The adventures of a New Jersey college professor with very strange friends, colleagues, and family members.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Cross Purposes

Several days ago, I was sitting in my office here at Very Serious University frantically preparing a syllabus for a summer class in Science Fiction which I somehow got roped into doing. Not much was going on; the term was over and most of the other professors were out on boats somewhere.

As I was trying to figure out which Harlan Ellison stories to include, my phone rang.

"English Department, Professor BeowulfGirl," I said, pleasantly.

"Hi," said a cheerful female voice, "I live in half a trailer with my handicapped brother, and my mother has dementia."

Confused, I said, "I'm sorry, were you trying to reach me?"

Equally confused, she said, "isn't this the Atlantic County Improvement Authority?"

"No, this is a college," I said.

"Oh, I'm sorry," she said, and went away.

Back to Science Fiction. The phone rang again. This time it was a woman who started off with: "Hello, I was hit by a truck while I was walking my dog."

Knowing my priorities, I asked; "how's the dog?"

"He's fine," she said, "but I'm on crutches."

It turned out that she wanted a wheelchair ramp installed in her home. I explained that I couldn't help her and curiously said: "Do you mind if I ask how you got this number?"

"It was in the paper," she said.

Thoroughly baffled, I started roaming the halls in search of a professor that had that day's paper. When I finally found one, I found out what the problem was.

Apparently, the Atlantic County Improvement Authority has a program by which they offer grant money to residents with low income if they need improvements on their house. Because the guidelines are strict, everyone felt compelled to tell me their whole life story in the hopes that they could be moved to the top of the list. The problem, though, was that the ad in the paper had transposed the last two digits of the A.C.I.A.'s phone number so that it was now my direct line.

Horrified, I got on the phone with Information and asked them for the correct number. I then called the A.C.I.A. to tell them that there was a mistake in their ad. They were very apologetic, but of course couldn't do anything about it since the paper was already out.

Later that afternoon, I got a call from a woman who began with: "Hi, I have mice." I gave her the correct number and she hung up.

A half an hour later, an extremely ancient woman called who, feebly, said: "Hello, I'm eighty-four years old, I'm poor, and I live in my son-in-law's garage." I felt very bad that I couldn't help her because she reminded me of my grandmother.

The best one, though, was the guy who called late in the afternoon who said, in an entirely too happy voice; "Hi! I was just wondering if I could get work done on my house while I'm in prison."

I sincerely hope he didn't waste his one phone call on me.

And I never did finish the Science Fiction syllabus...

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

The “Fun” Stops Here

During my fourth year in Repertory, I was approached by a child actor who stared up at me with saucer-eyes and asked: “Do you want to be on my father’s television show?”

I didn't even know this kid's name. “Who’s your father?” I asked.

It turned out that the kid’s father (whose name, inexplicably, was “Ski”) was the writer, director, and producer of a children’s television show called Fun Stop. I had never heard of it, but the kid insisted it was quality programming and that his father was always searching for more on-air talent. He also recruited my friend Chris in order to “balance things out.” Both Chris and I researched Ski intently, in an attempt to find out just how much he knew about television production. Naturally, he didn’t know much at all.

Because I had never done television before, I asked to see a copy of the script for the pilot, and several days later, Ski sent me one.

Reading the script, I became aware of a few things:

First, Chris and I were the only live human beings in the cast. The rest of the ensemble consisted of incredibly badly made puppets (I think they were supposed to be a frog and a lizard) for which Ski himself did all the verses while hidden behind a brick wall.

The second thing I realized was that Fun Stop had absolutely no idea what its target demographic was. In the pilot episode we learned the alphabet (directed at five year olds) and immediately following we had a sketch preaching the evils of smoking (aimed at teenagers). Weirdly, there was also a brief interlude of Ski, dressed in full drag, reading nursery rhymes out of a Mother Goose book.

The third thing that became clear was that Fun Stop might not have only been the worst children’s program of all time, but possibly the worst kind of television ever in the history of the medium. Still, I tried to make it work.

A week before shooting the pilot, Ski called me and asked me what my T-Shirt size was. “All quality children’s shows have personalized shirts,” he insisted. Perhaps he watched too much Mickey Mouse Club as a child.

The shirts were bizarre. They were red with white lettering. On the front were our names (in case the audience forgot) and on the back they said Fun Stop (in case we forgot).

My lines were absurdly easy to memorize, but up until this point I had only ever acted with actual human beings, not with puppets. And I certainly never acted as a puppet's straight man. On the first day of shooting, Chris and I arrived at the studio (with our shirts) and got a look at the set.

The set consisted of a blue backdrop, a phony-looking “brick wall” and the iconic Fun Stop stop-sign. It was on this stop sign that the cameras focused during the opening credits. It was the weirdest theme song I’d ever heard—offstage, Ski was playing polka music on an accordion. He looked like Weird Al Yankovic in drag.

Shooting got underway. Chris and I helplessly held up letters of the alphabet and then danced around with them. Ski read “Hickory Dickory Dock” at top volume, and blew out his microphone. My scene with the rabid puppets was a nightmare because Ski kept changing his voice. The anti-smoking sketch was long, drawn out, and generally put a damper on the whole episode.

A few weeks into this, I realized something; Ski was rapidly running out of money. We knew this because we only could rent the TV studio for an hour per week, which meant that we had to do everything in one take, even if it sucked (which most of it did). Also, our camera men kept disappearing, and I finally got it out of Ski that he had had to fire a camera man in order to finance episodes of Fun Stop; apparently, every sponsor we had pulled their funding once they saw what an absolute horror show it was. Eventually, he had to fire everyone and insisted on shooting the episodes with his videocamera set up on a tripod.

Finally, after an entire season, we were mercifully cancelled. Ski went on to go into real estate. Chris now works for a bottled water company, and I became an English professor.

Embarrassingly, the BeowulfParents still have all the tapes from Fun Stop, and occasionally watch them with parental glee. I just cringe.

Friday, May 12, 2006

There’s a Philosophy professor down the hall from me. His name is Rich, and he’s 63 years old. He seems like a nice guy, but has a strange and obsessive fascination with…yoga.

Earlier in the term, Yoga Guy came into my office and asked me if I was also into yoga. I am, so I told him yes. I shouldn’t have done that.

First he interrogated me about what kind of yoga I practice. He was very disappointed that I do Hatha yoga, and insisted that in order to get the full benefits of the practice I should do Ashtanga yoga.

Every week, Yoga Guy gets more and more obsessed with yoga. The first thing he did was give me a business card for his Yoga Center, which is apparently run by “an authentic yogi.” This started a long conversation about how much he hates modern yoga teachers and that the only true way to achieve “enlightenment” is to learn yoga from a genuine yogi.

Then he started giving me gifts…mostly yoga catalogs with various props and “motivational” tapes. Every morning he asks me; “did you do a head-stand this morning?” Whenever I tell him no, he gets all upset and tells me that I should start out every day with a three minute head-stand in order to “clear the brain.”

A few days later, he came into my office and announced: “I have visited other planets.”

“Um…how did you manage that?” I asked, not sure if I wanted to know.

“Yoga,” he said, confidently. “I’ve mastered astral travel. I can leave my body. Do you want to see?”

Nervously, I said, “no…that’s all right, I believe you.”

He then tried to get me to go to a yoga retreat with him for three days. Apparently, all they do at the retreat is do yoga for nine hours a day, and they’re only allowed to eat seeds, berries, and roots. I think Prisoners of War have a better deal than that.

While all this was going on, my friend Glenn in the Business Department was standing in the hall, making frantic gestures for me to come out and talk to him. I ditched Yoga Guy and went out into the hall.

In a low voice, he asked: “You know the truth about Rich, right?”

“No,” I said, kind of baffled.

“He’s insane,” Glenn informed me.

Glenn then proceeded to tell me a long story about how, eight months ago, Yoga Guy attempted suicide. Apparently, he threw himself off of the roof of his three-story house and lived to tell about it. When asked by his doctor what made him attempt this, Yoga Guy cryptically responded: “Too much yoga.”

I was confused. What the hell is “too much yoga?” Exactly how much yoga is “too much?” As a practitioner of yoga myself, I wondered if I was doing “too much yoga.” Should I ask my doctor? My psychiatrist? My yoga instructor?

If this turns out to be my final blog entry, you’ll know that I succumbed to “too much yoga.” Please pray.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

So many questions, so little time...

One of the things that amuses me most about being a professor is the bizarre and seemingly random questions that students ask me after the lecture, more often than not being entirely unrelated to what’s going on in class.

For example, earlier this year, a burly jock-type student approached my desk with two small red pills and asked me; “What will happen to me if I take these?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “What are they?”

“I don’t know.”

“Where did you GET them?”

“Some guy in the gym gave them to me,” said the student, apparently not seeing the potential danger in such a transaction.

“So a complete stranger came up to you in the gym and gave you drugs?” I asked, trying to be clear.

“Yeah. What will they do to me?”

Hopelessly, I said: “Well, at best it’ll give you a nice buzz. At worst, it’ll kill you.”

He honestly weighed the pros and cons of that statement and put the pills away.

Another example: Several weeks later, two students came into class arguing about Jesus. “Let’s ask Professor BeowulfGirl,” one of them said. “She’ll know!” (this is never a good sign).

The other student asked me: “Did Jesus speak Latin?”

“Well,” I said, trying to be helpful, “if Jesus lived WHEN we think he did WHERE we think he did, he would have probably spoken Aramaic, which is an ancient Hebrew dialect.”

He was not to be defeated. “But wouldn’t Jesus know Latin anyway?” he insisted. “I mean, HE’S JESUS!”

I sighed. “If Jesus was, indeed, omniscient, then yes, he would be AWARE of Latin, but he wouldn’t have preached in it.”

And a third example: After a rousing lecture about “Frankenstein” earlier this term, when I asked for questions a student’s hand shot up. He asked: “Exactly how long ago was ‘Ancient Greece’?”

I’ve finally figured out what’s going on. A lot of people, upon hearing the word “professor,” immediately think that I’m like the Professor on “Gilligan’s Island,” who knows EVERYTHING. According to them, I have a vast cornucopia of knowledge that would make Ken Jennings jealous, including medical skills and apparently knowledge of every language spoken on the globe. And they look so puzzled when I’m not able to help them.

At least no one asked me how to actually assemble a monster of their very own when we read “Frankenstein.” I think the patent has expired.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Welcome to my new blog!

Before I go any further, I have to throw out thanks and hugs to my friend Meldraw, who not only encouraged me to start this blog, but who also agreed to pimp it on her own blog. You rock!

There are only two things you really need to know about me in order to enjoy my blog:

1. I am an English professor at a Very Serious University in New Jersey,

2. Before I became an English professor, I worked for several years in professional theatre.

The majority of the stories, people, and happenings that you'll read about on this blog are connected in some way to these two careers. I've had to change some of the names and minor details in order to protect those that still work in academia or theatre, but everything else is painfully true.

So again...Welcome!Let's go into the miasma, shall we?

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

I now present…True Tales From Class:

Every professor here at Very Serious University lives in fear of getting a yellow form in their mailbox at the beginning of each semester. The yellow form indicates that one of your students has some type of problem that is registered with the Office of Special Needs. More often than not it’s something minor like dyslexia or a hearing problem. Every so often, though, things get a little weird.

Back in January, I hesitantly approached my mailbox with a friend and saw that we both had yellow forms. We nervously read them, and I asked my friend: “What’s yours?”

Relieved, she said; “It’s just A.D.D. What’s yours?”

I looked down at the form, which concerned a boy named Scott, and saw that it was labeled: “Delusional.”

Blinking, I said, “it says ‘delusional’.”

“What the hell does that mean?”

“I have no idea.”

I’ve never had a delusional student before, so I went to the first class (British Literature) somewhat trepidatiously. However, Scott turned out to be a perfectly normal looking guy.

Things started to get weird during the second class. Scott, who was sitting by the window, started waving his hand and asked: “Excuse me, can I switch seats to the other side of the room?”

Puzzled, I asked why. Scott then told me: “I can hear the sun.”

(The truly bizarre part about this is that the class starts at 7:00pm, and the sun isn’t even out. Apparently, he can hear it from Los Angeles).

At the third class, during roll call, after calling his name he threw his hand up into the air again. When I called on him, he said: “Would you please call me ‘Count’?”

“Um…why?” I asked, falling right into it.

“It’s my title,” he said.

I consulted the roster. “It says here your name is Scott,” I said.

“My name is Scott,” he said. “My title is Count.”

I just stared, along with several students. “You’re trying to tell me you have peerage?” He nodded, enthusiastically. “In what country?” I demanded, “the United States doesn’t have Counts.”

“I can’t tell you that,” he said, mysteriously.

He refused to let me carry on with class until I addressed him as “Count.” His logic was simple:

“I call you Professor,” he said.

“But I actually am a professor,” I kept saying, only to have him reply:

“Well, I actually am a Count.”

Little did I know then how much confusion and chaos the Count was going to inflict on me and the other students. Looking back, I should have known.

Stay tuned for further Count adventures!