Saturday, February 07, 2009

Back To Skool

And not a moment too soon.

Just finished up my second week of classes at College of the Desert. My schedule has turned out to only vaguely resemble what I thought it would be due to cancelations of a few of the classes I intended to take and the realization that the AutoCAD program entailed three courses rather than two as I had been thinking.

On mondays and wednesdays, I have but one class: Materials and Methods of Construction. In fact, I am fresh from the Sunny Dunes Starbucks where I read through Chapter Two of the textbook on Foundations. (Do you know the difference between clay, sand, gravel, cobbles, and boulders? I do!) A classmate of mine, his eyes wide with fear, gave me the skinny on this course on the first day, saying, "[The instructor] is one of the hardest teachers here, and this is the hardest course he teaches."

To which I, of course, reply: Bring it.

Our first assignment in the class involved working in groups of three. One person was the client, one person was the architect, and one person was the contractor. The client had to identify a specific container he or she wanted, the architect designed it, and the contractor built it.

My mind, of course, immediately went to Project Runway and the like.

I was the contractor, Oscar was the architect, and Laura was our client. Laura said that she wanted a container to hold her coffee beans, something that fit in with the Spanish-Mediterranean decor of her kitchen. ("Spanish-Mediterranean decor should have been my first indicator of trouble ahead, no? I mean, when you look out your windows, you don't see the azur waters of la Mer Meditéranée, you see the mighty San Jacinto or Santa Rosita mountains. So something, clearly, is not right.)

At this point, I jumped in and totally took over the process, something I tend to do in working with groups. I think it has something to do with me being a Top. What was needed (I felt) (Strongly) (ahem), was a hopper of some sort, so that you could put fresh beans in the top and remove the beans from the bottom, that way, you would never be stuck with ancient beans at the bottom of your container. I would build the hopper out of plywood, and then, to match our client's decor, we could cover it in mosaic tile in the form of broken shards or pottery and crockery and such. And I plunged ahead.

That Cowboy gave me a hand in the fabrication of the plywood box, and I just happened to have a bunch of plates and mugs and such bound for the dumpster. (More on that in a bit.) We met in class on Monday and I brought along the adhesive grout and the "tiles" and we set to work. I thought the finished product was pretty impressive, and like so many ill-fated Project Runway contestants, I was looking forward to the runway, which in this case was the presentations we did to the class on Wednesday morning. For you see it seems that our client didn't at all like the look of her bean hopper and wasn't about to let it come anywhere in the vicinity of her Spanish-Mediterranean kitchen and didn't like the idea of her coffee beans being stored in wood.

So whatever.

I was able to convey to our client that as this was for a grade and grades are really important to me, however she felt about her coffee hopper it would behoove her muchly to appear as though dazzled by the prospect of putting said bean hopper in a place of prominence in her Spanish-Mediterranean kitchen.

But she just couldn't pull that off.

And what's more, after the presentations were over as we were all packing up our books, she just had to do one of those smiling-with-the-mouth-but-not-with-the-eyes things and ask me, "So, will you become the custodian of our container?"

Ouch. That hurt.

Were the shoe on the other foot, I think I would have done whatever I could to spare bad feelings and taken the bean hopper home and tossed it in the dumpster if I really didn't like it that much, at least leaving some room for the person who built the thing to think that his or her efforts were appreciated.

But now. None of that from our client.

And so, the mosaic tile coffee bean hopper is sitting in my kitchen even though I drink tea and not coffee, and for the next fourteen weeks I'll be sitting next to a woman whom I would like to flay alive.

And now, how did I manage to come by the broken shards of crockery used for the mosaic tile?

You may well ask.

That Cowboy lives in an apartment complex just across the Wash from me. His next door neighbor was a crystal meth casualty named Michael. My interactions with Michael brought back vivid memories of my dealings with Hot Tub Guy, all that paranoia and those vivid luminous and auditory hallucinations. On several nights, That Cowboy and I, while walking That Cowboy's dog along the Wash, came across That Cowboy's drug-addled neighbor with his wee flashlight out doing a census of coyotes down in the Wash that Only He Could See.

Anyway, That Cowboy's drug addled neighbor found a new place to live and left a ton of stuff behind, and I got to make some money helping That Cowboy clean out his neighbor's derelict two bedroom apartment, which was packed to the rafters with crap.

Well, not quite crap.

In fact, aside from the piles of dog shit, there actually wasn't a lot of crap at all.

And that's what made the entire enterprise pretty unsettling for me.

Drug-addled though he was, the neighbor would buy these really cool things at Target and IKEA and Hold Everything and Potter Barn and such places, bring them home and abandon them--still in their plastic bags--somewhere in his apartment. And what made it really unsettling for me is there beneath the soiled clothes and dog shit and cigaret butts I'd find this really cool teapot from Pottery Barn in a really pretty celery green, and I could easily picture myself browsing the racks at Pottery Barn and coming across that same celery green teapot and thinking to myself, "Oh wow! How cool is that?" and plunking down my debit card to pay for the thing and bringing it home.

But it wasn't quite the teapot that got to me, but other stuff. Like the complete set of pottery barn dishes. And the numerous handy things for storing other things. "This will be perfect for my art supplies!"

Consumerism has an interior life. You see that celery green teapot, and you imagine a whole new life for yourself, the new life as a person who owns a beautiful celery green teapot. There you are, with that half-smile on your lips and a faraway look in your eyes, pouring from your celery green teapot, saying in response to a compliment from your guest, who like you appreciates the simple beauty of a celery green teapot and the sybaritic bliss of a nice cup of strong tea, "I hope you'll like this tea, I find it's just the thing for lolling around on a peaceful Sunday afternoon." Wouldn't that be a lovely life to lead? And it could be yours! That could be Your Life! All you have to do is plunk down your debit card and give Pottery Barn your money and a new life--like yours, but only way more sophisticated and free from care--is just waiting for you to step into.

And of course, then you get home and realize that you already have a teapot. Or five. And unlike the teapot you're currently using, this celery green one from the Pottery Barn doesn't have that handy stainless steel basket to strain the tea leaves that sits right down in there. And does the celery green teapot ever make it out of the bag?

I think that crystal meth is the perfect drug for these times we live in. We work so much and with such intensity and for such long hours, and much of that work involves information processing of some kind or another. And as the celery green teapot example is meant to illustrate, most of our consumerism is founded on deluding ourselves about who we are and our place in the Cosmos.

And then, of course, there were no less than six laptops probably most of them in good working order if they hadn't been disemboweled, that we hauled out of that apartment and tossed in the giant dumpster. And reams of paper printed out with machine code extracted from somewhere. ("Somehow they're getting inside my computer!!!")

I mean, can't you easily picture a big conference room down in Hell and Satan grinning from ear to ear as one of his dark angels draws a big Venn diagram on a whiteboard illustrating the intersection of Crystal Meth and the internet?

Back when I ran a needle exchange program, I would often think about how no one really sets out to become a woebegone homeless heroin addict. Some are clearly set on that path by an unfortunate upbringing and a less than desirable genetic inheritance, but even in those cases, I think that any of us, presented with the image of our future selves dumpster diving out behind Taco Bell for sustenance would probably be more considered in our choices. We fall by degrees, and cleaning out the apartment of someone so totally lost to crystal meth, someone who is some mother's son and who is probably loved by other people on this planet (or was previously), someone who in so many ways is a Lot Like You... Well, that makes a guy stop and reflect.

At the very least, I am definitely policing my purchases as though I were faced with the prospect of lugging everything I own behind me in a handcart like a gypsy peddler. And I am constantly casting my eyes about my apartment, on the lookout for Things I Don't Really Need. For you see, another of the wonderful aspects of life here in the Desert is Revivals, a thrift store operated by the Desert AIDS Project. They take everything. And they resell it through these ginormous buildings throughout the Valley. And although I haven't been in their stores to buy anything, I'm a huge fan of dropping stuff off with them.

Oh. Right. We were talking about my schedule at school.

Although I only have one class on mondays and wednesdays, it is a different story with tuesdays and thursdays. Those two days, I'm basically in class for thirteen hours with short breaks in between. Happily, in the first three classes of the day, I'm basically drawing: from 8:00 A.M. until 10:30 A.M., I have Landscape Planning and Design, in which I'm drawing plants and patios and such; from 11:00 A.M. until 1:45 P.M. I have Architectural Practice I, when I'm drawing a complete set of working drawings for a house; and from 2:00 P.M. until 5:00 P.M., there's Introduction to Drawing and Perspective where I am learning to sketch.

I love all three of these classes. Love love love. It's this whole new world that's opening up for me, a world of pencils and paper and struggling to get ideas in my head down onto the paper in a way that is pleasing to the eye and yet fully communicates all I have to say. Up to now, I've always used words for this, and I've gotten pretty good--I like to tell myself--at shaping ideas in the minds of readers through word choice. So tricky to do the same things with lines and shading and composition and color.

On Tuesdays, after drawing all day, I sit in front of a computer screen and explore the world of AutoCAD. We're just at the very early stages (How To Create A New Sheet, How To Save Your Work, etc.) and the very basic commands. My typing teacher in junior high school was fond of saying that, "Words Per Minute are dollars in your paycheck!" (it was such a different world back then), and that's pretty much my mood as I sit for four hours and fifteen minutes learning AutoCAD: this is how I may pay my rent some day; pay attention.

I really like my AutoCAD instructor. She lives on a ranch at the top of a nearby mountain and rides horses and grows her own food. Nothin' wrong with that!

On thursdays, I actually have a full hour to get myself something to eat before I plunge into my building codes class. That class is taught by a man who was formerly the head fire marshal for the City of Palm Springs. Remember Jim Carey's character Fire Marshal Bill on In Living Color? Well I do. And before walking in on the first night, my head was filled with recollections of Fire Marshal Bill. Now imagine my astonishment when the tall and gangly Fire Marshal Dave, my instructor, whipped out a Bic lighter, ignited a flame, and held it at arms length maniacally exclaiming, "Fire is our friend! But it can also be our enemy!" But despite this subtext, fodder for lots of sketches in the margins of my notebook, he seems like a really good teacher, and I think that by the end of the semester, there's little I won't know about the California Fire Code.

But overall, it's just so damn wonderful to be back in school.

FACT: Being in school means never having to sit vacantly staring into space wondering what you'll have to do today.

There is always something to do. Such as sitting in Starbucks sipping a latté and reading through your Materials and Methods of Construction textbook.

FACT: Being in school means you have a great excuse for ducking all those tiresome duties and obligations that you'd really rather ignore.

"Sorry. Love to. But I can't."

FACT: Being in school makes you impervious to the common cold.

Or it does me anyway. I'm way too busy to get sick. And when I feel a cold coming on, I just tell myself that and the rhinovirus goes elsewhere to find someone to afflict.

This indeed is a golden, wonderful time in my life. Whatever the outcome, whether I do indeed manage to get a job that covers the costs of a nice little place to live here in the Coachella Valley or end up sleeping in a cardboard box in a canyon just outside of town and foraging for food where I wilt, these months and weeks and days are truly magnificent.

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