The Possum

In the middle of the room of testing students, a hand goes up. I approach. I know the guy from my Tuesday morning class. He’s is a friendly guy, but my brain rolls its eyes.

Two years ago, he took it upon himself to place himself in a higher level of English class. This would be fine is he was determined and hard working, but he’s not. So instead of studying in a class for intermediate students, which is the level he tested into, he demanded that he go to an advanced class. And for the last two years, he has mumbled a hybrid of proto-Swedish and Khuzdul into his phone screen.

When he forgoes this linguistic mix, we engage in a chess match of possum: he stares at me or the book, I wait. We do this until someone else gets bored enough to answer.

In tests is his time to come to life in the form of questions.

“Yes, hello,” I say to him.

“How long we have for the test?”

“What does it say on the board?” I point to the only 15 symbols in the middle of the board:

Test 15:30-16:30

Possum.

“Can you see?” I ask this genuinely.

Possum.

“How long did you have in the tests in the other three semesters?”

Possum.

“An hour. You have an hour.”

“Thank you.”

Every student has a testing strategy. For many this entails doing homework, studying, several days of review. Others try to cram the entire language into their hippocampus the night before the exam. Others try out their spy licks by trying to cheat their way through the exam. And some ask questions.

I don’t understand the strategy fully, but it seems halfway between trying to trick an invigilator into giving up an answer or trying to annoy them into giving up an answer. I do know that the strategy starts with an innocuous query, such as asking about the length of time for the test.

I am on alert.

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What Have you Done for me Lately?

If there is one thing activity that academia excels at, it’s making things more complex. Nothing can be done simply when it comes to universities. Additionally, things that are done simply are often changed to include more complications and complexity.

In this slant, I am undertaking one of the zillions of aggravating administrative tasks that have been bestowed upon me. It’s part of the re-accreditation process to prove the width and breadth of the genius of the faculty’s publication history. This means writing out a detailed bibliography of your most recent publications, including papers, essays, chapters, and books and sending it to our department head for his perusal. It’s essentially a lot of jumping through hoops in the academia version of what have you done for me lately?

In my case, the glaring problem is that the answer to that question is not much at all. I get published from time to time, but the publications are mostly “non-academic.” I have been co-writer on one paper in the field of phonetics. Otherwise, I have been the sole writer of an ESL-focused newspaper articles and a series of humor-based essays, the focus ranging from travel, dating and relationships, to memoir. In any case, none of these categories fall under what the university considers “academic.” I don’t think a memoir of how I was a twelve-year-old Peeping Tom is going to garner the institution any academic integrity.

In the interests of saving time and my sanity, I have attempted to circumvent the situation by telling this to my head of department, but he’s asked for a list of my publications anyway. Everything, he suggested. When re-accreditation is on the line, academics get rabid. I maintain that it will all be a waste of time, but nevertheless I tidy my list, attach it to an email in horrendous Czech, hit send, and make lunch. When I return to my computer I find that the head of department has answered my email. If he is impressed at all by my literary accomplishments, he hides it well. In the first place the format is all wrong, so I have to redo that. Secondly, for something to be considered an “academic” publication it has to fall into one of the subjects at the university.

I wonder if I can readjust the description of a memoir on being a Peeping Tom to fit into Psychology of Pedagogy. Or maybe I can propose that a humor essay on difficulty readjusting to my native country after being abroad into International Relations. I don’t think the university will go for it. And, at my joking suggestion that we try, this position is vociferously supported.

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Stages of a Prd

Truth

I am in class. Presently, my legs are twisted into a corkscrew, my hands pressing down on the back of a chair with enough pressure to snap it. I was speaking a second ago, but I have since stopped so that I could focus every molecule of my being into one act. Or non-act.

All eyes are on me, which just exacerbates my discomfort. They are eyeing me as if I’d done something odd, like suspiciously and abruptly stop speaking in the mid-sentence.

As each teacher understands, your body sometimes has to perform a function when you are in class. Sometimes this is as easily solvable as setting a long task and stepping off to the John. Other times you understand that what has to happen is going to take longer, but it’s OK because it’s not urgent. Other, more unfortunate, times you understand that what has to happen is desperately trying to happen right at that moment.

That’s when you enter DEFCON.

DEFCON 5 marks the lowest level of readiness for these scenarios. But I started out at DEFCON 4, which was my own fault. This past weekend, though it was the first week of May, Prague refused to respect that fact. It had decided instead to stubbornly hold onto winter. Instead of a warm blue weekend, it was gray, rainy, and cold. So I stayed home and made soup. Friday it was a pot of dark beer chili that I could enter into a county fair. Sunday it was a ham and bean stew and Monday it was a small pot of cabbage soup. It provided the comfort that my stormy soul needed in an extended winter weekend.

Like most people in their forties, I understand my body pretty well. Nine minutes after my morning coffee I am going to be in the bathroom with reading material. Two slices of pepperoni pizza will generate enough heartburn to run the electric in my flat. If I enjoy too many carbohydrates, my intestinal system lays concrete in itself, puts up a Road Closed sign, and is completely shut down for a day or two.

I had spent the weekend ingesting lots of beans, processed meat, beef, cabbage, and beer. Do the math. I prepared for the fallout by taking Alka-Seltzer on Tuesday morning and carrying Tums with me as though they were an Epipen.

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Back to the 90s!

It’s Saturday, I am on Facebook. I have put myself on a strict time limit after I found myself moseying to Facebook anytime my writing got the mildest bit tough or the urge to procrastinate set in. So in order to accomplish things in my life, I only allow myself to Facebook for thirty minutes on Saturday and Sunday. During the week I only post a witticism or a blog, entities without which most of you would quite frankly lose the will to live.

Today as I scan through the pictures and posts of the last week, Burke points out pictures that obviously took place in the 1990s. No doubt the remnants of Throwback Thursday. There are sweatshirts mocking the presidential hopes of (the first) Clinton and tuxedo fashions that won’t be popular again until they appear in vintage shops. There are no mobiles in the photos and not one person is snapping a selfie. The mood is post-pogs and pre-George W. Bush. It is oozing nostalgia for the both of us.

Burke loves all things nineties. Movies (Forest Gump, Cool Runnings), music (Gin Blossoms, Weezer), soundtracks, (Empire Records, Singles), television (Seinfeld, Dawson’s Creek). For her the nineties meant high school, and high school meant a time when she was cool.

“Where are these pictures from?” she asks.

“These are some guys from my high school.”

“Why aren’t you in them?”

I shake my head; I don’t understand the question.

She asks again.

I shrug, physically asking for more input.

These are pictures of the cool kids, an invite list I didn’t exactly make. When it dawns on me that she is under the impression that I was cool in high school, I let out one serious laugh.

One great aspect of Facebook’s Throwback Thursday is that now, 25 years later, I can see what the cool kids were doing on Saturday nights back in high school. My Saturdays were typically spent in my friend Eddie’s basement eating popcorn and watching cable horror flicks or one of those 80s teen comedy flicks. We played a lot of pool and talked about girls as if they were as mysterious and terrifying as the creature stepping out of the black lagoon on the TV.

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Stations of the Poop

 

Sing it Sign

Though everyone on earth poops (though I have had questions about Mick Jagger), carrying around fifteen rolls of toilet paper tells the world that not only are you going to poop, but you have the resources to poop all day long.

Yet it’s also a labor. People know you have fifteen rolls of toilet paper because there’s virtually no way to hide it on your person. You can’t shove fifteen rolls of toilet paper in your pockets or reasonably work them in among the other things you have in your backpack. It’s also bulky and awkward. There seems no way to carry it around so that it doesn’t get in your way.

The fifteen roll pack of toilet paper becomes something of a mytho-religious burden represented by its own stations and container of its own sorrowful mysteries.

I was condemned to carry my lot because I can’t turn down a good deal on toilet paper. I am no slave to bulk discounts; I can walk by barrel-sized jars of capers and bags of apples at just about fertilizer prices without batting an eye. But toilet paper is both something I need every day and something I don’t like buying. It doesn’t provide the same enjoyment as picking out a good steak or a non-dented can of chick peas. I just want to get it over with for as long as possible.

Of course it won’t fit in my backpack or the shopping bag. I tried stuffing it in an empty shopping bag, but it stuck out ludicrously, as if I was carrying a French baguette in a condom. And so, I begin the slow walk home. I drop the 15 roll pack of toilet paper a couple of times, both while attempting to get a better purchase on it. Some huge rolls of toilet paper come with a handle built into them; this is not of those. There’s lots of shifting and contorting.

The only way my toilet paper chore can be worse is if I am seen by a student or an acquaintance. Though this is an irrational worry, would you like to be seen carrying a fifteen roll pack of toilet paper? They know where that toilet paper is going and what it’s going to do once it gets there.

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Labor of Love

It’s May 1st. I am at home, sitting in front of the computer writing this post. I am off from work today, as are many in the Czech Republic. Though I hope not the bartenders at my local.

It’s Labor Day.

Today (only today) I am dressed to fit the mood of Labor Day. If I don’t have to do work, then neither should my body. My level of physical comfort should matched my level of mental comfort. I am in my very best pajamas (most comfortable Phillies shirt, loosest anti-laborious lounge pants). I am showing my body love, for while today is Labor Day, it is also Love Day.

Yeah, Love Day.

On this day in May, it is customary for young couples to smooch beneath a cherry blossom. Tradition has it that a young girl kissed beneath a cherry blossom will stay young all year round. Though I can’t remember whether it also boosts her fertility, I say why not, since almost every holiday custom includes something about increased fertility. Today, Petřín Hill is rife with those making out under blossoms. But since this is Prague and not Kyoto, cherry blossoms aren’t on every corner, so an amendment clause extends the benefit of kissing to any tree in bloom as well as in front of the statue of Karel Hynek Mácha, the Czech romantic poet.

Mácha’s poem “Máj” (May) is often cited as the inspirational base for Love Day. (I am not doing any labor today or I would research and cite that claim). It should be mentioned that Mácha died at the age of 25, so if he had lived a little longer he might have rounded out his poem about love with some other poems about the dread of a fakakta relationship, his couch, a good slice of pizza, enjoying prostitution, and the onset of hemorrhoids.

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Bookworms in Public

A few weeks ago at the swimming pool near my home, I took advantage of the first (and seemingly last) day of spring by enjoying my swim outside.

There was a tiny chill in the air but once in the water I was perfectly comfortable. And so were the others. Lots of people had taken the opportunity to enjoy the sun after such a long winter, and, though we didn’t know it, before another minor winter.

It was while breathing during my front crawl that something was catching my eye. On a bench to the right of the pool was a well-proportioned young woman who was doing a dress rehearsal in her bikini before the summer. I became mesmerized.

Reach. Pull. Breathe. Stare. Reach. Pull. Breathe. Stare. Reach. Pull. Choke. Stare. You get the idea.

After getting out of the water, I passed by the woman and looked directly at her, even obviously scrutinizing commodities near her chest. When I looked up at her face, she was perched in the facial expression version of “Well, why don’t you take a picture, scumbag!”

It was only after I’d danced my chilly ass to the showers and toed my bathing suit against the wall that I realized she’d been cross with me. I felt the urge to go back outside and explain that while I had been directly looking at her, I was I was in fact trying to read the title on the cover of her book.

If you are a bookworm then you fully understand the attention you give them in public. When I am on a tram or metro or in a café or pub, my eyes are instantly drawn to the other books in the area. It can make me like the people holding them, dislike them, roll my eyes, or want to say ‘Hey! I read that too! As with my pool adventure, it can even get me in trouble. E-readers do not seem to hold the same magic over me, so, to their unknowing delight, I largely ignore them.

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Picking the Lobster

There is a famous discussion activity (sometimes) referred to as “The Ark.” The idea is simple. The world is about to end (by flood) and the UN has chosen twelve very different people to move to an island in the South Pacific that will be untouched by the natural disaster.

The task is that a bureaucratic oversight (screwing us to the end!) means that only eight of the twelve can go, so the students have to decide on the four to die and the eight to live.

The catch is that the characters are all either physically or socially “flawed.” One character is a major in the British special forces, who might appear to be the perfect candidate because he can cope with extreme situations and is a survival expert, he is also gay. While none of the somewhat liberal kids in my class (seem) to have any problem with homosexuality, the question is raised because he will have to help reproduce. Another character is a female marine biologist, the exact sort of person you’d want on a Pacific island. However, of course, her mother has just died and she is an alcoholic.

My students are not lacking empathy, but they do get involved. Like, involved. Once life or death enters the sphere, these rather mellow students engage somewhat aggressively in the discussions. This, in part, is the point of the activity. I grab a seat, huddle down, and make notes while I listen. This guy has to die. Nope, she stays. She dies. This man is a flirt! I hate him, let him see the flood! She’s an alcoholic, she’ll be all bugged out. This guy looks like an asshole, I say he dies.

Naturally I am reminded of the first and only time I ever picked a lobster in a seafood restaurant. I am fairly certain it was in Maine, but my brain might be making up that detail. So just know that other than the time a bag of live crabs staged an escape in my mom’s kitchen, this was my only interaction with live decapod crustaceans.

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I Don’t Advocate That

I Really Don’t Advocate This

I am in at the Paratrooper Pub with a friend on official business. He’s a professor at the university and we often get together to discuss ideas, compare tidbits, and gripe from our different corners of its hallowed halls. (read: gossip)

As most people can elongate their imagination to comprehend, the discussions at times become heated. Not that we are annoyed with each other, but rather the motivation and justification behind a particular element, policy, or memorandum can be a bit difficult to grasp.

It’s while discussing an exceptionally baffling directive that my friend surprises me. The discussion has gained steam in the form of aggravation and annoyance. When things reach a head and something really unpleasant is about to be said, my friend softens his tone and in a silly manner exclaims: “I am glad that happened!”

I am confused mostly because I expected the continuance of the vituperative tone we usually take, and epithets such as “fucking bollocks!” or “This is fucking crazy!” or any other colorful vulgarity we employ. But it hasn’t, my friend has defused it with his off-catching declaration, and then further instills that tone by lightening up the mood and changing topic to something more pleasant.

As I follow along with my friend’s redirection of the conversation, I try to figure out what happened. My friend is a bit younger than me, but he is rather level-headed and wiser than his years might suggest. I think he has come to the conclusion at a relatively young age not to let the small stuff get to him. And this is his way of doing that.

Like many of you who have made it into your forties, I am far mellower now than I once was. My late teens and twenties are a mishmash of embarrassing memories revolving around me being very stupid out loud. For one, I was far more sure of my opinions, so completely sure of every aspect of them, except why I held them and where the justification for my support resided. Perhaps in tandem, I used to get way more worked up over things undeserving of my attentive anger. Rounding out this trifecta of critical thinking and moderate intelligence, I used to fling the word “hate” around with the same carefree attitude with which monkeys treat their poop.

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My Abusive Cat

Mňau

Like most people, my Facebook wall and profile is a complete and total lie. I mean, yes, I am a teacher at a university and I did attend the university of Pittsburgh. Those pictures of me are mostly accurate as well, but perhaps my sardonic mugging for the camera is hiding a little oh-man-not-again frustration with the point and click happy post-it-all generation or a great ton of get-the-fuck-out-of-my-face-with-that-motherfucking-thing if it’s my sister behind the zoom lens of the phone.

But, like most of you, I’m really dying inside. Come on, people, let’s just admit it’s one big lie. The extent of the lie is varying. We all know people whose real life is similar to their Facebook life only in regards to where they went to high school. Otherwise it’s a complete and utter sack of lies.

Most of us are just guilty of portraying their happy sides of life on Facebook. Here’s the joyous couple at the beach that bickered for a five hour flight on the way there. Here’s the gushy teary-eyed preschool teacher who makes gushy teary-eyed comments about getting hugged by a preschooler that makes everyone feel gushy and go teary-eyed. At least they do on Facebook (thank you emoticon hieroglyphs). No doubt most of them interrupt their partner (who in the most meta way is in the corner of the room looking at his/her phone and thinking or about to say the exact same thing) to say: “This girl with her sappy posts about these fucking kids. She hates that job!”

There’s the anniversary gushing of one spouse about another spouse made possible by the fact that Spouse the Former has been able to channel enough polite, pleasant, or essentially non-rancid feelings towards Spouse the Latter by not spending a full minute in the same room as them for the four months before their anniversary.

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