Thursday, December 31, 2009

Cold Turkey

I've been thinking of deleting the Games folder and all its contents off my computer.

Ever since my first computer, acquired in my second year of theological college in the autumn of 1993, I've given up computer games for Lent. I don't say this to brag on myself; rather, it shows how addictive I've found them. I needed to wrench myself away for a time each year, and I definitely needed Outside Help to do it.

Back then, it was Tetris. I'd get so engrossed in playing it (instead of working on my essays) that during chapel services, while kneeling for the Intercessions, I'd see tetraminos floating down the screen of my closed eyes.

Later, it was Freecell and Spider Solitaire. I came to understand that seven weeks of abstinance was not enough to give me mastery over my obsession, so four or five years ago I began to fast from playing computer games during the four weeks of Advent as well.

But I've been attending a very reformed Presbyterian church this past year (when I'm not preaching, myself), and they're very big on not being bound by purely man-made rules, like the idea one should give things up for Advent and Lent. So this Advent immediately past, I played Spider Solitaire all I jolly well pleased. And sometimes when I didn't really please. I'd get on and start dealing and redealing and keep going and going . . .

And I'm thinking, this has got to stop. I have too much to do to waste whole half hours two or three or four times a day placing one virtual card on another. Which means radical action: Delete!

But why don't I just make a New Year's resolution to control myself and just play a game a day? Or save the fun for Saturday evenings or whenever?

Because if I had any resolve I wouldn't be frying my brain with these toys the way I do now. I need to go cold turkey and get rid of them.

True, if I do that I would miss the enjoyment I get out of playing them. I'd lose the pleasure of knowing that here, at least, something is going where it belongs and staying there. And how else will I while away the minutes while waiting for files to download? And what will I do to allay the truly visceral desire that seizes me to click on the Spider Solitaire icon and play and play? I know that if I delete that file it's going to drive me crazy.

Which is why I gotta stop. That's physical addiction, and it just ain't right.

Then there's the weird state of mind I get into when I play computer games. Some psychologist should study the phenomenon. I could claim they put me into a very creative state, but nothing ever comes of it.

One part of my consciousness will be focussed on playing the game. But in another part of my mind, I often begin to see . . . scenes. Scenes from a play, or maybe a movie. Nothing I've ever seen or heard or read; something original and new. But always seeming to take place in the past, and always with the exchanges in some sort of dialect. Brooklynese or Yiddish or Irish. Trouble is, even though I can make out the drift of the dialog, I can never make out what the characters are actually saying.

A typical episode: Three people, two men and a woman, in the disorderly kitchen of a cheap apartment, probably somewhere in the Bronx. I see it in black and white. The men, both in shirtsleeves, one with a hat on, sit at the kitchen table, intently discussing something. The woman, a bleached blonde, hovers between the table and the stove, bringing coffee when demanded and putting in her 2 cents whether asked for it or no. She is the wife, I think, of the man without the hat. The men seem to be plotting something, I can't tell what. A bank robbery or a hijacking or whatever. At one point, they nearly come to blows. Not over whether to do the job; rather, over how to pull it off. The woman intervenes. She seems to be saying they're both wrong and should listen to her. She's as deep in it as they are, she simply has a more level head. Her advice may well guarantee the success of their plan. Will they listen to her? Do I want them to listen to her and be successful? Who is the hero of this little play? One of these guys, or a detective somewhere? How can I know? That's all I get!

But more often, the effect of a strong dose of computer games isn't so dramatic. More often, the unoccupied part of my brain sends up . . . old songs. I mean, really old songs. From the first part of the 20th century, or before. Songs I haven't thought of for months or years, songs I have no reason to think of.

Songs like "Hello, Ma Baby" (1899). Yesterday, it was "Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart" (1934). Today, I channelled "I'll Take Romance" (1937).

Where do they come from? Why do they come when I'm trying to decide whether to use the free space to free up that black four to move it to the five, or to shift that red king? Is this some wondrous facility I'll lose if I delete that file?

Yes, maybe. But what about all those other things I'm losing out on now, like balancing my accounts and writing my novel and stripping the hallway floor?

(I'm thinking . . . I'm thinking . . . )

(Excuse me a minute.)

I . . . I . . . did it. At least, I dumped the folder with the shortcuts in it. Which means those games may still be someplace on the machine, but I can't get to them.


Friday, December 25, 2009

A Happy and Blessed Christmas to You

While I'm waiting for the acorn squash I'm taking to Christmas dinner at my friends' Hannah* and Steve's* house to finish baking, and as I (hopefully!) get my Christmas cards for them and their siblings printed out the right way this time, may I present this year's original carol:

When armies marched and rulers roared,
When Empire knew its golden age;
When noisy Pride bestrode the stage:
Then softly, softly, came the Lord.

When inns no shelter could afford
And hectic crowds were taxed with fear,
When anguish bound this fallen sphere:
Then peacefully, peacefully, came the Lord.

When angels bright, with one accord,
To shepherds midst their lambs and ewes,
Proclaimed the saving gospel news:
So mercif’ly, mercif’ly came the Lord.

When wise men noble gifts outpoured
And worshipped at His infant feet,
Their Sage and King in Him to greet:
Then humbly, humbly came the Lord.

O Jesus, Son of God adored,
In lowliness Your strength is shown,
That we should worship You alone:
So Gloria, gloria, gloria, Lord!

A blessed day to you all, whatever is going on in your life, for Jesus is the Prince of the peace that confounds all human understanding. He shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot comprehend Him.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Why It's Nice to Be Reformed

. . . Admitting at the outset that I'm not as Reformed as some people. Whether that's good or bad, I won't pronounce.

But at this season of the year, it's nice to reflect that Christ is assuredly born, and He most certainly died for my sins and rose from the dead, whether or not I have my Christmas cards written and sent or my tree up or any of the cooking projects I planned completed. I don't have to make Christmas, I only have to receive it.

Which is good, because since subbing at Castellcoch* High School day before yesterday I am still exhausted. I highly suspect Mr. Chummy* the new principal was playing games with me. I got called in at the last minute to fill in for a teacher who had to be out in the morning, but when I arrived Mrs. Berlin* the school secretary said that assignment had been given to someone else. I was sent to sit in for one of the Learning Support teachers while she had a meeting with Mr. Chummy . . . then I cooled my heels in her room the next two periods waiting for the office to give me something real to do. A movie was going, but the kids were talking so loud you couldn't hear the dialog, the two LS teachers talked between themselves, and I sat there bored out of my gourd.

Lunch then, then no sitting down the rest of the day. Mrs. Berlin had me supervise three straight lunch periods, with all their noise. Beginning of 8th period, I'm back in the office, asking her if Mr. Chummy had come up with any class he wanted me to cover. There was a party that period for all the kids who'd escaped getting written up all semester, and they needed, I presumed, coverage for the kids who had to remain in the classrooms while the teachers accompanied the "good" kids to the gym.

"Oh!" says Mrs. Berlin. "Mr. Chummy didn't give you anything to do yet? He's in the gym, at the party. Go there and see where he wants you."

I duly went, and found him personally dishing up the ice cream. I repeated what Mrs. Berlin said, asking, "Where do you want me?"

"Here," he replied. "Mingle." All very nice, but it meant another hour on my feet. With doubled noise since they had a DJ blasting out music (not Christmas music, I remarked).

I was grimly amused to see that at least three kids I'd personally written up were there, all three of them Mr. Chummy's former 7th grade Science students and one of them a boy with a very ominous reputation in the teacher's lounge. I said nothing . . . but had to wonder if the reason he wanted me there was so I could see how little seriously he considers my disciplinary efforts.

But I was a good girl. And mingled. And smiled. And when it was over and I returned to the LS room for my coat, I was so drained I about slid down onto the floor and cried.

Crawled under the covers early Tuesday evening for a short nap and didn't get up till 7:30 yesterday morning. Shaky and nervous all day yesterday, and today I'm not much better. Don't think I'm getting the flu; haven't a scintilla of a fever. But I don't feel up to going out and running errands, I don't want to make candy; I'm just going to address the cards that're going to the friends I'll be seeing tomorrow and get to bed early.

And be glad that as nice as all the trimmings of the season are, they aren't some magic I have to perform to make Jesus live for me or in me.

Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 18, 2009

And You Wondered What's Wrong with America's Public Schools (Part 4)

Part 3 is here.

All day I'd meant to call the Castellcoch district's substitute teacher dispatcher Mrs. Rockslide* as soon as I got home. I meant to find out what the H-E-double-hockey-sticks was going on. Miss Birdsong* told me this morning that Mrs. Rockslide had called her on Wednesday to tell her to come in on Friday. Mrs. Rockslide told me on Tuesday I'd be in all week. Did she just get mixed up?

I called Mrs. Rockslide. And I was nice about it. It's not Christian or pastoral or fair to go ripping on people without cause. So I said, "Mrs. Rockslide, I was wondering what happened today . . . "

And the short version is that the whole thing was the principal Mr. Chummy's* decision. He found out after two days that I (in cahoots with Ms. Haluska--shock!) was actually expecting the students to do some work, be I sub or be I none. And, says Mrs. Rockslide, Mr. Chummy doesn't believe in substitute teachers actually teaching or getting the students to work. He thinks it alienates the kids and makes them think the Administration Is Not Their Friend. And as the new principal, his first goal and intention is that all students should know that The Administration Is Their Friend. So, "He prefers young substitutes who won't stand up to the kids and won't make them do anything."

Said I, "Is he suicidal? I talked to one teacher today who says discipline is so bad at Castellcoch, there'll probably be attacks on teachers by next May!"

"I know," and I could visualize her head shaking in perplexity. "Discipline is the worst it's ever been. A lot of substitutes refuse to come here."

"Does he have a death wish for the school? Does he really want things to get so bad nobody can learn anything?"

"I know! I told Mrs. Berlin when she called Wednesday that you were in the Biology class till Christmas break. And I had Miss Birdsong scheduled in for Mr. Chucovich* [a Social Studies teacher] on Monday. But she said Mr. Chummy wanted it changed, and I couldn't do anything about it."

Apparently she wasn't allowed to call and tell me about the switchover, either. So all yesterday I'm thinking and planning and working--?


She was glad I called, as this has been bothering her. She knows it wasn't fair to me or to the kids. She tries to stand up for the substitutes, but feels she's alone in the battle. And what was she to do with Mr. Chucovich's classes on Monday? Mr. Chummy definitely has said Miss Birdsong is to take the Biology kids that day as well. Could I, would I?

I really wished I could have said, "I'm sorry, no." But, as I admitted to Mrs. Rockslide, I'm on emergency unemployment compensation. And if I miss "any available work," I lose not only the money I would have made, I also lose the same amount in UC benefits. I am poor and struggling. You, Mrs. Rockslide, have just offered me "available work." You have me over a barrel. Yes, I will substitute for Mr. Chucovich on Monday.

"But wait a minute," I said. "If I come in for Mr. Chucovich, I'll make his kids work as well."

"Yes, but the thinking is, it's only for one day."

"Oh, yes, right. Of course. I can't do that much 'damage' in that short a time."

"Yes. He wants the substitutes young and inexperienced."

(Let us pause for grimly ironic laughter.)

Shall I now draw an explicit moral on the egregious state of public schools in these United States? No, you may come to your own conclusions.

And You Wondered What's Wrong with America's Public Schools (Part 3)

Part 2 is here.

I hung up my coat in the Biology room, started to take Homeroom roll, then, oh, crap! in walked the ingenuous Miss Birdsong*, the substitute's substitute. So the ground is lost. I see.

But at least I could save the kids' chance to actually do some thinking during this interim period! I finished taking roll, then went over the research paper handouts with her. Nod, nod, nod from Miss Birdson. And, Miss Birdsong, here's the computer time schedule I've booked for all today's Biology classes. Nod, nod, nod.

Just then, Mrs. Berlin* over the intercom began to lead the school in the Pledge of Allegiance. No way I was going to go on talking during the Pledge; it would set a bad example. I raised my eyes to the flag and saw--

The back of Mr. Chummy*, the Principal, saying the Pledge. What the hell? Did he think I would refuse to leave and come up to throw me out? He approached and said, "You'll be taking Mrs. Evans* classes today. Miss Birdsong will teach Biology." Then he left, as the 1st period students were coming in. Seeing me with my bags and coat ready to leave, one of the kids took in the situation and made loud salaams to his version of the Deity: "You're not in here today? Oh, thank God! Thank God!!"

"Never mind," I told them all. "Your papers are still due on Monday. Miss Birdsong has all the information and will help you with them. See you around!"

As I walked downstairs, I thought, "Mrs. Evans, Mrs. Evans . . . oh, damn and blast [yes, my friends, the preacher cusses. Within good taste and reason]! That's the Choral Music teacher!"

You'd think I'd enjoy that, wouldn't you? But I've subbed for Mrs. Evans' classes before and it was the absolute worst. Combine someone like me who loves music, with a bunch of students who don't give two hoots for it and don't even want to be in there at all, with a big room with risers perfect for running amok in, with a regular teacher who thinks entertainment films and kindergarten-level busywork are enough to keep the kiddies pacified all the long day, and you have the cacophonous full score for Variations on a Disaster. Adventures in substitute teaching? More like adventures in babysitting!

And meanwhile, upstairs in the Biology classroom? I saw some of those kids last period, but didn't ask them what had gone on. Maybe I didn't want to swear in front of them. But I did ask a couple students from the one section of Human Anatomy that I'd also inherited from Ms. Haluska, whether Miss Birdsong had gone on with the Muscle Groups overheads I'd begun teaching yesterday.

"Oh, no," both of them said. "We just worked on our question packets. She didn't teach us anything, she sat back there at the teacher's desk the whole time."

"She didn't teach at all?"


("Good grief!") muttered under my breath.

Now, I have to be fair. These Anatomy students did have those packets to complete for Monday. And maybe Miss Birdsong wanted to look over the Muscle Groups material just in case things are still weird on Monday and she has to come in then, too. Maybe. But if these kids were being honest and she really "sat back there the whole time" and she didn't walk around keeping a close eye on things, that doesn't lend any strength to this possibility. And it gives me very little hope that the Biology students did any research whatsoever on the computers today. Played online games the whole time, more like it.

I was hoping I'd get less fed up as the day went on. But between the chaos of that Chorus room (complete with kids running and tackling one another, kids tipping over their chairs, and near-universal lack of attention), hearing the frustrations of other teachers vented from time to time during the day, and thinking about the chance those sophomores were being cheated out of, by the time I left this afternoon I was beating my dashboard in barely-suppressed rage.

(To be continued)

And You Wondered What's Wrong with America's Public Schools (Part 2)

Part 1 is here.

So here's what happened today:

I arrived at Castellcoch Junior/Senior High early again this morning so I could run off enough sample research paper outlines for all the Biology classes. But when I signed in in the office, Mrs. Berlin*, the school secretary, told me I wasn't to teach Biology again today, I was to go fill in for some other teacher!

Yes, my Facebook friends, it's true, I was doing my own threeping and wailing Tuesday when I got lumbered with those kids. But by today, we were making progress! By today, I had given them some real work to do and they were starting to do it! I was learning their names and who could be relied on and who should be given no slack at all!

"Excuse me," I calmly but firmly said to the secretary. "I was booked to be with those Biology students at least through Monday. We're in the middle of an big assignment. It's due Monday. I need to be there with them to see it through. I've spent time last night coming up with more material to give them."

"Well, you'll have to talk to Mr. Chummy. He's on the phone right now."

"I need to run these pages off," I told her. "They need this handout."

Besides, if I went down the hall it'd give time for Mr. Chummy to finish up on the phone.

So I took care of business in the copy room. When I returned to the office, Mr. Chummy himself was behind the counter. I repeated to him what I'd told Mrs. Berlin. I said, "If we go switching around like that, it will really teach the kids they don't have to listen to subs!" The two of them went into his office. The secretary returned alone and pronounced, "Miss Birdsong* was called in to take the Biology classes."

"But I was supposed to be in there! Couldn't Miss Birdsong take the other class? She wouldn't have any idea what to do with the Biology kids!"

The school secretary was silent, thought a moment, then said simply, "Go on upstairs."

"For the whole day?"

"That's up to Mr. Chummy."

So as the morning release bell rang and the students and I tramped up the stairs, I went to the Biology room, thinking perhaps sanity had prevailed.

(To be continued)

And You Wondered What's Wrong with America's Public Schools (Part 1)

Durdy werdz, durdy werdz, durdy werdz!!!

As I mentioned last post, I probably should have been consistently recording my Adventures in Substitute Teaching. It sure would save work and verbiage now.

First, some background:

1st of December, I got called in to sub in the junior high Science classes at the Castellcoch* Junior/Senior High School. Seems the regular teacher had been kicked upstairs to become the school's principal. I saw the first day that he hadn't left them at all enough to do, so I added to it and yes, the kids did the work. When it became obvious I'd be there until a new permanent Science teacher was hired, I asked the embryo principal to give me some real work for the kids to take on. He did, and with the help of the other junior high Science teacher, we proceeded, even though I have no Science background.

We didn't get on as quickly as I hoped, though, because the classes were thoroughly undisciplined. I soon discovered it was not just Let's Be Rude to the Sub behavior. No. The kids would say, "But Mr. Chummy* always lets us . . . ("eat in class, play our iPods in class, take any seat we want, finish tests the next day if we don't happen to get finished today, use each other's notes and talk out loud during tests"-- you fill in the blank). And when I'd ask him about this, more often than not, they were telling the truth!

Too bad. Mr. Chummy wasn't their teacher any more and their new teacher-to-come wouldn't be interested in that kind of thinking. So we soldiered on, and after the untangling of some bureaucratic red tape and nine class days that seemed like half a year, the new junior high Science teacher came on board.

Ms. Haluska* is not new to Castellcoch School. She'd been teaching high school Biology and had her own reasons for wanting a transfer to the junior high. Finally approved by the school board, she started this past Tuesday.

Oh, good, thought I last Monday night. I will have a well-deserved rest. But I got called to come in anyway, because Ms. Haluska had a doctor's appointment Tuesday afternoon. Oh, all right. I'd come in in the morning to do coverage then take the 7th graders again after she left. And wouldn't it be a hoot to see their faces!

So what happened Tuesday morning? School office tells me I'm to go upstairs and take Ms. Haluska's former Biology classes! Hey, I can fake it with junior high Science, but I've done no Biology since my own high school days!

Worse, Ms. Haluska had thought her replacement would also be on board last Tuesday, and hadn't left all that much material, to give the new teacher a clear field.

But I got on the phone to Ms. H. and between us we arranged that the kids would watch a film depicting the problems with the toxic waste at Love Canal back in 1978, then write a summary of what they'd seen. For credit. That took us through a couple of days.

And having watched the film, I got an Idea. On Wednesday, I decided it'd be good for these sophomores to do a little (2 pages handwritten) research paper on the effect of the environmental chemical of their choice on human health. For a lot more credit. I ran it by Ms. Haluska and she agreed it was just what those students needed to do. And me, I don't know a lot of the details about Biology, but as an Oxford grad, I certainly can teach kids how to do research.

So I typed up and ran off an assignment sheet and gave it to the kids at the beginning of their classes yesterday. There was some threeping and wailing, but once the kids got into the computer lab (I'd also managed to arrange that), most of them actually started to work!! Woot!

Final period yesterday, one young person protested that "We don't know how to dooooo this!" I told me what he needed to do was on the assignment sheet, and I'd help him once that class could get into the computer lab today. But I got to thinking: Maybe they don't know how to write a research paper. So I went home, and on my own time, I composed a sample outline, with examples so outrageous there's no way they could copy them and get away with it.

(To be continued)

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

For the Sake of Posting

Maybe a month ago I heard a report on the news about some woman up in Canada who was on disability for depression. Her insurance company was planning to end her payouts because they'd come across photos of her on Facebook, attending a party and engaging in whatever other fun and frivolity. The insurance company said, "See! That proves you can get out and have a good time! You're not depressed at all! So get back to work!" The woman herself says her doctor told her to get out and mix and mingle, for the sake of her emotional health.

I don't know this woman. I haven't even seen the pictures. I don't know if she really is a party girl greasing off her fellow premiums-payers, or if in the midst of the social whirl she painfully maintains a pasted-on smile, in "Tears of a Clown" fashion. But this story aptly illustrates the hang-up I've fought for years over the issue of depression. The idea is, if I'm depressed about something, I'm obliged to go on feeling depressed about it until the problem is Absolutely, Totally, Thoroughly Solved. So if I go showing any signs of cheerfulness, the bad situation can't be real. But I know in myself that it's very, very real, so I must go around feeling as morose as possible.

Happily, at my age I've gained some perspective, not to mention stronger faith, and for the most part I've outgrown this emotional quirk. Nevertheless, it has really operated in keeping me from posting anything on this blog since early October. After all, the problem of my having to put my architecture license on inactive status is a serious, life-affecting matter. And I haven't solved it yet; at least, not in the sense of getting all the required continuing ed in before the end of the year. So how could I write frivolous posts about fall colors or cooking or what-have-you and still have anybody believe that the license quandary is serious to me?

But it's getting to the point where not posting is a problem in itself: I've had readers (well, maybe one) thinking of organizing a virtual search party.

So here's a post for the sake of posting. Maybe one of these days I'll write more about the rigors and joys of substitute teaching. And about what I've been doing to get ready for Christmas. But right now, one of the thrills of subbing is that it induces me to get up very early in the morning and also to get sleepy in the evening ditto. So before I write total gibberish . . .