Schoolyear Homestretch: They Know Not of What They Speak. Or Write.

The discussion in my predominately black, tenth-grade classroom was focused on racism.

We have been working our way through the book A Lesson Before Dying, a wonderful 1994 Pulitzer nominee about a rural Louisiana black man sentenced to death for a crime he didn’t commit. Set in 1947, the story pre-dates the Civil Rights days of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King (the only such benchmarks my students really know) by a decade, and chronicles the effort to see that the accused man dies with a sense of dignity.

Racism is a dominant theme of the story, and a concept that many of even my brightest students tend to incorrectly think is something in the past or, more sadly, not a huge part of their present.

During the discussion on where racism really ‘comes’ from, a black student stated firmly that racism is generally learned from one’s parents – ‘Even black racism.’ This idea was met with murmurs and nods of approval from those that are inclined to jump so forcefully into a discussion like that, but I wanted to point out that that might be a little over-simplified, noting that what parents think or believe doesn’t always transfer to a child and asking my students to think of things they disagree with their parents about. I told my students that I know of plenty of kids who aren’t racist even though their parents seem to be.

This idea was greeted with a few moments of silent indifference until one of the few white kids in the class chimed in proudly with an affirmation of my concept. “I’ve got proof of that, Mr. Lucker!” the kid said earnestly. “I’m supposed to be a fifth-generation KKK Klansman…

….but I’m NOT!”

“That’s…..good, Darren. Thank you for, umm…sharing that.”

The class stared at me, a few with quizzical looks that I can only assume were a reaction to whatever facial expression I had as I stared at Darren* for a moment. Aside from a few nods of agreement, nobody had a thing to say in response, and at first I was more surprised by the lack of reaction than I was the initial comment.

But I’m not. Just another day in the front of my classroom.

My students have a propensity for being obstinate – like most teenagers – but they will dig in their heels ferociously and adamantly defend their version when their take on a turn of phrase is challenged. Two examples from this year stand out.

The first was a sophomore who wrote about an essay commenting on her sister’s positive attitude, and the inspiration the sister provides her younger siblings, including Brenda, my student. She lauded, in worthy prose, her sister’s ‘self of steam.’

Even with provided context, I still had to read it a few times to understand what ‘self of steam’ meant for Brenda.

Discussing her paper with her, I was met with a puzzled look as I tried to explain that what she meant was her sister had a lot of ‘self-esteem’ – even going so far as to having her look up ‘esteem’ in the dictionary. Still, she contemplated, paused, looked at her paper and the dictionary, then looked up at me standing over her and said, distinctly, and with a definite correcting me tone of voice: ”Yeah, it’s her SELF. OF. STEAM, Mr. Lucker…how good she feels about herself.”

And the young woman’s ‘self of steam’ stayed that way in the final draft.

Maybe that’s what my students mean when they say, “Mr. Lucker…you’re blowin’ me!”

But I’m not.

The other top curious turn of phrase also came from a sophomore girl, who noted that when talking about literary point-of-view, it is not third-person-limited and third-person omniscient you need to understand, but rather ‘third- person limited and third person ammunition’ point-of-view.

She too, was left unswayed by logic, or the class handout on her desk we had been reviewing and discussing, or the textbook on her desk, all focusing on ‘third-person-omniscient’ narration.

Carlene was steadfast in explaining ‘third-person-ammunition’ point-of-view – which she actually did quite well.  If you overlook the fact that ‘omniscient’ and ‘ammunition’ are not synonymous. If you do that.

Even in New Orleans, I’m not sure ‘third-person-ammunition’ is a viable legal defense.

And finally…

I had a good chuckle to wrap up the last full week of the year with Ms. W, our school’s lead librarian. (The librarians love me because I bring all my classes there at the start of the semester to teach them about the library; apparently I’m the only English teacher who does that. Plus, I actually assign book reports – hence the initial library-orientation visit. They then know where to go to find the books for their book reports.)

Seems a student came into the library on Friday to return a book that he had checked out in October and found only now while cleaning out his locker. Aside from any pangs of guilt over depriving some other poor student of a book, the return of said tome also probably removed a financial hold from the kid’s record. Fortunately, the fines cease when the fine amount reaches the cost of the book; $16 in this case.

As Ms.W clicked away on the computer showing the book as returned and getting the kid’s holds removed, she said the running dialogue continued as follows:

“Well, at least I hope you enjoyed the book.”

“Eh. It was o.k. Mr. Lucker made us read a book.”

“But you liked it.”

“It was alright. Mr. Lucker made us read a book.”

All she could do relating the story to me was laugh about the kid’s ongoing ‘Mr. Lucker made us read a book.’ I shook my head and said ‘So, I suppose I should wear that as a badge of honor?

She continued laughing as she headed for the door, “Why not, Mr. Lucker? Why not?”

All this time I thought I was teaching English, not eastern philosophy. But I guess if the mantra “Mr. Lucker made us read a book” is the primary result of the year, maybe that will enhance someone’s self-of…Eh. You know what I mean.

Eh. You know what I mean.

Conversation

“How many students of yours have been killed?” Her tone was inquisitive, non-invasive.
“A dozen” I replied softly, taking a deep hit on my bottle of Coke.

She sighed, audibly. “At least nine” I clarified. “Nine that I have seen the obit on, story on the news, newspaper article about. Nine.” I was running through the Coke more quickly than usual; it burned going down.  I continued. “That’s one for each school year I have taught in New Orleans. On the plus side, it’s been three years since I added to the list.”

I finished off the Coke, raising the empty bottle. “Cheers.”

“Why’d you say ‘a dozen’?”
“Nine I am sure of, but I have heard of another two, three. Always running into former colleagues and students, always hear, ‘hey – remember x-and-so’? He got shot.”

She sighed again, more uncomfortably. Her voice took on a nervous edge. “How’s that make you feel?”
“I don’t know how that makes me feel.” Easy to answer frequently asked questions.
“Sad.”
“Sadness is part of it.”
Sighing can be far more communicative than one realizes. “It’s not what you signed up for, huh?”
My turn to sigh. “Even if it was, who would believe it would really be…this.”

She took a deep breath, then exhaled. “You saw some of them on the news?”
“Yep.”
“Wow.”
“Ten o’clock lead story, one kid. Morning paper is worse, though.”

This seemed to puzzle her, and I think she had run out of sighs. “Shocking to see a student of yours on the front page?”
“Ahh! My front page students have been perpetrators. Victims inside. Open up the metro section like the bomb squad handling a suspicious package. THAT”S what you want to do along with your morning coffee.”

“Your students ever kill each other?”
“Ohhhhh, no!  My front page alums are in a whole different class. Some are doing hard time, a bunch are doing -various times for various…infractions.”  Gallows humor isn’t always funny.
“How many of those?”
“That, I stopped counting.”

I was drumming my empty Coke bottle against my leg. We stood there, relative strangers, friends of a mutual friend making small talk because we really had nobody else to speak with, both being from somewhere else, originally, and finding our adopted environs to be quite different than anything we had experienced elsewhere. We had hit upon a mutual topic – careers in education. Now, we were each getting one.  Some party.

“Roughly how many kids in ‘I stopped counting’?” she asked, with trepidation.
“Really, I stopped counting. I meant that literally.”

There was nothing more she could ask, nothing more I could say. I could see in her eyes that she was looking for something in mine, but wasn’t finding it. Whatever it was she DID see, she seemed ill at ease with. Not seeing anything resembling an answer, she apparently thought it best to go looking for one.

“How does all that make you feel?” she prodded.
“Angry discouraged pissed off.” It wasn’t so much a varied list as it was a newly-coined, matter-of-fact adjective. “Disturbing thing is, ‘surprise’ isn’t part of it for me anymore.”

That was more than she seemed ready to digest. She found a fresh sigh, punctuated this time with a disbelieving shake of her head. We stood there, awkwardly filling the void of incredulity that permeated the whole concept of what it meant to be an inner city high school teacher. We watched others mingle, laughing at told jokes, work anecdotes. A few seconds passed, maybe an hour – who knows?

I started to speak and she looked at me intently. “I say the same thing every time I see a former student in the news – only thing I can think of to say: ‘What a fucking waste’.”
“Yeah. I bet.” Her voice was barely a whisper.
“Yeah.”
“Thanks for the insight.”
“Yeah. Nice meeting you.”

What a waste.

To dye for

Easter eggs always make me chuckle. Not the inside-joke or special treat hidden inside a movie or video game ‘Easter egg’ – not the trinket filled, plastic variety, but real, from a chicken, dyed-with-food-coloring-tablets-and-vinegar Easter eggs, in all their splendor.

Some years ago I lived in Marshalltown, Iowa, and was a member of the local Jaycees chapter. We hosted an annual Easter egg hunt on the grounds of the Iowa Veterans Home; a sprawling, hilly landscape dotted with Civil war cannon2cannons and statues of various ilk – ideal hiding places for eggs.

And man, did we hide eggs.

The egg boiling and dying took the better part of the week, as did the stuffing of plastic eggs with candy and trinkets. On the appointed Saturday before Easter, we showed up early in the morning, two hours before the start of the event. Taking care to avoid places rabid egg hunters might trample, we avoided neatly manicured flower beds, but pretty much everything else was in play. We used every nook and cranny of statue bases, shrubs, antique cannons, trees…you get the idea. We had two pickup trucks filled with eggs, and we used the bulk of those two hours making sure things were distributed over a wide area.

When we looked back over the scene from the high ground where the hunt would begin, we could see a smattering of eastereggs3color here-and-there, but for the most part we knew we had concealed the bounty well. Then the kids arrived, roughly one hundred of them, none older than nine. They had their baskets and bags clenched tightly in their hands, the starter got ready with a countdown to let them loose, and long-term Jaycees suddenly flipped their wrists to check their watches, and the starter yelled “GO!”

It was over in forty-seven seconds; an impressive Biblical-in-scope-locust-swarm-in-OshKosh-B’gosh had stripped the grounds of anything pastel in color and/or plastic in nature.

Over. Done.

Clean as a whistle Kids were wandering aimlessly, finding nothing else, carrying looks of everything from utter joy to bewilderment: ‘YESSSSS!” to “I got nothing.”grasss3

In less than a minute.

There were other activities for the kids to partake in elsewhere on the grounds, and as the kids departed, baskets of goodies in hand, some of the Jaycee vets of egg hunts past started strolling the various cannons and statuary, and I overheard multiple variations on a theme.

“How did they find THAT one?!”eastereggs4

“They found the one in the cannon fuse hole.”

“Didn’t think they’d find the one I hid THERE!”

“Yep, they plucked us clean again.”

I have not seen anything like it in the thirty-plus years since.

Since my muse is egging me on…

When my daughter Lindsay was two, we helped her dye Easter eggs, and to her delight but eventual boredom, we whipped up an extra dozen to give to our staff at the small town radio station I managed.

eastereggsThe Thursday morning before Easter, I stuck a whimsically decorated egg into each staff person’s mailbox, including a bright, purple egg into the slot labeled ‘Don Thomas’. In reality, ‘Don’ was Tom Shumacher, a middle-aged, part-time announcer at the station. Uncle Tommy (as we sometimes called him) was a quirky guy with deep bass radio voice and a hearty laugh that got ample use, as his sense of humor and inability to keep a straight face were both easily triggered.

I made the plain, bright purple egg special for Uncle Tommy, because I wanted to make sure I didn’t get his egg confused with one of the eggs for the other staff.

Because Tom’s egg was the only one of the batch that was not hard-boiled.

I had learned that Tom liked hard-boiled eggs, during a conversation about our respective family Easter plans. I figured giving Tom and only Tom an egg would have seemed suspicious, so I came up with the plan to color eggs for all to basically legitimize my prank.

As I envisioned the gag, there were three, highly possible outcomes:
1. He decides to eat the egg at work, cracks it open, makes a mess, we all have a good laugh
2. He takes the egg home, gives it to his (then) wife to make egg salad with, she cracks it open and, as a woman with a droll sense of humor would find her annoyance overridden by the amusement
3. Tom takes the raw egg home, and somehow his teenaged son Patrick gets a hold of it, cracks it open, and responds with confusion

You know what they say about the best-laid-egg/plans.

I had not considered option number four: that Tom, finding the egg to be quite colorful, would bring it to his sister, a resident of a local long-term care facility, to brighten up her room during the holiday season. To top things off, he had also taken with him the little die-cut cardboard chicken to hold the egg (I had put some of those in the mailboxes, too) so the egg could stand on the table in her room for all to see.

Eggsactly what happened.

One of the staff nurses came in later that afternoon, complimented Tom’s sister on how lovely the egg was, to which she replied, “Well, it will just go to waste here, why don’t you take it home for your little girl?” The nurse, very appreciative did just that.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

Tom returned to the station the next afternoon to help record some commercials. There were still a number of eggs sitting in mailboxes, which prompted Tom to thank me for the nice purple egg. Keeping a straight face I said, “Oh you’re welcome….” I paused, as comedic timing is everything, before adding, “How was it?”purple-easter-egg-38169082
“I don’t know. I gave it to my sister. Thought her room could use some holiday cheer.”
“Are you headed back over there today?” I asked, hopefully.
“Wasn’t planning on it.”
“Do you think she’ll eat it?”
“No, she doesn’t like eggs and it’s been sitting out.”

I figured I needed to spill the beans (or, in this case, let him in on the intended yoke) to which Tom responded with gut-busting laughter. Once he caught his breath, he calmly said, “I’ll just call over there and make sure the nurses tell her not to eat it.”

He was still laughing.

He made the call, explaining to the nurse that there was a purple egg in his sister’s room he wanted to make sure she didn’t try to eat. There was a pause, Tom waited. A minute later the conversation began anew.
“It’s not? Oh, realllllllly…” he started chuckling. “O.K., thanks a lot.”

He returned the phone receiver to its cradle and, between guttural chortles explained that his sister no longer had the egg, that she had given it to a nurse to bring home to her daughter, and that the nurse in question was off all weekend, not returning until Monday.

By the end of relating his phone call with the care center, he had tears in his eyes from laughing. I was laughing as well, but figured there would be some eventual blowback on this – and there was, but nothing bad. As the story eastereggs5eventually made its way back to us, the nurse brought the egg and it’s holder home, her daughter displayed it on the counter, as mom suggested she not eat it since it hadn’t been refrigerated. The girl agreed, but somewhere along the line, the girl grabbed the egg to show to someone, dropped it, and it went ‘splat’. Child and mother cleaned up minor mess, the mom simply figuring somebody goofed, and colored a raw egg by accident.

By the Tuesday after Easter, the story of the wayward egg had made the rounds of the care center, Tom’s family, and the WYRQ staff, all of whom seemingly found the story more odd and/or dumb than amusing, causing Tom to find it even MORE amusing with every retelling, especially when he related the dialogue, starting with his sister and the nurse.

“That egg you gave me was raw.”
Broken-egg-on-the-floor“I know. I’m sorry. My brother called and told me it wasn’t cooked, but you had gone home already.”
“Why did your brother give you a raw egg?”
“He didn’t know it was raw. It was a gift from his boss.”
“Why would his boss give him a raw egg?”
“I think it was supposed to be a joke.”
“Oh.”

Although, I could have laid a gigantic egg with this gag, Uncle Tommy and I at least amused ourselves (and occasionally, others) with the story for many years after.

And as far as Easter egg stories go, “Ebbeddaebbedaebbedda! That’s albumin, folks.”

raw-eggs

 

 

Ya buy ’em books…

An elementary school I drive by daily is emblazoned with signs announcing their ongoing book fair, and I will admit to a bit of nostalgia.  An only child, books were my constant companions, and book fair time at Horace Mann Elementary in Minneapolis meant my usually-not-overly-indulgent parents were willing to drop a few bucks at my behest.

Good stuff, Maynard.

I tried to indulge my own kids to an extent every time a bookfair rolled around, but those were different affairs – much more than books available for purchase.  Now, as a New Orleans teacher for the past nine years, I have encountered even more of the whole Scholastic book-selling-cases-on-wheels operation. A few years back, I was working at a K-12 charter school.  One afternoon, the delivered carts and cases full of books and related paraphernalia was pretty well in place in our school library, and I got to browse a bit. Many of the young adult titles and series looked familiar, and it was nice to see that many of the various series I remember from their younger days are still around, with new some titles in the series, to boot. (The gang from Click, Clack, Moo: Cows that Type are still going hilariously strong – bless ‘em.) There was also an admirable selection of classics.

As I roamed our makeshift Barnes and Ignoble, one of the selections on the ‘Adult Bestsellers and Cookbooks’ table caught my eye. It was a cookbook entitled “9 x 13:  The Perfect-Fit Dish – More than 180 family favorites to fit America’s most popular pan.” For the record, had I been asked ‘name America’s favorite pan’ I would have answered, “Sauce”.

Only in America: a cookbook predicated on a specific size of pan.

Sorry, but I couldn’t see this in the same vein as crock-pot cookery, or Dutch oven cooking like we did in Boy Scout days. This is something else entirely. The phrase ‘lame gimmick’ came to mind.

The blurbs on the back cover of the book are intended to be, one supposes, enlightening. To wit:

“A 9×13 pan can do everything from roasting a chicken to baking brownies!”

Really?

But there was more…

“Feast on comfort foods you grew up with, including Beef Stroganoff Casserole and Tuna Noodle Casserole.”

Sure, let’s recycle the gastronomic 1950’s – only in the correct sized pan! Let’s also salvage the word ‘casserole’ from the culinary dust heap. (Personal, two-part aside: 1. I hail from the Midwest, where the term ‘hot dish’ reins supreme over ‘casserole.’ 2. I know of very few people who would make a hot dish in a 9 x 13 pan.  That is what ‘casserole’ dishes are for, Chucklebunnies.)

So continueth the back cover hype:

“Revel in new flavor twists such as Cajun Mac and Cheese and Chocolate Chipotle Brownies.”

Chipotle brownies? Last guy I knew who put spicy herbs in brownies ended up getting two years probation.

But there was additional hype – and we haven’t even left the cover of the book yet:

“Dig into potluck pleasers such as Smokin’ Tetrazzini and Herbed Chicken and Orzo.”

‘Smokin’ Tetrazzini’ falls somewhere between ‘Cajun blackened’ and ‘left under the broiler too long’ while Chicken and Orzo is shorthand for ‘chicken-and-schizophrenic-starch.’  Is it pasta? is it rice? Is it crawling around your plate?

Then there are the recipes – no! Wait! The cookbook opens with a helpful ‘Pan Comparison’ page in which they compare 9×13 pans, covering various and sundry pluses and minuses.

‘Glass or Stoneware’ 9x13s have more pluses than ‘Metal’ 9x13s – but also more minuses; ‘breakable, cannot withstand sudden temperature change’ among them. (Pyrex or Corning Ware anybody?) Chief plusses include ‘Clear glass makes it easy to monitor browning’ and ‘Shows off beauty of gelatin or layered salads’ (except for stoneware, I guess) and then my personal favorite glass-or-stoneware ‘plus’:

“Some pans come with lids.”

Golly, what will they think of next? And why haven’t those pesky metal 9×13 manufacturers gotten on this ‘lid’ bandwagon? They don’t have it listed as a metal ‘plus,’ so one wonders.

And we can’t forget our third category of 9×13 pan, the ever popular…

plastic?

Plastic pans? Containers, maybe. Vessel, receptacle, canister, holder are all reasonable possibilities. But plastic pans? As we like to say in our household, “I don’t think so, Tim.”

The authors state that while plastic 9x13s are ‘good for no-bake recipes, refrigerator salads and freezer desserts’ they do allow in the minus column that they ‘may not be used for baking.’

That’s news you can really use, though there is not a word said about lids and plastic nine-by-thirteens. The authors need a Tupperware intervention, stat!

A bargain at $16.99, even without reading the actual recipes.

Just out of curiosity, I wondered what the book sold for elsewhere, and clicked over to Amazon, where I found not only the edition of the cookbook that we will be selling, but also this rather curious entry:

9 X 13: The Perfect-Fit Dish (In Memoriam Volume III Exclusive Edition) In memoriam?
Volume III?
That is a lot of commemorating.

I kid you not -new and used editions available…but that’s all on-line. Curiously, no mention of just who is being commemorated via cake pan.

Though $16.99 for a 9×13 pan cookbook seems pennywise, but pan foolish.

Hey, it’s all for books for the kids, right?

Judge, jury and…say what again?

Recently called for a month of jury duty, I showed up at the various appointed times, and actually made the next-to-final cut for two different cases, but never got the nod to actually sit on a trial jury.

Not to say I didn’t leave my mark in Orleans Parish Criminal Court.  OPCH

My second day there, I got the call to go upstairs as part of a pool of fifty potential jurors. We were escorted to the courtroom in groups of twenty-five, and for the questioning, I was seated in the top row of the jury box – an interesting comfortable vantage point to the whole voir dire process.

This particular trial was not a typical situation – it was a cold case; nearly twenty years had passed since the crime, and both the prosecution and defense told us they would be relying on the reliability of possibly degraded DNA evidence, and two-decade old memories for testimony. Both sides acknowledged up front that testimony via hazy recollections and recalled memories presented a variety of challenges.

The defendant sat stoically through the proceedings as the prosecution took their turn at interviewing us. He remained that way through the early part of his defense team doing the potential-juror questioning, though by then he had started making more notes on his notepad – adding a few doodles at times.

The prosecution had moved us through all the basic stuff – occupations, background, our attitudes about a variety of issues, what television crime shows we watched regularly. That part surprised me, but apparently this is standard procedure these days in cases of this nature due to the proliferation of the ‘crime show procedurals’ as one of the prosecutors put it. Both sides said they want juries bloodvialsto understand the science of crime fighting via DNA and other forensics is not as cut-and-dried as on ‘CSI and shows of that ilk’ s one of the attorneys phrased it. When asked, most of my fellow jurors and I were in agreement that was all a very reasonable line of questioning, though a few seemed expressed bewilderment that watching TV would be a factor.

It was interesting.

As this was a cold case, both the prosecution and defense took great pains to note that this trial would hinge primarily on witness testimony – twenty-year-old memories and changed relationships. Both sides also asked a series of questions focusing on how we judged people’s trustworthiness, especially after a lot of time had elapsed. When the lead defense attorney got his crack at us, he said right at the start that we may not find some of the defense witnesses to be particularly likable or even all that supportive of the defendant they were testifying for. He was very pointed in asking us if we felt we could still believe what someone had to say, even if our personal opinion of that person was not very high.  Some of my fellow jurors-in-waiting were very uncomfortable with the prospect.

Me? Not so much.

The defense attorney, an African-American man of about thirty-five who had pretty much stuck to confirming questions about my background and neighborhood of residence to that point, finally got around to asking me about how I viewed people and their credibility.

csalesofjustice“Mr. Lucker” he intoned calmly, “Would it be possible for you to accept and believe the testimony of witnesses who may not seem at first glance to be all that credible, and decide the case on that testimony if you didn’t always find them credible?”

“It depends.  I guess a lot of it would depend on the rest of the equation, how much I did or didn’t believe the other side’s witnesses. ”

He looked at me intently, and his tone turned somewhat quizzical, and very pointed. “Mr. Lucker, are you saying you could foresee a trial situation where you didn’t necessarily believe anything that anybody had to say?”

I shrugged. “I teach high school. I deal with that, evvv. ry. -DAY!”

The place erupted in laughter; even the judge was chortling. The court stenographer actually turned and looked at me. The bailiffs seemed especially tickled, as did all four attorneys. The defendant was chuckling as he scribbled away on his yellow legal pad. The defense attorney smiled, shook his head, looked down at his notes briefly before looking back at me, making eye contact and giving me a little ‘good one’ salute before moving on to one of my partners-in-jurisprudence, still smiling and shaking his head.

I made the initial cut down to ten out of our pool, but did not make the final jury. Nor did I get in the last word.

Wrapping up his juror questioning, the defense attorney revisited a few of us who had made the cut down to ten with a series of final questions – though in my case it was more his pre-follow-up-question salutation that was noteworthy: “One more question, Mr. Lucker. We have already established…” he paused dramatically. “That you teach high school….”

william_talman_raymond_burrThe room was again enveloped in laughter, including mine. I returned the attorney’s ‘nice one’ gesture from earlier, and he smiled.

Touché.  I had been Perry Masoned during jury selection.

So while I never did get to provide much service-to-society in the way of fulfilling my civic duty, I did get a good taste of both sides of our judicial system:

I got to deliver the punchline and play the straight man.

Corn is in the eye of the beholder

Speaking with some of my A-day sophomores at the end of class on Friday, I was informing them that I wouldn’t be seeing them for nearly a week, as they will spend the bulk of the day Tuesday doing pre-ACT testing – new territory for them, and I’m not sure they are ready for the rigor of this sort of testing. I was collecting work as I reiterated some of the test strategies they should be using, and they were generally agreeable – then, one young man, usually one of my hipper, more engaging students in that group, asked what I would be doing on Tuesday, if I would be giving a test.

“Nope. I have a senior homeroom, so I get to spend the morning being SpongeBob.” I continued my stroll around collecting tests.
“Being SpongeBob?”
“Yeah. I get to be…HALL MONITOR!
There was a pause, then the same young man said, “Mr. Lucker – that was so…corny.”
His tone was one of great concern.
“Corny?”
“Yeah. Saying you get to be SpongeBob is corny.”
“O.K. But it will be a nice opportunity to wear a SpongeBob tie.”
His tone switched to one of disapproving admonishment. “But that is really corny.”
“Corny that I will be a hall monitor?” The rest of the class seemed nonplussed.
“Yeah, and I don’t think you should be.” He was serious, though the disapproving tone was mostly gone. He was drifting into disappointment.

I shrugged, the bell rang, I told them to have a nice weekend.

I thought the kid’s use of the word ‘corny’ was out of place, so I did a quick check on Urban Dictionary to see if I might have missed some nuance to his concern. What I found didn’t stray very far from my initial thought of how I would use the word ‘corny’ – meaning a lame joke or reference to something. Turns out urban teen ‘corny’ is pretty much middle-aged-dude ’corny’:

‘Something presented as fresh or original, but which is actually tired
and/or lame.’

‘Especially, when its lameness derives from being obvious or done to death.
Oh Grandpa! That joke is soooo corny.’

‘Trying to be cool, but ultimately very uncool indeed, and often even extremely embarrassing’

‘Something cheesy or lame’

‘The status of “corniness” is achieved when something picks up old and overused fads just to “fit in,” falsely believes it is cool, and then takes itself too seriously, resulting in a complete destruction of its social life’

I was going to post the encounter for a throwaway, end-of-week classroom anecdote on Facebook – until I did a quick search for a graphic to go with my little tale and got this from Google:

 

 

 

 

 

Encyclopedia SpongeBobia?

I have been a SpongeBob fan since the beginning of the show in 1999, but haven’t watched much the last few years, kids being pretty much grown up and all, though I have watched a few recent episodes with my five-year-old grandson – and, of course, I have seen the movies.

But Encyclopedia SpongeBobia was new to me.

Having two sons both into comic books and superheroes to one degree or another, and being a high school teacher, I have a reasonable understanding of fandom and general obsession with the minutiae of certain characters and their environs, but this?

Of course, I had to (virtually) thumb through the ESB.

Original episode air dates, character list, plot synopsis (‘In this episode, SpongeBob becomes hall monitor, resulting in chaos.’) pretty basic, sums it up nicely. But so does the six-paragraph full synopsis you can scroll to further down the page. And you can keep scrolling, because there is a lot more. In fact, reading through the key points on this compendium entry will take you far longer than the eleven minutes it would take you to watch the actual episode.

Who knew?

Then I noticed a little notice at the top of the page: ‘If you were looking for the article about the book, then see Hall Monitor (book)’

OK, kids cartoons being made into books is not a new thing – you could purchase Little Golden Books of many of the cartoons I watched as a kid, but my curiosity being hat it is, I decided to click to see if the unbridled enthusiasm of the episode Wiki was as detailed for the book.

All sixty-four pages. Thirty, if you are reading on a Kindle.

I am a Kindle-kind-of-guy, so I had to check it out. Sixty-four pages gives you a lot of time for character development and story exposition, and by golly the folks who put it together deliver on all counts. Pretty decent read, to be honest – a bit of an Alexander Wollcott/Robert Benchley vibe, actually – and it did hold my attention, probably more than it should have.

This started out being about the concept of corniness, and while some of this strikes me as all rather corny, and while others may say there are people with way too much time on their hands, I think Encyclopedia SpongeBobia is a good example of how information can be mined, refined, and shared with a broad audience. I mean, somebody had to take the time to compile this information, reformulate and format it, post it for the world to see. That took a certain set of skills that I would love to impart to my students and I might just be able to turn this little classroom anecdote into a true ‘teachable moment.’

My students would surely find that to be a very corny thing to do.

But I’m still wearing a SpongeBob tie on Tuesday.

Listing, while shopping

New Orleans offers ample opportunity for St. Patrick’s Day weekend revelry – no big surprise: any given Thursday here offers the same. But for those of us of the middle age persuasion who no longer fit the ‘party animal’ designation, there are other, quite viable (and cheaper) options via which to get our ‘party on’.

cartsLike grocery shopping.

Today I was out and about, and I needed to swing into the grocery store for a few items, so I swung into a Rouses Market I don’t normally frequent, simply because it was handy, and I was there. As usual, I entered through produce, and had to go through the liquor/beer/wine department on my way to frozen foods. While I was making my innocent swing through libation land I was accosted by the sampling women.

‘Accosted’ might be a bit strong.

Attractive, personable women with the souls of carnival barkers made up the sampling force, their small tables were strategically stationed along main aisles and offering-up regulation shot glass size samples (none of this thimble/communion wine sip-size) of Bushmill’s Irish whiskey, three types of Guinness beer and ale, and Bailey’s Irish Cream – all of which are on special this weekend, of course. So much for my five-minute quick in/quick out – it’s like getting off the interstate and taking a scenic drive.  But instead of a panoramic view from an overlook, I became engaged in a couple of amiable product-virtues conversations with the aforementioned sample ladies.

It seemed impolite simply to chug-and-run.

It isn’t just at the locally-based Rouses that I have encountered this holiday weekend phenomenon, as Winn-Dixie offers the same holiday-themed samplingsampling opportunities. The days before Christmas were a bonanza of egg nog and flavored rum variations.

It occurred to me that I had written of such a similar experience as this one and I had, in a Facebook post last summer:

“I just got done with the pre-July 4th family grocery shopping excursion and must say it was quite busy and…festive. Got most everything on the list and enjoyed most of the samples. The margarita mix was good as was the tequila. Tried five of the eight available wines; one of the reds was particularly boring. Of the two rums, the citrus was very tasty. Also tried both vodkas, which took a little longer as there was a chatty woman with a product survey, but she valued my feedback and asked for more detail. For the record, the cherry vodka was very good, the sweet tea vodka…not so much.

With any luck, Amy will discover she forgot to have me get something and I may have to go back to Winn-Dixie to get it.”  bag

So if you are ever in our town over a holiday – any holiday – party on. And don’t forget the milk and eggs. Or you’ll have to go back to get ’em. Maybe even in separate trips. To different stores.

It’s just something else to love about New Orleans: you can go grocery shopping and be half in-the-bag long before anybody gets a chance to ask, “Paper, or plastic”?

Through different eyes

Another Mardi Gras is in the books.

Friday night before Fat Tuesday, the forty days of revelry preceding Lent are in high gear.  My wife and I hadn’t been to the Friday night parades in a few years, but we had a friend marching in one of them, so we decided it would be a good time to check things out.

IMG_20170224_200001.jpgWe got there about an hour before the first of three parades on the night, located a nice spot in an intersection by a school and set up our lawn chairs and cooler; we like hanging out in an area with families, away from the pockets of rowdy college kids and assorted partiers.  Contrary to much mythology, Mardi Gras is primarily for families. Yes, there are places for rowdy people to be rowdy, and there are a few krewes that roll each year with satirical themes and more adult oriented humor, but for the most part, it’s mostly PG rated stuff at worst.

Our friend Kristin was rolling in Krewe d’Etat, the second of the evening’s extravaganza, and we figured two parades would be plenty for us as we had been to two-of-the-three Thursday night parades.  Just as the evening festivities began, we noticed a multi-generational family sitting next to us.  The grandma and grandpa we had exchanged pleasantries with when we first set up, but a husband, wife and young son had just arrived at ground zero and were ready for action.

It was a toss-up as to whether the kid or the dad seemed more psyched.

We were about four blocks from the start of the parade and by the time the first units started coming into view, the excited little boy and his amped-up dad were inching their way up to the curb, where the dad said “Ready?” before crouching in a frog-squat so his son could climb up on his shoulders.

Then the fun began – theirs and ours.

For the next half-hour, the dad would step into the street, kid on his shoulders, waving for the attention of the float riders and their various throws, while his tentative son, wide-eyed, tried to catch whatever came their way; beads, stuffed animals, trinkets of all sorts.  After the first three-or-four floats, the kid was starting to get into it – waving his arms and yelling along with his dad.  Every time they would get a couple of armfuls of goodies, they would head back to mom, grandpa, and grandma, dump their treasures into a big back, then get back on the street for the next float.

Catch-and-repeat.

img_20170224_201428_burst002The dad, who I pegged as being in his early forties, was working hard at giving his son the true Mardi Gras experience. I guessed from the kid’s body language and facial expressions that this was his first Carnival, and dad was working it; the kid spent probably twenty-five of the first thirty minutes of the parade on dad’s shoulders, briefly dismounting to stand in the street, waving for stuff with other kids and giving dad a (brief) respite to roll his shoulders and neck.  But dad was a gamer; the kid was not on his feet for long.

This routine continued the full hour-plus of the Hermes parade – sans a few short breaks where the mom, whom I also thought to be in her early forties, would take the kid on her shoulders for a minute or two at a stretch.  She was smaller, and the kid was a load, but she, too was in it for keeps. The kid was amassing a fairly impressive haul of stuff – in large part because of the visibility provided by his perch and the fact that he religiously yelled “Thank you!” at anyone and everyone who threw him something.  Float riders I am sure could not hear him, but they can read lips and body language.

And smiles of awe.

The grandparents mostly stayed in their lawn chairs, with looks of wonderment nearly equal to that of the father and son, and a lot of bemusement.  There is a short gap – ten, fifteen minutes –  between parades, and this gave time for the dad and mom to take a breather, and for grandma and grandpa to ooh-and-ahh with grandparental amazement as their grandson observed for himself, then showed them, his accumulated treasures.  Then it was time for Krewe d’Etat, and the craziness (and piggybacking) started all over again.  Different parade, same routine; father and son crazily waving arms, running up to floats, collecting stuff. Dad and son bringing stuff back to mom to put in bag, grandma and grandpa beaming from the cheap seats.

About halfway through the second parade, there was a lull in the action, as a couple of non-goodie-throwing units were cruising by.  The mom of the family we had been having so much fun watching was standing next me, and we exchanged a bit of small talk which turned the father-son spectacle we had been experiencing all evening into something a bit more special.

Her son was four, and as suspected, was experiencing his first Mardi Gras – as was his father, who, while being born here, had been back sporadically to see family, but never during Mardi Gras.  The family currently lives in California, so the whole New Orleans Carnival experience was new to them all, and as she confided to me, “I still cannot tell which one of them is having more fun – neither can my in laws!” She glanced back their way, I waved at them, they chuckled and shook their heads, as their grandson was at the moment waving a prize throw he had nabbed in exultant celebration.  Dad turned our way img_20170224_195514to give his family a big ‘thumbs up’ but you could tell he was running out of gas – but there was still plenty of parading to be done.  The mom was alternately taking pictures and rubbing her (for now) childless neck. “I sure hope you guys can locate his-and-hers chiropractors’ tomorrow.”
“That’s probably not a bad idea” she laughed, rubbing and twisting her neck, “I’ll get some referrals from in-laws!”

Here came more floats. Action time.

Just to my right was another family – a younger couple than the first, with a small boy in a stroller. His vantage point down there was of little use, so his dad had picked him up and was holding him up high enough so he could see what was going on, but the young man, aware of the other kid on his dad’s shoulders, pointed, then taped his own dad on the head.  Dad got the message, and soon the two boys were side by side, perched atop their fathers, and now drawing even more attention from the bead and trinket-tossers on the floats.

Quite the attention-getting pair – or quartet, I suppose.

As with the first family, the newest young man had a look of bewildered glee, indicating that he, too, was experiencing his first Mardi Gras.  The younger man and smaller child (a bit over three, I learned from his mom) had a bit more energy than the first father-son combo, but all four guys were having a blast.  By this time, both moms were wildly recording the craziness with their phones – the younger mom breaking only to answer a quick call or send a text, before returning the camera focus to her husband and son.  Then I heard her mumble, “Incredible!”  I looked up to see that her son had been handed a foam rubber sword, and that the young man on the other dad’s shoulders was also handing her son something: a foam crown that he had been given.  Apparently, the older boy (and/or his dad) thought the younger boy needed to have the whole set.

Awesome.

The mom next to me was shaking her head, mumbling ‘Unbelievable” over and over as she took some video, then stopped to send it to someone. “Going through a lot of your plan data tonight?”  I said with a laugh, which she returned. “You got THAT right!  Between his aunt in Houston, and his grandma in north Louisiana…bye-bye data for this month!”
“His first Mardi Gras?”
“Yep.  His dad’s first one, too. He grew up in Chicago.  I’m from Louisiana, I’ve been to Mardi Gras before, but I didn’t grow up here in New Orleans. This is crazy!” Her phone beeped. “Oh-oh. I guess I am a little slow in feeding video to my sister!” With that, she returned to feeding a live stream to her sister in Houston.

There are worse ways to burn through a data plan.

The parade continued, each boy enthralled as each float rolled by, as every strand of beads was flung, as all the noise, the lights, the music, and the color flooded our little intersection of Napoleon Avenue and Chestnut Street.  With both father-son combos img_20170224_200232.jpgstanding in front of me, I continued to enjoy their interactions; the boys with their respective dads, the boys with each other. A few times I caught the dads looking at each other and shaking their heads in amazement, and though over the tumult I could only catch snippets of their conversation, I am decent at reading lips, eve in profile; “Wow” was their common refrain.

As D’Etat began winding down, so did both kids, and at least the older of the two dads – though in fairness, he had been at it longer – with an older, heavier kid.  The older of the two boys had by now become fairly adept at waving, getting float riders attentions, and catching stuff thrown his way.  He was also becoming increasingly generous with sharing his bounty with his younger friend, who, in his awe, could only look at the older boy in amazement as his father added repeated ‘thank yous’ to the older boy and HIS dad.  The surrounding crowd of mostly adults was now also into the piggy-backed-boys scene, and had taken to cheering every time a float rider made note of the two boys and tossed them both something.

By the time the parade ended, and people started gathering their third wind, my wife had returned, and we were packing up to go, as were both the families with whom we had been interacting.  The three-year-old was returned to his stroller, his eyes transfixed on a pretty elaborate set of beads he had obtained. His mom thanked us for giving them a grocery bag that we had handy, as they had not thought to bring anything of that sort, and had been stuffing stuff in the pouch beneath he stroller. As they said goodbye, the mom smiled at me, adding with a chuckle and a shake of her head, “I have no idea how much overage we’ll be paying on our data, but oh well…”

“Happy Mardi Gras” I laughed in response, waving goodbye.

The other family had come prepared, and they were efficiently exiting in typical New Orleans fashion, with folding chairs and cooler quickly and neatly stashed in a small wagon, goodies in bags stuffed and stacked appropriately.  Grandma and grandpa, it turns out, are seasoned pros at this, with lots of family in the area. But even they seemed to be seeing the whole carnival experience in a new light, via the first timers; their son and grandson.

The crowd began filing toward the street as the final parade was coming, so it was easy to make our way in the opposite direction, back towards our car. We emerged from the crowd walking next to the family from California, and I got a chance to talk to the dad.
“It was a lot of fun watching you and your son.  Your wife said this was your first Mardi Gras?”

“Yeah, I was born here, but we moved away because of my dad’s job. I get back a lot, just haven’t been here for Mardi Gras. We live in California, and now that he is old enough, we had the time and the chance, and I wanted to do this with him.”
“Very cool.”img_20170224_181504
We had reached the end of the block, and we were about to veer left, they were drifting to the right, and the father, who had a now nearly asleep four-year-old using his head for a pillow, grinned at me and said, “You know, I just wanted to give him the experience and have it with him. I’m just trying to be a good dad and give him great experiences, you know?”

“Well, it was very cool to watch.  Made it more fun for me. Enjoy the rest of your stay.”
“Thanks. We will.”

As they turned right at the corner, and we turned left, I could hear the man talking to his son, his voice trailing away; “Hear that buddy?  Other people had fun watching YOU have fun…”

My wife and I had seen our friend dancing in the parade and gotten some pictures; we had enjoyed a date night and got to see Mardi Gras through less-jaded eyes.  It was not a bad way to spend a Friday evening.  Good times all around.

Oh, did I mention that, of the two families in whose orbits we intersected, one was white, and one was black?  I don’t think I did and I guess it doesn’t really matter, but then again, considering the times in which we live, maybe it really does.

Because while I didn’t get many strands of beads that Mardi Gras night, but I did catch a little hope for the future.

A passed torch

I’ve become the old guys I grew up around.

My youth was filled with a fascinating blend of old timers that I joyfully gleaned much of what I needed to know about life by just hanging around with all of them. They were mostly retired, blue-collar guys; my grandfather worked on an assembly line making gramps-and-his-son-bowling-team-that-went-to-national-tournamentbatteries, and we had close family friends – integral parts of my childhood and life – plumbers, house painters, storekeepers and tractor makers, among them.

I learned about life through their eyes and thick, immigrant-dialect-honed English; specific and pointed advice was given when needed, but most of the lessons learned were implied; eye contact, a raised brow, a nudge or a nod during an event or incident of some sort that I instinctively knew meant I should be paying attention because I just might learn something.

I have now become that nudge-and-nod (though nowhere close to retirement) guy.

The other day I was at the chiropractor getting an adjustment. The doc is a good guy, twenty-six years young, and we chat amiably while I get my treatment. I was lying on my stomach while he worked on my back, and he was having trouble adjusting the exam table. After a moment of struggle, he got it to lock into place where he wanted, then joked, “That’s the most difficult thing I do all day.”

“I suppose a lot of people think that your job is kind of easy – spending your day massaging backs” I replied, as he continued working out my shoulder kinks.

“Yeah, kinda” he chuckled, adding, “They see me for twenty minutes at a time, then leave, and figure that’s what I do all day – wait for people to come in, spend twenty minutes getting them adjusted, then go back to doing whatever else I do.” He cracked a couple of vertebrae into place.

“People don’t realize what goes into a job like yours. You know the story of the guy and furnace1the busted furnace?”

“No, I don’t think so” he replied, bending my spine the other direction.

“It’s winter, and the guy’s furnace goes out. He calls the furnace guy, who comes over, looks around for a minute, then takes a hammer out of his tool box, whacks the furnace, and it starts running again. He puts the hammer back, then hands the guy his bill for a hundred dollars…” I feel a nice, loosening jolt to my neck. “The guy looks at the bill and says ‘a hundred bucks!’ All you did was whack it with a hammer! The furnace guy nods and says, ‘Yeah, that’s ten-bucks for the hammer tap, ninety bucks for knowing where to tap.”

The doc stops. Even though I am face down on the adjustment table, I can see him with my peripheral vision, hands on his hips, thinking. “Wow. That’s a great story” he says with surprise, “I never heard that before.” He starts back in on my neck

“It’s a good analogy for you.” I add.

“All the time I spent in school – yeah, it is. ‘Ninety bucks for knowing where to tap.’ I’ll have to remember that story. I’ll use that.”

“Feel free” I say as another disc gets pushed into place.

Just passing it on.

Making my best pitch

I have a dead file, in need of its annual updating.

The file dangles in the front of our family filing cabinet, a red hanging folder filled with all of the important stuff my family will need for when I depart this mortal coil: the songs I want played, the songs I wish to have sung – the how-I-want-them-played-and-sung at my memorial service – dead-file-e1327109698717along with the scripture, quotes and poetry I want to be read, and what I want printed on the program.

Pretty basic, but important stuff.

My wife and kids know where this file is, they know that all that key info will be right there, as I am trying to be proactive, not controlling.  They are mostly okay with this arrangement, and though they don’t know what’s in it, they figure they will deal with that if and when the time comes.

Or, hopefully, my children will simply be able to pass on the whole thing to their adult children under the banner of ‘you cousins can all take some responsibility for grandpa/great family-tree-relationship-chart-free-pdf-templategrandpa/great-great grandpa here.’

Good Lord willing, that’s the way it plays out.

As is my custom, I review the file at the beginning of the year – though not as some sort of resolution ritual, or anything like that. I am always reminded to do this by all of the year-end/year-beginning, tax-and-estate planning reminders from every direction and the television commercials featuring thought-dead-already celebrities touting ’providing for your family’ with mail-order life insurance. Though sometimes I get those commercials confused with those of some other thought-dead-alreadys and their reverse mortgage ads.

Now there is a spiritual analogy post just dying to be written.

This year, I found as I reviewed the tattered red folder that there is one key piece of information that I keep neglecting to place in my dead file: I’ve got to tell them where the baseballs are.  I also remembered I actually have to purchase, and then partially prepare said  baseballs.

Yeah, the baseballs.

Anyone who knows me and my family will attest to our love of the game. My wife Amy and I began dating late summer, 1991, as our hometown Minnesota Twins were en route to their second World Series championship, and let me tell you, World Series victories are great new-relationship aphrodisiacs. The following year we got married and had a Twins-themed wedding reception, followed up by family members and the wedding party (60 of us, all told) going to the Twins-Brewers game the next day, after hich we (just Amy and I) followed the Twins on the road to Chicago and Milwaukee for our honeymoon

So yeah, as a passionate aficionado of all things America’s pastime, baseball will certainly be as much a part of my departure from this world as it is in my existence on this rotating-like-a-fine-change-up celestial orb.  My immediate family understands that, and figures they will deal with whatever zaniness I have in that red file folder when the time comes, though the one particular aspect they do know of gets the ‘hot potato’ treatment amongst daughter Lindsay, and sons Will and Sam. (Amy wants no part of my baseball bequest and has long since informed all the kidlets that this one will be totally on them.)

Somebody is going to have to put me in the baseballs.

It’s pretty simple, actually, and far more feasible than other preferred options, like a traditional Viking viking-funeral-799141funeral.  The whole ship set ablaze and afloat (with my remains on it) while  in keeping with my ancestral roots and desires, is impractical and expensive (EPA permits and whatnot) and maybe just a bit pretentious. So while the whole Viking ship thing would be as exciting as an inside-the-park home run, my baseball brainchild is an easy, knock-it-outta-the-park game-winner.

That I hope doesn’t result in me getting knocked around.

Upon my demise, after everything donatable has been donated, organ and tissue wise, the rest of me will need to be cremated. That will leave me as a nifty little pile of ashes, which will then need to be handled in some way. As I have never been one easily confined to conventional parameters (literally or figuratively) I don’t see myself as sitting in an urn or ornate box on someones’ mantelpiece somewhere.  Bor-ring.

Hence the baseballs.

It’s pretty simple, really. A set of regulation, major league baseballs will be purchased, then will official-major-league-baseballs-edbe autographed by me; some signed as ‘dad’ some as ‘grandpa.’ Then, when the time comes to stash the ash, each ball will have a small core drilled out of it, just big enough to contain some of my ashes. Once the ashes are placed in each ball, the hole will then be sealed up with the drilled-out core and some epoxy, and the baseballs will then be ready for distribution to the next generation(s).

The idea could catch on – a sort of national pastiming-on, if you will.

The great thing about me being ensconced for eternity in baseballs is not only will what’s left of me be suitable for display in a ball cube, on a mantle or in a memorabilia cabinet, I will also be able to remain part of the family in a tangible, practical way.

For years after I am gone, when my grandkids and great grandkids get together someone will baseball-ed3always be able to say, “Hey! Let’s go outside and play catch with grandpa!”

And we still can.

Ummmm….but please, no batting practice, kids.

“Because grandpa said so, THAT’S why!”

 

https://www.amazon.com/-/e/B017LALIES