Scenes from St. George’s, Part VI: Teacher Quality/ Senior Year I

Don’t get sued.

My Readers

Author’s Note: This is Part VI of Scenes From St. George’s. You can find the earlier parts here: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V. I want to make just a few comments here about the direction of this series. I had originally planned to do only five of these pieces, and this is already number six. This is mostly because of the positive reception the pieces have gotten, which has been great, and I have been prompted by the many pieces of feedback I have gotten from readers to expand the scope of the series slightly. Nonetheless, the narrative arc of this series is nearing a close, and I don’t expect to write more than two more of these.

Inevitably, before the series ends, I will need to touch to some degree on the events surrounding my own family leaving the school. I want to say a few things about this. First, it was not my intention to undertake this series of recollections in order to re-litigate a situation that has already been litigated, in multiple senses. Second, these events took place several years after I graduated from St. George’s and I was already living in Japan at the time. As a result, what ended up happening didn’t impact me personally all that greatly, and also my own understanding of these events is partial, incomplete. Additionally, it is not my intention to open old wounds or to see anyone feel hurt from what I might write as it is my impression that even after all these years feelings from and about this time period (the very early 2000s) are still raw to some degree. Nonetheless, the theme of this series has been the loose, free range nature of SGS during my tenure there, and this cultural aspect of the school very much played, as I understand it, into the events that occurred. So, fair warning I guess that I will write about it.

That said, I admit I am kind of stalling just a bit as I organize my own thoughts and also get some input from others who know more, or know different things than I, about the events of 2000 and 2001 at SGS. Still, I feel the piece below fits into the overall theme and trajectory of the series and I hope you enjoy it.

High School Chinese History Class, High School Computer Class

In this series I have already talked a bit about teacher quality at St. George’s, as well as suggesting that student quality, for lack of a better term, is also related to the perception of teacher effectiveness. For example, I wrote that E.T. was a “mediocre” science teacher, however he was in fact a good science teacher for students who wanted to learn Physics. He just wasn’t the best at controlling a large science lab where only 20% or so of the class had an interest in learning on a given day. In contrast, I wrote that C.F. was a good teacher for 5th graders despite being somewhat lazy. I’m not sure the lazy part of this is fair or not actually–all in all he managed to control what I’m sure was a pretty unruly classroom and left me with some memorable learning points, so maybe he was actually a good teacher until he peaced out. In any case, teacher quality is often pretty subjective. However I think I can state unequivocally that Betty Barber was a good teacher, and that this guy called J.G. was a bad one. Both Betty and J.G. taught me in high school; Betty taught Chinese History as a senior elective and J.G. taught English mainly I think, but I had him for computer class. Overall, Betty’s Chinese History class was the most important I ever took and was central to establishing my life course, and J.G.’s computer class was an unmitigated disaster.

Let’s start with the bad. J.G. was a pretty young guy, bearded, who had a serious hippie vibe. He came to school as part of a “teaching couple” with a woman called V., however I don’t believe that arrangement lasted very long. A lot of schools like to hire teaching couples; my own experience leads me to suggest giving them a miss, by and large. J.G. told us he had walked through Japan on foot with next to no money staying with people he met all along the way, and overall he seemed like an alright dude. However, his computer class was terrible.

What I recall was, we had basically one assignment all term which was to make a white ball that was sitting at the bottom of the screen move and bounce off the other sides of the screen. It was like we were re-making the game Pong or something. In order to make the ball move, we were supposed to do some coding, I guess. And this might have been possible, however J.G. gave us no instructions, no hints, no information or data of any kind about how to move the freaking ball. This was around 1990, so it wasn’t like we could cruise over to You Tube and figure it out. So we would ask J.G. “hey there J.G. dude, could you give us some pointers on where to start with this here ball movement?” And J.G. would answer “no. That’s the whole idea of learning something. You have to figure it out for yourself.”

Now I don’t know a lot about learning theory, but I know a little bit, and I don’t think this is really right. The learning theory that makes the most general sense to me is called “The Zone of Proximal Development.” If you are in education, or even if you are not, you might be familiar with the Zone of Proximal Development, or ZPD for short. In this theory, there is stuff the learner can already do, stuff they can do with help (that’s the zone of proximal development itself), and stuff they currently are not going to be able to do (stuff that is developmentally non-proximal so to speak). So in computer class in 1990 stuff we students could already do might include: turn on the computer and open an application, or whatever passed for an application in 1990; play a video game; and probably compose an essay or report on a writing program. For me, in any case, stuff I could handle most certainly did not include coding a white ball to bounce around. I had literally no idea where to start, not even the hint of a “coding language” or anything from J.G. there.

So, if a student such as myself is bouncing-white-ball-challenged, ZPD theory says they need to be shown the way toward acquiring the new skill through scaffolding. Scaffolding is just what it sounds like; it is giving the student sufficient steps to be able to get to a point where they can expand their ZPD like a balloon and incorporate the new skill in their repertoire. For the bouncing white ball, in my estimation, this would at an absolute minimum have required showing us how to access the coding section of the computer or program or whatever we were supposed to be doing, giving us some information about what kind of code we needed to write, and giving us some of the elements of the coding language. At a minimum. I mean as a freshman in university I took Latin, and my first semester Latin teacher had us reading Cicero by October, which was ambitious, but at least he gave us six weeks of verbs first. I can’t speak for others, but I needed six weeks, or at least six days, of coding language to begin to move the ball. But we didn’t get it, so after about 30 minutes of messing around with the computer the boys started to do other things such as compose dirty limericks and make jokes about other people’s mothers. The girls, I am sure, were more productive. I mean, what else were we supposed to do in the face of such incompetent instruction? Here is one little ditty I composed at the time–I apologize in advance, but it does contain some American History knowledge:

A pious reformer named Mather

Was frequently known to blather

About the great judgement hour

But the word from the shower

Was that Mather knew his way around lather

This should not be in print. In any case, eventually, some student figured out how to move the ball and told everyone else, and J.G. just sat there and watched, and we all passed the assignment. Was this the point? Was this all some elaborate exercise in collaboration? Here are the possibilities as I see them, from most generous to least generous to J.G.:

i) J.G. was giving us a lesson in working together when faced with a hard problem and the class went just like he intended.

ii) J.G. actually gave us a little more information than I am recalling, and it was enough for the better computer students to work things out and we all learned by osmosis. Sort of a ib) actually.

iii) J.G. believed in the learning method he stated–namely that the point of learning is to do everything yourself. Although I believe this to be an ineffective learning theory most of the time, it is at least a theory.

iv) J.G. had no idea how to code the ball to move either and was just hoping a student could solve it. In the meantime, he knew the challenge would take a while, and was killing class time so he didn’t have to teach any more computer.

v) J.G. resented having to teach computer class, which, as a penniless hippie, he knew nothing about, and intentionally sabotaged the class.

All and all I’m guessing a combination of iii) and iv) that was in play here, with maybe just a bit of ii). But I legit do not remember him teaching us a single thing or me learning a single thing in a whole term of class. So I’d have to say, he was a pretty bad teacher.

Betty Barber, on the other hand, was a great Chinese History teacher. Prior to taking this as a senior elective as I mentioned, I had taken World History from Betty as a sophomore or junior. I did pretty well in this class, but my maturity level was still only slightly higher than that of Mason Anderson, so Mason and I would take turns trying to steal each other’s wallets from the pocket of our letter jackets for much of the class. Pick-pocketing, I am sure, is one of the world’s oldest professions, and I’m sure my skills in this arena exceeded my computer skills, but still I didn’t exactly distinguish myself. In Chinese History, things were different. Betty had taken student groups to China in the very early 1980’s, just after the country opened up for tourists after the death of Mao and the Gang of Four era, and had a deep knowledge of the topic. Most of our high school teachers, I would say, were competent enough in their subject, with the notable exception of J.G., however Betty was really an expert in Chinese History, and I don’t use that term lightly.

Part of what made her a good Chinese History teacher for me and the class a good class was undoubtedly that it was an elective. In other words, I was there by choice. The second thing was, she knew the subject in great detail and relished sharing it with us. And third, as I mentioned above, she had been to China at an absolutely critical time in history in the early Deng Xiaoping era and had a view of events informed by real life knowledge and experience. She told us that she expected us to take the class seriously. We read a range of challenging texts, delved deeply into pre and post-WWII Chinese politics, and I personally was finally mature enough by this time to grasp and respect the depth of Betty’s knowledge and passion. As a result, and for the first time in my life, I worked my ass off. I wrote a super long, properly researched, if rose-colored glasses influenced, paper on The Long March, and developed a desire to visit China and Tibet (I eventually made it to China, though have yet to get to Tibet, which is just a little more challenging even though I have ample Yeti theory all ready to go). When it came time to chose classes at university, although I was an English Literature major, I gravitated to classes in Asian Art, Asian History, and Asian Politics, and ended up with the much coveted (or at least somewhat unusual) Asian Studies minor. And within ten months of graduating university I was living in Asia. There is no way any of this would have happened if it hadn’t been for senior year Chinese History.

So Betty was a good teacher because she just was, but also because I was a good student. Was J.G. a good teacher to someone who just happened to crush the Pong reboot? If you dear reader are that student, please do get in touch. But I seriously doubt it. I think J.G. sucked. (Don’t get sued Matty baby.) One way to look at the matter is, how would the respective teaching strategies hold up today? Well, the white ball issue would be solved in 10 minutes on someone’s phone, while Betty could teach the exact same class and it would still be excellent.

I could say a lot more about teachers, good bad and in-between, however I have probably commented more than enough on the professional skills, or lack thereof, of people who may be in my extended Facebook audience, so I will desist. And Betty if you happen to see this, thank you dude. You rock.

The School Credit System and My Senior Year Part I:

One odd feature of SGS in the early 90’s was its very generous credit system. Private schools generally have less oversight on their credit system, less oversight in general much of the time, and either no administrator there chose to focus on the credit system or something had just slipped through the cracks, because my senior year classes, in their totality, included: English Class, Chinese History, Knowledge Bowl. That was it. I also took statistics at night a few times a week with K.R. and J.S. at a local college for college credit.

(K.R. and J.S. and I had been in the advanced Math class since 7th grade with one other student, and we had had John Nord as our teacher from 8th grade through junior year of high school. How I was placed into advanced math, I have no idea because although I could hack the algebra alright, I was a poor geometry student and an even worse calculus student. I passed junior year calculus only because K.R. gave me her, beautiful, notes (thanks K.R.), and I just faked it on the basis of these notes. Anyway, I got a 1 on the Calculus A.P.–the worst score–yet this was still good enough for Mr. Nord to vote for me for student of the year, based on the fact that I read Catch 22 in my spare time. As much as I appreciated the confidence, Joseph Heller didn’t help me a whit with derivatives.)

The odd thing is, I think my senior year class load was only slightly lighter than my classmates, as some of them still had in-school math to complete. As a result, we had tons of time to mess around, play street hockey, skip school because of trick knees, regional basketball games, or any other excuse, etc. The credit system was really bizarre, and I wonder why.

I’ll tell one story here that probably happened senior year because my friends all had drivers’ licenses already, and which I incorporated in my essay on good and great talkers. When I was in high school my friend Kelly Rudd and I were both big fans of Larry King’s radio show. For those who don’t remember, King had a late night radio show for years before, and briefly concurrent with, his TV show on CNN. I liked Larry’s CNN show, however the radio show was way better. There were a couple of features of the show that I especially liked. The first was that King famously did no preparation for his guests. He knew a huge amount about the world of course, however he never read the guests’ book ahead of time or anything like that.

Now, this might sound lazy, but King explained that it was because he wanted to come in totally open. He’d say “if my guest is a firefighter, my first question will be ‘so what’s it like to be a firefighter?’” This was his style—open-ended and non-directive. King was perhaps a “lazy” interviewer, but in the best possible sense. By making the guest do almost all the work, King got himself out of the way, and as a result guests might go in any direction and the show became “eventful.” Another thing I loved was, after the main guest left King would take questions on absolutely anything. Most of the time he would give full, generous answers to his listeners, however sometimes a caller would be really weird or inappropriate. In these cases, King would fall back on a singular phrase. He’d cut off the conversation by saying “cold compress ma’am” or “cold compress sir.” Basically, he was telling them to lie down and ice their head. Which is hysterical.

Anyway, Kelly and I loved Larry, and Kelly even lent me Larry’s books, which were, predictably, about talking. King’s show was broadcast in Spokane from around 9 PM Pacific time and then re-run immediately after, and I would listen to him before falling asleep only to wake up in the middle of the night with the re-run playing. (Like many male teenagers, I had trouble sleeping, and still do). And then, all of the sudden, King’s show was dropped from the AM radio station in town. Now, you might think this was something we had no ability to do anything about, however Kelly didn’t see it that way. He proposed we drive down to the radio station and stage a protest. This seemed to me just bizarre enough to be exciting, so I said sure, let’s go. So Kelly and me and another friend piled into Kelly’s car, skipping out of school mid-morning, and drove the 45 minutes or so to the station. We had no appointment, and were just three high school kids with no leverage of any kind. When we got to the front door it was locked and there was a kind of intercom. Kelly, naturally, nominated himself to do the talking, and started to explain over the intercom why we had come.

“Do you have an appointment?” they asked?


“Who are you?”

“We are high school students and we are Larry King fans. We think it’s outrageous that your station recently cancelled his show and we want to talk to someone about it.”

Kelly’s approach was pretty brazen, and at first it didn’t get the job done. We remained shut out of the station. However he kept going, and going, and sooner or later the person on the other end caved. “OK,” she said, “we’ll send someone down.” Sure enough, the station manager himself came down and let us into the hallway. Kelly pleaded his case, and I backed him up to the best of my ability. The station manager, to his great credit, heard us out. “I understand you guys were big fans, and I’m sorry about the cancellation. We love Larry too, and we’d like to bring him back.” And so on. The station manager was BSing us, of course, and we knew it, however it was nice to get a hearing. We left after a while, knowing we hadn’t changed policy but that we had, at least, given it our best shot. Then we drove back to school.

By the time we got back to school it was after lunch and we were late for English class. The teacher eyed us as we walked and said something like “there’d better be a story.” And Kelly said, “why yes there is,” and proceeded to recount the whole incident in his patented comic manner. This was obviously more than enough for the teacher who laughed and folded us into the class. King never came back on the Spokane airwaves, and his radio show gave way to TV pretty soon after in any case, however I learned from Kelly that day. What I learned was, social “rules” are often pretty fungible with the right amount of conversational lubricant. As I understood it, Kelly was essentially creating his own reality by “re-framing” the Larry King situation. We kids had no standing to protest the show’s cancellation, however his insistence that we were passionate fans and therefore deserved a hearing carried the day. Likewise, although we were late for class, Kelly delivered a funny story that won over the teacher and gave us a little grace.

The Larry King incident was just one in a senior year full of off-the-clock shenanigans and foolishness. I would drive out with friends to the dog tracks in Idaho, possibly during school time, with the idea that I could use my hard-won statistics knowledge to “beat the track.” Yeah right. Dog track odds are stacked against you, just in case you hadn’t guessed. But I never would have figured that out if the school hadn’t given me so much time to undertake an independent study in dog racing, so I guess I owe SGS a thank you there. Thanks dude. You rock. Ish.

to be continued…

Scenes from St. George’s, Part V: Free Range Culture

St. George’s Free Range Culture:

Thus far in this series I have alluded a number of times to what my high school classmate Dyche Alsaker has referred to as the “free range” nature of St. George’s in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Free range is exactly the right phrase here, and a number of factors contributed to the free range, sometimes free-for-all, nature of the times. In no particular order, here are five incidents or examples which I feel exemplify something of this culture. I wonder if readers who didn’t attend SGS will find these strange or more or less normal given the time period.

The Smoking Shack:

When I was first in the lower school around 1981-83, there was a smoking shack for high school seniors just behind the high school building. Seniors, and perhaps juniors, essentially earned the right to smoke on campus by virtue of age, and the smoking shack was deemed official, ordained even, by the school itself. The smoking shack was not just an area, it was a physical structure as indicated by the name, potentially purpose-built for students to smoke in.

Even as a small child, I found this interesting, because by the 1980’s smoking was not as common among adults, at least on a regular basis, as it seems to have been 20 or 30 years earlier, a fact I somehow intuited. The smoking shack was torn down shortly after this time, probably in the mid ’80s, and smoking on campus was no longer allowed (although students would still smoke cigarettes, and other items, in some of the more discrete and far-flung areas of the campus environs). By the time my classmates and myself became high school seniors, we too had a senior lounge, a smallish two-room shack also behind the high school that I believe was once the headmaster’s office. We didn’t smoke there; instead we played mammoth games of Risk and Diplomacy, watched Seinfeld, and played street hockey against Mason Anderson who would do his best Ron Hextall impression. It amazes me to this day that smoking seniors were not only tolerated, but actively encouraged, during my time at SGS.

The Janitor Hangs J.T. and I Up by Our Necks

Way before sugar cubes, pithing needles, or any other of this sort of action, J.T. and I set out to bedevil the middle school janitor. As I mentioned above, both of our fathers coached sports, and therefore we were at school until 6 or 7 PM most days throughout the year. This left ample time for us to get into trouble, which first involved stealing the bucket and mop of the janitor (a tallish bearded dude as I recall) and hiding it, thereby preventing him from doing his job. Naturally we thought this was hysterical. He disagreed, and would curse us, with semi-good humor, as he located and re-secured his equipment. This was when we were in second or third grade I would guess.

One day, after weeks of bucket hide and seek, the janitor had seen enough. He decided to take drastic action. The boys bathroom of the middle school had a set of coat hangers about six feet off the ground, and these must have been pretty sturdy because this dude hung both of us up by the backs of our sweatshirts and left us hanging there as he completed his cleaning rounds. This, as I recall, was pretty unpleasant, and also worrisome–how long did he intend to keep us there? To my recollection this only happened once, and we hung for 15 minutes or so before he let us down. I went home and complained to my parents–the janitor hung us up on the coat hangers! Well, my parents said, did you do something to him? We just hid his bucket like always, I replied. That seems like fair treatment then, said my parents, maybe next time don’t hide his bucket.

Even at the time I actually felt this was a reasonable response on the part of my parents. I mean, we knew we were looking for trouble, we knew we were inconveniencing the dude–getting a reaction was the whole point. So, mission accomplished, although I think we did back off the janitor after this incident. He had made his point, and established himself as a worthy adversary. Respect my dude, respect. It is a little hard to imagine the hanging of children just flying under the radar like this today, but at free range St. George’s in 1983 it was simply par for the course.

The Phone Room:

When my classmates and I were in fifth grade we had a homeroom teacher called C.F. At the time, I thought he was a great teacher. Looking back, I reckon he was probably just super lazy, but also just a little creative in his laziness, a pretty good combination for 11 year olds. Whole lessons would be given over to thought experiments like “imagine you are stranded on a cliff with a sheer drop on either side with one friend. How do you get off the cliff?” Every suggestion was met with dismissal by C.F.–nothing would work. We would go on and on to no conclusion, and then class would end. Or, he would just play the Beatles for the whole class. Stuff like that.

C.F. was pretty even-tempered most of the time, but from time to time he would get mad at a student. This was usually not me, although on a few occasions it was. When he would get mad, he would put the offending student in the “phone room.” The phone room was just what it sounds like–a very small room with a phone that dialed off-campus. This was in the mid ’80s, and cell phones were not yet a thing. The phone room had a single chair, the titular phone, and various phone books. I have no idea if the phone room was ever used by a teacher–certainly I never saw this. Instead, it seemed to exist solely for the purposes of punishment.

C.F. would stick students in the phone room for the length of a class sometimes, but other times he would leave them there all morning or longer. A really bad student might spend 4-5 hours chilling in the phone room. Now today, I believe, this is considered really bad practice. Just locking a student up for hours on end for supposed recalcitrance is not a recommended method for student discipline and rehabilitation. But again, this was the ’80s and things, as I hope I have made clear to my younger readers, were just different back then.

However, the funny thing about the phone room punishment was that off-campus calls from the phone room’s phone were free, and there were phone books. So naturally students with nothing to do and hours at their disposal would make prank call after prank call, calling pizza delivery, other businesses, and, in a precursor to E.P.’s dirty calls to mothers, parents of classmates. I don’t know if C.F. or the other teachers knew about these calls, but all the students did, and some may even have looked forward to a stint in the phone room to operate the phone and raise a little hell.

C.F. ended up having an affair with another teacher and checking all the way out of his job a few years later, before leaving the school and moving to Idaho. Before this, however, we graduated from the lower school to the middle school, and one day I bumped into him and said hello. He said something to the effect of “I won’t talk to you anymore because you and your classmates are bluebirds who have flown away.” What he meant was, I guess, he had done his job and we were someone else’s job/ problem/ business now. Fair enough, perhaps, but still a little odd. All in all, C.F. was a good teacher because he was different and took chances, although his methods would not even begin to stand the scrutiny of a modern school, at least I wouldn’t think. And I never did figure out how to get off that f*** cliff.

Pithing Needles in the Biology Room:

In high school we had two main science teachers. The first was J.T.’s dad E.T. who taught Physics. E.T. was also the assistant baseball and girl’s basketball coach for my father, who was the head coach. E.T. passed away recently, so rest in peace to a mediocre science teacher, an excellent first base coach, and an awesome right hand man.

The second was our Biology teacher, an older woman who had taught, perhaps right there at SGS, as far back as the 1960’s. She would tell us stories of how in the 60’s she would tell the class “any of you who are on acid, just take the class off and go outside,” so she’d seen it all I guess. Nonetheless, we managed, sans hallucinogens, to vex her on a regular basis, and when mad she would cross her arms, stare at the ceiling, and repeat the phrase “bad words, bad words, bad words,” a reasonably inventive way to avoid telling her students what they could do with themselves.

Now, she was probably a perfectly competent Biology teacher, but we were not, as 10th graders, a very receptive group. To be honest, Biology was boring. But one thing the biology room had that held potential were the pithing needles. Pithing needles, for those who don’t know, are thin, very sharp, needles about three inches in length which are attached to a wooden handle. They are, I believe, intended for use in dissections, however J.T., Kelly, and myself found other uses for them. We would sneak back into the Biology room after school and, holding the needles by the handle, fling them up at the ceiling, which was made from soft plaster board or some such material. With the right touch we could stick the needles in the ceiling, and although I only remember doing one dissection (the fabled frog dissection) in biology class, there were copious needles to throw. After a couple hundred attempts, we would manage to stick fifteen or twenty needles in the ceiling, which was quite high up, maybe 20 feet or so. The next day in Biology class the teacher would point out the needles, say her bad words, and threaten us with retribution if we were found to have been involved. What we were really waiting for was if a needle would get loose and fall down during Biology class, which would have been a bonus. (We were not bad kids; Biology was just super boring–what can I say?)

In any case, after weeks of needle flinging the pithing needle supply was pretty much exhausted and the teacher, possibly with some other adult backup, singled the three of us out (she would have known the responsible parties all along of course).

“Alright boys, you are going to climb up and get those down.”

“How are we expected to do that? They are way up there.” No protestations of innocence, just practical objections to the task at hand.

“I don’t care,” she said, “you put them there, you get them down.” One way or another, perhaps with a borrowed ladder, perhaps with a long broom or something, we managed to clear the ceiling of the deadly needles. All in all, sure we stole sugar cubes and ammonia packets, broke and entered into the headmaster’s house, and filled the biology lab’s ceiling with deadly projectiles, but at least we were sober. So, we had that going for us.

We Graduate with Blank Diplomas and Miss Prom:

Like many schools, SGS sent us seniors on a senior trip just weeks before graduation. Senior trips, through normal enough, are invariably a bad idea because students will, nearly without exception, attempt to drink on the trip. And so did we, however our experience was a little different as our drinking was directly facilitated by one of the three adult chaperones on the trip. And yes, we got punished, losing prom and graduating with blank diplomas, which might have been fair in some circumstances but hardly in these specific ones.

I won’t enumerate the exact circumstances of the alcoholic consumption on the trip because I don’t wish to engage in any under the bus throwing, even at this remove, however suffice it to say liquor was provided through a large legal purchase by said chaperone. Another chaperone discovered the drinking after some of my classmates were, let’s say, less effectively clandestine than myself and my own little group (we were trained in spy craft from way back), and the matter was reported to the then headmaster who was called George Swope. George Swope was no George Edwards, despite the shared first name, and was in fact pretty ineffectual in all areas. He called us all into a room with another administrator as backup and lectured us about drinking.

“What I think is fair is we take prom away for all of those who have admitted to drinking, and also you will graduate with blank diplomas. You will have to work off your debt to the school after graduating as well.”

Now really, this was some bullshit. The prom ban was fair enough, but the idea of working off some supposed “debt” after graduation was ridiculous, and I, with my big mouth, said as much in the Swopester’s little meeting.

“We accept (I began with the royal we, because why not) the prom situation, but you can’t take our diplomas away from us. And anyway, the booze was supplied by a teacher, as you well know.”

It didn’t matter. Some of us graduated with blanks, and I looked through the rolled up paper dramatically on receiving it, just to be a d***. Our valedictorian, Matt Carpenter, who always claimed never to study, which I think was also B.S. (although he was super smart so who knows), was under strict orders not to mention the incident in his graduation speech. As I recall, he did a perfect job of alluding to it without saying anything provably related. I was proud of him.

Why would a teacher supply booze to students? Well, because he wanted to be liked. It’s not that complex. Again, if this happened today I imagine the parents of the students in question would raise holy hell, and the teacher would be terminated. None of this happened; his involvement was swept under the rug, and life moved on. J.T. and I did expunge the “debt”, which, karmically, I guess was pretty fair given our earlier transgressions, by clearing a bunch of logs from the river while I played Dylan on a boombox with an extension cord (not the same boombox or extension cord my brother Mike played Richard Marx on). Some of the richer students (I’m just going to call it like it was, and almost everyone there was richer than J.T. and I) dodged log clearing duty to no consequence. That’s the class system–fuck that, by the way.


OK. That’s all I have. There are many, many more examples of free range culture at St. George’s, however my memory and creative vein are tapped out for the time being. If you attended SGS back in these days I hope these reminiscences bring back memories, on the whole happy ones. If you are reading and didn’t attend SGS, does all this sound pretty out of control, or pretty much normal? Leave a comment either way–I’d love to hear from you.

to be continued…

Scenes from St. George’s, Part IV: Mason Anderson’s Seven-Step Method for Picking Up Women

Author’s Note: This is installment four of our scenes from St. George’s (SGS). Part I is here, Part II is here, and Part III is here.

Mason Anderson Fails to Pick Up Chicks

Classes at St George’s were not so large; I think our class graduated around 28 or so. The school is a private school, and relatively expensive for Eastern Washington, but I don’t believe it was that expensive, so I wonder what the school’s budget was like. I bet it was tight. There were a handful of students, including J.T., Kelly, our friend S.C., his younger brother Ben, L.W., and a few others, who were there from lower school all the way through high school. Others, tragically including N.C., left, while others still joined later on.

One student who joined I think in 9th grade was Mason Anderson. Mason’s had a younger brother named Mark whom Mason called “Marky J. Muffin” for some reason. Mason and Marky J.’s parents were divorced and they lived with their mother who Mason called Robbie A. (A for Anderson.) My sense is that Robbie A. was working pretty hard to keep everything organized on the financial front. Mason’s dad was a big churcher, and I don’t think Mason saw him all that much. Sometimes Mason would report that his dad had given him some money, but overall I think his dad was too busy churching to provide much oversight. As a result of all of this, Mason was pretty much left to his own devices most of the time. Also, whatever the family situation, Mason didn’t do much to keep things together because although he’s a great guy and totally hysterical, he was, and still is, chronically lazy.

Lazy as he may have been, Mason actually had a job at a sports cards shop called Chalmer’s. I guess Chalmer’s was owned by some guy called Chalmer, and this dude thought it would be a good move to just leave the shop in Mason’s hand for extended periods of time so he could enjoy the sweet life of a successful businessman. This, however, was not a good move at all, because Mason stole all his baseball cards and all his money and Chalmer’s had to go out of business. Mason never stole from his classmates as far as I know, but he felt Chalmer was fair game.

As I mentioned, our class was pretty small and John Innes, who joined in middle school, and I got to know Mason pretty quickly. High school life can be a little repetitive and it’s good to break things up with a little humor. Mason may have been a lazy thief (or perhaps more charitably an indolent appropriator) but in the humor department he was a solid addition to the school. Mason had a particular way of speaking where he would add emphasis to certain words to make them funny, and he also loved the words “total” and “totally.” My own speech and writing has been totally influenced by this habit of Mason, an influence apparent on this blog. Mason also liked to abbreviate noun phrases.

All these quirks came together in Mason’s favorite term, which was “total babe,” or more commonly, “TB.” He would use this appellation dozens of times a day to describe various girls in our class and the classes above and below us. Although SGS classes were small, there were definitely some TBs running around, and some regular old Bs as well. My own tastes in this area were less for the TBs and more for the SBs (“sneaky babes”). I like sneaky anything, sneaky babes, sneaky favorites, sneaky staircases, the whole deal. Probably my theory was that TBs were already out of my league, and SBs were just more on my level. Also, I just thought SBs were cuter than TBs. I still think I’m right about this, but Mason disagreed. He was into the TBs, the totaller the better. Now one thing about TBs, obviously, is they can be super selective. Craig Finn says “boys go for looks/ and girls go for status.” I’ve found this to be pretty true, and TBs also like money as well as, I think, funny guys (or gals depending on a given TB’s particular orientation). Although he played on the baseball team, Mason was not exactly “high status,” whatever that consisted of back then, and although he had the Chalmer’s money he certainly wasn’t loaded. He was very funny, and should have leaned into this with the TBs, but for some reason his method for TB intriguing didn’t quite see him leaning into his strengths.

Mason’s interest in TBs was not limited to mere expressions of appreciation; instead he would work out elaborate TB seduction campaigns in his head, which he would describe to John Innes and me at great length. Mason was, for some unknown reason, a huge fan of the professional hockey team the Philadelphia Flyers and their goalie Ron Hextall, and he had one, or maybe several, Philadelphia Flyers pins that he would wear on the outside of his jacket. His TB pick-up plans always revolved around the Flyers’ pin and associated Flyers paraphernalia. I am not going to be able to do justice to the complexity of Mason’ campaign plans, however they would have gone something like this (I don’t believe he has taken the time to patent this method so I think this is fair use):

Step 1: Select a TB to approach.

As mentioned, Mason would choose one of the biggest TBs, a girl who was obviously completely out of his league, and start putting together a sequence of moves.

Step 2: Name the campaign.

Mason’s campaigns would be named after the first initial of the TB’s first name; thus if the TB was called “B…” the B campaign would just be “Plan B.”

Step 3: Pick a location to approach the TB.

Mason would specify a certain spot where he planned to initiate his campaign, say at the TB’s locker, while waiting for the bus before a basketball game, or when she first came in the door of the school in the morning.

(As a side note, John Innes also employed the locker move when in 9th grade he offered me 10 dollars to switch lockers with him so he could have the locker next to a certain TB called S. I agreed, but John Innes didn’t really have any money because his father had spent it all on his political aspirations, and I don’t think he ever paid me. That was a bad deal on my part; I should have stuck with the locker.)

Step 4: Lead with the Flyers’ pin.

Mason would design the first actual contact with the TB to center on the Flyers’ pin, as noted above. In John Innes’ and my opinion, this is where the plan started to wobble. Mason would specify exactly what he would say to the TB as an opening salvo. This would be something like:

“Hey there B, I couldn’t help but see you hanging out by your locker here. I wonder if you’ve seen my new Philadelphia Flyers pin?“

Now I don’t know a huge amount about hitting on women, but I know a little bit, and I’m just not sure this is the right first move. Guys who are really good at picking up women (I’m not referring to the super sus subculture of PUAs, but to individual guys who just happen to have a lot of game) usually start with something a little more open-ended, and also maybe focussed on some aspect of the girl, not one of their own accessories. I mean I don’t know, maybe this can work—can you picture a guy at a bar approaching a woman and saying something like:

“Hey there, I don’t know you but I just wanted to let you know I bought this new scarf today. Isn’t it something?”

The more I look at it the more I lean no. The Flyers’ pin opener was not, however, the biggest issue with Mason’s approach. The biggest issue was that he expected the TB to come back with a very specific, indeed exact, reply.

Step 5: Elicit a specific TB response.

After Mason had asked the TB to check out his Flyers’ pin, she was supposed to come back with the right answer, which is this case would be something like:

“Wow there Mason Anderson. I didn’t know you had a new Flyers pin. That’s a pretty sexy pin you got there.”

Now I respect the effort that Mason put into his plans, but I’m sorry, this is just all wrong. First of all, this is a pretty unlikely answer for a TB. I mean, something like this is theoretically possible; however there are a lot of other possibilities that Mason was not accounting for. You see, he needed the TB to stick pretty much exactly to the script in order to get to his next move. But the problem was, the TB didn’t have the script in advance. I mean imagine you’re a TB and some medium dorky guy comes up to you and flashes his new Flyers’ pin. I think you might respond in one of the following ways, ranging from more to less promising:

i) “I haven’t seen your pin. Where did you get it?”

ii) “Who are the Philadelphia Flyers?”

iii) “Why are you showing me this?”

iv) “What are you talking about?”

v) “You’re weird. Go away.”

My theory is that Mason really needed to be prepared for all of these possible responses, and many others. He needed, in other words, to build a little flexibility into his plan. And John Innes and I would tell him this.

“I don’t know Mason, I mean the Flyers’ pin is great and all, but I don’t think you can count on her telling you it’s sexy. She might come back with something else you know.”

“No,” Mason would reply. “She’ll come back with what I have planned. It’ll work.”

But she wasn’t going to come back with what he had planned. She just wasn’t. John Innes and I knew this, but there was no talking Mason out of it. Plan B was full steam ahead.

Step 6: Get to the end game.

After the TB came back with the right Flyer’s pin response, the next two items in the plan would be designed to get Mason to the close. This would go like something like this:

Mason: This is a sexy pin. But it’s not as sexy as you are.

TB: Oh my god, you’re so charming and funny.

Now, the dialogue is approximate, however the idea remained the same—the conversation had to go exactly this way. In military circles there is a saying that goes something like “no battle plan survives the first shot fired” or whatever. The point being, once a campaign kicks off there is no telling what the actual sequence of events is going to be. A good plan, in war, with TBs, or just in life in general, needs to be adjustable. Or, in NLP terms, the planner needs to understand that the map is not the territory. Mason had the map, but his map was not going to get him safely though the territory.

In any case, by this point Plan B would be pretty far advanced. It was time to seal the deal.

Step 7: Close.

This stage, obviously, was where Mason would throw down his final zinger and the TB would be won. The last part of Plan B would have Mason saying something like:

“I know I’m charming and funny. I guess I just can’t help it. Hey I’ve got a great idea. Why don’t you and me get together and call ourselves an institute?”

And the TB would swoon into his arms.


Now, we have already identified a number of holes in Mason Anderson’s Seven-Step Method for Picking Up Women. And these holes are significant. But the biggest hole in Plan B, or Plan C, and any of his other plans is that he never tried to implement any of them even once. All of this, the casual approach, the Flyers’ pin, the elaborate conversational sequencing, was entirely theoretical. Mason would talk about Plan B incessantly, workshop it with us, and generally refine and tinker with it, but he would never actually put in to the test. I don’t know why this was. Was it because Mason knew the TBs were out of his league and just enjoyed fantasizing about his campaigns? Or did he actually intend to put Plan B into practice sometime and just never had the nerve to try it? Or, perhaps, the plan was never totally good enough in his own eyes and just needed that last little tweak to get it perfect? I don’t know, but man were Plan B and Plan C entertaining.

Today Mason lives in the tri cities area of Washington State where he messes around with nuclear energy or something, believe it or not. In his free time he makes a lot of pizza and instagrams about it. I believe he has also had some success on the Tinder there—John Innes told me he was mixed up with at least one women of that ilk a few years back. I’ve never met any of Mason’s Tinder connections, and I don’t know if they are TBs or not, but I know one thing. Deep down Mason still wants to lead with that Flyer’s pin.

to be continued…

Scenes from St. George’s Part III: Mr. Dreyer, French Teacher Extraordinaire (with a cameo from Richard Marx)

When I was in middle school I took French from one Monsieur Dreyer. I had already been studying (the verb is used loosely) French for a couple of years, and had some of the basics. In Mr. Dreyer’s class I learned a little more, and could actually kind of hack it in French there for a bit. But any actual language learning that took place in Mr. Dreyer’s class was seriously secondary to the excellent action that took place around his class.

I wasn’t first introduced to Mr. Dreyer in middle school, however. In fact, I first met him when I was in elementary school around the time he began teaching at the school where my father taught, and I attended, in the early 1980s. I remember going to the apartment he shared with his wife, who is Japanese, when they had an exchange student called Atsushi from Japan staying with them. Atsushi was my age, and he showed us how to make onigiri (rice balls). Making rice balls is not all that tough, just rice, water, and salt. Still, I thought onigiri were pretty exotic and Atsushi pretty cool. Some time later Mr. Dreyer and his wife must have come up a bit short of ready cash, because they lived in a tent in my family’s front yard for a while. This seems a little strange looking back, but it wasn’t then. I have no idea what the bathroom or shower situation looked like, but something must have happened.

(My brother Mike also lived out in a tent in the front yard during the summer for a number of years. Maybe it was the same tent. Mike would run an extension cord out to the tent and play his boombox. This was a few years after the Dreyer clan was tenting it, and Mike was deep into the singer Richard Marx. I thought Richard Marx was alright, but he didn’t seem to have a lot of songs. This mattered not at all to Mike who played the same Richard Marx tunes over and over again.

Today Richard Marx is, strangely enough, bigger than ever. But not as a musician. He runs a popular Twitter account where he is a big liberal and also pretty funny. Marx is like Rex Chapman but less problematic. Rex Chapman is super-problematic. I’m not sure exactly how, I just know he is.)

Mr. Dreyer also played a little chess with my father, although my impression is that both of them were pretty bad. Certainly they were not pulling out a lot of “hard-to-find” moves. At that time, I knew Mr. Dreyer was a French teacher, but didn’t know if he was in fact French. Today I believe it to be the case that he is not French, is in fact from California, and just somehow became proficient in the language. Good for him.

Even before I took his class, I was aware that Mr. Dreyer was, let’s say, a different sort of fellow. He liked to tell a story about his brother who lived on a massive contour map of the San Francisco Bay area. The map was located in an enclosed structure that hung under a bridge in Oakland or something. And his brother just chilled there full time, so the story went. So Mr. Dreyer, apparently, was the normal one in his family.

(I remember Mr. Dreyer talking to me about John Lennon one day as well. This was maybe when I was taking his class, but I think it might have been before that. “John Lennon’s assassination was really sad,” he said, “he was just starting to put his life back together.” I had heard of John Lennon but at that time knew nothing of the circumstances of his death. And I certainly didn’t know about his ups and downs in the 1970s. Mr. Dreyer must have been a Lennon fan though, and wanted to tell me about it.)

In any case, when I got to middle school I was assigned Mr. Dreyer, as mentioned. Mr. Dreyer wore a mustache that looked pretty Frenchy to me—maybe that’s why I kind of thought he was a French native. There were also a number of the Tintin books in French on a shelf in the back of the room. I had read most of the Tintin books in English by then, so it was fun to browse the French versions and take in some of the action from a new lens.

In Mr. Dreyer’s class everyone got a “French name,” and I was called “Philippe.” I don’t really care for all these fake names in language class, although I recognize that some people do adopt them as a kind of alter ego. I mean, if a Japanese gal called “Sari” wants to go by “Sally” in English class that’s great. Makes sense. But my actual name sounds nothing like Philippe, so it just seemed kind of random. In any case, little Phillippe was not a bad French student, but he was a restless one. Mr. Dreyer’s classroom opened from the back door onto a kind of grassy area, and for reasons passing understating Philippe would leave class in the middle of the lesson and then try to crawl back in through the back door and up through the room, hoping to escape Mr. Dreyer’s attention. Mr. Dreyer did notice, of course, but he was pretty cool about it.

“What you doing there Philippe? Sneaking back into the room again? Welcome to French class si vous plait.” Something like that. I wasn’t trying to aggravate Mr. Dreyer or anything because I really liked him as a teacher, I was just doing what 12 year old boys do. However, Mr. Dreyer did not view every student as leniently as myself. One of my classmates was a guy we’ll call “E.P.” E.P. was a trouble-maker, and was known to pull the fire alarm in the middle school there on a regular basis. His parents were called, repeatedly, but he didn’t care. He loved pulling that fire alarm. E.P. would also prank call mothers of other students for whom he somehow had phone numbers from the school phone and talk dirty to them in a fake voice. So, yeah.

One week, E.P. and some other students had started throwing wadded up pieces of paper toward a metal garbage can located at the front right corner of Mr. Dreyer’s classroom. Mr. Dreyer let this roll for a few days, however one day before lunch he decided to crack down. “Mr. E.P.,” he said, “I’ll make you a deal.” “You can have one more throw of a paper at that trash can. If you make it, you can go to lunch. If you miss, you have lunch detention.”

Now this struck me as a pretty fair deal, because E.P. didn’t have to accept the challenge. He could have just passed and gone about his day. That, of course, is not what happened. Instead, E.P. wadded up yet another piece of paper and lobbed it at the trash can. He missed. This was the last straw for Mr. Dreyer who, instead of keeping him in detention as promised, took matters a step further. He grabbed the trash can (which was about three and a half feet high) and carried it over to where E.P. was sitting.

“You like garbage!” he shouted. “I’ll show you garbage.” And sure enough Mr. Dreyer, onigiri expert, former tent dweller, and French teacher extraordinaire, emptied the whole thing right on top of E.P.’s dome. Now you might think this was some bad action, and from today’s perspective sure, it probably was. But for us middle schoolers it was hysterical.

“Did you hear what Mr. Dreyer did?” we whispered for the rest of the week. “He dumped a full garbage can on E.P.’s head.” This was the biggest thing to happen all month, and we milked it, obviously. Again, if this happened today, Mr. Dreyer might have faced some kind of sanction, but the 1980’s were not like that. E.P. had been dumped on, and life moved on.

Mr. Dreyer eventually left that school and moved to Kyoto where he taught for a while at Kyoto International School before ultimately moving back to California where his brother lived on a map. Years later I reconnected with Mr. Dreyer on Facebook, where he regularly posts groaningly bad, yet still somehow funny, visual puns. “Cyrano wins by a nose” with a drawing of Cyrano crossing the finish line in a foot race, that sort of thing. Anyway, I wanted to get his perspective on the whole the garbage can situation so I sent him a message. What did he recall of the incident?

He didn’t remember it at first, but then he said “oh yes, that was with a student called “J.”

“No,” I replied, “it was with E.P.”

“No, no, no,” he replied, it was “J. JFK.”

Now I knew that Mr. Dreyer is prone to making some strange jokes, and at first I thought he was making some kind of oblique assassination reference. Was he suggesting that there must have been a second shooter?

“This was not JFK related,” I said. “It was some E.P. action. I‘m sure of it.”

Mr. Dreyer was not sold though, and it occurred to me that there may have been more than one dumping. This may, in fact, have been Dreyer’s go-to-move. After all, his treatment of E.P. was, in truth, pretty unfair—the deal was advertised as sink the shot or detention. Dumping was never mentioned. Was Dreyer moving about the globe and dumping full garbage cans on students left and right? It was a possibility. Maybe I was smart to stay low to the ground after all.

These days, Mr. Dreyer is living in California where he enjoys the warm climate. And he reads this blog. Hey there Mr. Dreyer baby, you’re a cool guy but that garbage can move could maybe use a little reflection. E.P. was a troublemaker, sure, but dumping just wasn’t part of the deal.

to be continued…

Scenes from St. George’s, Part II: Scorekeeping, the Sandhills, and a Would Be Yearbook Heart

Author’s Note: This is the second installment of scenes from St. George’s. The first installment contains a little more context about this series. Joan Dideon says that a writer is always selling somebody out. I’m not sure I agree with this exactly, but I have taken the liberty of using some real names and some realish initials. These scenes are written with love, however if I do seem to be selling anyone out I guess I feel like the statute of limitations has pretty much expired.

Gary Leinhart and My Father Forget How to Count

Gary Leinhart was another one of our middle school teachers and he also coached boys basketball for a time. He was no Mr. Dreyer, however he was a decent teacher and pretty well liked. He was not a great basketball coach, but he did like to play a little himself. I guess Gary was in his early to mid-thirties around this time but I’m not really sure.

A few miscellaneous things about Gary:

i) he was minus a finger, I think a pinky, from an accident with a saw one time, but you never really noticed it. I guess you don’t really need your pinkies all that much.

ii) he once made a citizens arrest with his friend who was also a teacher at SGS.

iii) After SGS I believe he moved to Alaska.

Now when Gary first came to the school he and my father (who I think was still teaching in the middle school at that time) seemed to get along fine. In fact, my father and I played in Gary’s fantasy baseball league where I was assigned to be the commissioner. Fantasy baseball is impossible at the best of times, and pre-internet it was super impossible, so the league was short-lived. Nonetheless, things were fine there for a while.

As I mentioned above, Gary was the high school boys basketball coach, and my father coached the girls. At some point there must have been some issues, because Gary and my father started to seriously dislike each other. I don’t know what was going on actually, but I’m guessing it was basketball related. Like I said, Gary was a good, if easy-going, teacher, maybe just a bit lazy. My classmate L.W. recently reminded me of some story involving Gary, an air raid siren, and J.T., but I don’t really remember this. The point is, Gary seemed to me be a pretty good guy, except on the basketball floor where he became hyper-competitive.

Around this time I was the lead scorekeeper for the high school basketball games. This involved running the game clock and the shot clocks and keeping the game score correct on the score board. It was a pretty involved job, and I loved it. I threw myself into being every day and in every way the best scorekeeper I could be, and it was a pretty big responsibility for a young fellow. J.T. was my assistant; I think he did the shot clocks. Our school played in a league with schools from all over Eastern Washington, and there were a few schools up near the Canadian border that were a bit rough. Their fans, parents of players mostly and some others, would drive down and there was a visitor section and a home section, as with most gyms. One day some dude from up north must have come to the game a little lit, or a lot lit, and after the game (which SGS won at the last second) he came charging over to the scorers’ table. He started accusing me of cheating by giving the home team extra seconds at the end of the game (e.g. not starting the clock when the ball was inbounded). I had done no such thing; and he was drunk, which I helpfully pointed out to him. I think he wanted to punch my lights out, and probably some adults had to intervene.

In any case, I was a good scorekeeper and one day my father and Gary Leinhart were playing basketball against each other with mixed teams of other teachers and students. They had chosen teams I guess and the teams were pretty balanced. My father has never been a great basketball player, but once upon a time he could play a little, and Gary was also decent. The students were all on the basketball team so the game should have been close. And it was. I should know because I was keeping score. However for what was essentially an intramural game we were not using the scoreboard, and I think I was just using a piece of paper or keeping score in my head. The game began, and both teams started scoring. As I recall, the score was 14-12 in favor of my father’s team when the trouble started. Gary’s team scored a basket and he took it on himself to try and usurp my position.

“12-0 us,” he called.

Now this was completely ridiculous because it was a two point lead for my father’s team, not a 12 point lead for Gary Leinhart’s. Before I could correct the score, my father yelled back:

“It’s not 12-0. It’s 15-2 us!”

This was equally ridiculous. As I have made clear, the score was 14-12. As any pick-up basketball player will know, it’s totally possible to lose track of the score of a game as you are playing and miss a basket here and there. This is why, as a matter of fact, there are scorekeepers to begin with. So I did my best:

“Hey guys,” I called, “the score is 14-12 red team.”

“There’s no way they have 14,” said Gary.

“There’s no way we are only up by two,” said my father.

“Yeah, the score is 14-12.”

But unfortunately my efforts to settle the matter were for naught. Gary and my father started screaming at each other and fighting about the score like little children. This was awkward and after a bit people just sort of checked out of the game space and the game ground to a halt, never to be re-started. I guess there was no way to bridge the collective 25 point gap in score perception.

Looking back at this incident, it still boggles my mind. I’ve played quite a bit of pick-up, and I’ve never seen anything quite like this. I wonder what the core issue was.

The Sandhill and Points West

Back in the day SGS had something called “the Sandhill.” There were actually two Sandhills, which were predictably called “the Little Sandhill” and “the Big Sandhill.” These were conjoint, and located behind the baseball field at the back end of the school property.

The Sandhills, especially the big one, were super tough to climb, but they were both great for jumping off. With a running start, one could fly twenty or thirty feet in the air off the Little Sandhill and land safely near the bottom. When I was first at the school the Big Sandhill actually had a rope swing attached to a tree at the top, and you could run, grab the rope swing, and fly way out in the air. This was a much larger fall than jumping off the Little Sandhill, but it was basically safe. It was also a blast.

In addition to the Sandhill swing, the school had another swing which swung over the Little Spokane river. This is the river that the fabulist John Innes claims I used to throw people in. In any case, the river swing survived longer than the Sandhill swing, because a few years after I first got there the school took the Sandhill swing down. Too dangerous. This was basically a terrible decision and was probably made by someone who had never been on a swing in their life. School bureaucracy sucks.

So although many of my future classmates at the school never got to experience the glories of the Sandhill swing, there was plenty more to explore back in the woods up behind the Sandhill to the west. Several hundred meters back there was a set of rocks which had little climbing routes naturally built into them. These were not hardcore rock climbs by any means, but they were sufficiently testing for us students and generally pretty good action. Our school had a cross-country team, and the cross-country course turned around just before these rocks. One day a female student who was a few years my senior was running the course by herself and came across a guy on a bicycle completely nude just chilling by the rocks. She came back and reported the situation. What did you do, she was asked? I just turned around and kept running, she replied. Smart move.

There was all kinds of action, both good and bad, up in those hills. My friend J.T. and others whom I will not name would go up into the hills and start fires. Now I understand that young boys like to start fires—it’s an age old pastime—but I was not that into fires. First, they seemed dangerous, and second, more importantly, they just seemed unnecessary. I was in the minority on this point though; fires were set.

One day I went climbing on the rocks with my friend Kelly and his half-brother who was a few years older. Kelly’s father is Art Rudd, and he had had two children with his first wife over in Seattle or something before moving out and coming to Spokane. Kelly’s older brother was interesting and I got the feeling like he had already seen a lot in his life. Art Rudd was a dentist, and was in fact my dentist. Art Rudd was a garrulous individual and also tried to talk to you when you were in the dentist chair as if you could just chat right back. Overall, Art Rudd was an OK dentist I guess, but I also think he was running a scam. And this scam is not, I think, unique to Art Rudd. I think this scam is widespread, insidious, and bad.

I didn’t have serious dental issues, but I did seem to go to the dentist a lot, which may have been its own scam, however when I was twelve or thirteen Art Rudd suddenly started talking my mother into the concept of me getting braces. Now braces may be important for some certain people with teeth that are like seriously out of alignment, however that was not the case with me. My teeth were totally fine. Nonetheless, the braces conversation was initiated, and kept up, until my mother caved and I was referred to an “orthodontist” friend of Art Rudd’s. “Orthodontists,” I believe, are all basically scammers, and I am totally sure that Art Rudd was getting kick backs there from this “orthodontist.”

I went to see the “orthodontist,” who was a portly and cheerful fellow (he ought to be with all his braces money), and he said sure enough looks like you need some braces. Now I was attuned enough to BS even then to know that this dude was full of it. But I was stuck on a train I couldn’t get off of. I ended up getting braces, which did nothing, and then they came off. Scam, all the way.

Anyway, that’s beside the point. The point is, the Sandhills were awesome and whoever took down that swing is an asshole.

I Fail to Draw a Heart in R.s Yearbook

I wrote in the second scene of this series about drawing a solid sun for N.C. when I was in the lower school. What I didn’t mention is that there were actually two lower schools—the one up on the hill for Grades 1-3 and another one down by the river for Grades 4-6. When I was attending the second lower school a new girl joined our class. She was called R. Now I didn’t have a crush on R. of anything like the intensity of my crush on N.C., however I did kind of like her, and at the end of 6th grade when students were writing in each other’s yearbooks, I resolved to make my big move. I would sign her yearbook, I thought, and draw a nice little heart as well. My successful sun drawing was in the books and everything, and I thought the heart would be easy.

Sure enough, R. asked me to write something in her yearbook, so I wrote something anodyne, and then went in for the heart move. I had practiced this in my head several times, because when you get nervous sometimes you mess stuff up and I didn’t want to choke and draw a bad heart. So I took a deep breath, and went for it. And I couldn’t get close. What came out looked nothing like a heart, nothing like a sun, it looked in fact like some kind of undefinable blob. This was bad, and I had precious little time to salvage the situation. In fact, I had no time, because R. must have seen the heart coming, and she asked “what’s that?” in a fake innocent voice that made it clear to me that she knew exactly what was going on.

“Nothing,” I replied. “Just drawing something.”

I tried to improve the heart to no avail, and then scratched it out and tried again. No luck. If anything the second heart was worse than the first. I had no idea how to draw a heart, had no idea at all what one was even supposed to look like. Suddenly, I was the Steve Sax of heart rendering.

“Never mind,” I said finally. “Just read my message.” My message was not the point though—it was the heart that tied the whole presentation together. And I had blown it, badly.

Thinking back on it, it was probably inevitable that I would choke on the heart for R. I mean, this was the last day of lower school and here I was attempting a heart for a girl other than N.C. I was a faithless individual, a turncoat, and the heart was never going to materialize as my own heart was still back up on the hill with N.C. in Science class. And, come to think of it, it still is.

to be continued…

Scenes from St. George’s, Part I: Erosions, First Love, Headmasters

Author’s Note: This is a series of “scenes” from St. George’s (SGS), the school in Spokane, Washington I attended back in the 1980s and early 1990s. Although this was all a while ago and I forget all kinds of stuff, I remember a few things. SGS was a good school in many ways, but it was also a pretty loose environment. I’m sure it’s changed now, but back in the day a lot of pretty wild stuff happened. These piece will collect a few incidents as I recall them; the scenes at best loosely connected; most are funny—a few are maybe a little serious. I plan do a few installments in this series, so if you like this one stay tuned. A last note: I make no claim to my memories being authoritative in any sense. As with all memories, these have been colored, and eroded, by time. However, I will try to write only about things I witnessed first hand, or things that I have on what I believe to be pretty good authority.

My Brother Mike Looks for Erosions

When I was in the lower school (elementary school) at SGS I had a teacher we will call L.K. In the lower school each grade had a main teacher, what you might call a homeroom teacher, and students also had classes with other specialist-type teacher such as Science or Music. L.K. was an OK homeroom teacher for me, not very memorable, but not terrible either. However a few years later when she was serving as the homeroom teacher for my brother Mike, things changed.

By the time Mike was in her class, L.K. was apparently in a little entanglement with the headmaster at the time called George Edwards, whom I believe was separated, or separating, from his wife. The headmaster of SGS always lived on campus in a fancy house called The Davenport House, and I guess the action between himself and L.K.’s was pretty widely known. It must have been if even I, as like a fifth grader, was aware of it. I think this relationship, whatever it consisted of, must have been on the rocks though by this time, and there may have been some bad action. In any case, L.K. was totally checked out from her job. Now teachers sometimes totally check out, and this can go unnoticed for weeks or even months. Teaching is an important job, but it’s not like flying a plane or something; a checked out teacher generally doesn’t put students’ lives on the line.

Anyway, L.K. was way checked out. SGS was, and presumably still is, situated on a very large piece of property down there by the Little Spokane river and was surrounded by wilds that were not SGS property, but that students could explore. The lower school in particular was set up against a hill that went for a mile or so up above the school building. So there was a lot of space. However, there was also a basically bounded playground and lower school students would also play on the large lawn of the Davenport House, so there was no need for them to be foraging way up on the hill. Except in L.K.’s class though, because she developed a kind of genius strategy to do no teaching at all for my brother’s class. What she would do was, at the start her assigned homeroom teacher block, let’s say it was three periods in the morning, just tell her students to “go look for erosions.” The students must have learned about erosions in Science class or something, because Mike knew the word as like a second grader. The students would go up on the hill on their own and scout around for erosions, of which there were many, all morning and come back for lunch.

Now, a day of looking for erosions would have been one thing— a little erosion location could easily be justified as a Science class extension, ideally supervised—however L.K. didn’t just pull out this move once. In fact she pulled it out day after day for, I believe, a matter of weeks. Everyday Mike would come home and my mother would ask “what did you do today?” Mike would reply “went looking for erosions.” Like most parents, mine probably didn’t pay super careful attention to the ins and out of what was going on with our schooling, however after some weeks of this my mother started to find all this erosion action a bit strange.

“You went looking for erosions again?”

“Yup,” said my brother. “More erosions.” I think Mike was totally fine looking for erosions all day, as I would have been, however my mother had heard enough.

“That’s too much looking for erosions. It’s been weeks and you’re still looking for erosions. I’m going to talk to somebody.”

I believe my mother did talk to somebody, because L.K. changed up her all erosion all the time strategy. I think she was still checked out, but maybe made an effort to disguise it a little better. She left the school at the end of that year as I recall and I don’t know what happened to her after that.

That’s the funny thing about teachers—they are often remembered by students for the strangest thing they did. I don’t remember a single thing from L.K.’s class or anything else about her really, but I do remember that she loved her some erosions.

Drawing a Sun for N.C.

As I mentioned, SGS had the Davenport House, which was right across from the lower school, and one of the rooms of the Davenport House was used as a classroom when I was there. We had Science class in this room for a while. One day, the teacher asked us to draw the solar system or something like that, and I started by drawing the sun. Now I had always seen the sun depicted with like pointy rays of light coming out of it—you know, the sun looks kind of angular most of the time. So that’s how I drew it.

There was a girl in my class we’ll call N.C. I don’t know if anyone else from SGS back then remembers her because she wasn’t there for too long, but I do and I had a huge crush on her. In fact, I thought about her all the time. We would play tag games on the lawn on the Davenport House, “freeze tag,” and “television tag,” (I don’t remember the rules) and I would always try to tag N.C. just to be close to her. Anyway, N.C. was in Science class with me, and I showed her my sun, which I thought was pretty solid. Then, another classmate, a boy whose name I forget but who was a bad seed, interrupted my little chat with N.C.

“That’s not what the sun looks like. The sun doesn’t really have rays like that. It’s actually just round. Look at my paper, I have it the right way.”

Sure enough, this little brat had drawn the sun like a big red circle. Now I suspected at the time that on some level this guy was probably right, and that the sun as an actual mass or whatever didn’t have physical rays. But his sun looked super ugly, and also he was putting my drawing down in front of N.C. and just basically being terrible. So I turned to N.C.

“What do you think N.C. Which sun do you like better?”

And N.C. just smiled at me and said “I like your sun better.”

That was all I needed to hear. N.C. was on my team, and the little brat could stick his sun where…well you know. I was elated by N.C.’s appreciation; my sun had carried the day. I was totally in love with her, more than ever, after this sun incident.

A while back I tried looking N.C. up online, and although her name is not super common, I found four or five people who could have been her. I was hoping to send her the sun story and say thanks, but I didn’t want to just fire this anecdote over to a bunch of random N.C.’s, so I held back. If you do know who I’m talking about and you know where she’s at, let me know. Maybe she remembers my pretty solid sun.

More George Edwards Action (with a cameo from the Manimal, Kenneth Faried)

I mentioned above that when he was headmaster of SGS George Edwards was entangled up with L.K. And this is true. He was headmaster for a while though, so he also did some other stuff.

All in all I would say George Edwards was a mediocre headmaster. He looked more or less the part, wore a mustache that was less Frenchy than my middle school French teacher Mr. Dreyer’s, and generally didn’t intervene too much in school matters, which was a positive. He was a decent public speaker, and put on a good showing at the annual auction and things of that nature. On the other hand, he was not especially inspiring, and as we’ve seen, had some stuff going on in his personal life which distracted him. He was from Texas originally and when he first came to the school his wife came with him, but I think this was just for show because she was out of there pretty soon after. Like I said, he was at the school for a while and I actually took a class from him in high school. More on that in a second.

I was at the school a lot because my father taught there and also coached basketball and stuff into the evenings, and myself and my friend J.T., whose father also taught at the school, kind of had the run of the place. J.T. somehow got copies of the master keys to the middle school and upper school made and gave me a set, and we would just open up the buildings whenever we wanted and go wherever. J.T. and I would sneak into the faculty lounge in the high school and pinch sugar cubes from the teacher’s coffee area, and later on we snuck into the science room to appropriate some ammonia packs from the first aid kits. I think someone eventually noticed that the first aid kits were always running out of ammonia. Yeah, that was us. George Edwards was gone a lot, and we would also go on into the Davenport House, which somehow was just open, and poke around. We probably even did this a few times when George Edwards was staying there, which is admittedly a little bizarre. The Davenport House had a kind of servants’ area as I recall, and a back set of stairs which was really cool.

Anyway, because I was always around, George Edwards asked me one time to babysit his daughter when he was off doing something. I was probably in middle school at this time, and his daughter was about 8 or 9. His daughter is probably a lovely person today, but at the time she was known to be a bit of a handful. In addition to the L.K. factor, George Edwards was, in my recollection perpetually, going through a divorce and things may have been a little tense on the Edwards family front. I didn’t know his daughter too well, but I said sure, I’ll babysit. Good he said, you can do whatever you want but just don’t let her dance on the roof.

This seemed like a very specific instruction, and I wondered what he meant. Was he just giving me a general example of a bad idea, or was she an inveterate roof dancer and I’d somehow have to try to control this tendency? It turned out to be the latter. The babysitting was going fine for a while, until she said:

“I’m going to go dance on the roof.”

“Uh, I’m not sure that’s a good idea. Your dad told me not to let you do that.”

“Yeah, I’m going to go dance on the roof. Are you coming?”

Now I was bigger than her, and a guy, but still it’s not exactly easy to corral an 8 year old girl hellbent on roof dancing, and I clearly wasn’t going to be able to talk her out of it. So, I thought, the best thing to do was to go with her and keep an eye on things. The “roof” was actually not the roof of the house exactly, more like an open patio area that a window on the second floor opened on to. It didn’t really have any railings or anything around it, and all in all it was not the safest spot for dancing. However, it was medium big and looked kind of OK. Also she was clearly a veteran roof dancer, so I figured she had it under control.

She danced for a while and I watched, and then we went back inside. I had a pretty nice day with her as she was actually pretty cool, and then George Edwards came home.

“How’d it go,” he asked. “She didn’t dance on the roof did she?”

“No sir, nothing like that at all. We just stayed inside mostly and read books and talked.”

“Good job. She does like to dance on that roof. I’m glad you handled her today.”

I told George Edwards a fib, it’s true, but I felt like I earned my money you know. Roof dancing had occurred, but it has also been contained. You’re welcome there George Edwards.

One day during the George Edwards era when I was poking around the Davenport House for reasons passing understanding I came across a soft-core videotape in the TV room on the second floor. There was a picture on the box of some frolicking beach babes and it had some kind of suggestive title. Interesting, I thought, George Edwards likes himself some beach babes. More interesting than that though was the fact that he just left this lying around. Maybe George Edwards needed a couple of lessons in headmaster trade craft. Or perhaps he didn’t expect that J.T. and I would just be cruising around his house uninvited. In any case, I would get a different kind of glimpse into the person behind the role via a story my classmates related to me which happened one day when I was staying home with my trick knee.

What is a trick knee? Well, the trick knee was the patented move of a Seattle Seahawks defensive lineman called Joe Nash back in the day. Basically Nash, and sometimes his teammates, would fake an injury (thus the “trick knee”) to stop the clock late in the game. In American Football it is super important to stop the clock in late game situations; this is why you always see players trying to get out of bounds in these spots. Joe Nash and the Seahawks found a loophole in the rules, which at the time didn’t prohibit the fake injury move. I believe the rules have now been adjusted.

I found an article from the South Florida Sun-Sentinel by one Sharon Robb from 1989 that talks about this. (The South Florida Sun-Sentinel has some super organized archives by the way.) Robb is talking about the 1988 AFC title game between the Seahawks and the Cincinnati Bengals. “Clarke” here is Ken Clarke, Nash’s fellow defensive lineman.

Seven times Nash (five) and Clarke (two) took turns faking injuries on third-down situations to enable the Seahawks’ nickel defense to get onto the field. After the third time Nash went down, the crowd of 58,560 caught on and started booing. Cincinnati coach Sam Wyche and his players were livid, complaining to whatever official was within earshot. The fourth time, Nash went down and feigned injury without ever getting hit, and walked off the field under his own power.

I remember watching this game and marveling at Nash’s trick knee move. To me this was an example of exactly the kind of player I liked. Nash was probably not the best lineman in the league, but he did what he had to to try and help the Seahawks win. I played basketball for a while at SGS and later on as well. As a basketball player I had strengths and weaknesses, but was never going to be the go to scorer. So I developed other skills, especially offensive rebounding. This was my specialty, and my favorite NBA player of all time is the Manimal Kenneth Faried. Like me, Faried wasn’t a great scorer, but he made up for it with his dominating offensive rebounding. He stuck around the league for a while because of just this one skill.

When I was in graduate school in Arizona in my 20s I played a lot of pick-up at the gym there. Pick-up is interesting because players mostly don’t know each other and just have to kind of fit together on the fly. This process is pretty hit or miss; however I was a good pick-up teammate because I could score if need be, but was just as happy to try and dominate the glass on both ends, especially the offensive glass. Most pick-up players don’t rebound all that hard, so by just going all out in that aspect of the game I could pretty much control it a lot of the time. One day I was matched up against a slightly older guy and I was kicking his ass on the glass. I was pulling out all my moves, and he basically had no chance. He started getting mad and began pushing me in the small of the back when I was going for a rebound. In basketball a little pushing and elbowing is acceptable but pushing your opponent in the small of the back is bad form. I let him know his play was out of line and told him:

“Hey dude, you can push me all you want and I’m still going to eat your lunch on the boards.” This was the last straw and my guy said something I’ll never forget:

“You aren’t a real basketball player. You’re just a fucking garbage man.”

What he meant was I was just picking up all the rebounds and loose balls like a garbage man picks up trash. He intended it as an insult, but I took it as a huge compliment. I am absolutely a garbage man, me and the Manimal both.

Anyway, I loved Joe Nash so I copied his trick knee move. Not on the football field though, my trick knee would flare up on days when I didn’t feel like going to school. “My knee hurts,” I’d tell my mother, and she’d let me stay home. I didn’t pull this move out much because I basically liked going to school, but once and a while my chronic knee condition got the best of me. One day in what must have been 1990 (just a bit after Joe Nash’s epic playoff performance) I was trick-kneeing it and missed George Edward’s class, which I recall was some kind of government class or something. The fabulist and video game loser John Innes will remember.

The reason that I know this happened in 1990 is because this was when the First Gulf War was kicking off. It turned out that George Edwards had once upon a time been in the military, or more precisely I think he was at the time in the military reserves. The gulf action must have made him feel nostalgic or something, because the next day after my knee had healed I went back to school and my classmates told me something extraordinary had happened in government class. What was that? I asked. George Edwards had us go outside and march, they told me. March? What kind of marching? Military marching, they told me. He had us do military marches and gave this big talk about the military and he was actually crying.

Now this all sounded pretty odd, and I felt like my trick knee had worsened on just the right day because I sure wasn’t up for any marching.

“What was going on with him?” I asked.

“We don’t know. He was just getting super emotional and he made us march on the road all class.”

Although I was glad to have missed it, I found this story interesting. To be fair, this was not an L.K.-like move where George Edwards just didn’t feel like teaching that day. He was out leading the marching, apparently. He wasn’t a great government teacher—as I said above he was not that inspiring a fellow in general—however after I heard about the marching I liked him better. This incident, I felt, provided a little window into the real guy, the Texas native who liked beach babes, didn’t want his daughter falling off the roof, and felt a deep connection to the military reserves.

One thing I wonder about is if any other teacher at the school was aware that all this marching was going on. I think they must have been because it apparently took place right on the road in front of the school. I wrote in my Mr. Dreyer piece about how back in the day teachers would just do questionable stuff and nothing happened. George Edwards was the principal, so he probably had carte blanche on the marching front in any case, but did no one ask him, “hey there George Edwards, everything OK out there today? Maybe we should chill a bit on all the marching” or anything? It can be really tough to tell principals what to do, although I’ve gotten pretty good it in my own career. Anyway, I wonder.

George Edwards moved to Seattle later on and got another head of school job. My brother Mike ran into him over there and says he’s a really good guy. As for his daughter, I hope she’s still out there, dancing her little heart out.

Dedication: For N.C., wherever you are.

to be continued…

On John Innes, the Fabulist (with cameos from Hunter S. Thompson and Bruce Innes)

John Innes is a high school English teacher in Oregon. He works at a Catholic School there where he also coaches basketball, and probably does some other stuff. His players call him “Coach Innes,” and I think they respect him. And this is reasonable enough. Innes is a good coach, and good teacher, and most of the time a pretty good guy. He used to be a good golfer, but I think he lost it. Too much water on the elbow, can’t control the slice. But teachers show one side of themselves in the classroom and another outside of it. What John Innes has kept hidden from his students and players is that he is big fabulist.

I know this because Innes, probably to fill the time when his lesson plans peter out or something, is known to tell stories about the days when he and I were in high school and university together. And these stories are all completely bonkers. Innes will tell his students a story about me throwing people into the Little Spokane river back in high school. But I would never do that. I mean the Little Spokane is cold, and what kind of person would toss a fellow student into a cold river just because? Also, to get to the Little Spokane, which ran by our school, you had to cross a super long bridge. I’m not dragging some chick or dude across a super long bridge just to get them wet. Doesn’t make sense. I don’t know where Innes gets this stuff. It’s totally ridiculous. Innes is big old fabulist.

In another of his little “stories,” Innes claims that during university at Hamilton College I snuck into the chapel there on campus and climbed up into the bell tower. Now, there might have been a chapel at Hamilton, sure. There might have been a lot of things. Hamilton has some pretty old buildings, and it’s not impossible that a chapel would have some kind of bells in it. But I’m not gonna go climbing up there. Innes fancies himself a “literature” teacher, and maybe he’s mixing in some part of a Dorothy Sayers plot or something. Also, Innes may be extrapolating from the notion that I generally may attempt to access certain spaces that might seem “off limits.” That’s possible. I mean, if I see a “Members Only” sign on the door of a club, I’m gonna think “hey there pal, I’m a member. In fact, I’m a permanent member baby” and I’m gonna go right on in. I have also noticed that in buildings where there may be some public spaces and some private or closed spaces, if you are dressed nicely, as I can, and are pretty tall, as I am, you can sometimes just wander wherever and people will, by and large, just let you, especially if you wear some kind of lanyard around your neck. But this doesn’t mean I’m going to go poking around a bunch of bells. It’s totally ridiculous. Innes is a big fabulist, and he needs to get over it.

Innes tells another story about me graduating from university in linen. What’s he even talking about? I mean, I did graduate and have a piece of paper somewhere I think, but linen? What a bizarre thing to say. And for that matter, what if I did? Linen is a cloth, clothes are made from cloth, I was presumably clothed at graduation. So what? I think what may be going on here is that the water from his elbow is migrating up to his brain. I want to give him the benefit of the doubt, and what I do recall is that I wore a little purple flower in my hair at graduation and some dude from the newspaper took a picture of me and this ran somewhere. Innes may have remembered the flower thing and then imagined a whole bunch of other nonsense around it. Linen. It’s totally ridiculous. His fables are just getting out of control.

So Innes apparently thinks it’s funny to spin a bunch of nonsense about me. I don’t know exactly why he does this, but he may come by his mendacity honestly, so to speak. Innes has a father called Bruce Innes. Bruce Innes is a Canadian, and a pretty interesting guy. He used to be in a band called The Original Caste, and they had a hit called “One Tin Soldier.” The song is still pretty well known to a certain generation, which is cool. That band split and Bruce Innes must have drifted around blowing his money for a while, cause he ended up in Spokane in the late 80s, which is when I met the known liar John Innes. I went to Bruce Innes’ house sometimes in order to crush John Innes at a video game called “R.B.I. Baseball.” I don’t play a lot of video games, but it doesn’t matter. I crushed John Innes at Sega Hockey a few years later as well and he whined about it for weeks. Guy has water on the elbow from way back.

Anyway, Bruce Innes’ Spokane house was pretty large and had a fully soundproofed music studio in the basement. I’d never seen anything like this and assumed that he must have some serious cash. But I don’t think this was actually the case. Like I said, I think Bruce Innes had spent most of his money from his music heyday by this time. My brother Mike, who remembers some stuff and forgets other stuff, told me recently that Bruce Innes made his living around this time by writing jingles for an audio and video store in town called Huppins. I don’t remember anything about this, but it’s too specific not to be at least a little bit true. It can’t all have been Huppins though, right? He must have done other stuff. Bruce Innes ended up leaving Spokane and moving to Sun Valley where he became the go to guy to play music sets at rich people’s parties. Then he moved to Oregon. I don’t know where he lives now. So yeah, he’s had an interesting life.

Back in the days when Bruce Innes was high on the hog with his music royalties he ran around with some famous folks. He met Leonard Cohen, and told me one time that Cohen was a total dick. Leonard Cohen is a legend of course, and is now remembered best as a genial older statesman, but this doesn’t preclude the possibility that back in the 70’s he may have been a dick. Doesn’t preclude it at all. Mr. Google says that Bruce Innes also knew Joni Mitchell. More well known though is Bruce Innes’ association with the writer Hunter S. Thompson. Most people of a certain age will remember Thompson, the “gonzo” inheritor of Hemingway and a pretty major figure in American literary history. Thompson wrote Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, in which he relates a funny anecdote of bonding over college football with President Richard Nixon in the back of a car sometime, despite the fact that Thompson hated Nixon. Thompson also wrote Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which I also have read. This is the book that the Terry Gilliam movie is based on, the one where Benicio DelToro plays Thompson’s sidekick and always advises him “as your lawyer…,” a phrase that has entered popular culture and is still widely used.

This is also the book that features Bruce Innes and some story about a monkey. I’m not sure if this next part is in Las Vegas or not, and in fact I think it isn’t, but another story is that Thompson and Bruce Innes were hanging out in Colorado somewhere and decided they would run for political office on the same ticket. Thompson would run for sheriff and Bruce Innes would run for something else. Now, Thompson’s run for sheriff is a well known piece of his mythos, and he did actually have a platform under the umbrella of “Freak Power,” but I imagine that whatever this run really entailed, Thompson exaggerated it pretty dramatically in later telling. I’ve heard Bruce Innes talk about this as well, and he makes it sound like the two of them were actually aspiring politicians for a time. But I don’t believe it. I’ll bet you what happened was these two guys were hanging out and getting stoned, and thought it would be funny if they “ran” for office. They probably got a poster or two made and hung them up around town, told all their friends about it as a lark, and talked a bunch of BS for a while. Bruce Innes is a great guy, but I think he and Thompson are kind of full of it. So like I say, John Innes probably comes by it honestly.

Whatever the source of John Innes’ struggles with the truth, one time after he had told some of his usual whoppers about me, one of his students found these stories interesting and wrote me a request for more information. He actually wrote it in verse, which was pretty creative, so I wrote him back in the same style on an flight out of Adelaide. The poem basically attempts to correct the record that the fabulist John Innes distorted. It also touches on some of the lowlights of my college career, including my fondness for writing excuses for students who needed extensions, the fact that I sported a tan trench coat for much of my first year, and my inability to get a steady girlfriend. John Innes, the known liar, is referred to as “J.I.” in the poem. In the interest of having some of my “b-sides” back in print, I am re-posting this guy in its original form. It’s called “An Open Book,” and I gotta say, it’s still pretty good.

“An Open Book”

Not really in the mood
but you’ll think me quite rude
if I don’t make a reply
around me on the plane
folks eat, are entertained
no one’s writing save I

So I’ll take a look back
to days at the dog track
where I ended up by mistake
thought we could beat the odds
just silly teenage sods
there was no money to make

I know not if J.I.
has spun a pack of lies
concerning my personhood
Yes, I wrote poems for girls
who told me they were pearls
ah–but they weren’t any good

About a cold river,
and the rest of his quiver
of myths and exaggerations
well if someone was shoved
it was done out of love
or congratulations

So to upstate New York
in a trench coat–what a dork
but the world took pity
the life there was fine
but naught was on the line
should have gone to the city

I did two things quite well,
needing something to sell
I wrote brilliant excuses
‘bout ridiculous capers,
couldn’t finish my papers
I claimed aces, held deuces

My second great skill
is one I hold still
I fell for crazy ladies
locals, Russians, and Turks
they all drove me berserk
with a boatload of maybes

Four years in the dorms
and countless reforms
led to little of note
I left sans a sob
a plan or a job
and without my trench coat

Dedication: For John Innes, the fabulist. You know I won that Sega game, but I confess I may have tried to get up in that bell tower. So let’s call it a tie there baby.

On Good Talkers and Great Talkers (featuring my friends Kelly and Marc Campbell)

I think I’m a pretty good talker. But I’m not a great talker. The reason I know this is because my friend Kelly is a great talker. And I can’t hold a candle to him.

In this piece I want to explore what makes a good talker good and a great talker great. Here, our conclusion can be partially stated upfront: a good talker will almost always also be a good BSer. Everyone knows what BS is, of course, and the term is usually used pejoratively, more or less, for example in phrases such as “oh that’s a bunch of BS,” or “come on dude, cut the BS.” However, BS is clearly also an essential element of the talker’s toolkit (from now on we will simply use the term “talker” unless specifically delineating between a good and a great talker). BS alone though does not a great talker make. There has to be something else involved. Let’s see if we can figure out what this might be.

We will start with an example from my professional life. I work in a high school in Japan, and it’s a fairly complex place. Although a Japanese school, it also features two different international courses and over time we have welcomed a wide variety of visitors from around the world for various reasons. A few years back, we hosted a group of educators from Abu Dhabi, including at least one representative of the Abu Dhabi Ministry of Education. My boss at the time was a Japanese gentlemen who spoke decent, but not phenomenal, English. He was set to give a welcome speech to this group, and my boss loved, absolutely loved, networking and hosting visitors at our school. It was his singular passion. The higher ranked or more “prestigious” they were the better. A visiting teacher from Elton College would be treated like the Pope, accorded all of the pomp and ceremony of a royal visit. Although an inveterate networker, my boss was not a natural public speaker, and he was uncomfortable making such an important speech in English, so he asked me to write something for him. Some people might have found this request to be annoying or even insulting, but I relished it. The role of the ghostwriter is one I greatly enjoy, because it gives me a chance to slip a few little things in there just for me. I have a bit of a weakness for inside jokes.

The Abu Dhabi visit was in early April, just in time for cherry blossom season in Japan. A few places around the world, including Washington D.C., celebrate cherry blossom season; however, in Japan it’s huge. People come from around the world to see the blossoms, and there’s even a special type of event called the hanami where folks from salarymen to universities students and everyone in between will set up tarps or blankets by the river or in a park under the cherry blossoms and get blasted. The Japanese refer to the cherry blossoms as sakura. So, I thought, what would be more natural than to open the speech with a reference to the sakura?

I don’t remember much about the speech, but I do remember the first few lines. They went like this:

It is my great pleasure to offer you a very warm welcome to Japan and (school name). We are deeply honored to receive such a prestigious group from the wonderful country of Abu Dhabi. And indeed, you have fortunately come at the perfect time to see the famous Japanese cherry blossoms, the sakura.

Now this might not sound too out of the ordinary, however for me the genius lay in the last comma. In my head I heard a deep and pregnant pause between “the famous Japanese cherry blossoms” and “the sakura.” As I like to say, it was funny to me. I sent the speech to my boss and we didn’t really have time to go over it, so I just hoped for the best. Now my boss wasn’t much of a writer, but he was, in his own way, a showman. He had clearly spent time practicing the speech, and when he spoke these first lines his delivery exceeded even my wildest expectations. Not only was the pregnant pause there, it was deeper and more profound than I had dreamed. He has perfectly grasped the import of the comma. This guy f***ing nailed it.

What does this have to do with BS? Well, when I wrote the lines above, in my own way I was BSing. I knew my boss’s taste for VIPs ran deep and so made sure to lay it on pretty thick (“great pleasure,” “very warm welcome,” “wonderful country,” etc.). Also, the comma, in its own way, was total BS. And the fact that my boss killed his delivery meant that he not only understood BS on an elemental level, he relished it too.

Later on during that same meeting with the Abu Dhabi folks my boss presented about some English vocabulary system our school was using as part of the English curriculum. This was a software program designed by my boss’ buddy that the school had paid an absurd amount of money to lease. It was, predictably, a piece of trash. However, my boss built it up as the greatest piece of educational tech since whatever, and showed a little of it on an overhead screen. The visitors were no dummies though, and one of them asked a sensible question: “why did you decide to go with this essentially handmade program where there are a lot of well-known and tested commercial programs available?” My boss wasn’t going to touch that one, so he turned it over to me. Now, I knew this thing was complete garbage; however, I also recognized, in addition to the need to save face, the opportunity to lay on a little BS. So I said something like:

“Well, that’s a really good question (always start with this when BSing an answer because it gives you time to think)

we chose this program after looking carefully at the alternatives (not true—we had looked at no alternatives)

and we felt in the end that this program best met the very specific needs of Japanese learners (also total nonsense—there is nothing so specific about Japanese learners that a software program needs to be so tailored).

In all our experience working with Japanese students, we felt like we needed something bespoke and fit-for-purpose, and we are really happy with our choice… (when BSing it is advised to throw around words like “bespoke” and “fit-for-purpose” in the hopes of throwing your listener(s) off the scent).

I probably went on some more, but you get the idea. The questioner thanked me and we moved on, however I knew that I had not in fact thrown him off the scent. He knew that I was BSing; I knew that he knew that I was BSing; and I like to think that maybe he knew that I knew that he knew that I was BSing. If so, he played his part in our little production to a T as well.

How did I feel about packing so much BS into one afternoon? I felt great about it. In the long history of bullshit corporate communications, the exaggerations and white lies I told that day rank pretty low down the list in terms of negative externalities if you will, and our visitors went away feeling welcomed and catered to, BS vocabulary programs aside. I guess in this instance I was a “pretty good talker.” However a great talker needs to do more than smooth over an awkward question in an education meeting. A great talker needs to prove it when there is substantially more on the line. To explicate this point, let’s take a look at an incident where my friend Kelly talked some dude out of murdering us.

My friend Kelly is a great talker. Ever since I’ve known him, he’s been a serial exaggerator, however, far from being a limitation to his conversational ability, it’s a huge asset. This is because, unlike another type of exaggerator who exaggerates their own role or place in a story (let’s call this the “narcissistic exaggerator,”) Kelly instead downplays his own role while simultaneously boosting usually one other player into comic, even mythic heights (let’s call this the “comic exaggerator”). Kelly is a lawyer, and if he’s telling a story about a country lawyer he’s run across, for instance, this fellow gets built up and built up, his every mannerism and turn of phrase turned up to 11, until we have not just a comic figure, but a heroic one. As for Kelly’s own role in whatever drama he is recounting, that gets dismissed with an “aw shucks, I was just kind of there” wave of his metaphorical hand. Kelly has had this ability forever, and has honed it to an art form. I have good reason to think that his abilities as a talker are instinctual, rather than learned, however, because of an instance where he had to draw on skills far different than his normal style.

One time my friend Kelly and I decided (well he decided and I went along) to walk from suburban Spokane where he lived all the way up to a kind of resort/ lodge place high up on Mount Spokane. The walk was about 20 miles, and would take all day. Now, a 20 mile hike is one thing—that’s pretty long—however hikes can be quite pleasant for those so inclined. This was not a hike though, as the whole thing was on public roads, most of them out in the middle of nowhere. All in all, this was not the best plan Kelly ever came up with, however we set out and were about 10 or 12 miles into the trek, outside of town, when a reddish car came flying down the hill in front of us. The driver saw us and swerved right at us. This, unfortunately, is something that sometimes happens in the U.S. for reasons passing understanding. This dude though didn’t just swerve toward us a bit, he full on tried to take us out. So much so in fact that his car went perpendicular to the road and halfway into the ditch and got stuck.

This seemed bad, and my instinct was to run with Kelly into the nearby field. Kelly, however, had other ideas. The guy got out of the car and started yelling at us: “you f***ing kids…, f*** you…, etc.” Not very creative, but still pretty worrying. Kelly though had the situation in hand from the get-go. He walked right over to the guy (who was at least 10 or 15 years older than us) and started talking to him:

Hey buddy, what’s going on? You having a bad day man? Anything I can do? Looks like your car get a bit stuck there—that’s OK, my friend and I will help dig you out.

Now I knew Kelly pretty well and knew he was a good talker from way back as mentioned. But this was another level. And the effect on the irate driver was incredible. In no time at all the guy was apologizing to Kelly, telling him his woes, and asking how we could get his car out together. Sure enough a few minutes later we were all three pushing and pulling his car out of the ditch and he went on his way.

What was going on here? Kelly must have realized somehow that the driver didn’t bear any specific ill-will toward us and was just engaging in a little road-rage because he was an angry about something or other. Also, the guy’s car was truly stuck, and neither Kelly nor I are small dudes, so he might not have liked his odds if it came to a fight. But there was just something about the way Kelly approached and disarmed him so quickly that I couldn’t really wrap my mind around. I realized then that my friend Kelly was not just a good talker, he was a great talker.

Although I’ve never seen anyone else pull off what Kelly did on that day, the general form of what he did I have seen before. In fact, a very similar, but slightly lower-stakes, incident happened when I was in university and attended a fraternity party. I was not in a fraternity and didn’t want to be. I did go to some fraternity parties just because that was what people did. Occasionally these parties could be creative, but mostly usually they were every bit as cliched as you might imagine—bros broing out and trying to get laid, women doing whatever the female equivalent of broing out might be, drunk billiards in the basement, people passing out on jungle juice, etc. Not only do these sound like terrible parties now, they were pretty terrible even back then. Nonetheless, I was at one, along with some friends from my dorm including Marc Campbell. Marc is maybe not the purest form of great talker that Kelly is, but he’s pretty darn good. While Kelly’s style is often oratorical (and BS laden—more on that in a moment), Marc’s style is smoother and has more of a cool jazz feel. Where Kelly goes for the comedically dramatic exaggeration, Marc stays more in the realm of gentle patter. Both talkers though achieve a sort of hypnotic effect through their respective styles, and Marc’s patter came in handy at this particular party.

We were a group of about five, and had barely entered the door when some guy I didn’t know came up and started getting in our face for no apparent reason. He was directing his attention to another member of our group—maybe they had run into each other before? It wasn’t clear, but what was clear is that this guy was itching for a fight right out of the gate. Now I have been in plenty of situations where I have had to try to defuse something or someone from kicking off, and have some skills in this arena. However, most people’s instincts, my own included, still tend to be a little defensive. Most people, even if committed to defusal, might say something like: “hey dude, settle down. There’s no need to be so aggro man. Just chill.” This kind of approach can work, however there is no guarantee that it will. Sometimes people who are looking to pick a fight will fall back on a kind of bizarre and unwarranted self-righteousness, coming back with something like “I’m not gonna f***ing chill man—don’t tell me what to do. You wanna see aggro, I’ll give you aggro.” So the “dude settle down” approach is a bit hit or miss. Marc Campbell could do better.

Instead of telling the guy to chill, Marc Campbell pulled out a Kelly-like move. Although he was not the direct object of the guy’s ire, he went right over to the guy and stuck his hand out. “Hi I’m Marc,” he said “nice to meet you. What’s your name?” Just like that. Marc didn’t even reference the fact that this guy was acting like a total ass-clown for no reason at all—in fact he acted like he didn’t even notice it. The effect on this guy was exactly the same as with the angry driver. The guy calmed down immediately and he and Marc started rapping. In no time at all the situation was completely defused and everyone was friends.

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The Genius Razzlekhan and the Phony Nassim Nicholas Taleb

I went home with a waitress/ the way I always do/ how was I to know/ she was with the Russians too.

Warren Zevon

This is the saga of the queen of crypto hacking Heather Morgan, aka Razzlekhan, and the shameless tail chaser and phony public intellectual (is there any other kind?) Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Just so we are clear about who is who here, Taleb, the bestselling author “The Black Swan” and “Antifragile” is the villain, and Morgan, who along with her husband is accused of pulling off the largest heist in human history, $4.5 billion dollars, is the heroine. Morgan was briefly a Twitter star in late February, 2022 when her alleged crimes were revealed; however her stardom was not based on her hacking prowess, but rather on what was perceived (incorrectly) to be her world-historically awful rap videos, including, but not limited to, her banger “Versace Bedouin,” in which names herself “the crocodile of Wall Street.” Here is a taste of her work (note that the real Heather Morgan appears to be in her early 30’s, and is certainly not a grandmother. Also, the video depicts Morgan rapping around the Wall Street district of New York City with three women “dancing” behind her, one wearing large green gardening gloves and carrying a flag with a design we are unable to clearly see for the entire video):

Razzlekhan’s the name/ the hot grandma you really wanna bang/ always run the gilf game/ ever since I was fif-taneee

I’m many things/ a rapper, an economist, a journalist, a writer, a CEO/ and a dirty dirty dirty dirty ho

Better than most writers/ creepier than most girls/ weirder than most rappers/ but I still rock pearls.

Alert listeners will note the apparent Liz Phair reference vis a vis Razz’s sexual maneuvering in her teens, suggesting that there may be at least a little guile to her lyrics. But what impresses me (and I’ll just state this right out–I think Razzlekhan is a misunderstood genius) is the straight ahead sincerity of the lyrics. I mean, Versace Bedouin was released before Morgan was implicated in the crypto hack and here is her dedication at the top of the song:

Never forget, weirdest is the most original/ this song is for the entrepreneurs and hackers/ all the misfits and smart slackers.

The really hardcore music fan may pick up a possible Drugstore reference from “Say Hello”:

I say hello/ to all the junkies/ the sinners and the creeps/ I say hello to all the people in this place/ I say hello /to all the drug heads/ the prostitutes and freaks/ I say hello/ to all the people in the world!

But even I don’t think Morgan is a Drugstore fan, so the resemblance is most likely coincidental. What I love about Razz’s work here is that Versace Bedouin is a simple and totally sincere statement of intent. She tells the listener exactly who she is and what she’s about. She’s a weirdo and misfit, a hacker, a probable criminal, a business owner, and a dirty ho, and she is just letting the world know. She is, as the kids say, putting the motherfucking world on blast. Razzlekhan is coming for your bitcoin, baby, lock that shit down.

And the media loved it. The Guardian wrote a long (and pretty helpful) article on Morgan with the lead “Is this the new face of organized crime? Decoding Razzlekhan, the rapping bitcoin fraudster.”

“Who is this Bitcoin crime queen” they write breathlessly “and what does she tell us about the future of organized crime?” Well Mr. Guardian, that’s a good question that maybe I can shed some light on. Morgan and her husband (who, like the rest of the uncaring world didn’t care for her rap career–Heather I’m here for you baby; just reach out) stole the money, allegedly, from the platform Bitfinix but were unable to convert much of into cash or liquid assets and had to settle for Walmart gift cards instead. So that might tell you something–I’m not sure how organized the pair was.

Mr. Guardian again:

“It is hard to articulate how it feels to be alive in an age of massive wealth disparity and multiple deregulatory lines of questionable crypto minting, but I think watching an alleged Bitcoin embezzler struggle through painful rap bars in a flat-billed cap that reads ‘0FCKS’ is a good summation of the overwhelming confusion.”

But it really isn’t hard to articulate at all–it feels great, because while Heather Morgan the journalist, CEO, and dirty ho may be facing a little legal trouble, Razzlekhan the artist, in my opinion, stands unbloodied and unbowed atop the pinnacle of outsider art along with Daniel Johnston, Mayo Thompson, and the handful of other transcendent geniuses so far ahead of their time they were subject to as much ridicule as they were celebration.

(My favorite piece of music criticism ever comes from a Pitchfork review which doesn’t seem to be online anymore of The Red Krayola’s 1989 album malefactor, ade–it must have been a re-release because Pitchfork wasn’t around in ’89 of course–where the critic accuses Mayo Thompson of “playing the guitar badly, on purpose.” And it’s pretty true. The Red Krayola is out there.)

Razz herself embraces the outsider role and speaks directly to her artistic origins and sensibilities in her artistic biography:

Razzlekhan is like Genghis Khan, but with more pizzazz… No one knows for sure where this rapper’s from — could be the North African desert, the jungles of Vietnam, or another universe. All that matters is she’s here to stick up for misfits and underdogs everywhere (…) Because Razz has synesthesia, her art often resembles something in between an acid trip and a delightful nightmare. Definitely not for the faint of heart or easily offended, Razz likes to push the limits of what people are comfortable with. Her style has often been described as “sexy horror-comedy,” because of her fondness for combining dark and disturbing concepts with dirty jokes and gestures. Just like her fearless entrepreneurial spirit and hacker mindset, Razz shamelessly explores new frontiers of art, pushing the limit of what’s possible. Whether that leads to something wonderful or terrible is unclear; the only thing that’s certain is it won’t be boring or mediocre.

To my knowledge, no major media outlet even gave Razzlekhan a fighting chance; however I invite you to read the above self-description again with care. She is not in the least bit joking around. She identifies variously as a Bedouin, Turkish, a nomad, and an alien. Later in the same piece she identifies her influences as: Die Antwoord, Tierra Whack, Mickey Avalon, Salvador Dali, Diane Arbus, Hunter S. Thompson, Roald Dahl, and Charles Bukowski. This is a consistent, real, list of artists that a true outsider might well identify with. At the Razzlekhan level, the distance between greatness and awfulness is razor thin, artistic merit being, like everything else really, a circle not a line. In any case, judge for yourself–pull up a Razzlekhan video on You Tube (they are still there) and see what you think.

But what does any of this have to do with the author Nassim Nicholas Taleb? Well, it would have had nothing to do with him if our boy hadn’t chosen, with exquisitely poor judgment, to interject himself into the Heather Morgan/ Razzlekhan drama. Within hours of the heist news breaking, Mr. Taleb posted the following:

I have several things to say about this nonsense:

I. Check his use of “Attention” and the scare word “vulnerability.” Taleb thinks this message is super important and even urgent. He’s got to get it out there RIGHT NOW.

II. The story is obviously total BS. Taleb seems to have no sense of how Twitter works, and his narrative is so bizarre that he is basically begging for a roasting, which users in the hundreds did, of course.

III. Taleb gives no insight into why Morgan was DMing him. What did she want? Well, users, myself included, had a theory as to what might actually have occurred here. Occam’s Razor would suggest that at some point Morgan and Taleb began exchanging DMs, possibly on her initiative, as she was writing extensively for Business Insider and Forbes I believe, and maybe she wanted to ask Taleb something about one of his books. Taleb then pivoted into a bit of tail chasing, or, as one Twitter denizen put it slightly less crudely, he was looking for a little “bobs and vagine.” When Morgan was arrested, Taleb got spooked that somehow their DMs would leak, so he concocted a ridiculous cover story almost (but not quite) as stupid and unbelievable as Joy Reid’s claim that her fifteen year old blog with homophobic jokes and comments was hacked by Russians.

IV. The use of “some more recently” is a pure “tell.” Taleb’s bobs and vagineing has been going on for some time, it seems. But why in the world would Taleb think that the messages would leak just because Morgan was arrested (she was later released and her husband was held in custody, and I haven’t been able to get a status update on where she is today)? I mean there are really only two options:

i) that the messages would be released by the FBI or something as pertinent to the case, in which case Taleb and Morgan would have been discussing her hacking. This seems highly unlikely;

ii) Morgan would choose to release them herself in an effort to incriminate Taleb. But Nicholas baby, this is just not going to be a priority for Morgan after her arrest. I mean, she is accused of stealing 4.5 billion, and she’s got her rap career, and her husband is in prison. She has got stuff going on man; your DMs are way down the list.

All and all, this message shows that Taleb is an idiot and a complete joke. And people took note, including Edward Snowden, piping up from Russia. Check this out:

Snowden comes in with the savage take down here, and Taleb punches back with an offer to debate, what exactly? It’s not clear if this debate challenge was issued prior by Taleb nor is it clear, at least to me, what is to be debated. Are they supposed to talk medical issues? Mental health? Hacking? Bobs and vagine? Taleb continues to make no sense, and Snowden lets him know with another zinger:

Main Character Syndrome indeed. I would add Major Asshat Syndrome and Big Phony Fraud and Fragile Loser Syndrome as well. Because this is the guy who wrote Antifragile! Which is supposed to be about things that thrive during chaos, or in other words, things which are resilient. And nothing says resilient less than faking a hacking narrative to cover your tail chasing, issuing an incomprehensible debate challenge to someone way out of your league, and tripling down with blocking random twitter users who question you. And I would know, because after I liked the bobs and vagine comment and added something like “Methinks Mr. Taleb doth protest too much,” the fucker blocked me too! Sadly that Twitter account is history so I can’t post a screenshot, however it was obvious that this huge baby was scrolling chats and mass blocking to distract from his disastrous piece of public relations. Honestly, the whole thing was super funny and Taleb showed his ass in the worst possible way.

Taleb obviously thinks he is hotshit. Check out his Twitter bio.

What a poser. A flaneur is a French term for someone who walks the streets taking things in, and Walter Benjamin wrote extensively about the flaneur in his epic, and epically unfinished, “Arcades Project.” Actually, a flaneur is a lot like a kibitzer. I am the kyotokibbitzer (two b’s baby), and I love Benjamin’s work, including the Arcades Project. I bet Taleb is aware of Benjamin and fancies himself a fan. But he doesn’t know the first thing about Benjamin, because Benjamin was a humble guy who did great work and Taleb is a braggart, a tail chaser, and a bum. Deadlifts and dead languages my ass. Text is dead there Nicholas, at least your texts are, because you made a complete fool of yourself and you suck. Taleb exemplifies precisely why I dislike anyone who calls themselves a public intellectual or an expert. He is a poser and I’ll bet you 10 to 1 his ideas are stolen just like Neil DeGrasse Tyson, another total loser who piggybacks on people who know something to pump up his image. (A sure sign of a loser is a “public intellectual” who insists on using three names. What’s wrong with Nassim Taleb or Neil Tyson? The only people who need three names are serial killers; I mean even public intellectual number one Malcolm Gladwell only uses two names. Gladwell is known to pilfer ideas as well, but The Tipping Point is a pretty good read and the dude genuinely knows a tremendous amount about the sport of running. And he doesn’t call himself “Malcolm Julius Gladwell” or whatever. This is because he’s just a writer and knows that using his middle name would make him a prat.) Anyway, it’s totally fine to fake it ’til you make it, and most of us do to a greater or lesser degree, but you can’t fake your way into being an expert. Never trust “experts,” full stop.

So that’s the story of Razzlehan, the misunderstood genius, and Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the big phony. And in case you are asking, yes I did ask Razz to get in touch with me above. I’d say “I can fix her,” but she needs no fixing. She can DM me all she wants, and she doesn’t even have to get the Russians involved.

I Have a Crush on Katie Park From Bad Moves

I love live music. More than that, I love live music fans, and music fans in general. This piece is basically about being a music fan, and was inspired when I saw the band Bad Moves open for The Hold Steady in 2018 at the Brooklyn Bowl. They were touring on the back of their first full length, Tell No One. While at the Bad Moves/ Hold Steady show a music geek introduced me to a band called Swearin’. Swearin’ has been around a little longer than Bad Moves, and in 2018 had released Fall Into the Sun. The two bands don’t really sound all that much alike (Bad Moves is basically “Power Pop” and Swearin’ is basically “Indie”) but they write somewhat similarly about matters of love and friendship.

Let’s play a game that we live in a world where a record by a band like Bad Moves or Swearin’ would produce radio hits. I want to live in that world. Or maybe I don’t; maybe it’s better for everyone that bands like these stay a little more on the DL. Let’s first take a look at Fall Into the Sun. (Swearin’s frontwoman is Allison Crutchfield, and the band is mostly her baby.) My pick for the single would be the lead off track, “Big Change.” It starts with a simple, slightly scratchy guitar line over which Crutchfield softly speak-sings:

The best years of our lives/ were spent in some stranger’s basement/ medley made of empty cans and ex’s/ and that radical romantic conversation/ about how we are like mutants/ who found each other by chance through rock ‘n roll music

clenched fist, eyes wild/ scream over the records, you artfully complied/ while I put my bad faith into practice/ sit at home on Saturday night/ ease into my false sense of superiority/ no art degree, no conservatory/ just Katie and me

I really like what Crutchfield does here. She is basically writing about a friendship solidified over a shared love of music. Now, I know a lot of people. I also have some friends. When you ask an adult, “How many real friends do you have?” the number will vary widely. A lot of people will say “four or five,” something like that. People in general have surprisingly few real friends. I have ten or fifteen, maybe more, but am only in regular contact with about half that number. A good friendship, in my opinion, is one where no matter how long you and your friend have not hung out, if you see them it’s as if not a day has passed. With this sort of friend, I’ve found, there is between yourself and them something fundamental shared. It can be anything really. For example, I first met my good buddy when we were both in graduate school in Arizona, and at first I thought he was a total dick. He was loud, interrupted people constantly, and loved being the center of attention. One night we were drinking as a department and he started razzing me there on the street, just casually insulting me left and right. Suddenly I got where he was coming from. This was, in fact, his way of offering to be friends. Once I understood this, I began to give it right back to him. Called him every name in the book. And he ate it up. By the end of the night we were fast friends and have been ever since, because we share an understanding that our friendship is based on ripping on each other. Music, obviously, is another great basis for a friendship.

When Crutchfield sings “no art degree, no conservatory/ just Katie and me,” I’m reminded of the refrain from Don DiLillo’s Underworld: “who’s better than us.” If they can do it, why not us? Fuck ’em. That’s what attitude looks like kids–take notes.

So “Big Change” is my single from Fall Into the Sun. (“My single” here just means the song I would choose as the single. For some records, the single is super obvious, while for other records it’s debatable. Bands and producers, in my opinion, do not always get this right.) A good record will tend to have at least two singles; three is a bonus.

For Fall Into the Sun’s second single I’ll go with “Grow into a Ghost.” It opens with a chugging guitar riff with an almost Krautrock drum line. The song is a perfect 3:10–in and out. Do you know anything about lost love? Swearin’ does–here’s verse II:

I write you ceaselessly and abstracted/ I hang out with old friends/ and they unknowingly remind me/ of who I was before we met/ you were somewhere out in the desert/ you frame the natural light perfectly/ will you come back soon and/ let me love you completely

and the chorus: “I watch you/ I watch you grow into a ghost.”

Swearin’ is good, but Bad Moves is better. And the star of Bad Moves is the exquisite Katie Park. (I know they are a collective, but my world is my world baby.) Before their show Katie was at the merch table selling…magic eye! That she made by hand. And what did it say? The magic eye said “Bad Moves.” Obviously. I checked it out and chatted for a few minutes with Katie, trying to play it cool. It was the highlight of my year. 20 minutes later she and the band were on stage, crushing it.

The single here is pretty easy. It’s “Crushed Out.” The band released “Crushed Out,” “Spirit FM” and “Cool Generator” as the singles, all of which are excellent. Maybe “Spirit FM” is catchier than “Crushed Out”? Possible. But “Crushed Out” has more lasting power in my opinion. “Crushed Out” is about exactly what it sounds like. It has a basically perfect power pop structure with a killer hook, a classic bridge, and a theme at once super obvious and super deep–the power of a crush.

It was a strange infatuation/ I couldn’t place it at the time/ but now it seems as if my mind/ was all stopped up with you/ I had no sense of aspiration/ I didn’t know, I guess it’s fine/ but now it seems so obvious/ did it seem so obvious?

through all my fits of desperation/ sharing looks and passing notes/ what did you make of what I wrote?/ what could I ask of you?/ the weeks of strained communication/ could you read between the lines/ or was it just so obvious?

Baby, if you are crush-prone that power never goes away. Bad Moves knows this–it’s kind of what the record is about. Crushing out that way can be pretty obvious–do you think I’m crushing out on Katie at all? Nah, this is just a piece of music appreciation.

Cool Generator is my second favorite song on the album, but my “sneaky favorite” is “Missing You.” A sneaky favorite is just what it sounds like: it’s that song that may fly under most people’s radar but that you have a special soft spot for. My all time sneaky favorite song is “Three Drinks” by Craig Finn of the aforementioned Hold Steady. Three Drinks shows up on Finn’s 2016 EP Newmyer’s Roof. It’s nearly acoustic, unlike most Hold Steady songs, and sounds just a little bit country. Three Drinks is about a woman (most great songs are) who may have been a child star once upon a time, and is now a drinker. It is an example of a certain type of song that Finn is amazing at, the deeply empathetic look at adult relationships in all of their gloriously flawed complexity. In this sense, Three Drinks fits in with “Spinners” from The Hold Steady’s 2014’s Teeth Dreams, “Tangletown” from Finn’s 2017 solo record We All Want the Same Things, and “Esther” a Hold Steady single from 2018. Finn’s writing on Three Drinks and Tangletown is at its absolute apex. Here’s the opening to verse two of Three Drinks:

There was bloodsucker blues in the lobby at dusk/ she blew smoke in my face and it felt like a bus/ the chef cut his finger off the waiter got fired/ I only took notes to try to come off inspired

Come on man. The refrain focuses on that magic hour between drinks 3 and 4, when matters begin to move from the slightly anxious first stage of the evening to something entirely other:

It takes 1 2 3 drinks/ and now she’s not so frightened/ it takes 4 and 5 and 6/ and then she’s sick/ but in the hour in between/ she feels holy and redeemed/ blessed and blissful/ painless and serene

And then Finn delivers this killer quatrain:

She left the room to put on her face/ I went through her purse/ it was all pills and mace/ she said its so hard to choose between space and time/ she mostly just smoked and drank wine

It was all pills and mace, baby. Man Craig Finn can write.

So anyway, my sneaky favorite on Tell No One is “Missing You.” The song starts like the others, high-speed power pop, and after two verses switches to a near-spoken word breakdown of the tug-of-war between a crush and the expectations of the world around. Guess which wins?

Something inside told me I shouldn’t do/ things that set my heart racing, the dreams I held to/ so I wrapped them up tight and hid them from view/ and gave them a name I called “Missing You”/

every cop in the city and the family I knew/ the church and the pastor all said I shouldn’t do/ but their pleas for contrition just couldn’t break through/ not one of them stronger than missing you

I officially support these sentiments. And look what the band does with the simplest rhyming possible: “knew,” “do,” “through,” and “you.” High level.

So that’s my sneaky favorite –doesn’t mean it’s better than “Crushed Out” (it isn’t) it’s just a little sneaky. I’m all about sneaky favorites, on all levels.

In addition to the Magic Eye, Bad Moves also engage in a little publishing. A little literature. Specifically they publish a pamphlet called “The Virtues of Wearing White.” Check this out:

Chatting with Katie, she acknowledged more than a passing familiarity with the literature of the Jehovah Witnesses. I love Witness literature. Both Witness and Bad Moves publications have a real “it’s gonna be a bright, bright sunshiny day” vibe. If you know me this is not a secret, but I’m a hardcore closet New Ager. There, secret’s out. I’ve messed around with all kinds of New Age action. Once I attended a Kabbala meetup in Manhattan. There were some hardcore New Agers there too, seriously. Those folks were not in the closet at all. Shining eyes, whatever color they are wearing. Me, I like black because it’s easier to launder, but Bad Moves have me thinking. (One other publication you should take a look at if you are into this kind of thing is the Christian Science Monitor. It’s a serious piece of literature. God is great baby, god is great.)

When I was younger my parents had a friend called Tom Hutchinson, who, predictably, went by “Hutch.” Hutch owned a boutique coffee shop there in town and I drove a delivery van for him for a bit. But that’s another story. Anyway, Hutch was a weird guy and he hated the Witnesses. It was one of his favorite topics. He’d call them the “Witlesses,” and say: “When they come to my house I turn the hose on ’em.” People thought this was pretty funny, but I was not that into Hutch’s attitude to the Witnesses. I mean, he didn’t want anyone trying to convert him on his property, which is fair; however, I felt, and still feel, that if someone wants to come to my door, give me a little literature, and talk about how god loves me I’m gonna let them. I genuinely like the Witnesses. They seem like lovely people. Read more