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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Your Interest in Donald Trump

About a month ago, I was complaining to my writing soulmate about the difficulty to get short pieces published. I moaned for a great while and she listened calmly, as she has heard these sorts of plaints before from me. When I finished she said this:

‘Selling any writing is difficult these days. People aren’t reading anymore because of Donald Trump.’

I paused, took a sip (big big gulp) of beer, and processed. After a moment’s reflection, I had a hunch on the effect Donald Trump (a non-reader if ever one existed) could have on the publishing market. I encouraged her to continue.

She explained, ‘the thing is this guy and his administration is such a crazy shit show that people just want to see what happens next.’

‘Nah…he can’t….well that’s just no….terrible….’ I lost my train of thought in the realization that this point was and is hugely accurate in my case. And, according to (as Trump would no doubt nickname ‘the fake and failing’) New Republic Magazine, I am not the only one for whom this is a current state of affairs. Book sales of adult fiction and nonfiction are down, because ‘in a world where reality is stranger than fiction, real books don’t sell.’ The article goes on to point out that when any day can produce three or four major news stories on how Donald Trump is (my words, obviously) gang-fucking democracy and critical thinking, while ruining the USA, who can pay attention to fiction? It’s as if the whole country’s going up in flames, and we can’t stop watching.

At least, I can’t. But neither can others. This is evident is the books that are selling well these days. Books on political science, world history, and dystopian themes. Books on the effects of racism and sexism are way up in sales. James Baldwin. Margaret Atwood. Timothy Snyder. Book clubs have altered their focus from fiction and mystery to themes of tolerance, race, and justice.

This ‘woke’ perspective is no doubt positive in some ways. We live in a day and age when an American president aggressively undermines the press and news sources who hold him accountable. He attacks individual journalists because they disagree with him. He does the same to one of the pillars of the American political system, the justice department, and for the same reason – they don’t agree with him. This man is actively trying to murder the National Endowment for the Arts. So I am not trying to suggest that being informed is a bad thing, of course it’s not. It’s ignoring the Donald Trump shit show that would allow him to do things with no accountability. The negative is that, if you’re like me, he’s ruining your enjoyment of other things.

That day I received a notification on my phone about a Donnie-related news story. It was labelled: ‘Your Interest in Donald Trump.’

And I was guilty as charged.

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That Guy

Airport bars are filled with people who are either unhappy or elated. It’s like being in a pub where half of the people’s team just beat the other half’s.

I’m on the losing side. I don’t like flying to begin with and my flight has been delayed for two hours. The ride down here was through heavy traffic. If flying is my least favorite thing to do, sitting in traffic is a close second. So to suffer 2 in order to do 1 is life’s little reminder that insult to injury are my bosom buddies.

Additionally, my summer holiday is at an end and I am leaving my parents’ house after a month of relaxation. I am a bit glum. So I am drinking. I have a budget for two airport beers (about $20) and I am going to drag those out for as long as I can. The Eagles’ preseason game that created the traffic is on TV.

I notice the bartenders give each other the bartender eye signal. Having given this eye signal two or three thousand times to a fellow bartender, I know that these signals have a variety of meanings: attractive customer, annoying customer, this guy’s hammered, that guy doesn’t tip, that lady just showed that guy her underwear, I think those two are doing drugs in the bathroom, why won’t those people share their drugs?

Tonight I find the source of their look in a three second scan. He’s a bearded guy, wearing a leather fedora, corduroy jacket, and his eyes are glazed over with drunken cataracts. He orders a Maker’s Mark on the rocks. The bartender, despite the look, serves him.

As That Guy starts a conversation with his reflection in the beer taps, I become certain of one things: he is on my flight and he’s sitting near me. I order another IPA.

I used to hate flying. Like the way I hate Donald Trump kind of hate. In the past my hate for flying was mostly based on the terrified notion that I was about to die. The worry and anxiety consumed me for days before a flight.

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American not so Horror Blog Post

When visiting my parents’ home I work out in the attic, which, at the moment, acts as my sister’s bedroom. I exercise there because it’s private and spacious; it’s all the way on the third floor (as attics typically are), up a narrow flight of steps that have steps at the top and at the bottom. So I can swear, cry, and implore deities I don’t believe in at a loud volume without being heard. Additionally, I can jump and fling my legs around without fear of knocking something other. Plus, even if I do, I can just blame her son.

Last week, in the middle of one particularly horrendous exercise I heard something out in the hallway of the attic, which sounded like a robotic voice. I paused for a second and attributed it to a lack of blood in my brain.

When I heard it again a few minutes later, I peered into the hallway. In my line of vision was the loft area to the right of the stairs connecting the second and third floors (the ones I came up). This area was a battlefield of strewn about toys.

To the right of my sister’s room is a small maze of rooms that look like your traditional attic: cluttered, sheet-covered exercise machines and furniture, closets of solitary sad dresses that were once worn at gala events, boxes of books and trophies. Nobody goes to that area of the attic for three reasons: there’s no point, there are bats, and it’s fucken scary.

I called out once, in horror movie perfectness, “Hello?”

Nothing.

I finished my workout, toweled off and stood in the hall for a (too) quiet moment before heading down the stairs. I wasn’t scared. There didn’t seem to be anything wrong, and I was in the safety of day, when the big old house is filled with the reddish light of a late summer afternoon.

It’s after coming home from dinner the next night that something else caught my attention. I was passing the doorway at the bottom of the steps that lead up into the attic when I heard something. I stopped, looked up the steps into the darkness. It came again, undoubtedly a robotic, toy voice. Like something that would say, the cow says moo. I did not go up the steps to see if the cow went moo.

It’s at this time that I should relate my family’s relationship with the supernatural. My sister Julia is rational, a supply chain head honcho who believes in numbers and evidence. My brother believes that all people who believe in ghosts are idiots and he actively voices this opinion. More so when he drinks. My sister Amanda has long had a fringe interest in supernatural, which is to say enough to know a bit about it, but not enough to know anything about it. My mother isn’t afraid of anything except an empty fridge. I don’t know where my dad’s beliefs lie, but I do know that if the girl from The Ring came out of the TV, he’d ask her what’s for dinner.

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The Home Sick Eclipse Club

Photo by James Niland

Hot Dog Hot Dog Hot Diggity Dog!

I open my eyes.

Hot Dog Hot Dog Hot Diggity Dog!

I close them again.

Hot Dog Hot Dog Hot Diggity Dog!

I open my eyes. My hopes are dashed that I have been dreaming the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse theme song due to overexposure and ear worms, who, as we all know, can be real jerks.

Bling. Facebook Messenger. Bling. Facebook Messenger again.

Too many things are happening before caffeine. I open my tablet. There’s a message from my mom: Q is home sick today, so just keep an eye on her, OK?

Whether it’s an occupational hazard or not, I do read subtext into this that states: so for Pete’s sake, no day drinking and make sure you wear pants around the house!  

I stretch and get out of bed, making those sounds that began playing in the guttural section of my daily orchestra after I hit forty. Down the hall, the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse wails it musical mantra and I poke my head in the bedroom. No Q. I am not worried. Were this my sister’s other parasitic offspring, I might say “hmm” and instantly begin looking at the back of milk cartons.

Despite the fact that Q is my 8 year old niece, she is more like a very short adult who woke up one day in a child’s body and is getting through childhood again until she can get back to the office and finish some reports. This is not to say she is boring, because she isn’t. She is a charming, lovely, curious, funny, and playful little girl, who happens to possess a temperament and wisdom I didn’t attain until I was in my twen…my thirt…my fort…. that I hope to attain sometime soon.

I round the corner into the kitchen and hear some zany action undertaken by the gang in Mickey’s Clubhouse.  Q is sitting at the table, working a saltine out of its boxy home and watching Donald Duck fly around in a hotdog.

“Hey,” I say.

“Hi.”

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Yu. Yuuu!

Sanmachi Suji District

We are in Takayama; it’s evening. We are at a bar called Torio’s, enjoying air conditioning and cold beers after a day of walking around in the intense heat. Elevator versions of popular oldies, as are now disconcertingly labeled songs I grew up with, are quietly emanating from a portal somewhere. The bar is half full of paunchy Japanese men, whose tone suggests that they are telling dirty stories and jokes. They smoke a lot and sip on mixed drinks. The room is otherwise quiet, spread out, mute, antiseptic, in the way a restaurant at a Holiday Inn might be. The combination screams late 1980s Bar Mitzvah rather than a pub you would find in a Japanese mountain town. Instead of sipping a 600 Yen beer, I feel as though I should be working up the nerve to ask Wendy Abrahms to dance and trying to sneak a screwdriver from my friend’s geri-rebellious grandfather.

It’s been a great day. Though it’s only a few streets, you can lose yourself in Takayama’s Sanmachi Suji District for a good hour or two amongst its sake breweries, restaurants, and shops. Takayama was largely isolated up here in the mountains, so a great deal of it does resemble turn of 20th century Japan. We did a tour of a museum with a wonderful guide who spoke like Mr. Bean, and we hiked up to Takayama Castle, which is now just a stone base up in the woods.

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