Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Stalking: Big prob on campus

USA Today reports that college girls get stalked a lot. And once it starts, it's hard to get the stalker to stop.

Then over on the biz page of the same USA Today is this story quoting employers who think it's weird how parents of kids applying for jobs interfere to a ridiculous degree. Like, would you let your dad call to negotiate your salary? Or have you actually grown up like a real person?

At what point should parents let go and let their grown children be truly independent (even if that means the kid makes some mistakes)? Isn't hovering over every detail of their kids' lives a form of control and manipulation?


Thursday, April 19, 2007

Professors saw danger in Cho Seung-Hui: "This shows you how powerless we are"

From the New York Times: Despite Mr. Cho's time in the mental health system, when an English professor was disturbed by his writings last fall and contacted the associate dean of students, the dean told the professor that there was no record of any problems and that nothing could be done, said the instructor, Lisa Norris.

That makes at least three professors, including the renowned poet Nikki Giovanni, who complained to higher-ups at Virginia Tech about the odd behavior of Cho Seung-Hui. Giovanni was disturbed enough by Cho, whom she described in several TV interviews as a "mean boy," to say "him or me," threatening to resign her position at the university if he wasn't removed from her classroom. In a writing class with 35 students enrolled, Cho and his writings were sufficiently terrifying to reduce in-class participation to just seven kids by mid-term, said Giovanni. The solution by the VT English department--and this gets me where I live--was to take Cho out of Giovanni's class and ask Lucinda Roy, another writing prof, to teaching him one-on-one in her office.

Roy has said in several interviews this week that she was afraid to be alone with Cho. She, too, tried to alert administrators about his scary strangeness. "He was a ghost," she said. "He was the loneliest person I'd ever seen."

Despite the warnings by these professors, nobody did anything to remove Cho from the classrooms of Virginia Tech.

Teach for a few years and you get a strong intuition about the crazy ones. You see it in their eyes, their posture, the way they dress, talk, walk, smell--and in what they write.

You've seen by now the dark writings of Cho Seung-Hui. The 10-page plays, typed in perfect script format with razor-sharp margins, detailing violence that makes Macbeth look like Ugly Betty. And the strangely illustrated "manifesto" sent by Cho to NBC News between the first and second shootings on Monday.

Look at his writing and you know that this was a bright guy--mentally imbalanced but highly intelligent. He somehow had been a good enough student to make it to his senior year at VT, no doubt shoved along by an English department eager to get him out the door and off the campus.

It's a common strategy for dealing with troubled and troubling students: Just get 'em through the department. Do whatever it takes, but don't cause problems or invite legal hassles by leaning too hard on him. Is he still paying his tuition? Then just deal with it. He'll be gone next year. Shut up and deal with it.

We've all encountered the weird kid whose oddness raised the small hairs on the back of our necks. I've had my share. It was the mentally unbalanced girls who caused the most problems in my classes. Like "Layla," the girl who never wrote one word during a semester in my writing class. She never turned in a single assignment. But she would waylay me in my office for four or five hours at a time, telling me what she wanted to write and why she couldn't. She told me she was under the care of three shrinks and had spent time in several expensive institutions back in her home state. She spun wildly untruthful tales about her family: Her father was a pilot, he was a mercenary in Iraq, he was a homeless drug addict who would disappear for months and years at a time. She said her mother had terminal lung cancer, then would tell me a few days later that her mother was remarried to a wealthy businessman and spent her days playing tennis at a country club and didn't care what happened with her kids. Layla was skilled at storytelling; too bad she didn't write them down.

One day Layla came to class wearing in-line skates. She jumped up on the table and took off her t-shirt while ranting some nonsense about being a champion skater in the Olympics. The class went into shock. I got a student to help me get her off the table (I was afraid she'd fall and break her neck) and I don't really remember what happened next.

She stopped coming to class for a few weeks. Then she popped up back in my office, offering to give me $1000 cash if I would give her a passing grade in the course. She pulled a wad of hundreds out of her backpack and shoved the money across the desk. "Take it," she said. "I have more if you want it." (I didn't touch it, of course.)

I tried to get help for Layla. I told the head of my department about her. I tried to call her campus adviser, the heads of the student advising center, the counseling center and the health center. I never even got a call back. I left emails, voicemails and hand-delivered notes asking for callbacks. Nothing. Nobody wanted to hear it.

And when I never saw Layla again, I couldn't get anyone to tell me if she'd dropped out, gone home or what. She was just gone. To get some much-needed help, I hoped.

A teacher-friend and I were talking this week about the Virginia Tech tragedy and all the professors who tried to warn others that this sick young man was trouble. "This shows you how powerless we are," said my friend. She told me several stories about students who'd frightened her with violent or abusive behavior. In one instance, she couldn't even get the campus police to walk her to her car. There was only one "officer" assigned to campus that day and he wasn't available.

Yes, we are the phantom warning system, sending up flares that get ignored and sounding alarms that nobody wants to hear. And when something happens, we have every right to say we told you so.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Shooter was "the loneliest person"

A professor tried to warn them. Teachers can see these things in the words students put on the page. This Virginia Tech creative writing prof felt the vibe and tried to convince administrators to intervene. But "there were too many legal hurdles," she was told.

More of the story is at ABC News online. Here's an excerpt:

Lucinda Roy, a co-director of the creative writing program at Virginia Tech, taught Cho in a poetry class in fall of 2005 and later worked with him one-on-one after she became concerned about his behavior and themes in his writings.

Roy spoke outside her home Tuesday afternoon, saying that there was nothing explicit in Cho's writings, but that threats were there under the surface.

Roy told ABC News that Cho seemed "extraordinarily lonely—the loneliest person I have ever met in my life." She said he wore sunglasses indoors, with a cap pulled low over his eyes. He whispered, took 20 seconds to answer questions, and took cellphone pictures of her in class. Roy said she was concerned for her safety when she met with him.

She said she notified authorities about Cho, but said she was told that there would be too many legal hurdles to intervene. She said she asked him to go to counseling, but he never went.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Parkit Market Fame

Student Jen Nikoloff, from the university on the nearby hillock, changed her name to Taylor Reid when she did the gettin' nekkid thang for Playboy. So does that mean she grew up on Reid Street and had a puppy named Taylor?

Here she is on video yesterday at Parkit Market, the skeevy convenience store up the road here where students and construction workers buy beer and porn.

Not exactly Les Deux as a place to flaunt one's fame. But I guess it's a start. Dig the guy who vows to "bookmark this page" as he flips past the photos of 19-year-old "Taylor's" bare fanny.

According to her Myspace page, she's majoring in "I Just Want to Be Fabulous."

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Backstage dramas

Looks like you can either read books or write them. I haven't read an entire book in two years. But I have been writing one--and rewriting and now for the third time rewriting it again MUCH funnier and meaner--which takes up every extra minute of time.

This is between my five other jobs: teaching "Movies About Movies" at the college way up the tollway; writing theater and restaurant reviews for Dallas Observer; writing a TV blog as an "expert blogger" for Mediavillage.com; teaching swimming and water aerobics to big and little people; writing about "green living" as a freelancer for another publication. And for fun I'm in my fourth month of thrice-weekly bootcamp sessions to try to keep up my stamina for all the other stuff. It's me and 19 Buffys grunting through squat-thrusts and diamond-push-ups for 45 minutes in Lakeside Park.

So blogging here has slowed considerably and for that, I'm sorry. I see stuff every day that I want desperately to post and comment on--today's dropping of charges against the Duke lacrosse players, a story the other day about how there are 150 staffers in the White House who graduated from Pat Robertson's Regent University law school (so, like, why don't they put the Bush library THERE?) and so on and so on and so I never get around to blogging about these things.

So you get very little from me these days. But at least I don't write a crap-blog like this one. (I read her stuff every now and then just to remind myself how utterly banal "mommy diaries" are and to be grateful I'm neither a mommy nor a totally self-involved-to-the-point-of-psychosis radio "personality.")

Clutch the pearls, I feel a nasty swoon coming on.

During my bouts of insomnia--which occur often enough to make me empathize with Anna Nicole's need for an on-site, Hippocratic-oath-ignoring prescription-writer--I get the occasional flashback to the many long nights I spent backstage at the Ruth Taylor Theater at Trinity University. This was in the days when getting three hours of sleep was enough. I got through college on a total of about 90 hours of sleep spread across four years.

Golly, it's sad how that lovely theater was razed a few years ago to make way for a new and much uglier acting space paid for by someone richer and more influential than the Taylors (I'm guessing at this). I spent many happy hours in the Taylor Theater, doing the "Y-buzz" in Lessac diction classes and "warming up" for acting lessons.

There's one night in that theater that I particularly and fondly remember. And it's one of those memories that now to me is about all that was so sweet about being 21 and a college student. You'll realize one day--decades after you earn your diploma--that you retain almost nothing about the classes you took, but you do remember four or five pivotal peak experiences that occurred outside of classes and that you didn't realize at the time would be the only things you retain from your schooldays. These are the memories that will drift back during bouts of insomnia or when you get a certain taste on your tongue or detect a whiff of something in the air that triggers a sense-memory from way back when.

Since I was not one of the ingenues starring in the shows, I was permanently assigned to the backstage crew during the runs of plays (back then, the busy theater department at Trinity did more than a dozen full-scale productions a season). I ran props, built sets, sewed costumes, ushered, poured Pepsis at intermish. Loved it all except hanging lights (acrophobia!) and stage managing (director with penchant for groping undergrads and showing up drunk on Rusty Nails!).

So one night I'm on the "strike" crew for a show. This means you show up after the last performance and spend all night tearing down the sets and cleaning the space down to the bare boards. It's grueling work but doing it around a bunch of dishy college theater guys could be pretty amusing. They'd put some Stones or Stevie Wonder on the sound system and we'd sing and dance around in our overalls till 3 or 4 in the a.m., then hie down to the only 24-hr restaurant nearby, the late and much-lamented Earl Abel's, which bit the dust, like the Ruth Taylor Theater, a few years ago. Earl's had godawful food, but it was cheap and served by ancient waitresses who believed "the higher the hair, the closer to God."

All one semester I'd had a raging crush on a tall, handsome acting major named Charles. He had long Jesus-y hair and a full beard that made him look older than the other college boys. I got to know Charles during a life drawing class. He stood at the easel next to mine and made hilarious comments as we charcoal-sketched portraits of the nude male model Charles nicknamed "Gumby."

Charles really baked my beans. And although he'd bedded two out of four of my suitemates, he'd never shown anything but a friendly/platonic interest in me. We shared Gumby--but no pokey.

Till that magical night backstage after some show at the end of fall term. It might have been West Side Story or The Lion in Winter. Don't remember that part.

There I was, sweeping and tidying around in the dark depths behind the velvet curtains, when suddenly Charles swoops into view from the stage door and beelines right for me. For whatever reason--I never asked--he swept me into his arms and laid a wet smooch right on me. Then he slammed me against the concrete wall and felt me up, punctuating the action with more heavy smoochery. This went on for about 20 minutes and then some invisible clock struck and he was gone, leaving me heaving and sweating back there in the dark all by myself. In my memory, embellished by time, he was wearing a tuxedo and a black cape. But more likely, it was Army surplus bell-bottoms and a ratty black poncho. I came out from the behind the curtains and saw that nearly everyone had gone home. It must've been late, but I walked alone back to the dorm, through the misty fog that always rose up in the wooded copse that sat between the theater and the west side of campus. My lips felt bruised. I was dazed. Dreamlike, it was.

Sounds kind of gross as I type it out like that. But it was sexy and thrilling at the time. Charles' mouth tasted like Marlboros and his hair smelled of Prell shampoo. I thought he was the sexiest man alive.

Back in the life drawing class a few days later, Charles was his same jokey self. It was as though our backstage encounter had never happened. Perhaps he didn't remember it (he was known to ingest the odd 'shroom now and again).

I never told my slutty roommate about the impromptu makeout backstage. Don't think I told anyone, now that I think about it. They wouldn't have believed me anyway.

Charles graduated a semester early. I didn't know this until he mentioned it one day in life drawing. It was maybe the last week of classes and as we headed over to the Student Union on the mid-class break (life drawing was a three-hour "lab" twice a week), he said, "I'm graduating next week." And I burst into tears.

Charles stopped right there by the fountain in the middle of the plaza by the art building and gave me a long hug. He may even have kissed the top of my head. I reached around my neck and pulled off my favorite love beads. Don't laugh. We wore love beads. Mine were blue ceramic from Czechoslovakia and I wore them nearly every day. I put them around Charles' neck and said, "I'll really miss you." And he ran his fingers over the beads and said, "That's the nicest thing anyone's ever given me." If it were a movie, music would have swelled up from the soundtrack of Hair.
That was it. He was a sweetie. And weeks later, he was gone and I never saw him again. I heard sometime back that he married well and moved to the East Coast and opened his own theater somewhere. He'd be old enough to be a good King Lear now. He was a wonderful actor.

And a damn fine kisser.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

The Rich Play by Different Rules...And Expect You to Let Them Slide

The following op-ed from the NYT sounds SO familiar to those of us who've taught the young scions and scionesses on the college level. Why is it that the children of the "best families" tend to have the worst manners, worst work habits and most raging cases of "me first"? Guess the answer is obvious. They're puffed up with the inflated sense of entitlement from the day they're born with that silver spoon in their gobs.

Can't you make an exception for meeeee? That's a refrain I'm tired of, dahlings. Because usually I've already made the exception just by: (a) letting you enroll in a class you don't have the prereqs for because the head of the department wants you as a major for the sole purpose of sucking up to your parents for donation money later on; (b) not kicking you out of the class when you overshot the "two excused absences only" rule after giving me a sob story about having to attend a "family event" in Newport Beach the week AFTER break; (c) letting you do one more rewrite in hopes of not having to give you an "F," because that is an invitation to a shitstorm that isn't worth risking my job or blood pressure for.

Anyway...read on...this guy gets it right:

April 4, 2007
Op-Ed Contributor/NY Times
The Rich Are More Oblivious Than You and Me
Old Lyme, Conn.

THE other day at a Los Angeles race track, a comedian named Eddie Griffin took a meeting with a concrete barrier and left a borrowed bright-red $1.5 million Ferrari Enzo looking like bad origami. Just to be clear, this was a different bright-red $1.5 million Ferrari Enzo from the one a Swedish businessman crumpled up and threw away last year on the Pacific Coast Highway. I mention this only because it’s easy to get confused by the vast and highly repetitious category “Rich and Famous People Acting Like Total Idiots.” Mr. Griffin walked away uninjured, and everybody offered wise counsel about how this wasn’t really such a bad day after all.

So what exactly constitutes a bad day in this rarefied little world? Did the casino owner Steve Wynn cross the mark when he put his elbow through a Picasso he was about to sell for $139 million? Did Mel (“I Own Malibu”) Gibson sense bad-day emanations when he started on a bigoted tirade while seated drunk in the back of a sheriff’s car? And if dumb stuff like this comes so easy to these people, how is it that they’re the ones with all the money?

Modern science has the answer, with a little help from the poet Hilaire Belloc.

Let’s begin with what I call the “Cookie Monster Experiment,” devised to test the hypothesis that power makes people stupid and insensitive — or, as the scientists at the University of California at Berkeley put it, “disinhibited.”

Researchers led by the psychologist Dacher Keltner took groups of three ordinary volunteers and randomly put one of them in charge. Each trio had a half-hour to work through a boring social survey. Then a researcher came in and left a plateful of precisely five cookies. Care to guess which volunteer typically grabbed an extra cookie? The volunteer who had randomly been assigned the power role was also more likely to eat it with his mouth open, spew crumbs on partners and get cookie detritus on his face and on the table.

It reminded the researchers of powerful people they had known in real life. One of them, for instance, had attended meetings with a magazine mogul who ate raw onions and slugged vodka from the bottle, but failed to share these amuse-bouches with his guests. Another had been through an oral exam for his doctorate at which one faculty member not only picked his ear wax, but held it up to dandle lovingly in the light.

As stupid behaviors go, none of this is in a class with slamming somebody else’s Ferrari into a concrete wall. But science advances by tiny steps.

The researchers went on to theorize that getting power causes people to focus so keenly on the potential rewards, like money, sex, public acclaim or an extra chocolate-chip cookie — not necessarily in that order, or frankly, any order at all, but preferably all at once — that they become oblivious to the people around them.

Indeed, the people around them may abet this process, since they are often subordinates intent on keeping the boss happy. So for the boss, it starts to look like a world in which the traffic lights are always green (and damn the pedestrians). Professor Keltner and his fellow researchers describe it as an instance of “approach/inhibition theory” in action: As power increases, it fires up the behavioral approach system and shuts down behavioral inhibition.

And thus the Fast Forward Personality is born and put on the path to the concrete barrier.

The corollary is that as the rich and powerful increasingly focus on potential rewards, powerless types notice the likely costs and become more inhibited. I happen to know the feeling because I once had my own Los Angeles Ferrari experience. It was a bright-red F355 Spider (and with a mere $150,000 sticker price, not exactly top shelf), which I rented for a television documentary about rich people. It came with a $10,000 deductible, and the first time I drove it into a Bel-Air estate, the low-slung front end hit the apron of the driveway with a horrible grating sound that caused my soul to shrink. I proceeded up the driveway at five miles an hour, and everyone in sight turned away thinking, “Rental.”

The bottom line: Without power, people tend to play it safe. Given power, even you and I would soon end up living large and acting like idiots. So pity the rich — and protect yourself. This is where Hilaire Belloc comes in.

He once wrote a poem about a Lord Finchley, who “tried to mend the Electric Light/Himself. It struck him dead: And serve him right!” Belloc wasn’t tiresomely suggesting that the gentry all deserve a first-hand acquaintance with the third rail, as it were, but merely that they would be smart to depend on hired help. In social psychology terms, disinhibited Fast Forward types need ordinary cautious mortals to remind them that the traffic lights do in fact occasionally turn yellow or even, sometimes, red.

So, Eddie Griffin: next time you borrow a pal’s car, borrow his driver, too. The world will be a safer place for the rest of us.

Richard Conniff is the author of “The Natural History of the Rich.”