Monday, November 29, 2010

Luxury: The New Spirituality

Enjoy Nature Without Having to Deal With it

Our chosen route out of Phnom Penh.
A number of years ago I flew to Cambodia to meet up with two friends who were riding tandem bicycles around the world. This was to be my first trip to a country without any semblance of a sanitation department so naturally I was pretty excited.

I'd travel with them along a common route: Phnom Penh to Siem Reap and the venerable temples of Angkor. Our mode of travel would be something less than standard. On the first day we pedaled just shy of 100 kilometers, along undulating dirt roads cutting across tree-studded plains baking in the heat, with only an occasional village to keep us on the more pleasurable side of dehydration.

At breakfast (plates of rice and mystery on a wobbly table at a roadside shack) my cycling buddies poured small packets of oraange something into their bottles of purified water. ‘Electrolytes,’ one of them said in response to my inquiry. Pixie dust, I told myself. But okay. These guys were biking around the world, they needed a lot of electrolytes. I was only there for a week. And besides I was no hotshot cyclist, I was just a hotshot. Plain water was good enough for me.

At our guest house that evening, curled up and clutching my stomach, unable to keep down so much as a leaf of Cambodian lettuce, I pondered the real-life effects of cellular osmosis and how I might ask for electrolytes at a drug store in Cambodia.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Guest Blogger Christopher Carr of The Inductive on Teaching a Foreign Language

Brilliant! Have a guest blogger post on my page and my output goes up with barely a diaper-change worth of effort. Why didn’t I think of this before?
Okay, actually I didn't think of it; this was Christopher's brainchild. The guy's got ideas coming out of his pores – check out his blog, The Inductive, and you’ll see what I mean. He is nothing if not proficient...and well-read...and insightful...
This doesn't necessarily mean I agree with him.
I can't stand teaching kids. This is has nothing to do with their ability to learn so much as it does my inability to maintain any sort of control over them without looking like the Shinto equivalent of the anti-Christ. Trust me, boss, you might want to just cancel class today...
The silver lining here is that, as Chris and I teach out of the same place, there is no discussion necessary when a kids class and an adults class happen to overlap. He reaches for the playing cards and I get the coffee ready.
In all seriousness, I feel fortunate to have crossed paths with Christopher. I first read his following post a few days ago, and since then I've found opportunity to try to teach my own son the concept of self-control, with amazing results. In vying for attention at home, he is beginning to see alternatives to stepping on his little brother's fingers.

Okay, on to Christopher Carr and today's topic: Teaching a Foreign Language
(For those of you accustomed to reading my normal posts, I apologize for the big words.)


As a teacher of English as a foreign language, I prefer teaching kids to teaching adults. There are several reasons for this. The first is that our civilization has wildly misunderstood the nature of language learning, and teaching kids doesn't require any unschooling. Adults don't learn second languages easily. There is usually a lot of unfounded, reductionist neurotechnobabble behind this assertion, but in practice it's because adults are often unwilling to look foolish. Adults learn facts about languages instead of languages. Kids on the other hand are seldom embarrased when they make mistakes. The trial-and-error style of learning required to learn a new language comes naturally to them. If adults are to succeed at language learning, they must either be shameless sociopaths or fluent in the metacognition behind language learning. (Check out this article in The New Yorker.) Apropos, language learning is something that suits the learning style of just jumping right in preferred by kids over the taxonomic style of learning preferred by besuited economic automata.

The second reason I prefer teaching kids to adults is related to the first: kids don't ask stupid questions. (It's often said that there are no stupid questions, only stupid answers, but, if your question produces a stupid answer, is it wise to ask it in the first place?) Usually kids don't need to be discouraged from asking questions uniquely tailored to their particular abilities, the answers to which confer vital subjective knowledge. Kids are usually far more perceptive of inference and intuitive knowledge than adults. There are some kids that struggle with language learning, and in my experience it seems they often have a lot of heavy-handed adults in their lives.

"Japan" could change its name to "heavy-handed adult place" and not miss a beat. I can't tell you how many times I hear the words "dame!" and "abunai!" from adults lazy and lethargic from chain-smoking shouting at their kids from across the play area. In short, the Culture of No makes everyone stupider (taxonomic knowledge is excluded) as a function of age. I had an elderly student tell me last week that she had no idea how to have fun. She then asked stupid vocabulary and grammar questions for twenty minutes; I answered all with variations of "whatever". This is typical of most adult ESL classes.

The third reason I prefer teaching kids is that the one problem associated with teaching kids is entirely solvable: kids are crazy and out-of-control ids. In that respect, it's helpful to think of them like convicts. I had a friend go to jail a few years ago, and he told me that his first day, he sought out the biggest, meanest-looking guy in the place and sucker-punched him right in his big fat stupid meathead face while he was eating lunch. My friend got pummeled before the guards came to his assistance, but what he also got was respect from enterprising, social-climbing bitches, snitches, and perverts. Not only did the other prisoners not try to make my friend take their pockets, but they actually aspired to get in his good graces by bestowing upon him solemn offerings of toilet wine and hair dolls.

Likewise with kids, on my first day I pick up and punt whoever is the reigning shitbrat, and his betas make me their leader. No, that was a joke. What I do do though essentially relies on the same principle: if there is a kid who's fond of jamma-ing the heiwa, I usually make him submit by shunning him, kicking him out of the classroom, or subjecting him to repeated public ridicule. Once the alpha submits, so do the rest. All I have to do is outcrazy the craziest kid and the hearts and minds of the students are mine to direct towards whatever evil purpose I may in my darkest of dark hearts imagine, like learning English.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

It Was a Beautiful Day in Sydney

It was a beautiful day when my friend got on the train in Sydney three days ago. He was heading west to the Blue Mountains, a tranquil place touched by God. He was alone. He was feeling okay. Better than he had in a while. The world passed by outside his window. I wonder if it looked any different to him.


I went down under to see him in September, 2009. It had been a while, and it was a great excuse to travel. We climbed aboard that same train, along with my wife and my wonderful son. My friend had just returned to school. Both our lives had changed dramatically since our days teaching English in adjoining classrooms, where we could listen to each other conduct class and then roll with laughter on the walk home as we criticized each other mercilessly. In the seven years since our roads had narrowed. Yet our horizons remained wide, despite the haze floating over them from time to time.

My friend got off at Katoomba Station, where people still take your tickets and trade friendly words. The crowds were light, this being a Monday; there were plenty of empty seats in the coffee shops and cafes along Katoomba Street. My friend could have stopped somewhere, to rest his legs and treat himself, to ponder the beauty of the day. But like all people with places to go, he didn’t. He walked on, with an ease in his step that had been missing for far too long. A lightness that would disappear if he decided to just go home.

There are shuttle buses that run from the station down to the visitor center at Echo Point. It would have saved us time. But time, as much as the Blue Mountains themselves, was why we were there with our friend. So we walked Katoomba Street together. My wife and I took turns with the stroller, our friend ambled along behind us, visibly amused by our indifference to, or ignorance of, the length of the walk we were undertaking. ‘I would have pulled up stumps at the first sign of a beer,’ he’d later joke to his family. But if he did at the time think the walk might be too much he never gave any indication. Or maybe I’m not too good at picking up signals. And I wish to God I were.

Katoomba Street runs straight as an arrow, down a long hill and right back up another. There Katoomba Falls Road forks off to the right, leading past Maple Grove Park to Cliff Drive, Prince Henry Cliff Walk and a hundred places to stand and look out over the canyon below and the miles and miles of Blue Mountains running off into forever. Continuing on Katoomba Road brings you to Panorama Drive and Echo Point Road, which terminates at Echo Park and more breath-taking views from the cliffs that rise hundreds of feet straight up from the canyon floor. Behind the visitor center a path through a grove of gum trees leads to the Giant Stairway, a treacherous descent for anyone let alone a guy carrying his two-year-old son in his arms. I don’t know if my friend walked out to Echo Point three days ago; if he did perhaps he would have recalled our hike down those steps.

Our days teaching together had come to an end, but my friend and I kept in touch. While he maintained an appreciable collection of video games he felt not the slightest compulsion to get a cell phone. This, upon closer scrutiny, can actually appear quite congruent. He claimed to be a strong introvert, though no one who knew my friend would ever be inclined to agree. At work, at parties and on the street, he was never one to temper his boisterous urges. Which seemed to work in his favor until he said the wrong thing to the wrong person in a nightclub in Tokyo. He came to the next afternoon, no recollection of the last 24 hours. He’d suffered damage to his brain. He’d need immediate surgery. They scoured the surveillance tapes but the culprit would never be known.

No matter where my friend stood along those cliffs, he would be able to see Federal Pass Track, the trail that took us along the floor of the canyon. The ground was too rocky and rutted for the stroller; my wife and I shared kid-carrying duty while my friend folded up the stroller and carried it by his side in one big hand. Up ahead a cable car waited, for anyone not too keen on hoofing it back up to the top of the cliffs. My friend looked at us. We looked at him. He couldn’t believe we were actually going to pass on the cable car, but he smiled and followed us up another comically long and winding staircase. We’d end up walking back along Katoomba Street, all the way to the blessed benches on the platform at the station. ‘You guys are gamers,’ he said, collapsing in his seat. ‘I’d have never done that myself.’ Then after a moment he added, ‘Thanks.’

If I could choose one thing I would want going through my friend’s head as he looked down onto Federal Pass Track, this would be it.

As we made our way toward Echo Point I listened to my friend explain how he hoped to regain the Japanese he had learned over six years and then lost in a second. He was also studying German as well as economics and was looking forward to finishing his degree and getting a steady job teaching, at a high school or maybe a university. ‘Uni,’ he called it, in the common Aussie vernacular. But the headaches just wouldn’t go away, and he couldn’t concentrate no matter how hard he tried. He had a girlfriend, though she lived clear across the far side of Sydney and he only saw her so much. Over the years his old friends had all drifted away. ‘No worries, I need to put all my energy into my studies anyway.’

And he tried.

My friend stood out on those cliffs, somewhere. And maybe he did for one moment think about our time together there. Maybe he even smiled. But the weight of the life he was trying so hard to fend off became too much to bear. And the vastness of the Blue Mountains looked so peaceful.

It was a beautiful day in Sydney.

God be with you, my friend.