student memory

Students sometimes reintroduce themselves years after they’ve taken my class. I might randomly see them on the street or they send an email to ask a question. Often they enter that interaction tentatively and with a caveat. “I don’t know if you’ll remember me; I didn’t do that well in the class,” or something like this they say, suggesting that I have some ranked hierarchy or student memories. Perhaps the A-students have a dedicated shelf in my psyche, the C-students swept together randomly in a corner.

Truth is, I almost never remember the grades I give students. There was that one guy who got an A-, and I remember his A- specifically because he was so angry about it and blamed me for ruining his future by not rounding up and giving him an A. So I remember him, and I’ll watch out for him and make sure that I never have him as a doctor. I’ll make sure I go to someone who earned a solid B, instead.

But, like I said, I don’t actually remember if any other student from the past would have earned a B or anything else. I remember the things that are more important to me, like where you sat and what you actually did in the class. I might remember something you wrote, but more likely I’ll remember how you wrote. I’ll remember if you were kind. I’ll remember your colored pen set. I remember how hard you worked in the class, that you were there every day at a godawful time and in spite of your heavy course load. I’ll remember that you played basketball, but were generally benched and still had to practice and travel with the team. I might remember that your mom had cancer. I remember tattoos. I remember quirks. I remember that one project you completed or a conversation in my office. More often than not, I remember something random: you liked mechanical pencils or you worked nights or you had an addiction to Mountain Dew or you were finishing a degree in geoscience eight years in the making. Though mostly I remember where you sat, if you were kind, that you worked hard.

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fixing the washing machine

prologue

Anna calls her mother’s cell phone, me listening in while driving the car from the airport after my five-hour flight. There was a loud squeaking noise, and smoke, and a burning smell. It will be okay, we told her. Or call 911, but probably it will be okay.

act I

At home, I looked up “Maytag washer belt repair” and learned where to twist and what to remove. I took the pair of belts with me, along with my sense of urgency for clean laundry, to the various big box hardware and appliance stores that are open on Sunday. None of them carry the belts. They can order them through their “hotline.” Maybe they would be here midweek.

act II

After lunch on Monday I visit Local Appliance Store 1, from which we’d bought other appliances, a dishwasher, I think, and probably the refrigerator if I’m remembering right. They looked up the model number and could order the belt. It would be here Friday. I said I’d try to find something that was more timely, and I tried down the street, where a solitary man sat in the depths of a spacious store, ceiling tile hanging where it hadn’t been re-supported with makeshift wood planks, an old tv playing a soap opera in the corner. He got off the phone, told me the model was old, that he didn’t carry those belts, though he could order them—no promise of how soon. But, when I asked for advice, he suggested the place down the street.

act III

The third place visited on Monday, the seventh in total (not counting the online options I’d looked up, two-day shipping arriving on Wednesday) was like a speakeasy for appliances, obscure frontage wedged in between a drive-through coffee shop and a used car dealership. I walked into narrow confines, aisles hedged by dishwashers and dryers, constraining and aiming me to the back counter where I waited behind three others. Two employees worked behind the counter, another answered the phone. When it was my turn, the fuzzy-bearded dark-skinned young man in glasses started to respond to my request for the part, when the matriarch of the place interrupted her assistance to others, looking at the belts in my hands as she overheard my quest. “Maytag? 11124 and 11125?” She knew immediately the origin story of the parts, as well as the place in the backroom where they were stowed is plastic bagged packaging, and she directed fuzzy beard to the deeper recesses of the store. I left with brand new belts and a new appreciation for Appliance Store #7.

act IV

I took time to readjust tension, re-level the washer, replace screws and panels. Connections with the water and electricity were remade. Nothing difficult, but I was thoughtful and took my time and even tidied and cleaned as I went.

And we all know how the story continues.

The washing tub won’t turn, even though the motor and belts are all functioning. Burning rubber, the smell of failure, signals that bearings or a clutch mechanism or some other vital point of rotation of the tub is failing.

act V

I poured a martini and looked up the number of the appliance repair shop, the same where I found my part.

8 January 2018: welcome back

The term commences from within a thick stew of fog; it’s still dark as I walk to my 7:30 AM class. Ice crusts the edges of walks and slicks the centers. It’s ironically the first day of “spring” semester.

The first day is always quiet. Everyone is early today, a third of the course roll occupies seats 10 minutes early. I wait to see if they’ll say anything, utter any sound at all, but they just sit in frozen politeness or trepidation or grogginess. I fiddle with chalk, making sure the white and red and blue are at the ready, out of the box and within reach, but it’s mostly just to demonstrate some kind of task. Unfold a binder, stack the freshly stapled syllabi, roll in a table from the back room— all to pantomime a routine to hide behind as I listen to their silence.

And then we begin.

I hand out syllabi and explain that the class never gets old for me. I’ve been teaching this stuff for 20 years and it’s still new to me. I admire you, I told them. I’m excited for this all, I proclaimed. It’s all true. Come back tomorrow, same time, same place.

The day continued. I composed emails—two of which were really well written, as far as emails go—and moved papers around and said thank you to helpful people. At one point I got lunch, and I ran that errand in which I found the belts for our washing machine and installed wiper blades on the car. I went to two formally planned meetings, and multiple other impromptu passing-by or in-the-hallway or can-I-ask-you-a-quick-question kinds of non-appointments. I handed back a final exam from last term; I planned a meeting for next week; I helped calculate an orbit.

Later, there would be the exuberant high five exchanged with my former student who will be the tutor for my early class, the very one that starts at the break of dawn and meets every day of the week. How was your break? She shared that she’d gotten herself most of the way through the Carl Sagan book I’d lent her. I remembered to ask if she could cover a review session for one of my classes when I’d be away. She jumped up and down with zeal and even said “thanks” for that opportunity to do more work, as if it was me doing her a favor instead of the other way around. I called her a nerd. The high-five came after.

singing to myself

I woke up in the middle of the night with a Joe Walsh song in my head, a rhythmic piano chord keeping the beat and a repeated line sung through the chorus. What was notable to me was that I had heard the song that morning, though Karyn’s alarm clock, and here it was, resurfacing to the consciousness almost a day later, looping through my sleeping brain and staying with me as I walked to the bathroom. This was notable, too, because earlier that evening I was re-reading a passage in my nightly book because I seem to have a hard time remembering what I’d read the night before, or even five minutes before, for that matter. Often I wonder if the neurons and their circuitry are degrading and slipping away.

And so I woke up, actually pleased to have a song in my head, pleased to know that there are things that can get stored there and stick, even if a few paragraphs of text slide away along some slope and out of my mind. Except, now that I’m awake, I can’t quite place the song anymore. No matter: I just looked up the list of Joe Walsh tunes, solo or Eagles, to re-seed the memory.

The song doesn’t exist.

It could be that I am mistaking Joe Walsh from some other. It could be that I just missed the song as I scrolled through the listing — three times. Or, it could be that I invented the entire sequence, from alarm clock music early in the morning to waking up in the middle of the night to the details of the song itself (which I can no longer recall). I had awaken, not annoyed but delighted to know that I could remember something from earlier in the day; but now I realize that this might be a fabrication, a story (and song) that I’ve just created out of thin air.

a tattoo and a resolution

There are good reasons for me not to have tattoos. Take, for instance, the fact that I can’t even decide on the watchface that my wrist-based device will sport. I’ll vary the display every three days from a digital to analog representation, messing with colors or fonts mere moments after I’d decided that I’d finally arrived on the ideal means of telling me the time. If I just give it another day I can’t help but change the graphic completely.

Given this, it’s quite reasonable that I don’t have dye permanently injected into my flesh. What would be the ideal piece of art and where would it be displayed and what color? It’s best that I leave my expressions to a collection of wool socks that I can vary each day, perhaps a hat on occasion.

Yet, in my classes I’m often cracking wise about what essential pieces of information a student of science should have etched into their skin in preparation for an exam, or perhaps just for everyday referral. Trigonometric functions and the Pythagorean theorem, for example, would be handy for many of my scholars. Maybe different expressions of energy and a few fundamental constants, say the mass and charge of an electron or the speed of light, would be appropriate tools. These would be both an excellent crutch for back of the envelope calculations as well as a good indicator of what really matters to a person, and maybe they’d make a good conversation piece over a beer or two. Such potential body art should pay off in multiple ways.

(And, in all honesty, I would love to see what staff of our testing centers would do when they check for disallowed aides before an exam. How could you argue with something that is a piece of your own flesh?)

Just a few weeks ago, I was imaging the entire periodic table painted onto one’s forearm. After all, what could be more useful and representative of what we are? It could offer a kind of ingredients label, and with some creative rearranging you could even list elements from those that contribute the most to least, either within the body or beyond. Upon that thought, I spontaneously wrote H2O on my arm with the dry erase marker I was wielding.

At first it seemed silly, one of those in-the-moment quips to help others remember and to entertain the instructor. But now I’m thinking it’s an ideal label. It is truly what I am, mostly. I could scarcely imagine a more genuine ingredient label than this. We are a jumble of cells keeping salt water arranged into its improbably sculpted form. Being the same inanimate byproduct of a simple acid/base reaction, we’re not much more complicated than the outcome of vinegar and baking soda poured into a large tumbler. Foaming and frothing, respiring and evaporating, we can be grateful that we have even the most minimal control of where we take and how we direct these big sacks of goo.

So, perhaps a water molecule on my forearm could be a personal reminder of my mortality and simplicity — and I’m intrigued enough to consider this as a permanent feature to my exterior. But it’s more than this. The fact that I’m trying to direct and improve upon this sack of fluid — make it love and think and serve others — is laughable. It puts New Years resolutions into a new perspective.

For this year, 2018, I’ve decided it’s enough to resolve simply:

Do better.

It’s a bold ambition for these ingredients kept together by a saran of skin and held up by calcified limbs. There are such large problems, such deep holes, and they seem impossible to climb out from. But there may be footholds, simple steps that can be taken one at a time. In the ostentatious presumption that we have some impact that can be made manifest on our own bags of water, not to mention on those of others, this is enough. And maybe that tattoo isn’t such a bad idea after all: a reminder to forgive and accept, both myself and others, for all that we’re trying to make of the particles we’ve assembled.

endings and restartings

I was staring up into the nosebleeds of the modest lecture hall, students hunched over calculators and derivations, lost minus signs and factors of 2 dropped on the ground. In particular, I was contemplating that student in the back row who was struggling over the last mid-semester exam of the term. I imagined, practically felt, her prayer to make it through the next couple of weeks so she doesn’t have to return to this class. Please, God: Let me Finish this, eraser shavings emphasizing her plea.

At that same instant, I was trying to get through those next two weeks only in order to start over again. Not so much a quest to finish, it’s a chance to rewind and start with a clean slate. This is my routine. Students leave and I remain to repeat and try to do better next time.

So in a way I keep repeating my second year of college over and over again. I’ve done this about 20 times now. It hit me hard to be faced with the fact that I’ve been repeating school for longer than most of my students’ lifespans. This creates a funny dynamic within my educational soul. I still feel like I’m just out of school because being in school is continually new, but I could be here forever, at least until they escort me to the nursing home. Finishing graduate school and earning tenure were all the simple results of stubborn acts of idiotic perseverance, but this academic recycling routine is an especially heightened level of ridiculousness. I’ve reached a level of achievement simply in order to keep doing the same things over and over. This is exactly as I need it to be. Something like Sisyphus’ fate or Groundhog Day, but more welcomed with each reiteration.

And so, my prayer, ongoing and enduring, isn’t “Let me Finish,” but a different, opposite plea. Dear God, I know I could have done better — just look at the poor soul up there in the back struggling over this exam — just give me another chance. And, sure enough, she does.

Christmas muppets and miracles

Here at our home, a perennial favorite Christmas album is the Muppets with John Denver, and I always picture them all in the studio, JD along with all the Muppets, each with open foam mouth in front of a microphone, headset on each perfectly shaped head. Of course that’s silly.

But, then, I think the alternative — Frank Oz and Jim Henson just there making vocalizations for Miss Piggy and Rolf the Dog and all the other absent characters — is even more ridiculous.

So I’m going to stick with my original unrealistic image of all this, the whole fleet of animated companions there in a small recording booth along with Denver, all singing of cheer and the season, all around microphones and singing at the top of their non-existent lungs. This, for me, is both the miracle and mystery that is Christmas.

don’t stop me now

Occasionally, and generally spontaneously, I take inspiration as it’s delivered by the late Freddie Mercury and Queen. I’ll applaud ridiculously disjointed associations — the line, “dynamite with a laser beam,” comes to mind — if they’re grandiose enough and playing loudly enough in the car on my way to the post office or some other mundane duty. Written out, they may be nonsensical, practically incoherent:

I’m a shooting star leaping through the sky
Like a tiger defying the laws of gravity
I’m a racing car passing by like Lady Godiva
I’m going to go go go
There’s no stopping me

I’m burning through the sky yeah
Two hundred degrees
That’s why they call me Mister Fahrenheit
I’m traveling at the speed of light
I want to make a supersonic man out of you
Don’t stop me now …

Clearly, the physics here is poor (I wonder what credentialed astrophysicist and lead guitarist Brian May thinks as he’s playing along), the metaphors are mixed, and the imagery is beyond fanciful. It’s the perfect song, for the holiday season or otherwise. Turn it up and sing along into the new year. Don’t stop me now.

a loaf of bread

It’s a good thing that I had the phone appointment marked on my calendar. I’d set myself to a focus on two specific tasks for the morning, which I could fit in before a haircut and then heading home before a snowstorm. So, make that three tasks, which I’ll get to as soon as I finish writing this. (And now it’s clear why I perpetually have three more tasks.)

I have trouble keeping track of what I should be working on in the moment, and at the same time I have a fear of forgetting the thing that I need to do that is not in that moment. I find this paralyzing. Remember the thing to do next (and maybe the thing after that) while at the same time concentrating on the task at hand. I know there are solutions to this, though I rarely have the wherewithal for any such strategy at the end of a semester. I could ideally focus on one task but the leaning pile of simultaneous attentions seems too diverse, too precarious, too heavy.

As I was trying to focus on singular tasks but remember an entire list all this at once, I suddenly flashed back to a snippet on Sesame Street from my youth. Not one of those things that I really cherished or think of in a particularly fond way (like I might as I think about Ernie and the consternation he’d cause for his roommate, Bert), it still seemed to hold a key place in my memory vault, though obscured and covered with thick dust. All I could definitely remember was “a loaf of bread.” I knew that there were other items as well. Some milk, yes; but was it a quart or a gallon or a container or a bottle? And there was some other staple. Eggs. A carton of eggs. But I wasn’t sure, and I wasn’t sure if I could find the correct list with so little to start from.

Of course, I’d forgotten how well the internet and my own psyche seem to align.

I went to YouTube to find the video, and as soon as I got to “a loa” the title of the video I was looking for came up. A few more letters and it revealed that it was definitely from Sesame Street.

The mom offers to write it down. I’ll remember, the girl claims. In the end, she does, but only barely, after reciting the list to herself over and over and over; and even as she’s prompted at the end she blanks on the final item for a moment. I remember that, watching this as a kid, I couldn’t understand how she could have so quickly forgotten the stick of butter after all the rehearsal, all the chanting on her walk to the store. But now, 40 years later, I get it.

work from home

I’d had every intention to go into the office today to finish grades and some reports, perhaps even clean up around the office. There’s bounty in that space and all it has to offer, resources and people that could help with a given question or provide a bonus piece of advice. And yet, these same resources offer further distraction.

At home, even with all its own distractions, it’s mostly quiet. If I can keep my own focus, there’s little external force to pull me in another direction. The dog doesn’t care if I don’t shave, doesn’t judge my old sweatshirt. I don’t have to pack a lunch. And, speaking of lunch, there’s nothing wrong with having a beer here at the table of my own home, something frowned upon at work, whether I’ve shaved or not.

thanks in advance

A colleague’s “signature” on emails, the boilerplate information that the messaging application can automatically include at the bottom of a communication, includes the usual: her name, contact info, office location with the appropriately formatted street address and department number. It’s judiciously laid out, no clever quote or graphic at the end, an omission I appreciate. It carries authority with its austerity.

What I appreciate most, however, is that the closing phrase before her name is not the usual “kind regards” or “best wishes” or “respectfully,” but the more usefully passive yet pointed phrase, “thanks in advance.” That is, these emails, it’s already presumed, include specific directions and no doubt consequences for failure. The final line tattooed into each missive grabs me by the shoulders and looks me square in the eyes. What do I need to do next, and what ramifications will there be if I don’t? I’ve already been thanked, in advance, so I’d better get my act together.