24 Jul

Ecuador Travelogue (part 7)

The ride back to Quito in the afternoon was a lot shorter than the morning ride — about 1.5 hours vs. 3 hours. And I thought the terrain we rode over was much prettier. But it may have been because the clouds had lifted entirely and everyone else was falling asleep, so I didn’t feel self-conscious about gazing past their heads toward the landscape. We were arranged in two benches, facing each other, kind of like a small army truck. And we made it back at about 4:00, with plenty of time to make the dinner we arranged with some of my former students.

We met them at a mall, unfortunately. And the food we ate was mediocre, but five students showed up — Natalia, Silvia, Maria Sol, Maria Eugenia, and Cesar — and it was a lot of fun to reconnect with them all. The conversation highlighted for me just how much weaker my Spanish currently is than it was during my final months in Quito back in 2005.

I knew when we lived here that there were all sorts of limits to my understanding of Ecuadorian language and culture, but I was learning so much every day, and as a result, I was focused more on what I understood about Ecuador than what I didn’t comprehend.

This trip didn’t hold the same amount of promise in terms of daily revelations. So maybe that’s why I focused on my own deficiencies in understanding.

I tried to over-romanticize it. In fact, on one of our first nights in Mindo, I wrote in my journal about all the ways in which Ecuador is superior to the US. You can catch a bus anywhere and get off anywhere. Travel is cheap. Food is cheap. Adventure tourism is cheap. People are very willing to help you. You ask for directions or tell your hostel owner that you have a slight stomachache and pretty soon you’ve got hand-drawn maps and chamomile tea being brewed for you morning and night. A woman with a small child gets on a bus, and some punk teenager who’s been blasting reggaeton from his cell phone says, “Senora, sientese no mas,” and gives up his seat for her. Perfect strangers will ask you to be their daughter’s god-parents.

Even as I was writing that list, however, I was aware that our being American may have motivated the god parent offer and that the buses pollute horribly and that their lack of formal stops leads to increased congestion and that food/travel/tourism being cheap has more to do with poverty than it has to do with kindness and that for every positive, there’s probably some equal and opposite negative lurking around the corner.

There’s no doubt that the people in Ecuador are/were wonderful to us. But our lack of Spanish mastery and our cultural naivety blinds us to a lot of the social machinations that we see so clearly here in our home culture.

Back home, if I’m standing in line at a grocery store, and the guy ahead of me throws a temper tantrum, calling the cashier a bitch, and adding, “you people are always trying to screw me over,” I would be shocked. I’d feel the tension in the air. I’d feel horrible for the cashier.

In Ecuador, a heated altercation is actually one of the more difficult things to understand. People tend to talk faster, and they throw in a lot of colloquial language or palabrotas (bad words). But even if you do understand the words, you’re comprehending the denotations (dictionary definitions) without necessarily knowing years’ worth of contexts and reactions. You haven’t witnessed the relative rarity of the palabrotas; you haven’t seen the shock on your parents’ or friends’ faces when you first heard them uttered years ago. So witnessing such an altercation is almost more like reading about it in a book than experiencing it first hand. There’s a sort of distance that being alien gives you.

This distance is a double-edged sword. It’s often frustrating, but it’s also often comforting. Words are watery. They don’t soak in. There’s very little social stress. But there’s also little sense of social injustice. You miss out on instances of racism and classism. And I’m sure it makes you look stupid occasionally.

I remember my first trip abroad to a country where English wasn’t spoken. I was 17, and I stayed with a family in Seville, Spain for a week. At one point, we were walking downtown, and my host mother pointed to the narrow streets and said, “Calles muy anchas, no?” And I nodded and said si. A little later – I’m not sure how much later – I realized that anchas meant wide and that host mom had duped me into agreeing with a ridiculous assertion. I corrected myself when we got back home; I felt dumb and, overachiever that I was, I needed to tell her that I was aware of my mistake. But now I wonder what motivated her little trick. Was it playful? Was it just a test? Or was it slightly mean-hearted? Did she set out to prove my lack of understanding? Did she want to laugh at me?

I prefer to think the best, and in fact, my Spanish host mom was a very kind and somewhat timid woman herself, so I can’t imagine she had cruel intentions. Still, the point is that I don’t know. The point is that I was the blind alien.

It doesn’t take much to recognize kind-heartedness and sincerity and selflessness in others. It requires more sophisticated understanding to see duplicity and selfishness and cruelty. And I theorize that reverse culture shock is really about re-entering a society you fully understand from a society you thought you understood but really didn’t. Does that make any sense?

You return to the states in 2005 in the middle of the Bush years at the height of American xenophobia with a media system as broken as it’s ever been, disseminating misinformation by the truckload, and you understand all of it. It’s all too clear. And since you can’t retreat to a world where you’re more ignorant, where you are reading the story rather than experiencing it, you start telling your own stories; you start making shit up.

11 Aug

Am I The Only One Who Has Reached His Limit of Hearing Morgan Freeman Narrate Things?

There’s the commercial where he talks about how Michael Phelps is not a fish, how he doesn’t have gills or a dorsal fin. And then there’s the one where that track star falls down and his dad helps him across the finish line. And I think there’s another one about past Olympians who didn’t medal but who are inspiring anyway. And there are some renewable energy ads that he also narrates. And maybe a GE ad, I’m not sure.

But I also seem to be hearing him in all sorts of other places. Like there was some documentary on PBS recently that was narrated by . . . Morgan Freeman. And while I was flipping through the channels, I must have passed by Shawshank Redemption or March of the Penguins or War of the Worlds or Million Dollar Baby or Cosmic Voyage or Driving Miss Daisy or Seven. One of those.

And I had a dream the other night narrated by Mr. Freeman where some penguins were escaping from a prison in the deep south and faced all sorts of hardship until, in a heartwarming conclusion, they finally made it out and ended up meeting in Mexico.

He’s freaking everywhere.

Of course, this happens to all of us, doesn’t it? You hear a new word or phrase like, say, “baba ghanoush,” and pretty soon, you’re hearing it all the time. Once, the word bougainvillea started stalking me. I saw it in The Poisonwood Bible and then I began to notice it in the lyrics of a Paul Simon song and in the lyrics of an Iron & Wine song.
Read More

02 Feb

How A Teacher Reacts to A Snow Day

Well, technically, it was a “cold day.” The district has a policy which states that if the wind chill is under -30, then school gets cancelled. And even though it later got sunny and warmed all the way up to 9 degrees, it was too cold at 6:00 am to allow school to go on.

Of course, I still went. See, I don’t watch the local news in the morning. Or at all, really. So I was not informed of the cancellation. But on my way to school, I noticed the streets were eerily empty of traffic, and as I got closer, I saw too many free parking spaces. And then the real tip-off: the teacher’s lot was empty.

Still, it didn’t feel right. I didn’t trust it. I went home and checked the district’s website. Sure enough, it said, “Madison Schools Closed,” which should have meant case closed. And yet, I couldn’t help but doubt. So I turned on the TV and waited for the scrolling “school cancellation” notices to say “Madison Schools.” And then I checked the local news websites.

Later, I even called another teacher.

Can you believe that crap?

I wonder if it’s human nature to distrust good fortune. I can see how it would have been advantageous to our ancestors — like those who were fighting with neighboring tribes — to suspect their good luck. (“Oh look, our enemies are bringing us virgins and livestock. How cool is that?”) So maybe we’ve gradually evolved to be suspicious of gifts.

But throughout the day, the other thing I noticed was that I felt like I should be working on something. It was the third day of a new semester, so I didn’t have anything to grade; my classes were all planned for; I didn’t have to copy any handouts; I didn’t have letters of recommendation to write; and since I’ve taught all of this semester’s classes before, I really didn’t need to plan ahead at all.

I had no obligations.

It was truly a day off.

And yet, all day long, I couldn’t shake this nagging guilt that I was slacking off. I was reminded of an article I read years ago in Harper’s Magazine about idleness. I vaguely remember the author’s argument being about how American society has deified work. We all worship this “Church of Work” and we praise being busy. As members of this strange cult, we sacrifice our relationships and our time. But we also sacrifice our cognition. We sacrifice thinking.

Last semester was one of my busiest in years, despite my being part time. I was putting in way more than 40 hours per week, schooling myself on literary movements in England from Beowulf to early 20th-century Modernism. And it was certainly thought-provoking. But there’s a qualitative difference between thoughts of an idle mind and thoughts of schooled one. Schooling (for teachers and students) requires a focus and some structure — both good things to become familiar with if, for instance, you’re going to write an essay as good as that Harper’s one (which, by the way, I found online: it’s called “Quitting the Paint Factory” and it’s by Mark Slouka). And I don’t think I’d want schooling to be any other way.

But when it’s all-consuming, it kills another type of thinking. I’m not sure exactly how to describe this idle thinking. You can get originality elsewhere; you can get wonder in other places; you can get brief bouts of mental healing from a variety of sources. In fact, everything you get from idle thinking, you can get from other sources. But you never get them in one place. It’s like a nutrient-rich stew for the soul!

Okay, that’s hyperbole, but I still think I’m onto something.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m all about working hard. I love challenges and believe whole-heartedly in being put to the test occasionally. In fact, I run my classes with this belief in mind, and I get noticeable results from students when I push them. It’s not effort, determination, or working one’s ass off that I oppose. It’s the sheer quantity of work that so many of us are engaged in — so much that a day off leaves us feeling like something is wrong. And so much that the quality of it all is diluted.

On that cold day, as I was walking home, I predicted that I’d sit around playing video games for hours (they are, after all, my guilty pleasure). But I ended up messing with some web design stuff and playing the guitar, both of which I haven’t done much of in recent months. And that’s the difference between leisure and idleness. Idleness is unpredictable and chaotic. It feels like a waste of time, but it really isn’t.

As Mark Slouka puts it,

Leisure is permissible, we understand, because it costs money; idleness is not, because it doesn’t. Leisure is focused; whatever thinking it requires is absorbed by a certain task: sinking that putt, making that cast, watching that flat-screen TV. Idleness is unconstrained, anarchic. Leisure – particularly if it involves some kind of high-priced technology – is as American as a Fourth of July barbecue. Idleness, on the other hand, has a bad attitude. It doesn’t shave; it’s not a member of the team; it doesn’t play well with others. It thinks too much, as my high school coach used to say.

I have no plans to work toward making idleness the dominant state of my life. But I hope not to lose track of its importance. When the next snow day comes, I’m going to try my hardest to do nothing.

28 Jun

Watch out, I’m getting political.

Okay, I’m trying to begin to articulate some of the issues I’ve seen in past years with race and privilege, and much of my summer research is revolving around this stuff, so I figure I might as well share it. These arguments are in their infancy, but by trying to express them, I hope to get closer to making sense.

“You know, talking about race makes people uncomfortable.” — Kathleen Brose, parent who sued Seattle Public Schools over the district’s race-based balancing of school diversity.

Outside of the U.S. it’s easy to see the lack of political engagement of US citizens. Here, it’s a cultural trend to be apathetic toward social issues and toward the leadership of the country. Yes, we have talk radio and blogs and news, but in how many families is injustice a topic of conversation at the dinner table? I know that when my relatives all get together, we don’t talk about Darfur or Iraq. We tend to focus on more personal stories – what happened to us at the grocery store, how we got locked out of our car, those sorts of things. Not that such topics are a problem. But it might be a problem that political discussions are compartmentalized in this country, seen as only appropriate in certain limited contexts, and not a central part of our social lives.

If anything, new media – like podcasts and blogs and youtube – show what we actually thirst for discussions of political/social issues. Though the discussion are not often very civil on the web, people are indeed interested in more than just dramatic prairie dogs. A recent viral video proves that the internet community’s interests are about: it’s a clever little mockumentary called “Teenage Affluenza Is Spreading Fast.” Interestingly enough, it addresses the topic of disengagement. In fact, it ends with the lines, “Do something else. Do something real. Do something.” It’s a call to action for us wealthier, citizens to do something to help out the poorer people of the world. It doesn’t say how, and that’s another discussion. But it’s effective at least in making its point: we should keep our affluence in perspective.

I saw the video for the first time today, just after hearing news about the Supreme court decision to reject using race as a factor in school placement. On an NPR radio segment, they interviewed a Seattle parent who was among those who got this case rolling in the first place. It was an interesting juxtaposition – the ironic affluenza video vs. the disgruntled white woman. Here’s an audio clip of the interview with the parent.

I don’t disagree entirely with this mother. The Seattle system of school placement is certainly not flawless, but what’s implied (not stated outright) in her explanation of her daughter’s legitimate complaints about the school placement is that the family ultimately ended up opting for a private school. (** Turns out I’m wrong about this. The daughter stayed in a public school. **) And they sued.

Clearly they have money and power, a combination which often results in getting your way.

As a high school teacher, I see this sort of thing all the time. Wealthy – often white – parents occasionally like to “fight for their rights.” I’ve endured insulting meetings in which I had to justify why a student earned a B+ rather than an A in my class. I’ve had people in my neighborhood come to my door asking me to sign a petition to prevent the school district from re-drawing the district boundaries so that the children on the west side of such and such a street would be moved to an Inferior School. And I’ve seen how year after year, the district’s budget crisis puts the strings program on the chopping block and how at the last minute, it’s always saved by the parents’ campaigning at school board meetings. Meanwhile, special ed programs get cut and sports fees increase.

The less power-savvy parents don’t know how to talk to the principal or the school board to get their way. They don’t go in to school and talk to their kid’s counselor to change his schedule. They often don’t have the time to go into school (because they’re working jobs with less flexible schedules). And many of them know that worse things can happen to you than not being allowed to attend your first choice high school.

The affluent(za) parents are often financially very secure. Many of the more active parents in the district don’t have full time jobs – or any real jobs as far as I can tell. So they have the time to complain. And they have lots of energy when it comes to fighting for their child’s privileges (not rights, actually).

I live in a liberal college town – one with plenty of Volvos and Subarus and backyard vegetable gardens. Occasionally, on one of those Volvos, you’ll see a bumper sticker that says, “Think globally, act locally.” I fully support that sentiment, but too often, the self-righteous parents who get their way at school board meetings fail to follow the admonition. They think locally. Which is why our city remains very segregated and why our state has been rated as one of the worst places in the country to live for African-Americans.

It’s the sense of entitlement and the fighting for privilege amongst the already-privileged class that ultimately institutionalizes racism in places as high up as the US Supreme Court.

23 May

The Cat’s Ass

In my creative writing class, today, we went over a story by Eric Puchner called “Essay #3: Leda and the Swan.” In it, the narrator uses the phrase “the bee’s knees.” One of my students misunderstood the phrase as meaning nervous, a good guess but not quite right. This particular student even rephrased the expression a little, saying, “she said she had bee’s knees.”

Another student clarified, “no, that’s an expression. It’s like the cat’s pajamas.”

“Yeah,” I added, “or the cat’s ass.” I was met with 27 blank stares. “What? Nobody’s heard of the cat’s ass?”

The entire class burst into a mixed chorus of no’s and laughter. “What’s it mean?” the nervous bees knees girl asked.

“It’s just like the cat’s pajamas only a little harder, I guess.” And then just for the hell of it, I added, “tough guys say it.”

They just plain didn’t believe me. Minutes later the bell rang, and my fellow teacher walked into the room to set up for her class, which was gathering in my room for the next hour. One of my exiting students said, “Ms. Hyzer, you’re the cat’s ass,” to which an offended Ms. Hyzer said, “Well thanks a lot.”

“You’ve never heard that expression?” I asked. Indeed she hadn’t. In fact, she was just as skeptical of its existence as my students. Later in the day, Ms. Hyzer took the issue to another colleague of ours, whom she dubbed “the source.” He wasn’t familiar with the cat’s ass either.

At this moment, I might have said to myself, “Jeez. First Ambesol, now this. What’s going on?” But let me be clear on the following: I do not doubt the cat’s ass.

Still, I was curious about its origins, so I looked it up. I should note that at this point, my cat Winnie jumped up on the computer desk and started pacing back and forth in front of me. I kept looking around her and occasionally pushing her ass out of my face. As I was doing so, I typed “cat’s ass” into google, which immediately responded with, “Did you mean: cat’s pajamas?” Just kidding. In fact, there were over 1.4 million hits for “cat’s ass,” the first of which is a link to a forum in which some humorless Canadian tells of a very humorous situation:

I have currently heard the use of “The Cat’s Ass” on American television. I was very surprised since I thought I originated the phrase. I was doing my Ph.D. research in Scotland (late 1980’s) when I was introduced to the phrase “the dog’s bullocks”. I though it was somewhat amusing to reinvent the phrase in an attempt to make a boring Canadian seem more exotic. I came out with the phrase “The Cat’s Ass”. I have done some research on Network theory and Small world theory and know it would be very quick to propagate a new phrase throughout social circles. Any thoughts.

Despite this guy’s lifeless writing, I found this really funny. Actually, I nearly choked on the Gatorade I was drinking and sprayed some of it on the cat’s ass. Good thing she was there or I would have destroyed my keyboard.

An aside: you know when a kid in the cafeteria drops a tray and all the other kids start going, “oooh”? Or when a principal walks into a classroom and requests a private conference with one kid and everyone else starts lowing “ooooooh” like cattle? I’m pretty sure I know the kid who invented that.

Anyway, most of the results on the first few pages of the google search have to do with the phrase “the cat’s ass.” One even gives this incongruous example: “Have you tried these stuffed mushrooms? They’re the cat’s ass!” I mean c’mon. That’s like saying, “this swiss chard strudel is tits!”

Several of the sites had names like “urbandictionary.com” or “pseudo dictionary”; like their names suggest, they were sites dedicated to phrase origins and slang. Though there was one site titled “my cat can kick your cat’s ass,” and a later entry that boasted “Poop Stuck to Cat’s Butt advice by Janet Choi, Kenny Hamshaw.” Ironically, poop stuck to your cat’s butt is not the cat’s ass.

The fact that I have enough time this week to write about the cat’s ass, however, is.