Thursday, March 27, 2014

Pursuit of Happiness ( fiction)

The night is moonless, with a cold mist hanging in the air, creating a halo of light from the lantern that bathes the man’s handsome face in a soft, warm glow. The man sweats from his labors, defying the chill of the night, his black hair plastered to his forehead. He toils away, working toward his goal. His companion this evening is Mrs. Luxorp. She was a woman of great renown who was truly disliked by all that knew her, so he does not feel particularly bad about relieving her of her unneeded worldly possessions.  He digs some more, waiting for the knowing clank of metal on wood that tells him that he has arrived at his target. He throws another shovel full of dirt out of the hole, distracting himself from his gruesome labors by envisioning his life to come. He’s almost there. The scratching sounds of the shovel moving the dirt are a soothing white noise, playing against the background to his dreams.
Finally, his shovel strikes home with a dull thud. He quickly clears off the top of the casket and, throwing his shovel aside, reaches for his crow bar. He makes quick work of prying the lid open, revealing the pallid visage of Mrs. Luxorp. She lies in repose with her horrible face skewed by the distortion of decomposition. She wears an expensive silk dress, and is adorned in her favorite jewels. He removes her necklace and bracelet, examining them in the light of his lantern. They should fetch a fair price in London’s underbelly markets. He quickly puts them in his pocket and bends to his final task. He lifts the talon that is Mrs. Luxorp’s left hand and gently twists the ring off her finger. After a minute of careful twisting pressure, the ring slips over the gnarled knuckle.
The ring is a true work of art. It is a large sapphire, surrounded by diamonds, encased in delicate filigree platinum. As he holds it to the light, the true color of the stone reveals itself to be as deep as the bluest ocean; the diamonds sparkle, casting hundreds of tiny rainbows. Mesmerized by the beauty of the ring, he is brought back to his earlier dreams of his life to come. He can imagine how this ring will look on the hand of his beloved, its delicacy paled only by the hand that wears it. Tomorrow is the day that he will place it on her hand as his promise of betrothal.
            Tom met Mary in a small country church where they were attending the wedding of a mutual friend. He had travelled many miles to attend, but every mile was worth it after laying eyes on Mary. He thought she embodied every asset a woman should have. Tom saw her as proper and sweet; beautiful, but not in a garish way. She looked his way, and gave him a subtle smile. That was it for Tom. He fell in love on the spot.
He knew that Mary was out of his league, but he couldn’t deny his feelings for her. So he approached Mary’s Aunt Julia, with whom she lived, and asked for her permission to take Mary for a walk. The old aunt was surprised, but also saw the gleam of love in the young man’s eyes, so she agreed to allow him to spend time with her niece. Secretly, she didn’t think Mary would give this young man too much time or consideration. Julia had been very worried about her niece for some time because the girl was just too quiet and aloof, never really connecting with her aunt on any meaningful level. Mary spent her days in solitary endeavors, rarely engaging with the other girls her age, or anyone else, for that matter. Julia chalked this up to the tragic circumstances that left Mary in her care.
Mary was the daughter of Julia’s late sister and her husband. When Mary was 12 years old, her parents were killed in a fluke accident that left Mary with no one to care for her. At the burials of her sister and her brother-in-law, Julia was approached by a solicitor, who informed her that she had been named as the only living relative to her sister, and that the charge of raising Mary had been left to her. The solicitor informed her that if she didn’t take the child, she would be placed in an orphanage, and her inheritance would go to the state for her support. He also told her that, if she chose to take Mary, the money left to the child (which was substantial) would be available to her until Mary married or reached the age of 21, at which point Mary would inherit her parent’s estate. Julia agreed to take the child and raise her. 
When Julia brought Mary to her home, Mary was despondent. Julia thought this was due to the profound grief she thought the child was experiencing due to the loss of her parents. Julia showed her to the room that would be hers. It was a large room, light-filled by a triple bank of 12 light windows. Julia had decorated the room for her niece, filling it with all of the things she thought a 12 year old girl would want. There was a large canopy bed, covered in a delicate eyelet spread and topped with pillows in pastel shades of pink and yellow. The bed was placed so that each morning, the first view of its occupant would be the expansive rose gardens outside the windows. The floor was covered in a plush carpet of white and green, which was always warm from the sunlight pouring in through the windows. There was a vanity that held the brush set that had belonged to Mary’s mother, as well as scents and lotions appropriate for a girl of 12.
Mary entered her new room, looked around, nodded to her aunt and shut the door. Julia thought it best not to push the girl to come out of her shell. She thought if she gave it some time, Mary would emerge from her solitude on her own accord. Julia was still waiting for this to happen when young Tom came along.


Tom and Mary spent warm, early June days on the shore of the river that ran by Aunt Julia’s estate, eating picnic lunches. The young couple did not talk very much, but Tom didn’t notice. He was so thrilled to just be in her company. He never thought a girl like Mary would be willing to spend time with him. He hoped that she had feelings for him that were similar to his own, but he was afraid to ask. For her part, Mary was content to spend these days with Tom. He was a pleasant, handsome man with blue eyes, black hair and a body that showed he was capable of hard work. He had no airs and, even though she was quiet and aloof, she felt she might be able to trust him.
Mary never liked living at the estate and longed for the day that she could return to London, this time as an adult with her own income. She looked upon Tom as a means to accomplish this goal sooner rather than later. On the last day of Tom’s visit, she took young Tom down to the river shore, out of sight of the house and her aunt, and kissed him. She told him that she loved him and was ready to plan a life with him. She told him that she wanted to move to London and establish a home with him. Tom was elated at Mary’s revelations, and immediately went to Aunt Julia to ask for Mary’s hand in marriage.
Aunt Julia was more than willing to give her consent. She had doubted that Mary would ever marry, and doubted this marriage would ever take place. But plans were made and a date was set. Tom would return to London immediately. Once there, he would make preparations for Mary’s arrival in 6 months time. He left for London in four days.
            As the miles from the estate increased, so did Tom’s realization that he had a real problem. He had not told Mary and Aunt Julia what his life in London was really like. He had alluded to owning a home and having a thriving business when, in fact, these were just dreams of a future that was not yet his. He spent the next 5 hours on the train trying to come up with a plan to change his fortunes before he was found out. By the time he disembarked from the train, Tom was sick with fear and uncertainty about how he could get out of this corner, without losing Mary.
As some desperate men tend to do, Tom decided to go to the pub, where he hoped he could find inspiration in a pint glass. He wandered from the train station to the East End, where he found a place that looked as dark and gloomy as his mood. He sat at the bar and drank a few pints and tried to come up with new ideas. He tried again the next day, and the day after that. Unfortunately for Tom, after drinking for the better part of a week, the only thing he had accomplished was to spend what little remaining money he had left. He sat at the bar, his head sagging almost as low as his spirits, oblivious to the man who had come in and sat on the stool beside him. “Why so glum, chum?” Tom picked up his sagging head, looked at his new bar mate, and burst into tears. The stranger looked at Tom with eyes of concern and pity. He had seen other desperate young men in the past, but none quite as disconsolate as this one. “There, there, it can’t be as bad as all that. What’s the trouble?”  Tom looked at this stranger: A round, soft man of 50-odd years, with thinning hair and a sallow face that showed a lack of depth, but wearing the clothes of a gentleman. Tom was confused. Why would a man like this care about Tom’s problems? Why was he even in this working class pub? Unfortunately, because he was so absorbed in his own misery, Tom didn’t consider these questions before he started to spill his guts to this stranger.
The man’s name was Garrett Liev and he was, in fact, a gentleman in lineage and manner. What wasn’t common knowledge was that his family fortune had been depleted; largely due to Garret’s poor choices. Garrett now travelled through the part of London reserved for the downtrodden and desperate, looking for men like Tom who would be receptive to his offer. He felt very fortunate to have come across Tom, as he was currently in need of another assistant due to his previous one now spending time in the workhouse. He listened patiently to Tom’s story, waiting for just the right moment to suggest a way out. As Tom finished his tale by showing Garrett a picture of Mary, Garrett knew it was time to set his hook.
He asked Tom if he was willing to do anything to keep the truth from Mary. Tom assured him he was. Garrett then unfolded the plot that would leave them both in a better position. He promised Tom that if he followed Garrett’s instruction, he would be able to get a house and get on his feet well within the 6 months he had before Mary’s arrival. It would be simple, and didn’t involve hurting anyone. If Tom looked at it the right way, it was hardly a crime at all. Tom listened with an eagerness that rivaled the enthusiasm of the best behaved child on Christmas morning. As the plan unfolded, Tom had a few moments of uncertainty. He had never broken the law before. But his reservations quickly evaporated as Garrett told him of the amount of money he would be able to make. Tom was hooked. Garrett and Tom agreed to meet the next night at the Highgate Cemetery, which was the preferred cemetery of the wealthy.
On his way to the cemetery the following night, Tom was once again caught up in his dreams of the future. The difference this time was that he actually had a means to making these dreams come true. He met Garrett at the appointed time, at the far entrance to the cemetery, where the light of the gas lamps refused to enter. Garrett had some tools; two shovels, a pick, and a crow bar, wrapped up in an old flour sack. They made their way over the wrought iron fence that surrounded the grounds, and headed into the heart of the cemetery. It took them a little longer than Garrett had anticipated because the summer grass was wet and slippery from the afternoon rain, so they had to be careful not to slip, and cause any unusual noises that might rouse the night man. Garret pointed to a slightly raised area just to the right of an elaborate headstone. This was the place. Tom was excited and scared, almost giddy with anticipation when he realized the elaborate stone was that of Sir Edward Blore, the architect who completed Buckingham Palace. If his new neighbor was half as prominent as he was, this might turn out to be more profitable than Tom had imagined. Garrett took the tools out of the sack and handed a shovel to Tom. He told Tom what needed to be done, and to be quiet while he was doing it. The night man was not very observant, but he was required to walk the perimeter of the cemetery twice a night. He had already made his first round, so Tom and Garrett were safe from intrusion for at least 4 hours. Garrett wanted to be in and out in fewer than 3. Tom listened carefully to Garrett’s instruction, and then got to work. Between the two of them they were able to accomplish their task in under 2 hours. Tom was trembling as Garrett pried up the lid of the casket. He wasn’t sure what to expect, and visions of childhood ghost stories crept into his mind. Garrett raised the lid to expose the body of a Ms. Daphne Watson, who had died of the flu at a premature age of 29. Being a beloved only child, she was buried with great care and comfort. Her casket was lined in a delicate rose petal pink, and she was dressed in a white satin gown, which would have been far more fitting for a happier occasion.  She was also adorned in several pieces of expensive jewelry that her father insisted should be buried with her. Garrett reached into the coffin and began to remove young Daphne’s jewelry. Tom stood and watched; the fear and children’s tales returning to his mind. As Garrett removed each piece, he handed them up to Tom who, once getting a look at the bounty of the night, felt the fear ebb away.
Tom continued to work for Garrett, and learned all the tricks of his trade. He learned which of the seven cemeteries surrounding London were the preferred burial grounds of the wealthy. He learned that women’s graves were generally more profitable than men’s graves. He learned what to look for when reading the obituaries as to better pick the objects of his labors. He learned who was willing to buy the jewels that they liberated. Tom was a quick study and before two months had passed, he realized that he no longer needed his dubious partner. He was becoming accustomed to having money in his pocket, and he liked it. If he worked alone, he would have twice as much.

Tom and Garrett met at Abney Park Cemetery for their next job. Tom volunteered to do most of the heavy digging, allowing Garrett the privilege of opening the casket. When Tom had shoveled out most of the dirt, Garrett hopped into the hole, with crow bar in hand. Tom climbed out and stood leaning on his shovel. He opened the casket, began removing the loot, and handed it up to Tom. Waiting for Garrett to bend down to remove the final prize of the night, Tom shifted his weight, and tightened his grip. Garrett went down for the last piece. Tom swung back with his shovel and struck Garret right at the base of the skull with the shovels edge. Garrett never knew what hit him. Tom hopped into the hole, removed the watch from Garret’s hand, and rolled him into the open casket. He wasn’t sure if Garrett was dead, but once the hole was filled, it wouldn’t matter. He rifled Garrets pockets, and then made quick work of closing the lid and filling the grave.
As Tom ambled back to the East End, he thought about what his next move should be. His first stop tomorrow would be at Vic’s pub. Vic was the best fence in the East End and always paid Garrett top dollar. He looked forward to collecting his money in the morning; money he wouldn’t have to share with Garrett. Tom went back to his dingy little one room apartment where he climbed into bed, gazing at his picture of Mary by the glow of his bedside candle. He drifted off to sleep and dreamed of his new life that was looming brightly just ahead of him.

Vic was surprised to see Tom. Usually Tom sat at the bar while he and Garrett conducted business in the back room. He asked Tom why Garrett wasn’t with him today, and Tom simply replied that Garrett didn’t show up last night. He also told Vic that Garrett had been having some trouble paying off some gambling debts. Vic didn’t give it much thought, given Garrett’s history with playing bad poker. Tom was pleased that his answer satisfied Vic, and it got Tom to thinking: If Vic found this believable, wouldn’t others find it believable, too? He now saw the next step in moving his life forward.
Tom headed back to his apartment, stopping along the way to buy a new suitcase. When he got there, he informed the landlady that he was leaving. He went upstairs, packed his few belongings, and headed for the train station.
Tom arrived at Garrett’s house in Hampstead which was a lovely suburb just north of the city center. Garrett’s house was a beautiful 17th century Merchant’s style home built of red brick with many windows, all trimmed in white. It was a large, three story house, with expansive rose gardens and a stable. Tom thought he had never seen a house so beautiful. He could hardly wait for Mary to see her new home. He went to the door and let himself in.
It didn’t take him long to settle into his new home. The servants were told that the house had been lost by Mr. Liev to resolve his debt. Sadly, the servants knew of their now former master’s gambling problems, so they were willing to accept this explanation. They were also told that if they had a problem with this new arrangement, they were welcome to go find employment elsewhere.

Tom continued to build his fortune. Thanks to the Influenza outbreak, he had a burgeoning stream of nightly customers from which to choose. The outbreak did not discriminate when it came to taking its victims.

            The time flew by, and the day of Mary’s arrival was finally there. Tom left for the station to meet her train, due to arrive at 2:00 pm. He watched with baited breath as passengers disembarked, waiting impatiently for his first glimpse of Mary. Finally, she stepped down from the car, followed closely by her Aunt Julia. She was stunning; his picture of perfection.  If anything, she was even more beautiful than he remembered. He had the porter gather their belongings, and they headed for home.
            On the way to the house, the three of them talked casually about being in London, how the weather was beginning to change over, and how lovely it was to see each other again. Tom was nervous, Aunt Julia was uncomfortable, and Mary was distant, but pleasant. The ride to the house seemed to take much longer than usual.
            When they got within a few blocks of the house, Tom told Mary about their new home. He hoped that she would be impressed with him for finding them such a beautiful house. Aunt Julia sat passively as Tom described the gardens and the stables. As they rounded the final corner, Mary had a brief look of recognition on her face. He asked if she had been in this neighborhood before, but she said “no”. They arrive at the front entrance of the house where the footman waited to help the ladies out of the carriage. Tom glanced at Mary who suddenly looked as white as his typical nightly guest. He asked if she is feeling well; she assured him that she was, but said so in a weak, distant voice. Aunt Julia looked askance at her niece, knowing she was lying.
            They entered the house, where the butler was waiting to show the women to their rooms. The ladies followed him up the stairs to their respective bedrooms, located at the opposite end of the hall from Tom’s room. The butler got them settled, asked them if they were in need of anything else, and then departed. Aunt Julia retired to her room for a short rest, as she was quite tired from their journey. Mary thanked the butler for his help and hospitality and told him that she, too, would like to rest for a while. As soon as the butler left the room, Mary disintegrated into a flurry of tears. Afraid of being overheard, she groped for the bed, threw herself upon it, and buried her face in her pillows.
            After a few hours, Mary pulled herself together, washed her face, and came downstairs to join the others for dinner. They had a lovely meal served by the butler, then retired to the salon for coffee and conversation. At a little after 11:00 pm Mary rose and bid the other two good night. Aunt Julia wished her a good night’s sleep as Mary left the room without a backward glance. Tom noticed this cool exchange between aunt and niece, but did not comment. As the door shut behind Mary, Tom saw that Aunt Julia visibly relaxed as soon as the door clicked shut. Tom asked Julia if everything was alright. She hesitated, but after a moment she gently asked Tom if he was sure he wanted to wed Mary. Tom was shocked because he thought Aunt Julia might be accusing him of something. He waited for her to continue, for fear of saying the wrong thing that might raise her suspicions of him. Fortunately for Tom, keeping his mouth shut paid off.
            Aunt Julia continued her monologue by telling Tom that she suspected that Mary was not sincere in her intentions toward Tom. She told him that she thought Mary was just marrying him to get her inheritance, and worried about what might be in store for Tom if he went through with it. Tom couldn’t believe his ears. Even though Mary was not as talkative as he hoped she might be, he figured that once they were married she would warm up to him. Aunt Julia’s words fell flat. He refused to believe that Mary had any ulterior motives in her desire to wed him. Julia tried to convince him that Mary really wasn’t the right girl for him. She went on to assure Tom that she thought he was a fine young man who was clearly making his way in the world, and that she was certain that there were other women who would make him a far better wife. As much as Tom didn’t want to hurt the old woman’s feelings, he felt himself begin to anger. He abruptly stood and told the old woman that she didn’t know what she was talking about, and stormed off to bed. After Tom went upstairs, he stayed alert to listen for the old woman to come up to bed. Aunt Julia came up a few minutes later, but Tom gave her a full hour to get settled in before he crept out of his room.
He gathered the tools of his trade and headed for the cemetery. He had every intention of giving up his nightly missions and investing his money in a real business, but the money is too good, and the work is short. As he enters the cemetery, he knows right with where he’s going. He heads to the newly covered grave and sets to work.
The night is moonless, with a cold mist hanging in the air, creating a halo of light from the lantern that bathes the man’s handsome face in a soft, warm glow. The man sweats from his labors, defying the chill of the night, his black hair plastered to his forehead. He toils away, working toward his goal. His companion this evening is Mrs. Luxorp. She was a woman of great renown who was truly disliked by all that knew her, so he does not feel particularly bad about relieving her of her unneeded worldly possessions.  He digs some more, waiting for the knowing clank of metal on wood that tells him that he has arrived at his target. He throws another shovel full of dirt out of the hole, distracting himself from his gruesome labors by envisioning his life to come. He’s almost there. The scratching sounds of the shovel moving the dirt are a soothing white noise, playing against the background to his dreams.
Finally, his shovel strikes home with a dull thud. He quickly clears off the top of the casket and, throwing his shovel aside, reaches for his crow bar. He makes quick work of prying the lid open, revealing the pallid visage of Mrs. Luxorp. She lies in repose with her horrible face skewed by the distortion of decomposition. She wears an expensive silk dress, and is adorned in her favorite jewels. He removes her necklace and bracelet, examining them in the light of his lantern. They should fetch a fair price in London’s underbelly markets. He quickly puts them in his pocket and bends to his final task. He lifts the talon that is Mrs. Luxorp’s left hand and gently twists the ring off her finger. After a minute of careful twisting pressure, the ring slips over the gnarled knuckle.
The ring is a true work of art. It is a large sapphire, surrounded by diamonds, encased in delicate filigree platinum. As he holds it to the light, the true color of the stone reveals itself to be as deep as the bluest ocean; the diamonds sparkle, casting hundreds of tiny rainbows. Mesmerized by the beauty of the ring, he is brought back to his earlier dreams of his life to come. He can imagine how this ring will look on the hand of his beloved, its delicacy paled only by the hand that wears it. Tomorrow is the day that he will place it on her hand as his promise of betrothal.
He pockets the ring and turns to begin filling in the hole. As he is working, he is distracted by an unfamiliar noise. He sees someone approaching, but cannot tell who it is in the hanging mist. He douses his lantern and waits in silence, hoping the intruder turns the other direction. The shadowed figure continues to come his way. As the interloper advances, he can tell that the silhouette is that of a woman. He lowers his head so that he is barely visible in the hole, still hoping that the woman goes away. 
The woman is now beside the grave. Tom knows that there is no use in hiding anymore. As he prepares to rise from the grave, his lantern is relit by the woman’s hand. Aunt Julia is standing above him, with a shovel in her hand.  By the look on her face, Tom can see that the old woman has malice in her heart. He is trapped. He has no way to get away from her. Even though he is younger and stronger, he is trapped in the grave: Aunt Julia has chosen her moment well. He cries out as she swings the shovel at his head. He manages to avoid the impact, but knows his luck won’t hold out for long. Another swing; another miss. “Why are you doing this?” he implores. Aunt Julia laughs a low, slow laugh and tells him she’s not about to lose Mary’s inheritance to some nobody Johnny-come-lately. She worked too hard to get her hands on it in the first place. Tom, still stuck in the grave, just stares at her in confusion. As she draws back to swing again, Tom feels nothing but defeat. His new life was to start tomorrow. Instead it would end tonight.
Julia is about to deliver the final blow. Tom shuts his eyes. He can hear the rush of air as the shovel arcs towards him. He waits for the end. As his brief life flashes before his tightly shut eyes, he’s hit with a sudden thump that sends him sprawling into the corner of the hole. It is Aunt Julia. Did she fall? Did she slip? But then Tom sees that the back of her head is a red, matted mess. Has another robber chosen this grave? He is so confused!
Someone has lifted the lantern and stands above him, holding out a helping hand to Tom. He pushed himself up and peeks past the glow of the lantern. Mary! He would know that delicate, slim hand anywhere! He scrambles out of the hole and takes Mary in his arms. For the first time since their meeting, Mary hugs him back with true warmth and love. They exchange no words. Tom gazes into her eyes, sparkling with the reflection of the lantern. He lifts her hand as delicately as a baby bird, and slips the ring on her finger. A small sparkling stream runs down her cheek as she reaches for Tom and kisses him. They leave the cemetery without Tom completing his job of refilling the grave and go home.
The next morning, as they sit at breakfast, Mary explains. She always suspected Aunt Julia had something to do with her parents’ death, but she couldn’t prove it. That is why she was aloof and distant. When Tom asked her to marry him, she really was happy, but was afraid to show her true feelings in front of her Aunt Julia. She then tells him that she did know this house. She knew who owned it because she had come here with Aunt Julia the day after Tom returned to London. She also knew of Mr. Liev’s reputation and financial troubles. She was afraid of what might happen to Tom if he were living in Mr. Liev’s house. She was certain that Julia had hired him to get rid of Tom, so she was quite shocked when they pulled up to his house. What it came down to was Aunt Julia not wanting to lose access to Mary’s money. Now they wouldn’t have to worry about anything. They could marry and Mary had plenty of money, so Tom could retire from his current endeavor. Tom held her hand gently and told her that no one would ever hurt her again. As he leaned in to kiss her, the doorbell rang. It was the constable, standing with hat in hand, coming to tell Mary of the tragic murder of her aunt.
The next day Mary received a letter from a solicitor saying that she was the sole heir of her aunt, and now owned the country house, all of her aunt’s possessions, and all of her money.
Tom and Mary were married the following week.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

UMA Bangor

I am currently a student at UMA Bangor and am writing this to inform the public of some practices by faculty and administration that I feel warrant disclosure. Potential students should be aware of what they are signing up for before they choose to enroll at this school.

Here are a few things you can expect as a student at UMA Bangor. Expect to have no idea where you stand in at least half of your classes. I have been attending UMA for two semesters, taking a total of 8 classes. By three weeks post-midterm, I had not received any graded work in 50% of my classes, even though we were turning in work. I asked about this practice and was told by an instructor, “I don't think it's right to grade students on their opinion.” This begs the question; what do you grade them on?

If you do happen to receive graded work in a timely fashion, be wary of who is actually grading your work. I am currently taking a Literary Criticism class. This is an online class that was to be taught by an instructor that I had heard very good things about. In fact, it was the high esteem in which she was held that compelled me to sign up for this class in the first place. As it turns out, this class is being taught by a faculty assistant (similar to a teaching assistant, although TA's are usually grad students). This is a person who is a fellow student. She does not have a degree and does not have teaching credentials. When I asked about this, I was told by the teacher that she was “really good” at this class. She also stated that she was “really busy this semester”. Apparently she is so busy that she doesn't have time to teach her classes. So written work is being graded by a peer. I inquired of another  teacher, whose opinion I value, what he thought of this and he believes this is unethical and possibly academic malpractice. I agree with him.  This is not the only class where I have an instructor who doesn't seem particularly interested in teaching their classes.

In another class that provided no graded work prior to 3 weeks post-midterm, we were required to do a midterm project. This could be anything. Anything. Interpretative dance, art projects, power point presentations, you name it. A week after the assignment was given, we were told that if we presented our project to the class, we would receive extra credit. Unfortunately, no parameters were given for these presentations. Because of this, we spent the remainder of the semester listening to presentations. What this amounts to is receiving no academic instruction for the entire second half of the semester. We paid for an entire class, but received only half of one.

In addition to the classes mentioned above, I am still trying to resolve an issue with an East Asian philosophy class that I took last semester. I've been trying to resolve this for 6 months. This instructor was pushing his personal faith. Each class was started with 5 minutes of meditation, complete with gongs. Had he presented the meditation and gong as an example or demonstration one time, this would have reasonable. I expressed my objection to this behavior stating that this is not academic instruction. I was promptly blown off. I then asked one of the many deans to please explain the difference between this man performing meditation at the beginning of every class (with gongs), and that of a professor teaching religious studies starting every class with the lord's prayer. The dean said it was a question of interpretation. It seems to me that if there is a question of interpretation, that is a problem in and of itself. After all, this is a public, tax dollar supported school. In addition to his praying in class, he also owns a hermitage, which is a non profit (read: tax exempt) federally recognized 501(c)3 corporation (the web address is which is also recognized by the State of Maine as a tax exempt Religious House of Prayer. Maybe it's just me, but this seems like a conflict of interest that flies in the face of academic instruction. In a publicly funded institution, religion should be left at the door.

I have pursued these issues with the next-up-the-line dean. I met with her 13 days ago and, as of the time of this writing, I have not received a response from her. With a graduation rate of 17% ( and 77% of students paying for this questionable education with Pell Grant money (read-tax dollars (read-your money)), and student loans (also government funded), one might expect an administration to be working hard to ensure that students are getting an education that will actually benefit them, and to be responsive to students who inform them of problems within their system. So far, this has not been the case. What happens to the other 83% of these students? They get grant money, they get loans, and they do not complete a degree. So they end up in worse condition than when they started. They have debt that will follow them for the rest of their lives, with no education that will help them obtain jobs where they can become financially stable.

Sadly, this experience is not unique. Eastern Maine Community College has an equally unresponsive administration. Perhaps unresponsive is not the right word. It is more an act of willful ignoring of problems, refusing to answer questions and complaints, and knowing that students have no recourse because students are typically broke, putting them in a position of having no access to outside recourse. Students from this school also experience the same issues with debt due to not completing their course of study and, more importantly, being dismissed from a program of study. I know of many people who have been dismissed from programs at EMCC. Many of them were dismissed for what seem to be arbitrary reasons that had nothing to do with academics (given the highly competitive nature of admission into the nursing program, how did they fail to graduate 1/3 of their 2012 class?). Once again, former students are left with more debt and no access to careers that will allow them to repay it.

But back to UMA Bangor. So why did I choose to attend this school? Two reasons. The first is price. This school is considerably less expensive than other schools within the University of Maine System. The second reason is that they accepted all of my credits that I earned at EMCC. The transfer credit policies vary from school to school in the U of M System. So I could have gone to UMO, paid a lot more money, and had the pleasure of retaking many of the classes I had already taken at Eastern Maine Community College, from which I graduated with honors in 2012.

This is a cautionary tale. Be careful in your deliberations when choosing a school. Do your best to make sure the school you attend is giving you what you paid for. I know that the experiences I related here are not unique. If enough students join together, maybe things will change for the better. And if you are at the community college, with plans of attending UMO, do your legwork before you get to the end of your stint at EMCC and find out that your credits aren't nearly as transferable as you thought they were. The Transfer College billing that EMCC is currently pushing is profoundly misleading. But that is a topic for another missive.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

The World According to Google

For the past month or so, I've seriously been considering purchasing a camper. I should state clearly that I am not a camper. I do not particularly enjoy camping. Too many bugs and raccoons. That being said, the thought of a camper sounds appealing to me on several fronts. For starters, I am tired of carrying around a lifetime worth of stuff. I am currently forming a plan for my great escape and the first part to executing this plan is to get rid of pretty much everything I own. I have come to the realization that antiques are highly over rated. And collectables. In retrospect, I have no idea how I ended up with so many collectables. And what exactly are collectables? As far as I can tell, they are objects of varying size that, at one point in time I thought were cute, pretty, whimsical, unique, or might-be-valuable-one-day. I live alone in a four bedroom house that is FILLED with stuff. I must stop the madness!

Once I am able to rid myself of all of my things, I will get rid of the house. Four bedrooms, two bathrooms, living room, dining room, kitchen, two mud rooms, utility room, 3 season porch and a garage(with two storage rooms) is more space than any one person needs. Even with the dogs and cats taking up their fair share of square footage, I cannot justify having all this space – filled with all this stuff. So I will sell the house. I have come to the conclusion that home ownership is highly overrated. I look back on my years as a renter with fondness. If something broke – call the owner.

The other thing that I find appealing about owning a camper is the fact that it is portable. I like the idea of being able to hitch my house to the back of my suburban and drive off to parts unknown. Winters in Florida, summers in Maine; sounds like a plan to me. So I have been surfing Craig's List in search of a camper. After surfing for a week or so, it dawned on me that I really don't know anything about campers. For instance, how much does a camper weigh? Can I tow it with my suburban? Does size matter (it does)? So the first thing I did was to google the specs of my truck to find out how much camper I could pull. This turned out to be good news. The max tow weight for my truck is 6000 pounds. From what I've seen, most campers up to 32 feet fall well below this limit. So far so good.

Then I started to notice more detail in the ads referencing anti-sway hitches and gas powered refrigerators. The gas powered refrigerator had me baffled. So off to google. It turns out that gas powered means powered by propane. I'm still not completely clear on this, but the idea sounds good. Some of the motorhomes that I looked at didn't have this option. I considered motorhomes only briefly. The suburban can tow a camper, but a motorhome can't tow a suburban, so that idea was scrapped. So anyway, a gas powered refrigerator cools with heat, using ammonia as a coolant. That's all I know. The article went on (and on) about how this this works, but I figured I had all I really needed to know, so I moved on to the anti-sway hitch.

Apparently there is an anti sway hitch and there is an anti sway control system. I have read a little about these and have come to the conclusion that the sway control system is preferred, particularly when used in conjunction with the anti sway hitch. So the upshot is that the hitch is on the truck and the system is on the camper. I know from personal experience that not swaying is important. One winter, when I was 12, I traveled with my family by car to Pensacola. We were towing a 28 foot sailboat behind us. Well, as anyone who has traveled with kids will attest, road trips get very long with kids in the car – particularly kids who fight a lot (like my sister and I did). Long story short; two kids fighting in back seat, father gets frustrated (after telling them to knock it off for the past 800 miles), turns around to (hopefully) smack them both. Sadly (for him) he misses, but he was distracted long enough to swerve a little. Apparently a little swerve can turn into a big swerve when you are towing things behind you. Fortunately, Dad got it under control and we continued on our way. My sister and I, never missing a chance to annoy, immediately started berating poor old dad. “Geeze, are you trying to kill us?” “If you hadn't tried to smack us, that wouldn't have happened.” So I'm pretty well sold on the importance of having the anti sway hitch and sway control system.

So far, my research has gotten me to a point where I know how much I can tow, I can keep my food cold, and I can hopefully keep from rolling the whole works over. This is a start, but far from enough to make any sort of intelligent purchase. So back to google.

In addition to googling for camper info, I am also googling for a source to sell off all of my antiques and collectibles. It occurs to me as I write this, if I didn't have access to google, how long would it take me to find this information? Would I ever find all that I need, or would I have to go out into the world and actually talk to people who know about theses things? Egad! I would never get out of here.

In His Father's Shadow

I am a fan of pretty much any fiction written about the period between 1935 and 1960, with particular emphasis on the period of WWII. But not just any fiction. It has to be historically accurate fiction. There's nothing like reading a book about WWII that has been well researched. A book that weaves accurate historical facts and people into a well written, engaging story.

One writer who has accomplished this feat is W.E.B. Griffin. Not only does he write historically accurate fiction, he also writes in series. I remember the first Griffin book I read. It was the first book of a series about the Marine Corps. It started in the late 1930's, when the marines were still in China, patrolling the Yangtze river. It continued through the beginning of WWII, building a rich case of characters, some fictional, some real. This series followed the lives of its character through the war and into, what appeared to the American public, a more peaceful time.

The beauty of book series is that I can really get to know the characters. I can live a big chunk of their lives with them, although this makes it even harder when I reach the end because I feel like I have lost good friends. Friends that have gone on to live more adventures, fight more battles, and love other people, leaving me behind, here in the present. Finishing a really good W.E.B. Series usually leaves me in a pretty good funk for a day or two.

I started reading his books about 20 years ago. He is a prolific writer, and I have yet to complete all of his books. He wrote several series about the military including the Army, Special Ops and Black Ops, a couple of series about civilian law enforcement and a couple of non fiction books. Of all the series, the military books are my favorites. He is an old soldier, retired military, and his firsthand knowledge of that society comes shining through in his writing.

This has been my history with this author, up until about 2006, when he started writing books with his son. Given the fact that WEB Griffin is now 83 years old, I can understand why he wanted to shed some of his burden onto someone else. I'm sure he is very proud that he has a son who is willing to work so closely with him in an effort to continue his long history of excellent story telling. Unfortunately, his son is no WEB Griffin. It is sad to say that the books I have read that were co-authored by both WEB III and WEB IV do not hold a candle to WEB III's earlier, solo works. I find it particularly disjointing when his son begins writing with him in the middle of a series.

But once I have bought in for 5 or 6 books, there is no way I can not finish the series. There is still plenty of WEB III on these pages, though perhaps not as much as I would like. I have to admit that I am probably being a bit harsh on the younger WEB, but I can't help it. Sadly, he is simply not his father. Perhaps if I had been introduced to him separately, reading works written only by him I would have a different opinion. Perhaps he is a fine writer in his own right. But if he is to continue in his father's footsteps, he has a long row to hoe. I suspect he may be painfully aware of this.

The Book of all Books

If I were stranded on a deserted island, and could have only one book, the choice would be an easy one for me. I would pick my unabridged dictionary. Why, you ask? Well, there are many reasons. For starters, an unabridged dictionary (UD) is so much more than just a dictionary. The UD that I have is filled with so much more than just words.

The first section of my UD is an introduction. It gives the reader an outline of the history of the English language, a guide to pronunciation, a key to pronunciation and a list of abbreviations used within the dictionary. I find this information interesting as well as useful.

After the intro comes the meat of the dictionary – the words! I have been known to read my dictionary just for fun. I like finding obscure words and using them with people I don't like. This allows me to feel superior while, hopefully, making the recipient feel inadequate and slightly stupid. This can be a fun filled activity for any rainy afternoon.

As I write this, my dictionary is sitting on the sofa next to me. The urge to open the dictionary and pick a random word is more than I can take. The winner today is bantling: 1. A young child; a brat. 2. a foundling; a bastard. 3. figuratively, an immature product, as of an author or artist. Funny how random frequently doesn't seem random. Ah, but I digress.

After the “words” section of my UD (all 2129 pages) comes the supplements. The true beauty of an UD are the supplements. My particular UD has 19 supplements, plus a full color world atlas. Granted, seeing that my UD is from 1979, many of the countries shown on these maps no longer exist, but they are useful for history projects (or to just peruse for the fun of it – another activity that I find immensely enjoyable). Many of the supplements are dictionaries in and of themselves. Two of my favorites are A Dictionary of Noted Names in Fiction, Mythology, Legend ( I have gotten a lot of mileage out of this section when it comes to naming pets), and A Dictionary of Foreign Words and Phrases (I have gotten a lot of mileage out of this section by using information found here in letters to people I don't like).

Other supplements include Abbreviations Commonly Used in Writing and Printing, Special Signs and Symbols, Forms of Address and Practical Business Mathematics. While I find the first three to be interesting and useful, the last can be used to build a fire to attract nearby ships and airplanes (I'm still on that island).

Other parts of the supplements section include The Declaration of Independence, The Constitution of the United States, all the Presidents, Vice-Presidents and Cabinet Members of the United States, A History of Canada (who cares), Air Distances between Principal U.S. Cities, Principal Geographic Features of the World and Commercial and Financial Terms (this last one is obviously more fodder for the rescue fire).

As you can see, my UD is packed full of useful information which can provide hours and hours of engaging diversion. But the real reason I would pick this as my one and only book on that deserted island is this; every book ever written is contained in its pages. The idea that every book I've ever read and loved is there, in my UD, hidden within its 2129 pages, is something that fills me with the wonder of possibility. I can't think of a better way to while away the days, weeks, months, or years that I might have to fill if I really were stranded on that elusive island.

As I wrap up this missive, my eyes travel once again to my companion sitting on the sofa next to me. What the hell – just one more word (this is one of my favorite games (you probably already guessed that)). The last word for the day is...queachy, 1. shaking; moving, yielding or trembling under the feet, as moist or boggy ground. 2. thick; bushy.

Monday, April 22, 2013

UMA (unbelievably mediocre academics)

Don't go to UMA.  I am currently living this particular nightmare and feel compelled to warn others of the substandard education they will receive at this school.

Here are a few things that you can expect as a student at this school.  Expect to have absolutely no idea where you stand in most of your classes. I have been at UMA for two semesters, taking a total of 8 classes.  By three weeks post-midterm, I had not received any graded work in half of my classes, even though we were turning in assignments.  When I asked about this, the typical instructor response was something along the lines of  “I don't grade students for their opinions.”  I'm still not exactly sure what that means.  If you don't want to grade students on their opinions – don't ask them for their opinions.  Seems pretty simple to me, but what do I know? 

If you do happen to have a class where you get graded work returned in some sort of timely fashion, be wary of who may actually be grading your work.  I am currently taking a literature criticism class.  This is an online class being taught by an instructor that I had heard very good things about prior to signing up.  In fact, it was the high esteem in which she was held that inspired me to take this class.  As it turns out, she has a teaching assistant teaching this class.  I am not necessarily opposed to TA's teaching classes.  In this case, however, I have a huge problem with it.  The TA for this class is a work study student.  She is not a graduate student; in fact, she doesn't even have her bachelors degree.  This would technically make her a peer.  I asked the instructor about this and expressed that I was not particularly happy with this arrangement.  Her response was that this student was “Really good at this – she did really well in the class.”  She also stated that she was “Really busy this semester” because she is working on her book.  Apparently she's too busy to teach her classes.  I'm currently beginning a slug-fest with administration over this one.  I'll keep you readers posted as to the result, if any.

Why do I say “if any?” Because administration is unresponsive.  Administration seems to subscribe to the “Ignore it and it will go away” philosophy of management.  I suspect that with most students, this probably works for them.  I suspect that this school is not unique in this respect.

I am still waiting to resolve an issue with an East Asian philosophy class that I took last semester.  I've been trying to resolve this for 5 months. This particular instructor is a religious fanatic who was pushing his personal flavor of faith.  Each class was started with 5 minutes of meditation, complete with gongs and bells.  I expressed my objection to this behavior and was promptly blown off.  I then asked the dean to please explain the difference between this man performing meditation (with gongs and bells), and that of a professor teaching religious studies starting class with the lord's prayer.   The dean said it was a question of interpretation.  Again, I'm not entirely sure what that means.  It seems to me that if there is a question of interpretation, that is a problem in and of itself.  After all, this is a public, tax dollar supported school.  In addition to his praying in class, he also owns his very own Ashram, which is a non profit (read: tax exempt)501(c)3 corporation.  Maybe it's just me, but that seems like a conflict of interest that flies in the face of academic instruction.  But what do I know?

These are just a couple of examples of life at UMA.  I could go on to tell about how UMA Augusta treats UMA Bangor like a red-headed stepchild, or how I tutor students who cannot write a complete, cohesive sentence.  I could speak to the inordinate percentage of students who are methadone dosed, recovering addicts earning degrees in social services or the disjointed, typo strewn, syllabus presented to a class by Dr. so-and-so, but I'm sure that would border on the tedious.

So why did I choose to attend this misguided school?  Simple.  Their price, and they took all of my credits that I earned at EMCC, unlike UMO.  The transfer college billing that EMCC is currently pushing is profoundly misleading.  But this is a topic for another missive.

Friday, April 12, 2013

What's the Rush?

What's the Rush?

I am a procrastinator extraordinaire. If the deadline is 5:00pm, I will have it completed and turned in by 4:49pm. This is the system that works for me. It is not necessarily a good system, nor is it an encouraged system, but it is the one I use. I have tried to do assignments early, but it never seems to work out very well for me. For example, I get an assignment that is due in four weeks, at midnight. So in week two, I sit and start my assignment. I write a bunch of really bad stuff, delete most of it, start over, delete, edit, try a different goes nowhere. So I close the file and forget about it. That is what happens when I try to do my assignments early. Here is what actually happens. Fast forward – two days before the due date. I review the assignment (because I'm not completely clear on it anymore) and I think about it. That's right, I just think. I mull it around in my head here and there. I find drive time to be particularly productive for mulling. 

When I wake up on the due date, I have a brief moment of panic. “Geeze, I really should start that thing. If I do it this morning, I'll be off the hook for the rest of the day.” This is immediately followed by two cups of coffee and countless hands of solitaire. And thinking. And mulling. Then walk the dogs. Then a cigarette. A shower. Maybe I should do some dishes (another procrastination issue). If I actually manage to do some dishes (and maybe throw in a load of laundry), I'm sort of tired. The cure for that? Why a nap, of course!

I live for nap time, as do my dogs. I get my smelly old quilt, and stretch out on the couch. Henry has to reposition at the foot so I can get comfortable. He circles, finds a spot and settles his head on my feet. Then it's Sophie's turn. She climbs up on the sofa, very gingerly so as to avoid stepping on my stomach (which I greatly appreciate because a good 80 lb. shot to the stomach is enough to warrant a trip to the bathroom, which means we have to start the ritual all over) So up she comes. She nestles in between me and the back of the sofa, finally resting her head in the crook of my neck. Last, but not least (at least in my eyes – Henry and Sophie would disagree) Emmett approaches the couch. He stops and sits, looking hopefully at me that he will be included. I give him the go ahead, and he hops up and finds a small gap between Henry, Sophie, the back of the couch and my legs. He circles once, Henry glaring at him, and quickly finds a spot. Then we all shift and wiggle a little bit and settle in for the duration. As I close my eyes and drift off to the sounds of reality TV, I think to myself, “What am I going to write about?” It's only 3pm, I have plenty of time. How long could it take? Certainly not 9 hours. Ahh...deep breath.

Eventually my bladder protests loudly against my napping brain, and I am forced to get up. Wow – it's 6pm! Damn, I must have been really tired from doing those dishes! And I better put those clothes in the dryer, before they start to smell funny, and I have to rewash them. But first, the bathroom. “Hey, what about us?” my dogs say in unison. So, a quick walk for the pups; everyone pees and comes back into the house. Then to the laundry. I go to put my clothes into the dryer and, damn it, there are clothes in there. Okay, I guess I should fold those clothes, instead of just piling them on top of the dryer (that pile is already pretty high). So I fold, and as I fold I start to sort. “Hmm...haven't worn that in at least a year – probably don't need it anymore.” So off I go to get a bag for my rejects. I will take them to the church (some day) and donate them. 

Clothes finally folded and sorted, new load in the dryer, I move off into the kitchen. Yep, pretty hungry. What to have? Pizza sounds like a great idea, but it can be expensive. So a quick look through the coupon book. Nothing that great, and I really don't need to spend the money, so back to the fridge. Then the freezer. Then back to the fridge. I have tomatoes. Pasta is always good. So I boil water, dice tomatoes and get to cooking. I turn out a nice fresh tomato and garlic cream sauce served over spaghetti. I sit down to eat and am met with the “Hey, what about us” look from the dogs. Back to the kitchen, fill the food bowls, fill the water bowl, and go back to the couch to dine. The bird has heard me filling the dogs' dishes and starts in with his own little parrot version of “Hey, what about me?” So I fill his dish with seeds, and change his water. Finally, everyone is content for the moment. I really should get on that paper. The clock is ticking. I'll start as soon as I'm done eating.

It's now 9 pm. 3 hours and counting to my deadline. Start typing. Type, type, type. Shitty. Delete. Type some more. Not half bad. Type a little more, delete some, readjust. Okay, here we go! Off and running. All the disjointed thoughts of the past two weeks come forth, suddenly finding a relationship with the other heretofore disjointed thoughts floating in my brain. Before I know it, I've got a good 1000 words on the page and it's not even 10 pm! Great! Time to wrap it up. I finish, save and prepare to send it off into the ether. I cannot connect to the internet. Shit. This happens now and then because I rely on my neighbors who have unsecured modems. No luck tonight. Argh. Really not in the mood for this – it's cold outside and I don't want to be cold. I'm cozy and warm, sitting on the couch with Henry and Emmett, Sophie at my feet. Damn it. No other option if I am to meet my deadline. Okay. Shut down the computer, pack up my cord and grab my purse and keys.

I'm ready to head up to Tim Horton's, where the coffee is fresh and the internet is free. “Hey, what about us?” No, you dogs need to stay here. “But we really don't like it when you go out this late and leave us at home.” I know. I'll be back before you know it. “Well, okay, but can you at least let us out to pee before you go?” Yeah, sure, but make it quick. So we leash up, go out, pee, and come back in. Okay, now I'm off to Tim Horton's. It's 11 pm.

As I enter I spy a young woman, who is a friend of my daughter, behind the counter. She's one of my favorites as far as my daughter's friends go. So we chat a little. She tells me about school and dorm life at UMO. She asks about Claris (my daughter), so I fill her in on her current escapades. I order a decaf (because I feel guilty for really only wanting to use them for their free internet) and a doughnut. Chocolate with coconut – perfect. I get my coffee and doughnut and find a table with an outlet. I plug in and boot up. I agree to Tom Horton's terms of agreement (which I have never, and will never, read) and sign in to my email. I write a quick note to my instructor and attach my file. Off it goes. Finally, I am done! It is 11:45. I finish my coffee and head home.

I greet the dogs, smoke one last cigarette, and head upstairs to get ready for bed. The cats greet me at the top of the stairs singing a demanding chorus of “Where's our dinner”, so I fill their bowls, give them a pet and head to the bedroom. I settle in, surrounded by the dogs (and a cat or two) and, as I close my eyes I think to myself “I wonder what's due tomorrow?”