This is a Student Film

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In Blame Logic, all occurrences are the end result of a long and often tedious string of vaguely connected events, strung together by a pitiful individual who thinks too much.  I’m such a person, so I’ve always been a fan.  Let me give you an example of what I mean – My roommate is using the oven to cook dinner.  I go for takeout, and on the way I trip and break my ankle.  Using Blame Logic, the hospital bills should go to my roommate.  If he hadn’t monopolized the oven, none of this would’ve happened.  Blame Logic is a great way for me to never feel responsible for anything bad happening, and a nice way to convince myself that the entire universe is out to get me.

Sticking to this approach, it was really Katie Nelson’s fault that I got into a car wreck on the I-490 and totaled my Ford Taurus station wagon.  Katie was my co-worker at Blockbuster, and I had a disgusting crush on her.  The crush was disgusting due to the combination of its intensity and its one-sidedness.  Like someone who swears the Holocaust never happened, I was in absolute denial that Katie Nelson didn’t have feelings for me.  No facts or evidence would sway me towards recognizing the obvious.  Katie barely paid me any attention when her shift ended at five o’clock and I passed her going through the door on my way to take over her register.  Regardless, I was frantic about getting to the Blockbuster before she left, just so I could savor her cool look as she slid by.

Because of this, I drove far too fast down the expressway and my car spun out of control.  I hit a truck and then went careening into the guard rail at light speed.  As the police cars came and the smoke poured out from under the hood of my demolished family utility vehicle, I could only think, “Damn!  Katie’s got to be gone by now!”

Like I said, it was Katie’s fault that my car was totaled.

Coincidentally, one of the frustrated drivers stuck in the traffic jam created by my accident was Adrian Lozano, who just so happened to be my professor at film school.  Adrian was a fat lesbian who wore all black and disliked everything.  Her range of approval went from mere hatred to all out repulsion.  After screening our projects, certain students would beam with excitement, claiming, “Adrian Lozano only mildly despised my film!”  Perhaps the one thing Adrian disliked more than anything was being stuck on a backed-up highway.  When she found out that I was the cause of it, her lip twitched and she said, “Oh, so you’re the reason I was twenty minutes late getting home.”

I had never felt so ashamed in my life.

Soon after the accident, my mind could only focus on things of the utmost importance: my upcoming final project at film school, the wrecked car, and Katie Nelson.  I became horribly depressed.  Bumming rides to and from school from my friend Richard, I’d hang my head as if all hope was lost.

“Snap out of it!” Richard said.  “You’ve got a student film to make!  Don’t you realize the opportunity you have?  This could be your big break.”

Richard himself was making a documentary on an overweight guy who liked to dance in public.  “It’s going to be called ‘Fat Guy Dancing,’” he said proudly.  “I shot some footage of him dancing by a fountain last night.  It came out really good.  The lighting is perfect.”

With my car out of commission, Richard was my transportation.  He would also be my cameraman once I started my film.  I figured anyone who cared enough to light an obese street dancer like he was lighting Marlene Dietrich had to be worth working with.  Richard gave me some advice about my project.

“Take everything that’s happened,” he said, “and channel it into your film.  That’s what artists do.”

That sounded good, especially since it implied I was an “artist.”  Alone in my bedroom, I poured my heart into a ten page script.  The story involved a man who had accidentally killed someone in an auto wreck.  Now believing that he was capable of anything, he kidnaps the girl he’s crazy about.  He believes he can force her to love him.  But he can’t, and in the end, he sits in a parking lot in his junked car and watches as she goes off with someone else.

The next day, I handed my script to Katie Nelson and asked her to star in my film.

“Who’s gonna play the guy?” she asked.

“I am,” I said.   My student film was turning into a complete exercise in ego: it was about me, would be directed by me, would star the girl I was crazy about, and so it might as well have me in it, too.  Just like in classic painting, I figured – no artist ever painted a self-portrait of someone else.

To my surprise, Katie called me the next day and was enthusiastic about the project.

“I think it’s good,” she said.  “Do you really want me to be in it?”

“Of course,” I said.

“Why do you want me?” she asked.

The obvious answer was, “I desperately love you and see this as my only chance to ever impress or get anywhere near you.”  But I didn’t say that.

Instead I said, “I just need a girl and I don’t know anyone else.”

By this time, most of the other students in my film class had already finished their films.  They showed their work in class to a typically unimpressed Adrian Lozano.

“It’s technically well done,” she’d say, “but I don’t see any emotion in it.”

Aha!  If it was emotion she wanted, my film was going to be stuffed with it.  While the other students aped Kevin Smith, I was putting myself on film without shame.  It was all going to be out there for the world to see – everything I felt in life, naked, captured in crisp digital video.

Finally, the night came when I arranged my film to be shot.  I had more or less run out of time, and so the entire thing would have to shot in one night.  My father let me borrow his car so that I could go pick up my starlet.  Coming out of her house, Katie looked radiant.

I opened the passenger side door for her and Katie hopped in.  Heading in the direction of my apartment – or as I had called it on the phone, “the set” – Katie suddenly began telling me about her sex life.

“So,” she said, “I got laid last night.”

Absorbing the blow of those words, I almost lost control of the car.  It would have been the second wreck Katie would’ve been responsible for.

“What?!”

“I’ve been miserable lately,” she said.  “I decided to sleep with the bartender from Donnie’s.  It was just to cheer me up.  I don’t think I feel any better, though.”

My hands shook on the wheel.  “Why would you do that?” I asked, sneering like Adrian Lozano during my midterm project.  “Don’t you want someone who likes you and would be good to you?”

“No,” she said bluntly.  “Not at all.  I don’t want a boyfriend.  I just want to have sex right now with no strings attached.”

At that point, I might as well have taken her back home and forgotten the whole thing.  It was done.  For the hour or so that we tried to make the film, Richard chain-smoked and worried about the editing of his film, I couldn’t focus on anything other than the mental picture of Katie having sex with some sleazy bartender, and Katie just sat there looking sad.

Finally I threw in the towel and put my student film out of its misery.  Just like that, my ego-trip was over.  All that was shot from my ten page script were a few lines of dialogue and some shots of Katie sitting on my couch, looking lovely.

Later that night, I looked through my prop box in an effort to inspire myself.  I had to shoot something, after all.  Nothing jumped out at me except a fake finger I had in the box.  My new film (shot by me, directed by me, staring me, and featuring special effects by me) consisted of me sitting around chain-smoking.  Near the end, I open the pack for another cigarette and there isn’t one.  Then I take a knife and cut my finger off.  I put the severed finger (which was – relax – the fake finger) into my mouth, light it, and smoke it.  Fade to black.  The end.

“What the hell was that!?” Adrian Lozano gasped.  “It’s terrible!  Poorly shot…there’s no point…what on earth were you thinking?”

Bent over in shame, I muttered, “I thought it would be funny.”

“Well,” she huffed, “I didn’t hear anyone laughing.”

It was true.  That would change, however, in a few moments, when “Fat Guy Dancing” made its premiere.  The class laughed uproariously as the Fat Guy popped and locked to Da Dip.

Squeezing out her words through laughter, Adrian managed to say, “Well done, Richard!  It’s perfect!”

Maybe an artist puts himself on the screen.  Richard put something up there that made people laugh.  In a school of thinkers, his dumb little film turned out to be the best thing made all year.

*

I didn’t see much of Katie Nelson after that.  She quit Blockbuster and moved away.  Taking her words at face value, all she wanted was someone who didn’t like her so much; she didn’t want the pressure of being admired.  Maybe that was my mistake.  Maybe when she passed by me on the way out the Blockbuster door and shot me that cool look, I should’ve returned it.

A month after the disastrous screening of my half-assed student film (in front of the entire film program), I was kicked out of film school.  I didn’t have what it took.  Not the desire to succeed, or even the knowledge of how to work a camera or read a light meter.

“What are you going to do now?” Richard asked.

“I don’t know,” I said.  “Work more hours at Blockbuster, I guess.”

This is a student film – how it works.  A man picks out his star and pictures Hollywood, oh Hollywood, and the titles of his movies on marquees.  Every story of a student film is the story of a dreamer and his dream.  Then, somehow, things happen.  The car gets wrecked, the star goes away, and the movie doesn’t play the same way it did when he pictured it.  When it’s over, he realizes that he’s put his whole heart into an abject failure.  There was a moment of belief, though – not just for him, for his star as well.  She might have left to pursue less ambitious dreams, true, but he can’t forget something.  He can’t forget that for one brief bit of time, she believed in him, and perhaps she even shared a little bit of his dream, too.

Some people can take an image and capture it on film.  They’re the ones who have everything come out just the way they’ve envisioned it.  I’m not one of those people.  My images only take shape in my head, and usually a long time after I’ve first tried to capture them.  I don’t really envy those first people, I don’t think.  It must be depressing, in a way, to take a look at what you’ve done, and know that you’ve seen it all before.

 

*

 

 

Quick Note/Terrible Movie Line

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* Today is Monday, and my head is spinning.  The last few days have been an out-of-control booze nightmare.  My daily routine and my body are completely out of whack.  I suppose that happens sometimes.  It’s been over three days since I wrote anything here on the blog – so instead of putting up a few short posts, I’m going to put up a longer piece sometime later today.  I’m very apprehensive about putting up something of this length (about 2,000 words – my typical posts are 600-900 words and they seem long), but what the heck, right?  Anyways, long posts will be few and far between.  The Internet doesn’t lend itself to them…I apologize in advance!

* Now, more importantly, I must draw attention to what I believe is one of the worst lines in cinema history.  Bored out of my mind Thursday night, I stumbled upon the movie Half Past Dead showing on Korean TV.  Obviously, any movie featuring both Steven Seagal and Ja Rule is worth watching, so I settled in.  Surprisingly, neither of them is responsible for the worst performance in the movie.  That comes from Morris Chestnut, who is abysmal as the evil “49er,” a ruthless kidnapper out to make a fortune.  49er takes a judge hostage…but enough about the plot.  I apologize – I was getting excited thinking about it!  What gives Half Past Dead a special place in my heart is one line 49er says in his dramatic, William Shatner-esque vocal delivery. 

49er is on the phone with the hostage negotiator.  He explains that he has taken a judge hostage, and that the judge is strapped down in an electric chair (don’t ask).  With the camera zoomed in on his face, 49er says:

“All I have to do is flip a switch and, well, she’s dead…Dead by the tool of her own trade.”

Dead by the tool of her own trade.  Ah.  You don’t get lines like that in The King’s Speech.  The wit.  The irony.  The interesting diction.  I’m thankful that there are movies like Half Past Dead; that there was a screenwriter who put a judge in an electric chair and then couldn’t resist pointing out how clever it all was.  Because, see, if I wrote something like – “With lines like that, it isn’t Half Past Dead – it’s a quarter past brilliant!” – I would obviously be doing so in a tongue-in-cheek manner.  “Dead by the tool of her own trade” has real confidence.  It believes in itself.  I will find it incredibly inspiring, as soon as I stop laughing at it.

*

Peer Buddies

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The little girl barely raised her eyes when she spoke.  I don’t know what her name was, only that she seemed embarrassed.  She was in the 7th grade, as were all of the girls in the room.  The other girls, with their braces and hoodies and makeup, all nodded along to what she was saying:

“It made me uncomfortable,” the little girl said.  “Especially when I hugged him, and he grinded his body against me.”

Let’s back up a bit, before anybody was grinding anybody.  Way back before Adapted Physical Education got too physical, before Peer Buddies became Hug Buddies, and before our self-contained class of special education students let their hormones overtake all those lessons on how to be “appropriate” in the community.

The Peer Buddy program at Crestdale Middle School was, in theory, a perfectly sweet idea.  The school had one all special ed class – Miss Tee’s class.  There were nine students in that class, and each one of them was assigned two regular ed “peer buddies.”  The regular ed kids were all volunteers, so this was not anything that was forced upon anybody.  They were selected based on their grades.  In other words, these were really good kids.  They wanted to buddy up with a schoolmate with special needs.    For forty-five minutes each day, the Peer Buddies would take their friends to what was called “Adapted PE.”  It was basically just gym class, the only adaptation being that the Peer Buddies were there to help out.

To our kids, the Peer Buddies were AWESOME.  It was the only time during the entire day (apart from lunch) that they were allowed to mix with the other students in the school.  For forty-five minutes our kids could integrate with the “regular” students, talk with them, be their friends, and really become people with personalities and not just a bunch of kids in a disabled class.

They could also, unfortunately, sexually harass all of the female students.

The problem with the Peer Buddy program was in getting the kids to make the distinction between an Adapted PE partner and an actual friend.  When our kids started calling the Peer Buddies their “best friends,” you could see a level of awkwardness set in.  Michael would ask his Peer Buddy what he was doing over the weekend, and there would be hesitancy and blushing in the “I’m busy” response.

The girl Peer Buddies had it worse.  They had to band together and tell their English teacher that the Peer Buddy program wasn’t going very well.  Miss Tee and I were called in.  There was the assembly of girl Peer Buddies, looking like a middle school version of NOW, ready to tell it like it was.  There weren’t angry, though.  Instead they seemed shy and sad, almost guilty for saying what they had to say.

“At the end of class,” one of them said, “the boys all ask us for hugs and kisses.  When we let them hug us, they rub against us.  It’s really uncomfortable.  We don’t want to do the Peer Buddy program anymore.”

I didn’t know what to say.  I was just as uncomfortable and embarrassed as the girls seemed to be.  Miss Tee, though, stepped right up, speaking in her strong voice.  When she spoke like this, it never seemed antagonizing, but instead like she was saying something so clear and obvious it could only be said with blunt force.

“Don’t let them hug you,” she said.  “Why are you letting them do that?  Would you let a boy in your math class do that?”

The girls all shook their heads “no.”

“No, you wouldn’t,” Miss Tee went on.  “You have the right to say ‘no’ to them.  Just because they’re special needs kids, you think you have to let them hug you?  They’re boys!  And they ask for kisses and you think that’s okay?  That’s not okay!  Girls, what are you thinking?  You don’t have to quit the Peer Buddy program.  All you have to do is say ‘no.'”

Our boys got a lecture as well, and more lessons on how to be appropriate in the community.  After the meeting, checking up on our students in the Adapted PE class, I started to see the girls stand their ground.  They would shake their heads ‘no’ and speak firmly.  The hugging came to a fast end.

That was the only thing that came to an end, though.  To the students in Miss Tee’s class, the Peer Buddies were still AWESOME.  As the summer crept in and the school year came to a close, our boys learned to respect boundaries, and the 7th grade girls learned to enforce them. The brilliant thing about the Peer Buddy program, it turned out, was that it wasn’t always easy.  It did what an inclusive program is supposed to do. It taught the kids about themselves, and about living with others.  They learned that it isn’t simple kindness that allows us to adapt to one another, but basic honesty instead.

(In Self-Containment: Memories of a Teacher’s Assistant is my ongoing serial about the year I spent as a TA in a self-contained special ed middle school classroom.  The names of the students and teachers I talk about have been changed.  “Peer Buddies” is Part Four.)

*

Better Than Hanging: The History of the Dryer

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J. Ross Moore was damp as hell, and he was not going to take it anymore.  On his farm in North Dakota, in the early 1900s, Moore knew there had to be a better way.  Frustrated with having to hang his clothes outside to dry, he built a shed, stuck an oven in it, and started hanging his clothes there instead.  With that, the light bulb went off over his head.  Moore took his idea a step further, making an oil-heated drum to dry his clothes in.  He later sold this idea to a manufacturer, who produced a machine they called the “June Day.”  By 1938, the “June Day” was being sold in stores and J. Ross Moore, once only a farmer with clammy clothes, became the inventor of what is known today as “the dryer.”

It took J. Ross Moore about 30 years to invent the dryer.  Several other now-common items had already hit the market when the dryer was finally completed – the iron (1903), vacuum cleaner (1907), dishwasher (1913), and pop-up toaster (1919) were all being used already.  So why, one might ask, did it take so long for a clothes dryer to be invented?  And, greater still, why has clothes drying technology advanced so little in our modern age?

Dryers first started using a negative pressure system to dry clothes back in 1958, and that’s pretty much the same way clothes are dried in a modern dryer.  In other words, while dryers have gotten more gadgets and special features (like settable timers, for instance), the method of drying clothes hasn’t changed.  The dryer, then, despite what could be a fancy appearance, is maybe the most unevolved of appliances; just look in a laundry mat, where the dryers still have coin slots.  Even the soda machine can take a dollar bill, but to dry clothes a person must have quarters, as if they’re at an arcade in 1986.  I remember walking around the laundry mat with a roll of quarters, not sure if I was there to dry my clothes or play Donkey Kong.

I became curious about dryers because I live in South Korea and there are no dryers here.  There are, I’m told, machines that can both wash and dry clothes, but there aren’t machines specifically for drying clothes, and the multi washer/dryer is not that common.  In its place is the drying rack, which I have in my apartment.  It takes about two-thirds of a day for clothes to dry on a drying rack, although I typically leave mine on longer.  I want my clothes super-dry.  Anything less doesn’t make sense to me; that would be like showering, looking at your towel, and choosing to shake-dry instead.

As I collected my clothes from the drying rack this morning, I asked myself that most important question: why has clothes drying technology advanced so little?  The answer, I believe, is that there are some things that don’t need to get any better, and really probably aren’t all that needed in the first place.  As wonderful as J. Ross Moore’s invention is, the dryer is essentially a tool of convenience.  I’ve read that in Japan right now, they’re busy trying to invent a “microwave clothes dryer,” but it has so many safety problems that they can’t get it approved.  Leave a pencil in your shorts, and the microwave dryer will burst them into flames.  Forget a cigarette lighter, and the microwave dryer explodes.  The simple act of drying clothes doesn’t lend itself to all the wonders technology has to offer, and pursuing it any more just isn’t worth it.  This particular field of business, it seems, has all dried-up. 

(Note: I would like to point out that I start this essay with a play on a famous movie quote, and end it with a pun.  That’s all.  Thank you.)

*

So-Mi the Seaweed Girl

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There was no way I could call the girl I had met over the weekend without asking my Korean co-teacher, Hye Jeong, for help.  And because Hye Jeong is extremely inquisitive, I had to explain the entire situation to her.

“You see Hye Jeong,” I said, “when the girl put her number into my phone, she wrote her name in Korean.  I have no idea what it says.  So I need you to tell me what this girl’s name is.”

“You don’t remember her name?” Hye Jeong asked.  I responded by making a drinking motion with my hand.  “Oh,” she said, “you were very drunk.”  I nodded.  Thankfully, Hye Jeong didn’t have any more questions.  She looked at the name entered into my phone.

“Her name is So-Mi,” she said.  Then, because she’s nosey, Hye Jeong added, “You will tell me tomorrow if you have date.”

Calling a girl for the first time is always nerve-wracking.  It’s even worse, though, when the girl is Korean and doesn’t speak much English.  Normally, I would ask a girl out in a roundabout sort of way, making small talk and stalling, poking around the question until I had a fair idea of what the girl’s answer would likely be.  But with a language barrier, there’s none of that.  There’s no banter, no warm-up jokes to build character.  There’s just the question, plain and simple.

I called So-Mi around eight at night, not expecting the conversation to turn out at all like it did.

“Hello?” she said, after about 10 seconds of silence.

“Hi, So-Mi.  This is Bill.  We met at Who’s Bar Saturday night.”

“Oh!  So sleepy!”

“Sleepy?  Okay.  Do you want me to call back some other time?”

“No no.  Oh, headache!  So sleepy!”

“Really, I could call back later.”

“It’s okay.  I’m sorry.”

“Okay, I’ll make it quick then.  What are you doing Thursday?”

“Thursday very busy.  No no.  Very busy.”

“Oh, that’s too bad.  Can I see you next week?”

“Next week very busy.  We will go out next year.”

“I’m sorry?  Next year?  What do you mean?”

“Next year.  We will go out 2011.”

“That’s four months away, So-Mi.  How about Saturday?”

“Very very busy!  We will go out January, 2011.”

“You’re not free anytime before that?”

“Headache!  I call you then.  Next year.  Bye bye.”

With that, we hung up.  It wasn’t exactly what I’d hoped for.  Looking on the bright side, though, I did have a date.

As it would turn out, So-Mi didn’t call me in 2011, but in November instead.  “It’s party night,” she said, and we agreed to meet each other out at the same bar where we’d met the first time.  It had been a long time, and I was worried that I wouldn’t recognize her (especially since I didn’t really remember what she looked like to begin with).  Luckily, though, when I arrived at Who’s Bar, So-Mi was the only one there.

“Hey, So-Mi!” I said, although my facial expression surely wasn’t as enthusiastic.  She was quite chubby, with enormous glasses and a gigantic green knit hat on her head.  “It’s pretty warm in here,” I told her.  “Don’t you think you can take the hat off?”

“Oh no,” she said.  “It is my style.  It is like college student.”

So-Mi didn’t go to college, but instead worked at Home Plus, which is kind of like the Korean equivalent of Target.  She wanted to go to a university, though, to study cooking.  We got drinks, and she slammed hers down before I’d taken two sips of mine.  With her hands free, she began eating the rectangular squares of dried seaweed that the bar had set out.

“Boy,” I commented, watching her shove fistfuls of seaweed into her face, “you really like that seaweed.”

“I am very funny,” So-Mi said, smiling.  Then she began taking little bits of the seaweed and sticking them to her face.  “Ha ha ha!  So funny!” 

She put spit on her cheeks and stuck more bits of seaweed on.  “Yeah,” I said, “that’s really hilarious.”

After we’d removed the seaweed off of her, we tried to have a conversation but it just wasn’t going very well.  So-Mi put her head down on the bar after every sentence.  “Oh, headache!  So drunk!”

In horror, I realized that a friend of mine had come to the bar to watch the football match.  I slipped away from So-Mi, who was alternatively putting her head down on the bar and whacking back more seaweed, and went over to my friend.  I hesitantly admitted that, yes, I was with the girl at the bar and, yes, I would eventually have to go back to her.

But when I turned my attention back to the bar, So-Mi had somehow vanished.  She was gone without a trace.  That wasn’t really a bad thing, so I sat with my friend and drank.  Two hours later, So-Mi suddenly re-appeared.

“Where did you go?” I asked.

“Hi!  It’s party night!”  She had no explanation whatsoever for where she had been, nor did she seem aware at all that she hadn’t been at Who’s Bar.

It probably goes without saying that she and I never had a second date.  When people ask me about Korean girls, I usually end up telling them about my date with So-Mi the Seaweed Girl.  It may be mean.  Unfair to the poor thing.  But I imagine that somewhere So-Mi is sitting with a group of Koreans, and perhaps they’ll ask her if she’s ever had a date with a white guy.  And maybe she’ll shake her head in disapproval and tell them about the lousy guy she went out with once, who didn’t laugh at her humor, and who didn’t act in any way that made the slighest bit of sense.

*

Men with Vicious Elbows

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Every since I got back from Thailand, I’ve been trying to Muay Thai fight everybody.  In a bar a few weekends ago, I tried to leap off my friend Thanh’s bent knee and then kick her in the face.  Although she’s a girl and I shouldn’t try to kick her, she appreciated the ambition in my move.  Another move I’m fond of involves throwing a jab with the left hand and then following it with a devastating elbow to the back of the head.  This is a good move for me.  I’m skinny and lack muscle; my elbow is a boney bludgeon of death.  This is why I developed a quick affinity for the Muay Thai – it focuses on elbows, knees, and precision.  And it looks cool.

In Koh Samui, trucks drive up and down the main streets advertising the Muay Thai fights.  One Friday night I went to Chewang Stadium with the hopes of seeing some intensely violent action.  The stadium is located down a side street, very close to a little red light district.  Thinking back on Thailand, it seems like almost everything is located within a reasonable distance of a red light district.  Chewang Stadium is not really much of a “stadium,” as it’s about the size of a Bally Total Fitness.  The place was packed with blood-thirsty foreigners, drinking Singha beer in the stands, while the fighters sized each other up, swaying side-to-side to the strange and constant sound of a Pi Java.

Since I only wanted to see someone get knocked out, the third match was by far the best.  Older Thai men sat by the ring placing bets, mostly on the favorite – Sittisak – who I figured must have been good because his picture was on the poster.  The entire experience of seeing two guys fight in a room filled mostly with men, some gambling and others just drinking and shouting, feels rather anachronistic, like being in a movie from the 1940s or something.  For two rounds, Sittisak threw elbows and missed, sulking back to his corner where the gamblers yelled at him in Thai.

I looked around at the crowd, trying to see if there was anyone I could take.  It’s been ages since I’ve been in a fight, and sometimes I wonder if I have it in me to actually throw a punch with real conviction.  Turning my attention back to the ring, I was delighted to see Sittisak land a sweeping kick directly on his opponents jaw.  His opponent stood there for a second, stunned, and then shattered.  His body crumpled and he fell flat on his back.  The crowd was uproarious.  Sittisak looked like a happy little boy.  He did a somersault and then kicked his mouthpiece into the adoring crowd, all while his opponent shook and twitched on the canvas like he’d stuck his finger in a socket.

Sittisak and the crowd were in such great spirits that I started to wonder why people don’t fight more.  If you think about it, it’s amazing how few fights there are in regular life.  Eventually Sittisak’s opponent was helped to his feet, and the crowd politely clapped for him.  Maybe that’s why there aren’t more fights in real life, I thought.  Because in real life, no one claps for the loser.  In reality, there isn’t a corner team there to sweep the loser away and return him to wherever he belongs.  No, in reality the loser is not a pleasant sight.  Not outside the confines of an arena, where fights aren’t for sport, the audience isn’t comprised of strangers, and the elbow blows probably sting a whole lot worse.

*

The Place Where Elvis Stood

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On one of our first dates, two years before we married, Betty and I talked about the places we’d been.

“I’ve never been out of the country,” she said.  “I went to school in Ohio for a little bit.”

“I went to Florida once with my parents when I was a kid,” I said, thumbing through all of my life experiences.  “Oh, and I’ve been to Ohio too.  And I’ve driven through Pennsylvania.”

It was clear that neither of us had really been anywhere outside of New York state.  Pitifully clear.  Having read On the Road and The Sun Also Rises and a few Henry Miller books (like an English major is supposed to), I was ashamed.  Kerouac had Mexico, Hemingway Spain, Miller Paris, and we had…Ohio.  Betty and I continued to date.  Eventually we decided that it was necessary that the two of us embark on some form of journey, and one that didn’t involve flying because we were broke.  We would have to settle on a youthful exploration of our great big country.

We wanted someplace that would really symbolize America.  But not the faces-in-a-mountain, cracked bell, remember-the-Alamo America.  That was an America found in textbooks.  We didn’t want to go anywhere colonial, or, God forbid, anyplace with the world “fort” in its name.  No, we wanted an America found in novels, the Big America, with burgers and fries and people who sing on street corners.  An America alive, ready to be consumed, one full of pop culture and irony, almost a mockery of itself.  Betty and I were living in an age of sarcasm, after all.  We wanted to see an America we could be proud of and, simultaneously, laugh at.

So we chose to go to Graceland.  It seemed like a good decision.  Elvis had to be the perfect representation of America’s split personality.  He was larger than life, a superstar of stamps, collecting cars and planes and filling out every inch of his stars-and-stripes jumpsuit.  And at the same time, there was Elvis the country gent, with old-fashioned values, cherishing mom, loving his wife, singing songs to his daughter in their dream home.  As quickly as an inkjet cartridge can spit out a set of MapQuest directions, we were in my car and on the road.

We would go on to spend exactly one week in Memphis.  This was our grand voyage.  It turned out to be a pretty run down place, full of beat-up old cars and panhandlers.  We kept ourselves busy.  I remember looking out on the balcony where Martin Luther King was shot, eating at B.B. King’s restaurant, and seeing all things Elvis – the King of Rock and Roll. There are Kings everywhere you look in Memphis.  The place is full of ‘em.

Then we went to Sun Studio.  In the basement, there was a tall microphone sitting on the floor by a huge picture of Elvis, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash.

“That microphone was used by Elvis himself,” the tour guide said.  “He made some of his earliest recordings in this very room.”  Betty had me go stand by it and she took a picture of me and the Elvis microphone.   In it, I look nervous, clutching the mic stand with my right hand with a forced smile on my face.

Betty and I held hands on our stroll through Graceland.  We saw Elvis’ gold records and later his grave.  She took pictures so we could remember it all.  Around that time, we realized that we were only half-interested; that we didn’t really like Elvis much to begin with.  We left Memphis unsure of why we’d gone there in the first place.  It was good, though, because we had a week in a strange place to spend together.  We had danced on Beale Street and made love in the Best Western Benchmark Hotel, right across the street from the Peabody where the ducks come out of an elevator in the morning and waddle around like ugly babies.

Betty framed the picture of me holding the Elvis microphone.  It was on the wall all through our marriage.  Now she’s in America and I’m in South Korea, and that time in Memphis has sunk deep into the past.  I can still see that one photograph, though, in my head when I think of it.  I wonder if Betty kept it or threw it away.  There I am, standing in the place where Elvis stood, back when I was young, waiting for my future, so very much in love.

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Desk Full of Hate

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My Vice Principal has a very clean and lovely desk.  He keeps one framed photograph on it.  I’ve talked to him enough times to know that he has a wife and a daughter.  However, neither of them have found their way onto his desk.  Instead, the one framed photograph is of him and the Principal, standing in front of the school, smiling and looking highly professional.

There’s nothing wrong with that, although it might seem a little odd to a Westerner who’s used to pictures of babies or spouses being on someone’s work station.  In essence, the workplace picture serves two purposes: to show off and to motivate.  The first is obvious.  A person wants their co-workers to notice, to say “what a cute baby!” or “awww! you and your husband look so sweet together!”  The second is for the worker, so that in those head-rubbing moments when the thought “why the hell am I doing this to myself?” goes through the mind, there’s a readily available answer.  You can’t quit because you have a baby.  Look, there’s proof on your desk.  It exists.  Stop typing up that resignation letter.

In thinking about the workplace picture, I stumbled onto what I think is a bright idea.  Personally, I’m mostly motivated by bitterness and resentment, as opposed to silly notions like family or pride.  It might be a good idea, then, to fill my desk with pictures of those people that drive me to do better – the ex-girlfriends and the folks I just don’t like.  I could go through Facebook, print off pictures, buy frames, and stock my desk full of the hated. 

“Say,” a coworker might ask, “who are they?”

“Oh,” I would say, “that’s my ex and her new boyfriend.  They look happy, huh?  Those bastards!”

And then, theoretically, I’d become highly productive in order to show them the excellence I’m capable of.  Having to see, say, a picture of Glen Beck everyday would send me into a working frenzy.

“Hey, Bill,” someone might ask me, “I heard you wrote two novels last year?  Where’d the inspiration come from?”

“My desk full of hate,” I’d answer.  “Yeah, I was having trouble finishing the second one, so I framed a picture of Frank Wycheck from the Music City Miracle.  Then the novel just kind of wrote itself.” 

People keep pictures that make them happy.  There’s a tragedy in looking at a picture and wishing it was you in it and not someone else, or that your team (go Bills!) was the one celebrating in the end zone.  I’d never actually do my “desk full of hate” because of that “show off” factor.  It would be hard to admit, as I would often have to, that the picture doesn’t often turn out the way I’d hoped it would.

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Deviants in the Classroom

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“In a deviant society, why and how do people avoid deviance?” – Walter Reckless’ Containment Theory

Most of the kids in Miss Tee’s class had what were called “behavior problems.”  It’s one of those nice educational terms that exists so kids aren’t called bad, naughty, or, as I like to think of them, devil children. Another term used to describe Miss Tee’s class was “self-contained.” This is an odd phrase, one that makes it unclear as to whether the teacher works with children or with a contagious disease.  By definition, it just means that the students learn all subject areas in one classroom, but it sounds as though they have the bird flue or something.  I wonder if there was a big meeting somewhere, and the brightest people in the school system chose the term “self-contained classroom” narrowly over “sequestered zone” or “quarantined place of learning.”

In February of 2005, I got my first job in the field of education, becoming Miss Tee’s Teacher Assistant.  I chose to be a TA because I thought that the experience would show me the ropes.  As a TA, I could learn how to be a teacher from the inside.  Miss Tee had taught for ages, and I figured she would show me how to write lesson plans, how to differentiate instruction, and how to implement classroom management techniques that could turn a bunch of hooligans into a class of student-handbook abiding citizens.

For the first few days, this was what happened.  Miss Tee was a slightly older woman in her late forties or early fifties.  She was alternatively stern and kind as I thought a teacher should be.  Despite her name, Miss Tee had been married for years and had a daughter in high school.  I eventually learned that every woman in the South is referred to as “miss” regardless of her marital status.  In addition to Miss Tee, there was also a sign language interpreter in the classroom, an Italian woman around the same age as Miss Tee named Miss Pepperoni (hey, changing real people’s names is hard, cut me some slack on this one).  Of course, Miss Pepperoni was also married.  She and Miss Tee got along famously.  So well, it turned out, that on some days there would be very little interpreting and even less teaching.

As I got used to working in the classroom, I started to grasp the daily routine.  After I got the kids off the bus, the class ate breakfast in the empty cafeteria.  Next came the longest portion of the day, when the kids did a math worksheet independently while Miss Tee and Miss Pepperoni read the newspaper and talked about their lives.  Around mid-afternoon I took the kids to the gym for Adaptive PE.  Miss Tee and Miss Pepperoni stayed in the classroom.  Lunch followed, and then story time.  Finally came my most active duty of the school day: taking the kids to the soccer field to play while Miss Tee and Miss Pepperoni watched Oprah.

Since I considered myself her apprentice, I was a bit disappointed.  When I asked Miss Tee about lesson plans, she simply said, “I don’t do those.” There were no tests and I saw no evidence of any curriculum being followed.  Eventually, Miss Tee laid it out for me nice and clearly.

“We’re self-contained special ed,” she said.  “The school don’t care about us.  How many times does the Principal come in here?  Maybe once or twice to say ‘hi’ to the kids.  These kids don’t take state tests! They don’t do EOGs.  That’s what the school cares about.  We just stay in our room and make it look like everything is nice and happy.”

Way back in the 1950s, a criminologist named Walter Reckless created what he called his “Containment Theory.”  It concerns how individuals resist acting out in deviant ways.  One of the main “buffers” in his theory is the “outer society,” which basically provides rules and dictates what is generally acceptable behavior.  Thinking back on that classroom, with all those “behavior problem” students, it’s striking how the teacher, Miss Tee, might have been the most deviant of anybody.  It makes sense, though.  There was no outer society to keep Miss Tee in line.  She had broken away from it, presumably after years and years of her special education class getting nothing but neglect and indifference from the rest of the school.  Our class wasn’t really a part of the school society.  And as a result, everyone did what they wanted.  The kids played soccer. The teacher watched Oprah.

Remembering my time as her assistant, though, I can clearly recall those days when Miss Tee’s “inner buffer” took over and she did what she knew how to do: she taught.  And man could Miss Tee teach when she wanted to.  When she read the class a story, they sat there riveted.  When she talked, they listened. When they misbehaved, she ended it with just a look.  Being with Miss Tee, I saw glimpses of one heck of an amazing teacher.  And I also saw – maybe more importantly – what can happen to a great teacher stuck in self-containment, in a school system that never bothers to look or say thanks.

(In Self-Containment: Memories of a Teacher’s Assistant is my ongoing serial about the year I spent as a TA in a self-contained special ed middle school classroom.  The names of the students and teachers I talk about have been changed.  “Deviants in the Classroom” is Part Three.)

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The Clean Apartment Theory

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On a Friday night in September, a friend and I sat in Two-Two Chicken, eating chicken drumsticks like they do here in Korea, with a fork and a set of small clamps.  It was while engaged in this rigorous form of dining that he and I began talking about my messy apartment and the connection it had with my ability to pick up women.

“What’s the state of your apartment?” he asked.  “Would you be comfortable bringing a girl back there?”

“It’s all right,” I said, lying.  My apartment was in a complete state of disarray.  The floor was covered in socks and undershirts, the table in used tissues, and the bathroom floor in hair shed from multiple parts of my body.  I had been using my soap dish as an ash tray, and had knocked the cigarette butts all over the place without picking them up.  The same soggy noodles had been sitting in my sink for days.  I would, in fact, not have been comfortable bringing a girl back there, unless maybe she was homeless.

My friend pulled some flesh off his chicken.  “There you go,” he said.  “You’re already mentally defeating yourself.  If you don’t have a place to bring a girl back to, you can’t really believe you’re going to pull a girl tonight, now can you?”

I sipped my beer and mumbled, “It ain’t that bad…”

“But it isn’t good,” he said.  “I read about this in a book.  It’s called ‘The Clean Apartment Theory.’  For a guy to have confidence with women, he must have a place prepared to take them.”

Many hours later, I returned to my apartment alone.  I looked at it and shook my head.  If this was a metaphor for my confidence with women, I might as well have taken a vow of celibacy.

The next week I slaved away like Cinderella, dusting and sweeping and mopping until the place looked pretty pristine.  I washed the socks, cleared the cigarette butts, and made a small wig from the hair, which I then sold to an ajima to cover her bald spot.  When Saturday night rolled around, I set out as I normally did, happy the apartment was clean but skeptical that anything would come of it.  I mean, I’d only changed my apartment.  The bigger problems – my clothes, hair, head and body – were still present.

Now, I promise that this next part is true.  To my shock and delight, I successfully brought a girl home that night.  The Clean Apartment Theory – in its first application – had actually worked!  In preparation for the next weekend, the apartment was cleaned again.  Thoroughly.  Low and behold, that Friday, I found myself sharing a cab home with an entirely different female.  Could it be possible, I wondered, that in all these years talking to girls, the only thing I had to do was clean my place?  That was the key to success? 

“I just want to warn you,” I said for my own amusement, “my place is a little messy.”  I wanted her to be blown away by the tidiness.  Once we got there the girl looked around and said, “What are you talking about?  This place is spotless.”

“Yes,” I said.  “Oh yes it is.” 

I didn’t know it then, but I had hit the zenith of The Clean Apartment Theory.  For the next month and a half, no lovely set of eyes would see my sparkling place of living.  No girl would share a cab home with me or wake up in my bed, filled with regret.  Oh no.  And through this stretch of failure, the apartment gradually began to regress.  It fell into a routine – hell Monday-through-Thursday, freshly cleaned on the weekends.  The state of my apartment depended entirely on my plans.  If I wasn’t going out it would go back to being messy.  Or, as I thought of it, normal.

But although the shine of the theory has lessened,  I’ve still made a vow to keep my place nice.  The Clean Apartment Theory isn’t about having a well-prepared lair.  Instead it’s about creating a feeling of control and responsibility, of adulthood and competency.  The Theory makes me face the question, “What kind of person would you be if you could keep an apartment clean ALL of the time?”  A better one, I think, especially if done out of discipline, and not just to create an illusion for a random girl, whose own apartment might not say so much about her.

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