Archive for November, 2017

Field Trip

It’s morning, it’s Prague, and it’s late November, all of which put together means that it’s dark, it’s cold and it’s bleak. While I’d normally be getting ready for work, I am heading off to a conference today in Poland. So instead of staring at my ceiling and being immensely jealous of those who work with computers, I am packing.

We are taking a bus which will take more than seven hours. The professor who pitched this mode of transport did so in the same way that my dad once pitched driving to Disney World. Oh it’s fun. Getting there’s half the fun.

OK, these weren’t the exact words the professor used. I mean, it is a conference on accents, how could anything be half of the fun of that? Unlike my childhood self, seven hours on a bus isn’t the end of the world. I am looking forward to reading and writing, I have a lot of work to do and this is a perfect opportunity to catch up on some of it. My child self would be gravely disappointed in the work aspect, but would also be packing a couple R.L Stines for the trip.

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Separation Anxiety

I was on Facebook Friday afternoon, taking a break from work. I was scrolling mindlessly, playing a couple of games I like to play to calm my mind and soul. One of them was to see if I could scroll to a spot in between two videos that start themselves automatically. This is a tough and frustrating game. The second game was called Who do I know in this Picture?

There were zillions of pictures today, as it’s the day after Thanksgiving. So there were lots of friends wearing sensible button downs in pictures with family, drink, and feasts. It was all very cozy and warming. Like an overwhelming supply of virtual comfort food. Still, this game isn’t easy either. First, I’m just bad at identifying people in pictures. Additionally, Facebook for me is probably not unlike Facebook for many of you. I have several hundred friends from several different periods of my life: elementary school, high school, college, first few jobs, vacations, current job, neighbors. There is a huge mix. Some of these friends I only physically knew for a month or two, sometimes even less.

One of my friends, a guy I knew twenty-some years ago and haven’t seen in twenty-some years, was angry. Always appreciating a good rant, I read his post. It was about how parents should not let their kids listen to “disgusting” and “disgraceful” gansta rap. He made some other pretty extreme comments about the unethical nature of this genre of music.

I shut off my tablet and went back to work in my office. But sitting in my backroom I was unable to get a splinter out of my mind. I couldn’t figure out what it was so it drove me mad, but I finally got at it. It was this: I knew that guy when he was younger and he was a prick. He was a prick to other kids, he was a disrespectful prick to adults, he was a prick to people on the street. He was a malicious bully with a turbulent temper. Given the option to hang out with him for an afternoon or with gangsta rap, I’d choose gangsta rap.

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Just like you, I am aware that each year the powers that be seem to inch the holiday season just a wee bit closer to September. They’re a bit sneaky about it too. In Prague, the buses and trams are half-decorated, as though preparing for a Christmas ad sneak attack. Weeks ago my local Tesco put up a holiday display of Santa chocolates. Santa! If the local store was interested in providing anything at all by way of food or drink, I am sure they’d be doing the same.

I have never been one to complain about Christmas decorations coming early. Oh I notice, and I do wonder when we’re going to start celebrating Christmas in August, but there are people out there who just can’t wait to whine about it. It’s almost as if it’s not Christmas season that’s inching earlier each year, but bitching about Christmas season coming earlier season that comes earlier each year. (whoa)

I like the Christmas season. It’s the only time during the winter in which my environment actively discourages suicide rather than encouraging it. In the U.S. Christmas is lovingly shoved down your throat everywhere. Television is one perpetual Christmas advertisement separated by the Christmas episodes of sitcoms and shows. Telling any doctor that you are going to a mall in December is grounds for immediate sedation.

Prague is different in that lots of charming Christmas markets pop up in town squares. These markets are an excuse to sell gingerbread and to drink alcohol outside. Additionally, it is a good venue in which to watch large men beat carp to death and then dismember them. Come December 26th, it’s all a memory and we only have the miserable months of January and February to look forward to.

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Misery Loves Netflix

“So can you handle that?”

“Just run it by me one more time.”

“You’ll have to mark the breaks between words, like before…”


“Right, but it’ll just be your voice.”

I have been doing research for a phonetician at the university. For the most part I have found the research very interesting and the professor is extremely open and helpful. This is a great deal different from professors many of us have experience with, who not only have trouble bridging the gap between their content and the students, but cannot conceive how everyone in his class is not fully fluent with their course material. There have been some dry articles that made me want to build a bridge just so I could jump off of it, but that’s all part of the joys of academia.

Part of that research has been listening closely to people speaking and marking where they take breaths. This more current task is to mark where they pause. These can be virtually imperceptible and rather difficult to pick ups, so a close focus on the speakers is necessary.

Until today, it has been speakers I did not know. Nameless and faceless men and women whose only important features as far as I was concerned were how much they said in between breaths. But now it’s me. Two hours of listening closely to my own voice and trying to mark borders instead of gouging my ears with a pencil.

I asked the professor if listening to his own voice drove him mad. He nodded in a commiserative way and said, “Not anymore. I’m used to it by now.”

I came home and did what I often do when trying to get through my daily trials: I found someone who has it worse. In this case it was a bunch of Vikings.

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Negative Feedback

In one of my courses last year we were prepping for the state exam, which is the exam the students must pass to complete their university careers without tears and a lot of explanations to their parents.

One day I had the students do mock oral exams, in which the students gave other students questions and follow ups. At the end of each student’s turn I had instructed them to give feedback. The first student finished, and he was rather excellent. His English is better than mine, he was thoughtful and concise, and even used some of the strategies we had discussed.

When the students gave him feedback I quickly became aware of the fact that it was all negative. Mind you, it wasn’t aggressive or mean-spirited, it was just focused on the few things he didn’t do very well. He took it in stride and got up to leave and I said, “Any positive feedback?”

“Oh,” one of them said. “Yeah, your English is incredible. And you hit all of the points you were supposed to and you used lots of the tactics we talked about in class.” The second student on the board got involved as well and focused on his lovely use of stress and intonation to convey emphasis. He left and he was smiling as he did so.

I was reflecting on that morning class from last May last week while talking about feedback with a colleague. It seems he had done a presentation for some visiting students last month and had not received any feedback. He spoke to the administrator in charge who mumbled that they had loved it.

“Loved it?” he asked.

“Yeah, they were very happy with it. They liked you very much.”

“Oh. Nobody told me.”


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I literally Can’t Even

A friend of mine related a story in which one of his characters was engaged in the activity of reaching out. It was something like “John reached out the other night.”

I said, “Oh no, what was the problem?”

My friend looked a bit confused and said, “There was no problem, he just wanted to talk.”

Sometimes I am faced with evidence that I am old and this is often at the hands of language. “Reaching out” is just one little part of an alarming trend I’ve noticed wherein I don’t understand what people say or what they mean by the words they use to convey ideas. I think I used to understand. When I do understand, I am annoyed by what I understand. It’s understandably vexing.

For example, some time ago in the past, when I wasn’t looking, the term “reach out” replaced the words “call” or “contact.” Despite the fact that I have heard it enough to gather its updated meaning, I still can’t shake my initial impression of the term, which implies that someone reaching out is in dire need of a therapeutic talk. If he’s reaching out, he better be Neil Diamond and he better then be touching you and then touching me, and if he’s not then I am annoyed.

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Smoothie Guy

Why Hello, New Life Motto

My alarm goes off today at about 5:45 a.m. About. Somehow 5:47 a.m. makes me feel as though I am getting a whole new world of sleep. I won’t pretend to understand sleep psychology, but it must be a fascinating field.

Getting up at this time allows me to get my writing in before teaching. My brain told me a long time ago that his evenings were reserved for being entertained by books and shows and beer and that he shifted into second gear anyway, so there was no use trying to get work done. So early morning it is.

Today, I make my way out to the kitchen to start my morning routine: feed cat, stretch with a moan, implore the heavens, drink a huge glass of water with lemon, clean errant lemon zest out of my eye, begin coffee. Today, however, there’s more. I take out the blueberries, frozen raspberries, and the yogurt. It’s time to make a smoothie.

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Albania, You Border on the Adriatic

During one of our Sunday conversations my dad mentioned that my aunt had gotten a DNA test done. It’s one of those where they scrape your tongue and tell you down to the detailed percentage the nationalities you are made up of.

“We are part Albanian,” he said, “isn’t that neat?”

“Yes, it is neat,” I confirmed.

But being Albanian troubled me, because I had no idea what that entailed.

I’ve always known a lot of people who put a great deal of effort into identifying with their cultural heritage. I knew people who’d never left Lansdale, Pennsylvania and who proudly sported tattoos of Ireland maps on their forearms. Other men wore shirts with Italia printed across the front. I worked at a bookstore with a man who spent his breaks leafing through a Czech dictionary and would speak in Czech to people with remotely Slavic sounding names.

I was sitting on a tram last week when I overheard a conversation between three men. Two of them were obviously American, the third was I think Polish. The Pole asked the two Americans where they were from and without skipping a beat one of them said “Italy” and the other one said “originally Israel.” I glanced up at this point to see that the Pole had narrowed his eyes and was trying to understand what was happening.

He said, “Oh I thought you were from America.”

In unison they hedged: “Oh well, yeah, that’s where my family lives…”

Translation: I was born in America, I grew up in America, I went to kindergarten, grade school, high school, and college in America, I got my driver’s license in America, I have lived in East Orange, New Jersey my whole life, so did my parents, whose parents’ parents’ parents’ parents’ parents’ came there from somewhere across an ocean. But I’m Italian.

Though I did an inward giggle and suppressed the eye-roll of the century, I did understand where they’re coming from. America is a mishmash of cultures and because of that we are somehow encouraged to identify more with those cultures than with America. I sure did.

Before this Albanian affair, I had spent most of my life used to the idea that I was half Italian and half Irish. It was simple and clear. Half and half. I was familiar with those places – Italy and Ireland. Additionally, both of the places, their culture, and their people had charm. The Irish came from an emerald green island and her people were friendly and fiery and had adorable drinking problems. The Italians were from an exotic place where Caesar used to live, they were warm and had tempers, but they could make a pasta dish that you’d sell your soul for.

While my mom looked (and looks) like the textbook version of a round-nosed Irish Leprechaun, she didn’t push her Irish heritage on her kids or anyone else. Sure, we had corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick’s Day and New Year’s, but we didn’t sit around doing a family rendition of Danny Boy or telling Irish fairy tales. In fact, due to the demographics in our neighborhood, by my teens my mother had undertaken the culture, the speaking patterns, and the habits of a middle-aged Jewish housewife. This, it could be argued, culminated in her purchase of a delicatessen in Jenkintown.

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This Creepy Halloween

It’s Halloween, one of my favorite days of the year. I know it’s campy to all you haters out there, but I have always loved it. It’s the creepy time of year, the time when the line between the dead and living blurs and beings from the other side visit ours. For me, there’s no better month than October to curl up on your couch with a book of MR James stories. And no better day than Halloween.

It is this plan that I intend to fulfill upon my arrival home this evening. MR James is such a standard-bearer of ghost and creepy stories that his protocol are referred to as Jamesian. You know the ones, too. Stories set in a small town, an abbey, a university, an provincial cottage. The main character is a vicar, a headmaster, a naïve country gentleman who’s bought a house. The menace is an uncovered secret in a churchyard crypt, a long held secret coming back from the grave to exact vengeance, or the discovery of an artifact, a manuscript, or some other antiquarian piece.

I love stories like these. The settings are quaint enough to induce a faux comfort, yet somehow upsetting and desolate enough to keep me on edge. Brilliant. I have the book downloaded on my tablet and I’ll read it as soon as I’m home. Not that I’d be short on Halloween reading material, as several people on Facebook are sharing story links associated with the spooky and the ghoulish. Tis the day to indulge in the quilt-covered kid inside.

And yet, there’s something not quite right this year. I can’t put my finger on it, but the spirit of creepy is not the same. I finish writing in the mid morning and walk down to the swimming pool. I find no better place than a pool for meditative thought. As I go back and forth in my metered breaststroke, I contemplate this.

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