Friday, February 14, 2014

Grading Grading

I have promised (others!) to write this blog for almost a year.

I am not the first person to have these thoughts…but these are my take on them.  I also understand the counterargument.  I do.  Honestly.  I really do.

This is my grade of grading.

***

Imagine it is the first day of an introductory college course you have to take.  You have to pass AND learn the skills in this class to be successful later.  Your degree and future job depend on it.

For the people reading this blog, imagine this course to be something like taking Chinese. Or Calculus. Or Shakespeare. Or Nuclear Engineering.  Or Physical Education.  Think about your Achilles heel.  That subject your entire life you have been told time and time again, You need improvement on X.

Think about how you feel the first day of this class.  The first reading. The first quiz.  The first paper. The first test (if you stay in the class that long).

And you are scored.

Consistently scored on something new to you.  Hard for you.  Foreign to you.  Something you have a complex about.

And you get classified.

You are a D student.  If you try really hard, maybe you are a C.  You.  As a person.  Become this score. This thing.  This letter.

And that first failing score of the semester sends you down your spiral again.

Why even try?  Why even go?

Welcome to American Education 101: Survival of the Fittest.

***

Let's take running a mile as a metaphor to explain more fully what I mean:

After lecturing to you about running for a week, I say, "OK…next week is our timed mile." 

You dread timed miles. DREAD THEM.  If you had more time, you would be happy to attempt the mile…but the timing, really makes you anxious.

And I assess you. Not only on completion…but how you look doing it.  How well you ran it.  Were your arms pumping correctly?  Was your cadence right?

You may feel this is unfair.  You may feel like completing the mile is enough.  And why do your arms matter anyway?  You are new to running…and you never even noticed what people do with their arms before…this has to do with your legs, doesn't it?  That's what they told you in high school.

You even put a lot of work over the weekend preparing for this mile….but that wasn't enough time.  You hadn't been running for years…and a couple days of prep just weren't going to cut it.

So, I watch you run this mile…and rate it (with my rubric, hopefully) as a D.  

This is the life of a majority of native and non-native-English-speaking students entering community college English courses.  Most enter not ready to face the rigors of college-level reading and writing assignments, so they are placed in pre-college prep classes.  Statistically, if this happens, they most likely won't get a college degree.  This is not a condemnation of high school.  This is a reflection on a system -- K through university -- that is focusing on the wrong things.

And I'm tired of it.

So, I am doing something about it.

**

Grading is unfair.  It is.  When you put a score on an introductory student's initial drafts, it often demoralizes him/her…and honestly, it demoralizes me as an instructor.  If they don't do something correctly, they lose points.

Cause and effect.

This often leads to students and instructors looking for formulaic writing approaches: easier to teach, and easier to score.  If you are "good at school," this system is awesome for you.  If you are good at being told not think, this system is awesome for you.

But what about everyone else?

I just don't think grading is the only answer to student improvement.  On the other hand, mentorship and feedback are key!  In fact, it is part of a four-step process to student acquisition of new material that can lead to student autonomy and engagement (informally noticed by me, not deeply researched by me with stats and figures…yet.).

The Learning Process (I didn't invent this idea)

  • Step 1: Notice
  • Step 2: Think 
  • Step 3: Output
  • Step 4: Feedback
In my opinion, students struggle with non-content-based-life-skills such as metacognition, how to read and think critically, self-efficacy, and self-esteem because there is no time for teaching "that stuff" in my classroom.  I need to get through this material.  Students should just know how to do that, anyway.  That isn't my job.  

There is time to perform, though.  

There is time to get things right.  

There is time to reward those students who learn quickly.

There is always time for that. 

***

Why would a student take a chance -- try something new -- if they are only assessed on knowing, and getting things right.  Only using a scoring-based-instructional-model hinders creativity in my opinion, and a possible outcome may be robotic instruction: 

  • Write a five-paragraph essay
  • Put your thesis here
  • Use this transition word there
  • Every assertion has two supports
Why did writing become an easy-to-assess assembly line…where each essay looks like the last?  Don't get me wrong, there is a time and a place for formula; I'm not suggesting throwing the baby out with the bathwater…but should formula BE the classroom, and leave room for nothing else?  Do we have so little faith in students and teachers…that the result is creating a line-worker mentality:  Don't think. Regurgitate. Know the rules. Follow the rules. 

Carrot and stick.  Carrot and stick.

That is not my classroom.  I want things to be muddy.  I want there to be mistakes.  I want my students to take chances.  I want them to notice things for themselves.  I want them to experiment.  I want them to be confused at times.

And, most importantly, I don't want to punish them for doing these things.

I want to encourage it.

***

The past few years, I have experimented with removing POINTS/SCORES from the initial drafts of my pre-college, ESL-student work.  Some students resist at first.  Some never stop.  But why would I assess something, with a score, when the student is new to it?  Sadly, why have they been so programmed to expect it?

GRADE ME.  RATE ME.  TELL ME (IN POINTS) WHO I AM.

To return to our metaphor, why would I assess your running of a mile, with a score, if this is your first time running a mile in ten years, or you have been a swimmer for twenty years and are trying to "translate" into running now.  I don't think these are times to assign a score.  These are times for feedback, in words, in support, in conferences, in modeling, in coaching…but not a grade.  No points.

Why are we so quick to judge right away: THIS is a C.

Why is it so hard to remove the label? 

***

What I have noticed is a different conversation with my students since I have removed these scores on initial drafts.

I am no longer asked why they got a D.  I am no longer confronted with tears.  I no longer feel like I am demoralizing someone new to the field of academic reading and writing in English.

I am asked now, "How do I improve X?"  "How do I explain my ideas better here?"

The conversation has been reframed and:

  • I notice NEW and UNIQUE forms of writing.
  • I notice I don't get the same paper from the same student all semester.
  • I notice my students are writing differently than their classmates.

My process for writing assignments (which I continue to hone/think about/develop every semester), is as follows:

  • I will not assess -- with points or scoring -- the content of written work until the end of the semester.
  • Throughout the process, I provide points for: completion of drafts, submission of drafts on time, submission of self-reflections on progress, and following directions.
  • The students receive extensive written and oral feedback, mentoring, and tutoring on each draft.
***

Teacher voices:

Voice: Oh no…does that mean everyone can get an A on an assignment? Is this a reflection of their "true ability level?" 

Response: Not everyone gets an A….but I have a lot fewer failing scores; that's for sure.  And what is their true level, I ask?  Do YOU, reader, want to be GRADED on your first mile of the semester?  Would you not prefer to practice for months to get your skills up to speed, as it were, before I assess you with points?  Would you prefer to focus on your score or improving your overall health?  Don't forget, in our PE class, we are also going to be working on swimming a mile and biking for fifty.  Do you want to be failing all of those things along the way, too?  

Voice: I don't have time to give that level of feedback that many times. 

Response: I hear you.  Maybe we should have fewer students.  Maybe we should have fewer classes/instructor.  Maybe not every class should be sixteen weeks (schools vary by district) for every student (maybe some need less time, others more).  If we were concerned about improvement and not about maximizing the bottom line, maybe our entire educational system could be set up differently.

Voice: You are being unrealistic.  Students must be graded.  This is the way we have done it for years.  They are graded in all their courses.  And in life.  At work.  They get financial aid and scholarships and transfer based on grades.  

Response:  I cannot argue that. All I am doing is delaying the grade, not removing it entirely.  Also, I am not in control of all those things you mentioned above.  What I am in control of is creating a learning environment that attempts to accept everyone and not only the ones who would pass regardless of what was in front of them.  

Voice: Easy for you to say.  You are just an English instructor.  You can't do this in a REAL course like math or physics or history or engineering or science or…or…or...

Response:  I have not walked a mile (connection intended) in your shoes, nor you in mine, most likely. I'm not saying every situation is the same…just like not every writing assignment is the same.  Again, I didn't say we should remove ALL grades and ALL formula.  I'm saying this is what I did.  For me. In my class.

***

Assessment, with points, is one of the worst parts of being an instructor (IMO).  Especially in introductory courses, I don't see the utility in penalizing students for growing and thinking and trying along the way.

As of today, right now, this is my attempt at fostering life-long learning. 

Grade me.  Disagree with me.  Give me feedback.  Try it yourself.  

Whatever you do:

  • Notice
  • Think 
  • Output
  • Feedback
I just did that here.  And now, it's your turn.

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Adventures in Babysitting

The good news is that everyone lived.  The bad news (for me) is I, once again, made a complete ass of myself.  The better news (for you) is I am going to share what happened.

***

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine said she needed help.  She needed someone to pick up her two-year-old son from daycare by 4:00 PM.  I LOVE this kid, been around him tons of times…and he is awesome.  I said I would be happy to help under one condition: she had to guarantee that he would not poop for the hour I needed to watch him.  My assistance has its limits, after all.  These limits clearly include not touching, smelling, or interacting with feces unless (a) it's mine (b) it's my dogs' or (c) it's been placed on a doorstep and lit on fire.

She promised  he would be as empty Philip Seymour Hoffman's (alleged) heroine needle (too soon?) or as backed up as the line to get into the men's room at a Justin Bieber concert.

She loves similes apparently.

Admittedly, poopy diaper or not, I was still a little apprehensive about picking up her son.  I guess I get "a little neurotic" when "the health" and "well being" of "another person's child" is in my "hands."  But I figured as long as I could keep air quoting AND didn't have to change a poopy diaper, nothing could go too wrong.  Nope.  Nothing.

***

I left early and diligently followed the directions to the address she gave me.  In my mind, I was expecting some large facility with a gate and a fence and a receptionist.  Why?  Who knows.

So, when I instead found myself in the middle of a neighborhood, my neuroses instantly took over:

  • I'm lost
  • I just stranded a two-year-old.  
  • He is definitely out wandering the streets RIGHT NOW!

***

Even though I was certain I was lost, I figured I would at least give the address his mother gave me a try.  Why not, right?

When I went to the door and rang the doorbell, the worst thing possible for someone like me happened.

No one answered.

I rang again.

Still nothing.

At this point, I really worked myself up into a tizzy.  I got out my phone to call my friend to apologize for leading her son into a life of crime within a Mexican drug cartel.   But then I heard it. Another car pull up behind me.

My heart soared as I noticed this vehicle had a car seat in the back.  And I did some quick deduction in my mind: Car seat = child or baby monkey.

I assumed it would NOT be a baby monkey.  This time.

Consequently, I figured these people must know things about daycare centers and children and picking said children up properly.  They also probably knew how to keep two-year-olds out of prison.

***

They got out of their car, and started walking towards me.  I was so completely frazzled that all I could muster was, Am I in the right place?

Now, keep in mind, I had never met these people before in my life.  They have no idea who I am or what I am doing there.  I could have been asking about a daycare center…but for all they knew, I might have been asking about a crack den.  So, they responded, Well, that depends.  What are looking for?

And, I shit you not, the following came out of my mouth, in retort: I want to pick up children.

As those words hung in the air, a sour look came over their faces…and I wished I could have lassoed them back into my mouth.  But I couldn't.  They just hung there.  And I stammered to self-correct, Um. I mean. Child.  A child.  My child.  I mean.  My friend's son.

These two women both laughed out loud at me…and pointed about five inches to the left.  One of the women, through a giggle, said, You just walk in right there.  Through the gate. The one with the daycare sign on it.

***

When I walked through the gate, I noticed two children playing in a sandbox, and I figured one of them must be my friend's son.  But I didn't see him.  So, I stared at these two children.  And they stared at me.  We just stared at each other.

Not creepy.  Not creepy at all.

Through the back door of the house, I notice a woman walk out holding another child in her arms.  She sees me staring at the two children in the sandbox and politely queries, Can I help you?

Now, I am still recovering from the crap that happened out front…and realize how awkward I must look at this moment.  So, I try to rectify this situation in a calm, cool, and collected fashion: Mark.  My name.  Pick up.  Friend said. Here.  Her son.  Here.  Me.  Mark.  

I only wish I were joking.

Anyway, she just laughed and laughed.  I now realize she is holding my friend's son in her arms.  Ohhhhhh…Hi, Mark!  Yes, J-- told me you were coming.  She also mentioned you don't like poopy diapers.  So…let me change him before you go.

***

I feel my face getting bright red…I didn't figure my friend would mention my poop-free desires…which flusters me even more.  I'm about to apologize when one of the kids in the sandbox, a little three-to-four-year-old girl, yells at me, ARE YOU HER DAD?

Me: Who?

Little girl: ARE YOU HER DAD?

Me: Who do you mean?

Little girl: ARE YOU HER DAD?

Me: I don't know who...

And she violently and abruptly points to the mid-twenty-something-year-old woman changing my friend's son's diaper,  HER!

Two things:

  • I don't believe this little girl had figured out how to modulate her voice yet…because everything was full force and loud.
  • F you, little girl.  I don't have a 25 year old daughter.

The daycare lady now responds, No, he is not my father.  My father's name is Mark…but this is a different Mark.

Then the little boy, also about three, pipes up, Are you her dad?

Me: Nope. Still not her dad.

Little boy: Do you have kids?

Me: I have dogs.

And then this little boy gets the most confused look you could possibly imagine.  His eyes widen, and he hopefully asks, Your kids are dogs?

Me: Well, they are like my children.

Little girl: I USED TO HAVE A DOG BUT NOW I HAVE A CAT!!!!!!

My first thought was maybe her dog ran away because she was always YELLING at him…but before I could find out, the daycare lady said my friend's son is all ready to go…and was incapable of pooping.  She then asked, Do you need help with the car seat?

*** Flashback ***

Earlier in the day, I picked up the car seat from my friend.  She put it in my car and attached it to the seatbelt.  I even asked how to use it to double check that (a) I could get him into the car seat and (b) I could get him back out of the car seat.

My friend gives me grief for asking how to use the car seat.  I feel like an idiot.

*** Flash forward ***

Me:  I would LOVE help with the car seat.

Her: No problem.  Those car seats can be pretty tricky.

And I feel SO vindicated about the previous ribbing I took from my friend about how to use one!  My concerns about how hard it is had been confirmed by someone who deals with children every day!  Ha!

When we get to my car, I open the door, and my vindication quickly disappears.

Her: Oh.  She says.  That's all she says.

Me: Oh?

Her: The car seat is already attached to the car.

And it is then that I realize we were having two very different conversations.  SHE thought I needed help latching the car seat to my car.  To her, THIS act was "tricky."

I thought she was asking if I wanted help putting the baby into the car. To me, THIS was "tricky."

Me:  *Trying to pretend that I don't know that she thinks I am a complete, helpless idiot,* Oh.  Yeah.  We (I actually said we) attached it earlier.

Her: *Silence*

Me: So, maybe you can put him in the car seat?

Her: Surrrrre.




You asked Mark to pick up your son?  Nooooooooooooo!

***

The drive home is remarkably wonderful.  After a few moments of crying when WE put him in the car seat, he calmed down.  He recognized me.  He read his book.  I drove extra, extra carefully.  I felt so proud.  I successfully (?) picked someone's child up.  I transported him across town.  I pretended people didn't think I was a fool.  This was a full day.

But then, we parked.

As I went to get him out of the car seat, I again panicked.  I pressed the harness release and nothing happened.  I pressed it again; nothing happened.  I thought about how fun it was going to be to have a two-year-old locked in his car seat for an hour until his mother came home.  I felt my palms getting sweaty…and my face flush.  I tried one more time.

One side unbuckled.

"OK.  OK.  If I got one side to unbuckle….that means I can do two."

Honestly.  I gave myself this exact pep talk.

I realized I probably just wasn't pressing hard enough on the harness release, so I pressed it again without worrying about crushing him.  Because, of course, if you press a harness release too hard, the child will instantly explode.

BINGO.  It released.  He jumped into my arms…and we got inside without a hitch.  I knew right where her place was, and all I needed to do was take the elevator up one flight up, and we would be home free.

When I got into the elevator, I pushed the wrong button.  I pushed the same floor we were just on, so basically, the doors closed and then reopened.  I started to get out to walk to her door, but even the two-year old realized this was not the right floor.  He stared up at me, and I swear he gave me a look of, "Dude…you seriously are a fucking moron, aren't you."

We got back into the elevator…I pressed the right button…and we got to door.  FINALLY.

***

I realize most of these issues came about because I was just worried about watching someone else's child.  I get that.  But in about a thirty-minute time period, I made a complete jackass out of myself, in front of other people, about five times.

So…who needs a babysitter?

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Ironman Boulder #2 -- I Fell On My Face

I'm no novice; I've been ambulatory for at least 37 years…and have had the ability to run, without falling, nearly as long as that.  If it truly does take 10,000 hours to master something…I think I'm there.

I still fell on my face last week while running, though.

If I put things in some sort of positive perspective, I should perhaps be proud of the fact that I often DON'T fall when I'm running.  Look at me, the "I Don't (Typically) Fall When I'm Running" Guy!  In fact, I have a nearly unbeatable streak of not falling while doing numerous perilous tasks such as walking to the refrigerator or exiting a Roman bath house.  I may even be some sort of record holder for all I know.  I could be the AC Green of street crossing…the Cal Ripken, Jr. of successful journeys from the super market to my car without incident.

Now, this isn't to say I have NEVER fallen when running before.  Because I have.  A couple of years ago was the only other time I -- without the help of another human being -- have found myself stumbling and bumbling my way to the ground during a run.  It was in the middle of the La Jolla Half Marathon, and I had just run up Torrey Pines.  If you don't live in San Diego or if you have never run up Torrey Pines, let me tell you, falling after such a feat is nothing to be ashamed of.  Well…not *too* ashamed of. 

But this week.  This week was something special.  This was the first time in my life when I ever recall simply running on a perfectly good sidewalk…no bumps…no roots…nothing in my way…and simply losing my balance, toppling over, summersaulting…and SPLAT.  Face meet ground.  Ground meet face.

But this isn't the best part.

I notice, off in the distance, a jogger.  She got to witness this entire comedic event.  When I splatted on the ground, she was probably a good 100 yards away from me…but I know she saw.  And I know -- injury or not -- she must have been cracking up at me.

I have a number of options at this point; I could: 

(A) turn around and run the other direction to save myself the embarrassment

(B) just sit there and then find something extremely interesting on the ground to stare at while she giggles past me

or

(C) get up off my clumsy-ass and simply continue…and say something clever on the way by her.

I, of course, chose C.

I do a quick push-up (in retrospect, it would have been hilarious to pump out like ten…like this was all part of my plan) to stand up.  Give myself a couple of claps.  Laugh.  Dust myself off…and start to run towards the woman who saw me eat shit while simply jogging down the road.

As I get closer to her, I notice she is making eye contact and is giving me a slightly odd look…and when she gets right by me, I raise my hands way in the air like a cheerleader celebrating a touchdown, like this (sans the jump, I swear): 

It took me about thirty minutes to find a non-sexual cheerleading picture.
But that was an awesome thirty minutes.

And I scream: I'M OK!!!!

She just laughed and laughed.

Well, wouldn't you know it, I was actually near the turnaround point of my run, so I veered to the right to head around a building to double back to finish my run (without falling).  It's been about five minutes since I saw my new found friend who was more interested at taking joy out of my possible life-threatening fall than helping a poor, "young," defenseless jogger in distress.  Lo and behold, who do I see, the same lady!  

Now I'm at a loss.  I had already used my A material the first time I passed her.  What was I going to do???

Well, I did what any man would do to save face in a similar situation.  I went back to a winner…

…and as soon as she got close, I screamed: 

I'm STILL OK!

And she laughed again!  She was like my own personal studio audience…but she clearly wasn't ready to participate in such deep and meaningful banter, as she only retorted, "Still running, huh?"

Personally, I don't like when people make a factual statement as a conversational point.  I feel like it's lazy.  Things like:

  • Hot today when it obviously is or
  • Sharp axe when I'm chopping them up into little, tiny pieces.
At that point, you gotta give me more than "Still running, huh?" Especially after I gave her the joy of (1) watching me fall and (2) self-deprecating remarks to boot! 

I'm not your monkey.  See if I ever fall in front of you (on purpose) ever again.

***

Weekly recap

Miles ridden: 74 (long of 40)
Miles run: 16 miles (long of 7.5)
Yards swum: 7500 yards (long of 2500)
Cross training: 1.5 hours
Times I fell on my face: One time

My mind still thinks it is in Ironman shape from last year…my body, not so much.  

In my head, I feel like I should be able to bike for five hours after a two hour swim RIGHT NOW!  

In my head, I know this is possible.  

My lungs and stamina would like to politely disagree with my mind.  So for now, I'm still in the slowly build up endurance phase…before I know it, I'll be able to fall on my face at least five time/week…no problem.

***

I was listening to the radio this week, and they were talking about the topic of discipline.  What it is…why people have it in certain parts of their lives…etc.

There is clearly a line between discipline and insanity…and I often don't know which side of that line I am on.  I know I have the ability to hyper focus on something (like finding a cheerleader picture for this entry), but do I have the ability to take something daunting like an Ironman and have it be PART of my life, and not the focus of my life?  That is an entirely different kind of discipline.  Can I relatively "dabble" in something monumental instead of swim (pun intended) in it?  That is one of the challenges in front of me this year.  I can immerse myself.  I've done that.  But can something overwhelmingly difficult be mentally overcome in smaller (relatively) doses?  

I don't know, but I'm going to find out.


Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Ironman Boulder #1

Abstract for TLDR Crowd: I wrote some presumably funny shit about triathlons.  And you need to learn how to focus for about one minute.  Oh…I was also the world's largest baby.  So there's that.

***

Darron's mom, who has been more of a mother to me than Darron ever has, asks me about writing ALL the time.  It's nice to be motivated by someone who has known me almost my entire life, and STILL thinks I'm not a moron.  Or at least doesn't think being a moron should hold me back.

She specifically asked if I was going to write a book about the last Ironman I did.  I lied to her and said yes AND that I enjoyed her son's company.  I thought if I were going to lie, I might as well make it a REALLY big lie.

But I thought about it, and I figured I might blog about some of my training experiences THIS TIME.  Maybe people could learn something.  Maybe I would.  Maybe I am blowing more air than a polar vortex.  Maybe.

***
Weekly recap

Miles ridden: 66 (long of 32)
Miles run: 14 (long of 6)
Yards swum: 7000 (long of 2500)
Cross Training: 1.5 hours (including 40 minutes of stupid boot camp training, which is really f-in hard)

You know the only thing worse than getting back into shape after take a few months off?  Getting back into shape twice in about a month.

My original plan was to start training for Ironman Boulder in November.  I did that.  And went through the pain and agony of those initial weeks of mental and physical turmoil…only to get sick.

So, I got to start again a few weeks ago.  I can see why people don't like working out.  Until you get through about four weeks of it, it really does feel like someone is setting off matches in your lungs while sitting on your chest inside of a vise.

BUT…once you get through the first month, it doesn't feel like that at all.  It mostly just feels like all those things but you feel like a puss if you don't do it because now you know you can.

***

I've set some intentions for this race.  Mostly because if I don't find something new to think about when I'm on the bike for five+ hours at a time, I might actually go with my plan to speak with a British accent  at all stop signs.

I'll mention two of them for now.

Intention number one is to try to race between 169 and 175 pounds.  Now, I don't know if this is possible because (a) I think I was born at 175 pounds and (b) last race I pretty consistently stayed between 185 and 192…and I just don't know how I could lose more weight unless I did things like not eat at Red Robin.  But that is just crazy talk.  Anyway.  That is my intention.

Me at two days old.  I'm on the Left.
That is my one-year-old brother on the right.

Another intention is what I am going to call the PP.  Yes.  The PP.  In this case, PP stands for staying present and positive.

Staying Present: It's pretty easy to think about the next hour, the next month, the next Red Robin basket of bottomless fries…instead of being in the moment.  Being in the moment is crucial in so many parts of life, including triathlon training.  I can't worry about yesterday or tomorrow.  All I should focus on is what I am in control of…which is present time.  Self-helpy, but true.  One fry at a time….that's my motto!

Staying Positive: The other half of the P. I don't know if I'll be able to do this, though, since I'm not very good at it (ba-dum-bum).  It truly is easy to go negative when feeling overwhelmed, tired, hungry, or menstrual.  Positive self-talk is a real thing.  Positive self-talk with a British accent might be even more real.  Soon.  Very, very soon.

***

That's it for now.  I guess the only question left unanswered at this point…is who wants to help me with my PP?




Tuesday, August 27, 2013

More Massage Misery

While in the waiting room, I started to sweat, beads dripping off my forehead. I stared at my crisscrossed fingers on top of my nervously-tapping legs. The door from the massage area opened, and a whoosh of air blew onto my face.  It smelled like kitty litter.

"Mark?"  a voice called out.

I looked up.  And I didn't move.  Because it seemed like the great-great-grand-mother of any possible masseuse had just called my name.

I have had what some might call a "bad history" of "massages not going well," so I can't say I was shocked to see Betty White's mom standing in front of me.  But still.  Deep in my heart.  I thought there might be some sort of mistake or practical joke going on.  So I sat there.  Motionless.

"Mark?" she called out again.  And I looked around...and, yup, I was the only man in the waiting area.

"Here?" I responded...in question form.


"I'm -----, and I'll be your masseuse."

Of course you will be I thought to myself.


Now, I'm a somewhat open-minded guy.  So in the moments it took me to walk over to her (about two seconds), ever the optimist, I talked myself into thinking this COULD go well.

She's experienced.  Friendly.  Knows some old-school methodology my mind flashed.

But as I shook the hand of the octogenarian, she didn't seem to have full use of her fingers. Any of them.  They curled into her palms like on someone who was checking to see if she liked their new nail polish.  As I shook her claw, I managed a "Hi."

I followed her back to the massage room, and she walked like she needed hip replacement surgery, her right leg dragging a beat or two behind the left.  I was glad she didn't tell me to "Walk this way" or I would have had to curl over into a hump-backed ball.

While I might not personally understand why a person without full usage of her hands, back, or hips would want to do a job where she has to use her hands, back, and hips all day...that is not for me to decide nor judge.  OK....not for me to decide, at least.

***

After the dead-man's walk to the room was over, she asked me what I would like to have done.  Admittedly, I was a little flustered....so while in the midst of discussing all the places I DON'T like to have massaged...I left one out.  I forgot to say, "Whatever you do...for the love of GOD...don't touch my feet.  I CANNOT stand it when people touch my feet."

This omission would come back to haunt me.

***

Five minutes into the massage it was clear to me that all my previous suppositions about her possibly being experienced and knowing a lot of old-school methodologies were wrong.  Very, very wrong.

She had about two moves:


  • Move Number 1: Move claws up and down back, scratching me with the top of her nails
  • Move Number 2: Rub sunspot-filled forearms on the center of back ever-so-lightly...not enough to massage anything...but just enough so I could feel the bumps on her arms.
All of this was clearly very relaxing.


A little later, after her fourth Move Number 1 and fifth Move Number 2 combination, she asks,

"I'm new at this.  How's it going?  Pressure OK?"

Now, you aren't going to believe me...but I was wrong about the kitty litter smell from before.  I was.  I'm telling you, when she asked me this question, wafts of cat food smell poured down on me...heavier than her hands ever could.  I don't know why her breath smelled like cat food.  I don't believe I was in a Simpson's episode...all I know is what I smelled.

Regardless, I simply couldn't bring myself to let Fancy Feast know that this was possibly the most excruciating thirty-minutes of my life (thus far).  I also didn't let her know that because of her,  I basically had just decided that I would absolutely NEVER, EVER get a cat.  Instead, I simply said "Fine" as I once again wondered why someone who clearly should not be using her hands OR be standing all day would choose to do this job.

***

Towards the end of my time on my stomach, she made a few passes at my feet.  I quickly thought back to our pre-massage conversation...and realize SHIT...I DIDN'T TELL HER I WOULD RATHER STAB MYSELF IN THE BALLS THAN HAVE HER TOUCH MY FEET!

At this point, a normal person would probably have politely asked her to stop, but part of me was actually relieved that all the Move Number 1 and Move Number 2 combinations were over...and she just massaged my feet  for a few seconds.  So I was cool...

...until she had me turn over and decided to give me a twenty-minute foot massage with oil and lotion and scents and all the squishing and touching and individual toe touching.  AHHHHHH!!!!  But what could I do?  I didn't mention it before the massage.  I didn't mention it when I was on my stomach.  And I didn't yet get the tattoo on my forehead that says, TOUCH MY FEET AND DIE, LADY.

So while I listened to the SQUISH, SQUISH, SQUISH of this lady clawing and milking at my feet, I squirmed. Fairly regularly.  Eventually, I guess I squirmed too much, and she inquired: "Ticklish?"  Chuckle. Chuckle. Huh huh huh.

"Yeah.  Ticklish." I replied...imagining myself jumping off a cliff into a pool of lotion with a bunch of faceless people I don't know touching my toes, AKA Hell.

***

My time was up.  She limped out of the room.  I fumbled at putting my socks on over my still-damp and recently-molested feet.  I sat there.  Staring at my shoes.  Wondering how in the heck this actually happened...and what it was she could have possibly eaten for dinner....until I decided to re-retire from massages.

Until I go back for more...because this couldn't possibly happen again.  Right?







Saturday, July 13, 2013

Donnie Darko, Time Travel, Alternate Universes, and Memphis


Mississippi River From the Shores of Memphis, TN
Why Memphis?  

I was asked that before I left.  I have been asked that while here.

Simple questions sometimes have simple answers.

I'll let Donnie Darko explain.

***

Is it a spoiler if I talk about a movie that came out over ten years ago?  Well, just in case:  

***SPOILER ALERT***  

If seeing Donnie Darko has been on your To Do List for over a decade, don't read this blog.  

Anyway, there is this scene in the movie (one of the best movies ever made, by the way), when Donnie asks Frank, a futuristic, time-traveling, rabbit-costume-wearing man, why he's wearing a stupid bunny suit in the first place.

Frank retorts, Why are you wearing that stupid man suit?

ZING!

I have always thought this was a seminal moment in the film, deconstructing who we think we are/what we are supposed to be.  And, in sum, turning perspective on its head.  Moments later, in fact, Donnie ends up burning down Patrick Swayze's house, which seems downright mean, until we find out that this esteemed character maintains a kiddie porn dungeon. I'm not sure what that is exactly.  Not sure I want to know...but it sounds pretty bad.

In the end, Donnie's actions were justified -- depending on how you look at it -- in this alternate universe.  We just needed the proper perspective.

***

Beale Street
Fried Chicken

Her name was Bouvase, and the first time I heard it, I thought she said her name was Blow J.  I figured her name couldn't be a line from American Pie, so I asked her to repeat it.


BOUVASE, B-O-U-VASE.

Clearly, I wasn't the first person to have a problem with it.

I met B-O-U-VASE after a long day of exploring Memphis, Tennessee.  I did everything someone, I presume, is supposed to do.  I went to Graceland.  I ate BBQ.  I had fried chicken.  I went to Beale St.  I watched the duck parade. I went to the Mississippi River.

Check.
Check.
Check.
Check.
Check.
Check.

But what was I even doing in Memphis?  Why had I even come?

***

There is another part of Donnie Darko that I feel is often overlooked involving a minor character named Cherita, who is an overweight, linguistically-challenged, Asian-immigrant student.  Few people give a shit about this character, which is actually ironic!  She is integral to the who the F are we and why do we do the things we do plot!  No, really.  She is!

One of the few things (besides cynicism) I took away from stupidly(?) majoring in English in college is to notice any sort of character sensory removal.  If someone goes blind, loses a hand, can't hear...THIS is something to pay attention to...and later write a fifteen-to-twenty-page paper about.  Hurray!  

Anyway, Cherita has MULTIPLE self-induced, quasi-sensory deficits going on, so we should be watching her carefully.  First of all, she doesn't want people to talk to her; she tells them to chut up when they do.  This reaction is clearly warranted as some other characters (not Donnie) constantly berate her with racial slurs.   Eventually, she dons ear muffs -- even though it looks to be about 80 degrees outside -- in attempt to stop hearing what people say to her since the whole chut up angle doesn't seem to be working.  She ALSO ends up entering the school talent show and performing an interpretive dance, dressed as an overweight-angel-like figure, which leads the audience to snicker at her silent rendition of innocence.

No one, it seems, understands Cherita or any of her not talking/not wanting to be talked to antics.  

Poor Cherita.  Poor, poor Cherita.

Anyway, towards the end of the film, another important moment happens between Donnie and Cherita, when Donnie confronts Cherita and tells her he wishes things could have been better for her.  She, on cue, tells Donnie to chut up as she runs away -- even though he said something nice to her -- dropping her school books in the process.  

What do we discover?  She has WRITTEN (one of the means of communication that she has not lost/removed) Donnie's name on her book cover, showing love or admiration for him (I'm not going the god or god-figure route here, even though she was dressed like an angel during the talent show and Donnie clearly has god-like superpowers in this alternate universe.  I'm thinking teenage crush).  

So, Donnie is left holding her ear muffs in is hands as she runs away, removing Cherita's ability to block out others, but adding to Donnie's!  And we see Donnie wearing them in the next scene...showing a direct, physical connection to Cherita.  Both can be seen as outcasts:  

  • One being a slowly-going-insane, bunny-seeing, man-suit wearing time traveler, 
  • The other an interpersonal-issue-having, overweight-dancing, ear-muff-in-hot-weather-wearing immigrant.

If we look at them from this perspective, they are pitiful characters.

But from another, we can see them as being the only two truly redeemable characters in the entire film (don't get me started on Gretchen).  They, it seems, truly understand each other because when Donnie dies and saves the "real" universe, only Cherita smiles at her alternate universe interactions with her peer/savior.

Get all that?

It just depends on how you look at it.

***

I Didn't Visit This Place.
During my conversation with the about six-months-pregnant bartender, B-O-U-VASE, I discovered many things about her:

  • She hadn't been to California since she was 13, over 14 years she said.  
  • She's divorced. It seemed like her parents were, too.  
  • She'd been to a nude beach before, and didn't like what [she] saw.  
  • She loved Arkansas...the western part, only.  
  • She had been bartending for many years.  
And when I let her know that I don't particularly like tourist spots, and I wanted to go where the locals go...she gave me a knowing smile and suggested some places, and to let Mouse and Beavis know that Bouvase had sent me when I got there.

It should also be noted that she told me not to give any money to crackheads.  And she meant it!  

***

I have enjoyed every second of getting to chat with people I, otherwise, would have never met.  

I have enjoyed eating food I, otherwise, would have never eaten.  

I have enjoyed seeing things I, otherwise, would never have seen.

Why the heck did I come to Memphis? 

I'm not sure that is the right question.  I'm not sure at all.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

I'm Walking in Memphis. Almost.


Each Danish Individually Wrapped.  For My Pleasure.

There’s some danish in the luggage cart.  Terse.  Uncaring.  Said in a New Yorkian Go-F-Yourself accent.  Reminiscent of that Simpsons episode when Homer goes to file for divorce and the lady behind the counter says, These things happen. $8.00.

Good thing the Amtrak attendant didn’t mean Danish…that could have been seen as rather un-PC (and cramped, for the Danish).  Would probably serve the Danes right, though.  They have a lot to answer for (so start answering, Darron).

But that’s one of the reasons why I’m here (the lady, not the danish/Danish).  I’m on a train to Memphis, indirectly.  I need to go to LA first, then Atlanta, THEN Memphis.  And if I didn’t get on this train, I would have never met that customer service lady on the Amtrak who made me laugh at 7:00 in the morning with her desire for me to choke on my danish (sounds dirtier than it really is).

***

There is clearly a train subculture that (a) I didn’t know about and (b) I have not been welcomed into...yet.  The regulars are greeted quite warmly.  Questions from the staff fly (train?) forth…about the family. The weather.  The kids. 

I was asked for my ticket and pointed to some pastry.

I could infiltrate this world, I’m sure.  But how often am I going to be on a train?  When I lived in the Czech Republic, I was on a train almost every day.  Maybe I was invited into some Czech-train-subcultures…but I probably didn’t understand, even if I were.  I probably just nodded my head, smiled, and asked them in broken Czech where the hairy bathroom apricots were located.  Dude.  It was a tough language.  And obviously like a Mad Lib game?

Anyway, I’m on a train.  Off to Memphis.  To eat BBQ and to see what happens. And Elvis.  I’m going to see Elvis, too.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

#1: That Time I Was Raped and Sued

Yes.  Truly, the moment we have all been waiting for.  After weeks of suspense...and tens, nay, hundreds, nay, thousands of people clamoring to know which blog would be self-deemed as the best blog of all time...the time has come.

But first...let's recap, shall we?

10: Nearly dying the morning of my first marathon from a peanut allergy

9: My dog being addicted to drugs and lying about it

8: The original blog-antagonists: Mark S. Manasse and Eva Longoria

7: Disappointment with a cancelled Ironman, and then rejoice at not pooping myself at another

6: Speaking of poop, that time a girl pooped on my leg

5: Arousing massage problems

4: A shout out to a previous (creative) partner with a Mr. and Mr. Fingers video

3: Investigating a woman's bathroom and discovering all the mysteries within

2: My roommate.  A thong.  Comedy ensues.

Really, though, when you think about it...there really could be no other #1.

This blog is famous (infamous?) because I actually received a lawyerly letter because of its contents.  The version now posted has been modified so that I no longer do things like:


  • State the name of the establishment that this event "allegedly" happened in
  • Post the pictures of any staff members who may have been involved
  • Mention people by name, under their picture, and dare other people to contact them
I have no idea why this place would want me to take the information down.  None at all.

Anyway, this blog really opened my eyes to the fact that (a) people really do read what I write and (b) I really don't like having things shoved in my ass.

Was I *really* raped and sued?  Read on....

Monday, July 01, 2013

San Diego International Triathlon

Every time I wake up for one of these triathlons, and I see the first number on my clock is a 4...I fucking hate myself.  My first instinct is to throw my alarm clock across the room, but considering Tauni is my alarm clock, I (usually) reconsider.  My second instinct is to go back to bed...but I know if I do that, I'll hate myself (more than I already do) later...so I get up, hop in the shower, and spend ten-to-fifteen minutes having the following conversation:

Self: Why don't I just go back to bed?

Other Self:  You're already up...

Self:  Yeah.  But I'm sooo tired.

Other Self: Stop being such a puss.

Other, Other Self: Dude...that redhead from True Blood....soooooo hot.

Self: Shut up, you.  I'm too tired.

Other Self: Why don't you just go to the bathroom...so you don't have to poop during the race?

Self: Don't you think I would if I could?

Other, Other Self: JESSICA!

Self and Other Self: Quiet, you...

Seriously, my entire life existence on race morning revolves around pooping.  When will I go?  Will I go at all?  How many times?  Other times in my life...I kind of just wait like a normal person for the moment(s) to arise...but race mornings are different...and there is nothing worse than having to go while swimming.

This race was especially interesting.  The actual gun for the pro start (fifteen minutes before my wave) was my moment.  I'm not kidding:


  • BANG! And all the professional athletes started swimming.
  • BANG! My stomach told me to RUN (not walk to the bathroom).  
So odd.  Maybe I am pro-gun after all?  

My other personal issue with these races is that no matter what I do, I chafe.  I have learned, over the years, to lather the crap out of EVERYTHING on my body...but without fail, some part of my body burns the shit out of me when I get in the shower after a race.  Maybe this is the key.  I should chafe myself the night before...take a shower...and BANG!  My own, personal starter's pistol.

***

This swim was different for me.  I was trying out a new technique I have been practicing, so I was actually excited to get in the water.  Well, as excited as I could be.  This quickly faded as I got kicked in the face and pelted by a few elbows.  YAY! Triathlon swim starts!  At least the chemicals in the harbor probably diluted all the pee. 

On the bright side, I was faster at some points during this race, but for the love of all the swim gods...I just can't swim straight.  I must have easily swum an extra 50 to 100 yards...maybe they should hand out extra credit medals at the end of the race for the person who swum the farthest!

Another thing I am still struggling with is not having a passing gear when I swim.  When I'm biking/running, I can figure out how to maneuver around people.  In the water, I still haven't mastered how to actually go by someone.  I'm really, really good at having people swim by me. In fact, I've made it an art form.  I almost feel like I'm the host at a restaurant, "Right this way, sir..." 

Actually, for me, the moment of truth in all triathlons isn't the swim itself; it's seeing how many bikes are on the bike rack when I get out of the water in transition. That is my least favorite moment of any race -- my hopes dashed -- when I see how many people have already gotten on their bikes and left.  I catch some of them...but that is such a desolate feeling...like that The Twilight Zone episode where the last dude on earth only wants to read books...only to have his glasses break.

***

One of the reasons I did this race is because I wanted to see where I was physically after getting really sick with food poisoning AND pneumonia/bronchitis earlier this year.  If I can suggest anything to other triathletes out there...don't get sick for a month when trying to train for shit.  You heard it here first.

Illness is what is so odd about all this triathlon stuff.  Triathlons make you feel GREAT, but they simultaneously destroy your immune system.  Personally, I blame swimming, the world's greatest evil. OK. OK.  I don't blame swimming.  That's just stupid.  I actually blame Canada.

Anyway, I found that physically, I was fine...what I was lacking: some mental acuity.  

I felt absolutely dead from mile one to two on the run...and I wasn't getting mental waves of energy...the ones you ride when they come, and hope for when they are gone.  On the other hand, the last three miles of the run, I probably felt the strongest I felt the entire day, which led me to believe that my nutrition was fine and my fitness is recovering...but I was having some mental issues holding me back.  I need to get back to that place where I trust my mind and body again.  Knowing my mind and body the way I do, though...I wouldn't trust them either.  Scary, scary stuff going on in there.

Triathlon is mostly about fear management/believing in yourself.  It's like this microcosm for life.  Except I would like to replace swimming with the redhead from True Blood.  For obvious reasons.





#2: That Time I Found Out What Manties Were

Top Ten Continues....

In 2006, my life was going through a transition.  I had just gotten out of a tumultuous relationship, got a new roommate, was starting a new job, and, probably most importantly, discovered what manties were.

According to their website, this is why one would wear manties: For those nights and days, when you want to be and feel a little special, naughty, and very sexy, these Manties® are for you. Once you have them on, it will be "hard" to take them off. They are made of nylon and have the extra room where you need it, for the most comfortable fit there is. Once you try a pair, you will wonder why you never tried them before. Panties are for the gals. MANties® are for the guys.

Now, how did I discover what these were?...you'll just have to read what happened to me back in 2006...when a series of three events probably (at least) rival any unique roommate stories you have.

Click here --> I find out what manties are.

Friday, June 28, 2013

#3: A Woman's Bathroom is a Mysterious Place

In 2012, I wrote a series of tongue-in-cheek blogs about being left alone (and hexed) by the then-girlfriend/now-wife.  I covered the essentials: starvation, rabid dogs, getting pee on my hands, and in this fourth installment...I ventured into showering.

Insider fact: Although I posted a series of four blogs on this topic...I actually created (and did not post) a fifth blog.  Here is a snippet from that never-before-seen post entitled


My Girlfriend Left Town -- Day 5: Man Date

...That's right!  Mother F'in R to the E D Lobster.  And who was I meeting?  Here are some clues.


He's wild.

He's crazy.

He sometimes stays up past 10:00 PM on a school night!

That's right...the "man" who is tagged in everyone of my blogs...Darron!

First of all, Red Lobster was going off, son! If was Lobster Fest, so you know that meant the 80-year old honeys were EVERYWHERE!  We gorged ourselves on Cheddar Bay Biscuits...and we even ordered an appetizer.  There was no stopping us.

You might wonder what stops me from posting some blogs...I do.  Well, something tells me they are TOO over the top or boring or just generally lame.  You can tell I have a wonderful knack for this considering the shit I do post.

Anyway...

Coming in at #3....Click Here --> It's that time my girlfriend left town...and I compared our bathrooms.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

#4: Mr. and Mr. Fingers

No real Top Ten Blog list would be complete without paying some sort of tribute to my original creative partner in crime.  He's tagged in almost every post; he FORCED me to start blogging in the first place; and I have seen him naked thousands upon thousands of times...and not once have I been impressed.

Of course...I'm talking about Darron "Can I Pee On Your Jellyfish Sting" E. (It's a family name).

Back in 2005, Darron and I, fresh off of our Yahoo Instant Messaging Championship and fifteen minutes of fame...decided to branch out into the world of campy video production.  I don't remember exactly how we came up with the idea of our fingers being the star of poorly-produced, social commentary (maybe it was during our three-day water fast)...but I do know the few videos we created were absolutely awful.  Yet funny.

The premise? Mr. and Mr. Fingers were sexually-ambiguous fingers living inside the belt on the floor of my living room.  This, obviously, makes complete sense.

The gimmick?  They never both faced the camera at the same time...in essence, becoming interchangeable with one another.  Subsequently, no one could tell them apart, not visually nor by name.  Not even their girlfriends or other characters on the show could tell the difference.

Pure comedic gold.

Well...we never created any episodes.  We did create two interviews with the worst sound quality IN THE WORLD...and, coming in at #4...we created a theme song and opening montage.

If it's the first time you are hearing about Mr. and Mr. Fingers or the tenth time...they are real.  We really did create this video.  And the watch, and the dancing, and the off-tune singing, and the misspelled words were all on purpose.

Sad.  So sad.  Funny.  Yet sad.

Click Here --> Mr. and Mr. Fingers Theme Song

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

#5: Massage Issues

Top Ten Blog continues...

I don't like when people "touch me;" it's true. I have a rather large "no fly zone" when it comes to my body.  Some people deem this neurotic.  Others erotic.  I just call it blog material.

Over the years, I have written about my numerous problems...getting pummeled by a So Relax guy during one massage...having another dude repeating a mantra of "give your neck to me, Mark" during another.  I even told a masseuse one time NOT to massage my chest...and she REFUSED and said she HAD TO!  WTF, indeed.  

It has been one comedy of errors after another, but all massage stories to be told at other times.  Although funny, not Top Ten material (maybe I should just have a Top Ten Massage Blogs?)

My massage issues "culminated" (huh huh) in 2011 when Tauni and I went into one of those blinky-light places to get a message.  Why did we do this?  Who knows...but it was Tauni's idea.  She likes to F with me.

Did it go well?  

What happened?

Monday, June 24, 2013

#6: That Time A Girl Pooped on My Leg

Continuing on with the Top Ten Blog countdown...

One of the cornerstones of my blog over the years has been the retelling of my odd daily interactions with people...often times unbelievable. Always true.  Usually embarrassing (for me).

One of the best examples of this has to be the time I was in a waiting room with:

  • a little girl, 
  • her non-English speaking grandma, and 
  • a pile of poop (eventually).  On my leg.

This little girl (who pooped on me) decided that my name was Bamboo Chickie Lacka...why?  I'll never know.

So, coming in at #6 (meaning there are five blogs better than getting pooped on) from back in 2008, and CLEARLY a Top Ten Blog:

Saturday, June 22, 2013

#7: The Ironman That Wasn't Then Was

Continuing the Top Ten Blogs...

It's the one year anniversary of Ironman Coeur d'Alene...so it makes sense (to me) that #7 is about that race.  What did I learn from it? Mostly how to spell Coeur d'Alene.  It's a hard word to spell!

But before that race even happened...I also wrote about about Ironman New Zealand.  The race I trained for, flew to New Zealand for, and then didn't do (for).  That's called parallelism, bitches.  Look it up.

Anyway, coming in at a tie for #7:

Click here --> How I felt about Ironman New Zealand being cancelled

and

Click here --> My third (and final) blog about finishing Ironman Coeur d'Alene.


Wednesday, June 19, 2013

#8: The Foils

Still counting down the top ten blogs of all time...and at number 8, we have a tie between my two favorite foils.

First: Mark S. Manasse.

If you are new to this blog, you might not know about/understand the references to Mark S. Manasse, who became the butt of a long-running joke on my blog years ago.

Either a very, very good sport or way too important to acknowledge my online-pseudo-antagonising-BS, Mark S. Manasse hasn't contacted much over the years.  In fact, we have only ever had one direct correspondence.  A little known fact is that I indeed did directly email Mark S. one time many, many years ago (late 90s, I believe) to let him know we had similar names (I'm not a stalker at all)...and he politely emailed me back...basically saying "that's cool, creeper." Ha!

Mark S. is famous for a number of reasons, by the way.  He was a part of a band that was the first to broadcast live on the internet, he is a Microsoft bigwig, and he happens to be very similarly-named and similarly-looking to me! 

In 2009, I pretended to challenge him to a duel over Google search-term-dominance...luckily, he ignored my dumbass-antics.  Like I said...he's smart.  Smarter than I am, that's for sure.  

My other infamous foil is, of course, the one, the only, Eva Longoria.

Before Liam Neeson.  Before Miley Cyrus.  Eva Longoria was the original target of my fake-online war.

In this blog from 2008, I tried to explain why I pretended to feel the way I was pretending to feel.  Little did I know I was not alone!  I got message after message after message from people from around the world who felt the same way I was pretending to feel...except it seemed like they meant it!  Ha!  

So, coming in at a tie for number 8, my favorite blogs about Mark S. Manasse and Eva Longoria.