Monday, August 23, 2010

Feed your head: Kick-ass adult-ed classes put the cool in back-to-school

For a lot of you, the idea of going back to school probably induces all sorts of PTSD flashbacks. Admittedly, it's been quite a while since I was in school myself - I'm not going to say how long exactly, though the word "cassingle" comes to mind - but I never minded it so much. That's mostly because I was a big nerd who liked the fancy book learnin'. Also, there are a ton of chicks at school, dude. But just because most of us are on the wrong side of 22 doesn't mean we should leave all the learning (and flirting) to the kids. It's back-to-school time for you, too, although you might not remember pole dancing being on the syllabus. In the immortal words of professor David Lee Roth, "My homework was never quite like this." So here's your class schedule for the upcoming fall season. Now if you'll excuse me, I've got to go shopping with my mom for some new Champion sweatshirts and turtlenecks.

COURSE: Ukulele for the Almost Musical
PREREQUISITES: Basic musical talent, hands, and really forgiving roommates who'll tolerate your jam sessions
INSTRUCTOR: Ukulele enthusiast Danno Sullivan
CLASS IS IN SESSION: At 5:45-7:15 p.m. on Tuesdays starting on September 28 at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education (42 Brattle Street, Cambridge, 617.547.6789,

The guitar and bass boast badass rock-and-roll appeal; the violin and cello bring virtuoso performance to mind. But the ukulele? Once strummed by everyone from Tin Pan Alley acts to Elvis to Tiny Tim, it seriously fell out of fashion, spending decades as the awkward and unloved stepchild of the string family. But skip ahead to the current music scene, and ukuleles are everywhere. You can't avoid that Israel Kamakawiwo'ole version of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" when it's time to soundtrack a poignant moment, and indie artists like Amanda Palmer and Noah and the Whale have championed the instrument. There's even a ukulele cover band for one of the coolest records of all time, Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, called Neutral Uke Hotel.

"It's very interactive," says Michael Cicone, director of education at the CCAE, of their ukulele 101 class. (There's also a more advanced offering for uke lovers, Showing Off on the Ukulele.) "We try for all of our classes to have sort of a teaching paradigm that isn't lecture, but involves a lot of participation and interaction among students and teachers." Okay, but is it going to take us back to our nerdy band class days? "It's sort of like when the music teacher came to school and taught everyone to play recorder, but it's way cooler than what we remember," says Cicone. "There's this real resurgence and interest. I was just down in Central Square, and there was a band playing in the street. And the lead guy had a ukelele. I don't know what the name of the band was, but I thought to myself, ‘Well, there's another one.' " That could be you, man.

SUBJECT: Home Economics
COURSES: The Sushi School's Introduction and Making Maki Roll, Making Nigiri and Temaki, and Making Designer Roll
PREREQUISITES: A love of raw sea meat, patience, and a desire to show off in front of your foodie friends
INSTRUCTOR: Bon Koo, owner of Sea to You Sushi and Asian Foods
CLASS IS IN SESSION: At 7-9 p.m. on weekdays and 2-4 p.m., 4:30-6:30 p.m., and 7-9 p.m. on Saturdays at the Sushi School at Sea to You (5 Kendall Street, Brookline, 617.738.0131,

A lot of us think we can cook, but there are certain culinary endeavors that may seem just a little bit out of reach - like using one of those horrifying sushi knives without turning the kitchen into a CSI set. Bon Koo of Sea to You Sushi will have even those of us who don't know toro from tobiko ready to roll in no time. And he's not some exacting sushi taskmaster who's going to turn your life into tuna boot camp either: Koo has been teaching sushi students of all skill levels for 12 years, but he jokes that he mostly started teaching to get to know the ladies.

So why learn how to make your own sushi when someone like him can just do it for you better? "One of the primary reasons is that it gets expensive if people go out to eat sushi, so they want to make it themselves, like with other foods," Koo says. He teaches three different Sushi School classes, Introduction and Making Maki Roll, Making Nigiri and Temaki, and Making Designer Roll - and if you know what even a few of those words mean, you're already ahead of the game.

"Basically, everybody comes in hungry; they want to eat lots of sushi," Koo says. "Secondly, they want to have fun together with friends." It's a great class for couples, too. "Seventy percent of the time, they come here dating, eating together, having fun together." (The folks at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts have likewise picked up on sushi-making's aphrodisiac appeal - they've got a class specifically aimed at couples.) It's a good option for bachelorette and birthday parties as well. "It's not too serious," says Koo. "It's meant more to be [about] having fun together." Or you can be like him and use your sushi skills to impress women. At the end of the day, isn't that what learning anything is all about anyway? Oh wait, that's just me.

COURSE: Catch a Riff: The Basics of Writing Music Reviews
PREREQUISITES: Basic writing ability, assurance that your musical taste is much better than everyone else's, and a bookmark on your computer
INSTRUCTOR: Jed Gottlieb, music writer for the Boston HeraldCLASS IS IN SESSION: At 6-9 p.m. on Tuesday, September 28, and Tuesday, October 5, at the Boston Center for Adult Education (122 Arlington Street, Boston, 617.267.4430,
TUITION: $75-$85

They used to say "everyone's a critic." But now that every single person you know has a blog, that's finally literally true. The only problem is, this shit isn't as easy as the pros make it look. Just ask me. I spent years doing my dissertation on abstract compound-adjective implementation and aural analogy sciences before I got to write my first 25-word blurb about a local band showcase on a Monday night.

Jed Gottlieb, my esteemed colleague in the field of dancing about architecture, wants to share some of his expertise with you. "Rock and roll is fun, right? Hell, yeah," says Gottlieb, though he admits, "The course will actually be a little bit of work for the students - writing concert reviews, album reviews, single reviews (some on deadline). But it will also be an exploration of the importance of rock and an exercise in learning how to explain and to articulate that importance."

Being really, really into music doesn't hurt, he says. "Not to get too heavy, but I'm a huge champion of the [rock] genre, and that partly comes from learning to think critically about it. I'm not going to have people decoding the sociological importance of ‘Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap,' but I kind of am."

Over the two-week period, students will have to go to a show, listen to songs and albums, and then write about them. They'll also read and discuss the work of notable critics. Sounds fun, but as I asked Gottlieb, why would anyone want to end up like one of us? "Why would anyone not want to be a music critic?" he says. "Oh, yeah - no jobs and low pay. But it's still a little bit glorious, right? Free shows and CDs, no tie, very little getting up early." All true. Where do I sign up?

SUBJECT: Physical Education
COURSE: Flying Trapeze
PREREQUISITES: An adrenaline addiction and a lack of fear of heights, speed, or circus folk
INSTRUCTORS: Staff of the Trapeze School of New York - Beantown
CLASS IS IN SESSION: Daily at various times at TSNY Beantown's home in Jordan's Furniture (50 Walkers Brook Drive, Reading, 781.942.7800,
TUITION: $45-$55

Those of you who had trouble climbing that bastard rope in high school gym class may want to sit this one out. Actually, on second thought, this might be the perfect class for you, says Trapeze School marketing coordinator Amanda Spittle, who also serves as an instructor. The classes, which range from trapeze swinging to static trapeze to silks (think Cirque du Soleil, minus the goofy costumes), are for anyone who's up for a challenge, no matter what age or fitness level. The school holds two-hour flying trapeze classes at least six days of the week, as well as 10-week intensive flying workshops. Did you get that? It's called "flying." I'll keep that in mind while I'm cowering in the corner.

"It definitely has caught on," Spittle says. "So many people come; they do their regular jobs, and they're here once a week. You feel like you're flying when you're on the trapeze. Everything else in your mind and life goes out the window while you're in class. You're completely focused on the moment."

Paradoxically, hurtling through the air at great speeds has a sort of grounding effect. "It's weird: you're flying, but it grounds you as a person," Spittle explains. "Especially your first few classes, you're on this straight adrenaline trip. My first class, I had a rush the whole night after. When we ask our students how they describe it, the consensus is that you forget about life for those two hours. You leave here feeling like you can handle life now. It teaches people to have faith in themselves." Faith in yourself is great. Faith in the ropes is even better.

SUBJECT: Chemistry
COURSES: Craft Cocktail Techniques, Bitters Tasting, and occasional special themed classes
PREREQUISITES: Basic home-bar materials so you can wow your friends at parties and a drinking palate that's progressed beyond the Bud Light and vodka-tonic stage
INSTRUCTORS: The Boston Shaker proprietor Adam Lantheaume and rotating bartender guests
CLASS IS IN SESSION: The fall schedule has yet to be announced, but classes meet at The Boston Shaker (69 Holland Street, Somerville, 617.718.2999,

In high school and college, drinking tends to be more of a sporting event or an emergency-room prologue than the refined, mature experience we've come to appreciate now. So now that you've moved past the age where a power hour can seem like a good idea, you might want to step up your game a little when it comes to cocktailing. Adam Lantheaume and his specialty bar-wares and ingredients shop, The Boston Shaker, will usher you into adulthood. Classes like Craft Cocktail Techniques are hands-on learning experiences, he says, and it doesn't matter if you just fell off the back of a Coors Light truck either. "You'll learn all the terminology and techniques to make craft cocktails at home. It's a 101-level class; you don't need any experience to come in." He does, however, say he's had plenty of bartenders who've worked in high-speed bars come in to refine their craft a bit more.

Other class options here include bitters tastings, where mixologists in the making learn how a few drops can have a big impact on flavor. "We taste four different kinds of bitters, note the differences, what they're used for," says Lantheaume. "Then we make one drink and all we vary is the bitters, just to indicate how much they really make a difference. People think they can make a drink without them, but they can't."

Cocktails are fun to make (and drink) - that much is obvious. "But they seem to be intimidating for many people," Lantheaume says. "They see a recipe and they try to throw it together, but they don't know why it came out wrong, and they give up. This is a way to learn in an environment where you're doing it hands-on. So when you get home, you can actually do it." And of course, when cocktailing at your home bar, you never have to worry about last call. 

COURSES: Introduction to Comic Art, Graphic Novel as Literature, Writing the Graphic Novel, and other offerings in Emerson's Graphic Novel Writing and Illustration program
PREREQUISITES: At least a GED, some semblance of drawing or writing skills, an awareness of who Alan Moore is, and the experience of having been called a giant nerd at least a half-dozen times
INSTRUCTORS: Notable New England comics writers and illustrators like Andy Fish and Michael Brennan
CLASS IS IN SESSION: Courses meet at varying times over the semester at Emerson College (120 Boylston Street, Boston, 617.824.8280,
TUITION: $390-$650

Finally, something that reminds me of how I spent most of my time as a kid: drawing pictures of superheroines with anatomically impossible breasts. Okay, so that's not the whole story here. These certificate-program classes offered by Emerson's Department of Professional Studies and Special Programs are designed for devotees who want to go from fanboy/girl to comic creator. 

"It's a course in which people can actually learn how to do graphic novels," says Emerson marketing director Trent Bagley after spending a few minutes geeking out with me over going to comic book conventions. "It's set up so learners can build skills writing the story or illustrating the story, or both. We have courses that are just illustrating the graphic novel; those are pretty popular with people who are already confident in their writing skills and want to figure out how to illustrate it. On the other side, we have people writing the graphic novel, people who are graphic artists or something like that. They can come and learn how to tell a story." Among the noted instructors are the award-winning Andy Fish, who is working on the next installment of the Batman series right now, and Michael Brennan, who is known for his series Electric Girl. "We have people coming and going who are rather prominent in the field, and they're all locals doing some really great things," says Bagley.

"The beauty of the program is you don't have to quit your job to do it," he says. That isn't exactly the same thing as saying, "Don't quit your day job just yet." Bagley continues, "All of our classes are evening classes. You can keep whatever it is you do during the day and add the course and do whatever you like. Hopefully you build up the skills you need to go on in the field." Any by "field" he means outside of the basement.

SUBJECT: Sex Education
COURSES: For Your Man Only, Pole Fitness, and One Hit Wonder, to name a few
PREREQUISITES: Ovaries, a moderate exhibitionist streak, and fierceness
INSTRUCTORS: Wendy Reardon, owner of Gypsy Rose Exotic and Pole Dancing, and others
CLASS IS IN SESSION: On various days and times at Gypsy Rose (364 Boylston Street, Boston, 617.421.0000,
TUITION: $40-$378

Back in my day, we didn't have this hyper-sexualized culture we have now. The idea of seeing one of my classmates in a bikini on the Internet would have effectively ground the school day to a halt. Now you can't graduate college without having put out your own sex tape. That's called progress . . . I think? Wendy Reardon, a former exotic dancer and the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Exotic and Pole Dancing (and, randomly, an academic tome called The Deaths of the Popes - she has a master's in medieval history) says that no matter where you fall on the spectrum of contemporary sexuality, the power of pole dancing can be liberating. She uses her years of experience in the field, so to speak, as a jumping-off point for women who want to learn how to express themselves through movement.

"I used to be an exotic dancer in Los Angeles and London," explains Reardon. "All of our instructions are current or former dancers, so we're the real thing. We don't just watch a video and decide we can teach. My whole goal is to teach women what I did when I was a dancer."
Lest you confuse this for some cheesy class for aspiring porno broads, it's not. "I'm not some big blonde-haired, big-boobed schmuck. If I can do it, anyone could," says Reardon. "I put myself through grad school doing this. Very few of my clients want to be dancers, and if they do, I say, ‘No you don't.' "

You just want to move like one. To that end, she teaches sexy floor routines, pole dancing, chair routines, lap dancing, stripping, wall dancing, and strutting. Strutting means learning how to walk. Doesn't everyone already know that? Not like this, Reardon says. "The most important thing we teach is attitude. A lot of women come for self-confidence, or they're not very confident when they show up. You will be confident. When I was a dancer, I couldn't look weak on stage. We basically teach you to own it, to like the way you are. Even if you don't, think it."
If you need a little extra inspiration, they have costumes and platform boots you can use to get into the mood to move. "I get a lot of moms and college students," says Reardon. "A lot of women come here because they want to do exercise with an edge to it where it's safe. There are no men allowed." Ultimately, she says, it's a good workout. "You're working out without even realizing it, but you'll feel it the next day." So will your S.O., if all goes well.

COURSE: Texas Hold 'em for Beginners
PREREQUISITES: A love of the action, a love of money too (but mostly the action), the ability to count to 10, and knowledge of what that guy on the J card means
INSTRUCTOR: John Berube, owner of Mountain View Games
CLASS IS IN SESSION: At 6-9 p.m. on September 22 at the Boston Center for Adult Education (122 Arlington Street, Boston, 617.267.4430,
TUITION: $40-$45

Poker, as many experts will tell you, is all about math and probability, which explains why my smart friends always end up taking my money when we play. John Berube, a gambling instructor who has taught classes in black jack and craps and just did a popular class on poker playing and whiskey tasting, says anyone can learn to hang at the table. Maybe even me. "The class is intended for players who have never played before and want to learn the game, and for players who are just getting started and want to learn a little strategy," he says.

"Texas hold 'em poker is an exciting game that is easy to learn and appeals to many different types of people: competitive people who enjoy matching wits against others will enjoy hold 'em, and intellectuals who enjoy the mathematics of probability theory and game theory," Berube says. Hold 'em also appeals to "adrenaline junkies who simply enjoy riding the roller coaster of Lady Luck," which is a pretty accurate description of my awful game.

At this session, you'll be sitting around a poker table playing cards, not studying charts and figures. You'll learn the basic rules but then move on quickly to basic strategy, "such as taking advantage of your position, reading your opponent, and calculating outs and pot odds."

Berube's goal is to get the students to a point where they feel comfortable joining a game and have the skills to play it well and to have fun. Or, in my case, to take that uppity math nerd's milk money.

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