Joe Lavin

October 14, 1999

From The Boston Globe Calendar

Adventures in Adult Ed


Mention the word ``class'' to me, and I think back to 10 a.m. freshman math; I slept better there than in my bed.

Or I recall high school teachers droning on while my stomach growled and my eyes ached from staring at the clock.

So now that I'm an adult, what am I doing back in school?

I've discovered the world of adult education: a smorgasbord of courses that are fun, useful, and interesting. And best of all, I get to choose what to learn.

Haven't gotten over that urge to run away to join the circus? Take Guaranteed Juggling. Want to connect with your Old World ancestors? Enroll in Ukrainian Decorative Eggs. Miss ``Homicide''? Try Inside the Crime Lab.

Whatever you're curious about, somewhere there's a class about it. Many last only one or two sessions and can easily fit into your schedule. Others -- particularly those in arts, crafts, and music -- last longer, offering an in-depth education.

In two weeks, for example, the Boston Center for Adult Education begins a new term of dance classes, ranging from ballroom and swing to hip-hop and belly dancing. One of the most popular (and enticing) classes is, of course, the belly dancing class. It's also a great workout, belly dancer Loni Butera says.

Butera has been teaching belly dancing at the BCAE since 1996. Her class for beginners focuses on the movements. ``The first step is actually finding the muscles that you need to move,'' she says. Her advanced beginner class brings more choreography into the mix, giving students the chance to dance with a veil and cymbal. At the end the term, she brings both classes to the Middle East Restaurant in Cambridge, where those who wish can join in the show.

I admit that I was intrigued by the idea of watching a group of women belly dance, but somehow I feared I might not fit in. Besides, Butera discourages most men from taking the class, as they tend to make the women feel uncomfortable.

But I did sample five other courses _ two in Boston, two in Cambridge, and one in Brookline. Here are my adventures in adult ed.

Be Your Own Detective - Boston Center for Adult Education

When I saw this listed, I signed up immediately. Never mind that there wasn't any dirt I needed to dig up. Here was the chance to become Sam Spade, and I leapt at it. And so early on a Saturday morning, I arrived at what a friend dubbed ``stalker class.''

I expected a steady stream of shady characters to file into the class; instead, everyone looked just as harmless as I did _ though one man did wear a Hawaiian shirt suitable for ``Magnum P.I.''

Our instructor, Houston private investigator Ed Pankau, did not look harmless at all. He exuded an air of coolness that only a true shamus could muster. Plug him into any TV detective show and he would be entirely at home.

``Aren't you worried about your personal safety?'' one student asked.

``Nah,'' he responded in his slight Texas twang. ``I've been shot at, stabbed at, everything. I don't worry about it.''

Pankau may be good at dodging bullets, but his real specialty is at the computer keyboard tracking embezzled money. He was one of the leading investigators in the savings and loan scandal and once helped the government catch a Houston woman who had managed to embezzle $69 million. Ed has written several books about detective work, including ``Check It Out! A Top Investigator Shows You How to Find Out Practically Anything About Anybody in Your Life.'' And he's been a guest on ``Geraldo,'' to boot. What more could you want out of a P.I. instructor?

Pankau started off with a warning: ``If you weren't paranoid before today, you will be afterward.'' He was right. We soon learned that all sorts of seemingly personal information is available to the public, such as voter registration records, marriage licenses, and driving records. These records include addresses and phone numbershat can help you track a person down.

At your local courthouse, most criminal records are open to the public. (``This is a good way to check on a lover's past,'' Pankau, ever the romantic, told us.) Civil court records, such as divorce papers, are also public, and these may be even more informative. If a lawsuit involves money, the tax returns of everyone involved are often be included. It's just a matter of digging. Pay a fee and furnish an address or date of birth, and a P.I. can look up a Social Security number in a database only available to registered detectives. With that number, you can run a credit report to find out where the person's money is -- something that may come in handy if Mr. Right turned out to be Mr. Wrong.

Until that morning, about the most sleuthing I had ever considered was dialing 411. Privacy suddenly felt like a quaint concept, and we had not even gotten to the question on most people's minds: What if my husband or wife is having an affair? Pankau's answer: Give him a cell phone as a present and track the calls on the bill. Or if Don Juan is on a business trip, call up the hotel claiming to be Mr. Juan's secretary and ask for a copy of the hotel bill with phone calls. ``The first person he'll call is the mistress. I guarantee it,'' Pankau said.

Pankau was by far the most charismatic instructor I encountered. My only regret is that his other class, Hide Your Assets and Disappear (also the topic of his latest book), was only being taught in Providence.

Now, that would be an interesting crowd to watch.

Pankau's course cost $29. The BCAE hopes to have him back next year. Meanwhile, would-be sleuths can take ``Inside the Crime Lab'' at the Boston center Nov. 3 and Nov. 10, 6-8:30 p.m.; it costs $66.

Become a Better Scrabble Player -- Cambridge Center for Adult Education

This was one of the most interesting classes I took, though it had been years since I last played Scrabble. What made the class so compelling was the energy level in the room _ the interactive classes always seem to have more of a charge than the lectures.

I learned several things in Scrabble class. For example, ``xu'' is a Vietnamese unit of currency, while ``xi'' is a Greek letter. And then there is the word ``ansated.'' It apparently means ``having a handle,'' though that was news to my dictionary.

Our teacher, 1998 National Intermediate Scrabble champion Ben Loiterstein, said all those words so matter-of-factly that I thought he was making them up. Then again, I have enough trouble with ``Wheel of Fortune'' so I might not be the best judge.

But this was much more than a vocabulary class. It was mostly about strategy, and the women there (all eight were women) ate it up. Most wanted to improve their game because they had a friend who always beat them at Scrabble. One woman even asked that I not mention her name. ``I don't want my Scrabble partner to find out,'' she said urgently.

As for the strategy, it was extensive. Don't worry about not using all your letters; some may be more valuable in your next turn.

If you cannot get at least 10 or 15 points, it's best to skip your turn and trade in some letters. When I later mentioned this to a friend, she shrieked, ``On most turns, I'm lucky to even get 10 or 15 points.''

Loiterstein's final point: Look for the ``hot spots'' on the board where you can gain the most points. Champion players, he said, always look at the board before checking their letters.

Then Loiterstein's advice was put into action; apparently it worked. ``I would have never made a move like that before tonight,'' one woman exclaimed at the end of class.

Loiterstein's Scrabble class, which meets for four 90-minute sessions, costs $75. He hopes to offer another one early next year.

Love and the Single Life -- Cambridge Center for Adult Education

Little did I expect that most everyone in this class was going to be 20 years older than me. Only three of the 11 of us were around my age (28). I had naively hoped for a younger group of people, considering Boston's glut of folks in their 20s and 30s.

It also didn't help that our teacher/therapist, Merritt Harrison, was 15 minutes late. He claimed he forgot to put the class on his calendar, but I am convinced he was late on purpose in the hope that we would all start talking and perhaps even bond. Now, remember we were a group of people who weren't all that great at socializing. There would be no bonding. While waiting, we stared at our hands or pretended to read. We made a few sarcastic quips about whether he would show up, but that was it.

Harrison turned out to be an extraordinarily soothing man. You could tell that he was just meant to be a therapist, though even he grew exasperated with us. Once he blurted out, ``Come on, people. Have we forgotten how to flirt?'' We all looked at him with blank expressions. Some of us had never learned in the first place.

Harrison started by discussing how to meet people. `Always say something relevant to the moment,'' he told us. ``Gee, I hadn't thought of that before,'' I whispered sarcastically to the woman next to me, testing out the techniquej. (She laughed, but it didn't lead to anything.)

One of Harrison's techniques was to have us sit in a circle and take turns revealing our interests. The idea was to find an activity you liked and maybe meet that special someone while doing it. One woman decided to join a hiking club. An older man decided to take more adult ed classes (hmmm, how about Scrabble?). A busy business owner vowed to make time to figure out just what his interests were. Another man suggested that AA meetings were a good place to meet women. Harrison and the others seemed to like this idea, but I found myself wondering if that meant I should take up heavy drinking.

As the class ended, Harrison asked us all to share a '70s-style group hug. We looked at one another, paused for a moment, then simultaneously shook our heads no. At last, after four hours of dating class, we had bonded.

``Love and the Single Life,'' which cost $46, is offered regularly at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education; the next class will be early next year. Also for the lovelorn: Author Sharyn Wolf offers ``72 Ways to Flirt'' on Oct. 23, 10 a.m.-12:15 p.m., at the Boston Center for Adult Education; cost is $39.

Say Goodbye to Clutter -- Brookline Adult Education

``Ask yourself why you're keeping something. If you don't have a good reason, throw it away.''

That's Jane Lawson's creed when it comes to clutter.

Lawson has clearly given clutter much more thought than most people. For three hours, she reeled off suggestions at a mile-a-minute pace. I didn't even know anyone could have three hours of clutter suggestions. Among her ideas:

If an appliance breaks and you don't fix it in a month, chances are you will never fix it. Throw it out and don't replace it.

If you must buy souvenirs on a vacation, buy something you will actually use.

Go through your mail every day, and immediately file it in a bin -- the trash bin when appropriate. Never let anything pile up.

Make sure everything has its place.

The last suggestion, I learned, is the most important. ``If everything has its place, you don't have to think about it,'' Lawson explained.

Lawson wanted us to ``declare war on clutter,'' but to be honest all I really wanted was to beat it into submission for a few days. Some ideas seemed a bit extreme: Instead of saving an heirloom, she suggested taking a picture of it and then throwing it out.

Then, there was her toy rule. In her house, if a child leaves a toy out, the toy automatically becomes hers. If she wants to, she can then throw it out (and often does). This, she said, teaches the child not to leave out any more toys. Either that or soon there won't be any toys to leave out.

Defeating clutter is a noble goal, but if you ask me sometimes it's the clutter and chaos that make life interesting. Still, if you need more order in your life, this class is worth taking. Like clutter, you just need to sort through the suggestions and only hold onto the ones that work for you.

Jane Lawson's course cost $65 for two sessions. It is a staple at local adult ed centers. Her next clutter class is Nov. 16 at the Boston Center for Adult Education. Tonight she teaches ``I Hate Housework,'' a guide to speedy tidying, 6:30-9:30, in Brookline; $30.

Thank You for Being Such a Pain: Dealing with Difficult People at Work -- Boston Center for Adult Education

Our teacher, Mark Rosen, began by asking why everyone had come.

``Because I hate my job,'' one man exclaimed, and he certainly wasn't alone. When Rosen asked us to describe the difficult people we regularly encountered at work, all the faces in the room lit up as everyone rushed to complain. Never before had I seen people so jubilant in their misery. If anything, their chance to vent was worth the price of admission.

After hearing our complaints, Rosen suggested a novel concept: The difficult people may not be the entire problem. He cited an example of a woman who constantly complained to him about her new boss. A few days later, Rosen and the woman walked by the boss's office. At that moment, the employee gave her boss an icy glare. Sometimes, without realizing it, we send unfriendly signals that bring on trouble, Rosen said.

This, of course, was not what we wanted to hear. How could anything be our fault when we were faced with such monumentally difficult people? As one man in the back claimed, ``I'm the only person I know who's not difficult.'' Obviously, most of us just wanted a list of snappy one-liners designed to stall even the most annoying of people.

Rosen suggested we look inward, to find ways to keep the stress from eating away at us. There are no magic secrets, he said.

``I'm not Superman,'' he told us. After all, the course title was ``dealing with difficult people,'' not defeating them.

Rosen asked us to close our eyes for a 10-minute relaxation exercise. He first told us to think of a close friend. That made us all feel relaxed. Then, he told us to think of a difficult person in our lives, and sure enough we all could feel the difference. Some felt pain; others noticed their body tighten up.

The point was to show that difficult people irritate our bodies just as much as they do our minds. After a bad day, we need to acknowledge those bad feelings in our body in order to overcome them. (For expert practitioners of denial like me, this wasn't such a thrilling idea.)

Then we should do something active _ take a walk, exercise, clean house, call a friend and vent, or write a nasty letter (just so long as we never send it). Only when we are feeling calm is it time to take steps to resolve the problem, try to understand what makes the difficult person tick, and how we might be contributing to the turmoil.

Rosen's class, which cost $29, will be offered again next year. On Tuesday, BCAE hosts ``A Vacation at Your Desk: Relaxing at Work,'' 6-8 p.m., for $23.


©1999 Joe Lavin

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