Tuesday, September 29, 2020

An Incomprehensible Maze of Confusion


I didn't set out to develop empathy for our nation of online learners, but oh boy, I got it in spades.

I had some time on my hands, so I signed up for two fall semester online courses with my local community college.

Isn't there some bon mot about the third time being a charm?  I hope so, because i am enrolled in my third and final permissible attempt to pass Intermediate Spanish 2.  It is reasonable to ask why I keep trying, but if you know me, you will be unsurprised by me sheer stubbornness in the face of on obvious lack of linguistic ability.

I am also enrolled in a 100-level Art Appreciation course, which doesn't require any ability per se, but my grade is nonetheless fairly low, mostly due to the blot the universe which is Canvas.

What is Canvas?  It is "a web-based learning management system" which is being used at many grade schools, high schools an universities to deliver online courses.  And it SUCKS.  It has so many different tools and tabs and chat boards and calendars and course streams and announcements and collaborations and jam boards and modules and groups and external links and what-have-yours that is is impossible to find anything.

I was complaining bitterly about Canvas to our neighbors at our weekly Driveway Drinks, and after several rounds, we arrived at a theory of how Canvas arrived at its current state of suckage.  Canvas probably started out as a fairly simple tool, but then feature creep set in.  It's as if every time they sold into a school, Canvas incorporated the worst idea of some fossilized teacher who refused to let go of some dumb-ass classroom ritual they had employed since 1978.

The sheer quantity of methods with which one can post a worksheet in Canvas is staggering.  So even if you notice the announcement or chat of syllabus entry or email or whatever informing you that you should complete a worksheet, good f(*&ing luck FINDING the worksheet.

It has been kind of fun having something to kvetch about with young people.  I had a great complaint fest about Canvas with the high-school age cashier at DeMartini's Foods.  On Saturday afternoon I ended up at the kids' table at a harvest lunch at our friends' vineyard and I had a great time lambasting Canvas with the college students.  And when my own 19-year-old complains about her online classes, I am truly able to empathize.

When I sit down at the computer to check in on my online classes, I can actually feel my blood pressure rise.  I have to employ deep breathing techniques and the occasional glass of wine to avoid screaming in frustration.

Once I have found my assignments, though, I quite enjoy them.  I had to give a three minute oral presentation in Spanish about Beef Stew (Guisado de Res) over Zoom which was actually good fun.  It made a nice change from watching BritBox mystery shows.

This past week we had to do a timed written exam using the Canvas tool "Proctorio", which is just as creepy as it sounds.  It is described as an "automated remote proctoring service that uses computers to monitor student behavior".  What this means is that you allow Proctorio to see everything on your computer desktop and to use your computer camera to make sure that your eyes don't stray from the screen.  Very Big Brother.

I have no doubt that Proctorio will lead to all sorts of creative cheating methods that I can't wait to discuss with my fellow online learners.  Here's the one I used:  I made stacks of books in a ring behind my computer and taped notes taped to them.  During the test, I tried not to glance at any of them for too long.  We'll see if my exam is thrown out for nefarious eyeball movements.

It is very fun to take a class and not have to worry about the outcome.  I mean, there are a LOT of community colleges out there, and someday I WILL be promoted to Intermediate Spanish 3.  I have a good time crafting humorous (at least to me) responses to questions in class.  Here was my response to the question "can you think of any other classic Cuban songs besides Guantanamera?"

No conzoco ninguna otra cancion cubana clásica, pero llevé a cabo aprender todas las canciones de la banda sonora de la sumamente buena película "Dirty Dancing Havana Nights".  (I don't know of any other classic Cuban songs, but I did manage to learn all the songs of the soundtrack from the extremely good move "Dirty Dancing Havana Nights".

In a fun twist, the discussion prompt this week for my Art Appreciation class was "Either comment on a work of art, or submit a work of art, that relates to the seven elements of art that we've learned about this week."

"Cool!" I thought, and painted a still life and submitted it.  But as Shakespeare said, "sell when you can, you are not for all markets", and I am not sure what my professor or my classmates will think about about my painting.  However, it is liberating to be 56 years old and to just not care very much.

Anyhoo, enough of this, I have to check 25 places on Canvas to find my Spanish worksheet that's due tomorrow.  Hasta luego!

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Across the West, Eating Cheese Sticks (and Yogurt)


After months of not doing much of anything, this last two weeks has been action-packed.  Amy returned from working at summer camp on August 17th.  (I made her take a Covid test, which was pointless, because to this day we haven’t received the results.)  Then the whole of Northern California caught on fire.


It has been so, so bad.  We have lived in California for thirty years, and it has never been this bad, this close to the Bay Area.  The fires are still burning, and the smoke is still bad.  As if the pandemic weren’t enough.


Even before the virus times and the state being on fire, Amy and I had planned to road-trip her Subaru to Madison, Wisconsin for her sophomore year.  I confess that I had some survivor’s guilt as we pulled out of Los Altos on August 26th.  I looked forward to being out of the smoke and seeing the sky, but that did not happen until we drove out of WYOMING.  But anyway, back to day one.


Here’s the thing about road trips for me – it’s all about the toilets.  I insist on driving, and I like to drink Diet Dr. Pepper while I drive, but this means that I need to stop every two hours for the toilet.  I had read that many restrooms were closed due to Covid, so I bought a folding camping toilet and put it in the back of the Subaru, much to Amy’s chagrin.


Initially, it seemed we might have to use the camping toilet, as the first two places we stopped – a Panda Express and a gas station in California, had no open toilets.  We had to sneak into a Target to pee.  After we got out of civilization and onto I-80, though, all the truck stops had available toilets. 


The first evening of our drive, as we were exiting the interior of a Love’s Truck Stop in Fernley, Nevada, after purchasing Diet Dr. Pepper and a Movie For Your Mind (a trucker audiobook on CD), the sky was suddenly full of lightning and the wind was so strong that you couldn’t see through the blowing dust.  We had planned to keep driving to Winnemucca.


“Hmm,” I said to myself, “Perhaps a storm is imminent and driving another two hours in the dark through a wicked thunderstorm would be inadvisable.”


That is revisionist history.  What I actually said to myself was “FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK, is there a hotel in Fernley??”  Luckily, there was, and we drove slowly to it through a driving hail storm and flash flood, and then I drank a lot of bourbon, which I had wisely packed along with the camping toilet.


We watched Eclipse on the hotel TV, and the brooding vampires and shirtless werewolves just added to the strangeness of the evening.


Nevada had a fairly interesting landscape, but it was sort of hard to tell through all the smoke.  Amy introduced me to a great podcast, “You Must Remember This”.  It’s about old Hollywood and we listened to a lot of it, alternating it with Aral Kingslayer (the Movie for Your Mind) and an audiobook entitled “The Pagan World: Ancient Religions Before Christianity”.


As we pulled across the border into Utah, we encountered the Salt Flats, which are very cool.  Amy ate some of the dirt and reports that is, indeed, salty.


We pulled into our Best Western in Evanston, Wyoming at about 8:30 pm.  The hotel clerk was unmasked and rude to me, I think because I was wearing a mask.  We pulled up to the only restaurant in town, a Bar & Grill, and as soon as we walked in wearing masks all the unmasked patrons turned to stare at us and we could feel the waves of enmity.  We beat a hasty retreat.


We were extremely hungry, and dismally contemplating a dinner of almonds, when Amy did some googling and discovered that the Pilot Truck Stop by the Interstate had a Subway.  We were ridiculously excited to get our Subway sandwiches.  The clerks (masked and friendly) were a little surprised by our enthusiasm.


The next day we drove across Wyoming, again through the smoke.  We had an enjoyable stop at the Little America Truck Stop, which is the Casa de Fruta or Wall Drug of the High West.  We bought some cheese sticks and hit the road.  Our favorite car snack was turkey jerky, but the hit rate at truck stops was only about 20 percent.


As we drove through a lot of nothing, we thought about how we would like to eat something that was not a cheese stick, and Amy looked into our options in Rawlins, Wyoming.  Surprisingly, there was a Thai restaurant.  We called ahead, ordered some vegetable curry, and ate it down by the train tracks, where we got to watch three trains of over a hundred cars each trundle right by our picnic table.  Amy even got a train engineer to wave at her.


Just as we were about to cross from Wyoming into Nebraska, Amy noticed a sign for a “Marian Shrine”.  Being good lapsed Catholics, we had to stop.  There was indeed a big plaster-cast Mary next to a mobile home park.  We avoided the loose dogs and the horde of scary 12-year-old barefoot girl bicyclists and said a few prayers.


As we pulled into our hotel in Sidney, Nebraska, we passed a fast-food restaurant called Runza.  I said, “Amy, the sign for that restaurant is a neon ear of corn.”  Amy said, “That can’t be corn,” but it was.  We ate some Runza sandwiches for dinner, which did not actually feature any corn, just minced beef.  Once was enough for me, but I understand that Runza is the In-N-Out of Nebraska.


The drive through Nebraska was mostly about corn and soybeans.  We drove through the middle of the state on some two-digit roads and sometimes we would go thirty minutes without seeing another car or a habitation.  Just corn and soybeans. The tiny town of Plainview had a Klowndoll Museum, but sadly, it was closed, so we may never know the story there.


We spent the night in Sioux City, Iowa at a Hilton Garden Inn on the river.  It was lovely!  There was a patio restaurant that had cocktails and sushi.  They loved Amy in Sioux City.  All the servers were flirting with her.  I think that was the night we watched Casablanca.


The drive through Iowa was also about corn and soybeans.  

And then we were in Wisconsin!  We stopped in a rest area just over the border, and as we perused the points of interest poster, I realized that we were driving right past the Dickeyville Grotto!!! Perhaps you have never heard of it, but I have been reading about it in Wisconsin guidebooks for two years and I was beyond excited to see it.


The Dickeyville Grotto is the work of a Catholic Priest, Father Matthias Wernerus, who built it on the grounds of his parish in Dickeyville from 1925-1930 from concrete, shells, rocks, and other fun trash he found.  Amy and I had a great time admiring his handiwork.

We have been in Madison for a few days and Amy has moved into her apartment and started classes, mostly online.  I have been staying in an Airbnb, a 1924 cottage by Monona Bay.  Amy has the Subaru, but luckily there are many patios I can walk to and get a pint of Wisconsin beer. 


Today Amy drove up me up to the Olbrich Botanical Gardens, up at the top of Lake Monona, but couldn’t stay, as she had class.  I wandered around the beautiful gardens for a few hours and then meandered back around the lake to my cottage.  I walked eleven miles today!  I saw a muskrat, ate a walleye sandwich, finished my mystery novel, and had three pints of beer.  I love Madison.