Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Day of Death Part 1

One of the things that is floating around the Internet is a way to find your NPR name. Why should Kai Ryssdal and Mara Liasson have all the fun of having odd-sounding names? Anyway, the way you get your NPR name is you take your first name and insert your middle initial anywhere it sounds good. Then your last name is the name of the smallest foreign city you have ever visited. I'm a little bit in love with my NPR name. It's pretty good. Ready? It's Alexnis Kutna Hora. I know, right? And you thought Mrike Montreal was exotic.

Kutna Hora comes with its very own story. So, sit down, make yourself comfortable and prepare to hear about The Day of Death, starring Alexnis and her good friend Byn (not his real name, but it's close).

Byn and I met at the small liberal arts school many, many years ago, but we didn't become good friends until I moved to Portland. He had just moved there from California, having spent the years shortly after graduation nursing his parents who died, one after the other, of cancer.

Byn and I bonded over cards. He was hyper-competitive. I was raised to win at cards, and I can respect a good competitor. He used to have parties at his house for the "Quiets", during which he'd invite two other introverts and me over for cards and he'd watch us interact. We were Byn's own personal social science experiment. He also counseled me after my break-up, and he talked me through a year of hating my job.

He had a wisdom I couldn't match, because I hadn't experienced as much life as he had, but I like to think that I'm a good observer, so I nudged him when I thought there was something he had been too busy talking to notice. He encouraged me to write. I encouraged him to pursue his dream of becoming the next Ira Glass. In short, we were good buddies and we were good for each other at the time.

And so, when he set off to spend his inheritance in a way he wished his parents had spent it when they were alive by traveling around the world, I knew that I'd miss one of my best friends in all of Portland. Weeks later, after I'd finally quit the hated job, he invited me to join him on his travels, and it didn't take much arm-twisting to get me to pack up a backpack, send the cat off to board with some friends, and join him for two months in Prague.

And now, finally, here we are at the story. We were in Prague. We'd found a wonderful hostel there called Sir Toby's run by a young German guy, but we'd gotten a little too comfortable around the streets of Prague and the kitchen of Sir Toby's, and we were looking for an adventure for the day. Byn had, thus far, acted as tour guide, because he was the one with the guide book, but the weather outside was February, which means I was irritable, and finally, he handed the book off to me.

"You decide," he said. "Pick something for us to do. Let's take a train, and get out of the city, but you pick where we go."

He'd been focusing on bath towns. I didn't much feel like being naked in a room full of Eastern Europeans, so I turned the page and found a grisly description of Kutna Hora. It fit my February mood exactly. In Kutna Hora, there was a bit of consecrated ground where people liked to travel to be buried. No problem. The death rate was pretty steady, so burying some non-locals in the town wasn't a very big deal, until the Plague came thundering through Europe. Suddenly that bit of consecrated ground in poor little Kutna Hora was overflowing with bodies. What do you do with stacks and stacks of extra dead people? Well, if you're some priest in Kutna Hora, apparently you make art out of them.

He made a coat of arms out of every bone in the human body. He made a chandelier of bones. He built a bone throne. I can't remember what else he made, but he was a very industrious priest, and he had a lot of raw materials, and so his little ossuary has become quite the creepy tourist attraction. Who wouldn't want to take a train to go see it on a grim February day? How much better was a bone throne than sitting in a steam room with sweaty Europeans?

Byn seemed to regret slightly his decision to hand over decision making authority to me, but he yielded to my wishes, and we figured out the train to Kutna Hora. We were off.

I reread the brief guide-book blurb about the town while we sat on the train. "Hey, Byn-Baby," I said. "Did you know that there is also a giant Marlboro factory in town?"

"There's also a cathedral," he said.

I scoffed. Really. How many cathedrals can one person see? And why would you see a cathedral when there were coats of arms made of bones? We were most certainly not traveling all the way to Kutna Hora just to see another boring cathedral.

...To be continued...

Monday, June 15, 2009

Old Notebook Uncovered During Cleaning

I, who am so practical and mathy, sometimes paint pictures with words. If you wanted to, I suppose you could call it poetry. I'm not so sure about that.

Silence Doesn't Bother You

The fridge kicks on and we both look up from our plates.
I catch your eye before your gaze returns to you food and
your fork makes another round trip flight from
potatoes to
to potatoes to
The silence which is killing me doesn't bother you.

I wonder if I am losing my mind.
I wonder if the fridge is broken again and stuck in the on phase of its cycle --
and then it stops --
leaving me cold,
but the silence doesn't bother you.

I repeat the word "wonder" in my mind and
I wonder if it's the only word in English that doesn't lose its meaning upon repetition.
I try another
another another another
And still the silence doesn't bother you.

You chew each bite five times.
Two heavy chews, and then three fast ones.
Slow, slow, quick quick quick
Slow, slow, quick quick quick
Look at me.
Down at my plate.
Back at me.
"You gonna eat that?"
I shrug.
The silence doesn't bother you.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Kitchen Project

So I was doing this book called the "Eight Step Apartment Cure", and I was supposed to thoroughly clean my kitchen, and the thing about my kitchen is that I only have three cupboards, unless you count the one under the sink, in which case I have four. I have a dishes cupboard, a pots and pans cupboard, a food cupboard, and a nasty under-the-sink cupboard. Oh, and not to brag or anything, but I also have a drawer. One drawer. It squeals like a pig on slaughtering day when you open it.

You might be able to guess that in my thorough cleaning, which involved throwing away a ton of stuff, I still ran out of space in my three cupboards. Where do you put your dishtowels, for example, when this is the entirety of your storage space?

There's room in the kitchen, too. It's actually a big room. So, I'm thinking I need another set of cabinets. Unfortunately, thoughts of new cabinets caused all kitchen cleaning to stop (as careful observers of the photograph may have already deduced). Obviously, if I am getting new cabinets, I need to spend less time tidying these ones up. And if I'm getting new cabinets, something needs to be done about the floor. And the floor guy can't come until late July, so maybe I should do it myself. But I'm not sure I know how to do it myself, and then there are the cabinets. Can I use Ikea ones, even though I usually hate everything from Ikea? And how do I install cabinets by myself, anyway? Oh, and I really need new electrical throughout the house. How much is that going to cost? And would it be easier for an electrician to do that before I do the floors and the cabinets?

As you can see, I'm paralyzed. This is why my kitchen is always so messy, isn't it?

Tuesday, June 09, 2009


So, I survived my first year. Tonight I led a line of ten graduates in green gowns to their seats, and I sat in my full regalia (such as it is, at BA plus nothing), while they walked carefully across the stage, not tripping, waving to their friends, and collecting the empty frame that will someday hold their diploma.

It's over. I did a year.

Here is what I learned:
  1. To the average person on the street, "I teach Calculus" sounds more impressive than "I teach algebra to kids who hate math." Since I was teaching academic kids for the first time, I thought they would be better behaved than they were. On the other hand, I thought the math would be harder than it was. So, in the end, it was a wash. Doing either one well is hard. If you do either one and do it well, then I am impressed with you.
  2. Some kids have an easier time doing a u-substitution if they treat dx as just another variable when they substitute it out for du. I'm just saying.
  3. School spirit can be oppressive. To the kid who didn't stand while the rest of his classmates chanted a cheer during the graduation ceremony, what else do you call it? He's alienated and alone while surrounded by a concrete example of group-think in green gowns. I remember how turned off I was every time my own high school principal ended her daily announcements in her thick Iowa accent with the words "Rocket pride." It's worse when everyone drinks the cool aid. Or eats the cake, as the case may be.
  4. Even for a tech-y teacher like me, technology won't get used in a school-setting unless someone outside of the classroom supports you. And by "supports you" I mean "gives you a phone number to call if the technology fails" and "prods you to see new ways of using the tools to reach more kids" and "catches hold of your enthusiasm for creative uses of technology in your classroom".
  5. Leaving your room is important. Next year, I'm going to have to leave my room to team teach two periods a day. I can't wait to form new relationships and get to know new parts of my building. I spent one year on the Island of Alex. Year two is all about building a boat.
Congratulations to the class of 2009.

Monday, June 08, 2009

A Trend Such as it is

A pattern develops. You are the type to find patterns anyway. It's what makes you so good at math. You try to explain this to the children. Math, you say, it's not memorizing formulas and multiplying big numbers in your head. It's finding the pattern, the way things fit. When you know the patterns the formulas practically memorize themselves. Actually, come to think of it, you don't say it nearly enough. What you find yourself saying instead is, "Yes, you have to memorize it. Suck it up." Oh, well. No body's perfect.

Anyway, rambling aside. The pattern.

You go on a first date. You've reached an age of skepticism. You don't like it, but you can't change it. You're not inclined to like people right away. You are even less likely to like dates. Perhaps it's wisdom. More likely, it's bigotry.

So, the fact that he's charming on the first date creeps up on you. It takes twenty - maybe thirty minutes - before you begin to realize that your cheeks hurt from smiling so hard. It takes longer before you remember to hope that he feels charmed by you. You forget sometimes that you are as much on trial as he is. You have a big head, after all, so you usually figure that you are the more attractive, intelligent, and witty of the two of you at the table in the coffee shop.

Let's face it. Usually you are.

Your conversation meanders in a pleasant way. You are interesting. He is, too. You both leave stuff out, but put enough stuff in, that the conversational stew you create together tastes lively and rich. It's an appetizer for later conversations that you start to realize you are getting excited to have.

You part ways after spending more time together than you expected to spend. You might hug. You might even kiss, chastely, because it's a first date. You might mention later meetings. You might leave them hanging silently in the air between you.

And then. It's over. That's it. There's a call or an email, sometimes prompted by you, sometimes by him. He's not ready to date. He's met someone else. He's not sure what happened, why his last girlfriend dumped him. He's not over it. You are smart and funny and interesting, he says, and he wishes you all the best.

All the best.

Blah blah blah.

Not you.


Blah blah blah.

You've wasted all of your best ingredients on a conversational stew that you'll never get to taste again. If it happened just once, you'd sigh, and curse your luck. But it happens more than once, and so you feel that it must be a pattern. If only you could figure it out. It seemed easy and fun. And then it was not.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Ken Ken (or How I Spent My Morning)

Unfortunately, the online New York Times has six Ken Ken puzzles available for free. This means that while I've been awake since six, I am only just tearing myself away from my laptop to get started with my day. Furthermore, the Minneapolis paper is sitting on my doorstep as I write this, and I can hear the siren call of the puzzle from here. It could be noon before I shower.

It's not a big deal to waste one morning, right? It's gray outside, anyway, and all I have on my list of things to do today is a complete overhaul of my kitchen. I have time, right?

Saturday, June 06, 2009

An Actual Conversation

At the Farmer's Market this morning.

Sales Guy (in a non-Minnesota accent): Boiled peanuts! Try some boiled peanuts!
Guy on Cell Phone: Bull penis?
Sales Guy: Boil-ed peanuts.
Cell Phone Guy: Boiled penis?
Sales Guy (excitedly): That's right. Boiled peanuts. Try some.
Cell Phone Guy (looking down at his crotch): Well, as long as it's not mine.
Sales Guy: Why? Do you like yours roasted?
Cell Phone Guy: ???
Sales Guy (after a delay): Oh, never mind. I gotcha.

The cell phone guy gamely tried the boiled peanuts, as did I. Miscommunication aside, I'm not so sure boiled peanuts are going to become the next great snack food of the farmer's market. Boiling salt water dribbles down your chin as you try to crack the shell. The reward of soggy peanut pulp isn't enough to get me to come back for more.

Friday, June 05, 2009

The Elephant in the Room

Well, you have to write something about the last day of school, don't you?

You have to at least acknowledge that the next three months or so are going to be relaxing, with some fun, a little productivity, and just a tinge of wallowing sadness, because that's what happens when I have too much free time. Oh, but don't worry. I don't plan to wallow the whole time. I'll also be going to Carleton and Macalester for some training. Maybe I only became a teacher in order to spend more time on Minnesota's most beautiful private liberal arts campuses. Campi?