Sometimes, when the students want to avoid work, they’ll ask me questions they know to be my catnip. Tell us a funny story about your cat? What is your new book about? What drives you crazy about Czech people?
I often take the bait and comply, knowing full well what I am doing. Though my loquaciousness sometimes gets on my own nerves, I enjoy breaking ranks and telling a story. Sometimes a funny story eases a tense mood in the room or relaxes stressed and nervous students before a late afternoon exam. There are times when a travel tale is a better plan than obsessive adherence to a lesson plan.
It’s when I tell a story in class that I remember some of my favorite old teachers who were great story tellers. Mr. Feighan used to regale us with hilarious tales of his “idiot son, Keith.” Mr. Scott knew hundreds of fascinating anecdotes, and a catalog of details about the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
In particular, though, there was Jerome J. Bennett. Mr. Bennett was a freshman English teacher at St. Joe’s Prep, known in anecdotes as “GI Jerry” but always referred to as Mr. Bennett whenever there was the slightest chance he was nearby. A former demolitions expert in the U.S. army, Mr. Bennett commanded a great deal of respect. He was a real man’s man, tough, straightforward, and took exactly no nonsense from the boys in his class. If you pissed him off, he let you know immediately, aggressively, and terrifyingly, which he’d been doing since the mid-1960s, when he’d taught my dad freshman English.
My laptop is running high (emitting a loud machine sound, not jogging after smoking a spliff) so I carry it into the office and embark upon my original plan, which involves sitting on the couch with a good book.
As I sink into Remains of the Day (read it!), my tablet blings. Like you, I have become an interpreter of the blings, beeps, bongs, and buzzes that come from my devices. This one means a Facebook message.
For a few moments, I am successful at ignoring its lusty call and remain in the story of Stevens and Miss Kenton. However, I eventually do what we all knew I’d do and check it. Before I can, my phone buzzes, delivering the same message.
The message is from a friend who wants to know if I can come to an event she is putting on. At once, I realize I have forgotten to respond and wince under this new, acute pressure to be socially responsible. And then I groan, for I have made the classic (in this case, ‘classic’ is defined as going back as far as four years) mistake of clicking on her message rather than previewing it. Subsequently, I have rendered her message as seen, which means she now knows I have seen the message, in turn I now have to deal with this sooner rather than later. I kick myself. I could have just gone back to my book, but now I have to craft a response, one that not only says ‘no,’ but one that conveys an element of sadness or frustration with my inability to attend.
I cast a forlorn look at my book.
A wonderful weekly custom I have taken up is my Friday night swim. I meet one of my best friends at the pool, we swim for half an hour, steam room for ten minutes, and then wander the hundred yards to the nearest bar, which happens to be my local. We while away a Friday night with loose muscles and a growing buzz.
Tonight, I am a bit less mellow. A woman is telling me that I do not have enough points on my card to get into the pool. The card is a “three month” card, which might lead one to think that it gains one entrance to a pool (or a gym or a club) for three months, but it’s not. This “three month” card only means it’s valid for three months. Each three month card has 283 points, and during each visit one is charged 52 points for 40 minutes and 63 points for 50 minutes. Since I am never there longer than 45 minutes or so, the point system above that does not apply.
Now, if you are prone to doing math in your head, go ahead and start working 52 and 63 into 283 and see how well it fits. If I visit five times and stay beneath the 40 minutes, I am charged 260 points out of a possible 283. If I visit four times at under 50 minutes, I get charged 252 points out of a possible 283. If the five visits break down into three visits of 40 minutes and two visits of 50 minutes, then it’s 282 points.
But the real problem is that tonight I have 37 remaining points that I am not allowed to use. I make the mistake of asking if I can just pay the remaining 15 points in Koruna, but if you have ever been in the Czech Republic, you know that this sensible manner of handling this situation is not only out of the question, it is frankly laughable.
I’ve decided to write at the kitchen table today. I read once that artists and writers are supposed to change things up like that to give a different perspective. Also, I’m almost hungry, and don’t want to be too far from my fridge when the pangs come. Those are my ostensible reasons.
The real reason is that my cat has fallen asleep on my office chair and she’s been in a grumpy mood this morning. If you have a cat who leans towards the moody, you know the ramifications of waking it up.
In my house, waking the B Monster results in a loud argument right off the bat. Then I pretend to concentrate on writing but really I unsuccessfully try to keep her in my periphery, because payback is coming. She circles beneath my chair toying with me the way a reef shark might a plane crash survivor floating on an inner tube. Then, after perhaps I’ve drifted into a false sense of security and started looking at the Internet, she strikes, leaving me with a couple of puncture holes in my arm or calf. Then she scurries off under the couch, dropping into a long nap brought on by exacting vengeance.
Today, as quiet as I try to be, an alarm I set and forgot to turn off begins bleeping away from my tablet. By the time I get to it, the cat is looking at me with sleepy eyes and a pissed off look. I decide to act that everything is normal, so I get back to work and keep at bay thoughts of my future chicken salad sandwich. A while later the cat leaps up onto the kitchen table and stands on my notes. I gently pick her up and release her to the wilds of my flat, a place she goes with a chirp.
It’s the chirp I don’t like. It’s ominous.
I’m watching Harry Potter and I can’t help thinking of Donald Trump. Severus Snape. We know him and love him. Correction: We know him and ended up loving him. Mean-spirited bastard, jealous, petty, and carrier of a chip on his shoulder that should have made him a hunchback.
Oh, he had small moments of kindness. He helped Harry when it the sly Professor Quirrell tried to harm him during the Quidditch match. And when he did, I raised an eyebrow and went “Hm…OK.”
But the thing about Snape is that I wanted to like him. He was a flawed character with baggage, pain, and lots of issues. A past of mockery, unrequited love, mistakes. If you take away the wizardry school and the ability to see memories, lots of us could kind of relate. But we want characters to do good, to redeem themselves, and come out on the positive side.
But boy did he blow it. When Snape killed Dumbledore, I thought: oh you son-of-a-bitch; you’re going down hard. And, like most of you, I suffered through the dark period of a Snape Hogwarts. We only end up really loving Snape when we realize that all along he was a good guy. He was not only on the good side, but taking a huge brunt of hate from the wizard world for killing Dumbledore and being Voldemort’s puppet. As Harry himself said it, “he was the bravest man I ever knew.”
I know it’s a reach to compare Donald Trump to Severus Snape, but I’m going to do it anyway. President Trump has consistently drawn ire and hatred from an enormous variety of the people he ostensibly claims to lead and represent. In many people’s view, he has made move after move to incite hate, fear, and disbelief. He’s mocked disabled people, veterans, he’s made massively disrespectful comments towards women, Mexicans, and Muslims. Every time he speaks, I think that there’s no way he actually feels this way! It’s impossible. The first month and a half of his presidency has been marked by one Draconian executive order after the other, attempts to gag governmental agencies and news outlets that disagree with him, and ordering the ban of refugees from essentially Muslim countries
I am in class. Since I have just given out a task to fulfill, I am naturally running around the room and begging people to put their phones away. In the middle of the room, one girl who resides at 9.5 or 10 on a physically attractiveness scale is looking into her phone. I guess that she is using it as a mirror, since that is one of the dozens of functions a phone can perform these days.
She, evidently spurred on by the intoxicating effects of her own unfathomable beauty, is unable to resist putting on a set of duck lips, cocking her head slightly to the side, and raising an eyebrow in practiced (and undeniable) sexiness. And then it occurs to me: she is preparing to take a selfie (future title on Instagram: Class is SO Boring!).
I catch her eye and make a face which instantly causes her to deflate her duck lips, relevel her eyebrows, and stare at the task in baffled horror.
She put on her Selfie Face. I’m on the tram when the significance of that occurs to me. I lean back and look into my increasingly declining memory. I have seen a lot of Selfie Faces. We all have. Go on Facebook, Tinder, or Instagram and you see a lot of people who have not only just put on their Selfie Face, but have been working on it for years.
Women seem to slightly cock their head and smirk, or take a full on shot of piercing eyes. Men seem intent on conveying the image of a rugged tough guy or a hipstery intellectual. Both sexes have a tendency to make the picture appear as casual or whimsical as possible. The photographic equivalent of ‘oops, didn’t hear you come in.’
I have also seen people put on Selfie Faces. At a park with a friend last weekend, I watched her snap a few selfies. Before each one she put on her Selfie Face, which consisted of a big smile, a 25 degree head-cock, a sharpening of the eyes. Another friend enacts a sideways head turn and a bright smile in the roughly 102,938 pictures she appears in each week on Facebook.
And this all makes sense! A selfie face allows you, as both the photographed and the photographer, to have much more control over what people see in a picture of you. Obviously you are going to take advantage of that by accentuating what you consider to be your best facial feature(s) and masking what you believe to be your worst feature(s), all while perpetuating whatever image you want to go along with it.
So, you can replace that dork with the long chin, the bad patch of skin, the too-close eyes you got from your mom with a sexily-bespectacled brainy hot girl replete with full duck lips and cute arched eyebrow, and while accentuating the naturally curly hair that plagues you in the morning, but looks hot when twirled the right way and conveying just how laid-back and low maintenance you are. We can be the brooding artist, the coquettish cutie, the brawny reader.
It’s a while new world of imagery.
I have always hated cameras and the photographic evidence suggests that the feeling is absolutely mutual. Each photographic carnation of my face silently scream get that fucking camera off of me! That is not to say that I don’t try to portray my ideal physical self in photographs, as limited as those possibilities are. I raise the eyebrow to convey relaxed and easygoing, I smile halfway to avoid giving my famous sun-in-the-eyes squint that has plagued me since my very first school picture.
But I have never been one for the selfies.
Until today, when, in the interests of experimentation, I devote my morning to developing my Selfie Face.
I decide to start with how I normally take selfies and just go from there depending on analysis.
I am fixing my bed post. There’s an array of tools on my bed: a screwdriver, two kinds of hammer, I think there’s something called a wedge lardener. Until eight minutes ago, I was not aware that I owned some of these tools. There’s a thing that looks like it should be used to cause discomfort in a proctologist’s office. For all I know, it is.
After fixing the post (without using any of the tools), I head into the kitchen and fidget. Nothing bemoans imminent attention, so I wander into my living room, roll up a towel, and place it on the floor. I take a few deep breaths and then remember that I can’t even remember the last time I cleaned my oven. I make a beeline for the appliance in question and open it. Sure enough, it looks like an oven that hasn’t been cleaned in a long time, and what kind of domestic manager would I be if I just left it black and sooty? What if I need to use it tonight?
After finding the oven cleaner (which I didn’t know I had) in the back of a closet I haven’t been inside in three years, I begin the process of cleaning the oven. I’ve just barely embarked upon this task when I remember that I don’t really know how to clean an oven. I suppose that I know the theory behind it (soap plus water on a rag equals cleaner stuff) but there have got to be some handy tips out there on the Internet.
I’m walking up the steps at school, from the sounds of it, towards a conversation. As I close in, I get the idea that it’s a rather intense discussion. I put my head down: get through these people, no eye contact.
I turn the corner and there’s a girl. She is clearly shocked at my appearance; she stares at me a bit wide-eyed. I think of jokingly warning her to avoid whatever conversation is happening nearby. It’s then I notice that the voices have stopped.
The girl runs away down the steps. Fast.
As I climb I no longer hear the voices. I look around, peel my ears, lean out over the railing a bit to peer up into the higher levels of the stairwell. Nothing. Nobody.
I am in my office when I realize that the girl was speaking. It takes a moment longer for me to understand that she was speaking to herself. I put all the clues together: her shock, red face, wide eyes, the terror-stricken look, her quick getaway. Then, of course, the facts that we were the only people in the stairwell and that, after she left, not only was I alone, but the voices had stopped.
I am very quick and sharp.
Here’s the thing. She needn’t have worried so much. Getting caught talking to yourself is an activity in which I am a weekly participant. In the interests of full disclosure, I should tell you that, besides this time, I am always the one talking to an audience of Me.
It’s a Thursday night, I am arriving at the house of a colleague and friend for dinner. This particular colleague and his wife are hosts of extraordinary measure. They love to entertain, and treat guests happily with an assortment of cocktails, wine, aperitifs, hors d’oeuvres, snacks, post dinner cheese and crackers, not to mention a main course that will make your toes curl. Tonight, we are having fish pie, a thing which I have both never had and hate myself for having never had. My excitement is palpable.
I ring the bell.
My friend greets me at the door and I hand him chocolates and Becherovka, and we go upstairs to the kitchen. His wife is taking care of their two small children, and they ask me to meet their infant daughter for the first time. I poke my head in and say hello to their three-year old son. Their daughter takes one look at me and immediately collapses into tears.
Tears are nothing new for me. As a teacher, friend, uncle, and all around asshole, I have experienced my share of firsthand tears. I have been trapped in my office with a recently failed, currently crying student. I have been on awkward dates with weepy women (not about me and not my fault. I swear). And I have sat across the table from a friend who’s been recently dumped (who hasn’t?). Even though I deal with tears from time to time, I, like many people, never know how to react. I often freeze up.
Naturally, today I run away and hide in a different part of the house. My hosts explain that this is her first reaction to new men. I explain that this is most women’s first reaction to me.
I slip into the very back corner of the tram. It is so cold outside that even I long for the days of butt sweat adhering me to the tram seat. I make decisions, since, like most daily public transport commuters, I am a travel strategist.
Today I’ll ride into the center and catch a connecting tram, instead of the metro. This means I can avoid a long walk in the freezing cold, be warm, and read my book all at the same time.
It’s about 3 p.m, so the tram is about a third populated with women, children, post-shopping elders, and cliques of young people grouped into varying degrees of social status.
Just before the doors close, I physically relax. School, students, and bosses all disappear. I bury my nose in my book and snuggle into the seat to warm up. And that’s when the doors emits an air raid warning; a shrill, piercing, metallic bell that cuts the air and disrupts any kind of peace.
If you are a daily user of public transport in Prague, then you know each tram has a personality. To be sure, some of this is due to the driver. Some drivers wait for those running for the tram, some absolutely do not. Some drivers leave the doors open until a runner reaches them and then close them in his face. Some drivers shut the door as soon as they are opened; many of us have had to free an old woman from the clutches of a shut door. Additionally, every Prague commuter knows the uneasy feeling of being on a tram with a driver with an aggressive bell finger.
Some of a tram’s personality is due to the driver, but not all of it. Some trams are more inviting. Their seats are more comfortable, their standing spaces are more accepting. Others trams seem to hate passengers, and do everything they can to make their ride uncomfortable: unreachable hand grips, seat warmers on full blast, windows that only crack an inch in the summer heat.