Monday, June 28, 2010

Skool Daze : Part IV

Welcome Students of the Persistently Silly.

My fourth and final year at St.Mary's was also characterized by considerable upheaval.  The owner of our house on Lucknow opted to repossess it at the end of the year, using the giant mound of cash six students had given to him in rent money during the school year to evict us, refurbish the entire place and move in himself.

This killed us.  In the south end, we'd lived just a few minutes walk away from school.  During the summer I was forced to crawl home again to save money while a few friends of mine went hunting for a new place to live.

With a smaller pool of us committed to live together and thus share expenses, they really had to scramble to find a new place.  As it turned out, everything close to university was way too expensive.

So the following September I found myself moving into a house on Chebucto road with three other confirmed room-mates.  Speaking as someone who'd only lived in the south end for the past three years, I was really freaked out.  At the time, the new house seemed so far away from the university it might as well have been  forty-five minutes away in Truro.

They guys really didn't have much time to find anything else, so in that light, they did an admirable job.  But the house of Chebucto Road was nothing like the grand, old Victorian on Lucknow Street.

I fact we were soon to learn a disturbing story about it's genesis.  Next to the house was a block of cheap and slummy-looking flats.  Long after we'd moved in it was revealed that it was a low-rent housing complex that had become an ersatz halfway house for recovering drug addicts and people with mental disorders.  Rumor had it that the city wouldn't allow the notorious owner to construct the cheap tenements unless he lived in the neighborhood himself.

Well, good to his promise, the landlord built a home for himself across the street and moved in.

But he only lived there for a year.

Since that was always his plan, he'd built the house as quickly and cheaply as possible using the shoddiest methods and raw materials possible.

I remember being up in my room one day when I heard a crash and a friend down in the kitchen screaming for help.  I ran downstairs to see him trying to hold up an entire length of kitchen cupboards which had popped off the wall.  Cans of waxed beans and corn were sliding off the shelves and hitting him in the head.  Between the both of us we managed to gingerly pull the cupboard out of the wall and sit it on the floor until we had a chance later to mount it properly.

Turns out that the yahoos that had built the place hammered the shelves into the plaster board, missing the studs in the wall completely.  If not for the fact that we were starving students at the time who could barely afford to fill our pantries it would have fallen off the wall a lot sooner.

Our next door neighbors also proved to be a colorful lot.  One day one of our room-mates was home alone taking a shower.  He'd made the mistake of leaving the door unlocked.  When he emerged from the bathroom and turned the corner, he ran smack dab into one of the residents from next door just hanging out inside the house.  He grilled the guy as to why he was in there and all the dazed intruder could do was repeatedly ask for a smoke.

Needless to say, he was thrown out on his ass and we never made the mistake of leaving the door unlocked again.

Not that it mattered much.  One or the other scary residents who lived next door was a heinous tobacco hag who looked like Horatio Sanz in a fright wig.  Normally she was quite harmless, sitting on the step across the street with her legs splayed out like an obese cat, chain smoking all the while.  Some days when the unemployed guys I lived with spent the day tanning in lawn chairs she'd just sit there and stare holes in them.  It was gross.

One time while four of us were walking out to the car she tried to stop us and ask for a smoke, which we sometimes gave to her.  This time we were either in a rush or just didn't have any so we told her "no" and got in the car.  She promptly flew into a rage, then tried to rip the door open and crawl inside.  Everyone in the back seat started screaming like the "Simpson" kids as the car tore off, dragging her a few meters because her pudgy mitts were now wedged into the door handle.  It was terrifying.
Mercifully I didn't have to deal with too much of that crap since I'd met a girl that year and spent half of my time at St. Mary's living in her dorm room.  Convenience thy name is mooching! 

It was under these circumstances that I tackled my final year of university.  Mercifully most of my academic heavy lifting was done so what was left were a few mandatory courses and credits needed to graduate with a "Honors" certification.

As if that meant anything special in the long run!

Anyway, this is how things went:

HISTORY 221 - The British Isles from Earliest History to the Present

I revisited the subject of History again, this time in a course dedicated to a genuine area of interest.  For reasons that I would eventually characterize as "ancestral recall" I really had an affinity for British history, especially the medieval period.  I'd made the first stumbling efforts to write a book set partly in an historical fantasy setting and I really thought that this course would inspire me somewhat.

It certainly did but by now I was clearly becoming burnt out academically.  My essays were showing signs of creative fatigue.  Towards the end each paper I turned in began suffering from the inevitable law of diminishing returns, kinda like a scholastic version of the "Highlander" films.  Also I'd taken so many English courses that by that time I was completely stuck in "creative analysis speak" which really didn't lend itself to scholarly historic examinations.

It was also the first instance in which I turned in a essay late.  It was an overview of the Viking influence on the British Isles, a subject that I'd actually been highly interested in.  But due to unforeseen illness (shingles of all things!) the project was harshly judged after it was slid clandestinely under the prof's door a few days late.

"Generally a well written account," he begins charitably but goes on to say: "Nevertheless your paper...does not have a central question and it's arguments are derived almost entirely from your dictionary entries.  This does not qualify as research!"   Youch! 

Some of my tests also reeked of study fatigue.  Early exams were marred by "x" marks, zeros and descriptors like "confused" or "inaccurate".  A "C+" mark is further burdened with comments clearly inspired by a prof's low tolerance for bull-s#!%: "Your narrative is reasonably sound but contains a few factual errors and lacks supporting details.  You have not addressed the question."

"Stupid profs and their unreasonable expectations!" I railed. "Want me to 'address their questions' do they?  We'll I got his friggin' address right here!" (cue obscene gesture)  

I had to face facts.  I wasn't analyzing poetry and prose with my own practiced eye anymore.  I was attempting to memorize hordes of dates, names and events in the hopes of putting it all into some sort of context.  And I was failing miserably.

But I persevered and, slowly but surely, I began to see results. A paper about "The Contemporary Rogue" in English culture was returned to me christened with a solid "B".  The comments still made me bristle, since by now I was really putting my back into it.  "Your discussion raises many important issues but you rely too heavily on the language of your sources and fail to identify relevant passages.  Work on your organization!"

In Part II I talked about a certain organizational bias amongst different departments of the Faculty of Arts.  What was earning me an "A" in one class was getting me in hot water here.  In addition to my mental exhaustion I was beginning to get frustrated.

But eventually I puzzled out just what the prof wanted.  "Literacy in the Viking Age" came back with a newly-minted "A" with the comment: "Excellent!  A well-organized and well-written analysis."  Wow.  Was this the same prof?

My exams also bumped up to the "A" realm and I was back on track.  I finished off nicely with an "A+" for an assignment about "Prostitution in the Victorian Age" (Don't judge me!) which carried with it the comments: "Excellent discussion, well supported with references and examples."

It's weird that I had to struggle so much here.  Frankly I don't see a lot of difference in quality between my earlier efforts and my contributions towards the end.  I still don't get it...   

Y'know I probably would have made my life a lot easier by actually talking to some of these profs versus using my spotty-at-best psychic powers to try and puzzle out what they wanted from me.  Problem was, I often equated this to sucking up, which some students around me did with less shame than Jenna Jameson.  My reasoning is that if I couldn't let the works speak for themselves and succeed merely from it's own merit then I just didn't care.  I've never been good at toadying or boot-licking.

Probably the reason why  I now find myself at a crossroads even at this advanced stage in my life. 

I managed to salvage a "B-" out of this one by some miracle.

ENGLISH 356 to 357 - The Development of Science Fiction and Recent Science Fiction

Since most of my floor-mates were either commerce or science students, this was the only English course I ever took with a close friend in the class, which was supposed to be promising.

The guy I knew in the class....hmmmm, wait a minute.  That's too unwieldy.  I need a alias.  For the sake of anonymity what do I call him?  How about Greg?  Whoops, that's actually his real name.  Crap, I shouldn't have said that.  Okay, we'll call him Manuel.

Anyway the concept of attending a class with a buddy was supposed to be the bee's knees.  After all, you alternate going to class and always still have notes.  At least that was the theory.

Manuel had signed up for the class because he was a huge fan of things like "The Terminator", "Aliens", and  "The Twin Stars" (both the "Trek" and "Wars" flavor).  When he found out that he'd be reading early Gothic novels like "Frankenstein", cyberpunk mind-f#@% works by William Gibson and books by egg-headed scientists turned writers like Isaac Asimov he quickly lost interest.

"This entire reading list sucks," he'd gripe.

"What the f#@$ do you expect?  Did you think we'd all be sitting around discussing James Cameron's latest shooting script or debating whether or not Picard is cooler than Kirk?"

But he did help out when my old bugaboo from first year Sociology reared it's ugly head (see Part I).  My good buddy from "Early Novel" Margaret Harry betrayed my trust and demanded that we do a group presentation about J.G. Ballard's "The Terminal Beach" in the second half of the semester.  Would I be crippled by my deathly fear of public speaking and bow out again?

But I was now a different person.  I'd completed a dramatic personal arc and was much more confident by then.  I was also fortified by Manuel's considerable experience doing group presentations in the Commerce program and eventually he persuaded me to "grow the f#@$ up" and do it.

Looking at the roster of names in our group, I chuckle to myself as I recollect.  One guy pulled a "me" and didn't even show up to help with the content.  One girl's English was so bad we shelved her during the presentation portion and one girl was so nervous she didn't want to get up lest she risk public enpukenation.

I also get a kick out of Manuel's hand-written speech notes which I'm sure he's thrilled to know I still have (for some unknown reason).  Now keep in mind this was the same notorious bad speller that had "Milk and Cereal" (a.k.a. Mike and Cheryl) working together in the Student Elections.  I love where he writes that every sensory experience the main character has in the story can be tied to some "tramatic and tourcherous" experience in his past.  Money.    

Despite bad nerves and comically poor spelling, the Dave n' Manuel show went off without a hitch and we did well.  I'd confronted and conquered another major fear!

Even though Manuel's appearances in that class became increasingly rare, I went just because I loved the books.  I was getting academic credit for reading  Wells, Orwell, Asimov, Clarke, Bradbury, Heinlein, Aldiss, Ellison, Ballard, Herbert, Spinrad and Gibson.  I was making out like a bandito!

To this day I can still cite George Orwell's "1984" as my favorite novel and I consider it to be more topical today then when it was first published in 1949.

My final mark was in the vicinity of a B+ or A-, I can't remember which.

ENGLISH 406 - Renaissance Literature

Like Dean Larsen,  the reputation of the instructor proceeded her.  Professor Janet Baker was a ray of sunshine who taught us to relish art and culture amongst all the stuffy analysis.

A genial and soft-spoken lady in her forties at the time, Janet (and I call her Janet just because "Professor Baker" seems waaaaaay too staid for her) was genial, sweet, enthusiastic and knowledgeable.  If they made an action figure out of her, it would come complete with a short hair bob, colorful sweater vests and accessories like the King James version of the Bible (for all the wonderful examples of the iambic pentameter, natch!) and an oft-kind and helpful black pen.

Her untethered passion for Donne, Shakespeare, Bacon ("Mmmmmmm...Bacon"), Spenser, Milton, Shelley, Marlowe, and, er...Jonson was contagious.   She often gave students cool little cultural "brownie points" for doing brief and (mercifully) hand-written reports on things like attending a chorus of live medieval Christmas carols or catching Zeffirelli's "Hamlet" which featured her boyfriend at the time, Mel Gibson.

I'm telling you right now if Mel left his wife for Janet instead of some random Russian tart he would have been much better off.  SHE'D set his ass straight. 

Janet instilled in me a love of lyrical couplets and elegiac verse.  Even when I write what barely passes for poetry these days, it somehow always seems more legitimate to me when it rhymes.

I scored an easy "A" in this one.

ENGLISH 440 -  Theory and Practice of Criticism

If you read Part III you'll recall that I could barely remember anything about 440's pesky little brothers, 323 and 324.  I'm even foggier here.  Whereas those prerequisites redeemed themselves somewhat by allowing us students ample opportunity to completely crap on works we hated, I seem to recall 440 mainly concerned itself with studying writings about theory and reading one treatise after another by "respected" critics.


You know you're in trouble when the introductory notes are completely indecipherable, like watching an episode of "A Shot At Love with Tila Tequila" run backwards, upside down and in Swahili.

Try as I might I just couldn't to bring myself at that late stage to wade though countless tracts of boring philosophy.  As an example of what I'm talking about strap this little bit of Jacques Derrida on for size:

"Writing thus enlarged and radicalized, no longer issues from a logos. Further, it inaugurates the destruction, not the demolition but the de-sedimentation, the de-construction, of all the significations that have their source in that of the logos."

Okay, can anyone tell me what the f#$% he's on about?   Seriously, anyone?  Little help?

But even this course taught me a valuable lesson: if you want people to read your s#!^, don't write like a pretentious twat.  I'm not saying that you should be embarrassed for having a vocabulary but the general rule is: take the clear and concise road versus dropping $5.00 words around like business cards.  

My contempt for this was often palpable in the papers I passed in.  Here are a few comments from my prof concerning a protocol we had to write applying impenetrable theory to the works of Wallace Stephens: "Funny when you keep 'theory' out of it, this is quite good, perceptive, sensitive and well written.  But 'theory' comes in piles of awkward phrasing and sheer misuse or misappropriation of the 'facts'.  You'll have to go through the readings many more times."

But how could I do that if I couldn't  even get through it once?   

He goes on to make some very telling remarks that speak volumes about how shy I still was: "I hope next semester you will become an active member of our seminars rather than the occasional visitor.  This paper shows you have valuable things to contribute.  The moral contract of a seminar is that you will."

But I didn't.  In spite of this I still crawled out from under the crush of 440 with a "B".

And with that my university days were over.

I remember two distinct thoughts that were paramount in my mind at the time.  One was coming to grips with the realization that I was academically (and financially) burnt out and mentally unable to move on to more education next year.  But I was also laboring under the truth that I wasn't done quite yet.  And if to you harbor any doubt to the veracity of that last claim, here's a l'il secret: I didn't even  go to my own graduation ceremony! 

Well, I appreciate the indulgence, Kind Reader.  You've listened to my residence and academic war stories with tremendous patience.   For the continuity freaks amongst you, you can now go back to my "Lowered Expectations" blog series and pick up the story thread right from there.

So why dedicate so much time and effort to talking about my studies?  Because I have to put the tales I'm telling about the "real working world" in context.   It's important to remind both myself and  potential readers that I was once one of those new, hyper-specialized, freshly-scrubbed go-getters that our universities continuously discharge every January and April like frightened Marines from the front of Higgins boat.   

Hopefully some of you will relate to these stories, take them heart and scare you straight if you feel like settling comfortably into a rut.

Stay tunes, folks.

I've only just begun... 

Childhood's End (Del Rey Impact)Nineteen Eighty-FourDune, 40th Anniversary Edition (Dune Chronicles, Book 1)I, RobotNeuromancer



Saturday, June 26, 2010

Skool Daze : Part III

Greetings and Salutations, Loyal Followers.

Needless to say, after living through the debacle detailed in my last entry, myself and a few trusted com padres shifted into a beautiful old Victorian house in the south end.  The rent was an ungodly $1200.00 a month but split amongst five other, housemates, the pain was assuaged considerably.  I'm confident that our monthly rent likely paid for the owner's intended flippage as well as the pretty, decorative historic certification plaque that I now see affixed to the front of the house when I drive by it.

Even somewhat dilapidated at the time, the house had real character.  In order for me to procure my own humble cell, I agreed to move into what I now realize was a drafty, stucco-covered broom closet.  But, like my first room in residence, I really didn't mind.  All I needed to do was cover the window with my "Rising Sun" Japanese flag, hang up a few posters of Sherilyn Fenn (I'd still hadn't learned my lesson even at this advanced stage) and fire up some righteous tunes and I was instantly at home.

The basement was cool in a "Silence of the Lambs" sorta way.  It was completely unfinished with an inexplicable pit in the middle of the floor which the owner had dug for some odd reason.  A part of me was expecting to wake up any morning naked at the bottom this fissure next to a bucket filled with St. Ives body lotion, the poodle-encumbered owner standing above me demanding that "It puts the lotion on it's skin!!!" 

The kitchen in that house spoiled me completely on any future galley-style apartment offerings I've been forced to use since.  Old brown flagstones, a sizable mobile island and a huge dining room area insured that despite the amount of people living there, cabin fever wouldn't be an issue.  I still remember cooking one of my first off-campus meals in that space.  A buddy of mine came into the kitchen one evening and saw me pouring gobs of vegetable oil into a T-Fal frying pan.

"What the f#@%  are you doing?"

"Cookin' hamburgers," I replied merrily, adding more oil to the several millimeters deep pool already present.

"What are you gonna do, deep fry 'em?" he chuckled.

I stopped my diligent efforts for a moment and turned to him.

"Whattaya mean?"

"There's enough fat in those hamburgers to fry them without adding more oil.  If you cook them in all that grease you're gonna give yourself a coronary."

He started to walk away and I looked at my handiwork thus far.  Just before he left the room I shouted:

"Yeah, well...d'uh!  I knew that!  And if you knew anything about cooking you'd know that I was just, uh, y'know...seasoning the pan." 

He stopped dead in his tracks, spun around and rebutted:

"It's a non-stick pan, you retard."

I was pretty pissed at him at the time but in retrospect he probably added years to my life that day.

We had the space and the tranquility to study in own domiciles now.  Before, if you wanted to read a book or write a paper you invariably had to leave the floor and go to the library since having a room on campus is the equivalent of a dog standing in the middle of a circle of people who all all crashing cymbals wearing pants made entirely out of "Beggin' Strips". 

It was a damn good sight that the house afforded relative solitude and freedom to concentrate.  I was going to need it.  The course load I'd taken on was to be the most challenging yet.  Here's the academic shotgun I was staring down:

ENGLISH 323 : Practical Criticism

The course that proves the old adage: "opinions are like a**holes, everybody's got one."  Taken directly from the "St. Mary's University Department of English Handbook" from 1993, the course description reads: "The intention of this course is to train students of English in discrimination."   Wow, I know those were less politically correct times, but that's ridiculous!  Oh, wait, there's more: "to train students of English in discrimination in reading and the formation of judgments at first hand, by examining some kinds of good and bad literary experience."  Man, am I ever glad I looked that up because I couldn't remember a damned thing about this course.  Having said that, it's likely the reason that I currently have over two hundred and fifty movie reviews on "Facebook".  I don't know if that's something to be proud of or just confirmation that I've got waaaaay too much time on my hands.

I'm actually being unduly harsh on ole' 323 here.  As I examine my notes and papers from the class it actually looked kinda fun.  For example we would have to read two poems and turn a critical mind to proving that one was superior over the other.  This often resulted in me savaging what I considered to be the lesser of the two works.  Bitchy comments like "the content of poem 'B' is trivial when compared to Herbert's 'Virtue' (and) lines like 'The smiles of Joy, the tears of Woe/Deceitful shine, deceitful flow' gives the poem an inappropriate lyrical quality that reminds one of a commercial jingle."

I then piled on by lambasting a series of images in the poem "that are more confusing then enlightening" and go on to assault "a plethora of cliched images in the final lines."  I bring down the critical hammer blow with the final, damning rant: "poem 'B' immediately hits the reader with everything there is to say, then move in a degenerative order away from the theme by offering only emotional oaths and vapid imagery."

Gadzooks, I was like the Rex Reed of the poetry set!

The second part of the course was considerably more boring, mainly because we jettisoned the practice of our criticism in favor of studying already-established theory from famous philosophers and critics.  When the prof's introductory notes included the refreshing yet intimidating admission: "The experience of teaching this course...taught me that students find the material challenging and sometimes frustrating, because of it's difficulty" you know you're in for a real treat.

My final marks was around an A+ and B- respectively.

ENGLISH 404 : Chaucer & the 14'th Century 

I loved this friggin' course.  It dealt primarily with the poetry of Geoffrey Chaucer, as written in the original Middle English.  Now, at face value, this might sound more tedious than watching someone play video game  golf, but I assure you, it was not.  The first four weeks of the course was spent putting the Canterbury Tales into it's cheeky, naughty context and there was not a dull moment to be had.  In fact, the Tales are rife with betrayal, drunkenness, infidelity, humiliation, slapstick humor, rivalry, tragedy, and bad taste.

So, essentially it's a Medieval version of "Kourtney and Khloe Take Miami".

The prof was a magnetic gent names Dr. Cyril Byrne.  He was a stocky fellow in his fifties with a pleasing, measured voice that he used to great effect in reading the cantor of Middle English.  He even managed to make the frequently pervy bits sound classy, like this brief snippet from the bawdy "Wife of Bath's" tale:

And why in all the books is it said
That the husband must pay his wife in bed?
And what should he use for the payment
If he doesn't use his privy instrument? . . .  

"Heh, heh.  Uh...heh, heh, heh. She said 'privy instrument'.  Heh, heh."

On rainy and windy days when he'd be running slightly late, Byrnes would often bomb into the classroom beet-faced, wearing a heavy Aran sweater with his ample trouser legs barely tucked into galoshes as an afterthought.  His hair was thinning and the tuft protruding from the front of his pate seemed almost self-aware.  During lectures when he's become particularly animated, the tuft would seem to come alive as well, detaching itself from the front of his head to move independently and point at students who made the mistake of looking away for a second.  He's dutifully smooth it back in place but eventually it would break free from his flypaper forehead and start singling people out again.  It was eerie.  

Professor Byrne took great pains to point out just how salty Chaucer's works were.  It taught me a very valuable lesson early on: art doesn't need to be highbrow and wanton pretension can sometimes be death.  Shakespeare knew this as well.  Both of these literary titans were often more interested in amusing the groundlings then heads of state because they knew in the end they'd end up reaching more people that way.

Professor Byrne was nothing if not thorough in his quest to to highlight Medieval naughtiness.  I remember when I first started working at Sears a customer wanted me to send their order to the "Quinte Mall" in Belleville, Ontario.  I almost lost it during the call, curtesy of Professor Byrne's detailed description of what part of the female anatomy Chaucer was describing when he used the word "Queynte."

I might as well have sent the package to "Prepuce Plaza".

Anyway, he considered the general line of my analysis of Canterbury's characters to "work well" and regarded my  examination of the "Wife of Bath" very favorably, describing it as a "very well researched and decently written paper".  


I finished up with an A-.

ENGLISH 444 & 446 - Shakespeare's Comedies and Tragedies

This wasn't my first introduction to Shakespeare.  Waaaay back in Grade Nine or so we'd covered "Romeo & Juliet", which completely fascinated me.  The alpha and omega references, magical language, uncompromising resolution and laser-sharp commentaries on human nature were all mind-blowing  to me.  It was like nothing I'd encountered in my life up to that point.  The fact that Shakespeare composed these works hundreds of years ago and they were just as fresh today as when they were written is no small feat and it taught me about the immortality of artists. 

Now I couldn't admit it liking it at the time for fear of being blacklisted.  Er, more blacklisted than normal I mean.  Some of the knuckle-draggers in the class had taken to calling it "Fag-eo and Fag-iet" and made it clear that anyone who expressed an affinity for such things was clearly  a freak.  It's memories like this that make me wish I could go back in time with just a fragment of the confidence and conviction I posses now.  I'd soon tell these organ donors to shove their small-minded, homophobic thoughts where Paddy stuck the dough ball.

For the record I have no idea what that means, I just remember that when I was a kid sometimes I'd hear my Mom say "I felt like telling him to stick it where Paddy stuck the dough ball" whenever she was pissed off at someone.

I'm sure it's not dirty or anything...

Anyway, given my vested interest and previous familiarity with the Bard I thought I'd cruise through these classes.  But I didn't quite click with the prof.  Which was another interesting thing about university: sometimes, despite a uniform application of effort and producing papers from the same head space that gave you an instant "A" in any other class, occasionally you'd fail to have a meeting of the minds with a prof.  Sometimes they were predisposed to you and sometimes hey weren't.  Occasionally if your first effort wasn't up to snuff it might "typecast" you for the entire year, especially if the prof was particularly uncommunicative.

And that's the way it was with these classes.  All of my quizzes were marked 23 or 24 out of 30.  My papers were always returned with monosyllabic and totally unhelpful feedback like: "Good." 

Regardless of my final "B" grade, I loved covering Shakespearean plays like "A Midsummer Night's Dream", "The Tempest", "Hamlet" and my all-time fav "MacDeath", er..."Macbeth". 

Good times.

ENGLISH 416 -  The Romantic Movement

Prosecuted by the regrettably named "Dr. Seaman", this class would also prove to be one of my best.  It gave me a chance to study the works of some of my beloved poets such as Blake ("The Tiger", "The Sick Rose"), Coleridge ("Rime of the Ancient Mariner", "Kubla Khan"), Shelley ("Ozymandias") and also some not-so-favorites.

I never really dug Wordsworth very much.  My opinion of Wordsworth is best exemplified in this exchange from a "Monty Python" skit:

Inspector: Morning, madam, I've come to read your poet.
Woman: Oh yes, he's in the cupboard under the stairs.
Inspector: What is it, a Swinburne? Shelley?
Woman: No, it's a Wordsworth.
Inspector: Oh, bloody daffodils. 

Because of my relative lack of interest in some of these poets, my quiz marks suffered a bit.  I managed to bounce back considerably when I delivered a top-notch term paper about symbolism in "Rime of the Ancient Mariner."

Looking at the essay now is hilarious.  The comments seem to be written by the professor in spite of himself. Over the course of twenty-three pages the infrequent, conservative-looking check marks begin to grow in size and frequency.  On the last two pages the margins become awash with what amounts to an appraisal orgasm.

"This is most interesting!" he notes at one point,  going on to add "This is very good!" and the nicely back-handed "Is it really your own?"  After scribbling an excited-looking "Excellent!" he proceeds to write: "Wonderful conclusion!  A very thorough and, I must say, energetic review of some very boring material, turned to good account.  You persist to the end and draw the same conclusion.  Earned your A+!"

As if realizing too late that he's gushed like a soccer mom at a "Twilight" red carpet event, he hastily adds: "The paper isn't really that good, but it is such a relief to discover somebody who can think on their feet, that I can't give you a high enough mark!"    

Wow, way to make a guy feel special. 

I ended up with an A- in this one.

ENGLISH 418 - 19'th Century Novel   

The professor, Dr. Perkin, was a relatively young, bespectacled, pasty fellow with a side-sweep hairstyle, who was typically clad in the standard issue prof uniform of hunter green sports coat replete with elbow patches.  Despite his wilting countenance and mannered demeanor he was possessed of a wickedly sharp and understated sense for humor.  In the very first class he announced the following to the huge gathering of students:

"I'm about to illustrate the required reading list to the best of my abilities.  If you don't think you can cope with it you may want to consider transferring out of this class immediately."

From some unseen reservoir beneath his desk, Perkin began to produce one Penguin Classic novel after another, stacking one atop the other in front of him.  Just as he obscured his own face behind the growing pile of books you could actually hear the collective sound of about twenty chairs pushing back as a slew of students jumped up, fled from the classroom and made a beeline for the Registrar's Office.

This class ran hot and cold for me.  For every "Pride and Prejudice" with it's still-relevant criticism of social order and iron clad gender-roles there was a "Mr. Sponge's Sporting Tour" (which was about as exciting as it sounds).

For every tragic and bleak diatribe about the human condition exhibited in "The Mayor of Casterbridge"  there was a draggy epic like "Vanity Fair", which I'm sure worked fine as a serial but as a self-contained, nine-hundred page novel it was just death.  I really felt that it made it's point within the first two-hundred pages then proceeded to beat that theme to death over the next seven hundred, all the while making in-jokes about some contemporary source of ridicule that no modern reader would have any concept of.  

For every "David Copperfield" which attacked the venerable institutions of education and family there was an "Ivanhoe" which wallowed in anal-retentive descriptive minutia.  It wasn't enough for Sir Walter Scott to write: "the knight rode around the corner on his black stallion".  Noooooo!  We had to get an itemized description of what the knight was wearing from head to toe!  And just when you made it though this without slipping into a coma, Scott proceeds to describe what the friggin' horse is wearing in OCD-levels of detail!  I often (sometimes unfairly) wrote off some of these works as gratuitous examples of  "research masturbation" when I grew bored with it.

But even studying what I thought were flawed works taught me the importance of being sparse with description (to give the audience a chance to visually interpret their own customized version of the story) and how critical it was to keep references general to the human experience.  I soon realized that these tenants go to great lengths to keep works relevant, even after hundreds of years.

My final mark was in the B+ range.

ENGLISH 424 - 20'th Century American Literature   

This was one of the unexpected highlights of my year.  Up to this time I'd been told many times by elitist outsiders that taking English at St. Mary's didn't make sense, given the school's reputation as a Commerce school.  But one of the big perks about attending a university with a comparatively small and intimate English department was that you quickly learned to navigate the academic minefield and avoid the bad professors.

And the opposite was also true.  At the time, Dr. Michael Larsen, the professor for this course was also the acting Dean of Arts.  I was told by countless people that if you could take a class with him lecturing, you were in for a treat.

I was not to be disappointed.

The copious amount of notes I took for this class speaks volumes about how important humor can me in effective communication.  Here are some of Larsen's finest quotes:
  • "Thanks...I always wanted one of these," Larson on a newly discovered meter stick in the classroom.
  • "Okay, people!  Anton Chekov, he played hockey for who?"
  • "Has anyone here taken a science?  A natural science?  Like witchcraft?"
  • "Okay, next week we start 'A Farewell To Arms', which is widely regarded as perhaps the most famous literary work about leprosy."
  • "Yeah, I don't care so much if your essay is a day or two late.  Papers are like wine, they age with time."
  • "Well, as you all know the book of 'Exodus' in the Bible is about Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt to Truro, Nova Scotia for that big shopping mall experience."
Needless to say the man commanded constant attention.

Thanks to this class I developed a life-long love for early American literature.  I got a chance to read Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, Faulkner and also added poets like T.S. Elliot and E.E. Cummings to my pantheon of heroes.

I fared well under Larsen's unconventional tutelage.  My papers came back with replies than ran the gamut of a modest "Good work!" to a sweetly polite and earnest: "An interesting and well-written essay.  I really enjoyed reading it."

I know it's all relative but I can only imagine some of the crap these people have to wade through from mentally threadbare students every year.  Even something that's reasonably coherent or semi-conscious must a be a real treat.  

This one was an easy "A" for me.

And, oh yeah, since I figured "when in Rome" I took one commerce course in Marketing that year just to see how the other three-fourths of the university lived.

I hated ever second of it.  It was as boring as watching paint dry.  Old-school, extra-fumy, long-drying paint in a terrible color like puce. 

I think I finished up with a "B".  Despite how supposedly practical this innocent little elective was, a truth dawned on me as I wrote the final exam in the Tower surrounded by hundreds of students all wearing pastel colored polo shirts and deck shoes.

There were hundreds of potential competitors all sweating profusely around me.  I had an epiphany that upon graduation I would need to compete with all of them for that prestigious job of managing a KFC outlet.

If I was to stand out amongst all the sheep in that room I would either need to distinguish myself with exemplary marks or exhibit an inordinate amount of passion for business.

I was in possession of neither of those two qualities.

And that's when the doggie-door sized  entrance to my Commerce career mercifully swung shut.

The Canterbury Tales (Oxford World's Classics) The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works 2nd EditionPoets of the English Language, Vol. 4: Romantic Poets, Blake to PoeDavid Copperfield (Penguin Classics)A Farewell To Arms


And here's this week's comic.  It's an older one so the art is pretty crude.  I'm going to try and scan all future comics and doctor them a bit in Photoshop before I post them, so until then, please be kind...

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Barbarians At The Gates

A fine day to you, Kind Followers of the Absurd.

My third year in university brought about considerable change.  By then we were becoming acutely sensitive to the near sub-human levels of abuse we were subjecting ourselves to while living in residence.  The wasted lifestyle, increasingly nasty conditions and the introduction of human toxins which upset the delicate, rain forest-like ecosystem of our floor's interpersonal dynamics gave us plenty of motivation to ponder living  off-campus.

The straw that broke the camel's back was our last floor party which was the saddest bacchanalian spectacle in recorded history.  We weren't getting along with the newer students on the floor and many of them openly invited the biggest parade of bimbos, mutants, strangers and freaks ever assembled at one time in one place.  I actually have video of this debacle and can vouch for just how pathetic it was.

Here are some of the "highlights":
  • Our self-appointed cameraman asks a girl "Hey!  Who are you?" and she gamely replies: "Uh, I dunno."
  • A passed out frosh in the common room "comes to" just long enough to vouch that he's "hammered".  When asked by our intrepid photojournalist for any advice for the viewing public he espouses the ironic philosophy "drink beer, get drunk", makes the request "don't touch me and I'll me fine", clutches his head and then promptly passes out again.
  • One drunk girl grabs a diminutive friend and gloats "Look!  I'm eighteen, she's nineteen and I'm taller than her!"  Hooray for small victories!
  • A well-known purveyor of illicit substances at the time passes by, sees the camera and covers the lens like he's Tony Montana.
  • In a "methinks thou dost protest too much" moment an otherwise attractive Asian girl keeps repeating "Hi, I'm Tai!  I'm drunk!" every time the camera comes remotely close to her.
  • Our correspondent keeps doggedly asking "WHO THE HELL ARE ALL THESE PEOPLE?!" but at no point does he receive a coherent reply.  
  • An admittedly good-looking, black football player who had the misfortune of being stuck on our floor with a bunch of crazy crackers, recoils from the obvious patronage coming from a pack of overheated varsity penis holsters, makes a disparaging remark about being forced to walk amongst "mere mortals", makes faces to the camera to communicate his Herculean disgust and then promptly flees into the elevator.  
  • The height-discriminatory drunk chick finds two friends who's proportions are more to her liking, one of whom is clearly using a wall to keep herself upright.   
  • The aforementioned passed-out frosh revives just long enough to use the common-room's garbage can to vent the toxins from his body, narrowly avoiding a sure case of alcohol poisoning.  The camera man helpfully points out "What were you saying about beer earlier?" but all the red-faced subject can do is pant, sweat and sway in place.  The girl who was using the wall to stay upright earlier lurches into the scene like Bambi on ice and clutches at  him, oblivious to the fact that the he reeks like the hoppy contents of an overripe compost heap.  She excitedly asks him "Hey!  Did you just puke?" and then follows this up with an incongruously celebratory "WOO!  HOO!"  The shot ends abruptly when "Barfy McYaksalot" desperately staggers through the crowd of deviant vomit voyeurs while muttering "A'ight guys, I just gotta...HURRRK!!!"
  • The documentarian begins to show a disturbing tendency to zoom in on the face of a girl who resembles a pre-"What Not To Wear" intervention Minnie Mouse.
  • The camera is promptly stolen by "Minnie" who proceeds to capture the parade of human flotsam with all the verve and passion of an "Al Jazeera" correspondent.  
  • As the camera passes a clutch of inebriated underclassmen an inexplicable cheer goes up in honor of Bathurst, New Brunswick.  WTF??!!
  • An ownerless room has obviously been annexed by a platoon of girls who alternately dance wantonly, hide behind pillows or attempt to keep upright by holding their over-sized heads in their hands.  One of them demands "WHO OWNS THAT VIDEO CAMERA?" prompting "Minnie" to suspect that her cover as a member of the press core might be blown.  She attempts to flee the room but is interdicted by a girl who's fetish is clearly to dance with other girls carrying video cameras.
  • Amidst repeated offers for "Beer?  Beer?  Beer?  Beer? Beer?  Beer?  Beer?  Beer? Beer?  Beer?  Beer?  Beer? Beer?  Beer?  Beer?  Beer?" "Minnie" attempts to introduce herself to the floor's resident preppie/fashion plate/douchebag who facetiously enthuses "Oh, wow!  You're 'Minnie'?  THE 'Minnie'?  Oh, wow.  I never met you before."   In the face of his naked sarcasm 'Minnie' offers up a scorned and awkward "Uh, okay" before retreating from the room.  
  • Our original cameraman recovers the implement of damnation and performs one last gratuitous close up on 'Minnie'.  He asks her "any last words?" and when she replies "Sex.  That's all I wanted" it's clearly his turn to exit stage right without any ado.
  • He promptly bumps into a particularly honest observer who sounds like a Greek chorus of bitterness.  All the while the camera is on him he mutters over and over again: "F#@%&*^ mutants!  MUTANTS!  MUTANTS!  MUTANTS!  I'm pissed off!"               
  • A perfect example of this materializes mere seconds later when one of our more infantile frosh begins an impromptu pose down while assuring us that "CAPERS", do, in fact,  "RULE." 
  • Our cameraman catches one of the rare few legitimately attractive, intelligent and sober girls at the party and instigates a stilted conversation as to whether or not he was present downtown the previous night.  A rival suitor barges in, and asks her awkwardly "ARE YOU DRUNK YET?"  and when she replies "Uh, no" he wittily retorts "I KNEW THAT!  I CAN TELL BY YOUR EYES!  THIS TIME I CAN!"  The camera abruptly shuts off presumably so both men can butt heads and compare penis sizes in a vain effort to curry the favors of a girl who is scarcely aware that either of them exist.
  • A clearly wasted foreign frosh can only manage an Eastern Bloc-style drunken soccer cheer when the camera passes by.  He grabs a clearly unimpressed upperclassman for a "picture" yelling "HEEEEAAAAAYYYYYYYY!!!"  in a drone that makes the vuvuzela sound appealing.  Just as the painful spectacle ends a considerably cooler and infinitely more respected freshman floor-mate rounds the corner and gives the camera the finger as a clear sign of contempt.  Gold, Jerry, gold!
  • Back in the annexed room the clutch of drunken dancers have regrettably been inspired by Madonna to "Express Themselves", apparently by  gyrating into the camera's unblinking lens.      
  • An oval-faced girl with horrendous teeth seems impressed both by the presence of a video camera and the man who wields it.  She blurts out "WOW!" as she turns around to face him, then gives our intrepid documentarian a creepy, leering full-body stare-down, her eyes lingering uncomfortably around the vicinity of his crotch.  She demands his name while dislodging what appears to be popcorn kernels from between her teeth with her tongue.  He gives his name like a serf in a gulag and then shoves her to the side to see what's going on in the room beyond.  The clearly pained occupant grimaces mutely either as symptom of intoxication or the desire to crawl away and die. 
  • Hordes of drunken goons are shown leaving the wake, in droves, clearly exceeding the safety limit of the elevators in a mindless drive to get downtown where they can properly exhibit themselves as a**holes in a public venue.  They threaten "Hey, WE'RE leaving, so this party is officially over!" but the cameraman is too polite to break it to them that there never was a party to begin with.  
  • Three girls clearly with the patience of saints are enduring a screening of video footage we took on our recent "Spring Break" to the colorful and tropical destination of St. John's, Newfoundland.  The cameraman continues to torture the girls with extreme closeups while the host threatens to subject them to another "hour-and-a-half to two hours" of additional video footage.  The crushing gulf of silence that results is finally alleviated when one girl notices another girl's new watch and everyone in the room proceeds to coo over it until the scene mercifully ends.
  • A reveler attempts to yell into the camera but head butts it instead.  He seems unfazed by the blunt skull trauma but the camera's damage deposit is now in question.
  • The bitter attendee is spotted again, still muttering his mantra of  "F#@%&*^ mutants!  They're all f#$@%^& mutants!"             
  • An unidentified stranger is spotted using the unsupervised suite phone, presumably racking up a massive phone bill by drunk-dialing tribes people in Somalia. 
  • When prompted for comments, one of our funniest "Cubans" er,...Bermudians on the floor replies "Lick My Arse!" with a perfectly straight face.  It could very well be the highlight of this entire sad reel.
  • The dulcet strains of yet another Iron Curtain cheer of "HEEEEEAAAAAAAAYYYY!" can be heard as our sloshed Slav demands that the cameraman "take a picture" of another unimpressed upperclassmen.  They are shown together in the next shot but for the second time that night, our subject is blissfully unaware that he's being made fun of with a surreptitious and clandestine hand gesture.   
  • Another friend is spotted with an empty mug the size of a small child.  He hefts it skyward with the indication that it once contained "Good Medicine".  
  • Another revered member of the football team is seen frantically trying to tune in some blurry television channels in the common room, seemingly oblivious to the surrounding din, chaos and miasma.  All the while the camera holder grills him for sound bites like he's Adolf Eichmann.  All he can do is laugh, try and dismiss him with a wave of the hand and chuckle about how "us crazy white folks gotta quit it."      
  • In an even more inexplicable scene, three bona-fide hotties are in my room head-banging to the strains of "She Sells Sanctuary" by The Cult while watching a hockey game.  I think that it goes without saying that I got absolutely no action from any of these girls at any point in time during this disastrous evening (or any other evening for that matter).  
Needless to say that this was all the motivation we needed to get the f#@& out of Dodge.


FAIL: WTF?!?  Seriously, can someone explain this s#^! to me? 

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Glass Half Full

Good day to you, Loyal Reader.

In light of my recent "Ultraman" confession I've been doing some soul-searching regarding my entries up to this point.  After reviewing what I've written thus far I fear that the tales previously told may have left you with the impression that I've hated every single job I've ever had.  This is simply not so.

Truth be told I've had as many, two jobs in the past that I've liked!  So, there!  To all of you that think I'm being unreasonably Emo about my main topic of discussion I lob a hearty "HAH!" in your general direction.

In thinking about these past two cherished gigs I've managed to nail down what an ideal working environment would be for me.  As a corollary, here's a list of workplace conditions I'd ideally want to avoid in the future if possible:
  •  Being completely sedentary by sitting in a chair in excess of eight hours everyday.  Especially if sitting down for that long isn't by choice but because you will fail to achieve the inhumane level of production being asked of you on a daily basis if you don't.  I.E. If by getting up to pee, stretch your legs, have a quick chat with a friend or (perish forbid) eat lunch for thirty minutes makes you fall behind in your work to the point that your day is considered a complete failure you may want to seek an alternate vocation.
  • I don't want my primary mode of communication to be by phone.  Now I'm not opposed to communicating my phone at all but if your new boss hands you a headset to wear from day one onward, you can officially take this as an omen (or an ottoman, I'm not sure which).  I generally hate to deal with people exclusively over the phone because (1) You can't read people very well (2) Wearing a headset for eight-plus hours every day will give you a chronic case of swamp-ear and (3) I'm not a thirteen year old girl.  Or at least I haven't been for a long, long time.  Ahem, you probably should ignore that. 
  • I don't want to stare at a computer screen for hours on end.  Again, this isn't bad in short bursts but if you're zoning out on that sucker for more than two to three hours in a sitting, it's time to move on.  Especially if combined with the previous two conditions.  Every health professional I've talked to has told me that the sort of modern Dickensian sweat shop created by big business for their drones to toil in is slowly killing them.  I know for a fact that my posture is completely f#@&#$ and before I left work I had the beginnings of an nicely-developing "Mr. Burn's"-style hump from slaving away continuously at a workstation designed by former Nazi scientists who were fired from the S.S. for "excessively cruelty".
  • As a grown adult I want to work in a trusting environment where my employer believes that I can think independently and apply positive tenants to my daily work experience.  These tenants include, but are not limited to, intelligence, free will, independence, wisdom, training, experience, and common sense.  I don't want to work for someone that has (theoretically) hired me for all the above reasons and then promptly demands that I sit down, shut up and "do exactly as I'm told".                 
  • I don't necessarily want to be paid gobs of money.  It's been my experience that if you work in an environment where you get compensated disproportionately for a job you have no control over, it's a recipe for inevitable madness.  The robotic, practical side of your brain will pursue the perpetually dangling carrot to the point of exhaustion while the creative, active portion of your skull slowly atrophies like Joe Bonham in "Johnny Got His Gun."
Now, conversely, for the sake a maintaining a positive, "glass half full" outlook, here's a l'il sample of what I would consider to be a great working environment:


So basically I'm looking for face to face interaction with real-live people, the freedom to be snide to the grossly ignorant, the ability to discuss relevant topics of interest in a vaguely abusive setting and be semi-mobile at least.

That's not asking too much, is it?   I know these jobs exist; I've had two gigs in the past that I absolutely loved and embodied this philosophy somewhat.

Back when we still lived in residence at St. Mary's a buddy of mine managed to weasel his way into coordinating the student elections.  So, for every election, he'd retain his cronies (myself included) at the amazing rate of $10.00 a hour to mark names off a list and facilitate the voting process.  And by "facilitate the voting process" I mean hand someone a ballot and direct them to the slot after they'd managed to scrawl their secret "X" on it and fold it up.

The guy that ran the whole affair was a notoriously bad speller (and still is to this day).  I remember cracking up at the schedule for the first day because the name of two friends (Mike and Cheryl) had been mangled so badly it looked as if "Milk and Cereal" were working a shift together.  To this day Cheryl still answers to "Cereal" (along with "Roadie", but that's another story).

These elections were a blast.  I've always wanted to work with my friends and this was a real treat.  After someone cast their ballot at one poling station we'd have to use walkie-talkies to transmit their names to all the other stations so they could cross them off on their own lists, thus preventing them from voting again.  In the evenings when things got slow inevitably this would degenerate into the following call-ins:

"Yeah, new voter here...first name, 'Adoodie', first name 'Ahmed'."
"Head's up, people.  We got last name 'Torres', first name 'Clint'!"
"Alright, I need you to cross off 'Ocksmall', O-C-K-S-M-A-L-L, first name 'Mike'."
"Okay, I can't find this name on my list.  Last name is 'Weiner', first name 'Drew', middle initial is 'P'!"

Oh, some of the poor, naive girls we worked with.  We'd get them every time.  Sometimes it would take minutes for them to clue in and we'd just be dying on the other end of the 'talkie as they repeated the 'names' over and over again, their volume growing in direct proportion to their level of frustration:

"Mike HUNT!  Jill, can you see 'Mike Hunt' anywhere down there?  I can't find the friggin' thing at all!" 

Now that's not to say that we didn't do a great job. We actually drove up the voter turnout considerably.  It got to the point where we'd come up with all sorts of comically vaudevillian ways to get every SMU student to vote in the elections.  This obsession got so bad that one night I had a dream that we'd set up a voter station at 'Jumbo Video' and got Lenny Kravitz to play there.  When I shared the idea next day everyone laughed at me and thought  I was nuts.  Jerks. 

This goes to show a truism that big business often forgets: if you trust your people to get the job done and allow them some freedom to have a bit of fun occasionally, you'll empower them, keep their morale up and production will follow naturally.  Funny how these kernels of common sense don't seem so common sometimes. 

Like the "Festival Coast Tourism" gig that I talked about in a previous entry, the other assignment that I liked a lot could scarcely be called a job as well.  It was another make-work type project where I was hired by our local community college to compose and assemble a thousand student orientation packages and also determine the feasibility of an alumni association.

First some background info.  The "College of the North Atlantic" that at worked at has gone through so many name changes I've lost track.  From what I can remember it started out as the "Bay St. George Community College" (limiting it's range a bit) then morphed into the "Western Community College" (vague but catch-all), then became the blatantly trendy "Westviking College" and now it's known as the desperately rugged-sounding "College of the North Atlantic."

Kinda conjures up mental images of classes filled with students dressed in identical rubber boots, yellow rain slickers and Sou'wester hats with cock-eyed, pipe-smoking instructors espousing nuggets of wisdom like: "I sees he, says I to she."    

Anyhoo, I was charged as a twenty three year old kid to tackle these barely-legitimate make work projects.  Energized by the blind trust, responsibility and freedom only granted by employers who's own money they aren't spending, I launched into my duties with tremendous vigor.

Perhaps too much vigor. 

I remember my supervisor taking me aside two weeks into it and telling me: "Look you gotta slow down!  You're gonna work yourself out of a job!"

I couldn't believe what I was hearing.  My parents had it installed like software into my brain, "Matrix"-style that you never slack off doing a job.  NEVER EVER.  You kept hammering at it every second of every day of every week of every month until it's done.  You are never supposed to be IDLE.  That's just lazy.

So, once again, the things that I'd been taught about work were proving to be less than accurate.  I nearly had a mental breakdown consciously forcing myself to slow down.  It's still impossible for me to stop working or slow down until something is completed to my satisfaction.

Considerable stretches of time were spent taking stock in my surroundings. A buddy of mine had been hired in the library to do archiving and both of us had a blast trying to quantify all of the interesting characters at the school.  His supervisor, the guy who ran the library, was an interesting cat who looked like a combination of special effects wizard Dennis Muren and oddball physician Dr. Lawrence Jacoby from "Twin Peaks".  He even had the off-colored lenses for his glasses.  After being a first-hand witness to some of his quirky behavior we both concluded that doing whatever rabbit-hole academics it took to acquire a Master's Degree in Library Studies took too great a toll on the normal human mind and we hastily ruled it out as a future career path.

Another mutual friend would often stop by the school for lunch.  He'd managed to snag a summer job as a DJ at the local radio station CFSX and would regale us of how he nearly got fired for playing Led Zeppelin's "Over The Hills and Far Away" versus such corn-pone classics as Ian Tyson's horrendous "Navajo Rug" which was in heavy rotation at the time.

I guess we all had our crosses to bear.  

Speaking of music, at the time U2's much-maligned "Zooropa" album had just been released.  For some reason we became completely obsessed that summer with the song "Lemon" and made every possible opportunity to warble the lyrics to anyone within earshot.  In an inexplicable twist to residence pranks, if either of us left our office doors open (which was a disused classroom idle during the summer break) for any length of time we'd come back to find the blackboards completely covered in the song's lyrics, making the room look like the secret inner sanctum of the world wussiest serial killer.

More often than not one of our supervisors would pop in on us unexpectedly.  Can you imagine trying to have a respectable, serious conversation with a barely-legitimate authority figure while surrounded by mad scribblings like this:

See through in the sunlight
She wore lemon
But never in the daylight
She's gonna make you cry
She's gonna make you whisper and moan
And when you're dry
She draws her water from the stone  

In between all this wacky tomfoolery I had to procure 1000 condoms for the orientation kits.  For months I  had tons of prophylactics lying around in my "office".  If (perish forbid) a girl I wanted to impress popped in to visit I had to dedicate at least ten minutes trying to convince her that I wasn't predisposed to any freaky-deaky Wilt Chamberlain-like propensities.

I also had to include a letter from our Mayor with the kit.  This story likely explains why I hate trying to do things over the phone and often have a constant state of anxiety associated with it.

So I call the Mayor's office and speak to a nice secretary that sounds like she has a problem with her adenoids.  Eventually she patches me though and this is the first thing I hear:

"A-KACHK!!!  *COUGH, COUGH, COUGH*   BLAK-HUUURRRRKKK!!!  HAWWWWWWK!!!   Snort...(sniffle)."

The voice on the other end of the line seemed to be suffering from severe emphysema.  I waited patiently as the hacking died down and then struck up again.  On an alternate phone line I hastily dialed a "9" and "1" and was poised to dial "1" again if I heard a thump hit the floor.

Eventually the cacoughany ('Cacoughany?'  Geddit?  Huh?  Dooya?  I'm tellin' ya, every one's a friggin' Maserati!) died down and I heard: "Yeah, (first initial of first name omitted)?"

"Yes, Mayor (Omitted), my name's David Pretty.  I'm calling on behalf of Western Community, er...Westviking College."

Endless awful silence.

"And I'm, uh...assembling an orientation kit for the students in September."


Finally a sign of life!  I hung up the other line, happy that I didn't need to get a paramedic on speakerphone to try and talk me through some sort of emergency medical intervention. 

"And we'd love to have a letter of welcome from you to include in the orientation kits."

"A what!?"

"A letter, sir.  A letter signed by you that we can include in the student orientation kits welcoming them to the college and to the town."

A disproportionate span of time was once again consumed by terrible silence.  I held my breath and prepared to hang up, hoping to cut my losses and write this off as the worst crank call in recorded history.

"Yes, 'by!" the Mayor suddenly shouted, forcing me to hold the phone away from my ear for a second time.  Suddenly the man became animated as the venerable, respectable senior statesman I'd expected.  "Come on over tomorrow afternoon and I'll 'ave something for ya."

I swung by his office the following afternoon and true to his word, he'd composed a perfectly professional letter and hand-signed every one.  Although the phone conversation had been terribly awkward, the man certainly came though nicely. 

For the other part of the job I had to determine if an alumni association was feasible for the college.  I contacted a slew of other schools with already-existing alumni groups like Kwantlen College (now "Kwantlen Polytechnic University", Ooooooooo!  Fancy!) to see just how they'd determined the likelihood of first setting one up.  They were very helpful, sending back survey templates that they'd mailed out to graduates in an attempt to gauge interest, determine what activities and privileges they'd like to see and if they'd be willing to pay a small dues to ramp up their benefits.

I composed the package, got it approved, procured the mailers and return postage, then fired it off to about two-hundred graduates.  And then waited.  And waited.  And waited some more. 

Barely any of them came back.   

At the time I wasn't really that surprised.  The economic recession at the time had hit Newfoundlanders particularly hard.  It must have been galling for many graduates to have invested their time and money in a practical trade only to see no career results materialize upon graduation.  Hell, if I was them and got a survey in the mail asking them to confront their folly and if they'd be willing to pay dues for what amounted to wound-worthy salt, I would have turfed that f#@%^& thing as well.

Regardless of the reason, I was stuck.  What the hell was I going to do?  As per my own supervisor's advice I'd taken my sweet time getting to this stage in the work term and within a week or so I had to go in front of a board of directors with the results.

I went to my supervisor and he told me all the right things: "Well, you did your part. It's not your fault that people didn't respond.  The questionnaire you sent to them wasn't particularly long or difficult to answer.  It was the exact same format that other schools have used to good results.  I'd say work with what you got back and don't worry about it."

Even still, the meeting with the higher-ups was pretty awkward.

"So, what was the survey return percentage?"

"Um...about thirty percent."

"Okay.  And what percentage of people who responded wanted to join an alumni association?"

"Er...about the same."

"And your conclusion?"

Yeah, as if that wasn't self evident.

"I'm afraid that there just isn't enough interest at this time to justify establishing an alumni association for Bay, Westviking College just yet." 

Uneasy exchanged glances followed but I saw in this a chance to be optimistic.  Glass half full, as it were.    

"But, perhaps mail isn't the best way to correspond with alumni about this sort of thing.  For the past two years at St. Mary's I've been using this thing called 'email' to keep in touch with friends.  I'm fully confident that there's tremendous potential here and one of these days you'll use more sophisticated and easy ways to reach these people and for them to reply to you.  In light of this and how enthusiastic the responses were from  those people that actually did respond I just sense that the college will have an alumni association sooner rather than later."

Their collective faces brightened considerably.  The mood in the room seemed to relax.  

"Well, we thank you very much for your diligent and honest efforts, Mr. Pretty.    We'll take your report into consideration and we wish you all the best in your upcoming year at St. Mary's."

And that was that.  

Y'know I kid about this stuff but I think it's quite telling that in many ways I had more trust, responsibility and opportunities to be creative and self-determining in a workplace as a twenty three year old kid than I did as a man close to forty years old in his last "real" well-paying gig.  In tune with this entry's title I'm trying to stay positive here but I gotta tell you that experiences like this really set me up with unrealistic expectations for what was to come.

But still I remain your humble, eternally positive, potential servant.



As another example of a dream workplace, if Mike and/or Jerry ever see this and want to hire me I can tell them right now that I can string a sentence together, have sales experience and work cheap.



FAIL: Maybe I did better than I thought?

Friday, June 18, 2010


Hello, Loyal Reader.

I fear that, despite the trusting nature of our mutual relationship thus far, I haven't been completely upfront and honest with you.  Although we've come a long way together in this short span of time, I must confess to keeping a pretty big secret from you.  Do you want to hear it?  Are you ready?  Here it comes...

I was once a superhero. 

No lie.  You've seen the movie "Kick-Ass", right?  Well, for a few crazy months just before leaving for my first year of university I was a full-fledged, card-carrying, bona-fide superhero. 

In my guise as "Ultraman" I would do my duty to speed the citizens of my small town on their way.

"Faster than a mink on Quaaludes!
More powerful than a parade float!
Able to leap concrete islands with a grunt and a muttered curse!

Look! Down there in the parking lot!
It's a smurf with a thyroid issue! It's a lost member of Blue Man Group! No, it's ULTRAMAN!

Yes, it's Ultraman - very strange visitor from another mental world who came to work at a gas station to earn just enough scratch to get the f#@% out of Dodge in September.  With powers and abilities of sarcasm and contempt far beyond those of mortal men.  Ultraman - who can change the course of mighty vehicles, depress steel nozzles with his bare hands, and who, disguised as David Pretty, mild mannered future university student, fights the never ending battle for Happy Motoring, Clean Windshields and the Atlantic Canadian Way!"

Okay, I hear some of you skeptics out there saying "But Dave, you weren't a superhero at all!  Sounds like you were just some lame gas-station attendant."   To which I would reply: "Oh yeah?  What would you call a dude who goes to work in a uniformed jumpsuit in the hottest days of the year, replete with headgear, goggles, and the whole magilla?  Someone who can speed motorists safely on their way with the power to clear their vision?  Who can keep mighty machines on the road with just a squirt of his life-giving fluid?" 

Look, just because I didn't have powers or any sort of motivation it doesn't give you the right be judgmental...

Okay, so I was a lame gas station attendant...happy now?

For a few months one summer, I worked at "Ultramar".  I had to wear a blue "Ultramar" cap and a matching blue pair of "Ultramar" overalls.  I also wore dark sunglasses as much as possible to avoid being recognized.

Generally, though, it wasn't too bad, especially if you worked an early shift.  You'd open up, set up your float, drag all of  the stealable loose display stuff back out and fill up the squeegee buckets.   During the day you'd pump gas, sweep the grounds, change oil, wash windows, and sell crap in the convenience store.  At some point in time you'd check your dips (heh, heh) by taking a long marked stick and dropping it down into the underground fuel wells, presumably to make sure no-one was weezing the gas.   

In the first of what would prove to be a long line of corporate-inspired stupid decisions I'd have to suffer through, every time I pumped gas for a customer I was told to that I had to clean their windshields and offer to check their oil.  When it wasn't busy I'd actually try and do this as much as possible in the remote chance that someone might actually give you a tip,  Unfortunately, this turned out to be about as likely as being hit in the shin by lightning while playing shuffleboard in your basement.  

In fact, the most common tip from I got from customers was "Move your f#@$%^$ ass!!!"  Eventually after being stung so often, I'd just pump the gas and let the rest go.     

What made the job really crappy was my supervisor, a redneck guy named...hmmmm, what can I call him?  Cletus.  Yeah, we'll call him Cletus, since that's actually a shade more fitting than his real name.  Anyhoo, Bubba seemed resentful that I'd been hired on there since I didn't fit the ideal male physical template for working at a gas station.  I was slight of build, wore glasses and still possessed the lion's share of my own teeth.   He made it his goal to make my life hellish.  Which would have been considerably more effective if I actually gave two s#!^$.

 "Lissen, buddy!" he told me one day.  "I needs you to go get the ladder, climb up there and change the price of the gas on the sign!"  Apparently this was long before the advent of those suction-cup "extend-o-arms" you see guys using to change the signs at service stations nowadays.  

After taking one look at the height I'd be scaling to and the condition of the ladder I'd be using I said to him: "Dude, I don't do heights."  

He turned a few shades of fuchsia and said "Well it gotta be done!"  

"Not by me it doesn't," I shot back.  "No-where in my job description does it say that I have to climb fifteen to twenty feet up on a crappy ladder only to fall and die reaching to replace a decimal point.  I'm not gonna contribute to the mortality rate of student workers.  You do it!"  

He was super-pissed climbing up there laden down with an armful of plastic letters and numbers like a petulant kindergarten kid.

He had more attempted humiliations planned for me.  One day on the way out Cooter breezed by me and said: "Lissen, I needs you to go over to the Golden 'G' Dairy bar later on today."  

Now this wasn't an odd request since if the gas station even needed change, one of us would just run over to the owners other business and they'd hook us up.  But it was still early in the day and normally if we needed change it was an immediate task.  Something was different this time.  He was looking way too pleased with himself as he tore off.  

With my voice dripping with suspicion I managed to ask him "Why?" just before he left earshot.  

He shouted back "We need you to be the 'Birthday Bear'!"  

 I gawked after him for a bit, completely baffled by the the request. After he was gone I turned to one of my co-workers and asked "What the f#@% is the 'Birthday Bear'?"   

The guy just chuckled and said: "They must have a birthday at the 'G' this afternoon.  You just go over there and they dress you up in this bear costume and you dance around for the kids.  It's not too bad.  No one can see who you are since your head is covered the whole time.  All of us had to do it when we first started here."  

Really?  I thought.  Interesting... 

Well, I fumed and stewed and formulated my carefully crafted rebuttal so that when Enos showed up and told me, "'Well?  What are ya waitin' for?  Git over there!" I sprung my carefully constructed riposte.  

"No f#$%&@# way," I told him.

He spluttered for a bit and then flew into me.

"They needs someone over there right now and the new guy always goes!"

"Well, this new guy ain't going anywhere."

"Why?!" he demanded as if I'd had the gall to pass up his Huck Finn-style white washing offer.

"Look, there's no way in God's green earth I'm gonna dress up in some moist, foul-smelling, ratty bear costume only to die of heat prostration while being punched in the balls by a pack of hypoglycemic rug rats.  It just isn't happening."

He turned to the other guys but every single one of them shot him down in turn, as if they were bolstered by my open rebellion.  I could hear his bitter mutterings all the way down the street as he crawled like a Dead Man Walking down to the Dairy Bar.  

Later on he returned smelling like sweat and spoiled ice cream.

"So, how was that?" one of the guys asked him.

"It wasn't that bad," he pouted, shooting me the stink-eye.  

I knew he was fed up with me at that point because next week Roscoe transferred to the "Ultramar" out in Stephenville Crossing.  I didn't complain for three reasons:
  1.  I'd be away from Skeeter for good.
  2.  The risk of someone recognizing me was diminished. 
  3. I got to work with a cute blond girl who liked drawing and horses.
We made a great team.  She would handle most of the cash-related crap and I'd do all the gas-stuff.    

Speaking of, while pumping gas, in order to save time, you'd often lock the handle and let the pump work automatically as you cleaned a customer's windshield.  Well, perish forbid you ever got distracted (like, say, by a cute blond co-worker) because you risked turning the entire gas station into the lowest level of Dante's Inferno.

There were a few downsides about working in the 'Zing (as we called it).  You wouldn't believe how many people pulled up and asked for $5.00 worth of gas.   In this day and age that wouldn't be enough fuel to get an Escalade to the edge of the parking lot...

"Bolters" were also more common out there.  You'd set up the auto pump for a customer and then clean their windshields but just before you brought the squeegee back, the a**hole would tear off, sometimes leaving the still-pouring gas hose snaking around on the ground.  And, hey! guess who had clean up and pay for that when it happened?  Yours truly.

In between failing to get morons to pay for their gas, selling beer to someone illegally on a Sunday by mistake, and cleaning hundreds of dead flies out of the pan of the soft-serve ice cream machine (hey, we were next to a swamp, whattaya gonna do?!) we spent hours talking about our future plans when we left town.  I remember trying my damnedest to get her to break up with her skeezy boyfriend but it didn't work.  They guy's probably an investment banker by now, so, who knows, it probably worked out for her.

Despite my griping and how poorly I was paid for this, it seemed like more honest work than my last job (which paid a comparable fortune).  

But that's a story for another occasion.

So, the next time you're getting full service at an "Ultramar" gas bar, when that member of the "Ultraman Corps" gives you back your receipt be sure to tell them "Thank you, Ultraman!  You're my hero!"

I'm willing to wager they'll really appreciate it.  


And here's this week's comic: