Tuesday, September 25, 2007

It Wasn't Just a Dream

“It’s due today.”

Spencer’s normally affable grin was reduced to a grim flatline.

You know that recurrent dream that persists, long after high school or college graduation, the one where you show up for class and everyone’s handing in "the big project," the one you never knew existed?

If so, then you’re familiar with the clammy panic that becomes as much a part of the dream as the images of the concerned faces of classmates and the grey blur of syllabus pages fanning through your fingers as you frantically search for documentation to somehow validate your ineptitude. You know the how-could-I-have-been-so-wrong horror, balanced by the relief upon waking up to discover “it was only a dream.”

Readers, I have been to the other side of that dream, to the dismal realms of human experience that serve to inspire these night frights. And not only have I lived to tell, it’s quite possible that reality has conspired to shatter the power of these nightmares.

Here’s how it went down. Last week, a nameless professor had us pair up to produce a joint piece of homework—now I know homework doesn’t hold quite the same weight as “the big project” but indulge me for the sake of the story.

After class, my partner Spencer and I exchanged e-mails, made plans to meet at the coffee shop and the like. Midweek, everything was going according to plan—our plan, which evidently had nothing to do with real life, as evidenced by the panic on my partner’s face as I entered class.

“Who said?” I demanded as I scrambled for my notes.

Spencer made a sweeping gesture across the room. “Everyone.”

He then dissolved into a lament about his ruined grade, his past failures, and his dismal future.

Although stunned to be in the middle of a situation that had never failed to be anything but a dream, I retained my faculties.

“Don’t worry,” I assured my distraught classmate. “I’ve got this.”

Now, fortunately, I had a little something working in my favor. Seems a couple weeks back, Professor Nameless had asked me to do some volunteer work, which I’d heartily tacked. He asked for my aid because he was impressed by my study habits and contributions to the class.

Now, if I were a sane individual, I probably should have succumbed to the dispair that felled my partner. After all, arriving to class with incomplete work, and worse, being unaware of this fact isn’t the mark of the studious person Prof N had taken me for.

What’s more is, we still don’t know where we went wrong. Spencer and I evidently attended some sort or parallel class, where Prof N. said things to which only we were privy. No one else can attest to the existence of that class.

By no account should I have felt empowered by these events, but, nonetheless, I went for it.

“Prof N!” I exclaimed as he came through the door. “Such and such isn’t due today, is it?”

Now, Prof N. may have been startled, but he didn’t show it. He coyly dodged my question, leaving a general sense of mystery in air, while simultaneously conveying through the merest nuance of tone that everything was going to be all right.

By the end of class, he was referring to “those who finished early” while reiterating the essentials for “those who were turning in on Friday”—all two of us—in seamless fashion.

Ironically, the topic of the assignment concerned the lowering of stress levels in the classroom environment.

“Did you have a high stress moment there in the beginning?” Prof N. said with a laugh as he exited the room after class.

“Oh just a little bit,” I laughed.

Spencer was stunned, but he's fully recovered. I think we both got an A.

A Tale of Two Lists

There's a post in the works, I promise.

There are things I must do today, and there are things I will do today because I must. Today I must edit a paper, draft another, and go to class. Today I will go for a run, re-pot some herbs, play with my children, brush my dogs and finish the post I'm working on--because those are the things I must do, the things that give life substance.

Don't confuse the things on your to-do list with the things you really must to do. Bump a must-do item or two to tomorrow's list if that's what it takes to make room to laugh with a child, make pumpkin bread or plant some flowers--because that's the list from which you'll draw your memories when you're eighty or ninety or even forty five., read for pleasure, take a walk...then check back here later for a longer post. If you come back here before I do, leave a comment about what you did today--not from the must-do list, but from the do-because-you-must one. And if you make pumpkin bread, save me a slice. I'm on my last piece.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Foreign Affairs

Exiting my "Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages" class yesterday, I had no way of knowing how quickly I’d find practical use for the theories jotted inside my notebook.

Who knew I’d find useful application for notions such as comprehensible input, or the conversation between Josh and Miguel, which my textbook lauds as exemplary communication between a member of the native population and a new arrival?

What would have surprised me the most, had I known what awaited me at the office that sunny afternoon, was that circumstances were about to cast me into the role of Miguel, and I’d need every ounce of that lad’s pluck and fortitude to chart my path through the foreign territory that lie ahead.

Blissfully unaware, I strolled across campus, glad that I could enjoy the walk, unlike last week when I waited too long line for cheap Wynton Marcellas tickets and had to sprint across campus clutching my lunch cooler like a medic en route to surgery with a fresh organ or detached limb.

All pretense of leisure vanished as I arrived at the threshold of my office. Ominously huddled around the computer were Dr. S, Professor F and the One I Knew to be Samson.

Now, the arrival of Samson was an event that had loomed large since my own arrival, weeks earlier. Known as a Computer Guru with a penchant for inadequate explanations of Computer Phenomena, Samson’s presence was also indicative of an event I’ve heard referenced as the Vital Upload, or perhaps Download, invariably spoken of with a shudder.

I thought of excusing myself, not wanting to rudely barge into a meeting obviously well into its prime, but Dr. S. ushered me in with enthusiasm, introducing me in a tone I felt should only be reserved for someone with Key Player status.

Both Samson and the Vital Up-or-Down load are associated with a program that, they tell me, “doesn’t let you fix your errors.” Dr. S, Professor F. and the outgoing graduate assistants—perhaps I failed to mention that the other two grad assistants are leaving, and it’ll be down to just me in mere weeks?—are all understandably tentative of this system, thus the summons of Samson.

I know my readers will agree that a rigid system of Tough Standards is not one that seems a good fit for my skills, and every day that passed without mention of my involvement was chalked up to the "no news is good news" category.

I was hastily handed some literature and guided to a chair near the terminal. Samson’s lips were moving, but he wasn’t saying anything to which I could connect meaning. His literature was equally incomprehensible.

In a wave of understanding, I suddenly realized I’m Miguel.

Quickly summoning the particulars to memory, I realized that I was in an ideal situation for foreign-tongue acquisition. The lesson indicated that “situationally-bound” interaction—I think the book had activities such as the construction of model cars, or baking cookies in mind—lended itself to learning new language.

The text also made mention of an idea known as comprehensible input, or vocabulary with which one is familiar, mixed in with language that is slightly out of reach.

Focusing carefully on Sampson’s speech, I came to realize that we, indeed, possessed some shared vocabulary. I could, for instance, pick up words like “computer” and “internet.”

What would Miguel do? I wondered. Bringing the printed conversation to mind, I recalled Miguel contributed only two utterances to the dialogue: “Huh” and “OK,” as Josh prattled on endlessly about colors and shapes and crayons. And the authors of the text seemed to think he did just fine.

In the tradition of Miguel, I fell silent, nodding only occasionally.

I realized I was beginning to gather meaning when I clearly picked out my name in the conversational flow. From context, I was pretty sure the Vital something-or-other was the topic, and there seemed to be some concern over this business of the non-correctable program with which someone had to work.

Dr. S seemed pretty convinced that not too many people should get involved, in fact, she seemed to want only one person to handle this tricky situation.

And then she said my name.

Yes, readers, it all became clear. It’s an Upload. Of significant data. Scores. Social Security numbers. Student Records. Into a no-compromise program unforgiving of even the common typo.

Did I mention that I really can’t spell or type?

Reeling, I leaned heavily on the structure provided by Miguel’s discourse with Joshua. I had only two responses from which to choose.

All eyes on me and all I can mange is “Huh?”

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Office Hours and Minutes

I’ve decided that I’m not suited for office work.

Of course, this really isn’t a surprise, considering that I’ve held one office job, ever, for a few months when I was 20-- a colorful patch of employment that ended in a spectacular inferno fueled by so many missing memos and lost message slips.

If she doesn’t already, Dr. S may soon regret that she didn’t ask for enumeration of my office credentials before taking me on as her graduate assistant. At the time, last winter, when she selected me for this opportunity, she was wooed by my creative writing pursuits, and by the fact that I’ll be around for awhile, considering that it’s going to take me an unnaturally long time to obtain my masters degree in English, having done all of my undergrad work in psychology.

I’m two weeks into the gig, and I’ve come to the conclusion that my particular graduate assistantship is likely going to wind up light on teaching, grading and literary pursuits, and heavy on the messages, copies and secretarial skills.

Too bad I don’t have any.

A typical shift—two hours, twice a week for me this semester—consists of taking messages, filing, making copies and sundry tasks.

Nearly 45 minutes into my Wednesday shift, I was still attempting to communicate vital information from the three messages I found on the voice mail. I had to replay each one any number of times, as the callers had random names with ambiguous spellings and a collective tendency to mumble. Ten post-it notes and five message slips later, I took at look at the filing. The folders were topped with notes containing ominous instructions such as “remove from program.” Quickly determining that no one’s academic future should be tossed to the erratic winds of my organizational guesswork, I moved right on to copies.

By this time, I was two hours in and ready to go home, but I had to put in an extra hour to make up for the shift I missed on Labor Day. I was pale and fighting the effects of vitamin D deprivation. My muscles were succumbing to atrophy. I was thankful for the opportunity to travel to the second floor copier, a fickle, computerized monstrosity with a tendency to die as soon as I cross the threshold.

I’ve never personally made copies. Generally, I look so confused, poking and peering at the copying device that some kind soul within the department takes the papers off my hands, and performs a little smoke and mirrors routine with the machine that I never seem to be able to replicate. The single time I attempted a complex, two-sided job, the machine instantly jammed and I stood there saying helpful things like “That’s not a good sign” as office personnel pulled shredded paper from deep within the inner workings.

I spent the last hour of my extended Wednesday shift attempting to impress Dr. S with my detective skills and web acumen in my attempts to dispose of a surplus piece of computer equipment I was asked to have removed. I scoured the campus directory for listings from three departments--IT, Housekeeping and Plant Operations—looking for the mysterious “warehouse” to which I was to banish the unwanted equipment. I came up empty, and finally had to ask for help. Wouldn’t you know, there’s a whole department called “Warehouse,” listed right under the W’s.

Of course Warehouse needed some forms before they’d even think about coming for the computer, so I had them talk me through a trail of links so I could download all the forms and have them ready for Dr. S. I spent no less than 20 minutes trying in vain to make the forms print. When Dr. S happened by, I casually mentioned that I was having a bit of trouble with the printer. Turns out, the computer is hooked up to three printers and a simple click of the mouse sends the printed matter right where you need it to go.

Of course, Dr. S. had already filled out the forms. They were sitting, all signed and dated right on top of the surplus computer.

On Friday, I made up my other missed Labor Day hour by attending a free lunch with Dr. S and taking the minutes of the Important Meeting that transpired over the sun dried tomato wraps and lemon cake. It was my duty to sit with my laptop like a court reporter, noting the details of key events.

Not knowing the names of the key players posed a bit of a challenge, but I soldiered on, typing up important quotes from “guy with the green tie,” “Justin, the student” and “Artsy guy in black.” Which would have all worked out just fine if my computer hadn’t frozen up just as “Important Person from the School District” made some fine observations that made Dr. S nod deeply in agreement.

I began making hasty notations on scratch paper with the pen I’d had the good sense to borrow just before the meeting began, but quickly discovered that I couldn’t keep up. Turning back to my computer, I discovered that my document was frozen, but the computer in general was not. I opened a new file and carried on, until THAT file froze as soon as I attempted to save it. By the time the meeting ended, I had the account thereof recorded on three unsaved files I hoped to keep on life support by plugging my computer into the outlet in the back of my van.

By the time I got home, my entire computer had locked up, and the annals of the Really Important Meeting would have been lost to history were I not married to a resourceful computer guy who managed to save two out of the three files.

Thank goodness for all that creative writing experience. Dr. S was right on. When it came to filling in the information from the missing file, it really came in handy.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Read Two Chapters and Call Me in the Morning

“If we can have aroma therapy, then why not?” my friend Steve said.

It was somewhere around the 7th inning of the Norfolk Tides season closer, and I’d just outlined the cutting edge, interdisciplinary field of practice my sister and I stumbled upon earlier in the day.

Now, admittedly, the idea is choppy and according to my friend, Jen, there are several outstanding “key issues” to address, but what we’re thinking is literature therapy.

The idea behind this revolutionary concept is to pair clients with literature that would resonate with their own personal “key issues,” leading to wonderful epiphanies and the like. My sister’s thinking it will lead to magazine covers and television interviews. I’m imagining scholarly references to our research in upper level text books. Presumably, I would handle the fictional match making with my literary prowess, and she would put her imaginary counseling certification to work once the, you know, emotional issues surface in response to the readings.

Jen, who doesn’t have any official psychology credentials under her belt, yet, either, says the whole thing will fall apart as soon as an ADD client falls under our auspices.

“What are you going to do then, hand them a copy of Don Quixote?” she scoffed.

My husband was quick to jump on the Quixote angle as well. “What kind of client would benefit from Don Quixote?” he asked.

I told him it was hard to say, being only a tenth of the way through the tome myself. “All we really know at this point is that he’s a Spanish gentleman who read so many books about knights and chivalry that it deranged him. He’s gone off now, in search of adventures, and we don’t know how it will turn out,” I said.

“Yes,” my husband said, “Very interesting. Especially that part at the beginning about how he became deranged by all the literature he read. Let’s explore that.”


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