Tag Archives: rant

Ben Franklin’s Potty Mouth


The post that I wrote the other day, about Morning Pages? That was not the post I set out to write.

The post I set out to write was this one, but to talk about what I want to talk about here, I first had to talk about my morning pages. What they are, how I use them, my process in writing them. All that is here, but that post turned into a 1500 word gallivant, and my unofficial limit for these things is 1200 words so … yeah. I’ll credit the fact that I was able to rattle off 1500 words on a thing I didn’t even intend to talk about to the fact that my creative wellspring has sprung anew (again, see the previous post).

Anyway. The thing I wanted to explore is this: in my writing, I swear at myself. Like, a lot.Tirelessly. And with great gusto.

The situation doesn’t much matter. It’s equally likely to happen when I’m talking about something I love as with something I hate. I use it to express positive and negative emotion. Basically, I just use it. I love swearing.

Part of it is because I’m of two minds about words that carry a taboo. On the one hand, my critical thinking brain reminds me that words mean only what we agree they mean, and therefore have only the power we give them. (For a lesson on this, I heartily recommend the short story “The Appropriation of Cultures”, by Percival Everett.) Being an atheist helps, here; there’s no higher power dictating that this word is bad and this word is good and this word if spoken earns you a one-way ticket to eternal torture. Words are just collections of letters and sounds that we as a culture agree mean certain things. On the other hand, our culture has certainly agreed that there are words you shouldn’t use in polite company. And since my job in large part entails cultivating future humans into actual productive humans, that’s a standard I’m more-or-less obliged to uphold.

That’s why I take pains not to swear (too much) in my online interactions; even though my online persona isn’t necessarily identical to my walking-around persona, they’re close enough that it behooves me to be cognizant of the things I say around here. I keep a lid on the things that would otherwise come out of my mouth.

But in my not-for-public-consumption writing? In my morning pages, my first drafts, my notes to myself in the margins of my writing projects? The lid comes off. If the use of certain words could condemn you to eternal torture, I would probably owe several infinities’ worth of torture to whatever loving deity were meting out the torture. I call myself rude names. I lambast the things I’ve written. I call myself out for the things I need to write in future drafts. It’s self-abuse of the most vile kind, except I don’t view it that way. It doesn’t make me feel bad when I read over it again — it makes me laugh. It’s just how I talk to myself. It’s the opposite of a Big Deal; my own private joke with myself on the public-facing me who can’t speak or write that way.

And it made me wonder how other people do the same thing. Not if — because I feel it’s a pretty safe assumption that anybody who does any sort of extended self-talk, via journal, notes to self, or otherwise, has their own style of idiosyncratic talking to themselves — but how.

Benjamin Franklin by David Martin (1737-1797). Oil on canvas, 1767. Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia
Benjamin Franklin by David Martin (1737-1797). Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia

I remember that I had to read The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin in a college course, which contained several excerpts from his journals, his lists of personal maxims, stories of his early writing jobs. And I remember thinking: personal journals? Bull Sharknado. Maybe some polished versions, sure. But it’s not like he went into whatever random entry he wrote to himself on Bleptember the blargteenth, schleppenteen schlippity bleven, said “yep, that’s the one” and dropped it into the book. You just know that the margins of his journal were full of comments like “Ben, you self-important, pompous, wig-wearing f***. How can you take yourself seriously writing this s***?”

Right?

No?

Maybe it’s just me.

Anyway, I wrote this entire entry to tell you about that one weird little thought that crossed my mind: Ben Franklin scribbling insults at himself with a quill pen in between drafting the backbone of our nation.

It made me laugh, anyway.


Accidental Philosophy: The Futility of “Should”


“Should” is a useless word. 

-Delilah S. Dawson, Hit

There’s something that’s been bugging me for a while now. I couldn’t quite put my finger on. I couldn’t name it, so it just sort of floated around in the back of my brain like a dragon fly, darting this way and that, sometimes getting right up in your face, then skittering away whenever you swat at it or grab for it.

It’s about people, and the way we talk to each other, and the way we talk about the world. Specifically, it’s about certain kinds of people and the way they want the world to be. You know these people. They talk about the way the world ought to be, saying things like “wouldn’t it be better if …” or “things would be perfect if only …”

And some of these people even find their way into office in this country. And they start making laws and enacting statutes and directing policy to bend things to the way they say they “ought to be”. Trouble is, things are what they are, and changing them around isn’t so easy as that. Especially when the things are people.

Before I get too carried away, let me wander back to the point. My leisure reading the last two weeks was Delilah S. Dawson’s Hit, a YA dystopian thriller about a future where banks have seized control of the country and are forcing children to become debt-collecting hitmen.

(Why kids? Because it’s too diabolical to be believed, and who’s gonna point a gun at a kid coming to their door? And also, because YA. Pretty wild, but who cares, it was a fun read.)

Anyway, about a third of the way into the book, one of the characters is lamenting their situation and moaning about how “things shouldn’t be this way” and the protagonist snaps back, “should is a useless word.”

I read that. And all of a sudden, that dragonfly in my brain stopped skittering, landed on a lonely dendrite, and took root.

“Should” is a useless word. Yet it’s one we use all the time.

“I should have gotten up earlier.” Yeah, I should have, but I didn’t — so what am I going to do about it?

“People shouldn’t steal.” Yeah, they shouldn’t, but they do — so what are we going to do about it?

“He shouldn’t have even been there.” Yeah, but he was — so what are you going to do about it?

See what happens there? Any time somebody says “so-and-so should …” there’s an automatic “but” followed by a “so what” that comes in response.

“Should” seems more and more to me like the refuge of the coward. It says, “I don’t like this situation, so instead I’m going to talk about what I would rather it had been (yikes, grammar is hard when you get rid of “should”) without doing anything about it.” And yeah, sometimes the “should” statement is followed by action, but a lot of times, it isn’t. A lot of the time, we just say “well, it should be this other way” and we leave it at that.

For that matter, a lot of what people go around “shoulding” about has nothing to do with them. “Gay people shouldn’t get married.” “Women shouldn’t be in those jobs.” “He should take better care of himself.” None of which has anything to do with the person saying it. We have a rule in my house and in my classroom. Rule #1. MYOB. Mind Your Own Business.

The fact is, people use “should” to hide from things they don’t like, from things that make them uncomfortable, from things that scare them. They use “should” to build a fantasy world in their heads. A make-believe universe where things are perfect, unoffensive, unscary. “Should” represents a fundamental failure (or, worse, refusal) to see the world as it is in favor of how we expect it to be.

But the “shoulding” doesn’t do a damn thing. Things are what they are, and all the shoulds in the world won’t change them.

What changes things is action.

And guess what?

You can take action without griping about how things “should” be first. Address things as they are, recognize that there is no such thing as “perfect” (because the world we live in is messy and filled with other people who don’t automatically agree with you) and work to make things better.

Don’t waste your time moaning about the way things “should” be.

Get to work on fixing what’s wrong.

 


It Begins (Again)


Teaching is one of those jobs that carries all kinds of asterisks and disclaimers. And it’s not a job for the faint of heart.

But one thing it has going for it — that not many jobs do — is an enforced sense of renewal and rebirth.

You spend a year going through the mud with your students. You get embroiled in their lives. Sure, you find out all about their grades and their academic progress. Definitely you discover all their little behavior … quirks. (Let’s call them quirks.) Sometimes you find out about their parents and their lives outside of school. (Often, this answers many questions you may have had previously.) And depending on what kind of teacher you are, you find out a lot more. You learn how they talk to each other. (Frightening.) You learn about their relationships with each other. (Ew.) You learn what they think of other teachers in the building. (Yikes.)

But it doesn’t stop there. By the end of the year, you know what makes them laugh. What makes them upset. You know what they’re going to do before they even do it. (Tyler, in the fourth row, is gonna ask me what a metaphor is when I talk about this story, even though I’ve explained it a dozen times this year, and when he does, Tevin, next to him, is gonna sigh and roll his eyes — and probably swat him — because he’s tired of hearing my spiel.)

You come away from the school year, in other words, covered with their gunk. And not just the students’ gunk. Gunk from other teachers and their frustrations that you have to listen to in the workroom, the mailroom, before the faculty meeting. Gunk from the seemingly endless meetings, by the way, that could have been e-mails. Gunk from the unpleasant encounters you had with parents, from the stress about the extra time you had to spend in the building at the expense of your family time, from the piles and piles and piles and piles of paperwork.

And in most other jobs, you’re stuck with all that gunk — because as soon as one job is done, it’s right on to the next. No downtime, outside from the occasional vacation (which only puts the gunk aside for a little while, to be picked up and re-applied upon your return.)

But teachers get that summer break. And what I’ve learned in my eight years (help!) of teaching is that it’s a rare educator that comes back in the fall still gunked-up. The summer lets you really clear your head, lets you drop all the baggage of the previous year — the gunk, bit by bit, just falls away.

We get to start the new year, every year, clean and fresh. Maybe not smiling and bright-eyed (we’re out of the habit of waking up early after all, but this is why coffee exists), but at least optimistic that the year ahead could be a good one.

Maybe we make some changes to the way we run things; maybe we don’t. Maybe we’ll have a magic combination of minds in our classes that makes every day teaching a joy; maybe we won’t.

But whatever the new year brings, we get a chance to start it un-gunked. Clear-headed. Renewed, reborn. Maybe even a little bit hopeful.

My first students will breach the doors in a little under an hour.

To those about to teach, I salute you.

See you on the other side.

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An American’s Guide to Canadian Food: (or, Don’t)


So we’re back from a week-long vacation in Canada.

I could write about how different the culture is there (spoiler alert: not very, actually, outside of the average person being slightly more friendly than I’m used to. I could write about the absolutely beautiful country. (SO MUCH GREEN.)

But at the moment — maybe because I’m returning to home, and by extension to normality — I’m a little preoccupied with food. Partly because we had to visit the grocery store and buy food that we’d be preparing ourselves for the first time in a week. Partly because, since we hadn’t been preparing our own food for a week, that meant we’d been eating exclusively in restaurants — i.e. eating like garbage. But mostly because — to put it bluntly — food in Canada is weird.

To loosely quote John Travolta in Pulp Fiction, they have the same stuff over there that they have here, but it’s just there it’s a little different.

And look, I’m not a foodie or anything; even typing that word makes me feel like a pretentious tool. I have no doubt there are intricacies at play here that I am oblivious to. That’s okay. Like any good American, that won’t stop me from voicing my displeasure.

That’s right, displeasure, because just one week was enough for me to get sick of some of this stuff, so I can only imagine what it must be like living there full-time.

There are three primary offenders: Poutine, Donair (or donairs? I’m not even sure) and Dulse (which looks and sounds like it should be spelled with a “c” but it isn’t because this is Canada and they don’t care about such things — they can’t even decide on a national language for goodness’ sake).

Let’s start with the least offensive: Poutine.

Image result for poutine

Poutine is actually delicious, even if it doesn’t sound like it would be at first: you take standard-issue French Fries, smother them with gravy, and melt a bunch of cheese over the top of the whole thing. Why this little treat hasn’t caught fire in America is beyond me. It’s salty and satisfying and indulgent and sits in your stomach like a brick after you’ve eaten it: comfort food of the highest order.

But it’s still annoying, because like anything good, it’s saturating the culture. Poutine is everywhere, from burger joints to fancy restaurants to food trucks and everything in between. Well, you might say, french fries are everywhere in America, isn’t that the same thing? Yeah, sure, if chihuahuas and Great Danes are the same thing. But you can’t compare poutine to french fries like that, because french fries are adaptable: you can put them on a plate, toss them in a cup, funnel them into a newspaper fan, whatever. Poutine comes exactly one way: on a plate, and anything else is a catastrophe.

Which means that the poutine you get at, say, McDonald’s, comes served pretty much the same way as it might at a classier joint, which has the effect of making you feel like a schlub for ordering it in a classier joint. Let’s also point out that having a runny, slimy food like this available at a fast food place totally defeats the purpose of eating at a fast food place, because poutine is not a food that can be eaten quickly or cleanly or when time is any sort of factor. Try and eat poutine with your lunch combo when you’re running late and you will arrive back to work doused in gravy (which, I dunno, maybe that’s your thing, in which case, Canada may be for you).

Also, nobody knows how to pronounce it, which may be an issue in your reading at this point. I’ve heard it as poo-TEEN, poo-TAN, poo-TEN, and that was all by family members living in the same household. (Again, to Canadians I say — get on one page when it comes to language.)

In short, delicious, but so ubiquitous you’ll be tired of it after a day.

Then, there’s donair, or donairs.

Image result for donair

Donair seems to be a concept as much as it is a thing. (By the way, it’s pronounced like “donut” except instead of a donut, you have donair — and that’s where the similarity ends.) Because you can go to places (usually sandwich shops, but often, strangely, pizza places) and order donairs, but you can also find “donair sauce” on store shelves and in recipe books, and in the same way, “donair meat”. “Donair meat”, by the way, is not the meat of a donair (some rare Canadian beast) but rather meat for a donair. What type of meat is it, then? This is the question that, when you ask it (and well, I think, you should ask it) a Canadian will look at you oddly and reiterate, “it’s meat that goes in a donair”. This happens to be a thing Canadians just do, on a lot of subjects, not just donairs. You ask them a question and get a circular answer. (“Where is the cave?” “It’s in Saint Martin.” “Where’s Saint Martin?” “It’s down by the caves.” When you look at them oddly, they just look at you oddly right back until one of you apologizes (usually the Canadian, because if there’s one thing they do well and fast, it’s say “sorry”).

Anyway, the meat is tangy and salty as meat should be, but the sauce that they pair with it is creamy and sweetish — almost like a tzatziki sauce, but way sweeter and not at all herby. Actually, it feels like it would go really well with a donut, so maybe I was wrong about donuts and donairs having nothing in common but the letters. (Canadians will insist that this clash of sweet-n’-salty is delightful, I will counterargue that it is confusing, but then I don’t understand “trendy” or “daring” food combinations like “jalapeno peppers with chocolate sauce” or “half-cooked mice with a spritz of maraschino cherry”, so I dunno, maybe I’m not hip enough to play this game.)

You slap the “meat” and the “sauce” together with some tomatoes or peppers into a toasted pita, and bam, that’s a donair. In other words, it’s basically a weird gyro sandwich. Except I didn’t know this, so the first donair I had was in pizza form, which might be adding to my overall confusion about the whole thing.

Sidenote: I think I can be forgiven, though, because the conversation went something like “hey you should try some donairs” and I was all like “what’s a donair” and they were like “Pizza Delight has good ones” and I said “okay but I still dunno what a donair is” and they said “let’s go.” (I’m not sure if that’s an all Canadians thing or just a my wife’s Canadian family thing.) When we got to the restaurant I ordered the first thing I saw that said “donair” which happened to be a donair pizza. I ate it. It was weird. Not bad, and not something I’d order again. Just weird. So when I asked them if donair is just a pizza topping they said “well no, that’s just a pizza with donair toppings,” and when I asked well what’s a donair they said “they don’t just serve donair here.”

Then, later in the week, one of our hosts brought home some donair fixings and made up basically a sauceless pizza topped with donair meat to dunk in donair sauce. This I ate, and it was slightly better than a “donair pizza”, but it did nothing to aid my confusion about donairs. I didn’t fully understand what a donair was supposed to be until I got back to America and googled it.

In short, when a Canadian tries to tell you about an exciting food they want you to try, do your research first.

Third, and most offensive, is Dulse. Do not make the mistake, as I did, of associating “dulse” with “dulce”, as they are not the same thing, and the fact that they seem to have the same root is a bug, not a feature, of language.

Image result for dulse

Dulse is seaweed.

That’s all. It’s seaweed. They dry it out and salt it, and then they eat it. Like potato chips, but horrible. It’s somehow simultaneously crispy and chewy, tough and brittle, all at once. You put it in your mouth (your first mistake) and the edges of it immediately flake off and melt to the inside of your cheeks and gums, while you have to keep working the main “leaf” like a piece of jerky. It tastes like fermented fish urine, which it basically is, because it’s seaweed.

I pointed out to the Canadian who tricked me into eating dulse that it tasted, in fact, exactly as you would expect dried-out seaweed to taste, and she responded, “no, it tastes like dulse.” My inclination was to argue the point by asking her what, exactly, dulse was, but the donair incident was fresh in my mind so I just smiled and refused another piece.

To fully explain how bad it tastes, here’s a little anecdote:

My wife’s grandmother picked up a bag of it in Market Square in Saint John. Very excited about it, too, she was. As it turns out, Saint John is a tourism stop for cruise lines sailing in the Northeastern U.S. and Canada, and a cruise ship happened to be in port that day — so the square was flooded with tourists. Mostly Americans, so I didn’t feel quite the fish out of water that I usually did.

Anyway, she was offering me a bit of dulse and I, not wanting to appear rude, was (tentatively) accepting it, when a pair of nearby Americans asked her, “what’s that?” (They looked sixty or so, with matching visors. Sweet little old ladies.) “Dulse,” my grandmother-in-law replied cheerily, around a mouthful of the stuff. “A Canadian delicacy. Want to try some?”

I was just working my way through my first (and only) piece, the fish-pee taste slowly spreading across my tongue. Apparently, the expression creeping across my face didn’t deter them, so they said “sure” and took a piece. Two seconds later, one of them said, and I quote, “nope, that’s coming out,” and spit it RIGHT ON THE FLOOR, while the other rushed to the nearest stall to purchase an overpriced Pepsi to wash the flavor out.

My grandmother-in-law watched this with a chuckle like she’d played some great prank on all of us, all the while stuffing the horrible purple stringy stuff into her mouth.

You can buy this stuff by the bag, if you want, but I also saw it in spice form: a tiny, roll-of-quarters-sized tube which you could sprinkle over your steak or your breakfast eggs. You know, for when your food has that “fine, but not enough fish-pee” quality about it.

To sum up: avoid.

At any rate, these are only three of the most visible food faux-pas on display during my week in Canada. I’m sure there are others, and possibly worse ones (though if there’s something out there worse than dulse, I want it caught and shot).

I will reiterate: if you’re going to try a new and exciting food while on vacation in Canada, do your research first.

Thank goodness I’m back in the states, where we have NORMAL food.

Image result for krispy kreme burger


Happy Stuffing


I am moving rooms today for the second time since being at my current school.

Which is to say, as of next year, I will have been in a different location every year since I’ve taught here. (Future progressive verb tense is fun. English teachers, you feel me.) And that’s kind of a bummer. You get moved around every year, it’s tough to feel at home in your own classroom. Can’t put down roots. Can’t put your feet up too much. Like living in an apartment and never bothering to paint the walls because you’re gonna have to paint them taupe again when you move out, so why bother?

I didn’t make this connection for my first couple years. up went the posters (dozens of them). Decorative lamps in the corners. Personal pictures and bulletin board borders and all. I even hung stuff from the ceiling tiles. Deep roots sunk into the earth of the place.

Which takes forever to clean up and stirs up all kinds of emotions while you’re working for hours to do said cleaning.

So, I don’t put down roots anymore.

When I realized I could — and likely would — get moved at the end of the year, my personal touch became more of a tap. Just a couple of posters and only a few things in my own little corner of the room. The room writ large mostly blank or marked with a couple materials that we’re working with actively — to be pulled down again once we’re done.

Yet even without those personal imprints, I feel more at home teaching in this school than I have in any of my other schools.

The moving is frustrating, but it also serves as an opportunity for cleaning out and reflection, more perhaps than I would have had otherwise. Everything must be gone through, everything must be assessed, everything must be weighed and measured and either kept or discarded. Rather a lot like moving house, except instead of evaluating your memories and keepsakes, I’m evaluating practices and methods (will I teach that next year? Will this handout be useful again?)

So while the students are signing yearbooks and studying for finals (HAHA who studies for finals), I’ll be stuffing boxes.

Happily. Peacefully. I might even enjoy it.


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