Archive for By Any Other Name…

All the Excerpts from Lackluster Book Reviews, In One Place

Book reviewers have a tough job, you guys. They have to read books and, you know, review them. It’s not as sexy as it sounds, and the truth is sometimes they get tired and become not so good at coming up with original words to say. And then, occasionally, the book they’re reviewing doesn’t quite cut the mustard.

But they have to write something, right? Perhaps something like these blurbs.


“Reading this book was a viable alternative to being fitted for adult braces.”

“This will likely not be the only book you ever read.”

“You will undoubtedly read this after having read something else.”

“Reading it occupied time I could have spent doing other things.”

“Of all the books I’ve ever read, this was the most recent.”

“This was a book I apparently read.”

“Once I started reading the book, I couldn’t put it down. It was covered in industrial strength maple syrup.”


Truthfulness, A Lack of Filters, and Adventures with The Sheldonati

It looks like I may have another Sheldon Cooper on my hands.

For the uninitiated, Sheldon Cooper is a character on The Big Bang Theory, a television show folks seem to either love or hate. He’s a physicist best known for being extremely intelligent and only too happy to share that fact with anyone close enough to hear. It’s not that Sheldon is cruel, exactly. He just has issues with being tactful. That’s what I’ll go with, anyway, though it’s actually much more complicated than that.

On screen, viewed from a distance, encounters with Sheldon are usually funny. In real life, and in my case, in a classroom setting, they’re only funny in retrospect.

Around 2008, I had two students I came to call, collectively, The Sheldonati. Not only were both young men in the same class–my 7:00 am Lit/Comp session, if I recall correctly–but they both sat together, on the front row. They arrived early every morning, by the way. And they kept me on my toes.

“That’s the worst paper I’ve ever read in my life,” the first one, a gentleman I’ll call, let’s say, Sheldon, proclaimed during a peer-review session. “And I’ve read lots of papers.”

“If someone’s a bad writer,” said the other one, a fellow I’ll also call Sheldon, during a subsequent discussion about deciding what to share and what to keep bottled up inside, “I’m doing that person a favor. Why would people want to come to college if they’d be better off sweeping floors?”

At that point, it would have been useful to be able to point to the Sheldonati’s own writings and use them as evidence that no one’s perfect. Unfortunately, as you might have already guessed, the Sheldonati were excellent writers. Superb, really. Too bad, that.

Back to my toes, though. On top of the peer-review shenanigans, one of the students had an encyclopedic knowledge of Greek mythology. In fact, he probably could have lectured Bullfinch on a thing or two. This impressive knowledge, along with my unfortunate choice to teach The Odyssey that semester, left me constantly second-guessing my own recollections.

That semester turned out fine, actually, as most do. Since then I’ve had many vocal students. I welcome them, too, mostly because they give me a chance to shut up for a bit, drink my coffee, and listen.

Occasionally, though, a student still comes along who says pretty much anything that occurs to him, without regard for social conventions, propriety, or even plain courtesy. No filters, hesitation, or even brakes. Just stand and shoot.

Recently, for instance, during a break, one of my Japanese students asked if I’d ever been to a Shinto temple while I was stationed in Japan.

On her way out the door, another student, one I’ve decided to call Sheldon, asks “What’s Shinto?” (Okay, the actual Sheldon would have probably known what Shinto was. The actual fictional character, that is.)

The Japanese student explained it was one of the two dominant religions in Japan, along with Buddhism.

Sheldon says, “Well, that’s stupid. Why would someone do that?”

“Do what?” I asked, feeling a panic creeping up my torso.

“Have a religion like that?” she replied. “I’ve never even heard of it.”


What to do in a situation like this? If I had any inkling that Sheldon was being intentionally cruel or rude, I’d definitely call her on it. But I don’t think that’s the case. I’m no mindreader, but I am a decent judge of people, and I can usually tell when someone’s saying something out of meanness and when she’s doing it because she doesn’t know better or even, occasionally, when she can’t help herself.

Upbraiding Sheldon in front of the class doesn’t seem like the way to go. It’s possible she wouldn’t think even twice about it, but that’s still not a risk I’m willing to take. For one thing, it’s rude, and for another, this person may have actual issues. Sure, I have students from time to time who just haven’t had enough regular interaction with people outside their comfort zones to be able to navigate social situations without coming off as a jerk, but there are also times when I suspect there’s more going on. While it’s not my job to diagnose bona fide disabilities, it is my job to maintain peace with minimal damage.

Alternately, I could take every other student aside, separately, and explain to them that Sheldon has issues and that she’s probably going to say mean things to them but that they should brace themselves, buck up, and take one for the team. But that’s not appropriate, either.

And now, the situation is even more tricky. It’s bad enough when one of your fellow citizens embarrasses you, but this poor Japanese woman is now probably considering abandoning her U.S. education and heading back east, away from the mean Americans. What am I to do? How can I intercede and preserve Japanese-American relations?

I’ll do what I always do. I’ll talk to Sheldon privately and attempt to communicate precisely why what she said was inappropriate. But first, and most importantly, I’ll meet with the recipient of Sheldon’s critique and try to impart to her why she shouldn’t take it personally.

Either way, it’s tough, and it’s a part of my job I know I’ll never master.


Night Terrors: That Dream I Dreamed

Occasionally, I have dreams in which I’ve accidentally reenlisted in the navy. Yes, accidentally.

In these dreams, I’m at my current age, married, living in Colorado—all the things, essentially, that I’m doing now—but somehow I’ve happened to scrape a pen across an enlistment contract and sign away four more years of my life. So sorry, I tell my dear wife, but I guess we can still write each other, and when my ship is in port, I’ll come home as often as possible. Did I mention I’ve already been assigned to a ship? No?

Gary Boot CampThis is right up there with the dreams others talk about in which they’ve forgotten a final exam, or worse, they’ve shown up for the exam but neglected to wear clothes. As a college instructor, by the way, I like to think I’d have the presence of mind to confront someone on their nakedness, but honestly, it’s difficult to say how you’ll react in a situation like that until it happens. Unexpected nudity has a way of throwing things into disarray, I’ve found.

But back to my navy dreams. It seems significant that in them I’m at my present age. After all, that’s what makes it inconvenient, right? If I were twenty-two and accidentally reenlisted, that wouldn’t be so bad. Being in my late forties, with a wife, and with, you know, Other Things To Do, however, it could present a real problem.

Don’t get me wrong. My stint in the navy was exactly what I needed at that time of my life. It also just so happened to be a time when I could survive on scant hours of sleep and the occasional cup of ramen noodles. In those days, I’d developed neither my discriminating palate for fine food nor the impressive girth resulting from said food. They were lean years in more ways than one.

If I had to go back in the military now—which is actually prohibited by law, barring a reinstatement of the military draft in case of alien invasion, zombie apocalypse, or some similar event—I know I wouldn’t fare as well. The first time I had to stand a six-on-six-off watch schedule for two or three weeks, sleep on a concrete floor, or get by on only three cups of coffee in the morning, I’d cry foul, no doubt. At eighteen, I didn’t care. At forty-seven, I’m a bona fide wimp.

Well, I can still sleep on a hard floor. I just find it impossible to get up afterwards.

Explaining the Unexplainable: Blame It All On Aliens

Last night, as I was flipping channels, I came across a show called Ancient Aliens on the History Channel (which is actually pronounced, by the way, as the “Quote-History-Unquote-Channel”). I know what you’re thinking, too, and yes, I was flipping channels. People do that all the time, so stop looking at me that way.

But as I watched the show–I dropped the remote, okay?–I started to realize what a rich vein of entertainment these folks are mining, how perfect a formula they’ve stumbled upon.

The show’s premise, which is remarkably sophisticated, is this:

a) There are many unexplained things in this world, and

b) aliens are responsible for them.

Utter genius.

Never mind the fact that if these monuments, obelisks, and patterns were meant to serve as guides for alien craft, either our ancestors were incredibly bad at following directions or those were the crappiest aliens who ever broke the speed of light. We’ll forget all that for the moment. In fact, we’ll forget it forever. Let’s not speak of it again.

“Can I say that ancient aliens built the pyramids?” one wide-eyed truth-seeker asks.

“No,” he answers.

“Can I say they didn’t build the pyramids?” he asks right away, before someone can inquire why he just answered his own question.

“No,” he replies again, revealing how nifty it can be to both ask and answer your own questions. (Hint: In this scenario, there are no wrong answers.)

This unassailable line of reasoning led me to what I do best: asking “what if” questions. Going down that road, what other inexplicable things might those overachieving ETs be responsible for?

For instance, can I say that ancient aliens are responsible for Daylight Savings Time? No. Can I say they aren’t responsible for Daylight Savings Time? No. And even if the U.S. government is directly responsible for DST, I know from another Quote-History-Unquote Channel show that aliens are behind our government and have been for years.

Hey, that actually is fun.

(Legal Mumbo-Jumbo: Ancient aliens cannot be responsible for Bigfoot, chiefly because he has his own show on Quote-Animal-Unquote-Planet.)