Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Canadian Breakup

“Each day I lacerated myself thinking on her, but I didn't go back.”

                The breakup might be one of the greatest tragedies which exist.  Not to imply that it’s more traumatic than an actual death, but simply that it’s only traumatic to you.  There is no post-breakup potluck dinner, and your neighbors sure as hell don’t come over to offer their condolences.  Sure, your friends may offer kind statements like, “sorry dude, that sucks,” or “two tears in a bucket; fuck it,” but there is no real outpouring of support.  You’re on your own to sift through all the memories like some forensics detective, trying to find all the places you went wrong, what was your fault, what was her fault, and how much more hate and resentment you can drudge up in order to get yourself past it all.
                It typically starts with one massive fight, where the gloves come off and you’re both hell bent on dismantling each other mentally, rather than actually solving any problems.  For me, that’s when the bigger light bulb usually goes off in my head, and I realize that it’s time to part ways.  I mean, sure, a smaller light bulb usually pops up several times throughout the courtship like a yield sign, but like most people, I have the tendency to ignore it and hit the gas, escaping collision by the skin of my teeth. 
The impossibility of it all didn’t honestly occur to me until the next morning, after she had left for work.  Distraught and hopeless from the night before, I sat down to watch a History Channel special on The Third Reich in order to escape my depression.  I can’t say that watching the viciousness of mass genocide really did much to pick-up my spirits, but it did help me focus on something much more profound.  As I watched a worn clip of Hitler speaking in a city square, packed shoulder to shoulder with an uncountable number of his Nazi followers, I realized how deep my dislike for the person I considered my partner had become.  And not because Hitler’s awful and blinding hatred reminded me of what I never wanted to be, but because I actually liked him more than the person I had come to consider my significant other.
                Almost exactly a year prior, we had met in Korea by chance at a national park on holiday from the two different schools where we taught.  I was two months into the job, just getting my feet wet, and she had been there for six months, halfway through her work contract.  I can’t begin to tell you what it is about certain situations or moments, but at times you just get hit by a lightning bolt of spontaneity, and emotion trumps reason like a bluff in a poker game.  Maybe it was the loneliness of being away from home.  Or perhaps it was the adrenaline rush of taking wild card chances?  Whatever it was, I fell like an anvil in an old Warner Brother’s cartoon.  For the first time in my life, no questions were asked, no options were weighed, and my Venn diagram went straight into the trash can.  Her Canadian citizenship didn’t even perplex me, and without so much as a slight deliberation, I obligated myself to a committed relationship, resulting in a permanent move to the Canadian north after my tenure in Korea was complete and to start fresh in the city of Halifax, Nova Scotia.          
By mid-afternoon on the day of our breakup, my brain had gone completely into “shit mode,” taking “a glass is half-empty stance.” Reason had flown south for the winter, and I was stuck in that all-too-familiar low, as if looking up at some metaphorical referee who was slowly counting me down for the K.O.  As for focus, there was very little to speak of.  It had unknowingly shifted from fulfillment of the heart and settled itself on useless thought.  For me, it was the age-old debate on who was to blame for the slow demise of integrity, and so I filled my head with a handful of distorted rationalizations in a botched attempt to cover up my domesticated failures.    
To clear my head, I decided to shave my face, as if getting rid of unwanted facial hair would work like some metaphorical form of therapy.  Needless to say, it didn’t; it just served to make me look like a well-groomed manic depressive.  Heavy depression looms like an unidentified serial killer; the more you think on it, the bigger and scarier it all becomes.  Clearing the head works much better when it’s already been cleared a few times during the weeks prior to a major dilemma; this was something that I had not done in months, and which had mutated my brain into a vicious parallel of the A and E show “Hoarders.”  With no real hope of coping with my current situation, I grabbed my Ipod and hit the streets in the naïve hope that I could potentially walk off the pain.  I probably walked about three miles before I felt my nerves trying to kick back into normal, and then as I slowly let out a breath of relief, I remembered the engagement ring I had put a down payment on weeks before this whole debacle.
Weeks earlier the idea of marriage had been discussed, and in a blind effort to convince myself that the American dream was what I really wanted, I totally pushed my Canadian girlfriend into a commitment like some pot-smoking instigator in an afterschool special.  So, in a belligerent attempt to capture what the masses assumed was the American dream, I had my grandmother’s engagement ring shipped to me in Canada.  This would be it, that simple touch my life needed, one more worry I could put to bed.  I would not die cold and alone, and even though compatibility was a problem area, I didn’t really care, because like so many others, I clung tightly to the nonsensical notion that it’s better to be miserable and married than content and single. 
I had taken the ring to a jeweler down the street from our tiny apartment, and he worked me a deal to extract all of the diamonds from the original band and create a new one made from white gold.  It had been around three weeks since I had dropped it off, and I prayed to God that the jeweler had not done any substantial work on it yet.  Having to get the ring back was bad enough, but having to fork over another grand for an engagement ring that would never be utilized was an even worse nightmare.  I crashed through the doors just as they were about to close up shop.  The Asian man behind the counter just stared at me nonchalantly, as if my urgency and panic was something he was all too familiar with.
“Hi,” I mouthed, breathing heavily.  “I’m sorry to do this to you, but I brought a ring….”
“I remember you,” he said, cutting me off.  “You need it back?”
“Yes,” I answered.
“I’ll go get it.  I haven’t started it just yet, only taken the diamonds out of it.”
He went in the back as I rested my hands on the jewel case in front of me, slowly catching my breath.  Within seconds he returned with two Ziplock bags, one that held all of the diamonds, and the other that held the bulky golden band.  He placed the two bags side by side on the clear glass case, opened up the register, and swiftly refunded all of my deposit.
“Thank you,” I said.
“Not a problem.  I hope it all works out.”  I didn’t say anything to this, just nodded slowly and pushed my way through the creaking glass door and into the cold and brutal wind outside.
When I returned home, I knew I only had a couple of hours to pack all of my stuff before she returned home from work.  I wanted to keep it simple, short, and direct so that I could start my grieving/recovery process as soon as possible.  Packing in the midst of feelings of shame and emptiness is like a meditation practice that doesn’t catch up to you until months later when you’re reassessing life experiences and trying to turn pain into poetry for short stories like this one.  It’s a gauntlet of silent madness that stings with every piece of clothing and article you shove into that worn-out suitcase.
When I finished, I placed all five bags at the top of the stairs as if to serve as some fucked-up memento, symbolizing the good times, now washed away with the speed of loneliness.  In reality it was just a failed attempt to get back what I knew was gone and get her to look at me in some sort of hopeful way, one last time.  Jesus, how do people get so desperate?  I’m not sure I would ever know, and I’m not sure I would want to discard desperation because that would just incite fear.  If I had to choose between desperation and fear, I would go with desperation every time, that way I would only suffer for a few months until everything went numb.  With fear, you may look cooler initially, but you’ll spend the rest of your life carrying around the “what-if curse.” Relationships are a tail-tucking experience, and if you’re not willing to lose all, then regret can haunt you till your dying day.
All I could do now was sit and wait until she came home, so I found a spot on the giant futon in the living room, stared blankly at the wall, and allowed the demons in my brain to toss my balance into the bowels of hell.  A little after nine, I heard the rattle of keys and the deadbolt clicking open.  I could hear the wooden steps creaking as she slowly made her way up, and then the silence that came when she saw the bags sitting at the top.  Even slower than before, she resumed her way up the stairs and finally stood in the doorway, silently locking eyes with me as I sat motionless on the futon.  With the simple hesitation of a child who has just hit his head and is contemplating what just happened, she began to cry.  I could only sit and stare, dry-eyed and empty of the energy to say something meaningful.  The large empty doorway seemed to work like a really subtle picture frame, adding so much to the picture that it would remain in the subconscious until I started to really analyze it all later on. 
I don’t remember talking too much, and if we did, then I can’t fully remember all that was said.  It’s funny how breakups work like that—where in the end, every sad or empty look almost tattoos itself to the back of your brain, but the words all seem to drift away like tiny blades of grass in a fast-moving stream.  As I was about to get up, I saw her move her hand slightly toward me, but when I turned to face her, she quickly pulled away and placed it in her lap, clutching a tissue like some 1940’s widow who has just received news that her husband was killed in war.
“Can you call me a cab?” I asked.  She gave a quick nod and then disappeared into the kitchen.  I just stood in the middle of the living room, staring at the walls and furniture that used to be ours but would soon be only hers in a house that I would never enter again.  I can’t say the simplicity of this thought didn’t pull me further down the rabbit hole into a black tunnel that I would now blindly trek through, waiting for any sign of light on the other end.
When she returned, she was carrying the phone book and sat it down on the coffee table so she could dial the number of one of the random cab companies in the area.  As she began to dial, I quickly stopped her; I guess I had one last bout of energy left.
“I just want you to know…,” I said, “…if you want me to stay, then I will.”  All she could do was stare at me while processing exactly what to reply and before I knew it, I was hit with the shotgun blast of two tiny syllables.
“We’re gone,” she softly replied.  It was these delicately selected words that caused me to really look deep into her eyes, something I realized I had failed to do since the blowout the previous night.  What I saw was…nothing, plain and simple, and like a Righteous Brothers song, I knew she had lost “that lovin' feeling.”
“Go ahead,” I said as I walked to the stairs to start carrying my bags down.
In the few minutes that it took for the cabbie to reach the house, we did nothing but sit in silence and wait for that muffled car horn, which when it arrived, hit with the force of a bluesy guitar riff.
“That’s my ride,” I said.  I got up and made my way down the stairs as she slowly followed behind me.  When I opened the door, the cabbie was making his way up the steps, and the roar of the wind was hitting the trees with an unbridled rage; a heavy storm was moving in like the presence of an unwelcome guest.
“Hey,” the cabbie started before focusing his eyes on the tear-stained face standing behind me.  “I got this,” he said picking up the last of the bags.  “You guys do what you have to, and I’ll be waiting on you.”
This was the end; over a year in the making and that worn velvet curtain was about to swing shut.  I stared up at her from the bottom of the doorway steps like some ancient religious shrine.  She started to cry again, and like a cue from a director, the wind picked up almost in unison.
“We’ve had a good run,” I stated.  I turned to go to the cab, but then quickly stopped myself after the first step.  I turned to face her, and she mopped more teardrops out of her eyes.
“I love you,” I said and stood motionless giving her a moment to respond.  She said nothing, and I climbed inside the beat-up cab and closed the door.
The cab ride through the old Halifax neighborhoods was quiet except for the wind that violently beat the windows and caused the cab to rock from side to side.
“You guys been busy tonight,” I asked the cabbie.
“Naw, not really,” he replied.
“Just broke up with my girlfriend.”
“That’s tough bro…. It’s a tough one.”
I just sort of nodded and stared out the windows once again, my mind swimming with a million good times that I would only get back in memory.  From the corner of my eye, I saw the cabbie go for the console that served as an armrest in the middle of the front seat.  From inside he pulled out a CD, popped open the case, and slid a disc into the player.
“Got just what you need, dude,” he exclaimed.
I sat for a moment before the tune started, and as it did, he cranked the volume to the max.  Jay-Z’s “I Got 99 Problems but a Bitch Ain’t One” flowed into my ears like a cup of scalding coffee, and I cringed without actually contorting my face. 
“If you’re having girl problems, I feel bad for you, son; I got 99 problems but a bitch ain’t one.”  After a while I was able to tune out the loud bass that caused the car to shake more than the wind blowing outside.  I simply locked eyes on all the shops and houses that moved past with the blink of an eye,  all of them hard to make out in the darkness, but which would present themselves much more clearly when the sun rose at dawn and I was far away.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Autobiographical Sketch

There are many out there who tell us not to look back, but I think that sometimes we all have to. I don’t want to imply that we should hang out in the past like some bored teenager in front of a convenience store; it’s good to move on, but every once in a while we should, just for kicks, peek in on the younger us to, at the very least, get a good life-affirming jolt at the tragedy and splendor of it all. Reflection sort of works a lot like those “don’t do drugs” propaganda films we were all forced to watch in high school. It’s highly disturbing, a little bit funny, and extremely difficult not to be entertained by.
I guess like every other person who has left their twenties behind, I sometimes feel the need to waste breath telling others my stories and giving unsolicited advice that really serves no purpose other than providing the opportunity to live it all again in my own mind. I don’t know if I really miss it like many claim to, but I definitely enjoy returning there to sift through all the hope and misery of my twenties—the hope and misery that seemed to pave the way to the cynicism and complacency of my thirties. Just to be clear, I don’t use the words hope and misery in an entirely positive or negative connotation. I look back with fondness, although at that time I probably would not have used the term fond to describe any of it. Things change though, and as I quickly grew, with age, my tastes began to turn a full one-eighty, transfiguring many of the ideas I once thought I would die believing, now seeming exceedingly obnoxious, rather than heroic and noble.
Being from a middle-class background, my tragedies were fairly limited, so like any teenager, I had to deliberately intensify them in order to procure adversity substantial enough to rage against. I definitely wasn’t worldly, destitute, or haunted by any sort of torrid past, but, at the same time, I had hoped to create art that canvassed my misery like something out of a Trent Reznor song. So every time a girl didn’t call me back or the vending machines at my high school ran out of M and M’s, I pretended that the world was trying to slowly wage a war against me and that my only true source of combat was writing self-indulgent journal entries and poetry that even most junior high girls would consider cliché. This was a war I waged into my college years, one that grew more intense as soon I discovered a “deeper” selection of books and movies, ones that most main stream society couldn’t care less about, and like all my non-conformist brethren, I would use my manufactured love for these works in order to validate my position as an outcast. As I slowly wove my way through college classes and an endless plethora of server jobs, I devoted about half of my energy to each (probably a little less to the server jobs), resulting in mediocre grades and countless hours wasted on barroom movie bashing and shit talk about main stream consumerism.
When I graduated, I think it was probably a shock to most of my family as well as myself, and I was rewarded favorably with a pair of Rey Ban sunglasses and a dinner at Papadeux’s. At 24 years of age, armed with a bachelor’s degree and a head full of new-found arrogance, I had no idea that this victory would symbolize a slump that would carry on for the next five years. With an intense mixture of shitty jobs, lack of focus, and an overload of hopes that I would later find to be extremely idealistic, I dove into the volcano of my mid-to-late twenties. In just five short years, I received a magnitude of mental ass kickings in the form of what I assumed to be a series of more responsible jobs. Although the jobs seemed to feed into the illusion that I was living the dream so many film students seem to misinterpret as success, it soon died and I found myself swallowing the truth. My dreams of changing the world all ended in a paycheck that was too small and in mediocre weekends that didn’t last long enough. Hopefully, this doesn’t convey the idea that I think life is hopeless. Life, I believe, is full of meaning; work, on the other hand, is not. It’s just something we all have to do, which to me was remotely comforting. I’ve always felt that melancholy emotion was primarily universal, thus working as a catalyst for camaraderie and improved human relationships, kind of like The Breakfast Club but with the added pressures of kids, failing relationships, and Nazi bosses. In the end, all any of us can really do is suck it up, roll with the punches, and enjoy the vacation time.
Going to Korea after the U.S economy fell into the bowels of Hell was probably one of the best decisions I have ever made. I spent a year there pretending as if I were some sort of “dead poet,” telling myself that with every drunken escapade and temple stay I was actually sucking the marrow out of life. Seems to me though, that marrow sucking and being a lazy ass are two pretty comparable things, except marrow sucking is just done in a more aesthetically pleasing environment. At this point, I’m not going to bore you with some divine story of a life-changing escapade; just say that change inevitably comes more quickly and more intensely when cultural norms are altered.
The late, great Sam Cooke sang, “a change was gonna come,” but what he didn’t say was that once you return home from your vision quest, you quickly change back into the jobless slacker you were before you left. Money plays a considerable role in productive evolution, and when we run out, we have to find ways to supplement all the smoke that was blown up our asses while we had it. For a while, self-help books like How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie were comforting, and I managed to apply the principles I learned for a little over a week before losing them all in reruns of “Good Times” and “Thirty Something.” My girlfriend, whom I met in Korea, seemed to add a bit of an edge to my triumphant return. Maintaining my allegiance to the self-help philosophy, I eagerly breezed through Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus in a torrid attempt to master the art of being a more understanding and loving partner. The book only managed to wedge a deeper rift between the two of us because I misinterpreted most of what I read and just used it to validate all of my bad behavior and insubordinate ways. The sections on women’s needs I just sort of brushed through like some speed reader on crack and ended up having it re-read to me by my girlfriend once she took the inclination to actually read it for herself.
So here I sit after my third cup in some notably obnoxious Canadian coffee shop, writing an autobiographical sketch for a journalism program I no longer have any intention of attending. It’s a sketch I initially thought would result in some deep form of self-discovery—and maybe it has, but in some mangled form, kind of like the idea of Santa Claus once we all grow out of adolescence. I guess maybe I was under the impression that my life story was going to be a sweeping epic, rather than some sort of perverse episode of “The Brady Bunch.” I guess in the end it all comes down to what we as individuals decide to take from the world and all the subjectivity that goes with it; life decisions, I assume, are indicative of that. Is there really much of a story in all of this, that I up to this point call my life? Is it something that will sweep people off their feet? I don’t know, and furthermore, I don’t care. A cheese burger and a few warm comments would be nice. In the end, that’s probably what I’ll remember the most.

Monday, September 26, 2011

The Trip North

Where do you draw the line with optimism? When do you crawl onto your pessimistic throne with a half-empty glass and stew in all the bad luck and stress that seems to slowly take you over? Don’t we all deserve at least one day to throw some hate at the planet? To bypass any thoughts for those that have it much worse and to give the middle finger to the minute forces of oppression that occasionally weave their way into our lives like a house spider or a fireside mosquito? I feel like everyone should have at least one day to rage with no guilt involved and throw dirt into the atmosphere like some divine can of Aquanet. I had my day recently, and some may judge me petty, but sometimes you have to bend that fake smile and take what’s yours.
When I made the promise in Korea, I can’t say that I was truly in a sane state. It’s just something that seemed desirable at the time. Not to say that I wanted to back out of the deal, but Canada was a long way from Texas, and that was especially true when driving. What could I really do? You can’t fight love, and besides, it just seemed cool to chase a girl into Canada—or perhaps extremely desperate depending how you looked at the issue. I was determined though, and a promise was a promise anyway you looked at it. So that was the plan. Upon completion of my year teaching English in Korea, I would return home for two weeks to tie up loose ends, pack my bags, and depart the Bible Belt for better days in the Great White North.
From Arkansas all the way to Ohio, travel seemed pleasant, causing my optimism to continuously rise. No real problems, except one rude McDonald’s employee in Missouri who got pissed because I ordered a McFlurry. I had no idea they were that hard to make, but, to be fair, it’s rare to find an inner city McDonald’s employee who doesn’t cringe at the sound of a McFlurry order. So I put the dirty looks and the ideas that I had just eaten a spat-in McFlurry out of my mind and headed on. The first night I stayed at a Hampton Inn outside of Dayton due to paranoia caused from a friend of mine, who told me a story about Satan worshipers who preyed upon unsuspecting tourists unwittingly crossing over the Dayton City lines into Columbus. I can’t say that I really believed the story, and even though the friend who related the warning was prone to really stretch the truth, I decided to stop anyway. Later that night, I ate a less than stellar meal at a Texas Roadhouse cafe. While there, I drank two Long Island ice teas and met a naïve young waitress who was saving money to move to Dallas because she thought the entire city looked like the restaurant she worked in. I didn’t really have the heart to tell her that it didn’t. It’s best to let people dream their dreams; maybe she could find something in Dallas that I never could. Doubtful—but anything is possible.
With a fresh head and a large cup of coffee, I set out the next morning. In just two hours I was through Ohio and well into Pennsylvania. To say the least, the state was amazing, covered in majestic looking trees and mountainous topography. I barreled through with my radio blasting a combination of 80’s Glam and Texas Country, and I set my sights down the highway in the hopes that I would make Massachusetts by nightfall. By the time I reached Connecticut, the traffic began to build, and the rain drops began to collect on my windshield like some sort of horror movie foreshadowing. Ignoring the warnings of greater driving difficulty, I decided to push on into Massachusetts even though there was very little light left in the sky. Once outside of Vernon, Connecticut, the road signs specifying places for lodging and food began to decrease, and I realized I may be in bad shape. The sun had been down for close to an hour by the time I saw the sign advertising a Hampton Inn, and the rain had picked up so much that reading any road sign was a visual impossibility. Veering slightly to the right, I managed to make my exit and follow the road straight into the heart of Sturbridge, Massachusetts. From what I could tell through the hammering rain that had compiled on my window, Sturbridge looked like a town out of some 50’s sitcom or maybe a Stepford Wives-type modern horror film. The streets were neatly paved and all the buildings stood neatly arrayed in precise colors that looked like something out of a child’s Easter basket. I could see the Hampton Inn nowhere and had driven down the main road until the heart of the city was 2 to 3 miles behind me. Frustrated and tired, I hooked a u-turn in the middle of the street, breathed a single irritated breath, and headed back the other way. Cocking my head back and forth in half-assed attempts to look at business signs and something that might present itself as lodging, I decided to try and search my GPS. When I clicked the power button, the usual warning flashed across the screen advising me “not to attempt to enter route information while driving.” I impassively ignored this and clicked the “okay” button in order to proceed to the main menu. When I looked up, I could only see the faint flicker of a light turning red and a stopped SUV that was way too close for comfort. Slamming my breaks, I could feel the tires slide across the wet pavement without even a hint of rubber-to-pavement traction. In the following moment I could only go through the small combination of actions one can manage in a situation like this—wince, produce the single-sentenced thought of “This is going to happen,” and yell the word “fuck” at the top of my lungs. I sat for a moment and peered through the rain at the twisted metal that was, just moments ago, the hood of my car, and then following the lead of the car in front of me; I pulled off to the shoulder of the side street on my left-hand side. Shaking so badly that I almost looked like an epileptic, I managed to open my door and make my way over to the SUV in front of me. The door to the car was hanging half-way open, and I peered through the cracked opening at an older woman who was still staring straight ahead through her windshield and into the rain coming in and out of her high beams. She almost seemed catatonic, and when I asked her if “she was all right,” she only nodded slowly and said “yes” over and over. In car wreck situations, you can only hope that you don’t receive a response such as this. It only adds a layer of shit onto your already existing woes and transports your head into a realm of worry that results in incomprehensible speech and mannerisms that may suggest heavy drug use to overly suspicious cops.
When the cops finally arrived, they found me tearing my car apart in a frantic attempt to find my vehicle registration and proof of insurance. With my head overflowing with thoughts of costly court fees and intense mental anguish caused by my inattention, I handed the officer an envelope filled with unfamiliar documents I hoped like hell would result in a current insurance card or proof of vehicle ownership. As the officer returned to his car and began to sift through the mountain of paperwork I had given him, I walked back to my car and gently leaned up against it as the heavy rain began to soften. To my right, I could see the lady I had hit get into a truck driven by a man I assumed to be her husband. The man lightly closed the passenger door and then walked over and stood at my right-hand side while he waited for the officer to finish processing his paperwork. I wanted to say something to him, something with a profound impact that might ease the tension or any sort of malice he may have for me. Opening my mouth, I could only muster the words, “I’m sorry.” He slightly turned his head, sighed in frustration, and said, “It happens.” Misreading his words as a sign of a friendly nature, I began to tell him my entire story. He just sort of gave me a half-cocked expression of disbelief before he was distracted by the opening of the officer’s car door. Without even a “take it easy,” he walked over to the cop, took his paperwork, and gave me one last disgruntled look before getting into his car. After starting my car, I punched the coordinates of the Hampton Inn into my GPS. Even though my car looked like something out of a redneck’s front yard, luckily I was able to make my way down the heavily wooded back roads and safely into the hotel parking lot.
Waiting for an adjuster to return a call is like some demented episode of “The Twilight Zone”; you feel like you’re trapped in some podunk town forever. I spent three whole days in Massachusetts without so much as an update. My phone would ring every three or four hours and, like some desperate high school girl, I would jump up to answer it in bright anticipation. It was always just my girl friend or a family member checking in with me, leaving me grateful yet frustrated, and eager to return to my spot on the huge Hampton bed to eat Goldfish crackers and watch Lifetime movies. In my past I can honestly say that I have underrated the Lifetime Network, and although tailored for women, it’s easy to lose yourself in T.V. date rape movies starring Candice Cameron and reruns of “Designing Women.”
By day three my power of positive thinking was on a definite decline, and I decided to give up the wait and call my insurance company. When I asked how much longer the wait would be, the agent said, “I don’t know.” When I asked if he might have an estimate, he said, “No.” When I asked, “Please can you give me an estimate,” he still said, “No.” Left with no choice and learning that body shops in Connecticut had onsite adjusters, I contacted one and had my car towed to that location. The tow truck driver was a nice guy with no front teeth named Harl, and he didn’t hesitate to take me the long route and point out landmarks and “good goddamn eatin’ spots” on the way. Once at the body shop, I dropped my car and hitched a ride with one of the mechanics to a Howard Johnson’s. As I walked through the parking lot on the way to my room, I couldn’t help but notice the party of bikers and crack whores who had gathered in the parking lot to drink beer and rev Harley engines. My room at the Howard Johnson’s was a step down from the Hampton, and it smelled of curry and old cough drops. The wall paper was falling off the walls, the bathroom hadn’t been cleaned, and they didn’t even have the Lifetime Network. “Fuck it,” I thought as I sat my bags down. “It’s only for one night.” There is power in the phrase “fuck it.” It sort of hits your brain like some sort of perfectly tailored anti-depressant, helping relieve tension, so you can stop worrying about the truth of the matter, and move on into another one of life’s complex webs that will sooner or later call on you to use that phrase once again.
Around 5’oclock that afternoon, the shop called to say that my car was a total and that I needed to come and “clean all of my shit out of it tomorrow morning.” Hanging up the phone, I went to eat at a local diner and then retired to on-again, off-again sleep dictated by the energy of the biker/crack whore party that raged outside in the parking lot. The next morning I went for the continental breakfast so graciously provided by the Howard Johnson’s and watched as one of the party goers took the last of the cream cheese. Perturbed and tired, I poured a cup of coffee and ate a bowl of Fruit Loops with no milk, due to the hotel staff’s forgetting to stock the breakfast bar. Gathering my bags, I waited in the hotel lobby until a worker from the body shop arrived to pick me up. Once at the shop, I cleaned my deceased vehicle of its remaining possessions, reconsolidated my bags, and called a cab to take me to the Hartford airport.
In two or three trips, I managed to stack all seven of my bags at the only available spot at the ticket counter. The ticket agent working the desk had short and neatly cropped hair and was dressed like a schoolmarm from around the turn of the century. When I smiled at her, she removed her glasses and frustratingly rubbed the arch of her nose.
“How many bags are you checking?”
“Five?” I questioned.
“That’s impossible.”
“Nothing’s impossible,” I stated optimistically while she continued to scowl at me.
“Sir, you may check two, and then check one more for $125.”
“You gotta be shitting me?” I questioned.
“No sir,” she replied. “I am not…’shitting you.’” Could you please move aside, I have other customers?”
I pulled my luggage off to the side and reluctantly managed to consolidate seven bags down to two. Gearing up to re-approach the desk, I was instructed by this Nazi cat lady/ticket agent to return to the end of the line. My eyes filled with judgment and my heart full of contempt, I obliged and waited a good thirty minutes to get back up to the counter. Once through security, I headed to the closest airport bar and paid almost $30 for two beers that managed to produce the first smile I had made in two days and then headed to my gate. The flight out of Connecticut went smoothly, and I was allowed two bags of pretzels and a Sprite to tide me over until I arrived at my connection in New York.
JFK Airport in New York was nothing short of a crowded hole in the earth, and the only nice thing I can say about it was that they had a Starbuck’s that carried the non-fat cinnamon swirl coffee cake. The airport architecture was terrible; it smelled of mildew, and people littered the sitting areas to the point that it was hard to find a place even to stand. I decided drinking large quantities of beer might be my best plan of action, and I retired to the nearest airport bar to once again get raped on the cost alcohol for the next five hours.
When the gate agents finally boarded the flight, I felt a huge feeling of relief well up inside me, and I became slightly misty-eyed when the agent told me, “Have a nice flight.” Uncomfortably situated in a window seat next to an overweight lady, I stared out the window just in time to see storm clouds roll in and lightening flash across the sky. I settled back into my seat and listened to the captain’s voice boom over the speaker, announcing a flight delay due to the weather. On the tarmac a line of planes stretched almost as far as I could see, and by the second hour of the delay, the woman next to me was already sound asleep and snoring louder than an atomic bomb blast. It was not looking good, and with fifteen minutes remaining in the second hour of the delay, the captain announced that after three hours on the tarmac, airport regulations stated that we would have to return to the gate. I gazed, once again, out the window and watched lighting light up the sky, laid my head gently against the seat’s headrest, and closed my eyes.
To my dismay, before I could fall into total sleep, the plane began to slowly move forward. Were we returning to the gate? We still had fifteen minutes left before the three-hour deadline. “Nooooooo…” I thought. Why was this happening? Why couldn’t I get a break? I was on the verge of panic when a thought hit me, and it was as if the sky began to clear simultaneously with my thoughts. This was just one of those moments that made me human, a streak that all the best of us have to endure. One of those moments when you feel like all of the world’s energy is focused on tearing through you like some out-of-control force, and you can only sit back, hold your head high, and take it.
“Fuck it,” I said so loudly that the lady next to me choked on one of her massive snores, the two rows in front of me looked back, and the flight attendant came over to ask me to please refrain from using profanity.
“Sorry,” I replied as I eased back into my seat. I turned my head to look at the seat back in front of me and folded my hands neatly in my lap. It’s only one more night, big deal. Suddenly the plane began to pick up momentum and what felt like standard taxiing was beginning to slowly morph into a take-off and before I knew it, we were slowly climbing into the sky. Closing my eyes once again, I began to fall into sleep under the dimmed lights of the cabin. I was going to make Canada.
Once passing over the threshold of the Halifax Custom’s area and into the welcoming gaze of my girlfriend’s brown eyes, all that had occurred before seemed to fade slowly away and then compile itself into some overly-hyped adventure story that I could share with strangers at dinner parties and barroom outings. It is all imaginary now, something people can find themselves identifying with or scorning for its lack of true hardship. It is to me, however, a reminder that sometimes you have to hate on the world for a bit in order to find balance in your life, the good surrounding the bad, and the realization that it’s all just one great big story. Optimistic or not.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Something About Korea

I guess, like most people who teach abroad, I figured by the end of the year some big change would come over me, and like some estranged movie character I would walk out at the end of some metaphorical tunnel, changed for the better. I can't say that I lived such a life-changing experience, no matter how bad I wanted to. Regardless of what all the travel brochures and TEFL certification websites tell you, just eating food with sticks and taking egocentric photographs of temples isn't going to truly change anything. I, for one, know this because I was sure that it would.

The plan I had mapped out seemed to start dwindling and falling apart the minute I reached Korea. I was sure that one year would be like a paid vacation, that new knowledge would find me, and that the journey would lead me into true enlightenment. None of these things ever really happened, but the trade-off was actually an all right deal.

I figured by thirty-two this whole “life” thing would have led me somewhere more fulfilling, like the suburbs. A place filled with school buses, snow cone stands, and jobs that paid on time. It did not. However, it did manage to lead to a far more intriguing alternative. A land filled with baby carriages, stiletto heels, impeccably styled hair, and people who compete in alcohol consumption with as much fortitude and vigor as a Wall Street stock broker buying and selling stock. Korea was like nothing I had ever seen, but at the same time, like everything I was accustomed to. The entire country seemed to operate like some controversial television program that never made it past the pilot episode, mixing elements of "Father Knows Best" and "Twin Peaks."

When I set my sights on Korea one year ago, a huge part of me was under the assumption that I would be able to conquer the vast cloud of fear and stress that had been looming over me. I would shed my skin and walk naked onto the battle ground, dealing with hardship like some homeless guy stuck in a rain storm. The idea that a person can conquer fear is as naive as they come. Fear can’t be conquered; it can only be dealt with.

When I sat in my tiny apartment the first night, I could only stare at my tiny computer screen. This fantastical world of Skype, Facebook, and Youtube had suddenly become my biggest ally. All the advertisements and write-ups were in Korean, although I could still get through to my email account. My Inbox was as empty as a Stryper concert, and I couldn’t get Hulu to play anything. I sat for a moment on the edge of my bed and peered into random corners of the room, lingering several seconds on any interesting looking stains or discoloration. “Jesus, this was a mistake,” I thought as I lay back onto the oversized mattress. I pulled the thin comforter over my body, and I stared into the darkened ceiling. This was my world for the next year. I didn’t sleep at all that night.

The weeks that followed all sort of blur into one. I was given a stack of books the first day, was allowed to observe several classes, and was then thrown into work the second day like a slave on a plantation. I had no idea what I was doing (and still don’t) and managed to bumble through classes like a socially and physically awkward child playing little league soccer. My co-teacher, an Irishman, decided to take me out for coffee on the third day. As we slowly drank our coffee, he told me an intriguing tale, one about our school—how it was on the verge of collapse and that payments each month kept getting later and later. At this point I was hoping for some sort of nervous breakdown that would allow me to return to a nice mental hospital back home with comfy beds and orderlies who would bring me lots of drugs and shitty food; however, this never happened. But I did struggle through a dreary two weeks of extreme weekend isolation and only left my apartment to purchase coffee, cereal, and hand lotion. There were no windows in my apartment, so every time I walked outside, Korea would hit me full force, both barrels blazing, and I would realize that I had lost myself beyond rational thought to Youtube episodes of “The Forensic Files,” completely forgetting where I was.

Riding the subway never felt right to me, and although many foreigners claim to love it and lose themselves to a set of headphones or an overly analytic selection of books, I couldn’t help but notice all the blank, yet helpless, faces around me, making me feel all the weight they seemed to carry would soon swarm upon me like some post-apocalyptic zombie film. Everyone seemed so shut off, as if they were all sitting in a shrink’s waiting room, trying desperately to escape through what little pop culture they could pull off their telephones and iPods.

After a while, you get better at ignoring the depression that seems to drift all over Seoul, like some giant smoke stack, and it’s then that you begin to concentrate on the more uplifting things that the country has to offer. Not to promote any sort of bland type of optimism or turn a blind eye, but you have to pick yourself up when a situation or person keeps offering up boot heels to the face. Just to be clear, this is not an essay on finding your smile again or seeing some sort of metaphorical light. It’s just a look at shitty situations and realizing that rolling in shit is not just an American pastime—it’s a global thing. To me though, that’s where the Korean experience really gets good. It’s at that point when you realize you can finally stop searching for that perfect place. For that city or town that’s eager to open up its doors and give you warmth and shelter in a freshly laundered blanket of understanding and kindness. At this point you can only do one thing—stop and breathe that single breath of frustration while slowly starting to look around. It’s in this simple yet fleeting moment that things begin to appear to you like a mirage in a desert, when you accept your cage and then decide to make good use of it.

In the months that followed, everything seemed to pass like a hangover to an alcoholic and I jumped into work and play like some driven crack addict. Work was the same sort of heavy-weighted ball and chain that I was accustomed to; however, very little was said by the school’s management about my performance, and they seemed to have no problem in letting me screw up the job on a more than regular basis; in fact, the only real feedback I ever received was that I didn’t assign enough homework. My boss was a man who said very little, and when I say “very little,” I actually mean “nothing.” When he did call me into his office, it was to ask me to record a speech for students to study dialect and pronunciation or to talk about books and American politics. Although most who worked at the school had an outlook of distaste for him and considered him to be somewhat rude or anti-social, I liked him a great deal. In my experience, supervisors were always people who took way too active an interest in your work, therefore, slowly burning out your spirit and killing any enjoyment the work might have once given you. He never did this though and, in all actuality, went out of his way to avoid any sort of real discourse. Needless to say, someone who hated authority as much as I did had no real problems with his managerial ways.

I probably should have kept my guard up after only two months in the country, but it’s amazing how I ended up throwing myself into a situation I had spent years in the States trying to avoid, simply because an 18-hour plane ride left me thinking that I was fearless. I guess a relationship was inevitable sooner or later, but that it happened in Korea and that she was from Canada seemed to be the perfect scenario to attach itself onto the “outside of the box philosophy” I had become accustomed to. Not to insinuate that relationships are misery or that what I found wasn’t great, it was. It was just one of those situations that required a little bit more work than a natural-born slacker like myself was accustomed to.

As most courtships go, there are the first two months of great times, long walks, and intimate moments, leading up to the three-to-five month wall where you actually get to know the person you’ve been dating and decide whether you like each other enough to deal with all the fucked up idiosyncrasies you both possess; in my case, she probably put up with a little or maybe a lot more. Like some bipolar version of a mythical archetype, I managed to weave my way through five months of dating, only to fall victim to the emptiness of an airport goodbye, a depressing two-hour subway ride home listening to nothing but overly written 80’s power ballads, and a dreaded long-distance relationship—which, like everyone who has walked the planet, I swore I would never do.

For all those people who swear by their life that long distance relationships are worse than an IRS audit, I can only reply by saying that they know their shit. Nothing can really test stamina and mental stability more than a relationship dictated by time zone availability and Skype connectivity. If I have ever had more of a love/hate relationship with anything in my life as I had with Skype, I cannot remember. It feeds on you like a fix to a junky, leaving you dependent, worn down, and disproportionately drained. Although I think Skype, like Korea, also works to rehabilitate. It hits like a shit storm, taking pressure to an ultimate high, and making every small disagreement seem like a Faye Dunaway “Mommie Dearest” moment. Though once in that tunnel, there is a certain catharsis that happens, and all the hope and excitement of reconnecting seem to morph into something bigger than you; inevitably, you have weathered out a great storm, and, in the end, you managed to do it together.

Before I left for Korea, I felt I needed a new hobby, and climbing had always sparked my interest. I wanted to take the almost non-existent knowledge that I had accrued from home and build on it. Truth be known, I had little hope that I would manage to do little if any climbing in Korea, but when you’re in a lonely situation and desperate for hope, you have a tendency to lie to yourself a little more convincingly. Stumbling through a bar one afternoon, I ran across a brochure for a climbing school out of Seoul and realized that this could possibly be my white light—it was. In the months that followed, I found myself intensely involved with a climbing organization out of Seoul called Sanirang. Little did I know that this organization would dominate most of my time and pull me from the maddening grips of foreign solitude. What few expectations I had from the program managed to be completely blown to smithereens, and before the middle of November, I had already made three summit climbs. As the winter months brought in a cold beyond anything I had ever felt, anticipation for spring climbing began to build. In mid-March I was able to begin the Sanirang intermediate climbing school. In just five weeks I had taken what minute knowledge I had gained during the fall and multiplied it by five. Almost every weekend after that was a summit climb, and by mid-July I had more than 15 under my belt, as well as my first trad lead. Climbing in Korea built on me like a heroin addiction, and anytime I could get out and do it, I did. Like most who end up getting involved in this wonderful subculture, a vast percentage of my income usually went towards new gear and more involved training. Most people who get into climbing will probably tell you that it changed their lives for the positive; I am no different. Climbing in Korea was undoubtedly a blessing in almost every way I can think of—from the adrenaline rush of the climb to the drunken nights after a summit down to the amazing people who ended up accompanying me on all of these mountain adventures. In Korea there always seems to be some sort of newly discovered hobby or activity that most foreigners cling to, whether it is running, yoga, or climbing. As if in some sort of less insane version of prison, many foreigners need something to fill the time and kill the devastation that comes from too much isolation. I figure this may be why people do many of the things they do in life, so that too much of the real world can’t sneak inside their bedroom at night, like the Boogie Man, and devour them whole.

In the end, I guess that is always how I’ll see Korea, a cold and empty place that I had to find the good in, just so I could stay sane and keep going—although, I sometimes tend to exaggerate for the sake of the story. I guess Korea, life, or whatever you want to call it is perhaps sometimes as simple as just wanting to have a good time.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Top Five Cultural Differences

It’s easy not to notice the cultural differences in places when you have been living away from home for over a year. When you live in a culture different from your own, you tend to forget the cultural differences that exist from place to place. When I arrived in South Korea last year, I certainly noticed those differences, but after a slightly uneasy transition into the South Korean lifestyle, I guess I really just forgot that any differences existed. That is, until I returned home and started trying to resume the life I had left behind. So in honor of my return to The States, I would like to create a top-five list of the biggest cultural differences to present themselves to me since my return home.

1. Fat People: Koreans may be some of the healthiest people I have ever seen, and finding an overweight person in that country is a lot like trying to find Waldo in those books we loved so much as children. During my entire time there, I saw very few overweight people, and the ones I did see were typically Westerners. That’s not to say that the country is overly health conscious. It is not, and fried chicken seems to be more popular in Korea than in certain places in the American South. Koreans also smoke and drink as much as any English rock star out of the 1970’s. Despite these factors, Koreans never seem to rock the fat like a majority of the people in the good ole U.S of A. do. It never really occurred to me how fat the people in my country were until I reached the L.A airport for my flight connection. As I walked through the terminal, I couldn’t help but notice that almost everybody I passed seemed to be overweight, and all the airport bars and restaurants seemed to be clustered with people ripping into burgers and beers as if these things contained the secrets to life. I am not saying that indulging in tasty food and alcohol is a bad thing. I certainly don’t believe that. Everyone indulges, but Koreans just seem to be able to do it without getting fat.

2. Driving/Transportation: Transportation for me was quite a big shock. In Texas, where I am from, everything is spread out, so you have to drive almost everywhere you go. In Korea, mass transit is essential to the foreigner, considering that he/she couldn’t go anywhere if it did not exist. The subways, buses, and cabs in Korea can transport you to anywhere in the country you want to go. Not using a car was a little strange at first, considering my morning drive time in Texas was my opportunity to reflect, drink coffee and listen to music. In Korea the subway was somewhat like driving, you could do all of those things, but it was also congested with people, so the alone time wasn’t really alone. As with the food, you do tend to adapt to the ways of the country and slowly over time learn to appreciate what the subways have to offer. Driving for the first time, after returning home was very odd. I almost felt like I was taking a driver’s ed class, holding the steering wheel at two and ten and taking especially long glances back and forth before pulling out into intersections. Driving after a long lapse in time, however, proved exciting, and I almost felt like I was flying low to the ground. This was definitely a much more adrenaline-fueled experience than it had been in the past.

3. Food Size: I guess I hadn’t really thought much about the amount of food I ate on a daily basis, until I returned home. Food portions between the two countries are considerably different. This difference didn’t really process until I ordered a grande-sized coffee at Starbucks my first morning home. The size was massive, and this cup of coffee was only a medium. The same was true for all kinds of fast food, pizza, Mexican food, etc. Needless to say, we super patriots consume a lot of shit. In Korea I managed to lose 42 pounds fairly quickly and wasn’t quite sure how. After being at home and eating out for a week, my question was easily answered. Just watching people hovering over and shoving food into their mouths like prehistoric cave men encouraged a longing for a healthier lifestyle. At the same time, it also made me feel like some ancient Christian fundamentalist, coming back home to convert the confused and misled. After three days of sitting in judgment, and then another two more of feeling guilty about it, I decided to join my fellow Americans rather than pointing the finger. With this decision, I ended up gaining back five pounds and wasting two more days glued to “Saved by the Bell” reruns. Seeing myself return to old habits sort of sent me into a mild spiral of depression, but also helped me realize that being a hedonist can be somewhat fun if not taken to extremes. This is probably way too much information when all I really wanted to say was that the difference between food sizes was kind of shocking.

4. People’s Dress: I was shocked to see how much effort people in Korea put into their appearances, and it wasn’t until I reached the Los Angeles airport that I realized how little Americans put into theirs. In Korea you will have no problem finding a mirror because they have been strategically placed in most buildings, subways, and elevators. I was amazed to see people constantly checking their hair, clothes, and makeup with not even a remote attempt to conceal what they were doing. You could also often see many people taking pictures of themselves and then checking the picture when no mirrors were available. People in Korea seemed to dress up for even the smallest of activities even going to do laundry or buying groceries. Most everyone you see looks as if he/she were going to a photo shoot. Even when hiking in the mountains, most Koreans garnish the best in backpacks, boots, and hiking poles. The “I don’t give a shit” attitude is more prominent within American culture, and the Korean way can only be found in certain elite circles of American society. Coming home, I noticed the lack of upkeep that seemed to manifest itself in contemporary America and how steadfastly many seemed to glorify it, with their unshaved faces, stained shirts and pants, dirty work boots, and all types of tattoos and piercings imaginable. It’s a confusing difference to me, and I couldn’t tell you which side I think is wrong or right on the issue. I must say that living for a year in a culture that takes pride in appearance provides a certain comfort and professionalism that creates confidence and safety in its community. Although there is something refreshing and liberating about giving the middle finger to “The Man” and saying that I am going to do what I want to do.

5. Alcohol Consumption: I don’t think I have ever seen people who drink quite like Koreans drink. The Irish drink a lot and manage to hold their alcohol with extreme ease, and many other western people also indulge in alcohol consumption as if were some kind of archaic art form. Koreans do it a little differently. They drink in mass quantities like many others but don’t ever seem to get better at it. Unlike the Irish, Koreans cannot hold their alcohol very well, reminding me of an Olympic athlete who is constantly training but never improves. On any night of the week, you can find Koreans stumbling down alleys and side streets in drunken stupor or passed out in doorways as if relaxing in the world’s most comfortable bed. The lack of drinking laws in Korea was one of the better things that the country had to offer. You could drink a beer almost anywhere and no one would say much to you at all. It almost seemed as if society encouraged it. There is something totally comforting about being able to drink beer on the street, on the subways, in the buses, and in the taxi cabs. It was almost as if the term “public intoxication” was nonexistent in this wonderfully crazy land. Not to say that I support alcoholism, but an outsider can certainly benefit from living within a community that does.

Living in Korea was easily one of the greatest experiences of my life and, like anything in this world, had its good and bad factors. To me, cultural differences are refreshing; they sort of test us about different ideas of life to see how well they work or don’t work. They also tend to shake our own world up a bit, forcing us to question all the social norms we were born into or forced to obey. Korea has its own ways, just like America, England, or any other place in the world. In the end, I never managed to feel anything all good or all bad about any of it, only accept it and then try to find my own middle ground.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Substitute

Hope haunts you when you're broke. Like a ghost in a plantation, it stands behind you in the mirror every morning, watching you shave and brush your teeth, reminding you that today may be the day you can finally dine with the elite middle class, although I didn't want to dine with those people. The middle class had caused me enough pain. With their perfect lawns, mini-vans, and block parties I was never invited to, they had managed to make an enemy out of me. Things were gonna change though. Armed with a bachelor's degree and a head full of dreams, I would soon bring down the oppressive middle class.

After graduating, I applied for a job in the public school system as a substitute teacher. It was the perfect plan. I would take these people down by turning their children against them, convincing them to break their chains and take a stand against the middle class tyranny that was sweeping across this nation. I felt like I was unstoppable; I would soon liberate the children and bring about one of the greatest revolutions the world had ever seen.

January 17th, a Monday, was the first day of my plan. I had taken a substitute job for a science class at a local junior high; this would be the perfect place to start. Middle schools were never short on angst, and even the most well-behaved kids were just waiting to rebel. If movies about the sixties and inner city teachers had taught me anything, it was that kids were like a squadron of rag-tag misfits just waiting for a leader to transform them into the perfect army. A stand would soon be made and to quote the late, great Sam Cooke, "a change gonna come."

I could hear the noise from the hallway before I walked into the classroom. It was okay though; high energy could only mean a more productive plan. When I looked through the glass window on the door, I could only see a red-headed girl sitting on my desk and one kid with shaggy, dark hair beating a ruler against the wall. As I entered, there were several groups of three to four kids dispersed around the room and one kid sitting by himself in the back corner of the room, nonchalantly picking his nose.

"Could you guys do me a favor and take your seats?" I asked. Nobody moved.

"Take your seats, please?" I repeated. Everyone groaned as if I had just sentenced them to 25 years in prison.

"This is a joke," I heard one kid say. The shaggy kid at the front didn't move, just kept beating the wall with the ruler. I had to admit that I was rather impressed with this kid and could tell he was a natural-born revolutionary. Every good revolutionary has anger inside him but just needs to learn how to channel it. I lightly touched his shoulder.

"I'm gonna teach you how to channel this aggression," I said. "I believe that in the future you will do great things." He stared at me blankly, and I thought that quite possibly I had made my first connection. He nodded lightly, and I could tell that he needed to study me and try to figure out if what I had said was truly genuine. I slowly held up a balled fist in hopes of getting a brotherly fist bump. He didn't move. Tension was mounting, and I could feel the heavy gaze of every eye in the classroom. Suddenly I heard the slow and high-pitched sound of gas passing into the atmosphere and, without thinking twice, watched my first perspective student connection disappear as this little bastard wafted his fart directly into my face.

The class erupted into laughter before I had a chance to do anything but gag. As he slowly reurned to his seat, I had the hetero, yet inappropriate, urge to tackle him and hit him in the face several times, but that wouldn't prove beneficial. A good leader has to be patient, so I just pretended to laugh it off with everyone else.

"Okay, that's enough," I said, trying to calm everyone down. "That's enough."

"Like your murse," one girl exclaimed before all the noise could subside.

"My what?" I replied.

"Your gay man purse," she said, motioning to the book bag I held around my shoulder.

"It's actually called a messenger bag," I replied.

"Only gays and losers call it that." I wasn't real sure how to respond to this, so I didn't say anything at all; I just stared out at the class, hoping with everything I had that the noise would subside and the anger I was feeling would finally go away.

I glanced briefly at the lesson plans on the desk and then finally decided to bypass them and go straight into my own lessons. I pulled a stack of questionnaires out of my "messenger bag." I had written them last night on my computer and had planned to use them to gage in what areas I could properly utilize each person

"Would everyone fill this out and return it to me?" I asked.

"Is this for a grade?" said the murse girl.

"No," I replied. "I don't believe in grades; the middle class has been grading you for far too long ...."

The student in the corner cut me off. He was still picking his nose as he spoke.

"So, it's not for a grade?"

"Grades are the product of a white capitalist society ...."

"I don't get it."

"So, it is for a grade?" the murse girl followed.

Unable to control my anger any more, I snapped, "NO! It's not for a grade! Are you people that slow!?" The room quickly grew to a morbid hush. I stood for a second in awkward silence, staring out at thirteen blank faces. The kid in the corner still continued to pick his nose and then with no indication of shame, ate one of his boogers. I definitely had my work cut out for me. These kids would be a challenge, but with a good deal of work, I still felt I could strip off their blinders and lead them into the light.

"Why you bein' angry?" one kid asked.

"Why am I angry?" I corrected.


"The correct way to say that is 'Why am I angry.' "

The kid stared at me for several seconds before offering, "You be trippin'; I'm going to sleep." He then pulled the hood of his sweatshirt up over his head and lowered his face into his arms that were folded over the top of his desk.

"This class is bullshit!" stated the murse girl, out of the blue. I ignored the statement even though technically I was supposed to write her a referral for using profanity.

"So, please, go ahead and fill these out and return them to me. After that, we will discuss the real reason I am here today."

"Do we have to do this?" asked the fart wafter.

"You don't have to do anything," I replied. "You should be able to govern yourself ...." Before I could finish, he ripped another fart.

"I want to smoke weeeeed all day," he stated loudly.

"Do you ever read?" I questioned. Suddenly the room got silent again, and everyone looked at me as if I had just slapped them in the face with a glove and challenged them to a duel.

"Reading's for pussies!" yelled a kid in the back. "Josh reads; don't you?" He continued, pointing to the nose picker.

"Shut up!" Josh screamed back as everyone began to laugh. The laughter began to slowly build, each second becoming louder and louder. My eyes were fixed on Josh, the booger-eater, who was unable to move, and I could see him growing increasingly angrier and angrier with every second. Finally, jumping to his feet, Josh charged at the other kid, knocking him out of his chair and onto the linoleum. He began to wail on this kid with flying fists, and as he did, the entire class erupted into blind chaos. The fart wafter picked up his chair and threw it across the room; the chair hit the fish tank, which exploded on impact. A chain reaction had started; kids began to pick up tables and heave them over. Josh continued to punch his oppressor, and the murse girl, through tears of joy, had written "vagina face" in permanent marker across the front of my messenger bag. It was like a retarded version of Do the Right Thing, started because one kid, who picks his nose and eats his boogers with no shame, was offended by someone accusing him of reading a book. It was, in all sincerity, one of the most depressing things I had ever witnessed.

Consumed by shock and rage, I ran into the center of the pile and pulled Josh away. His victim's face was now covered in blood and looked like something out of Rocky IV. Throwing an uppercut, Josh caught me on the bottom of the chin, and my teeth clicked together from the force. The murse girl jumped on my back and started clawing at my cheeks, but I shook her off and she fell into one of the turned-over lab tables. The rest of the class began to charge me and formed a lopsided pile that resulted with me being taken to my knees. With all my might, I began to raise my body, throwing my hands wildly in any attempt to free myself from the massive stack of riot that was over-taking me. Kicking and flailing around, I finally loosened myself from each tightly bound grip. With my feet finally beneath me, I squared up, ready for whichever one of these little monsters was going to attack next.

"I will kill every single one of you, mother fuckers!" I yelled at the top of my lungs. When I looked up with fists balled and ready to fight, I saw the principal and three other faculty members standing inside the doorway.

"Hey!" I exclaimed in a poor attempt to play off the recent events. No one said anything after that. It was one of those moments that surpassed awkward, garnishing a mush of empty stares that even hypothetical thought couldn't have figured on. Without trying to make a big scene, I slowly dropped my balled fists and exited with my head down in order to avoid any sort of shameful eye contact. My revolution had officially come undone.

The walk from the classroom to the principal's office seemed to take forever and reminded me of the end to the first Rambo movie. I could almost hear the Dan Hill song "It's a Long Road" playing in the back of my head. When we reached his office, the principal just sat and looked at me, continuously contorting his mouth in uncertainty. I told him my story, and, once again, he stared blankly at me before removing his glasses, throwing them on the desk, and giving out a frustrated sigh.

"Where do people like you come from?"

I wasn't sure what he meant by that question, so I sort of shrugged my shoulders and gave a clumsy smirk. He began to say something else but stopped himself just before and then finally waved his hand in a dismissive manner. Taking the hint, I slowly pulled my substitute badge from around my neck and lightly placed it on the edge of his desk. I silently got up and walked out of his office past a large group of faculty set up in gauntlet-like rows, throwing scowls and looks of disapproval at me like garbage or rotten eggs.

On my way out, I passed the nurse's office. Inside, sat the kid that Josh, the booger-eater, had beaten to a pulp. I stopped for a moment in the hallway, watching the nurse place another strip of gauze across a deep gash on his upper forehead. She taped the gauze tightly to his skin, rolled the rest back into a ball, and walked across the room to return it to the cabinet. I don't know what made me want to stay and watch this poor kid sit and bleed, but I couldn't help myself. He turned to the doorway where I stood, and our eyes locked.

His gaze never wavered, and he stared at me in such a steadfast manner that I almost expected his eyes to start glowing like some sort of mythical vampire. I could tell at that moment this kid was not beaten and, like some sort of immortal P. O. W. living off the fumes of hope, would carry on to fight another day. He slowly nodded his head as if to tell me that things were going to be okay. I lightly nodded back to tell him "yes, I know," and in mid-nod, a single tear fell from my eyes and onto the tile below. I quickly dried my face on my sleeve and slowly raised a balled fist into the air above the doorway; this revolution would go on. Without missing a beat, he cocked his head lightly and then gave me the finger.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Italian

I was going to tell the world a story about the greatest sandwich I have ever had, but I wasn't sure how to tell it. I sat around for three hours staring at a blank screen, thinking about how this story could possibly solve all of the world's problems. I knew it could not, but I also knew that this sandwich helped me find myself, just a little bit, and all the Quizno's and Subway Sandwich shops in the world would never fill that void. They can add all the toasters, bargains, and specialty sandwiches they want, and it will never have the same effect. In the spring of 2003 I was fortunate enough to dine on the greatest sandwich the world has ever known, but it was only me who really knew.
When I walked into the shop, the silence hit me like a right hook. Sitting behind the counter with his legs crossed, sat a skinny Italian gentleman, wearing a giant silver cross around his neck. He was nonchalantly smoking a cigarette, blowing small smoke circles into the air. He gazed at me for a moment, gently extinguished his cigarette, and nodded as if to imply that he knew I was soon to be a believer in the power of sandwich art.
"You want the Italian?" He asked.
"No, thanks," I replied. "I'll have the turkey."
"You'll have the Italian!" He exclaimed in a soft whisper. I wasn't exactly sure how to reply to this, so I said nothing. He removed himself from the stool and began to clear off his work space. As he intricately placed the knives and sandwich ingredients on the counter in front of him, it felt like the lights in the room began to dim. When he began to make the sandwich, classical music swelled inside of my head; every detail was exquisitely precise and skillfully mastered, almost hypnotic. From the way he sliced vegetables, to the intricate amounts of spices and oils he used, this man was an artist. I couldn't tell you what the exact ingredients were, but I do remember the heart and soul he put into the construction of this edible miracle, and to this day I carry that memory around like some sort of steel-toed reminder to use when I feel like the world has once again cornered me.
When he finished, he easily sliced the sandwich in two, placed it gently into a basket, and laid it on top of the counter.
"Five bucks," he commanded. Without thinking, I pulled five wrinkled ones out of my wallet and handed them over. He placed the money in the register, looked at me directly in the eyes, and nodded as if to say that this was the end of the line for him. The rest I had to do on my own. He returned to his corner, lifted the still lit cigarette from the ashtray, and took up where he left off. The first bite I took was almost too shocking to process; it hit my taste buds like an eighteen wheeler on a quiet dirt road. I knew at that moment that this would be the greatest sandwich I had ever eaten, and steps had to be taken to savor every moment of this process. I put the sandwich down, stared at it for what seemed like hours, and finally picked it up and began to eat. I ate slowly, pausing often, to devour a chip and take a few sips from my water glass. As much as I tried to fight it, the sandwich slowly went, and as expected, in the end, I was inevitably left with one small corner piece. I couldn't help but get slightly misty eyed as I stared down at the minute remains that were left from this once grand sandwich empire. I knew that I should have expected how quickly the moment would pass, but I tried not to think about it, only live for the moment, now, inside this empty shop in the middle of suburban Texas. I reluctantly ate the last bite. The sandwich was gone.
The next time I went to the shop, it had changed ownership. I ordered the Italian sub, but it wasn't the same. The heart that this mystery man had put into the first sandwich was not there; in fact, I could only eat half of the sandwich I was given. I stared deeply into this pile of half eaten bread, meat and vegetables that lay in front of me, and a calm feeling slowly grew inside. I quietly watched as each person in this now crowded sandwich shop savagely devoured their poorly made sandwiches. I finally discarded what was left of my sandwich into the waste basket by the door and went to Wendy's for a burger.