Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Ghosts of Camarillo

The visit to Camarillo was intended for pleasure; not a full-fledged ghost hunt, just a sort of unauthorized tour requiring trespassing and breaking and entering. We arrived at our destination in high spirits (so to speak): Louis and Allison, the "jefes" of their respective paranormal groups, Chuck, Grant, Mike, Ty, and Leila. We scurried around what is now CSUCI, avoiding detection and cursing the camp that decided to screen "Finding Nemo" in the middle of a courtyard, thereby potentially damaging our EVP sessions (that's electronic voice phenomena, for those of you not addicted to this odd . . . hobby?). We wandered in to the first open building, one of two yet to be restored and converted to dorms for the university students. The two buildings are all that remains of Camarillo State Hospital, where the mentally ill were housed and underwent infamous treatments designed to break their will and whither their souls . . . at least until the 1980s or so, when conditions and treatments improved.

It was dank and dusty, a maze of hallways, rooms, bathrooms and larger meeting rooms or auditoriums. The overhead florescent lights had not completely died; they cast a sickly yellow glow, occasionally blinking or brightening, almost alive in their struggle to illuminate the dreary, abandoned rooms. I could smell the dirt and mold, feel and hear the broken glass under my feet, and perceive the occasional odd echo of an unidentified sound in a distant hallway. There were random items strewn about: a chair in one darkened room, with a single, dry rose reposing on the torn vinyl seat; curtains ripped from the bars over the windows; a rusted sink with water stains from 30 years ago; a sign that had fallen to the floor, its message no longer decipherable.

Some of the rooms were so black that I was overcome with vertigo, trying to orient myself in time and space. The small glow of the digital camera gave me a few seconds to figure out entrances and exits; yet there was no logic to the place, no organizing principle. It appeared to me as a jumble of rooms with obscure or forgotten purposes. What, exactly, happened here? Who was trapped here? Why was there a courtroom in the far corner? Why was the largest room painted a nauseating blue? What was the horrendous smell, acrid and overwhelming, permeating the mail room?

Our band of ghost busters wandered around from place to place, rather unsure how to proceed. Some of us stuck together, attempting to formalize the process, others wandered off alone, not disclosing their plans or intentions. I ended up in the courtroom with most of the others, conducting an EVP session and feeling both vaguely frightened and slightly silly. I wanted so badly to "catch" something: a voice, a strange shape or figure, or any anomaly that would defy rational explanation. Ty's camera was running, we all had our digital recorders at the ready, and every now and then someone would take a picture of the darkness in front of us. Knowing that the police could catch us and toss in jail for multiple infractions added to the general atmosphere of apprehension. After sitting in silence for a few minutes, Louis tried a "Frank's Box" experiment (a device that picks up all radio, cell and CB waves, creating a medium for spirit communication to occur--a controversial notion, to say the least), asking "who is here tonight". We all heard clearly the name "Mike" emanate from the box before the frequency skittered off to pick up more fragments and flashes of random transmissions. There was indeed a "Mike" with us that night, listening intently in the dark. That was all that the box revealed.

Eventually we made our way out of the first building and convened in the courtyard. I had experienced some odd sensations: a freezing cold spot in one hallway, and chills all over my entire body before I entered the courtroom. I also thought I heard some distant, small voice attempting to articulate itself over, or through, the hiss of the pipes. However, it was all so subtle, so vague, so frustratingly out of reach that I couldn't quite convince myself that anything out of the ordinary had happened. One of us was telling the story of the second building--intended for the high risk patients, and very well guarded in its time--when Louis pushed the front door and watched in amazement as it slowly swung open. Unit 28 was unlocked and completely accessible. There was a flurry of radio contact between our two groups, and I volunteered to explore the black maze with Chuck, Ty, Grant and Layla. I made it half way up the stairs before I realized that this building was nothing like the first--I turned around, frankly terrified, and descended the stairs, ending up in the fog-encased courtyard where Louis and Mike stood guard. Moments later, I tried again. I had some idea that this was going to be a vastly different experience from Unit 26. What awaited me was more than I was prepared to handle that night.

There was a grate covering the open stairway so that patients could not hurl themselves to their deaths below. The upstairs hallway led to two portals, one on each side; pigeons were nesting in the rotten eaves and the smell of damp, rotting material was everywhere. The boiler was still functioning, and the pipes made odd, metallic pings and bangs as the air moved through them. It was oppressively hot, humid and so dark that you could actually feel it, as if the atmosphere were alive or electrified. We entered the door on the left, walking into a huge room with floor to ceiling windows on each side. The wood beams and floor were from the 1920s or so, maybe ten years later that that. I kept my digital camera on so that the feeble screen light would illuminate our path through the broken glass, boxes, draperies and rotting wood. As the group navigated a long, long hallway, I was drawn to a bathroom on my right--I don't know why, but even through my fear, I was pulled to a spot in the center of the room. There were mirrors on the tiled walls, and a seemingly endless series of smaller rooms telescoping beyond my line of sight. I asked if anyone was in the room with me, and I received a response.

It was not an intelligible voice; I could not understand what it said. It was not, however, the banging or pinging of the pipes. I asked again; again I received a direct response. It is difficult to describe how I felt at that moment--I will make the attempt--my legs felt weak and paralyzed; I felt both waves of heat and cold run through me, and an instinct to run away as fast as possible. I could not move. Something had responded to me, and I don't know why. I don't know what answered my request, nor do I know how to catalog or analyze that experience. Logic and reason disappeared after that, since neither one were offering me a way to understand what had just happened. As it turned out, the group had stopped just outside of that room when I walked in there, and as I finally emerged, they told me that they had all heard the same thing I did.

The independent verification of my experience did not calm my state of mind; if anything, my need to exit the building intensified. I allowed myself to join the group in the salon at the end of that maze of hallways and rooms, but I was so scared that I actually ran back through the entire labyrinth and ended up outside with Louis, Mike and Chuck. I downplayed my panic and fear, not wishing to appear vulnerable and unprepared, which of course, I was. We talked about everything and nothing as the other group made their way through Unit 28. They emerged about 30 minutes later, and we all wandered back to our cars and ended up at Denny's in Thousand Oaks. It all seemed so pleasant and fun at that point; but something had happened in that building, and I still don't know how to talk about it.

I vacillate between two extremes: on the one hand, we were simply a bunch of adults acting like children, running around dark, abandoned buildings and scaring ourselves; on the other hand, we had found something alive in a place that should have been entirely dead and forgotten. What that "something" is keeps me up at night.

Whatever I encountered that night had no face, no body, no light. What I really want to know is if it had a soul.

Friday, July 11, 2008


Now this saddens me. I had to search high and low for a picture of me with friends. This is from college; probably 1986 or 1987. Brigitte is on the left (she was my roommate freshman year, along with Michelle) and Sheila-V is on the right (she was my co-founder and co-editor in chief of The Ivy, the first school newspaper in 50 years).I am writing this at home on a Friday night, since Ty is on his Great Miniature Boat Trip and will not return for another nine days. I realized around 3:00 today that it was Friday night, and I had no plans. I wrote a plaintive email to my brother and sister in law, but to no avail. Ty had suggested to Luke and spouse that they call me, but they didn't. I was going to call Mike, but it was too late--and he doesn't like staying out late. And that, my dear reader, is the extent of my friend network. I have latched on to Ty's friends and family; my parents are in H.B., my sister and her husband in San Francisco, and my two old friends from high school are never available: Julie, because she lives six hours away, and Chris, because Chris is never available. Even when we were best friends, we only managed to see each other once every couple of months or so.

Six years ago, I had enough friends to throw a big Halloween party--really big. Everyone would come, too. There was Gwen, who had a smile and a laugh that made me happy no matter how I was feeling before. There was Zurine, a kind and genuine person who really cared about me; Francesca, best friend material through and through; Sara, who took a very long time to really know, but who was in the sad position of having to choose between my ex and me (she chose him); Shayne, the diva opera star with a heart of gold; Tim, who I truly loved; and others who came into my life with promise and the joy of a new relationship, and for one reason or another, vanished.

I shouldn't say "for one reason or another". I know exactly what happened. A divorce forces people to take sides; there are those who can make that choice easily, and there are those who cannot handle the pain and drama of their friend's life change. Many of my old friends could not make the transition; I was half crazy with trying to save my marriage and trying to save my soul. It was a lot to ask of anyone to stick by me during that time. In truth, most of them could not; those that were willing were sacrificed to my shame and depression. I just didn't call them anymore, even after they tried multiple times to contact me.

I decided that is was less painful to be alone when family is not available. I still hide out in my room, reading endless books on life after death, or I spend hours on the computer, sending emails or commenting on Flickr pictures, because that's about as risky as I can get. I'll watch some television, or clean the house, or play with the animals, and I can easily go for days without speaking to anyone. Luckily there is Mosca, and we comfort each other, since she also faces a long summer without friends; but when she's not here, and Ty is gone, I am completely isolated. Is this my choice? Is this what I really want?

Those that don't know me terribly well would find it surprising that I am actually quite shy. It's hard for me to establish friendships, and I don't know how to behave sometimes with someone I don't know very well. It's like starting a relationship, and while I am currently pretty good at picking great spouses, I don't know how to act with a potential friend. I either scare them off because I come across too strong or needy, or I alienate them because I appear aloof and uninterested. I know that I do need friends. I see my husband and his siblings thrive in their strong friendships; I am amazed at how often my parents throw large dinner parties; I am jealous of my little sister and her vast friend network. I have to be honest here: it hurts to be so alone.

It wasn't always this way. It's only been this way since 2003. If you look at the picture above, you'll see how happy I was with Brig and Sheila-V. We took care of each other. We had fun together. We counted on each other. Most of all, we trusted each other and we truly believed we would be friends forever.

I haven't heard from either of them in 20 years. Is that the fate of all human relationships? Is that why I hide and keep to myself? It's just too hard to expose myself to loss and rejection again; yet it's even harder to be here, writing this blog alone on a Friday night.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

On Losing Control (Diary of a Frustrated Teacher)

It was the perfect storm. I should have seen this coming, but I was only dimly aware of the brewing crisis. Let me start from the beginning; it's usually the best place to start. The meeting was scheduled for 3:15. The issues were, as usual, how do we collectively "deal" with our miserably unprepared students, and our unwilling faculty: unwilling to teach our charges how to read and write, for example. The debate of the day centered around the creation of a new position: Dean of Basic Skills, or something to that effect. There are two camps that weigh in on this, faculty who view administrators as unnecessary, incompetent and useless bureaucrats, and administrators who view faculty as isolated academics who need a strong leader to organize them and bring some legitimacy to our impossible mission. I knew that a fight was brewing; the opposing parties were ready for war. Do we use Basic Skills money to fund yet another Dean position? Do we make this a faculty position, thereby making use of the talent we have? I felt ill as I found my way into the room and took my seat. The tension in the air was heavy. My heart was pounding in my chest. I felt something ominous brewing in the room and in me.

An ex-dean turned full-time professor started making the arguments against the Dean position. The Vice President stopped her, and let loose with the following statements: "We need a top-notch administrator from the outside, a heavy hitter, a real leader who has done the work and the research in basic skills, someone people will respect; we need a true professional." My hands were shaking. My head was pounding. My face was red. I started to speak, my voice trembling with rage, my emotions out of control. What did I say? Something like this: "Why do you have to find someone 'from the outside'? I AM A PROFESSIONAL, as are all of us in this room. I have dedicated my entire adult life to education. I HAVE DONE THE WORK, I AM A REAL LEADER, how DARE you suggest otherwise--if your faculty doesn't have your respect, then we have an entirely different problem to address here." I went on. I don't remember everything I said, but by the time I was posing the question "how exactly is this dean supposed to help ME? What exactly do you think he will DO FOR ME???" I was in tears, and obviously unhinged.

The rest of the meeting was fairly terrible, with all civility tossed out the window along with my dignity and professionalism. Everyone argued, no longer caring to spare each other's feelings. By the end, I had resisted the urge to flee in shame, and we had approved the Dean position; we quickly discovered the futility of our actions, since the President was going to hire someone "from the outside" regardless of how we voted. It was always a done deal. None of our debate really mattered, and my outburst only served to make me appear hysterical. The damage control stage started today; I met with the Chair of that committee for over two hours. I made my apologies, and we agreed that I needed some down time (I didn't mention that I had already enjoyed four weeks off). More importantly, we decided that I needed to jump in and take some control over these issues that vex me so intensely. Long story short, I am now leading various seminars on reading and writing skills for faculty. More work, yes--but after agreeing to work on this head on, I felt like I could breathe for the first time in awhile. I actually was able to sleep a little this afternoon. A weight lifted, and now I have to ask myself What Happened.

Truth: I am miserably underemployed. I don't use my talents outside of the classroom, or advertise to anyone my long list of accomplishments. Does anyone know, for example, that I created an entire division for adult education at the Claremont Graduate School? Does anyone know that I was the Chair of the largest program at Lawrence University? The list goes on and on, and I don't mention it because I want people to bow down in awe--the point is, I keep these things to myself. I don't build on my experience, I don't advance up any ladder; in fact, my career is a story of devolution, of maladaptation, of downward mobility. Not only do I not exploit my skills and my accomplishments, I work in isolation, obscurity and bitterness. Yup; if it weren't for my students, I'd be a nasty, angry hermit with a "fuck-you" attitude combined with an inflated sense of self that disguises a crippling need for self protection.

I want to be left alone, and I want to be praised. I don't want anyone to notice me, and I want everyone to notice me. I hide in my office, but I get really pissed off if no one invites me to campus events. Most people don't know me at all, but this meeting changed that forever. I now have an identity, but it's not one that I want. My frustration and lack of emotional control have now defined me for the campus. Now I REALLY have to lay low. Where did this dysfunction originate? God knows; the divorce didn't help matters. I learned that one must protect oneself from the cruel world filled with cruel people; that no one can be trusted, not even that husband you spent ten years nurturing. Work is a scary, awful place where people engage in destructive politics and look for the first opportunity to rip apart their colleagues.

There is enough material for years of therapy here; I can't do this topic justice here. I think that "overwhelmed" is the best word to describe me when I am at work. My frustrated promise as a leader angers me; I COULDA BEEN A CONTENDER. Instead, I squandered my vast potential attempting to insulate myself from the world. I've been scared for a long time. I've been angry for a long time. If I can't learn to jump back into the fray, I'll have plenty of regrets to mull over on my deathbed. I suppose it's time to roll around in the mud again, to fight the good fight, to carry my little torch into that vast, dark night.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Work . . .

As usual, the Chair was in his office when I arrived to work. As usual, he needed to speak with me. As usual, I didn't really know what his point was, but what I did understand I didn't care for. Nevertheless, I take this opportunity to learn something, since not all lessons are learned through praise and accolades. In fact, we many not learn anything from praise; I don't know.

I had written an email regarding the fate of our students once we really and truly force them to prove what they can do after a semester in a course (the philosophy behind the dreaded Student Learning Outcomes, very big in the state of CA at the moment). We have to abandon grade inflation, or grading based on anything other than their knowledge, skills and abilities in our classes. This opens up a Pandora's box for the unprepared student, who forms the majority of our population at Pierce. More students will fail to perform; more will receive failing grades as a consequence; fewer will be promoted to higher levels; fewer will be able to transfer to the university system.

I instituted this new policy of grading based on what students can DO instead of grading them on attendance, good will, effort and participation. A percentage of my grade does reflect such intangibles as participation and effort, but to the extent it did before. The students, as a result, are angry. They don't like the new system of mine, and I have been inundated with grade change requests and unhappy emails. I won't change their grades, and many people will not like me very much. I am trying to do what I think is right, according to what the school and the state are apparently requesting of me. But no one answers the questions I pose above--that long and thoughtful email I sent to a colleague (a VIP on campus) has gone unanswered. I suspect that no one has an answer, and no one wishes to admit it.

My Chair told me, after much hemming and hawing and beating around the bush, that I had made myself look vulnerable by writing and sending such an email, and that I should be very careful in the future how I present myself. I do not understand the politics of the campus, he said, and said politics boil down to this: the powers that be in the community college system and especially the Pierce players do not care whether or not the students actually learn anything. It's my job to make it appear that they do, and to not rock the boat. If I play along with whatever new guidelines come down the pike, I'll be fine--but let's not make this mistake of actually doing anything substantive, or trying to truly change how and what the students learn. It isn't about student success, it's about saving our collective assess from the bureaucrats in Sacramento who every now and then get their feathers ruffled about the dismal state of our schools and the pathetic lack of preparation that our students demonstrate, as they wander off to Cal State Northridge unable to write a coherent sentence.

"You are a very serious and solid person, in spite of appearances," he stated, leaving me to wonder what impression I make on him and my colleagues. Do I come across as arrogant, aloof, uncaring, frivolous, careless, uncommitted? If so, appearances are obviously deceiving. I work very hard, but I don't advertise my work; on the contrary, I try to hide out, lie low, keep to myself, and occasionally speak the truth at inopportune times to the wrong people. As my Chair pointed out, "no one likes to be reminded that the Emperor has no clothes." True enough; in my experience meetings, committees and administration in general at the college level thrive on doing nothing and talking too much. I have this tendency to point out that we are not making any progress on any issues whatsoever, that indeed we don't even agree on the issues.

What's the real dirty secret here? At Pierce, as with other institutions of higher learning, a frighteningly large percentage of the professors cannot write a coherent sentence, and are verging on illiterate themselves. This creates terror and panic in them, lest the truth get out and ruin all of our grand plans for student success. If we ourselves are not successful in the educational endeavor that we have undertaken, if we cannot look ourselves in the mirror and declare that we must continue our own education before we can enforce standards upon our students, then we will continue to do nothing and show no accountability.

The Emperor truly has no clothes; and yet, if we do not admit that fact and find him some damn clothes, our students--as usual--will lose.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Empress Kiva Addresses Her Subjects

Greetings, darlings.

I've fallen from sight recently since my sudden fame and good fortune have occasioned too much notoriety around town, and I am dreadfully allergic to "the fans". Not the true aficionados, mind you, but those who have completely misunderstood Empress Kiva's Goth Guides and taken them to be some kind of manifesto for alternative chic, which of course they are not.

For those of you who comprehend on a deeper level the kind of commitment it takes to be Goth royalty, I am throwing you a bone--you slavish, silly, drooling beasties. You live for these private an delectable morsels I am throwing your way, don't you? Well, that's understandable; so many of you lead such drab, weary little lives. So I present to you, my slobbering and adoring minions, The Man in My Life.

He's just gorgeous, isn't he? Would you have expected less from me? We met at a very dark and very exclusive enclave in the depths of this famous European capitol, whose name I shall not reveal. It's the kind of place with no address and nothing to advertise it, since if you have to search for it, you shouldn't be there. He was savoring a Cosmopolitan and a very fine Cuban (cigar, that is, I have no reason to question his preferences in that regard) when we noticed each other. Ah, my creatures of the underground, this was no casual glance, no prelude to a pick up or some casual vampiric encounter; no. This was instant erotic karma, my reward for the miseries of hundreds of painful lives. He did not have to summon me, for I was by his side in an instant. His fingers brushed mine leaving tiny trails of heat.

I will not reveal any more than that, for he is nothing if not discreet. Nothing like you silly gossip hounds that live for these details, that you make sordid in your unnerving inquisitiveness. Suffice to say that this glorious god of the darkly hip, post-Apocalyptic European alt scene is my disciple and my master. You'll all be seeing much more of us, my rotten little tomatoes, and one day I might even reveal his name . . .

In the meantime, Empress Kiva reminds you that the good life is just a matter of your powers of vision and creativity, in addition to some healthy egoism and discipline.

Take care of those who need you, love those who love you, and convert those who would harm you. Until the next time, keep the nails rusty and avoid the light of day.

Empress Kiva