The Slacker Mystique

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“Each suburban wife struggled with it alone.  As she made the beds, shopped for groceries…lay beside her husband at night – she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question – ‘Is this all?’” – Betty Friedan, from the Feminine Mystique.

For as long as I’ve lived, I’ve never wanted to earn money.  I’ve wanted money – absolutely.  It’s the earning part I’ve had qualms with.  Through the course of my life, I’ve worked in the produce department of a grocery store, a deli, a car wash, a video store, a non-profit organization, a group home for people with traumatic brain injuries, and as a public school teacher.  Each job was entirely too much work and left me looking for something else.  Why was I exhausted all the time, and why did I look so forward to days off like a Seventh Day Adventist waiting for the Second Coming? 

In my last year teaching in the USA, I burned out.  Along with classes and managing student caseloads, I was on numerous committees.  It sometimes felt like I never left the school.  Free time consisted of thinking about school.  My social life consisted of talking about school.  Sometimes I wrote down the school address when I was supposed to write my own.  The job was defining who I was, and that frightened me.  I secretly longed to be like others whose lives are taken over by things that are more fun, like gambling, alcohol, or germ obsession.

It was time for a change, so I took a job in South Korea and off I went.  Not in search of happiness, but instead in search of laziness.

Yes, I wanted a job with less work and less stress, which I certainly found being a “Native Teacher” in Korea.  My schedule has me teaching fifteen hours a week, which computes to an average of three hours a day.  For the remaining five hours each day, I listen to music, play around on the Internet, and talk to people on Facebook.  Occasionally I make a lesson plan.  In addition to the light work load, classes are constantly cancelled due to testing.  This week, the students went on a field trip, effectively obliterating English class for the next three days.  And then there are the summer and winter breaks, for which I’m paid to come and sit at a desk for eight hours a day.  There are no students and no classes.  I sit alone at my cubicle, earning my paycheck just by being here.

It’s the perfect job, right?  I can come in hung over.  I can take naps and smoke breaks.  I can talk to people on Skype.  My students don’t even get a grade.  There are no term papers, no No Child Left Behind, no High Stakes Testing, no Pay for Performance, no IEP Meetings, no Liquid Office where I have to sign my observation or T-Sparta where I have to keep student grades on the Internet so the parents can see them.  There’s none of that.  No stress.  No pressure. 

Just a whole lot of time and a big blue chair to sit in.

Sounds nice, but when I talk to the other Native Teachers, I hear the same things from just about everybody.  I nod, because I understand exactly what they’re saying:

“The job sucks.  I don’t do anything.”

“I feel useless.”

“All I do is waste time.  Why am I here?”

“It’s like I don’t exist.”

We’re being paid to do very little, and yet almost everyone is unhappy with it.  Thinking about it, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Betty Friedan’s famous “Feminine Mystique,” where she talks about the existential crisis housewives faced in the 1950s.  The great question that Friedan posted – Is this all? – is something that I’m feeling every day at my school in Korea.  Just as there’s a Feminine Mystique, there’s also a mystique that goes with being a slacker – The Slacker Mystique, if you will.  Being a slacker, I’m finding, isn’t all that great.  The housewives Friedan wrote about wanted something greater than a husband and a home; the slackers I know, it turns out, want something more than self-amusement and an easy paycheck. 

Everything else about Korea is great, but sometimes the job gets me down.  Getting in first thing in the morning, at the start of an empty day, thinking of how rewarding teaching was back home, I ask myself a silent question as well, one that goes something like this: “If I’m doing something I think is important, is being defined by a job all that bad?”

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Martin

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Sometimes parents are lucky enough to have a child that is born perfectly healthy; other times, parents don’t have that luck, but do at least know what is wrong with their child.  Mr. and Mrs. Snider didn’t have a healthy child, nor did they have the comfort of knowing what exactly was wrong with their son, Martin.  They had brought him to doctor after doctor, and there was still no real diagnosis.  The doctors agreed on certain things though – Martin had profound mental retardation, his ears were big, his eyes were widely spaced apart, and he had an enlarged heart that would likely cut his life short.  For fourteen years, Martin’s condition was a mystery, until he and his mother were approached by a woman in the supermarket.

“She came right up to us,” Mrs. Snider told me.  “She wanted to say hello to Martin.  We got to talking, and I told her we weren’t sure what his condition was.  She said, ‘He has Coffin Lowry Syndrome.  Trust me.’”

That night Mrs. Snider went on the Internet and typed “Coffin Lowry” into a Google search.  All she had to see was one picture, and in that second, the mystery was solved.

“I looked at the picture,” she said, “and my heart stopped.  The boy looked exactly like my son.”

After Mrs. Snider told me this story, I too did a Google search of “Coffin Lowry.”  Like she said, it only took looking through some pictures to know what was wrong with Martin.  In image after image, I saw him.  The thick lips and eyebrows.  The sleepy look in the eyes.  The open-mouth smile.  There was my friend, obvious and apparent in each and every photo.  In reading about Coffin Lowry, I learned that the syndrome is rare, untreatable, and comes out of nowhere.  The disorder is caused by a mutation of a gene that isn’t passed down by either parent; in other words, it just happens, like raindrops without clouds or a fire without a spark.

Martin was the most needy student in the middle school classroom where I worked.  At lunch, I cut up his sandwich into small squares that he would eat with a fork.  I took Martin to the bathroom several times a day, sometimes to change him when he had an accident.  I held his hand when we walked down the hall.  Everyone in the school loved him.  Miss Tee, the classroom teacher, adored Martin.  The other students talked to him even though Martin couldn’t say anything other than “okay” or “bye bye.”  When Martin laughed, you laughed too.  He made people happy without trying.  It was something about his spirit, his energy, and the way he was with people.  He liked them.  There wasn’t a person – an adult or a student – that Martin Snider wasn’t happy to see.

Then one afternoon near the end of the school year, I brought Martin to the bathroom and he collapsed.  His hands started shaking and his lips turned white.  His eyes rolled back in his head.  It was one of the scariest moments of my life.  I ran out of the bathroom and called for help.  Martin ended up in the hospital, and I didn’t see much of him after that.  His mother came by the school to let us know he was all right, but didn’t go much into detail.  When he came back, he collapsed again.  Even through all that, he kept his big smile and his loud laugh.  He wasn’t there in June, on the last day of school, but Mrs. Snider brought him in to say goodbye for the summer.

“We really miss him,” Miss Tee said with a broad smile.  I missed him too.  He turned to his mother looking as happy as he had ever looked, and her eyes got misty.  She turned to him and said, “You hear that Martin?  Everybody loves you.  We’re not ready for you to go yet.”

Genetics is a strange thing.  It can produce perfect cheekbones, wonderful eyes, and an entire range of physical beauty.  Or it can somehow produce something else.  But perhaps it also can produce kindess and love, or at least I believe so, especially when I think about Mrs. Snider and her son Martin, holding hands and walking together out into the hot June day.

(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.  “Martin” is Part Five.)

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Mush

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At some point in time during the evolution of food marketing, a special niche must’ve developed for people with a knack for naming food.  Take a look at any well-done restaurant menu and you’ll see a wealth of rare words put together to dress any particular dish in the most delicious adjectives a linguist can cook up.  Over at TGI Friday’s, there’s the “Ultimate Sicilian Chicken Sandwich” and the “California Club.”  Le Bernardin’s in New York City offers a full description of each item on the menu, such as the “Poached Halibut and Braised Artichoke Chestnuts in Bacon, Persian Lime-Scented Truffle Broth.”  Even fast food gets in on the act, with choices like the “Junior Bacon Cheeseburger” or the “Pacific Shrimp Taco.”  Somewhere, I imagine, there’s a man with a large palate and an even larger thesaurus, paid great amounts of money to christen each new culinary creation with a name that’s tastier than a microwaved pretzel with snow-white salt cubes and keen yellow mustard.

But back in time, and in the deep South, years ago, such a man did not exist.  Hence, certain dishes have had to stagger through the years saddled with names that sound as appetizing as phrases like “road kill” or “toenail fungus.”  Perhaps the biggest victim of this, the not-so-enticing edible with the worst name of all, is the Southern favorite known as “livermush.”  There is nothing even remotely mouth-watering about that name.  We start with “liver,” a word that brings to mind the image of a bloated and spotted gland sitting in a metal dish and being photographed for a “what drinking does to you” poster.  That word is followed by “mush,” which is possibly the only word less appealing than “liver.”  Put them together, and one is left with a phrase that seems to function as both a disturbing verb and its apocalyptic aftermath.

Almost two years ago, recently single and searching for meaning in life, I hopped in my car and drove down to Shelby, North Carolina, where the annual Shelby Livermush Exposition was being held.  I’d never eaten livermush in my life, but the idea that there was an entire expo being held in its honor intrigued me.  Doing some homework beforehand, I learned that livermush is made from pig liver, spare parts from the pig’s head, and cornmeal.  It is apparently good with eggs and grits, and is sometimes smothered in grape jelly.  In other words, it’s sort of the food equivalent of a Damien Hirst exhibit or a retro-dish inspired by Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.  It’s strange and horrifying, and as a person of intellect, I was fascinated by it.

Shelby turned out to be a lovely Southern city, filled with the kind of hokey nonsense Northerners think The Nashville Network makes up.  The festival was small but colorful, with “I Got Mushed” t-shirts for sale and one livermush grill powered by a John Deer lawnmower engine.  The festival flew into high gear with a “husband call,” where old Southern ladies got on a microphone and called their husbands like they were calling a pig.  “Soo-eee!  Richard get over here!  Your dinner is a gettin’ mighty cold!  Soo-eee!”  This was followed by an enchanting cultural explosion when two white people dressed up like Native Americans got on a stage and sang Indian songs.  “Hey-Ya-Hey-Ya-Hey-Ya!”  I later learned that Shelby was once inhabited by Cherokee Indians, long before the white man came, stole their land, and replaced their lovely corn and berries with disgusting livermush.

The question that hung heavy, as I stood in the town square by myself, lonely and confused, quickly became, “Am I really going to eat the livermush?”  Since I had driven about two hours, and it was, after all, a livermush festival, it seemed that the deed had to be done.  So I went to what I thought looked like the least hygienic grill (if I was going to do it, it had to be done properly) and ordered a heaping portion of livermush, combined with eggs and coated in mustard, wrapped in pita bread.  I brought it to the steps of the town hall, where I sat and ate it.  I ate it little by little, chewing it thoroughly, sitting in the sun and enjoying a taste that teetered somewhere between greasy sausage and sewage sludge.

I had moved to the South to be with a woman, and here I was alone.  No fancy title could re-invent that chapter of my life, not the way one could make a cheap taco sound like a fine dining experience.  Some things just are what they are.  Like “mush,” as its fans call it.  There was an appeal to the South, but by the time that festival was over, I hadn’t spoken to a single person.  I wasn’t a part of that appeal; I was someone from the outside looking in.  Sitting there on the steps of the Shelby Town Hall, I glanced at my livermush sandwich, almost finished with mustard and grease coming out of it and getting on my fingers.  I dropped it on the steps and left.  It was interesting in its way.  Maybe a part of me would miss it.

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Style, Hair, and Other Inner Mysteries

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“Hair style is the final tip-off to whether or not a person really knows him or herself.”  ~Hubert de Givenchy, Vogue, July 1985 (slightly altered to include my gender)

Sitting in the hair salon, looking at pictures of men with works of art on their heads, it was hard not to feel a bit ridiculous.  The same shape had been perched above my face for the last decade or so; my hair is long on top and combed almost straight back, with a part down the middle.  I’ve never considered it to be a particularly good hairstyle, but then I’m not sure if I could spot a good hairstyle if one passed by my line of vision.  The only time I’ve ever considered taking a photograph into a barber shop was about four years ago, when I felt that Richard Belzer had a really cool look.  I never went through with it, despite my desire to be the first person to shove a picture of Richard Belzer in someone’s face and say, “Make me look like that!”

My friend Kim was the whole reason I was in the salon to begin with.  She had suggested giving me a makeover, and I was more than happy to oblige.  Hair was the first step.  Kim was adamant that my slickened mane had to go, and she emailed me a picture of what she envisioned as its replacement.

I opened the email to find Taylor Lautner looking back at me.  “I’m 32 years old,” I thought.  “I can’t pull off werewolf hair!”

We eventually went to the salon sans Jacob Black, deciding instead that the perfect hairstyle would be found somewhere in the salon’s book of haircuts.  We flipped through page after page of Korean men whose hair all sort of looked like a combination of Sid Vicious and Bruce Lee.  After some slight debate, Kim selected one she thought would be good.  She showed it to the hair stylist and said, “He needs help.  Make him handsome.”

About an hour later I emerged a new man.  Really, I was the same old man, which was obvious considering how uncomfortable I felt with my new “messy” hairstyle.  Kim then brought me to Uni Glo, where we picked out two new outfits.  I was unrecognizable to myself, and even though it felt awkward, I considered this to be a good thing.

The next day I told my friend Chrissy about the makeover and she said, “You shouldn’t change who you are.”

“No,” I explained to her, “I didn’t do that at all.  I had someone else change who I am.”

That’s the whole point of a makeover after all, isn’t it?  The idea isn’t so much to change as it is to recreate, to have someone with a keener set of aesthetics take your colors and swirl them into something brilliant.  The problem, though, is that the person with the makeover can’t stay in the salon forever.  The guidance goes away.  And there I was, left by myself, to paint my new “messy” hairstyle from memory, right there on my head where everyone could judge my accuracy.

I couldn’t do it.  The hair wax was applied, the hairspray rained down like pesticide, and I was left looking like Ed Grimley.  The hair that had looked pretty hip the night before had become a monstrosity.  The night before I was Orlando Bloom, but with the rising sun I had transformed into Ace Ventura.

Kim had to come to my apartment for emergency hair assistance.  Even she had trouble recreating the salon’s masterpiece.

“That’s not what it looked like,” I told her.  “You’ve given me a fo-hawk.”

“It’s not really a fo-hawk,” Kim said.  “It’s like one, just with less hawk and more fo.”

A few days later I threw my comb angrily into the mirror, causing four teeth to break off and fall into the sink.  My hair was driving me to insanity.  I was sick of it and was giving up.  The “messy” style, or the FO hawk, or whatever it was, was not something I could do on my own.  I would just put my hair back the way it had always been.

When I did, I looked at myself in the mirror.  There I was, the same old me.  I couldn’t help feeling an extreme sense of disappointment.  It was too familiar, my old hair, and I hated it.  I stuck my head back in the shower, grabbed the hair wax, and started all over again.

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The Ethics of Unfriending

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For a little over two years, I have been a part of a big and wonderful place of cyber-belonging called Facebook. And in those two years, I have “unfriended” exactly one person.  Granted, I did unfriend that same person at two different points in time, but never-the-less, only one individual has warranted an unfriending. Yet somehow I’ve been unfriended numerous times, which makes me think that I like people much more than they like me in return.  Although I don’t have the hard stats in front of me, I’m well aware that my I-was-unfriended/I-unfriended-someone ratio is not good.  Once, about a year ago, I sat down and looked at all the relationships I’d ever been in, and determined that my got-dumped/did-the-dumping ratio was a pitiful 10:1. The most humiliating part of that is I’ve only been in 11 relationships.

Last week alone, I was Facebook unfriended by three people.  My “friend” count went from 269 to 266.  I shook my head, knowing that I would now have to find three other people to send friend requests to.  My friend number had to be balanced back out, obviously.  Maybe those folks from high school who kept popping up on the “People You May Know” list would have to finally be friended.  You know who I’m talking about – the dude you vaguely remember, who shares like 45 mutual friends with you, and who you’ve sort of been in a friend-request blinking contest with.  I’d look at that person’s profile pic and think, “If he sends me friend request, fine…but I’m NOT sending that loser one!”  Seeing that I had lost three friends in a week, I was suddenly feeling nostalgic.

Going back to the one person I unfriended, I think it’s important to state that I told her both times that I would be unfriending her.  The unfriending was not done in a covert fashion, as most seem to prefer.  Oh no – I did my unfriending ethically.  She didn’t have to go on her news feed and think, “Where are Bill’s status updates,” and then slowly and in horror realize that the unfriending had taken place.  It seems only ethically right to send the person a message before committing the evil deed.  I’m not even saying that the unfriending party has to offer an explanation, just an acknowledgement that, hey, it’s time to say so long.  I’ve enjoyed your photos, “liked” a few of your comments, and now I feel I need to move on.

Now, I don’t think the “unfriending message” has to always happen. Sometimes it’s obvious why someone unfriends me – like in the case of the one girl I dumped.  But other times, I’ve been the victim of a shock unfriending.  Just recently, I found a former co-worker, the art teacher from my old school, on the “People You May Know” page.  I had no idea she had unfriended me.  Why on earth did this happened?  Was I culled? Did I say something offensive?  Did I post too many status updates? Maybe she was on an ego trip and was just axing people randomly for her own satisfaction.  It’s a mystery that will never be solved because, right now, silent unfriending is an acceptable norm.

I remember when I was a kid, there was a boy named Eddie Snyder who was a bit rough with my toys.  It was hard, but I had to tell Eddie that our friendship was over.  Did I feel awkward?  Sure I did.  Eddie understood though – it was for the sake of the toys.  In real human relations, there’s the understanding that saying goodbye is a part of the game.  No one likes to do it, but we realize that it’s the right thing to do.  The question, I guess, is: Do we consider Facebook relationships so trivial that normal rules of friendship don’t apply?  It’ll be interesting to see what the answer to that is in the future.  And, if that answer is ‘no,’ does that mean unfriending messages become the norm, or do goodbyes become a thing of the past, an artform abandoned for silent retreat?

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