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You Ought to be in Pictures

When someone aims a camera at me, I have no idea how to act. I don’t know what to do with my eyes or my hands. I focus on keeping my fingers away from my nose and constructing a smile that doesn’t make me look like a Jack-o-lantern. It’s as though I go through life looking mostly like a normal human being and then when someone shouts “Say cheese!” I just forget.

Aim a camera at a group of people who represent a mixed demographic of ages and you will see lots of things happen. The older people will suck in their guts and close their mouths, they’ll try to relax their hands and just pray for the resulting image to be nice to them. The younger people will completely change, in both physicality and demeanor. Their eyes will sparkle up, they’ll turn their bodies into a vogue-ish pose to present their best side, and they put on a photo face, which is a look that has been developed over literally hundreds of experimental sessions.

Worse still, is being a prop in a photo. My visiting sister likes to document every part of our day: food, pubs, public transport. In many of these I am simply there hovering above the plate of food or providing foreground candy to the busy pub in the background. Still, I should be used to this as I get my photo taken about ten times a day. In this case, the important part is the information behind me. My job entails standing in front of young people and relating information, so when I say something like: OK guys, here’s the assignment; Make sure you take this rule down; or This is an important point to remember; the students raise their eyes and their phones, snap a picture, and then go back into their regularly scheduled distraction.

But the all time worst photograph is the staged one. One Christmas my dad decided that he was going to record everything that happened and so took pictures as we opened gifts, reacted to gifts, ate eggs, ran off to the bathroom. If he wasn’t getting the pictorial juice he wanted, he was not above arranging them.

“Dame, why don’t you and Chris play football for a minute.”

“In…here?” The room was filled with presents, boxes, wrapping paper, two other siblings, a parent, a tree, and a dog.

“Just pretend to get tackled.”

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Evolution of a Pub Worker

In an attempt to thwart the advances of Monday, we decide to head to my local pub Sunday evening. Though philosophical concepts often remain outside my grasp, the duality of man becomes brutally clear to me while at a bar on a Sunday night.

The dueling men are those who sit at home, read, cook, visualize my morning with depressing detail and his very present compadre, who lives for the moment and will deal with tomorrow when it arrives and not a moment sooner.

The waitress is new. She’s bouncy and borders on bubbly. She is on top of her tables with a smile, she’s friendly and eager. When I don’t order a second Becherovka she gives me a look and says, “And why not? They’re good for your health!”

Burke and I look at each other. We exchange a well, how long will this last? look.

When the waiters and waitresses start at the local, they are often like this one. Ready to serve, eager in a new atmosphere. I have received so many friendly jibes in a waiter’s first two weeks. Pretty soon, however, the long repetitive hours in a bar and its demanding patrons take a toll and the eagerness disappears, the jibes are replaced by muttered queries and long faces.

Having worked in a pub for years, I totally understand. Anyone who thinks pub work is easy or relaxing has never done it. You are essentially at the beck and call of people who are drinking. Just imagine what you’re like when you’re drinking and then deal with yourself and then add forty other drinkers to the mix. How do you now feel? Even the most harmless, pleasant drinker can become slightly more needy, more loquacious, more time-consuming for a waiter with ten other tables of drinkers. And it’s not your fault, you are there, after all, to drink and enjoy yourself, which is another aspect of why waiting tables at a pub can be a drain. Waiters work at a time when others are relaxing and exactly where they are relax. So everyone in their workplace is letting off the stress attained at their workplace.

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Millennial Emails

It’s 5 pm on Friday and I’m at my local. Just a beer and a shot to celebrate the end of the week. Though celebrate might be a misused word in this particular occasion, more I needed to leave my house in order to avoid writing angry emails.

I tell my students that under no circumstances should you write an email while angry. They often solve nothing while only serving to escalate the issue and lose face. So, instead of doing any of that, I’m having a quiet drink in the sanctity of my local pub, which, most importantly, is about 500 feet away from my computer and inbox.

Students are often lacking in the area of common etiquette. They talk in class, come late with no explanation or apology, or cause more work for others without much of a thought. This is a perennial situation and one which no doubt I was guilty of as well. What separates the current us and them is technology; with it they have so many more avenues in which to be fully void of etiquette or common manners.

A phone or tablet brings an entire world to the holder’s hand. But while some understand that there’s a time and place for exploiting those possibilities, a great deal of millennials don’t seem to comprehend not being able to look at or do whatever they want, wherever and whenever they want. As a teacher I get a front row seat to it all. Students decide that I’m not saying something interesting at that moment, so they’re on Facebook, Messenger, Instagram. Others pass e-notes on Whatsapp. Another student mugs for a selfie right then, puckers her lips, makes sure to get a scattered section of background of students and boring lecture hall. Title: So Bored! Another guy plays a video game.

This is a common complaint about millennials. They are tech savvy, capable, and in many ways light years ahead of where I was at that age, but concepts that are common sense to others, such as don’t play video games in a college lecture, are not getting through to many of them. When I tell students before an exam that they have to turn their phones off, there is a definite moment of palpable, uncomprehending horror, as if I had just told a grown adult to turn off their kidneys for 90 minutes. The general theme seems to be What do you mean I can’t do what I want? I want to do it…

As someone who works with young people, I think a lot of the problem stems from being able to always have one foot in the real world and one foot in the virtual world. One thing is for sure, this is certainly a culprit in their etiquette breaches. I get essays in text speak and Twitter reduction, and emailed attachments with no supporting details. Whether they intend to or not, the resulting impression is that they are less involved. I really didn’t want to do this, but I guess I had to so here…

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President Oprah?

When I woke up on Monday and read all the hoopla about Oprah’s possible run for president in 2020, I realized I had missed something. It was sort of like waking up with a hangover, half a mustache, and a lot of giggling friends pointing fingers at one another.

Oprah for president?

I have not allowed myself to read a lot about it. This is due to mixed emotions. I don’t know how I should feel about this, and yet I know exactly what I think about this. I don’t want to get my hopes up. And I got a bone to pick with Oprah.

I am guessing a lot of people said something similar to me, like “Uh…Oprah for president?” and then they thought “Man. Who’s next?” I don’t have any problem with the idea of President Oprah, but I am a little afraid of who will succeed her. Kanye in 2028? Seth Rogan in 2032? Adele in 2036?

Oprah wouldn’t be the first celebrity to win the presidency and neither is Trump for that matter. Reagan wasn’t either. If you pick through the dusty reams of history, you’ll find that a great deal of those elected president are so because of their celebrity and popularity.

The great pleasure from this possibility is imagining the looks on the faces of the Trumpsters. Here’s why: she’ll be doing what he did, she would ride a wave of already immense popularity, she wouldn’t play under the same rules as other politicians, and they know, back in the unused folds of their gray matter, that she could kick the living shit out of him with one hand tied behind her book club. And the thought of Trump getting his cocktail weenie handed to him by a black woman who is an avid reader is masturbation material. O yes.

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Occupational Hazard

The week before Christmas I was teaching my Tuesday evening class, when I saw that there was snow coming down outside. I was dewy-eyed with Christmas mirth. The students were engaged in a task, Vince Guaraldi’s Charlie Brown Christmas twanged from the computer box, and I was looking forward to the university holiday party, at which I would ingest my bonus in the form of Moravian wine and smoked meats. I went to the window.

In the front lot, written in the snow by someone’s foot was the term: I Love Dick. I assumed that one of the pupils at the secondary school downstairs was either freeing their burdened souls in a yuletide inspired proclamation or making an immature joke.

Sure, it was crude and a bit off-putting, but I had to be impressed with the language. It was a really good collocation. Not to throw all of my linguistic eggs in one thematic basket, but I was also impressed the week before when one of my students said to another: “Dude, you’re such a dick.”

If you’re not into language this might not seem too special, but it’s a perfectly crafted collocation so natural that it could have been heard on a subway car in Long Island. Sans subsequent gunfire, of course.

This tendency to be impressed with language that should appall me is all part of the occupational hazard of being a language teacher. It happens to a lot of people. If you’re a police officer, you might spend an evening at a pub eyeing up possible transgressors. If you’re a dentist, you might not be able to not notice a waitress’s dental plaque. Or if you’re a Republican lawmaker you might spend your free evenings trying to crush the hopes and dreams of the other customers at your local Chick-fil-A. And we language workers and teachers often can’t turn off their langdar.

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To Forget How to Human

When my alarm went off at 6 a.m. on Wednesday morning, I stared at it in vague recollection, the way I do a person I think I know on public transportation. It took me a little while to figure out that I had to do get out of bed and do stuff which leads to the replenishment of my salary.

I put on a T shirt and a sock.

It’s been two weeks away from school, it’s not as if I’ve been on sabbatical for a year, just Christmas break. So why was it that after 14 days I was struggling to remember how to pack my bag, choose a shirt, or write in a style suitable for people?

I plodded out for coffee.

Christmas is a blissful far off oasis. When it comes, it’s as if the world has come to a delightful end. The year technically ends after Christmas, but I seemed to view the time after Christmas (we’ll call this time January) as an entirely different epoch. Sometimes on Fridays I’ll say “Oh let’s just leave it for Monday,” the whole while secretly and perhaps subconsciously hoping that something will happen over the weekend that removes my need to deal with it. This was like that. I had hoped something would occur that cancelled January.

But it didn’t. And now that it was here my brain was in some kind of denial. Add this to the inviting, freezing, pitch black January morning and I understood the motivation for seppuku.

After coffee, I put on underwear and a pair of pants. I washed my face and brushed my teeth.

There was also the anticipation of things to come today. Boy, it was ominous. The university has exams after Christmas. This, if you ask me (and every student at the school) breaks the natural order of the universe and would be punishable by the rack, the Iron Maiden, or forcibly listening to several hours of Trump speeches in order to make some kind of sense of them.

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The Art of Not Noticing Anything

For whatever reason, we designated Christmas week as Bigfoot week. This mostly entailed watching survival expert Les Stroud (Survivorman) walk through the outback looking for Bigfoot. Spoiler alert: he did not find him.

But here are some things I learned. Bigfoot encounters are almost always coincidental. Those who have seen one in person have almost always stumbled upon a Bigfoot while engaged in a normal, everyday activity. People have come across (or have been come across) while changing tires, hiking, swimming in a river, cleaning fish, or driving through the countryside. The only thing they had in common is that they had no intention of seeing Bigfoot.

Conversely, it was mentioned by several of the Bigfoot hunters interviewed that almost nobody who looks for one seems to find a Bigfoot. And indeed it does seem rare that even the most devoted Bigfoot hunters capture one on film, pictures, or have a sighting. The entire Bigfoot community sort of narrows their eyes and makes a Marge Simpson growl when someone whose entire goal is to find Bigfoot actually finds one.

Not only is this a huge Catch-22 (Go look for Bigfoot, but if you actually find him, you’re lying), but it is totally incongruous to the amount of effort people put into engaging with one. Les spent several days and nights in the deep back country, which is dangerous for so many other reasons aside from the fact that he was trying to come into contact with a mysterious monster whose name suggests enormity and who could pull off Les’s limbs like flower petals. He also tried attracting these creatures with apples, pheromones, wood knocks, and Bigfoot calls. He equipped himself with infrared and motion detecting cameras. And still nothing.

Watching a show about Bigfoot means finding interest in subsidiary information. If one is only watching to catch sight of a Bigfoot, they will be disappointed 99.99% of the time, and even if that other .001% comes through, they will often shout hoax. I made my peace with not seeing a Bigfoot and instead paid attention to the little lessons.

Les is a survival expert (hence the name Survivorman, which sounds rather like a bad reality game show or a post apocalyptic superhero). He knew an enormous amount about the terrain, and its flora and fauna. For example, he knew how long a tree had been down based on the condition of the trunk and what the weather would be based on a tree’s leaves. He spoke with confidence about the habits and tendencies of not only animals but humans too, such as our propensity for creating shelters in the general form of a home, with squared borders and walls. I found this fascinating.

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A Very Bigfoot Christmas

This Christmas I decided to stay in Prague. While I normally go home for Christmas, I had already headed back in September for a wedding and decided that I needed to relax this holiday season.

Still, there were both advantages and disadvantages. Primary amongst the disadvantages was that I wouldn’t be with family. Though my family is rather nutty, they are my kind of nutty and therefore we have a blast during the holiday, clips of which could be shown on the Charles Manson Yuletide Jamboree.

Other disadvantages were no feasts and no tapping into the stateside Christmas spirit. The feasts were a big downside. My grandmother, mother, and aunts provide meals of such epic proportions that it leaves me with the mobility of Jabba the Hutt and renders my system in shock for days. It also takes me a month to relearn how to live on a non-carb, non-booze diet and typically leaves me bloated and with a number of minor digestive conditions that have sprung themselves upon me in my middle years. Missing out on all of it was a bit depressing.

Not being able to tap into the stateside Christmas spirit was a downer too. Surely it’s superficial and kitschy, but I love the sights and sounds of Christmas in the U.S. The lights on the houses, the music in the shops, even the bustling malls. I’d miss my pre-Christmas Barnes and Noble visit, watching bad Christmas flicks with my sister, and a night out with my siblings at the local pub. All traditions in our family.

Additionally, not going home for Christmas meant avoiding combat in this awful war on Christmas. I am one of the lucky ones who has never come to harm in this terrible conflict. Growing up, my mother answered the phone during the holidays with “Merry Happy!” thus covering our demographic’s bases. While I grew up with a great deal of Jewish people, Christians, and Orthodox Greeks and Russians, nobody really seemed to have a problem with delivering an appropriate holiday greeting. You see, it turns out that if you just put a wee bit of thought into something and then wish someone a pleasant holiday season, then everyone is happy. But shh, don’t tell anyone. It seems to me that anyone exploiting Christmas to make it a religious or social issue should be flogged, sort of like if someone claimed the president was from another country in order to damage his….oh, nevermind. Anyway, I wish some people had gotten (five) heel spur deferments for this particular war.

In any event, if Christmas is in trouble, well damn it, it needs my help. I decided to save Christmas by making my own Christmas! I started by buying all the fixings to make Christmas Eve meatballs ala Grandmom, about five different alcohols, and enough cookies to give Oregon diabetes. Then I cooked all day while Burke and I watched a number of Christmas classics. When the classics were done, we moved on to the mediocre and decent inhabitants of the Christmas movie genre. And when they were done, we watched the worst Christmas movies in history. This sentence is still accurate if you take out the word Christmas.

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The Christmas Look

Having spent the previous three days watching every Christmas movie that television offers, I am becoming something of an expert on Christmas films. In particular, I’m becoming an expert on bad cable Christmas movies.

It becomes clear very quickly that these movies are formulaic. The protagonist is often an overworked professional who has lost touch with their roots, an optimistic, yet single and perhaps lonely young woman, or royalty. Any number of plot points can befall them. Sometimes they’ll need to go undercover to fulfill a Christmassy goal and other times they might need to save a local landmark or mom and pop shop in a small country town.

Though the variables are many, one thing that happens in all of these Christmas (and all Christmas movies, for that matter) is that the main character gives The Christmas Look. I think you know what I mean. From George Bailey to Clark Griswold to the Prince of Snow Falls (ugh). Everyone gives The Christmas Look at some point.

Below is a story called The Christmas Look and is about one dude’s Christmas wishes during one particular holiday season. This story is in my most e-book recent collection of stories Christmitzvah and Other Stories of Holiday Angst. So if you like it, please feel free to follow the link on my homepage and buy a copy on Amazon for $2.99. It’s also available on Smashwords and Lulu. If you don’t like it, well I wish you a merry Christmas and a happy holidays anyway. Jerk.

The Christmas Look

On Christmas Eve my family follows a very routine routine. In the morning we visit a place called Peddler’s Village for shopping and breakfast, then we go to my grandmother’s house. There, we feast, drink, talk to family, or, in actuality, we feast, drink because of family, and talk about other family. Then we go to a party of some old family friends. Certainly there have been some variations in this schedule at times, but this is how it usually goes. It’s all very Christmassy, like something you’d expect to see in a heartwarming Christmas movie. The feel good Christmas flick depicts many of these holiday routines.

The evening before this Christmas Eve, my sister and I held something of a makeshift holiday movie festival in our parents’ living room. We wrapped gifts, drank wine, and ran these movies in the background. Each time one ended, we went back to Lord Netflix and started another. It’s not hard to see that Christmas movies are largely the same. The way action movies and romantic comedies follow a set scheme, so do Christmas movies. We watched Christmas movies about family, about how giving is better than getting, about how it’s Christmas and someone is really, really sad, but would end up really, really happy, about how love blooms at Christmas, about how the true meaning of Christmas is [enter abstract noun, e.g. love, faith, generosity here], about how Christmas led to salvation, dogs make Christmas better because, I gathered, they are angels, and, depending on the religious-political tone of the movie you’ve stumbled upon, Christmas is Jesus’ birthday. So we watched young actress after young actor after grizzled old wretch engage in some holiday hijinkery until they gave the Christmas Look and then become very happy. It made us very sentimental and nostalgic for something that we had only experienced vicariously in the movies.

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December Stuff

Here’s some stuff I’ve been reading, watching, and listening to.

The last three books I’ve read were nonfiction. Neil Gaiman’s The View from the Cheap Seats is a collection of speeches, forwards to books, and dedications to other writers, artists, and musicians. If you are an artist and need a serious boost to your morale, buy this book. Gaiman is so dedicated to stories and writing that he makes me want to run to my desk.

Ota Pavel’s book How I Came to Know Fish is a charming, very sad, memoir of growing up in a small town in Czechoslovakia. Read this book if you need to cry, but just can’t get there. It should be mentioned that he wrote this book in an insane asylum. The Best American Travel Writing (2015) is hit or miss. There are some serious page turners in this book,super interesting travelogues. And then there are some that make you cringe for the state of American travel writing if these represent the best and others that made me long for the excitement of shoe shopping.

I have been watching Master of None, Wolf Hall, and stuff about spies. Master of None is a Netflix series that is about a single struggling actor. It is very real in the way that the romantic comedy Enough Said was real. The dialogue does not represent the wittiest words ever spoken, but they are as real as they can get. Very understated, believable, and relatable. You get the feeling that these are normal people in normal situations. And I would like to go out drinking with them all. Wolf Hall is a miniseries about Henry VIII and the rise of Thomas Cromwell. It makes you realize how dark it was all the time in the mid-1500s. Mark Rylance is a badass. I read the spy novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy in the summer and a friend gave me the BBC miniseries featuring Alec Guinness for my birthday. Do yourself a favor: stay in one Friday night and watch this from beginning to end. Awesome.

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