Archive for September, 2017

Look it Up

Harvey and Sam

Since knocking over two drinks into my computer one (sober, I swear) night a year ago, he has been on a slow decline. Multiple keys have stopped working. The space bar went first, followed by the 3, 9, and 7 keys, then the direction keys went. The battery lasts almost an entire 40 seconds,. It was a sad day when I had to outsource his work to an external keyboard.

I had to face facts, Lester was on his way out.

About a month ago, I was at work in my home office when I realized that I was not picking up the Wifi signal. I had to send an email and the signal was spotty at best, in and out. I was wholly frustrated.

“What the F**k!” I screamed maturely. And then I wove together a quilt of vulgarities that made my cat shake her head. Since Lester’s battery is so weak these days he’s less of a laptop and more of a stationary desktop computer. To unplug it is a race against time to another outlet; I have about 40 seconds until it dies. That day I lost the race, and wove another friendship bracelet of vulgarity. My blood pressure was so high that I think I almost lost consciousness.

It doesn’t seem like a problem, does it? The Wifi signal doesn’t reach the shitty laptop in the office, but it works in the living room and kitchen. Um. Easy solution.

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Tale of a Tantrum

Veruca Salt After Daddy Ate All of her Halloween Candy

When I was seven or eight, I made a stand against injustice. It was a Sunday evening in autumn, maybe 4ish. I had spent the previous hour ignoring my mom, who had made several entreaties via phone and voice for my return.

Why I ignored her I do not know. It was Sunday night, the black hole of the week, mockingly part of the weekend, yet not, its minutes and hours dissipating like steam. Sunday night dinner set off a chain reaction of events that meant the start of the week: a command to bathe, a query about homework, a glance at the watch and the mention of bed. The return to reality.

As a seven (or eight) year old, it was melodramatically significant. It was the end of the best part of the week marked by friends, games, Saturday morning cartoons, multiple bowls of cereal. An additional blow to my weekend serenity on this Sunday was the waning autumnal light. A summer of long long carefree days was long long gone and they were replaced with the graying light on a Sunday. I was depressed.

So I took a stand against it all. No, I would not come home. My weekend wasn’t finished yet. I was holding a basketball. I would not come have dinner, screw that bath, shove my homework you know where. No.

These days I admittedly laugh at my young self for eschewing an evening bath, dinner, and reading.

I might be laughing now, but I was not laughing then. I was seven (or eight) and I was upset and fed up with the rules. I knew that to disobey my mother was an executable offense, especially if she brought in Dad, Pontius Pilot of the house.

My mom wasn’t laughing either. She had four kids, I was the oldest and my brother was the youngest at one or two. She was exhausted and after a weekend of dealing with us, probably daydreamed about shipping us off in boxes to combat zones around the world. El Salvador. Beirut.

She stalked across the street to retrieve me from the half basketball court in my best friend’s yard, and she was not pleased. I was either defiant or injured, so she was either going to be upset or angry, but which one she did not yet know. I was, however, sure about my stance. I didn’t want to go in yet. I wouldn’t.

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Stationery Man

I am about to release a group of high school students at the end of an hour-long class on American history. Many of them enjoyed the lesson. We laughed a lot.

And yet, they prime for release. I don’t know if it’s the general antsy nature of teens or the fact that I told them about the cakes awaiting them, but they can’t wait to escape. I ignore any possible reflection this might be on me or my lesson. I can be self aware tomorrow.

The stampede for the door is laced with murmured goodbyes. In a matter of a few seconds I am alone.

Correction: I am alone with the notebooks and pens the university has provided for each student, many of whom eschewed their utility or ignored them altogether.

I got into teaching for the stationery. Sure, there’s the joy of collaboration and communication, the pleasure and reward found in assisting learner development and helping a student be their best selves.

But mostly it’s the stationery. For I am Stationery Man.

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My Troll

How I Imagine my Troll

A week ago, I posted a blog about how different nationalities convey active listening to their interlocutor. I poked fun at Czechs, Brits, Americans, the qualities of a tram, and universities. If you have ever read this blog, you are not surprised. It’s what I do.

The reaction was mostly what I expected, which is to say mostly good-humored. There were a few laughs, a few funny comments, a bunch of Facebook likes, a couple of shares. However, the next day there was an extraordinarily hostile reaction by an American woman on my post. The woman called me “ignorant” and “arrogant,” and even a few things that weren’t true. She used extremely abrasive and abusive language, and expressed seething outrage.

As a natural worrier, my initial reaction was Oh no! I’m in trouble! What did I do wrong? But before I responded, I reread my post and noticed that this woman’s claims about it were highly inaccurate. She accused me of suggesting that Anglophone universities were ‘more civilized than’ their Czech counterparts, when in fact my comment about university work (calling it a shit storm) mentioned absolutely nothing about it being Czech. She sneered at my joke about urine on Czech trams, which, again, was nothing to do with the Czechs.

Essentially, she had ignored the tone and purpose of my post and assigned her own narrative to it. In her version of events, I was an entitled American expat hemorrhaging arrogance and ignorance who not only didn’t understand the beauty of Bohemian culture, but found it subversive and subhuman to all things ‘Merica! Go Trump! MAGA!

Her story was and is fiction.

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Too Willing Suspension of Disbelief

I venture that there is nowhere in Prague with a more eclectic demographic than in Sherwood Forest, which is the nickname for the park and path system just outside of hlavní nádraží (Prague’s main train station). Businessmen and women storm off to meetings; students, tourists from all locales, and those escaping Prague for the day wander with bags.

Additionally, as suggested in the sobriquet, there is a certain element of the demi-monde present. Thuggish, tough-looking men and women strutting laps, those who find themselves monstrously and unapologetically intoxicated  at 7 or 8 a.m., others who sleep off the night’s pleasures in the grass, the homeless, and those who are too mobile and alert to be homeless, but who nevertheless don’t look like a person who sleeps in a house.

Despite appearances, nobody really bothers anyone out of their little clique. I have been walking through Sherwood Forest every day for eight years and I have not been bothered once. But I am bothered today, by a person, but not directly. The woman who has been at the tram stop selling the Nový Prostor magazine every day is not there today and in her place is a man. And he looks right at me.

OK, let me just state for the record that I am for the most part a lucid man with a reasonably sound mind. I read about conspiracy theories occasionally, but mostly for entertainment. I believe that Bigfoot and Nessie exist. More to the point, I want them to exist. I like the mystery and fun of it. Like most reasonable people, I find Alex Jones certifiably insane and I would pay money to see Rush Limbaugh try to waddle his fat ass away from a hurricane contrived by liberals.

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Active Listening

I find a seat on the tram, make sure it’s not covered in urine, and sit. I bury my nose in my book to enjoy twenty minutes of uninterrupted reading time.

One of the most necessary parts of my day are my tram rides to and from work. Heading to work, I lose myself in a good book before dealing with the shit storm that is university teaching. Leaving work I depressurize and unwind after the shit storm that is university teaching.

Reading is my happy place; it’s necessary for my mental stability. While I love working with people, I need to be left the hell alone sometimes. As I read, I enter a different world, and the stress of the day disappears.

‘Mmm mmmm mmmmm mmmmm mmmmm mmmmm mmmmm mmmmmm mmmmm mmmmm’

My happy place is being invaded. I am no longer reading about the worries and adventures of George Smiley and his spy buddies, I am listening to the Czech woman on the phone next to me.

Active listening encompasses the physical and verbal cues which let a person know we are listening and imbibing what they are saying. Physically, we nod our heads as we take in information, squint our eyes to show that we are thinking more deeply about information, and purse our lips at distressing information.

In my travels, I have found that every culture has a specific set of verbal cues for active listening. Americans say things like ‘OK’ and ‘aha’ to express the novelty of your information and ‘interesting’ when we’ve missed what you’ve said, but want to throw out a blanket response to cover any base. British people fall down and convulse at the overwhelming pressure of having to talk to another person. Ethiopians listen and then take a sharp high-pitched intake of breath, and the Japanese follow your informative story line with a series of groans that suggests they are absolutely amazed by what you are saying or, possibly, that Godzilla has just climbed over the building behind you.

And the Czechs go ‘Mmmm mmmmm mmmmmm mmmmmmm mmmmmm mmmmmm.’

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Go to the Beach

The Happiest, Mellowest Bird Flipping I’ve Ever Given

My sister and I have burned a square of two blocks by two blocks in our search for a parking spot. Ocean City’s near beach streets are notorious for being void of a parking spot and traffic lights, so we have to eke through each intersection as cyclists mosey through and beachgoers or leavers stroll past with dopey, relaxed mugs and a minimum of clothing.

We are mildly grumpy. We have been on the Atlantic City Expressway. We have been in beach traffic. We are ready to be there. We are cursing a little bit.

When we find a spot, we pull over under the shade of a tree and do a five minute inspection to ensure there is no reason for the police to ticket her car. Ticketing is another aspect for which beach streets are notorious.

We gather our gear and walk the four blocks to where my mother, my other sister, and her two kids have an apartment ten steps from the boardwalk. As we walk, the unmistakable taste and (as no doubt) scent of ocean wind eases our grump. Our car mood dissolves, we tell light stories, make funny observations, and aim our cheeks to the sun.

My mother looks like a beach bum. In the first place, she is garbed in a light serape and a straw hat. More noticeably, she is at rest, leaning against a wooden post and, not buzzing around fixing, cooking, or organizing things. She is the picture of relaxed. She greets us warmly, as usual, and her face looks as though she has just been sampling the goods at a Dead show.

‘Hey,’ she says.

‘Hey,’ we say. ‘You have assimilated,’ I add.

She smiles. ‘Yeah.’

My sister and I exchange a look as my mother brings us up to the room. Her quiet and peace of mind are evident in each tuff tuff made by her flip flops. We drop our bags in the room and head out to the beach.

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A Haunt of Scarecrows

There doesn’t seem to be anything as creepy as Japanese scarecrows. Scarecrows themselves are rarely comforting, a fact which should not surprise considering the first half of their name. Japanese scarecrows are never, evidently, alone. I have seen several in one field, just floating in their odd way, spaced out tactically like a ghostly patrol. If Japanese scarecrows have a collective noun, I bet it’s a haunt, or a terror, or a let’s get the frick out of here.

I saw my first scarecrows as we took a train into the mountains. We stopped for another train to pass and right there in a forgotten field of tall wet stalks was a haunt of scarecrows. I was relieved when our train rumbled back to life.

I am now in the mountain village of Shirakawa-gō in the Ryōhaku Mountains. The scarecrows here have been nailed to the wall of a house, bringing a tortured aspect to their already odd countenance. Shirakawa-gō is a traditional farming village noted for its gasshō-zukuri-styled minka, which are houses with very steep thatched rooves. As the village is an actual village and not a recreation, visitors walk through in quiet and there is a very hushed feel about the place. Outside of poking around their home, nobody wants to disrupt the local residents. So there are no voices.

I wonder if the scarecrows serve dual purposes, to scare away crows and tourists. The villagers make money from the tourists, so they don’t want to drive them away with actual horror, but the scarecrows probably provide an atmosphere that says: don’t hang around too much, gaijin.

And we listen. We take our pictures, enjoy the muggy walk (even the mountains are humid in Japan). We would try not to disrupt the local people, but we don’t seem to find any so that’s not a problem. It’s more like a village of tourists and the occasional shopkeeper. We leave the village’s rice paddy fields and the mist that latices their borders.

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