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Learning English Again for the First Time

Learning English Again for the First Time

I love my language, and I get a kick out of thinking, toying with, and explaining the little quirks and nuances about English most of us don’t usually bother thinking about. I don’t believe offical recognition of English as an official language is an idea which is entirely without merit, either. But one of the things that drives me crazy about the people who want to promote that latter viewpoint is that they are frequently barely capable of properly speaking English themselves. I don’t just mean throwing a few emoticons into their regular text messages, either; we all do that. I mean that in regular, ordinary speaking and writing, they keep making juvenile mistakes which aren’t exactly major, but still enough to make me question their intelligence.

Well, guess what! In a shocking twist of fate and fortune that could only ever happen to me, upon transferring to my old college, too long had passed since the last time I had taken a proper English course, and so it was time for me to be a good student again and force myself through a whole new English class. And for a person who has been writing semi-professionally for 15 years, knows the language extremely well, and constantly complains that most people complaining about how English isn’t our national language suck at speaking it themselves, I’m rather clueless in knowing exactly what the hell I’m doing in a lot of the problems I’m given in that class. I’m not having some overwhelming amount of trouble, mind you; what’s going on is that when it comes to knowing what’s what in the English language, I’m not quite as smart as I thought I was.

English literature courses rely on cranial flexation in order to understand the theoretical and abstract from any given piece of literature. This is usually music to my ears; the theoretical and abstract are things my own brain gets along with just fine, better than a lot of the course material I’m required to study, in fact. I’ve written interpretations of a lot of movies, TV shows, and literature. You’d think finding and deciphering a theme would be second nature to me by now. As an author who is increasingly writing short stories, though, I am also well aware of the fact that when a writer sets out to write a piece of literature, we frequently write it with just the story idea in mind. Many authors will write up a guideline to help themselves flesh it out, but I feel like that would restrict me on the atmospheric level – I’m only trying it just now, and it doesn’t seem to be going well.

In other words, we have stories to tell. We don’t often write anything up with any idea of what themes can be culled from it; as long as the story itself gets told, I doubt most authors really care how their work is interpreted, and I’m sure most would read an interpretive essay with interest on the reader’s conclusions and how they came to those conclusions. The story I’m currently writing is about a luckless romantic trying to impress a girl he likes, and ending up in a fistfight with Mike Ditka in the process. Read that sentence again, and answer this quiz question: Do you think, with a story like that, I’m really giving a shit about themes or interpretations? I’m not. I’m just going with the flow of the situation, and hoping it turns out halfway decent.

This is kind of my specialty when I try to write fiction. Invent a character, invent an unlikely situation, and figure out how the character would adapt to the situation. I’m also working on a mystery story revolving around a hitman who also acts as a sort of detective for people who live under the law, but that one isn’t going quite as well. In the past, I’ve written works about a rock musician who had an out-of-body experience (that one was inspired by the story of Motley Crue member Nikki Sixx, which he talked about in the band’s autobiography); a guy who found a hidden treasure that made him rich beyond his wildest dreams and exactly what happened after he found all that money; a conversation between God (yeah, that God) and a suicide bomber, and others. I also wish I could write them faster, and that I could figure out where to send them without so much difficulty.

Themes were never the concern with any of them. Sure, I’ve tried to write a few of them within some sort of context, but context is something broader than theme, at least once the rules you’ve established for your fictional world are set up.

In layman’s terms, I think of the unusual situation, and set out to write a story about (mostly) ordinary, regular people in those situations. I tried writing a couple which vaulted off that form of literature – one was a science fiction story that worked nicely, the other is that mystery I mentioned about (I wish I knew how to be good at writing mysteries) – but mostly, that situational stuff is probably my niche.

Besides that, I’ve also got to worry about the subjects of sentences; the verbs of sentences; predicates; sentence fragments; and all those other little goodies that drove us crazy in elementary school which no professional author has ever used. Learning these has given rise to the personal realization that I’ve forgotten everything I’ve ever known about them.

To think that, during the past two semesters, I was learning calculus and needed my formal understanding of basic algebra to return to me. What should happen in that instance but my old algebra lessons actually coming back to me, and not being so cluttered or confusing that time. In fact, I was remembering my algebra – a subject I took twice in high school and four times in college – perfectly, and without any of the confusion or clutter that made it such a pain to learn. My second semester, when I took a class in human movement which involved physics, recalling my geometry took a little bit longer, but I still managed to do it when one of my professors was giving me help. Now here I am, fully taking a subject I studied and passed, and having trouble recalling rudimentary aspects of it, even though it’s something I’ve been doing now for a very long time and excelling at. I’m not very fond of my brain right now.

You Know What’s Worse than Working?

You Know What’s Worse than Working?

We take employment for granted in this country. We’re apparently under the impression left in our heads by all those Warner Bros. cartoons we watched as kids, that finding work is as easy as walking into the first store with a “hiring” sign, yanking it out of the window, telling the manager “Here I am!” and getting put on the job immediately. Every job has a single applicant, and employers are so desperate for help, they don’t even bother with an interview.

To what little credit I can offer this overly simplistic viewpoint, I have seen – and even worked – jobs which have operated in this very same fashion. Unfortunately, the only jobs that work in such a way are commission-based, door-to-door sales jobs which force you to work 12 hours a day, six days a week, on the hope that the mathematical law of averages swings into your favor. In other words, they’re scam jobs where the returns on your investments are practically nonexistent. Any real job, in which you can make an actual wage and maybe have a few benefits, requires going out and doing the legwork – filling out applications and hoping you get called for an interview, after which you’ll be made to wait a week or two for your potential employer to give you any kind of word. I regularly read job-hunt books, and most of them say the same thing about that scenario – if the employer says he’s got a bunch more interviews, you’re on the backburner; he’s already hired his guy, and he just wants a few people as backups in case the person he hired decides not to show.

I like to believe most people in this country are aware of this, at least on some level. Unfortunately, even then, the Warner Bros. version of the typical job search tends to prevail in the American imagination. Even in the job search books I’ve read, almost every author makes one of two assumptions: Either that the reader is already working and just looking for an improvement, or that a part-time job is growing on a nearby jobby tree to be easily plucked. Since I returned to Buffalo, I’ve been forced to say no to three jobs I was offered that were totally in the bag, offering reasonable pay and benefits, due to distance. Now that I’m a student, such packages don’t come along every day, but I’m still in the hunt for a part-time position because I want to pursue my career schooling full time. I’m having a difficult time finding a proper part-time position which can get me an income and help me pay off my debts.

I find something a little disturbing in the fact that finding a position like this is so difficult. Finding part-time work shouldn’t be hard. There are people, after all, who are able to find long-term employment after being out of the workforce for years. I managed to go to plenty of interviews, but they all ended with the same message: “We’ll call you back no matter what.” In other words, they’ve made their desired hire and I’m never going to hear from them again.

There has to be some kind of trick to getting whatever job you happen to be interviewing for at the moment, and the people I envy the most are the people who have managed to figure that trick out. You know those people: They’re the ones who are able to hop from job to job, staying on whatever job they’re working for two or three months, then quitting, then, when you talk to them, tell you about how they didn’t like this or that store policy or how their manager was a major douche, so they quit their job and found work someplace else literally the very next day. The jobs they’re constantly drifting in and out of aren’t even skill jobs which require training or education, either; they’re regular, ordinary part-time jobs with a wide glut of people competing with each other to get into. I don’t know what’s more amazing about the people who are able to do that; the fact that they’re able to so callously go in and out of work so easily, or the fact that employers, even after presumably looking at their work history and seeing there’s a better-than-even chance they won’t be around for a very long time, still hire them, apparently convinced they’re the magic employers who have found the secret formula to taming the common job players.

Meanwhile, there’s me, and I plan on staying wherever I get hired for at least the next couple of years so I can finish educating myself. I’ll stay on for longer if I find a job in a media industry – which encompasses my old degree – or the health industry, which is what I’m currently pursuing. I work very hard and haven’t been properly fired since 2006. I’m perfectly capable of leaving my nonconformist tendencies at home whenever I’m on the job. I’ve been praised for being friendly and professional nearly everywhere I’ve been, and the ultimate testament to friendliness and professionalism is that I managed to reel in over $7000 while working to solicit donations from people who watch PBS in Buffalo. These were phone solicitations too, which basically meant I was working as a telemarketer to take these donations. I’ve been able to fit in and get along with every co-worker I’ve ever had, so it isn’t like there are any major issues that anyone should be worried about.

I’ve pinpointed interviewing as my trouble spot, and that’s partly because I’ve received so much conflicting advice over how to deal with interviews that, at one point, I tried following all of it. As you can probably imagine, that didn’t work out very well. So I recently ditched around, oh, say, probably 90 percent of the interviewing advice I’ve ever received and started just going strictly by the basics: Keep my personal life out of it, research the company, avoid asking about salary or benefits, things of that nature. Still, I want to be one of those people who can get any job on the planet and hop from one to another with no trouble. I’m not saying I would hop from job to job at the slightest inconvenience. I’m just saying I hate not having an income and am in search of any infallible secrets which could help me attain one. I have a life I really want to get back to living, you know.

One Semester Down

One Semester Down

This was it. The end of my first semester at the University of Buffalo. There’s still a lot going on in my head, too much to properly write about, so I’ll sum up some of the big ones in bullet points.

1 – Halfway through, nothing was going right. My textbooks were late coming in, and I was barely keeping my head above water even in the subjects I knew I could be good at. Then my psychology course dropped a fact about the way our heads work which gave me a big hint about how to study better, so I adjusted my routine accordingly. It seems to be working, and during the rash of finals, I finally gave the kinds of performances that I expect of myself and felt like I can reach my full potential for the first time since about the sixth grade. (I hope.) Unfortunately, they came too late for me to reach my academic goals this year, but at least I have a better idea of what to do.

2 – I’ll definitely be holding on to my math book and my nutrition and math notes. I’m going to be needing them in the future.

3 – I’m dying to study more about psychology, but after giving it some real thought, I decided to stay in exercise science for now. I should note that I do feel a closer connection to psychology than to exercise science, because psychology deals much more with theoretical and abstract ideas, which I’m a lot more comfortable with than the more mechanical facts of science and math. I don’t want to become an aimless major drifter again, though, and after my chemistry light finally began flickering (way too late), I decided I can probably learn it after all.

4 – Speaking of chemistry, never, ever take that subject at the University of Buffalo if it can possibly be avoided there. It will do more to rip you off than the average televangelist.

5 – I knew going into exercise science that it was going to require large amounts of math, so I decided to try out a new way of dealing with it: I would learn to love math and enjoy it. That’s exactly what I did, too. I still need a huge amount of practice before my algebra basics are fully functional again, but I did learn the general ideas enough to know what I’m being asked to do and understand how it’s done. It helped that I had an excellent math teacher.

6 – My human nutrition class killed many of the things I thought I knew about the subject.

7 – Is it possible that by aiming for a cross-board B average, I was aiming too low? I’ve noticed that the step by step approach never seems to work very well for me. I always seem to make the biggest gains by aiming for the highest, wildest, most outlandish goals I can reach.

8 – It’s really incredible how pervasive the internet is becoming. In my first chemistry class, there were 500 people, at least half of whom were using laptops to pay attention to the lecture. In a class preceding my nutrition class, I happened to see the whole room using laptops for an exam before my nutrition class started.

9 – Can we please stop categorizing chemistry as a science? Please? I don’t care how many acids I pour, that course is a math course. You cannot teach a math course via a somewhat overmatched Professor who also teaches at a high school talking at 500 kids!

Bad Chemistry

Bad Chemistry

It’s an obvious fact of life at the University at Buffalo that the chemistry department is comprised of thieves, highway robbers, and extortionists. I have a short list of theories which could explain this:

1 – They concocted a bad mix and got a permanent high off the chemical fumes.

2 – They lost a bet with a badass loanshark and are using college as an extortion plot to pay him back.

3 – It’s secretly a religion.

How bad is the UB chemistry department? It’s one of the factors which is motivating me to consider changing my major to psychology. This isn’t exactly the fault of the subject material or the faculty, but the bureaucracy. My financial aid took forever to get diverted into my textbooks, so I’m weeks behind on the material, and UB chemistry is way ahead of me and doesn’t care. Right now, I’m not nearly as afraid of my math course as I am my chemistry course, which is terrible because when my catch-up finally began, I realized pretty quickly that it isn’t as hard as my math. And I’m currently passing my math!

By all means, chemistry is a fascinating subject. It explores the ways in which the smallest known particles in the universe react to each other, and how everything can be so different despite being made up of these particles. It’s humbling to think that, for all the differences in creation, me and the computer I’m typing this up on are the same thing. So I have healthy subject interest and a very understanding and sympathetic lab instructor on my side, but that’s about it.

Unfortunately, UB chemistry wants money. My course, which is the rudimentary foundation of chemistry, has made such a sickening demand on my wallet that the textbooks and equipment for it alone have turned all my scholarship money into kitty chow. The lab equipment I need is ludicrously overpriced. The textbook rental cost over $100 and was by far the cheapest option – somehow the department gets away with photocopying pages, tossing them into ring binders, and charging upwards of $200 for a package which isn’t an official textbook, so it can’t be sold back to the bookstore for even a fraction of the money dished out for it. The most outrageous aspect of the course, however, is the fact that the department actually charges an insane amount of money for a goddamn code.

Think about that: A code. A thing you input into a computer – in this case, which can only be used once, so don’t dare think about fucking messing it up – to access the webpage that lets you know what the homework assignments are. What the hell ever happened to just giving them out on paper, in class? This is a long list of loopholes students are being forced to jump through, and really, it’s inexcusable. God forbid you should be having financial difficulty, because UB chemistry will literally prevent you from doing any reading or work if you’re not able to pay for a little code on a piece of paper that fucking takes 30 seconds to write down.

Meanwhile, I’ve discovered a genuine fascination with psychology, and switching my major to psychology would mean never having to deal with the chemistry department again. I realize I would have to work my way up to a doctorate for it to be of any use, and it’s something I’m quite willing to do. If I stick with my current major, well, this is just more motivation for me to excel at chemistry: A good student would probably have an easier time catching peoples’ ears about the department’s behavior than a student who is barely getting by.

Adventures in Smashing Cars with Sledgehammers

Adventures in Smashing Cars with Sledgehammers

It isn’t as easy as everyone makes it look in the movies, but damn if it ain’t fun!

Deep in the superconscious parts we don’t talk about, we all have these destructive fantasies of joyfully taking a sledgehammer and smashing some object of our ire until it’s smashed good. The University of Buffalo is having a Spirit Week, complete with all kinds of fun things to do. Today’s fun thing to do? Take a sledgehammer and smash a car! Anyone who thinks I would let this happen without my own participation just doesn’t know me very well.

The demolition was controlled. Everyone who wanted to take sledge to chrome had to sign a waiver and wear goggles, just in case a ricocheting piece of car backlashed the other way and hit us across the brow.

I arrived late for the festivities, but all that meant to me was that I didn’t have to wait very long, even though the car was already smashed in pretty good. Yeah, of course my great plan was to just take the hammer and go to town. As I watched some of the others in front of me in line, I tried to create a plan of attack: Number one, the back hubcap looked a little bit too pretty and un-smashed for some reason. Step two: Find the smaller, looser parts of the car and practice my long-dormant home run swing. Step three: Time to perform a little bit of body work! (I wonder if The Hulk ever pre-planned any of his smashing sprees.) My plan was quickly revised, though, after I decided to go with the crowd bandwagon and take my shot at finishing off the windshield frame, which was just a few good hits away from collapsing. Even the guard sign-in guy for the event seemed to be encouraging it.

My turn came. I made a beeline toward the pretty hubcap, wound up my golf swing, and took a hard, clean shot which hit the hubcap smack in the outer rim! There was a loud, muffled-sounding clang, and my sledgehammer vibrated, and after that…. Nothing. The damned hubcap wasn’t even dented! I figured my shot might have been a bit too far off the sweet spot, wound up, and socked the cap in the center. Still no damage.

Okay. I got the message and decided it was now my time to start gunning at the windshield frame. I move up to the front of the vehicle, taking a couple of good, hard cursory shots at the roof along the way. The whole time, the crowd watching had been encouraging everyone who partook in the beating to get angry. Now it was my turn to get angry, and lord knows it wasn’t difficult to come across my motivation. I was fucking standing right in front of it. Go back to my acting lessons and think of something that pisses me off: Bicycling in the Buffalo suburbs and getting assaulted by motorists! I got into a nice rhythm as I started regularly winding up and hitting away and, for the first time since I started, doing a little bit of visible damage. I got a few very nice shots at the frame, and I think the crowd was impressed that such a little guy could wield such power with a sizable sledgehammer.

The problem with window frames, though, is that they’re small targets. Sledgehammers are heavy, and they’re not going to be aimed the right way the entire time. So after a few good strokes, I missed a couple of times, hitting the little cross section at the frame and the roof. Then I missed with the hammerhead completely, and hit the neck of the hammer. The force behind that drive was so strong that I thought I saw a very slight bend in the hammer’s neck. There’s the waiver sense. I tried to point it out, but no one thought anything of it, so I finished up my turn.

It was fun, and I can now say I smashed both a car AND a house with a sledgehammer!

The First Month at University

The First Month at University

My psychiatry 101 teacher would appreciate the analogy: I feel like I’m stepping into the world without any clothes on. I started my second college go-round at the beginning of this month, and it looks like I’ve survived for now. Still though, its definitely been a very odd adjustment. My body – which is ordinarily one of those perfect wake-up bodies – has been violently rejecting the 5 AM wake-up times on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, so I often find just the right amount of time for a little bit more shut eye on the bus and subway. My textbooks have been slow in the coming and inexcusably expensive. I’ve lost a little bit of step in my normal exercise routines because the University of Buffalo has its own definition of exercise, which is called “Traversing Campus from One Side to the Other.” I’ve been accosted by more Christians than I can wave a copy Percy Shelley’s The Necessity of Atheism at.

In the meantime, my body and brain are both giving me the constant message: Hey, you wanted this, big boy, you’ve fucking got it! Welcome to late teenage hell in a 32-year-old body. Welcome to big league university life.

I like to believe I wasn’t walking into this unprepared. After all, I have a college degree already. That was from a community college, though, and as I stepped up to my first day at UB, I wondered how much different this could possibly be. I believe the popular expression is famous last words. As I stumbled into my first-ever chemistry class, my first reaction was to gape at the massive size of the stadium-seating theater which was going to be doubling as my classroom for some reason. My first thought was dear god, how the hell is anyone able to ask questions in here? As I listened to lecture, it became clear that I wasn’t supposed to ask anything; my duty in chemistry was to sit down, shut up, and write until my wrist snapped off again. My first psychiatry class, I entered through the front of the room completely by accident and stood there blinded like a deer in a headlight, carefully scanning for any open seats. The professor spotted me and told me to just get in the room and sit somewhere. I quickly ran up the stairs, and learned there were more people than seats in the room when I saw at least a dozen other students sitting in the aisle at the top of the stairs. It wasn’t my shining moment, but I put it behind me. The professor apologized for putting me on the spot when I spoke to her after class, and psychiatry 101 actually went on to be my favorite class.

My nutrition class also takes place in a lecture hall, but at least it’s a lecture hall small enough for the professor to hear me if I try to ask a question. Only my math class takes place in a real classroom.

It’s not that I’m not enjoying my classes. Actually, I like all of them. (Even math!) But I wasn’t prepared to deal with the change in college size on a scale like this. The lecture halls at ECC were made to hold only about 150 people, in contrast to the nearly 500 people I share chemistry and psychiatry with. The lecture halls at ECC also managed to be a bit more intimate, and it wasn’t unusual for the professors there to engage in active, back and forth dialogues with the students.

Of course, that could also be because of the subject material I decided to shoulder this time. My degree from ECC is in Communication and Media Arts. Now, I did well at ECC, but that major wasn’t a great challenge to a brainpan which everyone realizes is capable of doing a lot more. Communications dealt with a lot of abstract ideas; basically, stuff which students could – and were in fact encouraged to – endlessly bicker over. Philosophies were on my plate, and I learned about a whole slew of literary genres as electives. Exercise Science, my major at UB, deals with hard data and stuff which is established fact about the human body. After all of a month of classes, well, I can say I’m a little overwhelmed by how impressive these weird vessels we’re stuck living in really are.

Also overwhelming is getting the sense of just how much I’ve changed along the road. I actually want to learn math now. Yes, getting it down is difficult, but damn if you don’t feel like a god once you master it. I know I have a circuit somewhere in my head’s machine which is fully capable of learning it rather easily if the teacher presses the right buttons. Its happened before. When I went to summer school for ninth grade algebra, my teacher found it, and I passed her course with a final grade in the high 80’s. My favorite math teacher ever was in ECC. She hit every right note, and I liked her class so much that I was an active participant in it, regularly trying to give out answers. Every time I missed something, it was always on the tip of the tongue.

Furthermore, who are all these weird creatures who are going to school with me? Did I land on a different planet? Was I sucked through some kind of interdimensional warp? My age and life experiences are causing a rather askew viewpoint, and I’m constantly surprised at the generational gaps. One day, as I sat on the shuttle to North Campus, the radio station was playing the old hit “Freak Like Me” by Adina Howard. I looked around the bus, and realized that if the others there were even alive when that song was being played out, they certainly weren’t old enough to remember it. A couple of weeks later, my psychiatry teacher brought up the Leftorium episode of The Simpsons, and I thought it odd that she had to reference that it was “a show called The Simpsons.” 20 years, ago, it was merely The Simpsons; no qualifier was necessary, because everyone would have known what it was. I like to joke frequently about how I’m old enough to remember when The Simpsons was good, but now it was a little scary to realize that the show – and not just the show, but the very episode she was referring to, which I caught the first time it ever aired – was older than the other students. In the latest class, she made a reference to 9/11 in talking about flashpoint memory and had to ask if the class remembered it.

This is going to be a huge learning experience in every possible way.

The Coolest Thing I Learned in School Today

The Coolest Thing I Learned in School Today

Today was my first day of school since 2005, and if there was one theme of the day, it was running. Running to catch two lightrail lines in Downtown Buffalo, running to make classes while being late, running into one of the registrar offices to have my final class added to my schedule, running to the inter-campus shuttle. For spending the day in a pair of lecture halls, I certainly managed a good workout.

I had two classes today, chemistry and psy 101. It was certainly interesting to get information on how the elements of the Periodic Table were named, and how to measure ionic and atomic weight. But a real interesting show awaited me in psy.

I get a lot of questions about just what it feels like to live with my deformed arm, and I always answer them the same way: Damned if I know. I have never felt qualified to give an answer to that question because my arm is a birth defect. I’ve had it my whole life. My two other fingers are never going to grow in, and so I’m never going to have anything to compare NOT having a birth defect to. My closest parallel is my right elbow, which lost a little bit of movement after an operation I had on it when I was eleven years old. I feel like I should be able to stretch my right arm further, even though that full function is permanently gone.

My biggest problem with my deformed arm is my immobile wrist, but I don’t notice that either, or at least my nerve system doesn’t. Sure, I’m always aware that it’s there and will hinder me in doing some things, but in operating it, nothing feels off unless I try to do something it was never meant to do. Usually when I try to explain this to a questioner, the response I get is a backhand mention of a symptom called the Phantom Limb. The Phantom Limb is something that amputated people are known to feel. It’s a sensation in the missing limb, and the statistics on Wikipedia say that some 60 to 80 percent of amputees are known to feel it. Most of the sensations are painful, but other symptoms include itching, warmth, cold, tightness, squeezing, and tingling.

From what I concluded in class today, I think I go without phantom limbs because to my own brain, my deformity is normal, and its never known any other way to live. Therefore, my brain has adjusted itself accordingly, and the parts of my brain which control my would-be finger and wrist movement simply aren’t there. Now, I trust everyone reading this knows that we basically think about every movement we make before we actually make it – the basics are that the brain sends a signal to the nerve endings which come down through the spine and stretch out to the other parts of your nerve system. We have little parts of our brains devoted to each and every moveable part of our bodies. Now consider for a moment that if you lose one of those parts, that’s an entire section of the brain basically going dormant. To the other parts of your brain, that simply won’t do, and they slowly move in and take over the part that doesn’t work. This is apparently a part of where the Phantom Limb comes from.

It would also explain why I don’t feel anything like the Phantom Limb. Of course, being quite unlearned in this field yet, this idea could prove to be wrong, so I’m not betting the farm on it until I know more. Still, now you have a possible explanation as to why I can’t tell you what having a deformed arm is like.