Skip to content

Tutoring and More

Monday, 13 Jul 2020, 08:29 GMT-0600

1. The End of Dreaming

Years ago, something happened in my brain. I stopped remembering my dreams. Stopped remembering so completely that I wake up every day with a blank slate, as if nothing happened all night. 

Sometimes there’s an echo of a dream. Once or twice, I have recognized where the dream took place — a dreamscape I used to frequent. But those are exceptions. Such echos have lingered at most a half-dozen times in the last twenty years. Otherwise, no dream evidence whatsoever. 

Except this morning.

2. A Dream

[ed: Keep in mind this is a dream and that nothing matches up with anything I know in real life, my grandfather’s Jeep being the exception.]

Andrew was a big kid, a star football player. I didn’t know him, but he came up to me at school at the beginning of lunch and asked for some math tutoring. I said ok.

The cafeteria was downstairs. It was busy. I told Andrew I’d meet him at a table. But things were so busy and the lines so long that by the time I got there, the cafeteria was empty, and Andrew and several other students who wanted tutoring were gone.

Someone on the stairs told me where they were. I put my lunch down and went to find them. They were upstairs milling in the hallway, and now they wanted to go out for ice cream. I said ok.

We met in the parking lot at my 1950s Willy’s Jeep. The kids piled into the back. There were more than a dozen of them. Andrew asked to drive. I gave him the keys and went around the back to jump in with the others.

Andrew began driving off before I was in. I ran and jumped and grabbed onto some kind of pole that was in the bed. The kids helped pull me up.

The ice cream shoppe was off the side of a narrow road in the mountains. The place was mobbed. I had given the kids my wallet to buy their ice cream. They were in line before me. When it was my turn to order, I could see the kids at a distant table. One of them came back with my wallet just as it was time for me to pay.

I handed the bills over to the cashier. She looked at the money hesitantly and then looked at her manager and whispered.

“Wait,” I said. “This doesn’t look right.”

The bills were too large and clearly counterfeit. I fumbled in my wallet and got some other bills to pay with. Same problem. So I gave her a credit card, but she said that it was ok, because she and the manager had figured out that Andrew had swapped my money for these fake bills, and that it wasn’t my fault. I didn’t have to pay.

I took my order and walked to the table. The kids were gone. They had finished eating and returned to the Jeep. I put my ice cream on the table and rushed out. There was a commotion at the front door. Someone rushed in and said that Andrew had hit somebody’s child. I ran outside.

The family was sitting in the grass. The girl sitting in her mother’s lap. She was shaken but seemed to be ok. The grandfather came up furiously asking who had hit his granddaughter. I said it was my Jeep and that the kids had driven off. I wanted to run to see if I could catch them before they were gone.

I took off my hat and handed it to the grandfather as a token that I would return. Realizing that my hat was not a convincing token, I took out my wallet so I could give him my driver’s license. My license was gone. Andrew had taken it. I gave the man my wallet and said I would come back.

Andrew was gone. The Jeep was gone. Except for one student, a girl who was in one of my classes, all the other students were also gone. It was getting late. The sun was going down. 

I walked back and passed a lawyer’s office. She was just opening for business. There were two men and a woman in line waiting to talk to her in her tiny office with glass windows that looked out on the green lawn where the ice cream shoppe crowd had been parked. She let the two guys in. I looked in the glass windows and watched them sit down. The woman behind them offered to let me get in line in front of her. I shook my head and left.

I began walking back to the family who’s daughter Andrew had hit.

And I woke up in a cold sweat. What a lousy way to return to dreaming after twenty+ years.


Monday, 06 Jul 2020, 20:24 GMT-0600

So the end of the massive disk herniation story is this: the back injection worked. Except… that’s not quite the end.

Although within days the pain had substantially receded, the fact is that I had been on my back for almost two weeks. And in the process, the crystals in my ear had migrated to a bad place. (You know about those crystals, right?) I had vertigo.

This wasn’t dizziness. It was full-fledged vertigo: violent spinning of the world around you. It makes you nauseous. It makes you want to… well… lie down in bed which I had had enough of.

This went on for more than a week. Looking at the floor would make me spin. Burying compost would make me spin. Turning my face into the shower stream. Brushing my teeth. Rolling over at night. Picking up a stick — for heaven’s sake, I could not even pick up a stick without the world spinning around.

So I went to the doctor for help. They gave me instructions for self treatment at home. Sit on the edge of the bed. Rotate your head 45 degrees this way. Lie down quickly. Count to 30. Sit up. Rotate the other direction. Lie down quickly. Count to 30. Repeat. Something like that. (Please forgive me for forgetting the exact details. I have the sheet around here somewhere.)

On the first day, Trudy helped with the counting. And after lying down the first time, I asked her to get a bucket, which in the event was unnecessary. On the second day, my eyes jittered back and forth in uncontrollably. On the third day, I was able to do the counting myself. And there were no more days after that.

The crystals are back where they belong. I graduated from physical therapy. And I can finally pick up sticks again. 

With that, we (finally) end the story.

Lost and Found Songs

Sunday, 05 Jul 2020, 18:56 GMT-0600

1. Jotting Down Songs

There was a time when I would jot down a song or singer whenever I heard something I liked. Sometimes it was on the last page of the journals I used to keep. Sometimes it was a quickly scribbled note on a notepad. Sometimes it was on the outside of the envelope of some bill that was sitting (likely as yet unpaid) on the kitchen counter.

(Ask the industrious Trudy about the piles of paper that used to sit on my kitchen counter.)

2. Cleaning the Garage

This weekend, we spent a lot of time in the sweltering heat trying to bring some order to the garage. Yes, there was a similar project last summer, but this time we went deeper, tossing ultra-old paperwork that we tentatively retained last year. 

And in some box that had my name on it, in some folder in that box, there was a small pile of jotted down songs. I set them aside with the intent of writing them here and including links to whatever I might be able to find. Mind you, the scribbled notes were often my rendering of whatever it was I heard on the radio. So there was no telling if I’d be able to reconstruct what it was that originally caught my attention.

3. The Jots I Found

Hank Jones. On the outside of an envelope from Johnson Federal Credit Union, I scribbled this: Sara-la. Hank Jones. Mandinko Music. (Africa/Mali) Shake-tidian Sek. Yeah, good luck figuring that one out, I thought. Yet with the help of Duck Duck Go, here is what I found: Hank Jones, Cheick-tidiane seck and the Mandinkas : Sarala.

Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. On envelope sent to me when I rented a house in Clear Lake, I scribbled this: Pak. Quaali Music, Badra Ali Khan. Not as hard to find, except I got the Badra thing incorrect, and I misspelled qawwali. Here is a sample of what I was probably listening to: Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan.

The Iguanas. On the top of a page ripped from a spiral sketchbook was The Iguanas — I move too slow. Ok, that shouldn’t be too hard. But no, I only find a link to the lyrics of their Super Ball album, which includes a song, “I moved too slow”:

I moved too slow
I took my time
I should’ve let you know
But I moved too slow

Perhaps those words resonated with me. (Sounds about right, right Trudy?) Anyway, here’s a link to something else of theirs which probably captures what it was that I liked.

Ramblin Jack Elliott. On that same sketchbook page, there was Ramblin’ Jack Elliot “Friend of Mine”. Evidently that was from the album “Friends of Mine.” Jerry Jeff Walker and Ramblin Jack sing “He Was A Friend of Mine” on that album, a song with an interesting history.

The Mozart Sessions. There were three scribbles on a small sheet of paper torn from a tablet: Chick Corea, Bobby McFarrin, “The Mozart Sessions”. No, those aren’t three separate references, they are a single one, and when I played part of it, I remember how it blew me away.

Ricky Scaggs. On a piece of paper from the Lutheran General Medical Group Family Practice in Park Ridge, where my brother once worked, I scribbled Ricky Scaggs Ancient Tunes (Bluegrass). It was bluegrass alright, a Ricky Scaggs album entitled Ancient Tones (not “tunes”). Walls of Time might have been what caught my attention. 

Mustafa. On that same sheet below Ricky Scaggs I drew a line, and below that I wrote two blanks followed by Mustafa. Fat chance. I’m not even trying to figure that one out.

Martin Sexton. Evidently it was 3:15 on Friday, and I was listening to KPFT. At least that’s what the scribbled note on the back of a LinCom paycheck envelope says. Above it, I wrote Daimler and crossed it out. Then I wrote Dinner and crossed it out. Finally, Diner followed by three dots and My Shiny Shiny Love. Here it is. It makes me smile even now. I mean, who says lyrics need to be profound!?

Diner my shiny shiny shiny love

Chicken ‘n’ biscuits
With a side of gravy (peach cobbler)

Scribble Forensics. That particular note has information that helps me guess what I was doing at the time. If I was working at LinCom, then I was still living in Clear Lake. And if it was 3:15 on Friday, I must have been on my way to the airport to pick up Ben for the weekend (otherwise why wouldn’t I be at work instead of listening to KPFT). Indeed, at the bottom of my scribbles are two URLS written in Ben’s handwriting: and We must have been on our way home from the airport, listening to This American Life, and I must have asked Ben to jot down the links. Who knows why.

…and now I can toss those pieces of paper into the recycle bin.

While Mozart Plays

Saturday, 04 Jul 2020, 21:50 GMT-0600

We play Mozart to mask the explosions of fireworks in an effort to settle Izzy down. The industrious Trudy having returned from a walk with Izzy just as dusk was settling and only a few firecrackers were popping, we thought Izzy might be worn out enough to not care about the noise.

But she cared. She barked at the back patio door, and turned to us as if to ask us to let her take care of that noise. And she barked at the front when the noises came from there. But as I look up now, she curled up in her bed as is Trudy in ours. They have both surrendered to the night.

The popping continues in the front and back and all around. Izzy raises her head the growls and looks at me.

“It’s ok. It’s ok.”

She curls back down.

A dimming moon is rising in the east — a partial penumbral lunar eclipse. Perhaps this explains the curling and surrendering of Izzy and Trudy. Some kind of gravitational/tidal tug. Or maybe it was the heat of the day. Or maybe it was Mozart after all.

How I Leaned On Khan Academy

Tuesday, 16 Jun 2020, 15:51 GMT-0600

As I already said, days and events are jumbled up, but that’s not significant. Let me tell you one more thing about the lessons, and then next time I’ll wrap up this pain-in-the-back story.

1. Grace Over Grades

Our grading philosophy for the last ten weeks of the school year was grace over grades. I am proud to say that our school system explicitly set that as our guiding philosophy for distance learning during the COVID-19 shutdown. Our kids were under a huge amount of stress, and jumping on them about lessons and homework and tests would not have been helpful. So we didn’t.

We weren’t alone in this. Although I heard of many distance learning teachers that did have daily interactive video sessions with the entire class, most of us did not, because many of our kids have no laptops and no internet at home.

In the end, there was much grace dispensed from my grade book. Just today I got a thank you note from one of my students who had expected to fail the class but didn’t, because they were on track to pass originally and … grace over grades.

2. Distance Teaching

Our weekly Algebra 2 lessons mostly consisted of a two sets of notes (PDF files) with several brief videos of me stepping thru the notes (for example, this video) and then some traditional homework, which the kids turned in by snapping pictures of the work they did. The kids didn’t really have to read the notes. All they needed to do was watch me talk about the math — kinda like what we did in the good old days.

Preparing for each week was therefore an exercise in writing up the notes (which used color and cartoons just like in the good old days) and doing about a half-dozen screencasts. To start with, I’d embed a picture-in-picture video of me into each screencast where I’d be talking and making faces. But in the end, I found that doing that only on the intro video made it easier for me to get things done. There’s something about your face showing up on every minute of every screencast that makes it easy to procrastinate. #COVIDhair

You’d have to ask my students, but I think it went pretty well. It was a simple way to deliver the lessons. It allowed them to do all the work on their own schedules. And they still got to see the little cherub face of their teacher at least twice a week, albeit crammed in that picture-in-picture.

However, there was one weekend when I knew I wasn’t going to be able to pull that off.

3. Relying on Khan Academy

I have talked about how there was one night where I burned the midnight oil to pull off those lessons. Not long after that, there was another where it was clear by Sunday morning that things were not going well with my back. There would be no writing of notes. There would be no sitting at the desk making screencasts. I needed another plan.

I used Khan Academy. I have a teacher account there, and I had already assigned some Khan Academy material to my pre-AP students. I figured I could grab some stuff there and maybe from other online sites. I could pull together links to some videos and articles as a substitute for my hand-crafted notes and videos. Indeed, some teachers ran their classes this way the entire time. I started Sunday morning. (No more waiting until after dinner!)

It took almost all day. Because so many videos and articles covered concepts we didn’t. And because of so many (non-Khan Academy) videos were just plain lousy. And finally because of my bed-ridden horizontality with laptop angled toward face as I pecked awkwardly at the keyboard. Still, at 7:00pm, the lessons were ready to post to Google Classroom.

I had found what I needed — collected links, written instructions, and created homework assignments. I was relieved, because I had been running for the cliff again and wasn’t quite sure it was all going to come together. Until it did. And the sun hadn’t even set, yet.

Or at least I think it came together. You’d have to ask the kids. 

About The Procedure

Sunday, 07 Jun 2020, 11:40 GMT-0600

How do I tell this further? I have the timeline jumbled. The details of doctors and Xray and MRI are not essential. So let’s just skip all that. 

1. Doctor Ben

First of all, about my brother…

He was always there. He called. He texted. He asked how I felt. He gave advice based on experience with his patients. He pushed hard to make sure we understood that I might need to go to the ER even in this time of COVID-19. I felt his hand on my shoulder from far away, his presence by the bed. Day and night, he was there, helping us, reassuring us. There were really three of us in the house.

Thank you, Ben. I love you.

2. The Pain Clinic

“The MRI shows that you have a massive lumbar disk herniation,” my doctor said. Surgery was a possibility, but to start he referred me to a pain clinic for a lumbar steroid injection.

There were three people sitting outside the clinic in hazmat suits and goggles and masks. They asked the usual questions about COVID-19 and took my temperature. They looked confused when I said I could not sit in the chair they pointed to. They were helpless when I said the same about the wheelchair.

“He cannot sit,” Trudy told them again. “He needs to lie down. We called ahead to let you know.”

One of them started to push the wheelchair against me from behind. But another took me to a waiting room with a bed where I laid down and the pain subsided. 

When the doctor came in, he had me sit up, and the cramping pain instantly returned. He told me to push my knee against his hands, which I was unable to do. His eyes widened. He jumped back and threw his hands up.

“Oh,” he said. “You need surgery.” 

It sounded as if he was saying that he wouldn’t do the injection, but I must have misinterpreted, because they led me to the procedure room.

3. The Injection Procedure

There was Lidocaine. And there was the steroid injection into my spine which the doctor guided with the help of a fluoroscope. None of that hurt much. Ok… not true. The cramping was much, much worse. Still, in less than a minute, the Lidocaine was numbing things a bit, and I was able to slowly roll over and sit up. As I sat there, the doctor rattled off observations and instructions and next steps. 

Having absorbed nothing, I asked, “Can you talk to my wife? She’s outside.”

“Sure,” he said.

He turned and walked away. In the event, his discussion to her did not include the certainty of surgery, which was a relief to us. Meanwhile, it wasn’t clear how I was going to stand up. Or walk. Or get to the car.  

4. Sign This First

I stood and slowly walked a few steps. The staff were holding me by each arm.

“I need to lie down,” I said at the doorway.

I expected them to take me to a waiting room. Instead, left me standing at the counter of the nurses’ station.

“I really need to lie down,” I said.

“You need to sign this,” they said. They handed me eight sheets of paper and a pen. My vision was getting fuzzy.

“I need to lie down, now.” 

“Sign this first.”

I turned around, and walked to the nearest waiting room, the flustered staff scrambling after me, one of them pushing a wheelchair into me from behind. I crawled onto the bed and laid back. The pain was instantly gone.

Trudy came in. Cue angels singing. I handed her the papers and explained what we had to do.

Eight sheets of paper. Ten paragraphs on each. A blank space beside each that I was to initial. It took a long time. Trudy would read each paragraph and hand the papers to me. I would sign, and then ink in the upside-down pen would stop flowing.

Did I tell you? Ten paragraphs per page. Eight pages. So yeah — it took a long time. At some point, one of the staff came in. 

“It’s sure good that we brought snacks, because you’re keeping us from lunch,” she announced and then left.

Pain in the Time of COVID-19

Friday, 05 Jun 2020, 12:07 GMT-0600

I tell this (ok, with a sigh) from what seems ages and ages hence…

1. The Pain

The slightest movement triggered the pain. The. Slightest. Movement. So I lay in bed and didn’t budge. The only exception was when the Fair and Industrious Trudy came in with Ibuprofen and a glass of water.

Just lifting my head to drink the water was excruciating. It wasn’t electric pain. It wasn’t shooting pain. Not sharp. Not tingle-y. Not hot. It was a severe cramp from my back, into my right hip flexors and glutes, down my right quads, and across to the outside of my right shin.

As long as I remained motionless, it went away. Yet it lurked under the surface. Lying in wait. Assaulting me at the slightest movement with a ferocity that I have not encountered before.

Mind you, I am no stranger to pain. I have had… shall we say… several encounters with it. We are well acquainted. But this was different. I was instantly subdued. 

2. Next Week’s Lessons

With time and enough Advil, I figured things would improve over the weekend. I assumed that I’d have time to prepare next week’s distance-learning algebra lessons. But Saturday’s sun rose and set. Saturday night came and went. Sunday morning. Sunday afternoon. 

I was running for the cliff. 

Late Sunday, I began to doubt what was going to happen. The students would be checking Google Classroom tomorrow, but I had not prepared anything. I had had plenty of time to think it thru. I knew what I wanted to cover. But how on earth was I going to pull this off?

Mercifully, late Sunday afternoon I found myself able to sit up after a fashion. So I moved into this room, leaning way back in my chair, trying to stay as straight as possible. And I wrote two lessons worth of notes (with colored pens and cartoon figures and example problems) and two homework sets. I scanned and uploaded everything to Google Classroom, including six short video screencasts of me talking the kids thru the notes.

3. Monday, Monday

Looking back, I’m not sure just how it came together, but it did. The process stretched into the wee hours of Monday morning, with me finally returning to bed at 3:00 in the morning.

So when Monday dawned, the Classrooms were ready, from the READ ME FIRST message at the top with a Monday Morning video greeting, to the check-in and check-out questions, to the lesson videos, and the two homework assignments.

In celebration, I also posted a link of the Mamas and the Papas singing “Monday, Monday”.

Something Was Not Right

Friday, 05 Jun 2020, 10:15 GMT-0600

I can tell you this now, as I think back on what happened from the vantage point of someone who has recovered…

1. Going Jogging

It seemed like a good idea at the time: go for a short jog on Monday/Wednesday/Friday while we were all locked down at home. A lame substitute perhaps for the 5K races that Trudy and I had been running in better times a few weeks earlier, but it seemed to be a good plan from both a physical and mental health point of view. 

That first Monday was fine. It was just a slow jog, after all, so how could it not be fine? And Wednesday was fine, too. It was a brisk, sunny day — warm enough that I wore shorts, cool enough that I wore light running gloves. It felt good to be moving, although my lower back was stiff as I stretched afterwards. Still, mild lower back soreness has been with me for a long time, and I hadn’t stretched for a while, so whatever.

But the soreness got worse during the day and even worse into the next. 

“Do you want an ice pack?” Trudy asked on Thursday night as we lay in bed. 

I groaned a meek “yes” and then a relieved “aaah” when she returned and slipped a frozen pack behind my lower back.

2. Getting Out of Bed

Friday should have been my third jogging morning. I was looking forward to it.

“How’s your back?” the Fair and Industrious Trudy asked.

“Kinda worse,” I said, not really thinking anything of it.

I rolled over and started to get out of bed. Instantly a severe, cramp began in my lower back, spread into my glutes, wrapped around to my hip flexors, and shot down my quads and shins.

“Oh!” I instantly yelled. “Oh, oh!” 

I yanked my legs back onto the bed, rolled onto my back, and lay flat, panting, and motionless.

Something was definitely not right.

The Black Gate Opens

Tuesday, 02 Jun 2020, 08:38 GMT-0600

Lights Out

Monday, 01 Jun 2020, 10:34 GMT-0600

…and nobody’s home.