On Teachers

It had been one of the great mysteries of my lifetime – one day she was there, the next she was “sick.” Days went by, then weeks. Lincoln Logs rose and fell, and before we knew it the year was over and our substitute teacher had become our real teacher. She even appeared at the top of our yearbook page.

I never knew what happened to my Kindergarten teacher until many years later when I was ringing up my boss’s wife’s soy milk at the health food store I worked at during high school. She was a veteran Kindergarten teacher at the same gradeschool I’d attended, from the days before the peanut butter sandwich was a chemical weapon. “Oh wow, you had Mrs Gerber? Huge scandal; the poor old woman had a pill problem.”

And just like that, the greatest mystery of my lifetime had been solved. I felt a deep sense of loss; life ought to be full of mystery and wonder and pointless conjecture. In the time it took to apply a paltry employee discount to a dairy substitute, I’d been robbed of fodder for my wayward imagination (a feeling which lasted until 2014, when my conspiratorial gears creaked into motion again following the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight 370.)

I recall the ceremonial meet-and-greet before the first day of school. I was staring at the kind of linoleum that would serve as the stage for the next 17 years of my life. My mother pried me off her leg and made me “say hello to Miss Gerber!” Miss Gerber was old, her skin mottled with sunspots, her hair an unkempt space helmet affixed to her head by gaudy geometric earrings. Her left arm was in a cast slung across her matronly midsection. She looked at me with glassy eyes and tightened her features across her face in one of those closed-mouth smiles that kind old women make.

Ms. Gerber had been in a car accident and broken her wrist and had subsequently been prescribed opioid painkillers. She was positively swimming through the first 6 weeks of the school year. She spent most of her time doting on us rather than teaching. “Oh, you’re all so special,” she would say. “Just wonderful.” I’m sure we did seem like an awfully special class since every other class for the past 30 years of her career had been presided over in a state of dull sobriety.

Then one day Ms. Crock showed up. “Ms. Gerber is sick,” she said. “I’ll be your substitute teacher today.” Ms. Crock was nice enough; she was younger and seemed – well, sober. She did a good enough job reading children’s books and disciplining Christopher Suppelsa, who had a habit of cutting off his shoelaces with safety scissors. The administration offered Ms. Crock a permanent position. By the end of the year, our inquiries about Ms. Gerber had slowed to a weekly occurrence rather than hourly. Still, the mystery loomed over us. It reinforced the youthful delusion that the adults in my life lived only in the moments spent in my presence – if Ms. Gerber was no longer in my classroom, she ceased to exist. Matters of object permanence aside, a goodbye would have sufficed.

Constance Blair’s character flaws were obvious enough that there could be no conjecture about her status as a basketcase. She was my second grade teacher and an absolute sadist. If you had the misfortune of having a birthday between August and May, you were liable to find yourself braced against the ledge of the chalkboard, ass facing the class while “the Blair Witch” delivered “birthday spankings” using a wooden ruler. She didn’t cause any physical harm, just the kind of emotional trauma that starts as a salty burn deep in your eye sockets and spreads to the top of your skull and down to your sternum until all 40 pounds of you is hot and inside-out and and inflated from holding back the confused rage for which, by second grade, you feel you’re too old.

One day, I spilled a drink and I found myself kneeling on the cold floor and swabbing ineffectively at the spill, using dozens of shitty recycled paper towels while the entire class watched. Mrs. Blair stood over me and criticized my technique, which was to push the mess around and wait for this defining moment in my childhood to be over. My face burned and my eyes started leaking into the mess. The saving grace of this memory is that I and my peers had not yet reached the stage of pure sociopathy – that would come in a few short years. We all understood on some level that she was deeply flawed and emotionally unstable. Their sympathy aside, the feeling of smallness stuck with me and worsened with each of her many acts of classroom sadism.

My middle school employed an elderly woman who occupied a useless administrative position that left her with enough free time to “watch” us when a teacher had to step out of class unexpectedly. She would amble in and spend the first few moments threatening repercussions before plopping down at the teacher’s desk and slipping into a sound sleep. Her head would tilt back, falling away from her jaw to reveal a quivering uvula. We behaved, for the most part, but tested the sonic limits of her unconsciousness – if the noise level got too out of hand, she would come to and claim to have been watching us the whole time. Had we been a few years younger, we might have believed her to be some kind of mystic, but we were old enough to know that she was suffering from a health condition that made it impossible for her to be fired.

My memories of school are these supercuts of wonder and embarrassment, lunchroom laughter and tears choked back; fresh pine woodchips in the fall and honeysuckle nectar in the spring. As for teachers, I remember the good, the bad, and the weird. The good teachers are the ones who love their jobs, who give a shit about their kids. The ones who cultivate a sense of wonder in us.

In elementary school, Mr. Avery handed out oil pastels and made Van Goghs of us. In middle school, Ms. Smith demonstrated her love for her job that I all but forgot that I hated math and, for once, felt capable of it. In high school, Mr. Glenn, aware that I was perpetually stoned and disinterested, woke me up by blasting the Grateful Dead’s Box of Rain and launching into a lesson on transcendentalism. The common denominator among these teachers was this intuition about what exactly it is that makes a kid feel capable and cared-about. They knew how to ignite our curiosity and make our failures feel less like failures and more like learning.

As a new teacher, I fall somewhere on the spectrum of utter mediocrity. At this stage, I’ll likely be forgotten completely, as are most average teachers. Maybe someday I’ll be good enough that I’m remembered the way I remember the good teachers in my life. In any case, I’m not a sadist, a narcoleptic, or otherwise afflicted with something that will forever etch me in their memories as a whackjob. For now, I’ll probably forgotten like yesterday’s breakfast. And for now, that’s okay. I’m happy to leave each of my lessons having learned more than any of my students.

Lunch in Katy, Texas

Viewed from space, Houston, like all cities, very nearly resembles a malignant cancer or a slime mold. But it’s different somehow; it’s a pernicious kind of mold unique to the green prairies of America. Houston is a prime example of induced demand – the highways always reach capacity no matter how wide and plentiful they are because humans will always move in on empty space. It’s the microeconomics of Manifest Destiny.

You scream or sputter along the arteries of this megatropolis on massive freeways, flyover interchanges supported by beams emblazoned with a star of Texas, and for miles you see a landscape heaving with big box stores and fast food restaurants and malls and megachurches; strip malls of culture; retail space measured in football fields, parking lots big enough to land jetliners; consumable, retouched, gas station tchotchke faith. It’s a vast Mecca of a particular kind of consumerism unique to America – doubly evocative in that Houston is built beneath the burping smokestacks of oil refineries.

I stopped for lunch in the suburb of Katy. Katy is a place where the earth is systematically scraped clean of all vegetation and replaced with the empty promise of happy families. Pine scaffolding and insulation and sheetrock and a facade encase the promise and massive tracts of land are geometrically organized in such a way that streets lined with mailboxes and trash cans wind gracefully into cul-de-sacs. Once a suburb has been carved into the earth, a landscape designer will plop tiny little saplings onto the earth and adorn The Promises with visions of the fully grown tree. “It’s a new build!”

I stopped for lunch just as Church™ got out and stood haggard and underdressed among the faithful in line for overdressed salads. At the register, Manicure thumbed through her patent leather pocketbook as her flailing blond-haired son flung his limbs and farted his armpits. Behind me, a floral skirt flitted just above a pair of diabetic ankles crammed into orthopedic pumps. The woman living above the skirt looked down in purse-lipped judgment at the flailing limbs and then at my shoes then my pants and then my shirt and then my unmade face. I smiled. Her pursed lips creaked into a small smile. Her nose crinkled. There was a geometry even in the way our gazes had started at each other’s shoes and met at each other’s self-righteous smiles.

I sat at a table in the corner and watched heads bob up and down to meet forks and spoons. Each head was attached to it’s body by a necklace or a collar. Up and down. They were swans. A Russian ballet of head bobbing, pecking at You-Pick-Two™ specials, jaws churning, adams apples floating up and down on strawfuls of sweet tea. Broken crayons and defrosted french fries accumulate under swinging bobbysocked feet. “What did you learn in Sunday School?” Her tongue stuck out as she tried to color inside the lines. She broke her crayon.

An hour before they had been an audience, a congregation, each of them a pastel-colored scaffolding around which promises are built. An hour before their single-family homes had sat empty while they sat by the thousands in multi-million dollar stadiums of Osteenian faith. Pressure-washed faith; stripped of last millenium’s gothic pomp in favor of clean lines, light shows, and showmanship. At 606,000 square feet, it’s a formidable display of American values – Big Box Glory of God.

Impossibly Cool

Please refrain from looking impossibly cool on the stairs in case there’s a fire. You may look impossibly cool in the pit or at the bar or in the designated smoking area but not on the stairs. The stairs are for sauntering up and down while your long, neglected, perfect hair moves on your shoulders like a heavy curtain in a light breeze.

Please ensure that the walkway remains unobstructed at all times so that patrons can move freely to and from the bar carrying three plastic cups full of beer in two hands, froth cascading over the sides, eyes darting from the cups to the crowds, shoulders level, gliding ballerino with a backwards cap.

In the interest of maintaining an impossibly cool environment for all guests, we ask that you please abstain from erupting in Whoops and Yeahs. Sir, if I hear another exuberant throatsong I am going to have to ask you to leave. You are to be stoic and unaffected, your eyelids at half-mast, you are a fog moving in or a storm that dies on the brim of a mountain ridge.

If you begin to feel buoyant, there are stoned baristas stationed throughout the venue who will be pleased to remind you that you’re oppressed and poor and uninsured and shot like a cannon from a womb to a tomb.

In an effort to elicit a string of profanity from the eccentric frontman, one and only one motherfucker is permitted to throw an empty cup at the flamboyant mutton-chopped percussionist.

We are pleased to announce an exclusive VIP section for guests over forty. Designed with the salty wisdom of the rapidly-aging in mind, this spacious area nestled between the restrooms and the bar offers a comfortable respite for our patrons who would like to reminisce about the mid-to-late nineties while making hostile remarks about millennials with their thrift stores and their mobile devices. Guests to the VIP area must show proof of at least one bitter divorce at the entrance. Please note that while you are free to leave at any point to victimize disinterested young women wearing plum-colored lipstick, the venue is not responsible for the total deflation of your masculinity with one withering glance.

Youthful faces that have yet to desiccate from prolonged exposure to toxic chemicals are encouraged to smoke natural hand-rolled tobacco in designated areas only. The designated areas are all of the empty spaces between other people. Health-conscious guests who prefer emitting mighty clouds of Glade PlugIn vapor from their smug lungs are asked to please stand near the stage as this creates a pleasing psychedelic ether around the musicians whose arms all move up and down at the same time as if connected by fishing lines to a puppeteer.

We appreciate your help in maintaining a brooding, self-conscious environment in which concertgoers can hear live the exact same songs they discovered from a single earbud threaded up the sleeve of a baja hoodie in chemistry class ten years ago. Please bring yourself and two sulking pre-anesthetized friends to the benefit party after the show in a clawfoot bathtub at 220 Waller Street. Free drugs with your donation of 20 damp dollars. All proceeds go to some guy with neck tattoos.

The Blighted Crevices of Anywhere

Boca Raton, 2003. You’re in one of those kind of shitty beachside hotels that’s 5 years overdue for a renovation. The white vinyl upholstery on the booths is grimy and the watercolors on the walls are faded by the sun. The waitstaff are forced to wear visors and white denim shorts and they are being bossed around by a drunken Cuban and sexually harassed by sixty-seven years plus three Coronas at each table every night.
Your sweaty, sunburnt thighs are sticking to the vinyl and the water is treated with sulfur and tastes like flatulence. You’re picking at dry flakes of what is allegedly Mahi Mahi and it’s drenched in bright green Zinger Sauce and served alongside a pitiful salad garnished with clementine wedges. There is utter silence and a fallen army of cocktail glasses between you and your spouse.
A voice bellows from across the half-empty dining room. He didn’t order this. This wasn’t what he asked for. Besides it looked like it came out of the freezer and no he knows what good steak tastes like and that wasn’t it. He doesn’t want an apology he wants it to be taken off the bill and so what if he ate it all he didn’t order it and it was your screw up not his – what’s your name – it was your screw up Chad not his so you can take this bill and shove it up your ass. Can he speak to the manager, you’re a zero Chad, where’s your manager. Go get your manager and quit making excuses he’s a very powerful man and he’ll make sure you never get another job in Boca Raton again and go get your goddamn manager he said he doesn’t wanna hear another word out of you Chad
The voice is ejaculating from a tawny plump mole-rat of a man. A Hawaiian shirt billows on top of the loose skin that flaps with his gesticulations; the whole thing seems to begin in his combover – which looks as if it were plucked off of a corn husk and placed atop two quivering jowls – and end in the defeated hand-wringing of the waiter. The manager arrives and deflects a barrage of the kind of racism that only spews out of those who move reckless through the world without a shred of self-awareness or empathy. The manager grabs the sweaty wrinkled receipt from the sun-mottled hand of the Hawaiian Shirt and begrudgingly removes from the bill the Surf N’ Turf, which is now being dissolved by a half-gallon of bile beneath a single layer of cotton-polyester blend and 40 pounds of subcutaneous fat.
The neural pathway from his brain to his mouth is an absolute colostomy and you wouldn’t trust him if he tried to sell you a wilted carnation from a plastic bucket outside of a Chinese restaurant in the blinking neon lights of the blighted crevices of anywhere. But he did manage to sell you the fantasy of destruction once, wrapped in a flag.

One Year Later

I left for my trip a year ago. I left mostly because I was cold. London was freezing and damp and dark, and I felt like my grandfather was somehow still in the walls and the creaks and the whispers of the world outside the window. He was nowhere to be found in the central heating system, that’s for sure.
I looked at a map and found a city in the south of Spain about which I knew nothing but I figured it was probably nice enough, given the latitude. I was supposed to meet some friends in Amsterdam in mid-March.
Six months later, after following an itinerary that had been borne out of little more than whims and geography, I watched the sun rise over the last little shred of Europe as the bus screamed towards the Bosphorus. It dumped me out at an enormous humid stinking bus station and I wandered across the sprawl of Istanbul in the heavy heat of mid-morning in a daze of sleep deprivation, halfway lost but used to the feeling. I checked into the hostel and left immediately for the Hagia Sophia, which I’d been dreaming about for months, and stood and looked up and all the chaos around me fell away and there was a white noise – the stupor of the sleepless night and the electricity of reaching the proverbial mountaintop – and then this song started playing in my head, which my dad sent me as a birthday gift – Love You by the Free Design:
“Give a little time for the child within you,
don’t be afraid to be young and free.
Undo the locks and throw away the keys
and take off your shoes and socks, and run you.
La, la, la…”
I’m writing this from the same room I lived in as a teenager, at the same perch from which I dreamed up all the different people I might be right now – I could be infinite permutations of myself; I could be miserable, I could be in love, I could be dead – but I’m none of those things.
The song and the sleep deprivation and the scale of it, the arabesque and the gold and the history reverberating through it; it made me feel childlike. All of it did – the languages I didn’t know, the streets I’d never seen, the customs I was unfamiliar with, the faiths I’d never been exposed to. But all those childish prophesies about adulthood seemed like pure fiction – fantasies, the idolatries of adolescence; they’d stemmed from fears and discomforts that were long gone. What was left of childhood was the peace of raw wonder.

The Calculus of Fear

What if we chose to accept the fact that every few years, despite all reasonable precautions, some hundreds or thousands of us may die in the sort of ghastly terrorist attack that a democratic republic cannot 100-percent protect itself from without subverting the very principles that make it worth protecting?

– David Foster Wallace, “Just Asking”

I have read that essay dozens of times, and in the wake of the most recent tragedy in Paris I’ve found myself reciting those lines again and again as if thumbing a rosary. And then I’ve started spinning my own hypotheticals, clamoring, like everyone else, for some idea that makes it all seem a little less horribly inevitable. I desperately wish there was some solution besides putting my hands over my ears and screaming.

I’m now of the mind that there aren’t any good solutions. This is the bed we’ve made for ourselves. Is it crazy to assert that maybe this was the kind of outcome that we should have expected when we began our not-so-surgical operations in the Middle East? Is it crass and insensitive to say that we’re undeniably responsible for the circumstances that have sprouted the most recent crop of extremist murderers?

I’ve learned this lesson (excruciatingly) in my personal life – there are conflicts in which one person is certainly the aggressor, and one person is certainly the victim, but there is very often a liaison without whom none of this would have ever happened in the first place, and who is in no way free of blame. A lot of my personal growth in the past year has centered on a really cathartic undertaking – sifting through all of the bad things that have ever happened in my life and parsing out how things might have been different if I hadn’t been selfish, reckless, and irresponsible. No, I didn’t personally regurgitate red wine all over the carpet, but I was the one who had the party and plied my drunk friend with my parents’ wine. Yes, my car was senselessly vandalized with a beer bottle last weekend for no good reason, but I did leave my car behind a building by a dumpster on a Saturday night in a known hotbed of crime and indecency.

Getting back to geopolitics, if we hadn’t stormed into an enormous desert and used heavy artillery to inflict democracy upon scores of heretofore indifferent shepherds, we might not have created the power vacuum that fostered the terrorists who want to destroy us.

Is it out of the question to demand a little bit of introspection on the part of politicians? To ask them to accept the responsibility that comes with being hired to alter the course of human history? We trust them to do it, we pay them to do it, and then we dab at our tears and nod when they stand at podiums and give very somber tributes to the dead before promising to unleash rivers of blood in retaliation.

Maybe instead of shrugging and muttering “boots on the ground” around the water cooler in the wake of tragedy, we should ask ourselves some difficult questions. Let’s start there.

First of all, to what degree can we prevent bad things from happening in general? To what degree should we try? To what degree have we squandered any chance of that? How close can we realistically get to creating a risk-free utopia? Hasn’t “getting rid of Them” proven to be a little bit too hamfisted to be a viable solution to terrorism?

Besides, who exactly are They? Who is Us? Even if we could eliminate Them, what kinds of thugs do you suppose would pop up in their place, and would we feel compelled to eliminate them as well? At what point do we declare victory?

Who do we entrust with the charred landscape of that victory?

And, at the risk of sounding cold and utilitarian, shouldn’t there be some kind of calculus or measure or scale that we can use to weigh the deadliness of a thing against the fevered alarmism that we employ in response to it? Cancer is deadly. Car accidents are deadly. Terrorism is deadly. The only thing that is inherently different about terrorism is that it’s a manner of death created for the sole purpose of instilling fear in a population. That’s the great paradox of it – the way we revile it is exactly what makes it successful. 

There is always an it-could-have-been-me after terrorist attacks (at least the ones that happen on Western soil). It’s that weird twinge of self-centeredness we get when we imagine our own lives ending in the same gruesome way – I went to Paris once and went to a café just like that! That’s the response that the terrorists were aiming for. Isn’t that frustrating? Our empathy begets our fear, and that fear is the victory of the terrorists. They’ve won, in their twisted way, the hearts and minds of the people.

Terrorism frustrates our baseline perceptions of safety in such awful ways because it isn’t something that we normally consider during routine risk-analyses (with the exception of a couple of government departments whose very existence depends on perpetuating fear). Car accidents and cancer diagnoses are statistically probable fates, and falling victim to brainwashed murderers is not. Death at the hands of brainwashed murderers is just not the kind of death that we’re prepared to accept. So we (whoever that is) have to do something. And the Do Something Mentality has begotten some of the absolute worst ideas the world has ever seen. Public policy borne out of the Do Something Mentality is almost always ineffective at best (the TSA) and evil at worst (Japanese internment camps).

And then there is the matter of Us vs. Them.

Terrorism is something that They do to Us. It’s our natural inclination to appreciate that simple dynamic. There’s a lot of nobility in fighting to preserve one’s way of life. People relish the opportunity to feel like they’re a part of something great. We love solidarity.

But no one said “that could have been me” when a remote-controlled flying robot blew a Yemeni wedding party to smithereens. Doesn’t that say something about where are our sense of solidarity comes from? If any wedding in the West had been vaporized for any reason, it would have received a hell of a lot of airtime or at least a couple of casseroles.

Before November 13th, there was (rightfully) a huge amount of media attention given to a movement that is based on the idea that we should feel solidarity with people who come from different backgrounds. That those lives matter. It’s a platitude, to be sure, but it’s not without merit. An innocent life lost is an innocent life lost. What difference does it make if it’s Jonbenet Ramsey or Trayvon Martin or Abdul Khader?

Am I out of line in pointing out the discrepancy between the respects we pay the 129 victims of the November 13th attacks and the indifference with which we regard the hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars? Am I such an isolationist for thinking that there’s no difference whatsoever between a dead Parisian and a dead Iraqi? Can I make the case that maybe the term “isolationist” is Orwellian newspeak? That the people who throw around the term as a pejorative are the very ones who think that lives like theirs are the only ones worth protecting?

Are we, by failing to accept responsibility for the colossal role we’ve played in fucking up the Middle East, tacitly in support of the idea that one American victim of 9/11 is worth roughly 71 innocent victims of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? What constitutes a reasonable amount of “intervention,” and how accurately does that body count reflect our values?

Screen Shot 2015-11-24 at 1.59.13 AMI have to wonder if doing nothing would be the ultimate triumph over terror. What does it say about our purported resilience that we are so warm to the idea of European countries instituting martial law as a precautionary measure? What message does it send to our enemies that our defense relies so heavily on drooling high-school dropouts wearing latex gloves and plastering color-coded “threat levels” all over the airport? Are we scared, or aren’t we? Is it out of the question to grit our teeth and continue to enjoy life in the wonderful, rich cultures that we’ve created by embracing free minds?

If every action we take in response to an act of terror is an admission of our own vulnerability, haven’t we already lost?



It’s that time of year again. Every shitty seasonal article clogging your News Feed starts with the same hackneyed opener, everyone is too politically correct to find your grandfather’s senility endearing, and the perennial flood of Thanksgiving turkey how-to articles is just ramping up.

You probably have a vegan friend who delights in reminding you about the genetic modifications that have rendered the modern turkey so buxom as to be immobile. You probably have a neckbeard friend who opportunistically mythbusts that old wives’ tale about tryptophan making you comatose. But I’m going to take a somehow unpopular position and advise you to say no to turkey. I’m going Nancy Reagan this year. Just say no. Turkey is not good.

gobblesIt’s touted as a lean meat by health nuts, which is essentially an admission that it tastes like shit. The debate should end there. Turkey’s one alleged merit is that it lacks the most desirable, most delicious component of meat, which is fat. Notice that the food scientists who are paid huge sums by multinational conglomerates to chemically engineer gustatory perfection never make turkey-flavored anything. Because turkey has no flavor.

On its best day (that would be Thanksgiving, because no self-respecting person would undertake the Sisyphean task of trying to make a turkey palatable unless tradition demanded it), turkey is really, really average. It’s just okay. The meat itself is just – it’s like eating styrofoam that’s been in the same room as homeopathic chicken broth. The goal of cooking a turkey is to make it taste like something else entirely. It’s a canvas for gravy. It’s a stage for cranberry. A cozy nook for stuffing. A lovely centerpiece.

When people discuss the turkey at Thanksgiving, they expect it to be shitty. If the chef manages to salvage any trace of moisture or flavor, it’s considered a success. Nobody ever fawns over turkey. “What a beautiful turkey!” they’ll exclaim. This just means that it adheres to society’s standards of what a holiday spread should look like. They’ll say, “It’s so moist,” meaning that you managed to preserve the water content – which is extremely difficult to do when there is so little fat to help contain the moisture. They’ll ask, in amazement, “how did you do it?!” because they cannot believe that you managed to not fuck up the meal by ruining a notoriously fickle bird. Nobody orders turkey at a restaurant, unless it’s one of those bullshit locaganigluten-free cafés that value elitism over food.


A turkey-free utopia. Austria circa 1939

This Thanksgiving – when you’re indulging in a truly succulent morsel of ham or beef or duck – any animal who hasn’t been genetically Dolly Partonified, who grew up singing in an Alpine pasture wearing repurposed curtains, who did not die for the sake of being the cartoonish nucleus of your smorgasbord, whose preparation does not require constant waterboarding – this Thanksgiving, you can direct your trite I’m-thankful-fors to me, Nancy Reagan