very (sensible, sensibly).
12. Mike wrote too (slow, slowly) on the exam. He always writes (slow, slowly).

Choose the correct verb tense:
13. I’m sure Billy had (drank, drunk) too much to drive safely.
14. Daniela often has (swimmed, swam, swum) as many as 100 laps.
15. Witnesses claimed they (seen, saw) the prince leave the brothel.

Choose the correct word or phrase:
16. It is not (alright, all right) to use cell phones in (there, their).
17. How much (further, farther) do we have to walk?
18. If I (was, were) you, I’d stop right there.
19. Looks like he might (lose, loose) the election.
20. The matter is between (he and I, him and me).

Can you find the misspelled words?
21. Accommodate, minuscule, separate, embarrass, harass, sacriligious, expresso, forehead, independent, Conneticut, avacado

1. Who’s the school’s choice for assistant principal?
2. The cat had its tail caught in the lady’s purse.
3. Didn’t you read that they’re arriving at 3 p.m.?
4. Your ability to say the wrong thing at the wrong time is, I believe, amazing.
5. If the other team wins again, our team will not make the finals.
6. Running around the house, the dog, hearing the mailman arrive, made quite a racket.
7. “Sally is studying hard in school this semester,” said her father.
8. “No,” the waitress said, “grilled octopus is not on our menu.”
9. “My favorite book is Valley of the Dolls,” said Marcia. (book title could be underlined instead)

10. beautiful, perfectly
11. sensible, sensibly
12. slowly, slowly
13-15. drunk, swum, saw
16. all right, there
17. farther
18. were
19. lose
20. him and me
21. Should be spelled: sacrilegious, espresso, Connecticut, avocado

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Today's crime alert

At the little subway sandwich shop (one that's not part of the chain) across the street from campus, tucked behind the 7-Eleven, right beside an alley and not 50 yards from luxury condominiums, a student sat outside on the patio at sunset on a summer evening, eating a sandwich.

Suddenly he was confronted by a man who pointed a gun at the student's head and demanded his wallet and cellphone. The student turned over the stuff and sat frozen for a moment as the assailant limped away down the alley. The robber had a limp. That's in the official description on the alert posted all over campus on Friday morning.

This happened on a heavily trafficked block, within sight of the the busiest street on the busiest side of the campus.