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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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.

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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.

 

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Babies in the Street!

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Far off the beaten path, Nana Plaza is one of Bangkok’s most notorious areas.  On AsiaWebDirect, it’s referred to as “sleaze central,” and described as a three-storey “sex mall.”  Walking through Nana Plaza at night is like stepping into a dark dream world.  Hookers and ladyboys line the streets, calling out “handsome man!” to any guy who passes, regardless of how handsome he actually is.  Two midget doormen sat outside one bar I passed.  A woman led a blind man down the street; he carried a speaker and a microphone and sang Thai songs, his eyes stark white and looking nowhere.  Amputees are everywhere, begging for spare Baht.  I saw my first Alexandro Jodorowsky movie when I was 17, and suddenly I felt like I was in one.

The most unsettling thing, though, was the amount of middle-aged ladies, sitting on the sidewalk outside the go-go bars, holding babies.  The babies were usually cradled in their arms or slung over one bicep while the other hand held out a cup for money.  On the patios outside the bars, white men sat with Thai girls (most of whom look old and worn), chatting to them while they fake laughed and waited for their bar fines to be paid.  During the entire charade the women with their babies hung around, plopped down between the cops who did nothing and the transvestite hookers, hoping that pity would cause a drunken stranger to drop a few coins in their large plastic cups.

Nana Plaza becomes bare and empty in the day.  The girls in their short skirts and lipstick are sleeping, it seems.  It was my last afternoon in Bangkok, and I walked around aimlessly with lots of unspent Baht in my wallet.  My flight would leave in a few hours, and I decided that I would just give the rest of my Baht away.  It’s a nice gesture, but it doesn’t make me a good person: I wasn’t so much concerned with helping people as much as I just really didn’t care about the money.

I started by giving 500 Baht to a woman with two children: a baby and a girl who looked to be about five.  The woman and the kids were elated.  An hour later I walked by them again.  They were all eating street food and they waved happily at me.  I gave 200 Baht to a man with one leg.  He smiled sweetly up at me.  He had a snow white goatee, dark tan skin, and a naked stub that looked like a swollen knuckle.

Another 500 Baht went to a woman with a baby and an older son.  She shut her eyes and bowed her head as I approached, closing her hands in prayer.  I didn’t want to stick the 500 Baht note in her plastic cup where her coins were collected, so I waved it below her face hoping she’d notice.  Her hands parted and she took the money, keeping her head bowed and her face pointed down the whole time.  She never once looked up at me.

These are all images that will stick with me.  The strongest image, though, was from the day before, when I walked past a lone baby sitting on the sidewalk outside Nana Plaza at about ten o’clock at night.  The baby was by itself, crying and wailing and looking up hysterically at whoever passed by it.  People kept walking by the baby, looking at it and stopping for a few seconds, then moving on.  I walked by the baby too.  It was groupthink at its purest – if nobody else saw anything wrong with a baby alone on the sidewalk, then that means it’s nothing to be concerned about, right?  The baby was still all alone when I walked away.  And I didn’t look back, not to see if the baby’s mother ever came, maybe with food or money, to rock it in her arms outside a sex mall until it stopped crying.

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