Archive for December, 2016
The plan was to completely relax. After a semester of university, students, bosses, responsibilities, and the grind of day to day life, the beacon was the Christmas holiday: ten days in the loving, carefree bosom of my parents’ house in Langhorne. But, as we all know, these plans are never clear cut.
Several things are thwarting those plans. First, there was the travel, always tiring, and combined with jetlag, which is like getting your hands on slightly-tainted hallucinogenic drugs. Then there was the last minute rush of Christmas shopping, which is all part of the enjoyment of Christmas time, but also develops a worrying tendency in which I imagine other shoppers being eaten by dogs and ravens.
Additionally, I have a large, intense family who I love more than anything on this planet (sorry Bela). However, as you know, family time can get overwhelming and exhausting until you just want to hide in a bathtub with a bottle of Irish whiskey.
But today, a few days after the big man slid his pre-diabetic rump down our chimney, my plan is to put on my pajamas and stay in them. The plan is to read and relax and maybe partake in an afternoon drink or two. My plan is to forget everything, my plan is to simply lounge around my parents’ house in a way reminiscent of Christmas break in my college days, or last August.
Unfortunately, my morning duties include the DMV and an annoying and exasperating bureaucratic experience at the hands of a useless airline, whose name I can’t disclose (thank you, SleazyJet).
When these duties are over and I have slid down the meter from apocalyptic to moderately irked, I put on my pajamas and make coffee. I pick up my book and head to the couch.
I have created a quiet life for myself. I am a happily unmarried, ecstatically childless man. I live in a flat with a cat who sleeps a lot and in a building whose residents mostly keep Czech, which means quiet and to themselves. Most of the human interaction or excitement in my life outside of school is under my control. I alone choose to go out for drinks or dinner with friends or politely refuse invitations; I invite guests over when I want and yet spend much of my free time alone writing or reading. I take care of my cat, stay out when I want and come home to a flat that looks the same as when I left it. This is beautiful for a man for whom the Sound of Silence by Simon and Garfunkel is a power ballad.
There seems to be an awful lot of discussion centered on Christmas and the holidays. I know it’s commercial, I know it’s all capitalist and imperialist, and Santa was invented by Coca Cola, and blah blah blah. But could I just suggest that you shut up and try to enjoy yourself.
Whatever you celebrate, enjoy yourself however and in whatever manner you’d like. If you come across my path, I will wish you a damn great day and I hope you do the same to me. I will be emulating our Pagan ancestors by enjoying a Christmas in the Saturnalia style. I’ll put on my ugliest sweater, take my mind off of work for a few days, and I will eat, drink, and be merry. If there happens to be an orgy nearby, well then what the hell?
There’s a lot of bad shit happening in the world right now, and there seem to be a lot of bad people out there too. The American president-elect is dumber, crazier, and less self-aware than a bag of dead squirrels. Other people are in nightmarish situations, and there doesn’t seem to be a lot we normal everyday people can do to help them. This is not lost on me and it’s not lost on you either. The feeling of global impotence just sucks. If you are like me, there are an awful lot of times when you feel helpless and upset.
I am prone, having pressed myself against a wall near the bathroom. I have taken on the physical and personality characteristics of a salamander ninja. In the hallway nearby, three students are chatting and if I move, I will draw attention to myself.
I do not want to do that. One of the students is mine, and if he sees me conversation will commence and I’ll be forced to commit seppuku.
Before you start judging me as a bad teacher, let’s get a few things clear. I love my students. And I even enjoy seeing students in public, where the classroom roles have been shed and we are just a couple of people. The student I am hiding from (in salamander ninja form) is a student who does not attend classes and does not do his coursework.
If you are a teacher at a university, I needn’t explain further. If you aren’t, then read the next few sentences. On the list of all the people you don’t want to see in public, students who don’t come to class are at the top. Why? Because they have 1. an exceptionally low-level of self-awareness, 2. a tiny nugget of some inexplicable feeling in their belly which will eventually introduce itself in their mid-30s as “guilt,” and 3. they unconsciously want to quell that nugget by talking about class and coursework with a teacher whose class they never visit.
These students have a way of moseying up with a What the Hell, Why Not? look on their faces and doing one of several things. First off, they might explain their chronic absence. Sickness. Business. Bureaucracy. I have found that sickly grandmothers feature in these explanations about 59% of the time, with visa problems coming in second at about 34% of the time. They also might simply ask “Did you do anything important in class recently?” to which I usually answer, “Nah, we just sit around and talk about how you’re not there.” Sometimes they get the joke, sometimes they don’t. Either way, a little of me dies every time I use it.
We start out at Demínka. It’s a classic Czech joint near I.P Pavlova. High ceilings, chandeliers, and, tonight, about 350 people. This is weird. Demínka is usually a relatively quiet place. What is also weird is the fact that three nanoseconds after I walk in the place and begin cutting through the crowd, the waiter is on me like John Goodman on a taco.
If you have ever been to the Czech republic or have had any experience with any Czech waiter, you know they are not the most attentive breed. If a Czech waiter approaches you immediately, it’s because he wants to deliver bad news. And this one does with a smile on his faux-hawked face.
“Nemáte reservace?” Do you have a reservation?
“Ne.” No. I already know where this is going. The place is jammed.
“Ah, bohužel…” Unfortunately, he shakes his head and tries to hide the smile from his face. It’s all I have to hear. I somehow try to resist the urge to give him a Merry Christmas headbutt in the throat.
Here’s the thing, there is nothing a Czech waiter likes more than to say “no” or “unfortunately” or “I’m sorry” and then follow that with bad news. Nothing. And as I walk out of Demínka, I know it’s going to be a Czech waiter kind of evening. And this prediction is spot frickin’ on.
There’s nothing like the Christmas holidays. To convey its importance and presence in my life, imagine that the autumn is the ocean, my overwhelming urge to headbutt someone in the forehead is a great white shark chasing me through the water, and the Christmas holiday is the buoy that will protect me from that.
I used to love the period between Halloween and Christmas. To me, there was nothing like the feeling of anticipation and cheer. The holiday spirit was like my ass in a speedo: it was everywhere you looked. Christmas movies were on TV, snow, carols and Christmas music soundtracked your dreams, decorations, malls jammed with shoppers, Santa in his pre-diabetic glory handing out candy canes and promises. Additionally, my family was lucky enough to be invited for Hanukkah celebrations with friends and neighbours, and this just added another festive element to an already lovely holiday season. Though there was always school and exams, I knew that after just a few more weeks I’d have an unmatched period of fun with my family and friends. Secondarily, I’d have two weeks off in which to enjoy that.
But, and I know this is true for many others who accidentally became adults, those pluses have reversed themselves as I’ve aged. Now, my eye is on my holiday as though it were my pizza moving through a restaurant on a silver tray on the tips of a waiter’s fingers. And a joyful time with family and friends is secondary. Now. And as much as I want to gleefully surrender to the ubiquity of the Christmas spirit, work has a sneaky way of being extra stressful just before Christmas.
On Monday, I felt a bit sick and left work early, missing the second half of my office hours. Normally, my office hours are as deserted as an office building on Christmas morning. I usually spend the two hours doing paperwork or watching videos of animals who think they’re human.
So when I left a bit early Monday, I figured nobody would be wise. I tramped home, slipped mindfully into a matching sweatsuit and began reading on my couch with a cup of tea nearby and a cat irritating me with her tail.
There are some universal constants in the minutiae of academic life. For example, by the time you arrive at the Christmas party, the good juicy pork nibblers will be gone. The day you do something rather unconventional in class, is the day the class is interrupted by a high level administrator who just walked into the wrong room. Printers, projectors, and scanners all have brains, are vindictive, and hate people with advanced degrees.
But the biggest of all the truths is this: students don’t come to office hours, except for the day you can’t be at them, and then they show up in droves, with a desperate need to talk to you about something they could have easily taken care of by just coming to class or by applying 11 seconds of critical thinking.
So when I received an email from a student later that day, claiming that he had arrived at my office hours at 11:20 a.m. and was distressed to find that I was not there, I grumbled. Then I hoped that his arrival, frustration, and subsequent desperation had not been witnessed by someone responsible for my employment or for the successful transfer of cash to my account in return for services.
It’s Thursday, my first full day in Łódź, Poland, and the weather outside is as frightful as a Sammy Cahn tune. It’s a day of rain, followed by a day of snow, and the roads outside are one big unflavored slushy.
Fortunately, the conference organizers arranged for a tour today of a few local indoor sights. I am walking around the Herbst Palace Museum, the preserved and renovated home of a 19th century textile baron and his family. As the home has a study, a library, and a game room (the original “man cave”), for the first time in my life I am imagining myself as a 19th century textile baron. There are eight conference participants on the tour.
The fact that I am on a tour of a textile baron’s home in Poland, when I would normally be in the middle of a three class day sends the playing hooky thrill up my spine. I am holding a museum brochure and enjoying social history. Life is so good.
OK, life would be better if I didn’t have to fart so badly.
Like most devotees of the comfort zone, my off time and weekends are sacrosanct. If an entity or human touches, threatens to invade or misuse, or even addresses it directly in any way with which I am mildly uncomfortable, I will mentally build a muppet of their likeness and stab that fucker full of fork-tine sized holes.
So when the linguistics professor for whom I do research said “in December, you need to go to a conference in Poland…” I bit the inside of my cheek and mentally translated his measurements into original GI-Joe dimensions and grabbed my mental fork.
Outwardly, I said: “Oh OK.”
Academic conferences are a novel concept to me. This is partially due to the fact that the university has a peculiar way of encouraging/demanding that we take part in them right before they force us to fill out enough paperwork to build a tree fort. And then they quibble over and contest each Koruna like Ebenezer Scrooge in a spice market. I have been to three academic conferences in the last six years, and each time I have sworn never to go to one again.
Still, conferences have an attractive side. This side is primarily built of free food, free booze, and the allowance to say the phrase: “I am going to a conference in December.” It sounds so official and professional. Also, it is the only time I use the word “conference” without collocating it to Big East or National Football. At first I enjoy this novelty.