Category Archives: Mt. Vernon

Pedagogy Stew: August 2013

I’m headed to my 30th high school reunion this month, which causes me to reflect on many things, including my overwhelming urge to find a copy of The Preppy Handbook (pretty sure there were no Southern Illinois locations mentioned in it, also pretty sure I didn’t catch that it was satire when I got it for Christmas, circa 1981, along with some knock-off Topsiders and a belt with little ducks on it).

I was ranked 5th out of a graduating class of about 400. I remember that because I’d been tied for first until my junior year, when I flaked out and could muster only a B in Advanced Algebra/Trig, the same in Chemistry. This coincided with the onset of that whole “imagine this graph/molecule in 3-D inside your head,” which I pretty much totally sucked at.

But overall, those pretty-good-but-not-excellent marks were just further manifestation of my lifelong urge to avoid certain sorts of difficulty.  I’m drawn to some challenges, primarily those of my own devising. Stepping off the valedictorian track involved a rejection of mastering the challenges of classes someone else chose for me. I refused to take calculus my senior year, and as I remember it, my Dad called the man who would’ve taught it (who had taught algebra to my Dad at a local community college) and they grieved together.

I can’t help wondering what kind of challenge students anticipate when they sign up for a MOOC.

MOOC is short for Massively Open Online Course, and they’re all the rage in higher education. They are available online, usually for free, from some terrific universities and professors.

The good part is having free access to lectures, assignments, and tests from some superstar professors.

The bad part is, typically, having zero access to that professor, or to feedback that isn’t automated.

The good part is how easy it is to sign up and participate.

The bad part is the incredibly high dropout rate.

The good part is that a highly motivated student can learn a lot, for free.

The bad part is that a student who is motivated to avoid the challenge of sitting in a traditional college classroom, or taking what now seems like a “traditional” online college course…this student may not be up for the challenge of learning in a less structured, less obligation-driven environment.

In general, as a college student, I’d have crashed and burned in a MOOC, especially if I were taking it to speed through requirements I didn’t see the point of.

But what if taking a MOOC were my own idea? And not required?

It might be like my sophomore English class, at that point. I insisted on doing my book reports on the silliest books—a biography of Colonel Sanders and one I still remember the title of, Sherlock Bones—Pet Detective.  But I was reading Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis and Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ on my own. A challenge of my own devising.

(This column appeared originally in Voice of the River Valley.)

I Want to Be the One: Class of ’83

I want to be the one who doesn’t spend
one minute worried about how fat I am,
how fat or bald you are, if that’s Botox
smoothing out your smile. Are those boobs real?
No—none of that. I want to hug old friends—
yes, OLD, or old enough. It’s only time
that’s passed. We’re so lucky if our clocks
are still ticking. Ten years from how we’ll feel
more grief than we’ve felt yet. The 50s are hard
to live through–heart attacks, cancer, car wrecks–
we’ve already lost a few–who’s next?
At our 40th, we’ll just be glad we’re not dead.
I want to be the one who gets that now.
I want to really get it, the blessing of right now.

I’m looking forward to the 30th high school reunion this summer, partly based on how much fun I had at my 20th.

Lines that didn’t make this particular sonnet:

I want to be the one you want to see.

(cut: too needy.)

I want to be the one who asks you how
you really are, who waits to hear you say

(nice idea, just didn’t fit)

And besides, if it’s like the 20th, what I’ll be asking is, “Hey, have you seen my husband?” And I hope the answer is, again, “Yeah! He’s out in the parking lot drinking homemade wine out of Mark’s trunk.”

(IF I have enough to drink myself, I might ask the guy who keeps posting Bible verses on our reunion Facebook page, “What the fuck?” But we’ll have to wait to see about that. I feel as though I deserve some sort of massive bonus karma points for not posting that as a comment on f.b. already, although, of course, this whole paragraph pretty much zeroes out any gain in karma points.)

But in memory of those we’ve already lost, and with high hopes for good times in August, here’s to the class of ’83!

We've already lost some great folks.

We’ve already lost some great folks.


UPDATE: let me clarify, because I don’t want people to get offended for the wrong reasons: I think it’s perfectly fine to post a Bible verse on the reunion page. The verses posted thus far, though, seemed kind of random to me & the fellow didn’t post any context.   Verses that would seem less random might be “Wine is a mocker and beer is a brawler.” Bonus points if you can name chapter and verse WITHOUT Google or a concordance. (Honestly, I just know it’s in Proverbs somewhere, but given my Baptist heritage, I shouldn’t even get partial points for that.)

Tiger-Beat-Teeny-Bopper-Fan-Fan-Fan, Stop

I was eight when I learned that Rick Springfield slept in the nude at B&B Hobby Shop in Mt. Vernon, Illinois.

Every Sunday after church, my family  would stop at B&B Hobby, next to the Granada Theater in downtown Mt. Vernon, at a time in history when small-town downtowns everywhere were still thriving.

The store was so much deeper than it was wide—in my memory, there were sections and sections toward the back of the store, very dark, high shelves so teeming they were close to toppling. Back there, the paths in the linoleum weren’t nearly as worn. Head shop? Porn section? Just a little girl’s imagination? I never, never went all the way back.

Dad looked at the selection of pipes and tobacco. “The better it smells, the worse it tastes,” he always said about pipe tobacco.

My brother looked at balsa wood dowels and possibly-huffable glue and model paint. Among his other creations was a working guillotine that he threatened to use on my Ken doll.

Mom and I looked at magazines, right in the front of the store, next to one of the big floor-to-ceiling pane-glass windows. I was absolutely focused on Tiger Beat and Teen Beat and 16 Magazine. (I was 8 or 9 when I read 16, 13 or 14 when I read Seventeen, and then at 17, began reading Andy Warhol’s Interview.)

Once we’d loaded up the counter with that week’s purchases, which always included the St. Louis Post Dispatch, we piled in the car and headed toward Opdyke, about a 20 minute drive.

I always read on the way home. I always got a headache. But I could never wait.


So of course, what I did was read “Why Rick Springfield Sleeps in the Nude” at B&B Hobby Shop when I was 8. Because I read it there, because it was SO TITILLATING, when I think of Rick Springfield, yes, I think of General Hospital, yes I think of “Jesse’s Girl,” but mostly, I think of that headline on the cover of Tiger Beat and I am SMACK RIGHT THERE in B&B Hobby. With a little bit of a sick car-headache to go with it.

And why did he sleep in the nude? As I remember it, he told a story about waking up when he was a boy with both legs somehow in one leg of his pajamas, and being terrified that he’d somehow lost a leg, and ever after slept in the nude.

One wonders now at the probability of any single part of the story being true (very low) and also the probability that the editors were making a joke about a different sort of leg getting stuck in his pajamas (very high).

Oh! Those early 70s! What a time. It was also Donny Osmond I was nuts for (I had an Osmond’s lunch box I wish I’d kept, like this one)

In what I now understand as the beginning of the end of my pre-pubescent teeny-bopper phase, there was once an article on Shaun Cassidy, where he was asked what kind of music he listened to. I only remember one band from his list, Led Zeppelin, but I came away understanding he was the same age as my brother and listened to the same kind of music. My brother hated what I listened to. I used to torture him by singing, “Make the world go away,” in my best Marie Osmond impersonation.

I wasn’t done being a teeny-bopper, but a layer of sweetness had been stripped away. In its place, a dawning awareness of the chasm that yawned between what I thought I knew and what was true.

Being a teeny-bopper fan was hard work then. You had to wait for magazines to come out, you had to pay to belong to fan clubs, and you had to watch TV pretty much all the time just in case someone showed up somewhere.

Now? Pshaw. Easy as pie. Set up a Google alert and you learn more than you even really want to.

And thus we encounter the middle-aged teeny-bopper phase. I don’t put the posters on my wall any more, but I still get that little frisson, “new picture!” or “new detail!” or “new movie!”

On Monday’s show, Katie Couric asks Bradley Cooper about his dating life, and mentions how the media seems absolutely obsessed. He does a nice collapse on the couch, and then comments that he partly finds it pretty interesting and partly finds it pretty disheartening.

There’s also a video of him on Howard Stern’s show, from 2011, when Stern is not just praising Renee Zellweger (who was Cooper’s girlfriend at the time), but Stern is also trying to figure out if he’d had a shot of sleeping with her one time back when, when they were having their hair done in adjacent chairs…. The look on Cooper’s face is hard to interpret, except that there’s nothing in it that is saying, “I’m enjoying this part of the conversation, Howard, please say more.”  If you track the timeline of media coverage of his love life, Cooper & Zellweger broke up just days after that show.

[Finding out Bradley Cooper is a huge fan of Howard Stern is somewhere on the same emotional planet as finding out Shaun Cassidy liked Led Zeppelin. Interesting.]

I’m not as nice as Katie Couric (seems to be) and not as crude as Howard Stern (seems to be).

I wish I were so different from either of them that I could interview someone like Bradley Cooper and not bring up dating at all.

Ultimately, in the pie chart of “What I Find Interesting About Bradley Cooper” (tune in tomorrow for the full chart!), “Whom He’s Dating” is a mighty-slim sliver.

But I wish it weren’t a part of the pie at all.

Tripping on Christmas

for Michael Higgins, my Zen Baptist Brother in Christ

Some churches hang the Christmas greens, a big deal,
But I don’t think First Baptist did. Instead,
Miss Iris’ shiny metal tree is what we had—
White, not silver, and oh! The color wheel!

Little kindergartners tripping out
In Sunday School. The tea party saucer became
The stone for Jacob’s pillow. We took turns being him,
And we saw angels climb a ladder to the clouds.

And then at the end of the season, some churches burn
The trees and garlands—the incense of which must bring
To mind the smell of other burning greens—
A safe and sanctioned mode of getting stoned.

Your message this morning recommended Marley—
A sweet gift for Advent. Grace. Mind? Altered.

From the Vermont Country Store online!