Riddles and the Mark

RiddleOne of the most difficult thing about being a teacher is the fact that I cannot write much about my job.  That is to say, I can and — as this post will demonstrate — will, but the repercussions of lawsuits, job loss, and public humiliation always undermine my efforts to write about my life anymore.  Other topics such as my siblings, new houses, geek stuff, and adventurous excursions to far off realms may prove fodder for my ‘talents,’ I often fain from ranting of late.  It’s not the ‘been there, done that’ feeling per se, the ennui of a former life, but my writing has always centered around my feelings, ponderings, and frustrations about daily living.  What is the point of spreading my thoughts across this blank page if — much like a wayward girlfriend — my heart just does not want to commit.

So screw all that.  Time to start afresh (which I discovered the other day was one word, not two; the world indeed is awash with wonder, Charlie Brown).

For the sake of my financial independence both present and future, I’ve decided to disguise my students identity with an alias, or a faux nom if you’re feeling fancy or . . . perhaps French.  Thus, Students of the Murph, I dub thee . . . Robin.  Ta-da.  Now, those that know me may assume (which is always a mistake if you wish to avoid the title of ‘ass’ for both you and me) that I choose this appellation due to my obsession with Bruce Wayne and his alter ego, but you, Sir, could not be more wrong.  As a matter of fact, Robin serves as the perfect androgynous nom de plume for a school of either boys or girls.  Or both!  I could teach at either private or public.  You never know, because it’s a mystery.  I am totally relishing your confusion right now.

So this particular incident occurred the other day during an exam review session after school.  Many teachers volunteer their time to review the final test and acclimate their students to information long buried by snow days, proms and the promise of summer.
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Lightning Crashes

Internet deprivation has once again driven me to people-gaze at Panera Bread. Last night with the sound of thunder and a few rogue sparks, our modem fried: circuit boards blackened, wires caramelized. The sequence of events that followed our bandwidth’s demise is akin to the first radio broadcast of Wells’ “War of the Worlds:”

FLASH!  BOOM!

FLASH! BOOM!

FLASH!

BOOM!

Zap!

Pop!

Fzzzzzz . . .

Screaming . . .

“Murph, the internet died!”

“No Internet? Son of a &%$@! What about my &#%$ exam tomorrow?!”

“Wait, that means Xbox Live is down too . . .”

“What no Call of Duty? No COD?!”

More screaming ensues. Fire, flames, flood . . . The dead rising from their graves . . . Dogs and cats living together . . .

You get the point. Needless to say the fam is quite indisposed at the moment. Shut off as we are from the digital world, it’s like we’ve gone back in time to the early 80s or worse, the 70s. Shudder. My job as the house’s IT specialist (Ha!) is to carry out any necessary or immediate digital transactions in their stead. I scribe a list or two, much like a digital grocery list, and venture off into the world to search for potential WiFi hotspots . . . hopefully one with food too.

This morning as storms slide silently across the sky, butting up against one another with the grace and violence of rival hockey teams, I shuffled out into the rain, seeking potential hotspots like early man sought the warmth of campfires. Nowadays even the supermarket offers WiFi access beckoning laptop owners with Starbucks coffee and a buy-one-get-one-free deal on eggs. After some deliberation (having skipped breakfast, an omelet sounded good), I drove to Panera, deciding against the much preferred local booksellers in exchange for Panera Bread’s above-average iced tea and a WiFi connection without the fifteen dollar access fee.

Luckily they were still serving breakfast.

One egg sandwich (Wahoo!) and a half-a-gallon of unsweetened tea later, I settled in my chair and examined my fellow customers while my laptop blinks and buzzes to life. The bakery was veritably empty (the din of my laptop’s start menu sounded like a foghorn), only a dozen or so old women and men spending their retirement munching on Asiago-baked bagels and reading the latest Patricia Cornwell.

tread_ellipticalsStretching my legs toward the fire I noticed . . . did I mention there was a fire? No? Ah well, much like those found in a ski lodge (or at least those ski lodges I’ve seen on television), the fireplace sat in the middle of the room, encased in iron and mesh and formed the lower portion of one of the bakery’s supporting pillars. Three soccer moms had also cuddled up beside the gas-powered furnace, warming water-soaked feet and discussing the benefits of various exercise equipment:

Woman in Sneakers: “Look, you don’t understand. Everyone says the Elliptical feels better on the knees, but you have to work twice as hard to even feel tired.”

Woman with Floral Purse: “But a treadmill is just running. You can do that anywhere.”

Sneakers: “Not in thirty-degree weather you can’t.”

Woman with One Eyebrow: “Martha’s husband, Bill, nearly died on a treadmill just last year. Alice, you remember.”

Sneakers: “He was close to eighty though.”

Eyebrow: “Six children, nine grandchildren . . . shame.”

Pause.

Purse: “Alice, how much did you pay for your Elliptical again?”

I tuned out the eavesdropped conversation as the women discussed prices, department sales, and their children’s third quarter grades. My attention returned to my email. One of my classmates had written to me, eagerly asking if I passed my Comprehensive Exams. Over the past semester after a poor showing during the first round of exams (I got a little too creative with my essays and failed – I promise to write more on that debacle later; professors despite popular opinions do not appreciate thematic subtlety.), my professor worked with me to help shape my writing into something more straightforward, indifferent, and blunt like a fill-in-the-blank quiz. Another fail and I’d be forced to shell out more tuition for another round of classes. No one wanted that – least of all me.

Master's Degree . . . Wahoo!

Master's Degree . . . Wahoo!

I had anticipated the exam results in another week or so; thus, with beating heart, I filtered through the last day’s mail, avoiding several Victoria’s Secret ads and a 40% off Borders coupon – save those for later. A quick scan of my inbox found the desired email. Praise be . . . I passed my Comprehensive Exam. Masters Degree! Another letter or so behind my name. Another piece of paper . . . Wahoo!

In celebration I consumed a tomato and mozzarella Panini and another large iced tea – ‘cause that’s how I roll. Immediately I signed onto Gmail and told Dasad, who after happily congratulated me, waited a few seconds before popping the dreaded question:

“So now what?”

The question seemed to hover in the air for several precious minutes, while I attempted futilely to understand what he meant. No dice. Instead I watched an old lady in pink sweats and matching headband refill her coffee before responding.

“Wait . . . Huh?”

“Job-wise, what’s the plan now? Library? Some office somewhere? That government job you talked about? What?”

“I-I don’t know,” I typed, including the stammer for effect. Don’t get me wrong. The question presented itself each and every day for the past twenty-years or so, but finding myself with little to no resources to adequately answer it, I proceeded to procrastinate my response, putting any serious thought until school ended, until I graduated college, until I finished my research, until I got my Masters. Now I began to wonder if I could push the decision back until I got married, but realized the wait would be too long even by my standards.

Still the books don’t buy themselves. Writers are more numerous than PhDs; the market is saturated as any blogger can admit. Perhaps it’s time to stop seeking an ideal job, and instead find something stable . . .

Still stability was never my thing; I approach jobs like a nomad considers borders. One comes to relish the absence of routines, tomorrow’s unexpected creation or journey. As Weezer sings (da da da . . . sucking up to Bob, growing old and hoping there’s a God) too many of us live merely to extend existence, cradle to the grave with my hand on the snooze alarm.  And that doesn’t sound very appealing either . . .

Still one must grow up sometime – in theory. I suppose that I’m still looking for that perfect middle ground . . .

“Well,” Dasad writes. “Personally I think you’ll get bored at a library. Too much repetition, you know? Not enough reading or at least discussion about reading.”

“Yeah . . . You wouldn’t happen to have any positions like that at your place, eh? Storytime leader for the IT consultants?”

“Would there be nap time and snacks?”

“Sure.” After all everyone loves cookies and sleep.

“Will look into it,” Dasad writes following up with a smiley face. “Just nothing too fantasy-based. If I can’t stomach Tolkien, any lesser master will send me retching . . .”

“You kiddin’? Nothing but O’Henry for this soon-to-be-unemployed student.”

“Ha,” Dasad laughs. “Tales of hobos and tramps, eh?”

“We all have our heroes. Poets, writers, and academia-addicts like me need to extract inspiration from somewhere. Why not the wandering minstrel or out-of-work vagabond? As long as it gives me story-fodder and time to write, right? Maybe I’ll consider teaching for a while too. At least then I’ll have my summers off . . .”

“Bum, why not just work for the government?”

“And eschew my last ounce of dignity?” I laughed taking my last sip of iced tea. “Even gypsies have their pride . . .”

Nothing is really work unless you would rather be doing something else. — James Barrie

Haunted

My teacher walked into the classroom and frowned at me while I typed.  Apparently my focus while writing is such that I seem angry or upset, as if contemplating a bad exam grade or a disparaging letter to Microsoft for recently mind-wiping my Xbox (The company is sin incarnate.  Seeing the RLoD (Red Lights of Death) twice in the last year, my feelings were such that I considered tossing the box into the nearby pond.  Then I recalled that Gears of War 2 will arrive shortly and thus promptly recinded my Micro-cidal thoughts . . . for now at least.).

“Murph,” he asked.  “Are you ok?  You look a little . . . ?”

“Haunted?” I responded with a smile.  Thinking about Microsoft will do that to you, like contemplating an impending root canal.

“Sure,” he said with a laugh.  “That’s it.  Hey how were your comprehensive exams a few weeks ago?”

“Ok,” I said with a shrug.  The test went relatively well in that I finished ahead of time and felt relatively confident of success.  The residual doubt circulating about my brain questions whether I remembered to type my name on the last three essays or whether it was folly to suggest that Google “lighted fools the way to dusty death.”

My teacher assured me that everything will be fine and strode back out of the computer lab.  In truth, my real worry rested in the job market.  Yeah, I mounted the hurdle of final exams, but now that I (hopefully) have my degree what do I do with it?  Foolishly no potential plans appear before me, nor is it a priority — though it should be.  My difficulty lies not in finding a job, but choosing a good one, one to love and enjoy forever and ever.  Yet I am abysmally slow at making important decisions, and in order to build up my courage on deciding my life’s pursuits, I seek refuge within books, comics, and immersing videogames.

Questions flit hurriedly as I sit there.  Where should I go?  What should I do?  Do I work solely for the money or should I seek out an occupation that stirs my interest and passion?  Should I move away from my family and friends for work?  Or do I continue my present residency?  Dreams or responsibilities?  Fidelity or adventure?  Maturity or childhood?  My head began to twirl.

Halfway through class my head began to spin a little.  My imagination manifested rainbow confetti pouring from light sockets, green M&M’s bubbling from the ceiling, and ice cream sprinkles dribbling under the door like water from an unwatched bathtub.  My professor did not seem to notice and continued his lecture, slowly expounding on program testing, quality calculations, job performance, and other mindless terminology.  The heat in the room failed to abate; the sight of wind-bent trees through the windows nearly drove me insane.  At 6:40 the class ended and I calmly walked to the door as quickly as humanly possible.  An autumn breeze embraced me at the door, as a friend-long lost readily missed.  Yet though released, my mind continued to spin.  Walking to the Metro, the cement tiles of the sidewalk glowed at my step like a disco dance floor or three-dimensional Q*bert pyramid.

At the Metro I unsheathed my latest tome from my backpack as a knight would a claymore.  There I stood and relaxed, immersing myself in other’s dreams and battles, allowing the words to wash away the heat and the stress like the voices of old friends.  The memory of jobs, tests, and homework fade from mind with each passing word.  Like a man haunted by a vision not his own.

A Family Moment . . .

Family projects much like trading stock on the Wall Street floor culminates as a lesson in organized chaos. Take this morning for instance, which involved the disassembly and transport of one bunk-bed down one flight of steps. Other furniture, clothes, bins, toys, and debris were involved as well but despite popular opinion were not responsible for what happened:

Take me down to Paradiiise Cit-ay, where the Graass is Green and girls are Pret-ay.” As he sings Ryan’s head bobs like an excited parakeet. Cleaned of all the mattresses, spring boards, and sheets, the rectangular bed frame sits upon piles of blankets and matted clothes like a great animal skeleton left to dry among the rocks. Shannon, Ryan, and I are assigned to prep the room for its eventual cleaning while the others finish breakfast. Our first task involved removing the bed from the room and into the hallway. We used to have games like these in school, which required the player to rearrange square slots to make a picture. Pushing the bed through the doorway would prove to require just as much manipulation without the benefit of finger-sized tiles.

“Ryan, turn the bed the other way,” Shannon says, helping the still-bobbing Ryan to turn the frame on its side. He mouths a sibilant hiss – more lyrics to a Gun n’ Roses song perhaps – and we stare at the door and the head boards.

Ryan is one of the more interesting members of my family.  A puzzle-solving jock, Ryan would complete a Rubix cube through an imaginative and sometimes impractical feat of engineering (i.e. building a paper-mache robot to solve it for him).  Although not exactly carefree — intense and serious with respect to his homework — he nevertheless dons an honest grin wherever he travels, which can bask even the most dreary places with brilliance.  He cannot sing worth a damn though, and so I retain the view that we failed to dissemble the bed because his voice somehow stabbed at our minds like the cruel knife of some fell beast.  If only he had chosen a better song . . .

“. . . AND THE Girls arrrrre soooo Prett-ay!  Uh, guys, is it going to fit?” Ryan asks.

“Let’s just push it,” Shannon suggests heaving the bed on his shoulders.

“Wait, hold on guys,” I shout as anxiety settles, disliking their speed and needing to think “Do we have a plan? We’re not just going to smash this bed to bits. Why not take it apart first.” Sean walks out of the shower and stares at the – little – progress we’ve made. I see a smirk and do not relish it.

You see, Shannon and I possess two contrary perspectives on this job. If we both were assigned to solve a Rubix cube, I would relish the challenge, failing in perpetuity until I eventually solved the puzzle or . . . researched the answer online. Meanwhile Shannon would throw the cube against the wall, shatter the block into several smaller cubes, and then reassemble a solved puzzle with the remaining fragments.

Naw,” Shannon says, “let’s just push it. With these guns, we’ll get it out of that door in no time.” At the mention of “guns” he rolls up his arms and gives his muscles a kiss.

Yeah, and breaking the door in the process.”

What are you two losers doing?” asks Sean, the budding lawyer and rising businessman in the family.


Like all of my siblings, Sean is quite brilliant but relies too often on his cleverness to see him through. Sean’s method of solving the cube involves lots of steam and rearranging the square stickers. Documentation would then be produced as proof, signed in triplicate, witnessed, ratified, and quickly vetoed by any and all who know him.

“What type of screws are those? They look star-shaped to me . . .”

The noise of groans and creaking wood signals Dad’s approach up the stairs. He looks in and asks us how we are doing.We need a Philips,” Ryan answers.

“But it’s square.”

“So? Shan, we need a square-shaped Philips.”

Do they come in that shape?” I ask.

No.”

“Boys, hold on for a second . . .” Dad says from the doorway. Now I know two very important things at this moment. Dad is becoming impatient, and if everyone does not turn to listen to Dad soon (which has a small chance of occurring) or this bed is not removed quickly (which judging from our mediocre teamwork skills will not occur), Dad will become very angry very soon. I can appreciate his consternation, yet after twenty-plus years of family chaos, he continues to ask absurd questions like “Why aren’t the shoes put away?” “Why is the house a mess?” or “Why can’t we throw anything away?”

In truth, I have no satisfactory answer for the last question. When I was a kid, I watched a lot of MacGyver, and so the thought of being trapped in a small room without an ample supply of paper clips, bleach, or D-batteries frightens me. Dad simply sees trash and useless boxes. Yet I realize that as soon as we throw away the useless box and trash, we will immediately require a large cardboard container to infiltrate a government lab or fight off swarms of killer bees. Unfortunately these insights rarely assuage my father’s disposition and only serve to convince him that I was dropped as a baby.

“I see slots. Can’t we just lift up the slots?” I ask.

That star-shaped screw is in the way,” Sean notices. “We have to get that out first before . . .”

“Square-shaped and I still say we should push it.”

“We can’t get it out with those legs! Do you want to break it?”

“Honestly? Yes.”

“AHHHHHHH!” Kevin screams from somewhere in the hallway. “Wasp! There’s a wasp here!”

“So kill it,” Shannon shouts. “Stop screamin’ and man up!” Shan’s remarks are too late though as Kevin frantically whacks at the insect with his hat. The wasp does not appear to enjoy this game, buzzing towards his attackers as each swat seems to agitate it. After several minutes it finally lands on the wall, when Kevin picks up a statue of St. Patrick and smashes the wasp, leaving a messy bug-stain on the white walls.

Kevin’s brilliance is often overshadowed by his impatience. He could probably solve the Rubix cube within a few hours, only to give up within two or three turns of the solution and build his own. In honor of Ford — his favorite car company — the cube would comfortably seat eight, offer large cup holders, and consume a half-gallon of gas with every turn.

Not St. Patrick!” Mom screams on route to the laundry room, dirty towels, collared shirts, and bright boxers piled high in her arms. Even on the most beautiful of days, Mom can become a bit superstitious. If at that very hour Ireland had sudden sank beneath the waves or Patrick Dempsy stubbed his toe, you could be sure that Kevin would receive the blame.

“That’s blasphemy and a curse against Ireland!” Kevin relaxes some. She did not see the stain yet.

“Well you know Mom, he WAS quite effective against snakes,” Shannon adds from the bedroom.

“I don’t care. He could have damaged it.”

“Did you know that when the devil visited Ireland, he saw a country rich with beer, brawls, and sin that he and his serpents left as soon as they could saying, ‘These poor bastards have enough problems.’”

“Watch your mouth! Mike, did you hear what your son said?!”

“Sean! You talk again like that and I’ll shove my foot up your ass!”

“Mike!”

“Ok listen, there are too many bosses here . . .” Dad says as a way of changing the subject and focusing the efforts. “So everyone just shutup and listen for a while. Ryan and Shannon, grab that cabinet there and . . .” A pitched scream reverberates from the room interrupting Dad’s attempt at crowd control and coordinated cabinet moving. Kevin quietly shuffles out of the room.

“Look what those boys did!” Mom shouts. “They left bug stains on the walls. We just had it painted too. Oh I’m going to kill your sons!”

“What did we do?” shout Ryan, Sean, and Dad together.

“I don’t know but I’m sure it’s your fault! Where’s Kevin?!”

“I’m sorry!” moans a voice hidden deep within the bowels of the hall closet.

All while this I going on, Ryan, Sean, and I feverishly try to disassemble the bed, which is proving quite impervious to our efforts. Dad by this time is becoming more and more agitated like a volcano seconds before it annihilates a small Greek village.

Like Kevin, Dad possesses little patience for games of any kind. He would effectively delegate the task of solving a Rubix cube to one of us, or simply ignore the stupid thing altogether in favor of a game of golf. FUN FACT: after twenty years of playing the game, I have broken four club heads, lost thousands of balls, dug my own weight in divots, maimed several living things with a golf ball — including my sister-in-law (sorry again Tiff) — and played accessory to one dead goose.

Suddenly he bellows: “Listen, who’s the boss here?! We have too many bosses IN THIS ROOM! Who’s the boss?! It’s not you, or you, or you. It’s . . . ”

“Tony Danza?”

This remark simply knocks us on the floor with laughter. Shannon perfectly executes the remark, which with a fraction less timing would have sent Dad stomping off in utter disgust and frustration. Instead he smiles at the lunacy of the whole morning and asks us to move the dresser from the room. We continue to chatter but at a volume few decibels lower. Eventually we bend, shift, and transmutate the whole frame from the room, and – somehow – fit the entire monstrosity out the front door. It will never play the piano again, but someone one day may sleep on it without much discomfort. The room empties from that point quickly enough, and afterwards we all separate to sofas, couches, and beds for an early afternoon nap.