Archive for January, 2018

Bullies to the Left of me…

While avoiding grading papers a few days ago, I happened upon a Facebook post of a friend of a friend. The post was a screenshot of a woman’s post, on which she’d made a very dumb, very politically incorrect, very uncouth joke. It was offensive. The guy sharing the screenshot commented: “sharing is caring, let’s make her famous.”

So instead of (or more probably, along with) commenting on the post to express his offense, this guy instead decided to try to ruin her life. Because by sharing this post with this comment the intent was to make it go viral and to have thousands of people attack, threaten, and harass this woman. Maybe if it goes really well she’ll be alienated by her friends and colleagues and become an outcast to the degree that she has to leave Facebook and Twitter just to avoid the assaults. Ooh, maybe if it really catches on she’ll lose her job!

This is an everyday occurrence, where the rules of engagement are don’t read, react, don’t think, react, don’t reason, react, and be outraged about everything! No. We need to reject this line of thinking and (re)acting. Someone says something you don’t like, and instead of talking to them you decide to ruin them? This woman had made a racist, offensive joke and she should definitely be called out on it, but attempting to ruin her is ridiculous. This kind of reactionary bullying has to stop, and that’s what it is – bullying.

I despise the current President of the United States. He is a thin-skinned hypocrite who takes credit for things he hasn’t done and blames literally anyone else for mistakes he’s made. But mostly I can’t stand him because he’s a bully. You don’t think what I think? How about I run it up your ass until you believe it! You will believe what I do or else!  

Trump is a bully and, like every bully, he uses fear and intimidation to scare people into doing what he wants them to do. Sound familiar? Can you please tell me how the people sharing that woman’s post are any different? You can’t; it’s the same. What’s more, the foolishness of this tactic is massive. It is so myopic to think that strong-arming people is going to change the way they think. It does not work. It only proves to make them more frustrated and embittered. This is not the pathway to reasonable social change.

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Riddle of the Jinx

I think it was a Sunday in November, 1989. Autumn Sunday afternoons in my house were – and are – all about Philadelphia Eagles football. At that time guys like Randall Cunningham and Fred Barnett made the game so exciting you thought your head was going to explode. The Gang Green defense was like watching a machine.

My sister had taken my seat while I was stealing a slice of American cheese out of a shopping bag still on the kitchen floor. When I demanded it back in a shrill, yet manly, broken soprano, she refused and dropped into a defense mode with her heels utilized as howitzers. My dad, typically of the Laissez-faire parental style, put a moment’s thought into it, glanced at the television screen, and then strongly demanded my sister relinquish the seat. She went off to moan her plaints to my mother and I sat back down. I knew this wasn’t a case of judged fairness as much as it was about ritual. I had been sitting in that seat when the Eagles recovered a fumble a few moments before, and my dad foresaw better luck with me in that seat than he did with my sister. Had the Eagles thrown a touchdown pass in the moments he was deliberating he’d have just as easily sent me packing.

To watch football in my house was to take part in a sacred ritual. Before you roll your eyes and click on to a webpage which features nudity, let me be clear – I am not about to get nostalgic about how sports were the glue of our family or some other such frou-frou inanity. The most bonding my dad and I did while watching sports was the passing on of intensely complex vulgarities and technical sports terminology that I wouldn’t understand until the internet was invented. But still, watching a game was a sacred thing. And the most sacred aspect of this thing was avoiding the jinx.

By kicking my sister out, my dad had acted upon Rule Number 2 in game day ritual etiquette: no personal loyalties were observed during game time. My uncle once asked (told) my mother – seven months pregnant with my sister – to stay standing because the Phillies had a one-two-three inning while she’d been standing. My brother once ran away from home because my dad switched off the Flyers game before they were scored on and lost in the final seconds. My brother decided to move to a place where people worshiped the god of full time. And what’s more, we all understood.

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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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