Adventures in Sailing, Part 4 – Sailing 101 – Sea Trials

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Adventures in Sailing, part 4

After 6 months of rebuilding the 42-foot tramaran Columba, our crew of 12 held sea trials to prepare for our upcoming summer sailing trip from Ventura, California to the Hawaiian islands. We had taken classroom sailing courses, earned first-aid and CPR certifications, bought our personal supplies and sailing gear, and spent one weekend a month sanding, painting, cleaning, attraching, affixing, re-masting, outfitting and otherwise restoring the boat at the captain’s direction. Now was the time we were waiting for — on the water sailing lessons.

In Spring 1980, mere months from our departure, Captain Mathias split the crew into 3 components. He and the 1st or 2nd mate would conduct sea trials, training the rest of us in all the basics of sailing: shoving off, docking, changing sails, helmsmanship, man overboard drills, tacking, jibing, and anchoring. We learned how to use our floatation devices and to hook onto the lifelines when going forward. We learned how to avoid an accidental jibe and to give verbal and hand signals. We learned to avoid a boom that was crossing the centerline of the boat.

Sailing is a dynamic sport, and accidents happen suddenly, and often without warning. Being prepared and practicing safety first in all situations is paramount to survival, especially in the middle of the ocean without any land in sight. While exhilarating, being in the middle of the ocean without land in sight can strike terror into the novice sailor’s very being.

Sea trials were a learning experience, not a try-out. We had paid our money, and like it or not, we were going on this trip. Seasickness was a temporary inconvenience, not a reason to abandon an adventure of a lifetime. I would question the soundness of that reasoning a few days into the voyage, but for now, I would learn to sail along with the rest of the crew.

We were all novices, except the captain, his daughter, and the 1st and 2nd mates. While they had some sailing experience, and I had a little bit too, none of us were what you could call a sailor. We had minimal playtime lake experiences with boats. Better than nothing but not a foundation for ocean-going.

Our sea trials consisted of 4 or 5 of us sailing for several hours and then for an overnight weekend off the coast of California around the Channel Islands. This area is prone to relatively high winds (higher than San Diego, not as high as San Francisco). With the wind whipping around the islands and the currents coming into the mainland, sailing can be challenging. But our sea trials went very well. We practiced all the maneuvers and sail changing techniques that we would need in the open ocean.

One particular challenge, however, was the overnight trip. We had a pleasant day sailing even though the weather was a bit rough. The winds died down around dusk. We searched for a place to set the anchor and then had a quiet night. Sailing can be exhausting. The rhythms of marina and sea life are early on the west coast. Once the sun goes down, the winds die and activity at the marinas slow. People go to bed early and rise with the sun.

At sea however, there is no time-keeper. We spent the evening watching the stars and practicing taking sights with our sextants. There was always something more to learn.

I was assigned the forward berth in the middle pontoon hull for my sleeping quarters. Around midnight, the swells started coming in, 6–10 foot constant swells 1 to 2 seconds apart. It felt as if the boat would smash apart. The swells lifted the boat into the air and the boat would crash into the trough only to be lifted by the next swell. BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! It was distressing. But more than that, it was a test of our anchoring.

The captain went forward to check the anchor rode, the chain attached to the anchor, and the attachment points for the windlass to make sure everything was secure. Then he asked each of us to attach our life jacket to the life lines and make our way forward to see what it was like to go forward at night in stressful ocean conditions. Some of us had to crawl to reach the anchor rode.

The other challenge was seasickness. These swells were relentless, constant, with nothing in the world that could stop the motion. I had taken my dramamine faithful, but I had never experienced swells like this before, and the sound of the constant pounding of the boat against the water. I found myself mid boat, holding onto the lifelines, puking into the ocean all night long. I’m sure I dozed a little bit, only to be awakened by crew now and then to see if I was still alive. The forward berth in the boat is prone to the most movement, thus it wasn’t a good assignment for someone prone to seasickness.

The swells stopped sometime in the night, and we woke in the morning to glassy calm seas. Our trip back to the marina was uneventful.

Because of how sick I got due to the swells, I was assigned to the middle berth in the boat for the trip to Hawaii. Tanya and I would share that middle berth located where the dining table was, which was raised at 6:00 am and lowered at 12:00 midnight so that we could sleep. I wasn’t sure how this would work, but it played a big role in how the trip went overall.

With the sea trials concluded, we were one step closer to our bon voyage date. Pacific Ocean and Hawaiian Islands — here we come.

Adventures in Sailing, Part 3 – A Valley Dude Goes to the Beach

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Adventures in Sailing, part 3

Eleven students signed up to sail to Hawaii from Ventura, California on a 42-foot trimaran for $800.00 apiece in 1979 money. That’s more than $2700 in 2019 monies. Actually, only 10 students signed up as the the captain’s daughter was also coming along and presumably didn’t need to pay. That $8000.00 would be enough to completely strip the boat, de-mast it, de-rig it, pull the boat from the water for 6–8 months, and completely reassemble it with all new hardware, paint, safety equipment, and sails. And other than the necessity for the boat be hauled at a boatyard, the captain arranged for all of us to do the work, one weekend a month, from October to our cruising date of June 1980. Somebody thought this through!

But first, Captain Mathias had 10 people who knew little to nothing about sailing or boat maintenance, so the time was short and the learning curve steep. We all had to contribute without fail as part of our commitment to the adventure. This boat, Columba, would be our home for the entire summer, June through August 1980. What better way for us to get to know it than to completely tear it apart and rebuild it.

The captain put together committees to tackle some basics: sailing lessons, first-aid and CPR certification, food and galley prep, and foul weather gear and equipment. We were asked about our own particular skills and boating experiences (some lake and river boating and a little sailing and some deep sea fishing, but mostly motion sickness chum provider for me). Finally, we were provided a costly list of items that we would need for the trip, which was in addition to the $800 fee. Included on that list were items such as an emergency kit with space blanket, snake bite, life vest with attached whistle and shackle, warm woolen clothes, wool blanket, snacks, games, cards, books, inflatable dinghy, toiletries and much more. The list was complete and personal gear must be weighed and not exceed a certain volume.

We all took sailing lessons. These book-and-classroom lessons emphasized the basics of sailing, the aerodynamics, the right of way rules, the vocabulary (port, starboard, leeward, windward, sail, block, bowline, reef, etc.), and all the culture connected with sailing and sailboats.

We took Red Cross certified courses in first aid and CPR. Our first mate, the blond German named Cloud, set out to find the best price for foul weather gear. In one of our monthly meetings just as we were getting started, he told a funny story in his German accent. “I called several stores to ask about the price of foul-weather gear. They asked my name, and I said ‘Cloud.’ One guy said, “Funny!” and hung up on me.” You can’t make this stuff up.

One of the three Mormans on the boat in addition to the captain and his daughter, Andrea was in charge of the food and the galley. As an Amway salesperson, she did her best to also sell us products to help her business. Three of us were high school students. Andrea was a bit older than the rest of us and a church friend of the Mathias family, but she was still on the younger side, perhaps in her mid-20s. Christy, the captain’s daughter, was in her senior year of high school. She was actually late graduating because the family had cruised in the Marquesas islands for a couple of years, so we knew the captain and she at least had some experience in the open ocean. Gary was a year behind me in 10th grade. I was in 11th grade. I believe that all the rest of the crew were 1st or 2nd year college students and/or family friends of the captain. Cloud was the 1st mate, and Dave was 2nd mate. Don, Sue, Karen, Linda, and Tonya rounded out the rest of the crew. More about all of them later.

One weekend a month, we made the drive from the San Fernando Valley where we all lived to Ventura, a sleepy coastal community where the boat was kept, about an hour’s drive north from Los Angeles. Sometimes we carpooled, but mostly we drove separately. I got my driver’s license in November 1979, and I got used to making the drive by myself to Ventura. We slept in sleeping bags on the boat, even when it was on a stand in the boatyard. They pulled the boat out of the water and then we took the boat apart — down to the bare bones. The engine was removed and all the shrouds and stays and lines, and the boat was demasted.

Once we had a clean hull to work with, we started the dirty work. We sanded. And we sanded some more. We sanded with handheld sanders and with bricks wrapped with sandpaper. And then we painted everything, white and baby blue. We applied no-skid surface to the boat deck, basically a kind of sand that is applied with an adhesive to certain panels on the deck and then painted over. It feels like walking on rough sandpaper, so in general, we didn’t walk around barefoot. That’s what boat shoes and flip flops are for. We installed safety lines and shrouds and stays. We threaded line through the mast to connect to the sails.

And then we did the bright work, which is another way for saying we polished anything that was metal. With the boat sitting near the ocean in Ventura, it didn’t take long for the brightwork to become dull from oxidation. So we spent a good amount of time polishing metal. Amway has (or had) a great metal polisher. When we were sailing, it was a common chore to spend an hour or so every day doing the bright work.

It took a good 6 months or more to remake the boat in its own image. It looked exactly the same, but it entailed replacing or refurbishing each part, buying a backup, and putting it all back together. The captain went up every weekend, while the rest of us were only required to go to Ventura once a month. However, there was always work to do, and I’m sure the captain got help from Cloud or Dave or both on off weekends. They had to pull the engine, and then reinstall it, including installing the propeller shaft and propeller. And we had to raise the mast and reinstall it. Much of that work required using hoists from the boatyard, which meant scheduling yard time. When it was almost complete, except for the interior cushions and the homey features such as curtains and decorations, we put the boat back in the water.

Once we knew all the components worked, we had a sense of pride in Columba from all the work we put in to our summer home.We were one step closer to taking off for the high seas. But first we had to learn to apply what we had learned in the classroom. We had to learn how to sail.

Adventures in Sailing, Part 2 – Loomings

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Adventures in Sailing, part 2

There are adventures in life that you might undertake that, afterwards, you might say, “What was I thinking?” Sailing to Hawaii for me was one such adventure.

I saw a flyer in my high school at the beginning of 11th grade, advertising for crew to sail to Hawaii the following summer 1980. It was intriguing enough for me to take the flyer home and talk to my parents about it. The trip was advertised at $800.00, enough money for the captain to completely redo his boat in preparation for the voyage. The captain was Captain Mathias, former Merchant Marine and current football coach at our high school, having just completed a successful year with John Elway has our quarterback.

My parents look at the flyer and then kind of laughed at me.

“But you get seasick!”

It was true. I get seasick. In fact, I got motion sick at just about every activity I did except for walking. I ruined every car we ever had. On trips to Sequoia and Yosemite, my parents had to drive very slowly or risk me throwing up. Whether I sat up front with my head out the window, sat in the back, or sat in the far back in the station wagon, nothing seemed to help. I couldn’t ride any amusement park rides that went in circles. Whenever my parents took me deep sea fishing, I spent my time throwing up over the side, fishing pole in hand, no bait on the hook, catching fish anyway. That’s possible when you chum the waters yourself. On airplanes, just a little turbulence, and that air sickness bag better be open and ready. Otherwise, it would be everywhere.

I had earned the nickname “King of the Barfers” in my family, and my motion sickness was legendary. Family friends drove me up to the cabin one time, determined to drive the road they knew well fast. I told them I would get sick, and they just said, “Oh, Frank’s a good driver. You’ll be fine.” There is nothing quite like a vehicle filled with the rotting smell of vomit. I could never hold it back like some people can. And I never was on to projectile vomit either. When I got sick, it happened quickly, without warning, a giant puddle at my feet.

So my parents were quite surprised when I came home with this flyer for a sailing voyage across half the Pacific Ocean. They enjoyed sailing, fishing, and any boating activites. In fact, we own a little wooden boat with an outboard engine that we took to the local lakes and the Colorado River. They saw this adventure for what it was — a once in a lifetime chance.

I was 16 years old, had never drank alcohol in my life, was a secret smoker, had just started working, and an honors student. I was legendarily afraid of heights and prone to motion sickness. What possibly could go wrong?

There was an orientation, a get-to-know you meeting for potential crew to meet each other and the captain, and for parents to ask questions. The trip would begin with preparing the boat through the year, one weekend a month from October 1979 to June 1980 and include in-class sailing lessons, first-aid lessons and certification, and on-the-water sailing trials.

My parents decided to call it an early graduation present. They gave me their blessing. What were they thinking?

I think back now how that adventure led to my love of sailing and years of living on a sailboat. But back then, this trip was more challenge than success. And afterwards, I didn’t think I would ever sail again in my life.

Grab a cup of grog, toss a bit of rum in there, and I’ll tell you what happened.

Adventures in Sailing, Part 1 – Stuck in the Middle with You

Adventures in Sailing, part 1

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“Everyone in the water. Let’s go!”

The captain gives the orders, and the crew obeys. That’s the law of the sea. But in this particular instance, the order seemed fraught with danger. Captain Mathias, unshaven for a couple weeks, portly, in his shorts and flip-flops, and flimsy t-shirt in the mid-80s degree tropical weather, stood on deck, chin thrust out, holding a .22 gauge shotgun, presumably looking for sharks.

The crew, all 11 of us, high schoolers and a few young college students, from age 15 to 22, dove into the still blue waters to scrub the bottom of our 42-foot trimaran, Columba. Equipped with snorkels, fins, and masks, and a scrub brush each, we dove to clean the bottom of the algae, kelp, and barnacles that naturally occur when sailing. We sought any advantage we could and didn’t want any drag on the boat. We weren’t in a race and we certainly weren’t making great time with the zig zag course of our collective novice helmsmanships.

We were stuck in the doldrums.

Photo by Magda Ehlers from Pexels (The doldrums were calmer than even this photo.)

Yes, the doldrums are a real thing. And we found them… it. There was not a whisper of wind. The surface of the ocean was dead calm. There were no clouds. Nothing floated by. No rising and falling swells. It’s as if the Earth had stopped spinning, an episode right out of The Twilight Zone.

We were sailing to Hawaii, an early high school graduation gift for me, and a great adventure for us all. I had been to Hawaii 5 years earlier, hitchhiking with my hippie brother — a story for another time — but we had taken conventional transportation and flown to Hawaii. Our plan was to sail from Ventura, California across the Pacific Ocean to Hawaii, tour the islands, and then head back to the mainland near the end of summer, arriving somewhere near San Francisco and then heading down the coast to home port. Thirteen of us started the journey. Only 5 of us would make the entire voyage. I was one of the crew who would not complete the trip.

The captain estimated that it would take 2–3 weeks to get to Hilo, Hawaii, our first stop. According to our progress on the nautical charts, we were already behind. And now we were stuck.

There was simply too much ocean to cross to resort to starting the engine. We needed to save our fuel in case of a real emergency or in case we somehow overshot the islands.

In the doldrums, our position was somewhere half way between Ventura and Hawaii, just about the farthest point on this Earth that you can get from land.

The Pacific Ocean is vast. And in every direction there was blue — the blue of the sky, the blue of the ocean, and not a single object in view, not a bird, or another ship, not a cloud. There was very little visually to help us see where the blue began and the blue ended — except for Columba, our home at sea, and each other.

We dove 4 or 5 feet below the ocean’s surface scrub the fiberglass hulls free of dirt and grim. Never one to like even the smallest inkling of cold at the surface of the water, I reveled in this warm water, a welcome change from the beating sun.

But the water grew immediately cold just below the surface. What I didn’t anticipate was the high concentration of salinity in the middle of the ocean. As I dove down, the salt water hurt the inside of my ears. It felt like pouring salt on a wound, or getting citrus juice on a cut, except deep inside my ear. I kicked to the surface and found I wasn’t alone. Gary, who was 15 and the youngest crew member on the boat — I was 2nd youngest at 16 — also couldn’t stay below due to his ears hurting. We tried several times to dive deep enough to scrub, but it just hurt too much.

We made our way back on deck via the rope ladder hanging at the stern of the boat. The captain was not pleased and ordered us back in the water. We declined, explaining that the water hurt our ears. He scouted for sharks while the rest of the crew scrubbed for a while.

Once everyone was done with their assigned sections, the crew assembled on deck. Captain Mathias addressed the crew:

“As you can see, we’re stuck in the doldrums. By my reckoning, we’re about half way to Hawaii. It’s too soon to use any fuel. But until everyone does their assigned work, I will not use the engine to get us out of the doldrums. Here we wait.” The captain’s word was final.

And that was that. The captain’s word was law. There was some grumbling under breaths, and Gary and I got some dirty looks. But we dug in and were not going to sacrifice our ears and hearing for scrubbing the boat in the middle of the ocean. The captain seemed to pout at his commands being ignored.

For the next 36 hours, we sat in unmoving waters. The year was 1980, before personal headsets were common, and one crew member played The Kinks over and over again on his small boombox. Most of the crew sunbathed and read books. A few of us began a marathon poker game.

My parents enjoyed gambling, and I had learned most card games much earlier than other kids. I knew how to play poker, but only the mechanics of how it is played. I wasn’t a good player. I found that out quickly when I lost a couple hundred dollars. Yikes! That was my spending money for when we got to Hawaii. I made a rookie gambling mistake and kept playing to try to win it back and lost even more.

I was skinny, and the 1st mate nicknamed me “Lee-Bones!” and “Riverboat Gambler!” due to my boasting about knowing how to play gambling games. I don’t know if I got swindled or taken for a ride by better poker players. I just remember getting lousy cards and never catching a break.

At some point during our three-day visit to the doldrums, a couple of the crew grabbed their snorkel and masks and a couple of scrub brushes and scrubbed the section that Gary and I had not. They weren’t happy about it, but they were less happy sitting in the middle of the ocean and not making any progress on our trip.

We tried to explain about our ears to the captain again, but he wasn’t really interested in excuses. He was the captain and wanted his orders followed. Captain Mathias was a laid-back man, former Merchant Marine turned High School football head coach (he was actually John Elway’s head coach in our high school — Granada Hills High School — Elway was two years ahead of me and had graduated the year before). But something had happened in the two short weeks of our trip. He was cursing, drinking coffee, gambling, and losing patience — not what one would expect from a Morman. The open ocean frees most men from the shackles of civilized life.

Gary and I made an agreement with the captain that we would scrub the entire bottom of the boat in the marina, once we made it to Hawaii. That seemed to please him.

After a day and a half of sitting in the water, we started to notice a slight rise and fall of the ocean, as if the Earth were slowly breathing. The tackle began to clank as the boat swayed in the small swells. We put up the sails, which mostly just hung there, to catch whatever wind we could.

At one point, with most of us sunning on deck or relaxing down below, we heard a creak and then the boom swung over with a crash!

“God dammit!” the captain yelled. The accidental jibe could have seriously hurt or hit a crew member sending him or her overboard. “All hands on deck!”

With the movement of the boom across the centerline of the boat, we knew we had enough wind to at least set the sails. We could detect movement now. Seafoam floated by and the small swells gently rocked the boat. In the distance, wispy clouds swirled in the sky. The wind was close.

Captain Mathias started the engine and put his best helmsman at the wheel. We would find the wind within a few hours and started sailing again.

Stories on Medium

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I’ve started blogging on Medium, a place to professionalize my writing. I’ll be writing about my teaching career, posting memoir pieces, and movies/shows I’m watching, as well as reading I’m doing. I’m considering using this blog as a place for my daily blogging and Medium to post my more complete essays and polished work.

Here are two recent posts I made to Medium. I encourage you to sign up for Medium so you can see my work behind the paywall. That’s right. I can get paid if you read my work there.

A story about my dachshunds, Herman, on his 1st birthday.

And a story about the first time I saw Star Wars.


West vs. East – part 3 – Hostile Student

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I started teaching college English in 1986, as a graduate teaching assistant at the University of New Mexico. My world changed. I was a good teacher, inspired in my own scholarship and interests as I strove to do well for my students. I immediately embraced teaching as a lifetime career choice. But what gave way was my first love – writing. With the heavy load of grading, I couldn’t afford the time commitment for my own writing. And thus, a dream deferred. But here we are.

The many experiences a teacher goes through is enough to fill, and has filled, many books. Some of my experiences were extraordinary, some outrageous, some run of the mill, experiences that most teachers have. One of the last experiences I had as a teacher helped me make the decision to switch careers and leave teaching for good.

I had moved from San Diego to New Haven, CT, leaving behind an Adjunct Professor position that paid my health insurance and gave me a stable part-time income that I could supplement with online teaching and other Adjunct teaching assignments. I landed jobs at two schools in New England, one at a community college, which I wrote about in West vs. East – Part 2, and one at a state college, two sections of freshman composition with a focus on argument writing and analysis of op-eds.

In one section, I had mostly first-year freshman, but with a contingent of disruptive students that proved more headache than not. In the other late afternoon section, I had a group of mostly older students, non-traditional students returning to school. In this section, one particular student took an immediate dislike to me. She self-identified as a veteran, and she was often late and unprepared. She didn’t understand my “academic jargon” and would wrinkle here nose and ask her classmates, “What did he say?” And they’d “translate” for her and she’d say, “Oh, that’s what he meant! Why didn’t he say so?” – All said during class and right in front of me.

Then near the middle of the semester, this student became hostile three days in a row. First, she turned in a single sentence as a “draft” of a major essay. When she placed the paper on my desk, I said, “this isn’t a draft,” and she got verbally hostile – “it’s MY draft. Who says this can’t be a draft? ….” a diatribe that went on right near the end of class as students were filing out. It was disconcerting to say the last. The next class period, she didn’t show up. As I was leaving class, she shows up with her book in hand and said, “I have the assignment. I’ll be right back.” And then she turned around to leave, saying something about the copies being broken at the library and she had to print out her assignment. I said, “class was over and the assignment was late,” which set her off. She starts yelling through the empty hall toward me as she’s practically running the other direction! I waited for a few minutes and then thought, “wait, what? No…she missed class. She can turn her assignment in like any other student during class.” And I left. She placed the assignment into my mailbox later that day. On the third day, she was late and didn’t have time to finish the quiz. She wrote on the quiz a single sentence – “I’m here not because I want to be but because I have to be.” Having worked with many students who were veterans, I understood that many of them weren’t invested in their studies but took college courses so they could receive their base housing allowance. During class, she bad-mouthed me to her classmates during group work. After class, I asked her about her quiz, and she merely repeated the sentence she wrote and then said, “I don’t like you.” I told her that was plain to see, and that I didn’t appreciate her bad-mouthing me to the other students, that if she has something to talk with me about, she should talk to me directly.” Well, that set her off.

She went into full angry mode, wouldn’t let me talk or respond and wouldn’t calm down. I put a desk between me and her because she was getting awfully close and looked like she was going to hit me. In over 30 years in the classroom, I’ve never had a student become hostile like this, especially three days in a row. Her friends tried to calm her down and escort her out. One student took video of the encounter because it was out of hand. One of my students emailed me after class to ask if I was all right because it was clear that I was upset by the encounter.

As the professional I am, I did my best not to personalize the encounter but it was clear that she had a negative influence on the class and was out of control. I contacted the Office of Student Conduct. I spoke with the Chair of the department and the Director of the writing program as well.

The Office of Student Conduct took my statement, said she was clearly out of line and would be kept out of class on the next class period, which was a Monday. He said he would keep me in the loop and contact me and let me know what he found out and what would happen going forward.

The student wasn’t in class the next Monday, but I also had not heard from the Office of Student Conduct. On Wednesday, I received an email an hour before class saying the student had been cleared to return to class. I told the director, “Absolutely not. She is not allowed back in the class.” He heard that I was serious, and he had me cancel class and contacted the Dean to see what our options were. In the meantime, we set up a meeting with me, the Chair, the Director, and the student that would occur after the next class meeting.

Before that class meeting, the Director communicated that the student would have to be allowed back in class because she had paid for it. I thought that was absurd. So I prepared to have her back in class.

She indicated that she wanted to speak with me before class. There were two minutes before class. She was immediately confrontational – “When have I ever been disruptive in class?” she asked. Sensing the unwinnable question – it’s kind of like “when did you stop beating your spouse?” – I deferred and said, “I’m about to teach class and can’t really have this conversation right now, but I’d be happy to make an appointment with you to talk about this issue.” She refused to let it go. I had to tell her three times that I couldn’t answer her question right then. She stormed into class and grabbed her books and said, “This fuckin’ Professor won’t even answer my question!” and stormed out. The entire class was witness to this latest outburst. Everyone was quiet that day, and I let them all go 10 minutes early.

The student had contacted the Chair, who showed up 5 minutes later but had missed me.

The next week, we had a meeting set up with the Chair, the Director, the student, and me. We all showed up at the appointed time, except for the student.

The Chair and Director and I, all seasoned professors, talked shop a bit, and then they told me that I had to let the student back in the classroom. I was livid. They said if I didn’t agree with this determination, that I should go to HR and file Hostile Workplace report, which I did directly following that meeting.

The student never showed up in class again. And I waited. And I waited. The semester ended.

Not once did the Office of Student Conduct nor did HR ever contact me about this issue. Never. I taught the next semester to a class that was largely mute. I kept looking over my shoulder in the halls for the student. I never saw the hostile student again. I also never saw the Chair nor the Director again, nor did they follow up with me at all.

The spring semester went by with very little in the way of drama, which was fine with me. But still, the entire situation felt unresolved.

During the summer, I decided not to teach for that institution anymore. They didn’t have my back. Inevitably, teachers will have problems with the occasional student. But in all the places I have ever taught, I’ve always had the full support of administration. Classroom instructors are in the trenches, and most administrators have once been instructors themselves and understand the hard work it is to deal with so many different personalities. And whenever a problem occurs with a student, there is a concerted effort to resolve the situation in a way that also supports the efforts of the teacher, as long as the teacher has not egregiously abused his or her position. Which I had not.

I wrote a letter to the President of the University, the Dean, the Chair, and the Director, decrying their lack of institutional support in this instance and explaining that they are opening their institution up to potential violence. I reiterated that I did not feel supported because NO ONE EVER CONTACTED ME from the Office of Student Conduct nor from HR.

The weak letter I got back from the Dean indicated that they had clear the student as a threat and that was that. He never addressed the lack of follow-up.

So I’m glad to be done with that institution. After almost 25 years of classroom teaching, and well over 100 class taught, I feel free from the shackles of teaching. No more grading. I now have time to write and pursue the dreams that I first had when I jumped into this profession.

I’ll find another way to support the efforts of students, I’m sure. But at this point, I’m enjoying my newfound freedoms.

West vs. East – part 2

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In part 1 of West vs. East, I discuss the trivial issue of what we call bread brands, and the more serious issues of bad driving and pedestrian habits, and people’s rough exteriors in the East, and homelessness.

As winter approaches early this November, I’m reminded of why people may be a bit rougher around the edges in the East – the friggin’ cold. I’m used to the cold now. I lived in Kansas for 14 years and it gets very cold and windy on the plains. Last winter was mild for a cold winter, so it wasn’t too terribly difficult to get through. In San Diego where I spent the previous 13 years, the weather is warm year round. When it gets to be about 60, we grab our sweatshirts and coats and make cold noises like “brrrrrr” and grab our own arms for a hug to warm ourselves up. The sun and mild weather allows for 24/7 beach access and ocean and bay sports. The reason that people are fit in Southern California is that they can be outside year round. The sun provides a healthy dose of Vitamin D, though of course it can provide a lethal dose of melanoma if you don’t use sunscreen. In the Midwest, I learned about mall-walkers, those who didn’t have day jobs who got their winter time exercise by walking laps in malls. I haven’t seen that in the East. People just tend to hunker down and stay in as much as they can. You can’t really do anything about the cold, so life goes on. The Midwest brings frequent dangerous weather, so I saw many more people neglect their health by not going out – it’s just too cold, or icy, or snowy, or windy or a combination of all of the above.

Enough of the trivialities, the obvious differences between the West and the East. For the majority of my life, I taught composition, literature, and English as an Adjunct Professor at major universities (UNM, KU, and UCSD, SCSU), at for profit universities (Univ. of Phoenix, Ashford University), and community colleges (San Diego Mesa College and Norwalk CC). I have enough experience (more than 25 years of teaching English and well over a hundred classes, both in person and online) to fill several books, but let me tell you about the push I needed to finally say “enough of this!” and decide on a change of careers.

I got into English to be a writer. Life took me on a different path for many reasons, one of the first being that I learned in grad. school that I had an aptitude for teaching and pursued teaching as a profession. The sheer amount of grading for an English teacher was enough to keep me from pursuing just about anything else. When I started down this path, I was told by my own undergraduate professors that the field would open up, that the professors were getting older and need to be replaced. LIE #1 that I bought hook, line, and sinker. Now, my professors weren’t lying. They didn’t know major social, economic, and institutional realities would change – that universities would fill more professorships with cheap labor, namely Adjunct Faculty. I don’t have exact numbers, but at one point at San Diego Mesa College, there were 30 some full-time faculty and 160-180 active Adjunct instructors teaching anywhere from 1-3 courses a piece. Picture the world turned upside down!

An Adjunct has to make a living, so that means assignments at several universities. I knew one gentleman with a wife and a son who routinely taught 7 courses at 3 different schools each semester as well as summer school. Each course had 25-35 students, and we routinely assignment a writing each week and a major essay every two or three weeks. My colleagues were professional and they did their jobs well. The drop-rate for students at the community college was about 1/3 to 2/3rds of the students, with a good 1/3 disappearing in the last half of the semester. Most of these students would have passed, bu they just disappear, have life crises or a change of heart and don’t bother to discuss their situation with their teacher. At any rate, the problems with being an Adjunct are much bigger than the benefits, except ….

At San Diego Mesa College, as an Adjunct who was guaranteed 3 courses per term, I qualified for health insurance (thanks Union!). No money out, a good Kaiser plan – it was enough to want to keep that job for as long as possible, until the assignments started to be jeopardized by fluctuating enrollment and changing course assignment times. I don’t know why, but my standard 8:00 am class was changed to 12:00 pm, and fewer students signed up for the 12:00 pm class. Thus when a class didn’t make enrollment, it would be cut, and I would be out the monies for that class. Combine that with Ashford University (sued for Fraud by the State of California), who stopped assigning me courses one month without saying anything and I lost 3/4 of my income in a two week period. Ashford gave me a single reason – “You are better suited to teach in the College of Liberal Arts (COLA) than in the Division of General Studies (DGS).” Ashford is an online college with 5 week courses. I had been working there for more than 5 years, and with a steady 2 course overlap for more than 2 years, which amount to a steady income (no vacations), and about 1/2 my income. I figured out that “better suited to teach in the College of Liberal Arts” was code for “you are failing too many students.” Pardon me – but you accepted students without ANY pre-reqs or baseline of skills. Thus the very young military wives and 70 and 80 year old stay at home grand and great grandmothers who were sold the idea that education will change their lives so that Ashford could take their financial aid loans from the US Department of Education were not well-prepared. As such, my own standards dropped so dangerously low that I asked them merely to complete all the assignments and let me know that they could at least write an intelligible English sentence. A SENTENCE! That’s not too much to ask. So when they couldn’t, I could not see how, given a RUBRIC PROVIDED BY ASHFORD, they could possibly pass, no matter who many hours I put in (despite being told to limit my hours to only 12 hours per week per class. Ashford SUCKS! It’s a rip-off, and I’m glad to be done with that problem.

So as I moved East, I lined up two more teaching jobs, a 6-unit development writing course at a community college, a course I have taught many times, and two 3-unit Writing Argument course at a state university, followed by a single 3-unit course in the Spring.

The community college course was led by the Director. He dictated a rigorous curriculum, set up for a two-day a week class, yet I was teaching 3-days a week. I told I had to follow the curriculum to a T for the first 8 weeks, through the Midterm, and provided all handouts and assignments. Converting the course to a 3-day a week schedule was mind-boggling, despite the fact that I’m a reasonably intelligent experience teacher. I was offered no help. The IT department got my log-in credentials fouled up and for the 1st MONTH of the course, I could not even access all of my materials online. Fubar after Fubar. Turns out that the rigorous curriculum was far too rigorous. I’ve always had freedom to tailor a class to the students, but I didn’t have that luxury. These students were mute and unprepared. One student routinely slept in class and got angry when told her wasn’t going to pass and couldn’t sleep in class. One student missed every class in which an assignment was due. Students could not read, I mean, literally, had much trouble picking out topic sentences, from examples, from supporting details, even after a week of going over slides with the SAME INFORMATION on it. We studied for the midterm for 3 weeks. I didn’t teach the test, but came pretty close – “memorize this list. Know it backwards an forwards” – things like the writing process (Prewriting, Planning/Outline, Drafting, Revising, Editing). And 3 of 19 students pass the midterm, the 3 who passed with low D’s. The exam was structured for a week – 2 days of a “reading exam” followed by an in-class essay on day 3. If they scored poorly on the reading exam, they had to do better on the in-class essay portion in order to pass. If they scored better/well on the reading exam, they were said to have mastered the material and didn’t have to perform as well on the written exam. What kind of twisted grading is that?

We had one day of lecture a week, and two days of writing lab. On the day of writing lab, I was to stand at my podium and watch the screens of all the students who were sitting around the perimeter of the class next to each other. On my screen, I could see and control all of the student screens. I was expected to “keep students on task.” I could commandeer their computer screen and write “I see you aren’t working, Get working on your essay!” Babysitting. I did not take the job to babysit!

I missed 6 classes that term due to illness. I was completely stressed out -vertigo, heart palpitations, extreme stress (there was stuff going on in myt other assignment at the state university as well) and the commute was awful on top of that. (The traffic flowed toward New York city, and the last 5 miles took 3o-40 minutes due to its proximity to NYC traffic. A 30 mile trip was routinely 1 1/2 hours. Not even southern California traffic was that bad. Of course, my course met at 9:00 am. ) I only missed writing workshop days – days in which students were sitting at their computers and writing their essays – Babysitting days! They could do that without me there. I always communicated with the students, and they always knew what assignments they had to work on.

The Director found out I missed these classes, and he wasn’t happy. He had my pay docked. Only 5 students passed the final (same situation as the midterm, except that for the final, there was also a portfolio component). Because of missing classes, the Director mandated that all students must be given passing grades. Wait, what?

Let’s take a closer look. I’ve read portfolios for many years. There’s a rubric and some course goals, and a group of teachers evaluates the portfolios according to that rubric. Two passes, and the portfolio passes. One pass and one fail and the portfolio is graded by a third instructor. We make small notes to indicate what we see the student writer has adhered to or not to inform the instructor of record. During our REQUIRED final portfolio grading session, the Director sat in a chair with his feet up on the table and read the occasional essay. He required that any student we considered might get a B or A, that he read those portfolios and get to determine if they achieved Honors or not. In reading essays, he would remark, consistently, “I’m not feeling it” when he’d say a particular essay wasn’t passing. So despite a rubric – he went by his “feelings”? I’m sorry, but what a shitty director. Practice what you preach. And tailor a curriculum to your students. This particular director set those students up to fail. My BABYSITTING on those days I missed isn’t what cost unprepared students. Weeks spent going over material that was ON THE TEST, that I guided them to put on the board – they couldn’t remember that material on test day. It wasn’t just one or two students. This cohort was the least prepared class I had ever taught.

Fortunately, I only had to teach their for one semester. I have no intention of ever teaching their again, and I burned that bridge.

I have stayed in touch, off and on, with my first office mate I had as a graduate teaching assistant at the University of New Mexico. He moved to New York some years ago. When I moved east, I learned about where he lives and got in touch with him. He spent some years teaching at the same community college. He asked me what I thought of the students there, and I told him. I asked him what he thought. He offered a one-word response: dumb.

Most of my career teaching was on the West coast. I had many unmotivated students. I had many uninterested students. I had students who procrastinated too much. I had students who shot themselves in their own feet with excuses, or violating absence policies and making it so they were unable to pass. But I always viewed students as bright, capable, and able to offer something to the world.

I won’t proclaim those students as “dumb” as my old office mate has, but I know what he means. They were not ready or cut out for college, even at a community college. It didn’t help that the curriculum was set up for them to fail. What was dumb was a director who thought he was bigger and more important than the program that he was running. What was dumb is a director who didn’t trust his teachers to teach the students based on their capabilities and the teacher’s own experience. What was dumb was a director who didn’t trust his teachers to know his students. What was dumb is setting up a development writing course on the par with an English 101 honors section. Had the director noticed his own hubris just a little, maybe he could better serve students than to pass them out of a class that they clearly couldn’t handle so that they could fail further down the line.


Part 3 of West vs East will concern another teaching episode – a hostile student situation at a state university in which the university did not back up the instructor, did not communicate with the instructor, and let the hostile student off without any repercussions. The hostility concerned a student who was a veteran and occurred about 25 miles from Sandy Hook, the site of the devastating school shooting incident of 2012. Evidently people in Connecticut (those in charge) just don’t learn.

Until part 3 – be well. Thanks for reading.

West vs. East – part 1

Some differences between living on the West Coast vs living in the East. A West coaster sounds off.

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As I start my long-delayed career as a writer, I’m struck by just how different the West and East (coasts) are. To be fair, I don’t live on the East Coast. I live in New Haven, Conn., home of Yale University (and famous New Haven pizza, and the controversial home of the hamburger). As a West coaster, anything from New York eastward was the East coast to me. My extended family lived in Ohio – in the Eastern time zone, even though Ohio definitely aligns more with Midwest flavors. I was told upon arriving in New Haven that New York is not New England and it’s not the east coast – it’s New York, (or New Yawk, or Neu Yowk depending on who you tawk to). Be that all as it may, after a little over a year in New Haven, I’m here to detail some of the differences between the West and the East.

I consider myself a West coast writer. The obvious bias in publishing still favors the East. New York is the publishing capital of the world and has been for well over a century now. The sheer amount of Ivy Leaguers making it in the publishing field is astounding and does not give credit to the vast creativity of those who live in the West.

Sitting in my small apartment, I was day-dreaming and looking at a loaf of bread on the counter. The emblem looked the same, but on closer inspection I saw the word “Arnold” within the shafts of wheat. What is this foolishness? I’ve been buying Orowheat bread for years in San Diego. Certainly this is a mistake. Turns out it’s the same bread but branded differently. A quick search on the Internet reveals that Orowheat started in California in 1932 and Arnold started in Connecticut in 1940 and Brownberry, a third variety started in the Midwest in 1946. All three are owned by Bimbo bakeries as of 2017. That’s one small difference between West and East (and Midwest).

Southern California is as much car culture as anywhere anybody can live in. Los Angeles traffic is infamous and nothing is improving much even in sleepy L.A. suburb San Diego. But other than in the rare rainy times when Southern Californians lose the capability to drive as if their driver’s training is completely forgotten, southern Californians are really very good drivers compared to all other places I’ve driven (New Mexico, Kansas, Connecticut – representative of Mountain, Central, and Eastern time zones). In Connecticut, people cannot drive, or do not drive well. Forget driving rules and laws. I’ve seen people cut across 4 lanes of busy traffic to exit the freeway. Left turns on surface streets – drivers gun out quickly and turn left BEFORE traffic goes when a light changes. They routinely flip off whoever is in front getting ready to go straight through the intersection. Because the lights are hung on wires across intersections instead of on light poles, one can’t line up in the left turn lane to wait for traffic to stop before turning left because you can’t see the light if you pull out. So you have to wait in the left turn lane for a left arrow or wait for the next light. Or you can do like the locals and gun it for a left turn before the flow of traffic starts.

People walk across intersections whenever they want or can. Pedestrian walk signs don’t align with the flow of traffic. Rather, there is a “walk” period in which traffic is stopped in all directions and the walk signs allow pedestrian crossing. That means, of course, that pedestrians walk diagonally into across the middle of the street too. Because of that, and due to the number of one way streets and No Turn on Red signs, pedestrians walk whenever they want. It’s the wild west out there in the East!

There is an attitude on the part of pedestrians too, the same brash New York/New Jersey attitude seen stereotypically on television. I found a place to park my car a couple blocks from where I live. One day, as I was approaching the small one way half circle street, onto which I must turn right off of a one way road to my parking spot, some guy was walking across the intersection. He was eating a sub sandwich wrapped in paper, and looking back over his shoulder. In other words, he didn’t see me as I stopped before turning right otherwise I’d hit him. So I stopped and waited with my blinker on. He turned and saw me looking at him as he was nearly across the street. His immediate reaction, through a mouthful of food was to say “Fuck you!” and flip me off. All because I didn’t run him down! That’s a nice introduction to the East.

Even the homeless population are much more brash in the very hot and humid summers and bitingly cold winters here in the East. In San Diego, there is a large homeless population, able to live on the streets year round due to the weather. Other than same creative signs – Need Money for Booze or Need Cash for Weed – the homeless people in New Haven are always on the move. One particular gentleman cries out “Sir! Sir! I won’t touch you” before asking for money or declaring “It’s my birthday! Can you help me get something to eat?” His birthday occurs several days during the week, rain or shine. Another doe-eyed young woman who can turn on the waterworks instantly (maybe a drama school drop-out?) approaches with a story – “Hi,” she says timidly, “can you help me, I’m seven months pregnant and …. ” She’s been seven-months pregnant for the 15 months I’ve lived here and the many times she’s approached me for help.

I started this journey as a teacher, my last year teaching freshman composition and development English at a University and Community college. Both jobs proved crazy-making, with lack of institutional support, something I never encountered in San Diego. That’s the subject of part 2 of West vs. East.

Block Identified

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For years, I’ve tried keeping a blog, writing stories and poems, keeping up a journal, and writing large projects. For the most part, I’ve been successful on a scholarly basis, and in writing creatively for occasions – birthdays, anniversaries, and the like. But a sustained creative effort for completing a chapbook of poetry, for instance, or for a selection of essays or stories has eluded me.

The personal struggle for me has been marked by making a choice between devotion to art and commitment to my family. Whenever I’ve chosen to devote myself to my art, I’ve felt undue pressure from family and friends to give them attention that draws me away from that art, rather than some kind of understanding that I’m pursuing something that enlivens me and is wrapped up in self-definition.

It’s much more than just lacking support. I’ve also had opportunities to write, but why have I not, or why have I started and abandoned project after project? Why is what I write not good enough? Who are those critics, those voices in my head, that keep me from writing?

I’m now at a point in my life where I don’t have those obstacles and have a supportive partner. But I still feel that if I dive deeply enough into this work – especially into the memoir about my family – I’ll face undue pressures to choose between being true to my work and choosing to leave that be and keep my family intact.

The forces in question have stopped my expression in many ways, drawing me away from my work. I’ve been fired from a job due to a boss’s sexist agenda, my work taken from me just as I was gaining some accolades. I had another job taken from me once I achieved recognition from a parent organization (I had a job in a science lab and redid their website and was contacted by the National Institutes of Health office that oversaw our grant who were so enthusiastic about my efforts that they wanted to use the materials in their own PR efforts). I’ve had many projects which required some buy in from a spouse, who would be all enthusiastic in the first days and then want nothing to do with the project after the first week – a situation that continued for almost 15 years until the end of that relationship. And I’ve had family members basically reject me and my efforts, which always floored me considering we were raised in an environment to express mutual support and admiration of artistic efforts.

So my road to the writing life has been a long lonely one, filled with obstacles, about which I am actively writing.

I will get beyond these blocks and make a name for myself.

Writing Anniversary

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While most people were donning costumes, carving pumpkins, and trick or treating, I was silently celebrating the start of writing my memoir. On October 31, 2018 at The Owl Shop in New Haven, CT, I began this journey, thinking it would take about 6 months. Now one year later, I estimate 6 more months of drafting and then a wholesale revision.

Like most writing projects, this has been marked by fits and starts. I started a teaching assignment at Southern Connecticut State University that was marred by disruptive students and then a hostile student. Combined with a commute to Norwalk, 30 miles that took 1 1/2 hours three days a week to teach the mutest developmental students I have ever encountered and bombard them with an unfair curriculum and babysitting, my last teaching assignments soured my otherwise successful 30+ year career in teaching composition. I would teach one more semester in the spring, to another mute group at Southern, and that would be it. Between semesters, the extreme stress of my lack of job prospects and subsequent unemployment (under-employment) led to health problems – stress! But all my health tests showed that I am healthy and strong, thank goodness.

I secured work at the Yale library, a temporary position that was turned into a longer term limited appointment, physical work with no nightly grading, a trade I was willing to make. So I lost a good 6 weeks of writing in the winter, followed by a week-long vacation in August to Belgium, my first trip to Europe, in which I did not bring work with me. That was followed by another month of struggling to get back into writing.

But here we are, the beginning of November and I’m still writing. Transitioning from an academic life to a writer’s life is the challenge I now face, a challenge that, after a year of writing, I am winning.