Inanity Verbatim

“He seems to have a problem with remembering and memorizing.”

These are the words that made my parents twitch and fight to stifle an explosion of, “Are you joking?!?”

I was not, to put it delicately, a stellar student. I did fairly well in first and second grade but other than a bizarre hiccup where I made honor roll one year in Junior High, I spend the vast majority of my time in school just trying to play catch-up in the hopes of pulling those C’s and D’s that had appeared on my progress reports up to some more respectable C’s and a few B’s. It wasn’t easy for me, but not because I found the work impossible, but totally uninteresting.

I should clarify here that I LOVE learning. It’ one of my favorite things to do, and when I have a few precious moments to my self, you are more than likely to find me with a book on First World War Artillery pieces, manuals on how to get more out of your table saw or reading up on the best ways to set up an office server with the new operating system that came out last week. I just love knowing… stuff.

The problem is that I love knowing stuff that I feel is important to me and if what a teacher was talking about fell outside that ring, well… in my head, they tended to sound like the adults on the Charlie Brown TV specials.

Teacher: “Wa-waaawa wa-wa-wa waaaaaaaah. Did you understand?”
Me: “Ummmm. Yes?”

Toss in a hearing condition I’ve had all my life and I was pretty much doomed from the get go. What drove my poor parents and the few observant teachers I had batty was that I could dive into something with no academic merit whatever and it would stick to my frontal lobe like warm gum on a sneaker sole. Let me demonstrate.

Mousebatfolicle-Goosecreature-Ampizantz-Bong-Whappcapplet-Looseliver-Vendetta and Prang.

You have to take my word on it, but I just typed that from memory. I may have gotten the spelling wrong here and there but otherwise, I do believe it’s correct. What is it? Easy. It’s the name of a marketing company used in a Monty Python skit. I’ll spare you the details since nothing clears a room faster than a careful recounting or reenacting of a Python skit, but trust me, it’s in there. Not only have I not seen that skit for easily fifteen years, but the name is mentioned only once during the entire thing.

Once!

And yet, it is seared into my brain cells. I couldn’t forget it if I wanted to… which, I must confess, I don’t.

This might sound like fun, but I have the overwhelming feeling that mental garbage like this is the reason that I can’t ever seem to remember to get my car registered on time or when my wife is scheduled to work tomorrow or when in God’s name is my anniversary!

I find it annoying.
Those around me, I believe, have been plotting electroshock treatment.

It’s an interesting way to go through life, to say the least. There are perks. I tend to be the one who people call with nagging trivia questions that are driving them nuts. It can also at times give me the illusion of being smarter than I feel I actually am. Not bad, really. Where it never stood me well, was school. The rigid set-up, the chapters to read, the homework never quite completed and the utter and total lack of classes on Monty Python, made my education mostly an arduous torture. I can clearly remember counting the number on months I had left of my educational experience… when I was in ninth grade. I can actually remember that! See?! But ask me anything about the three years of Latin class and all you’re getting is, “Gallia est in Europa”

The weird thing is, I love history. I love language. I love… well… learning! Just not learning “The System’s” way. This is where my kiddos come in; Short Stack, at the moment, Lulu Belle, possibly later.

They say that the apple doesn’t land far from the tree sometimes and with him… boy! Do they ever have that old chestnut right. Sometimes with pride, sometimes with worry, I see myself reflected in his little three year old actions and ideas. He can’t remember to wash his hands after I’ve drilled him about nine hundred and thirty four times about this, BUT he can remember that there used to be a plant in the window at a friends house. A house we haven’t visited in easily a year. When we went over last week, what were the first words out of his mouth?

“Where’s the plant?”

It wasn’t a big plant. It wasn’t the only plant.

It was the MISSING plant!

+4 points for observation skills, I suppose.

Ok, ok. So the kid’s good at noticing things, (with the obvious exception of his younger sister whom he mows down with startling regularity as he careens around the house like a bat on fire) but that’s just being visually observant. Right?

How about this one:

Mercury
Venus
Earth
Mars
Asteroid Belt

Ceres
Pallas
Vesta
And a bunch of other stuff.

Jupiter
Saturn
Uranus
Neptune
Don’t forget about Pluto
Eris
And a bunch of other stuff…

Not only can he run through this list like it’s nothing, but he can quiz you on what color the various planets are, if they have rings and which ones have moons. He can also tell you them out of order and which ones are next to which. How? Because of this…

Essentially, this is simply the School House Rock of my children’s generation. Think about it. Remove the folksy guitar chords and soft lyrical voices of the seventies, substitute with amps, electric instruments and vocals by They Might Be Giants, and you’ve got it! Learning never looked so fun!

I don’t know what it is about music and cartoons that makes stuff like this stick, but it works! To this day, I can securely say that the only reason I know the preamble to the U.S. Constitution is because of Saturday morning TV. Now, with kids of my own, we don’t have a TV and don’t plan to get one any time soon. School House Rock is still available on DVD or the Internet, but lets be honest, we watch it mostly out of my own need for nostalgia. I subject my children to it from time to time but when it’s done, Short Stack wants me to pop in the “Science is Real” DVD and watch John and John sing about meteorites, the scientific method or how cells grow. You might suggest that it doesn’t mean much to him beyond the fun video and songs, but I’ve already been commissioned by him to construct his own solar system in his bed room and he gleefully points out the different things that are made of cells as we walk to the store. He gets it.

So, why can’t he remember to wash his hands!?!?

Some day, shockingly soon, it will be time for Short Stack to begin his school career and I for one am truly apprehensive. He’s not so good at focusing, following directions isn’t his strong suit and he’s prone to periods of gazing off into space, lost in a world of his own making. Getting good marks is going to be a challenge… unless that is, it’s what he wants to do. For me, it’s like looking into a time machine, except this time around I have red hair and freckles.

It’s going to be interesting. In the mean time, I just hope they come out with a really jazzy way of remembering times tables and parts of speech. If they don’t, I’m just popping in disk one of the complete Monty Python collection. It might not get him a job, but he’ll be able to quite British comedy at length.

In my book, that’s an accomplishment I can be proud of.

That, and I’ll finally have someone to do the Dead Parrot Sketch with.

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The Tone in Dresden, Part I

The traffic had pretty much ground to a halt and through our lightly frosted car windows, the view of the empty and snow dusted wheat fields was flat and unremarkable. We had been driving now for several hours and the traffic jam, still several kilometers out side of our destination, was a bit disheartening. The cause of for my chagrin wasn’t based in the company I had in the car. Far from it. It was rooted more to the realization that I was having a blast and that these days spent in adventure after adventure were finite. Eventually, I’d have to go home. I was in Germany with my friend, Mountain Man, his friend and co-worker Carla and we were heading to her hometown, Dresden.

We were heading there very, very slowly.

I love visiting Germany, and doing so with Mountain Man and his preposterously perfect German makes it that much better. His own reason for being here started several years previous when he was signing up for classes at university. Apparently, he had struck up a conversation with (was hitting on) a cute girl as the two of them waited in line to register for classes. When she got her chance to pick her classes, she turned out to be a German Major. Not wanting to miss his chance, Mountain Man decided on the spot that English could take a poetic leap and changed his classes to match hers. That’s his style. Oddly enough, it seems to work for him, too. This man fears nothing and is aggravatingly good at surviving his spur of the moment, whacked-out decisions. Fast forward some years and now you have Mountain Man living and teaching in Germany on a Fulbright Scholarship and inviting his friends to drop by for a visit. The girl who stated him on this road is long gone, but that hardly matters now. What it meant is that I had a friend in Deutschland!

The trip to Dresden was not one that I had expected to make but this opportunity was far too amazing to miss. Carla was a teacher at the school where Mountain Man was placed. The Wall had only been down for a few years and there was still a lot of DDR infrastructure that needed to be set light to. Trabants, the East German version of what a car would look like if it were built by a toy company, were still fairly plentiful, as were a lot of the old institutional buildings, like schools. Not this one though! This school was brand-new and everyone in the village, especially the kids, was very proud of it.

Mountain Man had been placed there to help expand the English program. Carla had been teaching Art as well as English and Russian for years at the old DDR school. With the move to the brand new building and with out much cause for students to take Russian anymore, she was working hard at polishing her English. Specifically, she wanted to learn American English. Much of what was being taught at the time was British English, but that is not what the former East Germans wanted to learn. They wanted to sound like they were from Hollywood. Mountain Man, being from New Hampshire, did his best as a stand in.

When I arrived, as a newly minted art teacher in my own right, I was informed by my friend that he had secured permission for me to teach at his school as well. I’d be in the upper level, conversational language classes teaching the students and faculty alike to say things like, “trunk” rather than “boot” and, “flashlight” rather than “torch”. It sounded like fun! That night, Mountain Man made me some dinner with his patented, “Salty As All Get Out, Baking Soda Flavored Biscuits” and I tried my best to gather my jet lagged brain for the next day.

The next day I was introduced to the director and some of the other teachers and given a cup of coffee that could have fueled a small city for a day. Hardly anyone spoke English and I spoke hardly any German at this point. A project I have been working hard on ever since. Once the handshakes were done and we found our way to the classroom, I was quickly greeted by about twenty-five intensely interested teenagers. It felt a bit like being an exhibit in a zoo.

As you can imagine, not speaking the language of the land and supposedly being there to teach, can make a guy a bit… freaked out. I put on my best, “I’m a teacher” look and let Mountain Man explain to the students that what they had right there in the class room was a bone fide, clueless American and to go to it. The questions began…

“Where are you from?”
“What do you do for work?”
“Are you married?”
“Do you like American TV?”

These were the softball questions and simple to work with. After a few minutes, they started to dry up and they needed to actually come up with some more difficult and hopefully embarrassing questions. They did not disappoint. The first question that made me pause and feel like an idiot was, “What German bands do you like?” Teenagers often define themselves by what groups they are into and they were all obviously interested in what I had to say.

“German groups? Ahhh… Hmmm.” I swear, all I could think of was Falco of, “Rock me, Amadeus” fame or Daft Punk. The problem being that, A: Falco was Austrian and, B: I didn’t like Daft Punk. The only other name that came to mind was Marlene Dietrich, and I don’t think that would have made my position any better. I punted and talked instead about how German music doesn’t get over to the States much and how I’d love to hear what they like. Phew. Break down averted.

The next question was one that really caught me off guard. “Are their any Indians left in America?” The idea of the native tribes of my homeland being wiped out entirely was a thought that, though dreamed about and drooled over by some of my ancestors, had never occurred to me. “Yes! There are quite a lot of Indians still living in America.” Then the follow up: “Have you ever seen one?”

I was still a bit off balance from the previous question, so had I been more cool headed, I might have relished the theater of the moment a bit. As it was, I simply blurted out, “You’re looking at one right now.” That stopped them cold! The room was full of parted lips and eyeballs, all pointed at me. I had to clarify things quickly. There was more to it than that.

“Well, I’m not just Indian. I’m also English, French, Irish, Scottish, and Sicilian as well as two different Indian tribes.” The eyeballs got bigger and the quiet of the room was practically tactile. In the back of a row of seats, a lone hand went up followed by a single voice. “My mother is Danish.”

Stay tuned for the next thrilling installment of “Clueless Man Goes on Holiday!”

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