Short Story: Life With Bird

Fine. It was fine.

It was fine when Mark was awakened by kissy noises — the sound of lips pursed and relaxed rapidly several times, followed by one long drawn-out inhale, a sort of raspberry in reverse — even though the sounds were made with no lips at all. But it wasn’t fine when he cracked open one eye to see another eye, round, lidless, a black hole in a white disc, hovering inches from his own: so close it seemed no more than a spot of dirt on his lens, as if he could blink and clear that nightmarish darkness from his vision.

The kissy noises repeated, like the sound of eggs being whisked, and then the outstretched one — pulling milkshake through a straw — this time culminated in a low two-note whistle, and then a noise that Mark had always described as a scrawk, which sounded a little like the onset of an old man’s laugh and a little like a chair being dragged across a linoleum floor. The noises came from just to the left of the eye floating in his sleep-blurred vision, the eye without expression, without emotion, without humanity.

Mark closed his eye and turned his head sideways on the pillow.

A sharp pinch skewered his earlobe, stabbing through to his brain, bursting the bubble of sleep. “Ow!” Mark hollered, his tongue heavy, his face half-smothered in pillow and sleep. “Geddoff! Ow!” He managed to drag one hand out of the quicksand of slumber and flail it once over his head, covering his offended ear with his arm.

There was a flapping noise and then clawed feet stepped up his wrist to his forearm, perching triumphantly on his bent elbow, currently the highest point on his body. Another pinch, lighter this time, on the less-sensitive skin of his upper arm; another scrawk.

Sleep fled at last. Mark opened his eyes, blinked, sighed, smacked his lips and swallowed. The kissy noises once again, and the two-note whistle: and now Mark smiled. He lifted his arm slowly, contorting his shoulder as he swung the limb without rotating his elbow downward; he could reach just far enough that if he craned his head back and around, he could see all of the large white bird that gripped his arm with its dark blue talons.

“G’morning, Merlin,” he said; he tried to whistle — failed — licked his lips with a dry tongue and managed half a note that turned to a hiss. Merlin bobbed his head up and down, his yellow crest lifting, and whistled the opening bars of “The Old Grey Mare,” his favorite tune. He walked up Mark’s arm to his shoulder, where the bird normally spent most of his day; but with Mark reclining, Merlin could not find purchase; so he continued up onto Mark’s head. Another whistle, more kissing, and then Merlin bit Mark’s ear again.

“Ow, goddammit, bird,” Mark shouted hoarsely and sat up quickly, trying to dislodge the bird from his head. Merlin flapped his wings as he lost his balance and then clutched with his talons; he hung on despite Mark’s sudden movement. Then he took a grip on Mark’s ear with his beak: like a grandmother threatening a disobedient child. Mark froze. “All right, okay, calm down,” he said, patting the air with one hand, his voice and movements slow, placating. He tilted his head slowly to the side, his non-hostage ear flat on his shoulder, so that Merlin would have a place to stand; then Mark swiveled his legs off the side of the bed and stood slowly. His neck was cramping and his scalp itched fiercely under the heavy talons, but he cleared his throat, wet his lips, and whistled the theme from The X-Files: one of Merlin’s preferred melodies.

It worked. Merlin let go of Mark’s earlobe, whistling the same six notes back to Mark. Then he crab-walked down Mark’s neck to his shoulder. Mark lifted his head with a grunt, and put his left hand on his right shoulder; Merlin stepped onto the back of his hand, and Mark lifted him and held him where he could glare at the bird through narrowed eyes.

“We’re going to have to practice your wake-up call manners.”

Merlin clicked and whistled a tune that only he knew, ending with a loud scrawk. He walked up Mark’s arm to his shoulder again. Mark sighed. “Right, got it. I’m not allowed to lecture you. Fine.” He turned and headed to the bathroom, Merlin riding on his shoulder as he stood before the toilet and peed. He left the door open; there was no one else in the apartment, after all.

***

Mark sipped his well-sugared coffee, savoring the hot sweetness on his tongue, then blowing air out in a sigh. Merlin hissed, his crest rising; he didn’t like that noise. “Right, sorry,” Mark said. He reached up with his finger curled, offering to scratch the back of Merlin’s neck. Merlin bit him. “Ow. Okay, fine, no scritchy.” Mark took another sip of coffee and then breathed out through his nose.

“What shall we have for breakfast?” He gathered a plate of food for Merlin — nuts, some slices of fruit, a pile of oil-black sunflower seeds, some leaves of Romaine lettuce washed, dried, and julienned so Merlin could eat them easily — and then he threw two slices of bread in the toaster for himself. He held bits of food up to Merlin as he prepared the plate, arranging the elements neatly, adding a dish of fresh water in the middle, and then carried Merlin and his breakfast to the table, setting him down at the head. He buttered his toast, and then sat at the foot — he had to sit at a distance, or Merlin would take his toast right out of his hand. Out of Mark’s mouth, if he could reach.

“So what are we going to do today, bird o’ mine?” Mark asked. Merlin grabbed a piece of apple and chewed through the meat, then dropped it and dug into the sunflower seeds, scattering them across the plate. The lettuce was ignored after a desultory inspection and despite Mark’s admonishment that he needed to eat more greens. Merlin turned his head to the side and fixed his gaze on Mark as he cracked black sunflower seeds with his black beak.

Mark considered his audience. “Well, I don’t have that much work to do, but I should still check in.. We can go to the cafe for that.” Merlin’s crest rose and he bobbed his head; the internet cafe was approved. “Oh,” Mark said as he remembered, “I need to do laundry, too.”

Merlin dropped the seed that was in his beak. He rose up, his feathers ruffling and his crest standing straight up. “No!” the bird said clearly, his voice like Mark’s but an octave higher. He tossed his head to one side and then the other, his beak snapping shut; Mark was absurdly reminded of movie-cliche gangbangers with their guns held sideways. “No!” the bird said again.

Mark put down his coffee cup. “I know, I know — you don’t like the noises in the laundromat. But I have to do — I’m running out of clothes and –”

Merlin cut him off with a loud scrawk; he unfurled his wings and flapped sharply three times, budging not an inch from the tabletop, throwing air in Mark’s face. “No!” he said a third time, and clacked his beak shut.

“Merlin,” Mark started to say.

Merlin lowered his head, his beak open, and with his wings held out to the sides, he advanced on Mark, crossing the table in a rapid but clumsy waddle. Mark sat back in his chair, holding his hands up in surrender — and to keep his fingers far away from that snapping beak, which could splinter a two-by-four. Or a fingerbone. “Okay, okay — no laundromat. No laundry. You win, Merlin.”

Merlin stood tall on Mark’s plate, one foot atop the last crust of toast. He flapped his wings, the feathers brushing across Mark’s face; Mark turned away, closing his eyes. The cockatoo squawked loudly once more as Mark ducked, holding his wings spread wide, his crest bristled. Mark peeked up through one eye, his head held low. “Sorry,” he said quietly. The bird folded his wings and lowered his crest. Mark slowly extended his hand, and Merlin stepped onto it, digging in momentarily with his talons. “Let’s go take a shower,” Mark said, rising. “Then we’ll go to the cafe.”

Merlin whistled and made a kissy noise.

***

Mark ran his face under the shower spray one last time, and then shut off the water. He rubbed one eye clear, opened it and looked up to where Merlin was sitting on the shower curtain rod; he carefully slid the curtain halfway open without disturbing the bird’s perch and reached for a towel. Merlin’s whistling alternated between random notes and snatches of his favorite tunes — a few notes of The Addams Family theme led to a chorus of “La Cucaracha” into “My Darling Clementine” — he really loved the “Oh my Darling” part. Mark rubbed the towel vigorously over his head, frizzing his hair out; when he looked up, Merlin shook his feathers out to match. Mark reached up, took the bird onto his hand, and transferred him to the vanity. Then he filled the basin to shave, while Merlin preened beside him. The bird’s crest popped up as Mark filled his hand with shaving cream; he dabbed a gobbet on the countertop, and Merlin toyed with it while Mark shaved around his smile.

When they were finished with the shaving cream, he walked in his boxers into the closet and came out with two shirts. He moved to the bathroom doorway and presented the options to both the mirror and the much harsher judge beside it. “Which one?” he asked. The first, a comfortable plaid, seemed too drab; but the second, a silk-blend bowling shirt with electric blue dragons across the front and back, brought a scrawk. “No?” he asked, turning to Merlin, his tone disappointed. The bird lowered his head and turned to the side, flapping his wings twice. He reached out with one foot, talons outstretched like a black-lacquered starfish.

Mark looked down at the shirt held against his chest. “Really? We don’t like this one?” He frowned at the mirror, and at the bird beside it. Merlin shook his head again, clicked his beak and his talons against the countertop, one-two, one-two.

“Ah!” Mark rolled his eyes up with a nod. “Right — I forgot.” He turned and went back to the closet, where he hung the blue dragon shirt back on the bar. He pulled the plaid off its hanger, pulled it up his arms and buttoned it. He pulled the silk shirt to him, running the material between thumb and forefinger. “I forgot you have trouble holding onto this silk.” He pulled the shirt out farther, looked at the dragons. “I should just get rid of this.” He ran his hand down the shirt, over the dragons; he pushed it back into line with the others. He straightened the plaid, buttoned the cuffs, and went to get Merlin.

“Let’s go, buddy.”

Merlin shook his feathers out once more, tightened his grip on Mark’s plaid shoulder, and started whistling “Side By Side.” Mark joined in as he grabbed his laptop, keys, and wallet.

Oh, we ain’t got a barrel of money,
Maybe we’re ragged and funny,
But we travel along, singin’ a song,
Side by side!

***

“Hi,” Mark returned the coffee clerk’s greeting with a smile, ignoring the look of glazed semi-panic in the man’s eyes as Merlin stood tall and stretched up his feathery crown. “I’d like a — a Cafe Americano, please.” If this had been a workday, he would have ordered something more high-octane than a single shot of espresso in hot water, but it was Saturday, and he was here mostly for the outing. It would be bad if he and Merlin stayed shut up inside all the time, buried indoors as if underground; he sometimes felt like he was growing roots and bark, subsiding into his couch, his bed, the walls of his apartment. Perhaps he would stay so still he would crystallize, he thought; the atoms and molecules of his body aligning perfectly and freezing in place, ordered, structured, permanent.

Yeah: he needed to get out more.

“And a scone, please,” he added. Merlin scrawked, lifted a foot and hooked one black talon — gently, for now — in the cup of Mark’s ear. “Right — sorry, Merl, sorry — scone with almonds, please. Lots of almonds.” The clerk changed his target, reaching for a scone coated with pearl-colored slivers. He put it on a plate on top of the glass counter, and the talon was removed from Mark’s ear. Mark breathed a sigh of relief, and Merlin cluck-chuckled — a positive sign. Mark slid his credit card through the reader and picked up Merlin’s scone. He glanced to his side, and saw that Merlin was grooming the talon that had just been in Mark’s ear; watching him, Mark was reminded of a muscled bully kissing his own biceps. “Nice guns,” he said drily. “Here’s your scone. Your almond scone.” Merlin met his gaze, fluffed his feathers and gripped Mark’s shoulder. Mark made his way to the table by the window and sat, facing out so Merlin could see the street outside. He opened his laptop, and Merlin walked down his arm to the tabletop and went to work on the almond scone. The waitress brought Mark’s Americano, and Mark thanked her absentmindedly as he logged on to his webmail. Merlin also said, “Thanks!” and the waitress blinked and then left without a word.

Three emails-and-responses later, Mark heard a voice say, “Oh, what a pretty bird!” He and Merlin both looked up, Merlin’s crest rising. Mark felt the blood rising to his cheeks when he saw the woman standing by the table; he had an absurd moment when he wanted to say, “No, you’re the pretty bird,” but thankfully, he bit the words off of his tongue, chewed them up, and spat out only, “Thanks.”

The woman — who was a very pretty bird — smiled and reached out a hand to Merlin, moving too quickly for Mark to say, “Be careful, he bites,” or “Please don’t touch his wings, they are delicate.” Or even, “Will you please keep your hands off of my bird? Why does everyone think they have the right to pick him up, or pet him or poke him? Because he’s small? Because he’s soft? Damned arrogant humans.” He watched, opening his mouth to speak and then closing it again, as the woman did — just the right thing: she held her hand out, palm down, fingers curled in; you could hold out a single finger to a smaller bird, but a parrot Merlin’s size wouldn’t see a perch, he’d see a chew-toy. Then the woman made a kissy noise, and Merlin tilted his head and then offered his usual greeting, a scrawk followed by a two-note whistle. Mark had taught it to him, along with his name, when he and Merlin first started living together; the scrawk-whistle was the standard parrot noise from the old Looney Tunes and the like, and Mark thought it sounded piratey. And parroty.

Then he had stopped teaching Merlin tricks. A parrot like Merlin has the intelligence of a four- or five-year-old human child; you don’t teach children tricks. You talk to them, and then listen to what they have to say.

The woman laughed when she heard Merlin’s scrawk-whistle. Mark and Merlin both drew back slightly: it was a terrible laugh, loud and high and false, as if she had decided to simply say the words “Ha! Ha!” Too bad, Mark thought. She is pretty. But then he decided she should have another chance; maybe she was nervous. Walking up to a stranger in a cafe, I would be, he thought. So he said, “Go on, Merlin.” Merlin glanced to him, then reached up a foot and stepped onto the woman’s hand, walking up to her wrist.

“Wow, he’s so light!” she said. She lifted her hand and Merlin to the level of her head, but slowly, so Merlin didn’t get startled; and she didn’t put her face within biting range. Mark was impressed. “Does he talk?” she asked.

Mark opened his mouth to give his usual answer — Only if he has something to say — when the woman, who had been doing so well, took a running start and leapt off the cliff. She bugged her eyes out, pooched out her lips, and said, “Does pitty-bird-ums talkie-talkie? Does oo wike to talk? Yes you do! Yes you do!” This last was delivered with a side-to-side head wiggle, her nose thrust right up to Merlin’s beak; and she lifted her other hand and ruffled it through Merlin’s crest, bending the proud golden feathers as if they were fur.

Merlin reacted the only way he could, the way anybody would in similar circumstances. He bit the ruffling hand, and shat on the perching hand.

Thankfully, Merlin hadn’t broken the skin, and so Mark wouldn’t have to pay for an emergency room visit; merely for the round of free coffee he offered the other patrons as apology after the shrieking woman had launched the large white-and-gold parrot off of her hand and into the air, said parrot then completing three full circuits of the room, flying inelegantly but determinedly, before coming to a landing on the shoulder of a petrified grandmotherly woman who sat stock still, head turned just enough to lock gazes with Merlin, who kept fluffing his feathers, flexing his talons, and flapping his wings while he eyeballed his elderly perch. She stared right back, neither of them blinking, the woman appearing not to breathe. But she also wasn’t screaming, as was the baby-talk woman behind him, so that was an improvement. Mark, hurrying over to rescue — well, one of them, anyway — filled in the dialogue mentally, giving Merlin (who usually sounded a bit like Sir Ian McKellen’s Gandalf in Mark’s mind) a touch of Travis Bickle: You lookin’ at me? You wanna start somethin’? You make the move, Grandma. It’s your move.

“Come here, tough guy,” Mark said, reaching out a hand for Merlin to step onto. “Just hold still and he won’t bite,” Mark said to the woman, followed by “Sorry about this.” Mark would say that several more times in the next few minutes. Merlin wouldn’t say it once. Neither would Ms. Babytalk.

“Oh, not at all,” the woman said, her mouth the only part of her to move. “I just hope she didn’t hurt Merlin’s lovely head-feathers.”

Mark’s gaze whipped from bird to woman; she glanced back at him and smiled. Behind Mark, the shrieks continued, alternating between disgust and shock as the babytalk woman examined one hand for blood and the other for remaining smears of birdshit.

“I come here quite often,” Merlin’s perch said to Mark. “As often as the two of you. I have frequently admired Merlin — and your relationship with him. Much more than a master and his pet.” She turned her head slightly, facing Merlin more squarely; Merlin was calming, now, though he would lift his crest and open his beak each time the shrieking woman hit her high note of “Oh my GOD!” above middle C. The elderly woman smiled at the parrot. “In fact,” she said, with another quick glance at Mark, “Why don’t we just let Merlin collect himself here with me, while you handle that train wreck over there?”

Relief swept over Mark. He had been thinking he could take the bird and run, since he couldn’t go back to soothe the shrieking woman while Merlin sat on his shoulder, hissing and clacking his beak; nor could he leave Merlin alone, as the outraged parrot would show the woman what real shrieking sounded like, were Mark to ignore him in his moment of need: humans could neither compete with nor comprehend the volume and piercing tone that an affronted parrot could reach, and then sustain indefinitely. Mark had been trying to decide if he could sacrifice his laptop in the name of just getting out of there: the door was close by, and he could find another cafe.

But now, another option. Merlin was definitely calming; as Mark drew his hand back slowly, Merlin fluffed his feathers once more, and then commenced grooming. Mark sighed in relief. He smiled at the kind woman. “That would be wonderful. Thank you. Just don’t — ”

“Touch him. I know,” the woman finished. Then she spoke to Merlin. “We’ll just sit here and groom, all right? I’m sorry I don’t have any food for you. Such a handsome bird.” She spoke in her normal tone, perhaps a little softer and lower, soothing the recently jangled parrot. The woman’s gaze flicked back to Mark. “Go on. Make her be quiet. Please.”

“Thanks,” Mark whispered, and then turned to deal with Merlin’s victim. He always carried antiseptic wet wipes, naturally, and the woman deigned to accept his sincere-sounding apology, allowing Mark to clean and inspect her hands before she flounced off to the ladies’ room to wash once more. Mark apologized to all of the disturbed patrons and handed his credit card to the clerk, saying, “Another round for everyone, on me.” He grabbed up his laptop and the rest of Merlin’s scone, downing the last of his own Americano in three hurried gulps.

When he returned to Merlin and Merlin’s new friend, he reached out once more for the bird; again the woman stopped him, this time with a shake of her head. “You can’t leave yet. You’re going to need to apologize again, and give her your business card and offer to pay for anything she needs. Keep it vague; don’t give her ideas. I doubt she’ll have any of her own.”

“But he didn’t even break the skin!” Mark said in outrage.

The woman fixed her gaze on him. “If you don’t offer, she will decide you owe it to her, and she will come after you. Offer it, and it will be charity: beneath her dignity to accept.”

Mark blinked, and blinked again, and then put down the laptop and the scone. The woman said. “Ah!” and reached slowly across the table for the scone, which she slid close to Merlin; she put her hand on the table near the plate, and Merlin took his cue: he shuffled down her arm to the tabletop, shook himself vigorously, and then started nibbling almonds.

“Thank you. Again. I don’t know what I can do to –”

The woman waved her hand, shook her head. “It’s all right. I’m a grandmother, I know. It takes a village, they say.”

“Can I buy you more coffee? For the next month or so?”

She shook her head at the offer. “No, that’s fine. But,” her eyes sparkled, and when she smiled, Mark saw a dimple. “I have a daughter. Who is a single mother. How do you feel about human children?”

Mark blinked. Then he smiled.

Then he turned to apologize profusely and give his business card to the pretty woman, now turned into sour-faced-outraged woman. Fortunately, she thought he was trying to pick up on her, and she laughed her terrible laugh and threw the card back at him before storming out of the cafe. Remembering what Merlin’s new friend — and Mark’s new matchmaker? — had said, he picked the card up and brought it to the clerk, trading it for his credit card (which somehow seemed lighter, now) and murmuring that the woman should contact him if she came back for any reason. Then he hurried back to his friend, and their new acquaintance.

***

“Merlin! I’m home!”

From the living room came the “Rawwwk!” and the two-tone whistle, followed by Merlin himself, waddling his ungainly way across the floor; when he saw Mark, he raised his crest and tossed his head, the bird-greeting that always reminded Mark of bros saying “‘Sup, bro? ‘Sup?” Mark often thought that he should teach Merlin to say “What’s up, Doc?” but he knew that once he taught it to the bird, that was that: it would never be forgotten, it would be frequently repeated at odd times, it would be repeated over and over and over again. And Merlin could expect to live as long as Mark did. A parrot’s speech was a dangerous weapon.

But all that mattered now was that he was home, and Merlin was glad to see him. He shoved the door shut with his heel, dropped his keys on the counter, and bent down to pick Merlin up. Merlin stepped onto his hand as soon as it was in reach, and made kissy noises as Mark lifted him up to his shoulder and deposited him there. “Okay — let’s get a tray and see what’s on.”

Soon Mark was ensconced on his couch with a beer in one hand and the remote in the other, food spread on an oversized TV tray in front of him — oversized to give room for Merlin to stand on the edge, eying Mark’s food. Mark settled on a Simpsons repeat as Merlin ducked his head and tasted the main course.

“Oh, Merl, you gotta hear this,” Mark began with relish. “So I go into the Boston Market, right? And there was nobody in line, so I go straight up to the counter and order.” Mark paused, cut a forkful of food away from the rest and scooped it into his mouth; he continued talking as he chewed and swallowed, while he maneuvered a green bean onto his fork and offered it to Merlin. The bird took it with his beak and then held it with one foot while nibbling delicately at the end. “And since I didn’t have time to think about it, I just rattled of the usual — quarter chicken dinner with sides and cornbread.”

Mark took another bite, then wiped his mouth and put down his fork so he could concentrate on his story. Merlin listened attentively, one eye locked on Mark, snacking on his green bean. “So the clerk is this Millennial dude, right? I mean, Bieber-hair, gauges in his ears, skinny jeans, the whole bit. And when I order the chicken, he kind of stares at me, and then he goes,” Mark dropped his voice, speaking slow and low through his nose, as if speech were a terrible burden; his eyes closed half-way and his shoulders slumped under the weight of inertia: “‘Heyyy, aren’t you the guy who, like, carries around that bird or whatever?'”

Merlin’s crest went up, he scrawked, and then he shook his head.

“I know!” Mark crowed with a laugh. “You’re a whatever, Merl!” He scratched the bird on the breast, Merlin gently biting his fingers in reciprocation. Then he continued the story. “So I said, ‘Yeah, that’s me — Merlin’s waiting at home, and he’s hungry!’ Here, give me that — take this.” He eased the stub of green bean out of Merlin’s grip and replaced it with a corner broken off of the square of cornbread. Merlin said, “Mmmm!” like someone who smells dinner cooking and attacked the cornbread, scattering crumbs everywhere, getting perhaps one in four down his throat.

“And the kid flares his eyes at me, right? Like he’s shocked that I don’t see the point he hasn’t even come close to making. So I just wait, and finally he says, ‘You can’t eat chicken in front of a bird. That’s, like, cannibalism or something.'” Mark paused, widening his eyes at Merlin for effect. Merlin put down his foot, now empty of all but a few crumbs sticking to his talons, and tipped his head to one side, exactly as if he were saying, “Are you kidding me?”

“I know!” Mark laughed again. “So listen, so I wait a beat, right? Just kind of hoping that the light will dawn on Marblehead and he’ll recognize the idiocy of that statement. But nothing. I mean he doesn’t move at all, just stands there with his eyes all outraged and his mouth hanging open like a Neanderthal with Bieber hair and ear gauges. So finally I say, ‘Well, you’re half right: I can’t just eat chicken in front of him.’ Then I lean close and whisper, ‘I have to share.'”

Mark burst out laughing, slapping the TV tray with an open palm. Merlin joined in, cackling like a cross between Mark and the Wicked Witch of the West. The noise made Mark laugh harder, and Merlin began to bob his head, yo-yoing it up and down farther than would seem possible, an action which always broke Mark up. Soon Mark was snorting in between giggles, which might have been Merlin’s goal: because the bird imitated the noise perfectly, which kept Mark laughing until tears rolled down his cheeks.

When he was in control of himself again, he tore off the drumstick and handed it to Merlin, after stealing a healthy bite for himself. Merlin grabbed it avidly and began tearing off bites and swallowing them; this — one of his favorite foods — he ate neatly. “Sorry I didn’t get it no-salt. Ah, it’ll be fine, right? We’ll eat in for a couple of nights. Oatmeal.”

Merlin raised his head and his crest and stared at Mark.

Marl laughed. “I’m kidding, I’m kidding. Enjoy your chicken. Cannibal.”

***

Mark lay his arm across the back of the sofa. His gaze traveled in the direction of the TV screen, and through and beyond, into the dark, twisting maze of the future.

“What do you think, Merlin? Should I call this woman, the daughter of that nice lady in the cafe?”

Merlin dipped his head, rolled the chicken bone against the tray, dug at a bit of meat he might have missed: but his gaze stayed on Mark.

The man pursed his lips, took a sip of beer. “It would be nice to have some company. Especially of the feminine persuasion.”

The bird scrawked softly, then walked over to the plate and flipped through the remaining scraps of food with his beak. Finding nothing — and having no contribution to make to the man’s ponderings — he lifted a wing and began to clean his feathers.

“Naomi. It’s a nice name.” Mark’s gaze came back from the far reaches, and roamed over his world: the apartment, small and dark and cozy and filled with his life; his companion, with his bright and unpredictable mind, his magical ability to communicate: what Merlin said was so clear, if only one listened. Could he bring another person into that world? This particular person was also a mother — so two people. “How do we feel about kids? Do you even like kids, Merlin?”

Merlin, curled into himself and away from the world, did not respond.

Mark would have to think about it. Romance, if it could come from this, would be wonderful — but really, he wasn’t lonely. He wasn’t alone.

So maybe there was no rush. Mark finished his beer and stood, picking up the dinner dishes in his other hand, leaving the tray for Merlin to perch on while he groomed.

***

When the Simpsons episode ended, Mark flipped channels until he landed on a Bollywood musical which made Merlin’s crest shoot upright: the cockatoo loved pageantry and melodrama, and singing and dancing. They had a treat: Bailey’s in milk for Mark, a millet spray for Merlin. Then, when it was time for bed, Mark set up Merlin’s perch, right by his side of the queen-sized bed, and reached out a tender hand to scratch under Merlin’s feathers while Merlin cooed and clucked softly, nipping at Mark’s hand as he tossed his head this way and that, moving the scratching to the left and right and everywhere he could, his eyes closed in bliss.

“Good night, you little feathered weirdo.” Mark lay back on his pillow and turned out the light; though he kept a small nightlight on so it wouldn’t be pitch black — Merlin was afraid of the dark.

From the perch by his side, a small voice said, “Good night.”

Mark fell asleep with a smile.

Book Review: Dork Compendium

Dork Covenant: Dork Tower Compendium #1

by John Kovalic

 

I bought this comic collection used from Powell’s books, well over a year ago; I was saving it for the right moment to read – and after getting bogged down in a lengthy non-fiction book, and while reading a disturbing Stephen King book, this was the right time to read this.

I can’t believe I didn’t know about John Kovalic. I can’t believe I didn’t know about this comic that he has been writing and publishing for almost twenty years. I can’t believe I didn’t know that he is still publishing it on the web (www.dorktower.com), or that he has illustrated a number of games, including Munchkin. I can’t believe I didn’t know all this stuff because John Kovalic knows everything about me.

I am this comic.

I have lived these arguments, these experiences. I had the D&D rulebook that inspired the cover art for this. I have both been and known the min-max gamers like Igor, who find ways to twist the system and overpower their characters – I remember an old Champions character (Anyone remember Champions? Superhero RPG from the 80’s? I bet Carson the Muskrat would!) who took the “disadvantage” of being incorporeal, which allowed him to purchase massive amounts of power, and also, coincidentally (not coincidentally), made him impossible to defeat physically – and I have run games, as Matt does, in which my players ruin my carefully crafted storyline within moments, generally through killing innocent and helpful characters just for the hell of it. I still get into arguments with my dork friends about Star Wars Episodes 1-3.

And, God help me, I have LARPed. I was LARPing the very same vampire game that Dork Tower satirizes when I met my wife, who resembles Dork Tower‘s Perky Goth, at least a little. I am thankful that meeting my wife pulled me a reasonable way out of the gamer dork world, because I don’t doubt that without her, I would have finished my transformation into these characters, and continued living this life, all the way through the conventions that they go to but I never did, and the E-Bay purchasing frenzy, and the burning hatred of the rise of Pokemon. (I can completely relate to the strip set in the game shop that shows grown gamers surrounded by just the very tops of children’s heads, the rest hidden by the frame, as the children mill around saying “Pokemon? Pokemon? Pokemon?” like some kind of zombie lemming horde. I saw this when I tried to start a gaming club at school and was inundated with freshmen playing Pokemon, while I and a few seniors tried to run a proper D&D game. Damn that game.) I can picture myself going through the pathetic attempts to date, always ruined by the fact that the woman would inevitably ask me, “So, what do you do for fun?” And I would have to say, “I’m a gamer.” And then watch as she leaves.

John Kovalic wrote that strip. I read it, and I laughed. I laughed a lot reading this compendium, and knowing now that there is a whole world of this comic for me to read makes me extremely happy and grateful. As happy and grateful as I am that I found my wife, and that she was able to ignore the LARPing and the violent rage at my Magic the Gathering games, and stay with me, and save me.

This whole strip is highly recommended for anyone who knows or lives La Vida Dorka, as Kovalic calls it. And this seems like the best place to start, with the first compendium. Available for purchase on the website.

The Sims Update: Calm Before the Storm

The Colossus of Belladonna Cove

There is a storm a-brewin’ in Sims country. We are still in the calm before it, but there are squalls. So before it comes down on us like the vengeance of Thor, let’s look around and see how the land lies.

We’ll start at the top.

Bella Donna: When I decided to run this Sims game, where I played an entire neighborhood of created characters, I picked Belladonna Cove, one of the standard neighborhoods that come with The Sims 2 on PC. I played it the last time I had a long-running Sims game – in which I tried to build an entire village of polygamists, guys who had multiple loves each in their own home with their own children, and the guy would support his secondary wives while living with his First Wife – and I like the look of it. Plus it has a large statue of a woman holding a Sim spindle, and that was perfect for this aspect. See, I wanted there to be a benevolent overlord, one who kept the peace; so I made a good witch. I named her Bella Donna, because she rules the Cove, maintaining the peace. She looks like Glenda the Good Witch, blonde and blue-eyed and wearing all white witch garb. She has a cat, which I named Elphaba, and she is the only Sim who does not age. Once I made her, I worked hard to have her meet all of the people in the neighborhood, make friends with them all, and then I had them pay her tribute – they bought various interesting and expensive items, invited Bella over, and then Gave Gift and handed her the TV, or the computer, or the nice stove, or the roller rink. If they needed more lifetime, I wouldn’t have them buy the green juice; I had Bella give it to them. Youth was the witch’s gift. Bella went into the Political career, and was rapidly elected Mayor of Belladonna Cove.

It worked great, but eventually I felt like Bella was getting bored. So I had her fall in love: with Contessa Lisa Raymond, one of the vampires in the Downtown expansion to my neighborhood. Then the Contessa – who appreciates the finer things, and couldn’t understand why Bella lived in a simple single-family home near the shore – convinced Bella to move into the biggest house available, the haunted mansion on top of the highest hill. She did so, and Lisa moved in with her and they wed.

But the happy couple’s time is limited. Because Bella has become distracted, and evil has arisen in her Cove.

Carlos Contender

The Mrs.

Carlos and Jessica Contender: Carlos is one of the fun characters: he started as an Elder Sim, but he had oodles of money, and he had the Romance aspiration and the Massive Attraction trait, so he was still a player, which was the character description set up for him. I found it was incredibly easy for Carlos to seduce women he met out on the town, take them on dates and WooHoo, and so he rapidly seduced three of the available ladies. But Carlos had a target on his back: he was old, he was wealthy; and Jessica Peterson started out living in a trailer park, and wishing she could meet a man who would take care of her. As soon as she connected with Carlos, it was no contest: although she had a fling or two while the two of them were dating, he soon fell in love and proposed. They wed, and Jessica moved in with her new wealthy husband, and began waiting for him to die. But Jessica was soon surprised to find that Carlos had lost none of his virility: she soon became pregnant, and then gave birth to twins, which the Hall-of-Fame boxer Carlos named Cassius and Clay Contender. And after that, Carlos just would not die. Seriously: that Sim got to be 100 “days” old, then 105, and every time I played the family, as the kids grew to toddlers and then children and then started approaching their teens, and Jessica got older and older – I gave her a jar of green juice, because my original intent was to have her play the field once she inherited Carlos’s money – I just kept waiting for him to croak.

Finally, at the ripe old age of 108, Carlos’s lifebar looked pretty full. So I had him have his last day (I hoped): he hung out with his kids, and since he is the brother of one of the other characters, I had him invite that whole family over and reconcile with all of them, bringing back up friendships that I had let lapse. And indeed: I could not have coordinated it better, because that same day, while his family surrounded him and exactly at the moment that his two boys grew to be teenagers, the Reaper came for Carlos. His sons grew, celebrated their happy youth – and then immediately started mourning their father’s death.

Gabriel and Chastity: These two, Gabriel Green and Chastity Gere, were roommates in this awesome converted garage in the “downtown” looking area of the Cove. And the story that came with them was this: Gabriel was in love with Chastity, but she was still playing the field. So yeah: Gabriel worked longer hours than she did, and while he was gone, she would Greet any guys who walked by the house, build a relationship, take them on a date, and then bring them home and WooHoo them. Then the guy would leave, and Gabriel would come home none the wiser. I decided to hook the two of them up, because I liked Gabriel and I figured Chastity-of-the-ironic-name wouldn’t pass up a sure thing, so they had a home-date and a WooHoo. But then the inevitable happened, and Gabriel came home early and caught her. Heartbroken, he threw her out, met a nice game-generated girl named Vanessa, settled down, and now they have two kids and a dog named Wilbur. Chastity I moved into her own home and tried to turn into the town pump, but something glitched and every time I played her the game crashed, so she was relegated to the limbo of the Family Bin.

The Clevelands: Jason and Melissa are both Money oriented, and he wanted to be Captain Hero of the police force, while she wanted to be a Criminal Mastermind. And this struck me as so odd that I decided they would have to be very strange. So I decided I would warp their children. They already had a teenaged son, and that was fine; Melissa wasn’t actually employed as a criminal yet, so young Justin escaped to college before things got weird. But Melissa wanted another baby, and so the two of them had Mason: and Mason has lived a very strange childhood. His parents taught him nothing as a toddler – not how to speak, not how to walk, and they never potty-trained him; instead, they Lectured him every chance they got, starting as an infant, every time he soiled himself. Then they would give him baths. That kid got dozens of baths, daily baths, in between being alternatively chewed out and neglected. So now, Mason really loves water, and both hates and loves his parents. And he is still a child, but at some point, he is going to kill first Jason and then Melissa, and then embark on a career as a serial killer who will invite people over, get them into his pool, and then remove the ladder and watch them drown.

As I said, my darker Sims urges proved impossible to suppress.

Image result for geoff rutherford and Connor Weir sims 2Image result for geoff rutherford and Connor Weir sims 2

Geoff Rutherford and Connor Weir: These two bros started as friends living together so they could afford the nice house, said their storyline; so I decided they would be swingers. They would meet and marry, have children – still living in the same house together – and then wife swap and have two more children. I loved this plan (and thought of it as adding fuel to Mason Cleveland’s madness-fire, because Geoff is Mason’s uncle, Melissa Cleveland’s brother). But two things went wrong: after Geoff started fooling around with Connor’s wife, and they fell in love, Geoff’s own wife came home and Geoff made out with her – which sent Connor’s wife into a jealous rage. That shit never goes away, not when they’re all living in the same house. And even worse: Geoff and his wife had twins. And only after playing them up to toddlers did I realize: there were now seven Sims in the house. I could not make two new wife-swapped babies until one of the kids moved out. So I scrapped this whole family into the bin, and replaced them with . . .

Trent, Trisha, and Tina Traveller. Not my fault.

And their dear friends, the Gavigans

The Travelers and Gavigans: Two families, each with a young child, that I put into the same household once I moved Geoff and Connor out to limbo. I was more careful this time, and I got Trent Traveller to woo, seduce, and impregnate Mary Gavigan, and then Nathan Gavigan got it on with Trisha Traveller. Now there are two babies in the household, a Gavigan who is half Traveller, and a Traveller who is half Gavigan. (This, by the way, is the family I was talking about when I got the weird look from the passing jogger, when I said, “I got my swingers to impregnate each others’ wives!”) I also had the two pre-made kids, who rapidly became teenagers, fall in love with each other; they will be a couple for life, a strange twist I liked so much I’m going to do it again with the two new children – who also don’t share any blood, though the father of each is actually married to the mother of the other. My plan at this point is to make this the strangest family tree I can think of – I want to move the two teens out and then have both women WooHoo and conceive by the same guy, and then I will move a new young woman into the house and have her bear children by both of the men. I do not know how I will be able to manage all of that – but I’m going to try.

Samantha on the left, Kim on the right.

The DeBateaus and Cordials: So this was the last family set that I went a little strange with. Though I blame the game for giving me the storyline in the first place. Two sisters, Samantha and Kim Cordial, who were, according to their bio, so fiercely competitive they didn’t know if they could live together. So Kim was one of the early – well, contenders – for the hand of the wealthy Carlos; thus I sent Samantha after the richest guy in town, Armand DeBateau. Kim lost Carlos to the trailer-trash, but Samantha won Armand, married him and moved into the penthouse he shared with his adopted teenaged daughter Tara. She got pregnant on their wedding night, and then I sent them on a honeymoon, my first attempt at a Sims vacation. It was fun, except I found something out: you can’t have children on vacation, so Samantha’s pregnancy didn’t develop at all over the two days they were there – but she was already feeling the misery of pregnancy, the rapid decline of comfort and energy and bladder and hunger, and the morning sickness that leads to vomiting and green stinky toilets. So yeah: never take a pregnant woman on a beach vacation. A lesson from the Sims.

But of course, this situation made Kim mad. So Kim did two things: first, she became an evil witch – it was perfect because the Cordial house had a secret room behind a turning bookcase, which was the ideal place for her cauldron and spellbook – and second, she went after her sister’s husband. And she got him, too, because there is no loyalty in the Simverse. He dated her, WooHooed with her, and impregnated her. After she gave birth to her daughter Hecate, she invited her sister and brother-in-law over, presented the child, kissed Armand in front of Samantha, and we had ourselves a good old blow-up.

After that, I decided to make Kim the town WooHoo-machine, since Chastity wasn’t working. And so she’s been raising her child and WooHooing with every guy she can – including Armand, who came back for reconciliation. And that’s all been fine – but Kim is an evil witch, as well. A powerful one.

And there’s a storm coming.

Ready Player One

Ready Player One

by Ernest Cline

I confess: I wish I’d written this book. I’m just a little bit too young – my brother, three years my senior, was the one who rode his bike down to the corner drugstore to play the new Pac-Man game when it arrived; I remember him telling the family about it, and being confused: so you eat the ghosts? – and not quite geeky enough, especially when it comes to Japanese anime and robot/monster shows, which I never got into. I watched Voltron (Both versions – everybody remembers the lions, but does anyone else remember the Voltron made of cars? Much cooler.) and StarBlazers and G-Force, but that’s about it. Fast forward a few years to Transformers and G.I. Joe, to Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future, which featured a light gun shaped like a jet fighter that you could shoot at the TV screen and score hits on the bad guys, and I’m all in. I did play the role-playing games, and I watched the movies – War Games and Monty Python and the Holy Grail are also two of my favorites – but I never had an Atari 2600, so I never played Adventure seriously – just a few times at a friend’s house, where I got stomped by the dragons and opted for Pitfall or Centipede or Missile Command instead – and I never found the Easter egg in that pixellated dungeon.

So I couldn’t really have written this book, which explores geek culture from the 1980’s to a depth that I could not hope to plumb. But I am so very glad that Ernest Cline wrote this book, because I loved it. Absolutely loved it.

The book is about a video game challenge. It is set about 40 years into our future, when the internet has become a single enormous virtual reality environment, built by a Bill Gates-like figure who focused on video game design rather than operating systems and world domination. When this gaming guru dies, he creates a challenge for everyone in the system he created (which is essentially everyone around the world, in one way or another): find the secret challenges he left, conquer them, and you inherit his entire vast fortune, and control of the virtual world. And because this man grew up in the 1980’s, the entire thing is one enormous trip through the world of reminiscence: a kind of “I Love the 80’s” that focuses exclusively on geek culture and touches every part of life.

This is the first book in a long time that I actually didn’t want to put down, and at the same time, didn’t regret reading straight through: the excitement is excellent, but it isn’t constant, and so it didn’t feel exhausting. The dystopian elements were highly disturbing to me, particularly the mobile home “stacks” and the indentured servitude that came as a result of credit card debt, but they were wonderfully well done – and I especially liked that Cline also included some positive aspects: the idea of virtual school, with the improvements and limits that Cline describes, would be a dream come true for me, as an introvert who teaches high school English but would really like to spend lots of time playing video games and living through role playing adventures. I also loved that Cline managed to create realistic and genuine human interactions both within and apart from the virtual world; by the end, I wasn’t really sure if the hero would win the game, but I was really just hoping that he’d win the girl.

I identified with the characters, loved the plot and the adventure, and was completely enchanted by both the setting and the nostalgia. This is a geek masterpiece. You have my gratitude, Mr. Cline. Excelsior!

Ladies and Gentlemen: My Wife.

My wife picks me up from work every day. Yesterday, on the way home, I was telling her about an unfortunate consequence of one of my examples in class.

I gave one of my classes a Voice Lesson (If any teachers read this blog, I highly recommend this book for close reading/literary analysis practice — it’s here on Amazon.) which gives them a quotation and asks them a series of questions about it, and then has them imitate it in some way. Today’s quotation was:

Whenever he was so fortunate as to have him near him a hare that had been kept too long, or a meat pie made with rancid butter, he gorged himself with such violence that his veins swelled, and the moisture broke out on his forehead.
– Thomas Babington Macaulay, “Samuel Johnson”

The students then had to write an original sentence describing someone with disgusting eating habits, using at least three vivid details. Now, I answer all of these myself; but I don’t want to point the finger at anyone else and call them disgusting. So I described my own disgusting eating habits.

You see, when I was in high school, I ate, as many teens do, really appalling amounts of junk food. I picked three of the worst examples, and — even though I never combined these in real life — I put them all into one sentence. The three eating habits were: once I brought a can of Betty Crocker frosting to school for lunch, which I ate with a tiny spoon intended for stirring espresso; I used to eat beef jerky that came in an eight-foot rope form (With the unimaginative product name of “8-Foot Beef Rope.” Picture a coiled Slim Jim. And yes: I did try to make a lariat out of it. Didn’t work.); and as I was not picky about my throat-searing, stomach-churning soda consumption, I used to drink Caffeine-Free Diet Coke at room temperature, from two-liter bottles.

I told my students about this. And two of them, in a classic example of Why Mr. Humphrey Doesn’t Talk About The Stupid Crap That He Did In His Youth, decided that they would eat the same thing, and do it within a time limit — half an hour was what they were bandying about during class. This, apparently, was to be called The Humphrey Challenge.

I told this to Toni as she was driving me home. I said to her what I said to them: I do not want my name associated with this. I do not endorse these eating habits, particularly not all at once. This is not the thing I want named after me.

Toni said, her tone completely deadpan: “Everyone’s gotta have a legacy.”

I don’t think she even noticed the death glare I gave her for the following thirty seconds. If she did, it didn’t have any effect.

 

And then today: today on the way home I told her about the question I got today, which certainly ranks at the top of the list of Most Awkward Questions I’ve ever been asked by a high school student. One of my freshmen, who admittedly lives a very sheltered life — she made “Eeewww!” noises and faces throughout Romeo and Juliet, and left the room whenever Mercutio started making pornographic jokes — came in to my room today before the class started, and in a conversational tone she asked — in all sincerity — “Mr. Humphrey, what’s a boner?”

My first thought was, “How do I answer this?” My second thought was, “Don’t answer this.” I went with option two, telling the young lady she didn’t want to know. She was suspicious she was being played, but several other students — who are less innocent — agreed with me.

So Toni and I were talking about this, and she asked, “So that isn’t part of your curriculum, then?”

I said, “No, we don’t have a boner standard.” Though I admit I haven’t read all of the Common Core.

Giggling furiously, she managed to get out, “How about a rubric?”

Death stare one day, peals of laughter the next. She always keeps me guessing, and usually laughing.

“Teachers” Teaching Teachers

The trouble with education in America today is this: the teachers that are teaching teachers how to teach can’t teach.

I have a friend who is going through teacher training right now. (My friend has requested anonymity, and so I am going to leave out everything including gender.) I have been a teacher for a long time, and I know this friend very well, and here’s the truth: my friend is going to be an excellent teacher. My friend knows the subject matter, knows how to deal with teenagers – the intent is to teach at the high school level. Most importantly, my friend, like me, had a tumultuous personal experience in high school, and has been both a good student and a crappy student, both a model citizen and a juvenile delinquent; my friend will be able to speak with students, relate to students, understand students. My friend will teach students, and for some of those students, my friend will be their favorite teacher, the one they remember for years afterwards. Though they won’t come back to visit, just like they don’t come back to visit me. It’s okay – they don’t come back because most of the students who really bond with me do so because they are having a spectacularly miserable high school experience, the kind that beat poems and punk rock songs are written about. And if they came back to visit me, they’d have to relive what I hope was the worst time in their lives – and what I hope I helped them through. I don’t need to shake their hand to know they needed me to be who I am.

My friend will be the same. I know it. I try to be convincing and confident when we talk about the future teaching career, but my friend is also humble enough to have doubts, doubts that have taken me fifteen years to dispel, doubts I haven’t completely dispelled even now. It’s okay. Doubt combined with ideals makes us try to improve. It’s a useful tension.

You know what’s not a useful tension? Having a class that is half the duration of the usual college level course, and going almost half of it without getting any feedback from the professor. No grades, no comments, nothing for three and a half weeks, which covered ten graded assignments. No grades on any of them. That is not useful tension: that is a teacher not doing her job. And it drives me nuts, hearing about this, because I’m a slow grader, for two legitimate reasons: I don’t assign my students busy work during class, which means I never get to get grading done while my students are working on their new worksheet (Yeah, math teachers, I’m looking at you, you lazy punks); and two, I read everything my students write, and I try to give substantive feedback on everything I can. So it takes me a while. Except for two times during the year: the end of the semester, when I have to kill myself getting the grades in on time, and the beginning of the year, when I realize that my students are not familiar with what I want from them, what I am like as a grader, what is really important to me. They need to get a grade and feedback from me before they can feel comfortable doing assignments for me. So I try to grade the first serious assignment as quickly and thoroughly as I can – generally I can pound it out in a weekend, though I tell them it will never happen that quickly again. From that assignment, they learn the following: I don’t really care much about deadlines. Don’t care much about spelling, unless it is a formal essay. I don’t care at all about format, font, handwritten-versus-CG, or those little frilly edges that come from ripping pages out of a notebook. I care about what they think and how well they can express it to me. That’s what their grades are based on: and I make sure they know that before they have to turn in their second assignment.

My friend’s classes are all online. Which means there is no lecture, and there is no class prep; the teacher’s only job is to grade the work and monitor discussions. And yet the teacher – who had in her instructions dire warnings against even the thought of turning work in late – took three and a half weeks to return the first grades.

That’s not all: not by a long shot. The assignments come fast and furious: every week, the students in these classes – all of whom have degrees already, and so most of whom are already working, some full-time – need to read at least two chapters from the text, post a discussion topic that is thoughtful and thought-provoking and that cites sources; respond to at least four others students’ posts or responses to posts; and read at least 75% of the posts and replies in the discussion forums. For extra fun, the other students, eager little gold-star-seeking chipmunks that they are, try to post on every single topic and reply to every single response, sometimes at 11:00pm on the due date. And the more responses there are, the more each student has to read in order to hit the 75% of responses read mark. Thanks, guys. Way to throw your classmates under the bus in order to suck up. (But I also have to say: how American.) And each week culminates in a quiz, an essay, or a PowerPoint presentation on the week’s topic. Times two classes, times eight weeks. And even though both classes have large final projects due in the last week, which are weighted more heavily in the final grade, the discussions and responses and reading are still assigned for that last week. Nothing like giving people large projects and not giving them time to get them done!

The grades – now that my friend has gotten some (To be fair: in the other of the two classes my friend is currently taking, the professor, a former high school English teacher, responded within a week with the first set of grades, with reasonable comments. It’s only one of the two professors who can’t keep up with her own class’s pace.) – are sort of based on the content; but every assignment, my friend has lost some points not because of what the essay or presentation said – but rather because of the formatting of PowerPoint slides, or, more commonly, the lack of correct APA (That’s the American Psychological Association. Why are we using their format? Who knows?) citation formatting. This despite both professors letting some elements of APA formatting slide – the APA says, for instance, that every paper must have a title page and an abstract; neither professor has required that. But God forbid you fail to use hanging indents on your references page!!!

The textbooks are absurdly poorly written: they drag on and on and on, repeating the same information in a slightly different format, with ridiculous and unrealistic examples that don’t actually illustrate the concepts. For example, one chapter, on constructivist cognitive theory, explained the need for self-directed learners thusly: because change occurs rapidly, and certain innovations – like smartphones and green energy – have a large impact on society, it is vital that our students learn to become problem solvers. Now I agree that it is important that students become problem solvers, but the reason is because there are quite a number of problems that need solving, and the solutions will need to come from new minds that understand the problems and the possible solutions in new ways; traditional methods will not be effective. And the speed of change in society has precisely fuck-all to do with that. Thanks for the explanation, Mr. Textbook Guy. (Note: that is not a correctly formatted APA citation.)

The essays have minimum and maximum page assignments; this is common practice, I know, but as with every essay that has ever been assigned with a length requirement, the students focus first on the length, and only afterwards on the content. This aids in both creative editing and bombastic word-fluffing; not in learning content.

The short, informal discussion topics are worth 30 points and the essays are worth 35 points. That would be fine, except the essays are far more difficult and take at least three times as long to complete. For five more points. Way to prioritize. And here’s the best part: if you don’t earn a B on the final project, you cannot pass the class. That’s right: you can bust ass for seven weeks, run at 100% over 20 or so assignments; get a C on the final project – and fail the class. Really makes all that earlier effort seem worthwhile.

The quizzes, which are multiple choice and allow for multiple correct responses on one question, draw from different chapters that give different answers to the question, and require contradicting responses both marked as correct responses (I.e., the question was something like “Which are elements of how students learn?” and the responses had both “Through information processing” and “Through behavioral training,” which are opposing theories of learning – and both were correct answers.).


Here’s my point, in case I’m being unclear. Every single thing I’ve described here is terrible teaching practice. Good teachers build personal relationships with their students: these teachers are only online, and only contact their students indirectly, late, and in the vaguest possible terms. (And one of them uses Comic Sans. In multiple colors. With large amounts of capital letters and exclamation points. Reading her e-mails is like looking at Doge memes. But without the cute dog in the middle.) Content assessment should evaluate mastery of content, above all else if not to the exclusion of all else. Focusing on the minutiae like deadlines and formatting ruins the actual instruction of content. It’s fine to teach study habits that way, but not actual subject matter. Tests should never be tricky or obtuse, and the content resources should be clear and easy to understand, no matter how complex the subject – in fact, the more complex the subject, the easier the text should be to read.

And these are the people who are teaching new teachers how to teach.

My only hope is that the people in the class, including my friend, will learn nothing from these people. The last thing we need is a bunch of new teachers who don’t talk to their students, who give warnings but not grades, who give their students failing grades because they didn’t use one-inch margins and twelve-point font, and fail to help their students learn what they actually need to know.

Martin Luther King said that we have an obligation to disobey unjust and immoral laws. I would like to add that we have an obligation to ignore teachers who model bad teaching.

DOUBLE REVIEW! SO MUCH SCIENCE!

Death from The Skies by Philip Plait
Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond

 

I normally don’t review two books at once. There are reasons not to do it now: these two books have more in contrast than they do in common, and my reading of both was quite different: Death From the Skies I read over the course of a couple of months, a little here and a little there; Guns, Germs and Steel I tried to read straight through, and failed to complete — at least partly because that is not, for me, the best way to read popular science.

But these books do have some important things in common: they are both popular science non-fiction, DFTS in the hard science of astronomy, GGAS from the social science of anthropology. Both are about death, destruction and the end of civilization as we know it. I finished one only a few days before I gave up on the other, which proximity promptly juxtaposed them in my mind (YES! Been waiting for a chance to say “juxtaposed.” That alone is enough reason to review them both together.). Both have, for me, an interesting premise. Neither includes zombies.

Now let’s get to the more extensive and interesting list of the differences. DFTS is about future death and destruction: the book is a list of all of the ways that the universe could wipe out all life on Earth: asteroid impact, massive solar flare, black hole fly-by, gamma ray burst, supernova, even alien invasion. GGAS is about the death and destruction that has happened in the past, specifically to the human race, caused by the rest of the human race. It asks one essential question: why is it that some civilizations have been able to thrive and grow, and others have not? And when civilizations come into contact with each other, and one or the other is destroyed or subsumed, what determines which civilization survives and which dies?

It’s an interesting subject, I think. Diamond takes as his prime example the conquest of the Incan empire by the conquistador Francisco Pizarro. Why was it that the Spanish empire managed to overcome the Incan empire? Why wasn’t it the other way around — Incan ships crossing the Atlantic, Incan soldiers wiping out hordes of Spanish troops, and an Incan general capturing the Spanish king, demanding an entire room full of gold for ransom, and then executing the king anyway, as Pizarro did to Atahualpa, the Incan emperor? Or why couldn’t the Incas fight off the Spanish, and establish their own hegemony over the Americas? Diamond examines this and every other contact between civilizations that he can, and in exhaustive — and I mean exhaustive, fatiguing, meticulous, infinite as well as infinitesimal, and finally brain-numbing — detail, he explains.

Here’s the spoiler: it’s the title. The Spanish conquest of the Incas was accomplished not by Pizarro, but by smallpox, which had been dropped off on the coast of Mesoamerica ten years before, by Hernan Cortes and his troops in Mexico, along with the various explorers and traders who followed Columbus’s lead to the New World. Atahualpa wasn’t even supposed to be the Emperor of the Incas: the emperor of the Incas for thirty years before Pizarro’s attack was Huayna Capac, who led the empire to the height of its size and power — until he died of a fever, probably either smallpox or measles. Along with his successor, his eldest son Ninan Cuyochi. The empire was the divided between Atahualpa and his brother Huascar, who proceeded to wage a civil war for control which Atahualpa won after several years of fighting — right before he was captured by Pizarro. The battles that did occur between the Spanish and the Incas were won by the use of guns, steel weapons and armor, and mounted cavalry, none of which the Incas had.

Diamond actually explains every reason why the Incas didn’t have cavalry, why the Europeans had the deadlier diseases, why they had better weapons, why they had guns, why they had better ships, why they had writing; it has everything to do with the ecology, the geography, and the histories of the two areas of the world, the Americas and Eurasia. And honestly, it’s pretty interesting.

The problem is that Diamond writes sometimes like a popular science writer, but much more often like a scientist, which he is. And that’s fine. But like all scientists writing treatises about their research, his goal is to be meticulous and scrupulous in explaining how he came to his conclusions, rather than to make the book interesting. And I think he succeeds in that: because I felt like he asked the same question ten or twelve times, from different angles — why didn’t the Incas have cavalry horses? Why didn’t they have large domesticated mammals? Why didn’t they have the same agricultural productivity? Why didn’t they have the same population? Why didn’t they have the same specialization of professions within society? Why didn’t they have writing? — and every time gave a complete answer, but every time it was the same answer: geography, ecology, and history. Over and over and over again.

And then he moved on to Australia. And then Africa. And at that point, I just couldn’t take it any more, and I stopped reading it.

Now Phillip Plait: that man knows how to make a popular science book interesting for the average reader. Every chapter describes a new way that the universe could kill us all. Each chapter begins with a hypothetical description of that death, how it would arrive, how it would progress, and specifically how it would kill us (Generally speaking, Robert Frost was right: fire, or ice.); then the chapter describes the science behind the cataclysmic event; then it describes the probability of that event happening, based on our knowledge of the universe. He goes from the most concrete elements to the most abstract, and because of that, by the time you get to the abstract stuff, you’re ready for it, and you understand what he’s talking about, and you want to know more — generally because the description of the deaths is pretty horrific, but the probability of any of them happening is “Pretty danged small,” or else it’s a certainty — but not for billions of years. Like when the sun dies. Definitely going to happen; definitely going to kill us; definitely not due for about 7 billion years. It’s comforting, really.

(Not all of it. The first chapter, on asteroid impact, is actually pretty scary, as is the second, about massive solar flares wiping out our power and communications. The solar flares couldn’t kill us directly — but I’ve read enough post-apocalyptic fiction to know that if the power and communications go, Road Warrior and cannibalism are not far behind. And I would not do well in that world. The alien invasion one is much more speculative — but it’s creepy as hell. Robot spiders. That’s all I’m going to say.)

And here’s how Plait handles the science: he makes jokes — good ones, including a Spinal Tap reference. He explains the science, but he also makes it clear why we should or should not know the details. An example: before Plait gets into the chapter about the end of the universe, he takes a few pages to discuss scientific notation (And I apologize for the formatting — the exponents were superscript in my draft, I swear. Don’t know how to make it happen on WordPress.) — our planet is 4×10^9 years old, the universe 1.3×10^10. The end of the universe will come sometime around 10^70 years from now. And Plait was smart enough to know that people would think, “Wow — that’s sixty times the current age of the universe. That’s a really long time.” But the thing is, it’s not. 10^15 years is not six times as long as 10^9 years: it’s 1,000,000 times as long. That’s the age of the Earth lived over again one million times. And I’m thinking about my summer break in four months, and it seems a long way off. 10^70 years is so absurdly far into the future we can’t even fathom it. And Plait explained that, in a way I could understand. It helped.

Plus he explains all the awesome stuff about the universe. I feel like I understand black holes better now — just in time for me to watch Interstellar on Hulu. And now I know that spaghettification is a thing. My new favorite thing, in fact.

So here’s the point: I’m glad I read part of GGAS. I’m glad I didn’t spend any more time reading the rest. If you are terribly interested in prehistory and the rise and fall of civilizations, you may want to read it — it is very clear and easy to understand, and yep, it’s thorough. But for me, I’d rather read about the Milky Way colliding with Andromeda in a few tens of billions of years. GGAS just made me want to play Civilization on my computer.

Which I may just go do now.