Wednesday, June 20, 2012

How to Survive a Summer Cold

It all started last week with a mild irritation in the back of my throat. At first, I tried to persuade myself that I was just allergic to my friend’s basement.1 After three days, when the accumulated symptoms had finally become more than the sum of their irritating parts, I had no choice but to face the truth: I had contracted a summer cold.

How to Survive a Summer Cold:

Step One: Pretend that you are fine. After all, it’s summer. People don’t get colds in the summer. Patently ignoring your symptoms, carry on with all of your scheduled summer activities. After all, you’ve been planning these frolicsome fancies for months. It would be infamous to miss out on any of them due to something as lame as a summer cold. So slather yourself in Vicks VapoRub, jam some balled-up tissues into your nostrils, pop a cough drop, and get out there!

Step Two: See your symptoms as companions. When your symptoms become too serious to be ignored, decide to treat them as fellow travelers. Consider your chesty cough as a companion on your road trip: a companion that not only listens but one who also takes the time to speak back. See your sniffle as a sun-tanning ally: after all, doesn’t our skin tan best through a mild sheen of liquid? Your upper lip will soon have the best-developed tan on your entire body. Invite your chills and chapped lips along on your summer adventures: after all, they’ve already made it clear that they’re not going anywhere without you. And who knows? Maybe they will like your destination so well that they will stay on and let you return home in peace. Furthermore, perhaps that throbbing head and those aching eye balls which you’ve also been toting along will prove their mettle by assisting you in catching up on all of that sleep that you missed last semester. The bottom line is that you’ll never know how your symptoms can aid you until you learn to see them as friends rather than foes.

Step Three: Have some fun with it. Believe it or not, there are quantifiable benefits to having contracted a summer cold. For instance, you can make some of those disturbing, conspiracy-theory type phone calls without the assistance of a voice scrambler. Second, you can claim your summer cold as an excuse not to participate in whatever looms largest on your List of Summer Activities to Be Avoided at All Costs.2  Third, contracting a summer cold means that you have the option of actually staying home in your cotton pajamas and curling up into a tiny, pitiful ball while watching X-files reruns—something that you long to do during the rest of the year when you don’t actually have the option.3

The truth is that, like it or not, you and your summer cold are stuck with each other. It is in your best interests to make the most your time together.

1.     I hate basements.
2.    For me, it’s being invited to water ski, boogie board, or participate in any other type of water sport, mostly because I’m so horrifically bad at any water-related activity more complicated than basic swimming.  (How bad, you may ask? Really bad. We’re talking she-must-be-doing-it-on-purpose-for-attention bad. Convinced-you’re-watching-an-aquatic-farce bad. Bad. Bad, bad, bad.) For you, it may be 1) a dysfunctional family function “organized” by Drunk Uncle Stu, 2) a beachside gossip-fest with your least enjoyable collection of dishy girlfriends, or 3) the invitation to chaperone another junior high lock-in. Whatever. (This is probably the point at which my mother would wish me to inform you that is actually no Drunk Uncle Stu in our family: he's purely a rhetorical device.)
3.     Whoops. My third point ironically contradicts my first point.  Again

Friday, June 8, 2012

How to Make Any Conversation Awkward

for Sarah

For reasons which will soon become apparent, I don't remember the entire incident leading up to the suggestion that I write this blog post, but I do remember where I was at the time. 

Last week, as I stood chatting with two work colleagues in their shared classroom, I came to the realization that our conversation had suddenly lapsed. I feared somewhat belatedly that I'd been daydreaming, and I realized that I had no idea how long the silence had stretched.

Oops. Was I supposed to be saying something?

"You know," one of my work friends began, sitting on the side of her desk while scratching her head with coat hanger, "you should really write a blog--"

"Oh, I do!"

"--post about awkward conversations."

I blinked at her. "You're absolutely right."

After all, writers are often encouraged to write what they know best.

And if there's one concept that I seem to know intimately, it's the concept of awkward.

How to Make Any Conversation Awkward:

1. Practice excessive eye contact.  Eye contact is important.  It's a sign of honesty and integrity.  When done correctly, it's a way to tell people that we are interested in what they have to say. When  done incorrectly, it's a way to give people the impression that we would like nothing better than to use the severity of our gaze to bore holes directly through their skulls and flip through all of their thoughts as we would through the pages of a Filofax. 

I wish.

Apparently this is something that I have been guilty of more often than I have been aware. Increasingly, though, it has been something that I've practiced intentionally. 

My unintentional staring generally occurs during moments of great concentration.  When someone is talking about something that interests me (such as a gruesome true crime) or something that I'm working hard to understand, but am worried that I never will (such as anything relating to science and industry),  I attempt to make up for what I lack in understanding with sheer force of concentration. More than a few people have found this unnerving.  

One middle-aged salesman from whom I bought a cell phone actually commented that he was having trouble concentrating because I made him feel so nervous.

"I do?" I was genuinely surprised.

"You just keep staring at me like that," he actually rubbed his eyes, "and you've got me worried I'm going to say something wrong."

It's been obvious to me for some time that a certain percentage of students find maintaining eye contact with me to be excruciating.  Sometimes I'm not sure why.  Sometimes I am. 

Sometimes I just stare at people until they say something.  Anything.

Instant awkward!

Variation: If you find that staring directly into people's souls doesn't work for you, try staring just a few centimeters above someone's right eyebrow during the course of an entire conversation. If he shifts his stance to accommodate your off-kilter stare, shift to match.

2. Incorporate everything you have gleaned about someone through interaction on social media into your realtime conversations. This one is self-explanatory, but it's done best when it's delivered sotto voce to a third party.  On a recent trip to Chicago, I was enjoying getting to know my new friend *Whitney. Her husband, *Jim, who has kept up with me for some time via the internet, would punctuate my narrative with helpful explanatory nuggets, all of them gleaned through things that I've posted on social media.  

At one point, Whitney stopped him.  "It's creepy how he does that, right?"

"It is, a little," I concurred.

"Anything you've ever Tweeted, he'll remember," her eyes glowed with affection.

Honestly, I did not find Jim's few instances of this to be awkward, but I've met other people who can't seem to hold themselves back from prosing on about social media during realtime conversations. There's a definite line between allowing references to the internet to pepper one's conversation and allowing it to become the actual source of and sole topic of conversation.  Nothing feels more awkward than the heartlessly truncated conversations that go something like this:

Person 1: So, I'm reading this book called--

Person 2: Revenge of the Vampire Prom Queens. Yeah, I saw on Facebook that you'd added that to your Goodreads shelf.

Person 1: Yeah! And I really liked it--

Person 2: Obviously! Because you gave it five stars--

Person 1 (faint, but pursuing): --because of its satirical overtones--

Person 2: "--which actually help to infuse new life into the otherwise tired literary tropes." Yeah, I saw that you posted that.

Person 1: Yeah. Um, I was thinking next of reading Vampire Prom Queens IV: The BloodDrive--

Person 2: Oh, yeah! I saw that on your "to read" list!

Person 1: Yeah... so.  Um. Yeah.

Person 2: Yeah.

And on like that.

Variation: Even when you know very well that what your friend has to say is news to you, pretend that you've already seen it posted somewhere. When he says that's impossible, spend the next ten minutes scrolling through pages on your smartphone, allowing the possibility of proving him wrong to eclipse the import of your original conversation. Instant awkward.

3. Take everything personally.  I learned this one from years of teaching middle school girls.  Awkward squared. Possibly to the third power. 

4. Refuse to pick up the thread of conversation offered to you.  Blissfully ignoring your friend's attempt at linear conversation, you must be sure that the comments you make don't quite square with what has just been said.  When done correctly, having conversations like these leaves others feeling as if they've been doing the verbal equivalent of riding a square-wheeled bicycle: it's a lot of fits and starts, and it's just about impossible to get any momentum going. 

Variation: Find a favorite topic and refuse to budge from it. No matter what conversational paths your friend tries to lead you down, do your utmost to ensure that the conversation leads back to your primary topic for the night.  Choose something inane, like a wheat germ. Or your third-grade spelling bee. Or a Lifetime Original movie. Or recycling. Or a Nicholas Sparks book. 

The truth is that most of us don't need any tips regarding how to make our conversations more awkward.  If you're anything like me, you seem to have that covered all on your own. What many of us really need instead are some pointers on how to make our conversations more meaningful.  

You may find it helpful to bear these in mind:
1. Do everything that you can to make the conversation about the other person instead of yourself. In this respect, asking lots of good questions is pivotal.
2. Listen more and talk less.
3. Remember what people say and incorporate it into conversation(s) later.
4. Never pass up an opportunity to say a kind word or give a sincere compliment.

*Not their real names.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

How to Handle High School Graduation Clichés

for Nina, Janiece, Chris, Drew, Gold, and Constantino 

Anyone who has been to more than one high school graduation, ever, knows that in any self-respecting commencement address, there are certain lines that one is almost assured to hear.  The speaker is bound to comment on this being a “momentous occasion.” Graduates will be reminded that they should "Never be afraid to fail,” and that they should “Follow their dreams,” and “Never stop learning.” 

The same tired, worn clichés.

But wait a moment.

How does a phrase become cliché in the first place?  Is it not through a process of overuse? And why does a phrase become overused if not because it is (stay with me here) used a lot. These phrases are cliché through no fault of their own: they have become cliché due to their sheer universal appeal.

And we all know important universal themes are. These themes ring true because they appeal to what is common in all of us. In the heart of this English teacher rages a fierce battle between a vile hatred of cliché and a passionate love of universal themes.


What to do, what to do?

All right. Perhaps it is impossible to address a group of graduates without gravitating toward these clichéd themes.  Since we cannot seem to avoid them, then, please join me for the next few moments in re-exploring them. Are these clichéd expressions—the universal themes of graduation—in fact true? Can they be taken at face value? Are these the mental and philosophical building blocks on which we truly should base our future plans?

Let’s see.

First, there is this: “Don’t be afraid to fail.” – Although we may understand and agree with this sentiment to a certain extent, can we not agree that for us to be capable of making wise choices, we need to exercise some discernment in this area? There are, in fact, some situations in which we should be afraid to fail. As some of the graduates are no doubt keenly aware, when taking an exam on which graduation may depend, fear of failure is a legitimate concern.  In such cases, fear of failure, in fact, might be what prompts a student to work hard in order to achieve the best possible outcome. Likewise, fear of failure sometimes allows us to exercise healthy caution. 

On the other hand, an absolute lack of the fear of failure may lead us to make high-stakes decisions without fully considering the consequences.

Hmm. Is this a conundrum? Or are there deeper philosophical forces at work here?

In turning to the Biblical account of Gideon in the book of Judges, do we not find a man who genuinely fears failure? When God calls Gideon forth as the hero who will deliver his people from the oppression of the Midianites, where is Gideon? Hiding! Threshing his wheat in a wine press. After the angel of the Lord ironically addresses Gideon as a mighty man of valor, Gideon responds first by fearing that he’s going to die due to having seen the angel of the Lord.  Then, he sets out to accomplish the first task set to him by God in the dead of night due to fear that his family and the townspeople will kill him. Even after this first task is successfully accomplished, and God calls Gideon on to greater responsibility, Gideon responds by dithering, asking God for sign after sign, for assurance after assurance. 

Despite God’s verbal assurances of victory, Gideon worries. Despite promises, he feels fear. Rather than charging forth confidently as we would expect a mighty man of valor to do, Gideon responds instead with trepidation.

But wait a moment.  Gideon does respond.  

Despite his fear of failure. 

In the face of fear, he obeys the voice of the Lord.

In the end, perhaps graduates should not be told “Don’t be afraid to fail.” Perhaps they should be told that fear of failure is a natural part of the human experience.  That to feel fear is part of what makes us human. It’s an expression of our frailty, yes, but it’s also a natural buffer that may sometimes keep us from shooting off on foolish tangents.

My first admonition to graduates, then, is not, “Don’t be afraid to fail,” because fear is an emotion, and as such is a natural part of the human experience, and not necessarily a sin.  It is, however, a sin to let fear hold us back from doing what we know to be right. It is prudent, then, to remember the truth of 2 Timothy 1:7: “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” 
Therefore, do not let the fear of failure hold you back from any legitimate calling that God places on your life.

The second cliché which requires our examination is this: “Follow your dreams.” – Of course, this one comes with the implied assumption that your dream is not to spend the next five years on your Mom’s couch pursuing a career in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare.

And that’s really the crux of the issue, isn’t it?  Your parents seem to know the dreams that they have for you, as do your grandparents, your teachers, your pastor, your youth leaders, your next door neighbors, and your Aunt Edna, but do their dreams always align with the dreams that you have for yourself?  And how do any or all of those dreams align with the plan that God has for your life?

Is this something that you have taken into consideration?

Of the three clichés which we are putting under the microscope today, we will find that this one is, in fact, the weakest and the least tenable. 

After all, what is a dream? It is—by definition—something that is contrary to reality.  A nebulous illusion. A vain hope.  A mere fancy.

Instead, then, of telling you to follow your dreams, I charge you to pursue goals. While dreams are mere intangible wishes, goals are tangible frameworks which can be used to gauge progress toward a desired end.

As to what that desired end should be, I remind you of Psalm 37:4, which assures the believer that if he is willing to delight himself in the Lord, the Lord will place His desires within the heart.

If indeed, as the catechism says, the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever, then this should be the first goal of the Christian, and the one on which all other goals hinge. Having this as a primary focus will not only help the Christian to structure his goals, but also realign the methods he chooses to make those goals a reality.

This brings us to our third cliché: “Never stop learning.” Finally one about which we have nothing disparaging to say. 

Well…. Not quite.  Let’s be honest for a moment. To to be alive--to be processing life day in and day out--is to be learning.  Can you honestly think of a week that has gone by which has not taught you something new about the human experience? Think of what we learned just through the media this past week alone.  We learned that the there is a great possibility that the Zombie Apocalypse has already started in Miami.1 We learned that Egypt still isn’t a safe place to vacation for Americans.2 And we learned that the obesity problem in America could be solved if only we were to outlaw jumbo sugary drinks.3

The point here not that we aren’t going to keep learning unless we make a conscious effort to do so.

The question is what we are learning. And why.

What is filling our minds? What’s affecting our thoughts? What influences are we passively allowing to shape and mold our or decisions, and actions?

My third admonition is not to encourage you never to stop learning, because some sort of learning is almost inevitable. My admonition to you is to make the conscious, active decision to structure your learning so that it includes concepts of true worth and value. 

What you learn controls how you think, and how you think informs your behavior. In order for Christians to do what they are admonished to do in 2 Corinthians 10:5—which is to take every thought captive to the teachings of Christ— Christians must first ensure that what they are learning—the substance with which they are choosing to fill their minds—reinforces, rather than hinders, the pursuit of godliness.

What you learn, then, must be drawn through the filter of Philippians 4:8: “Finally brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable—if there is any moral excellence and if there is any praise—dwell on these things.”

In the end, then, I charge you not with the same tired and worn clichés, but with the following three ideals:

·       First, ask God for the courage to press on in a worthy cause, despite the fear of failure.
·       Second, delight yourself in your relationship with the Lord, allowing him to aid you in setting exemplary goals.

·       Third, embark on an active, lifetime pursuit of truth.

1. Ew.
2. Worst vacation ever.
3. You'll just have to buy a few smaller ones.