Monday, January 30, 2006

A Word Nerd Challenge

After sitting through two lousy plays this weekend--four hours of my life stolen by crummy scripts, bad directing and slipshod acting--I'm laying down a challenge to all of you budding playwrights (or just whatever-wrights) out there. Write a 10-line play. It should have a title, dialogue (one character is fine, but more than one is better), a beginning, middle and end. Make it funny, poignant, tragic, silly. I don't care. Just make it original.

There is a prize! From the overstuffed prize closet, I have plucked three fine little blank books, just perfect for journaling or chronicling your "Found" material (notes, ticket stubs, lost pet signs or other amusing detritus). Best three 10-line plays (to be decided by me) will get a prize.

Deadline: Friday February 3. Post the plays in the "comments" section here.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Danger, Will Robinson (if you're a frosh)

USA Today took a look this week at the dangers facing the first-years. Good story. Worth passing along to anyone you know who's in college, going to college or has a kid in his or her freshman year.

It's been a busy week. I did my "What You Should Really Know about College" speech to a very nice corporate group. They laughed in all the right places and many came up afterward to say they were already Phan/Prof readers. Shucks, thanks. And though I've been slower about posting lately because of writing deadlines, I have lots more stories to share and new ones coming in. So keep visiting.

I'm also back in the teaching mode, not just a college class, but water aerobics classes at a local health club, something I got certified to do during the hubbub over getting fired from the university last spring. It's fun being back on my feet, talking to students, dry and wet, again. I think in another life I was Professor Shecky, stand-up comedian. There's such a high from getting people to laugh out loud. I LOVE it.

OK, kids, it's pouring rain here in drought-land. My ancient paraplegic doggy is squawking for her pain pills (thank heavens for Remedyl, which has probably added a year to little Kubby's life) and I need to finish re-reading 1984. That Orwell. Foretold the future better than Nostradamus.

More later. And if you have anything to share about the dangers of freshman year, please share them in comments here.

Monday, January 23, 2006

In the deep freeze

Time for a new story, I think. And this is one I've wanted to share for a while. It comes from a student I'll call "Tessa" and something she wrote for my class when I asked them to do one of those "moment in time" pieces of personal nonfiction. She ended up rewriting it several times and she earned an A for the final draft. But the stories she told me about the "behind the scenes" stuff of the event she chose to chronicle were even more interesting that what she put on the page.

Background needed. Many of the sorority girls who deign to take part-time jobs opt to become nannies to the wealthy families in the exclusive neighborhoods around the campus. We're talking estate-like mega-mansions, not the shoddy McMansions of the ugly suburbs. Even a teardown in this area can go for half a mil, with a $5 million, three-story behemoth taking the place of a 1950s one-story brick cottage.

So who lives in these places? Movers, shakers, big deal makers. They are still young, very ambitious and have children who still need minding. To help look after their offspring, lawyer-mommy and mogul-daddy hire a Tri-Delt or a Kappa to pick them up at school, haul them to soccer practice or gymnastics, and maybe get them fed and medicated (they're always medicated) before the parents get home late from their offices.

Tessa worked for such a family. She said the mom was a control freak extraordinaire. Left Post-It notes everywhere about everything. "Put Justine in the pink and black leotards for ballet. NOT the purple ones." Or "Phillip has a birthday party at the DeWildes' on Tuesday. Be sure to ask about peanuts. NO PEANUTS ALLOWED!" Another note said simply: "No TV--Enrichment activities only!"

Trying to raise her children via notes to the hired nanny, the mom rarely interacted with them herself. Tessa said she never saw either parent hug or kiss their kids. Or, for that matter, each other. They were an emotionally chilly family and the kids sometimes acted robotically emotion-free.

Besides trying the humanize the little ones, Tessa, a sweet and still refreshingly naive young woman, was also put in charge of pet care for the family's rather elaborate menagerie. On the third-floor of the manse, in an enormous play area the parents avoided, were many cages filled with small furry things and several large aquariums containing frogs, fish and other aquatic beasties. It was the kids' favorite place to be.

So one day Tessa brings them home from school and little Justine heads straight for the third floor to check on her animals. Tessa climbs the stairs a bit behind her and by the time she gets to the playroom she wonders why the little girl is so quiet.

"I got to the door and saw her standing in the middle of the room, holding something brown and still in her hands," said Tessa.

It was Jelly, one of Justine's prized ferrets.

"He's dead," Justine said dispassionately. She didn't appear the least bit upset, Tessa recalled.

"I thought she might cry. I remember how much I cried when my pets died. But no, she just held it like an empty sock. Then she started toward the stairs, still holding the dead ferret. I followed her downstairs, not sure what she was doing or where she was going.

"She went all the way to the kitchen and back into the gift-wrapping room--the mom had a separate room filled with fancy papers and ribbons on spools, like you might see in a store somewhere--and I decided to play along and not ask questions. And this is where it started to get weird. Here's this 7-year-old girl, with a dead ferret in her hands. And she lays it out on the countertop and pulls off a big sheet of plain white wrapping paper. She puts the ferret in it and carefully wraps and tapes it up, like you've seen a butcher do with a steak or a piece of salmon. She was very deliberate, turning the corners just so and sticking the tape up and down the seam of the paper. Then she grabbed a black marker and wrote `Jelly' and the date on the outside of the little package.

"So I'm thinking she's going to bury it in the backyard, that we're going to do one of those little kid pet funerals like the little girl in Poltergeist. How sweet, I'm thinking.

"But instead of going outside, Justine heads for the garage and goes over to this big deep-freeze in the corner. And you're not going to believe this, because I wouldn't have if I hadn't seen it. She opens the door of the freezer and carefully places Jelly on a shelf. And as I look closer I can see that there are lots of white packages in there, each carefully labeled in black ink with names like `Puffer' and `Snowy' and `Bonkers.' And I realize that I'm looking at a pet cemetery. They've got all the dead bodies of all the pets the kids have ever had. In the freezer."

As Tessa told me the story--and she later wrote it with all the details intact--she kept shaking her head in disbelief. I asked her to wind up the piece with a conclusive device, something that would give meaning to what she'd witnessed. And I'm probably paraphrasing a little, but as I recall, she came up with something that sounded like this:

"On the outside they look so normal. They're rich. They live in a beautiful house. Everything about them--mother, father, son and daughter--is shiny and perfect. But there is something missing. They don't feel. They are cold as ice. And I realize now that the truth about who this family really is lies not in how perfect they look to the world but is hidden at the back of the garage, in a freezer filled with little corpses carefully wrapped in white paper."

I praised Tessa's work, read it aloud to the other classes and encouraged her to compare her story to Truman Capote's short titled "A Lamp in the Window." I liked hers better. Because I was sure hers was true.

Dr. March's Reading List

Here it is, as requested. To review, "Dr. March," as I call him here, isa professor of human rights and history who takes a group of students on a tour of the Nazi death camps in Poland over every Christmas break. He is urging me to take the trip in 2006 and has provided me with the reading list to prepare. (Any notes with the titles are his. And they are not in alpha order, but in the order I think he thinks they should be read.)

The Origins of Nazi Genocide: From Euthanasia to the Final Solution by Henry Friedlander.

Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland by Christopher Browning.

Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust by Daniel Goldhagen.

Crying Hands: Eugenics and Deaf People in Nazi Germany by Horst Biesold.

The Nazi Doctors by Robert Jay Lifton.

Psychiatrists--the Men Behind Hitler by Dr. Thomas Roder Volker Kubillus and Anthony Burwell.

Doctors Under Hitler by Michael Kater.

Racial Hygiene: Medicine Under the Nazis by Robert Proctor .

Life Unworthy of Life by James M. Glass.

Cleansing the Fatherland: Nazi Medicine and Racial Hygiene by Gotz Aly, Peter Chroust and Christian Pross.

Biologists Under Hitler by Ute Deichmann .

By Trust Betrayed: Patients, Physicians, and the License to Kill in the Third Reich by Hugh Gregory Gallagher.

The Racial State: Germany 1933-1945 by Michael Burleigh and Wolfgang Wippermann.

Death and Deliverance: 'Euthanasia' in Germany 1900-1945 by Michael Burleigh.

Mass Murderers in White Coats: Psychiatric Genocide in Nazi Germany and the United States by Lanny Lapon.

Nurses in Nazi Germany: Moral Choices in History by Bronwyn Rebekah McFarland-Icke.

When Medicine Went Mad: Bioethics and the Holocaust by Arthus L. Caplan.

The Nazi Doctors and the Nuremberg Code: Human Rights in Human Experimentation
by Jeorge J. Annas and Michael A. Grodin.

Czech, Danuta. Auschwitz Chronicle, 1939-1945 (this is an 864-page record of daily events at the camp... it is available at Half Price Books).

Paskuly, Steven, ed. Death Dealer: The Memoirs of the SS Kommandant at Auschwitz, Rudolph Hoss.

Sereny, Gitta. Into That Darkness (An Examination of Conscience) (this work is "based on extensive interviews, an unprecedented portrait of Franz Stangl, Commandant of Treblinka--the largest of the 5 Nazi extermination camps").

Arad, Yitzhak. Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: The Operation Reinhard Death Camps.

Rashke, Richard. Escape From Sobibor.

Arendt, Hannah. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.

Sereny, Gitta. The Healing Wound: Experiences and Reflections, Germany, 1938-2001.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Children of the damned

This is just plain scary. An alumni group is paying students to spy on profs and provide taped proof that university teachers are promoting some objectionable leftwing agenda in the classroom. So what about the professors with right-leaning views? They get a pass? A cash bonus? Read on.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Oprah goes to Auschwitz

Oprah, the most important marketing tool for any author, yesterday made her latest "Book Club" choice: Elie Wiesel's Night.

After the debacle of James Frey's truth-challenged "memoir," A Million Little Pieces, which Oprah defended by phone on Larry King Live (and it was a sort of half-baked defense at that), she needed to find a book for her audience whose truth is indisputable and whose message carries real power.

Night is a slim volume, but its weight is immense. It is the story of Wiesel's experiences in a Nazi concentration camp--a tale of horror as seen through the eyes of a teenage boy who can't understand why God would allow it to happen to him and his family. Unlike the Frey book, it wasn't duded up with half-truths in the hopes of its author scoring a three-book/three-picture deal. If Oprah's readers thought the Faulkner was hard to read, I wonder what they'll think of this.

I read Night for the Human Rights course I took under "Dr. March," about whom I've written here before. He and I had another long lunch together recently. He's just back from his annual Christmastime tour of Polish death camps. Yes, you read that right. For a decade, he's taken a group of students each year over the holiday break to nine sites across Poland--always in the dead of winter because, he says, "then you get the full impact of the place...we're in five layers of clothes to keep warm and you think of the prisoners who lived through winters there in bare feet, wearing only cotton can find no better testament to the strength of the human will to survive."

Oprah says she will accompany author Wiesel to Auschwitz soon.

Dr. March says I should go along when he takes his next group abroad in December. "It is a transformative experience. You should do it and write about it," he said. "No, you must do it."

Then he sent me a reading list to help me prepare for the trip. I think he's serious.

I will reread Night.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Japanese boys go to their rooms -- and don't come out

There's a new trend among Japanese teenage boys: They drop out of life. Like the scary trend of anorexia among young girls in this country, in Japan it's high school boys who are retreating from the world, dropping out of life and staying in their bedrooms, sometimes for decades. It's all in today's NYT magazine story.

Utterly fascinating.

What do you think are some syndromes or unhealthy trends going on among American teens that aren't being recognized--by parents, teachers or the media?

Friday, January 13, 2006

Hot profs

This story from the Village Voice looks at websites on which students rate profs on their hotness (among other attributes).

Jumping into the wayback machine, I'd give a "he's smoking hot" rating to my Italian professor, Roberto, the Florentine dish. Wonder where he is now? Probably grandfather to scads of little Fiorentinos back in the home country. Sigh. He was so cute that I used to spend 20 hours a week in the language lab, listening to those "repeat after me" tapes just on the off-change I might see him. Benefit of that: I made all A's in Italian and still have the occasional dream in the language. (I also did pretty well speaking it on trips to Italy, where I was informed right away that I had a Florentine accent.)

Only once on a student evaluation did anyone ever give me a "she's hot." And thank you, Nigel, for the nod. It does the old gal good to think you were checking out my ass while I was scrawling on the dry-erase board in class.

Do a prof a favor and give him or her a "hot" rating on the rate-a-prof sites. We like it.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Silly Stunt or Immersion Journalism?

You be the judge as Chicago Trib columnist Julia Keller, who already has a Ph.D. and a Pulitzer, goes back to college for 10 weeks. Check out her first dispatch about it here.

Immersion journalism may have started--or at least gained greater momentum--with In Cold Blood, Truman Capote's chronicle of the Clutter family murders. How he got that story and how it affected him are portrayed exquisitely in the film Capote starring Philip Seymour Hoffman.

I don't see that many mainstream films anymore, but this one... wow. My pulse quickened, my throat tightened. As the saga dragged on and on, keeping Capote from finishing the manuscript and getting it published, the dance between writer and subject began to change. Hoffman's performance will win him the Oscar. And screenwriter Dan Futterman's adaptation of Gerald Clarke's huge biography (also titled Capote) doesn't miss a lick. See it.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006


Was on campus yesterday picking up a friend for lunch. Witnessed the new herd of sorority sheep lining up for their rush parties. There was a bouncy-house in front of one greek palace with a big sign proclaiming "Think Theta."

And here was the uniform of the day, head to toe: Bottle-blond ponytail, cellphone pasted to ear, pastel cashmere pashmina tossed carelessly but perfectly around the shoulders, thin T-shirt, teeny-tiniest cotton knit shorts (typically gray) showing off tanned legs, beige Ugg boots (the high-calf style).

Got the picture? The pashmina and the Uggs keep the upper and lower floors warm, but everything in between is left exposed to the elements. It's schizo-fashion.

Granted, it was warmish here yesterday. But those tees and shorts! In January! With Ugg boots!

It's the designer-trashy profile made famous by Britney Federline. The neo-Lolita look.

As my lunch-friend said, "What a country."

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Overheard out shopping

Looking over the marked-down imported sweets at TJ Maxx:

Mom: See anything you want?

Little Girl about 8: Marzipan!

Mom: No. Remember, you like the idea of marzipan but not the reality.

Little Girl: Oh, yeah, I forgot.

(Truer words were never spoken.)

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Dumpster diving

Stuff I've found in or near the dumpsters after the college kids move out of our apartment complex between semesters:
  • Brand new HP printer, all cords still attached
  • Tall oak computer-printer stand on wheels
  • Blank computer discs and CD-ROMs
  • China tea set
  • Funky 1950s plates and saucers, left in a box beside the garbage bin
  • Unopened bottle of semi-expensive champagne (still in my fridge)
  • Nearly full bottles of expensive shampoos and conditioners
  • Leather camera bag
  • Replacement car antenna, still in unopened package
  • Framed movie posters

One of my students told me about one of the rare perks of being a resident assistant in the dorm. She really made out bigtime with stuff left behind. One girl moved out and left all the dresser drawers loaded with clothes (and not by accident...she just didn't want to pack the stuff). Lots of students abandon bicycles, stereos, VCRs, TVs, sofas and futons. Best days for scavenging are during final exams and right after.

There goes the neighborhood

From the NY Daily News:
Houston homie Bush may be looking for a Dallas palace

President Bush won't be leaving his current D.C. home for another three years — but that hasn't stopped gossip that he's already planning to move back to Dallas.

Although Bush grew up in Houston, he raised his family in Dallas' Preston ­Hollow neighborhood. First Lady Laura graduated from nearby Southern Methodist University, which is favored to get Dubya's presidential library.

Some wager the Bushes would resettle in Highland Park, the tony township inside Dallas. Many Bush cronies live there, including Laura's pal Debbie ­Francis, whose husband, Jim, was chairman of the Bush Pioneers fund-raising group in the 2000 campaign.

When oilman Lee Fikes bought an empty Highland Park plot to build a 13,000-square-foot mansion — directly across from Dick Cheney's former home on Euclid Ave. — whispers spread that Fikes was fronting for the First Family.

Dallas Morning News columnist Alan Peppard calls that theory "baloney." Other real-estate oddsmakers think the Bushes might prefer Dallas' Turtle Creek neighborhood, home to Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and financier Ed Cox.

The White House had no comment on any of it.

Monday, January 02, 2006

A random sighting of a future celebrity

At the Celebrity Cafe, where I frequently swig iced tea with friends, I actually met someone today who might become a celebrity. Check out this guy. Ryan Hurst, budding actor, is a Baylor grad, age 28. Has made some indie films and is heading to LA for pilot season in February. Two words: hubba hubba. Watch his demo reel on his website. Just thought you'd enjoy the diversion. I know I did!

Another adjunct weighs in on the credentials of journo profs

Good story from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Excerpt:

Recently I mentioned to a couple of friends who have forged distinguished journalistic careers that, in my two most recent teaching positions, I have been replaced by a 25-year-old woman with no professional journalism experience and a 24-year-old man with a similar lack of experience. Each is primarily responsible for the journalism program at her and his educational institution.

A Ph.D. from the least rigorous of academic institutions -- including online -- trumps not only my master's degree in communication but a combined 28 years of experience in journalism and public relations. Though I have a withdrawal-in-good-standing card from the Newspaper Guild, I do not have a doctorate.
And this is a large part of what is wrong with academia right now. People who have only studied journalism--and earned those multiple letters after their names--are prized over those who have done it and are actually expert at it. This does not serve students or media. It does reward the professional student and his or her employers who likewise are good at academia but lousy at the professions for which they're supposed to be prepping their students. When the department I worked in replaced practical writing and media history classes with more studies of communications theory, I knew they were doomed.