Tuesday, April 5, 2016

My Colleagues Believe

O wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
-- Robert Burns.

Somewhere in my basement is a box that has moved with me from residence to residence, still sealed by the tape I wrapped it with decades ago. Among other things, it contains a frame that opens like a book to display two photographs; you've probably seen one like it standing on a co-worker's desk, its hinge obtusely angled, its photos slightly facing each other. If you were to look at the left-hand photo of the one in my box, you'd see a young boy on a young boy's bicycle: an ordinary event in an ordinary life.

I can look at that same photo and see a boy who had, seconds before the camera shutter clicked, loudly lamented the steadiness he'd enjoyed while the bike had training wheels, now gone. He's smiling nervously but with determination while attempting to apply the principle that if the bike leans left, steer left to bring it back upright. But his muscles have yet to learn the necessary reflexes or finesse, and he will soon encounter ramification of overcompensation.

From that photo's cognate roll of film, the next negative was exposed about a week later, and its ensuing photo in turn occupies my picture frame's right-hand slot. The same boy is pointing to a dark circle halfway up the inseam of his right calf, and his other hand signifies "thumbs up." If your eyes are good, even without a magnifier you can see the dots where thirteen stitches were then-recently removed. If you supposed that the boy is stolidly proud of his battle scar, you'd be correct. But when I look at this photo, I can also see a boy eager for the day he'd be cleared to ride his bike again, for on that day he would master it.

When my father entered my sophomore college dorm room to grab some bags before taking me home for winter break, he must have seen something else in those photos, then occupying the corner of my desk. "What the hell are those things doing there?" he demanded.

I explained that they reminded me of a significant event in my life that now informed my efforts to deal with travails at school. "In other words," he asserted, "just like then, it's all my fault now."

A mature and/or dispassionate mind might lay out a methodical counterargument as such:

1) Although taking off the training wheels was initially your idea, I immediately approved and got on the bike without coercion.

2) The one who faulted you was in fact your drinking buddy. When he opined that you should have left the training wheels on because I was "clearly not ready for a real bike," he did so to draw attention to how unfavorably your egghead son compared to his talented, athletic son, who, as we all knew, had been riding a bike for going on two years when not otherwise occupied with amassing football trophies.

3) Even if the crash was a foreseeable outcome, it was my lack of skill that ultimately led to it, and for that I actually said I was sorry to all who'd gathered. Any anger I expressed post-crash was from having given your "buddy" opportunity to make yet another sideways jab at you by way of me. Sitting on the grass by the sidewalk, applying pressure to my own legwound, I heard that bully's every snidely inflected word and knew exactly what he meant, but my scornful growl was insufficient as a comeback. Alas, I was still years away from learning that the more appropriate response would have been to instruct him immediately and directly to shut the fuck up.

4) Lest you doubt my recollection of these events, recall yourself how often you have praised my memory for details, such as how sparks danced across the battery upon which big letters spelled out D E L C O as you unclamped the jumper cables one near-zero morning, the exhaust from your reanimated blue Chevy two-door wagon so thick that I was sure I could sit on it, which I actually attempted whilst you coiled the cables and and tossed them onto the cracked red vinyl between where you and I would sit as you drove me to nursery school. And since trauma has a way of searing things into the brain, consider how much better I'd remember things that surrounded my own impaling some years later!

But the volatile teenage brain awash in hormones and the righteous indignation of the unjustly accused concerns itself with settling scores. The dormitory hallway reverberated the enumeration of things that really had been my father's fault, none apropos matters of the bike or college. It was not the first, but nearly the last time I sought to run him through like that, although it was the first time he didn't return in kind. When I finally wound down, he stoically hoisted a duffel over his shoulder and calmly said, "I'm parked in a fifteen-minute zone, and we should get home for dinner."

The drive home was quiet and the three-week break interminable; I caught a ride to campus with a friend. The first thing I did when I got back was to bury the picture frame at the back of the bottom drawer of the desk. It abided there and then in various junk boxes till it was cached in its current one. It no longer needed to remind me of anything; the scar itself was more than sufficient.

The scar is now faded and as matter-of-factly a part of me as my navel or toenails, and equally easy to ignore, covered as all these are while I'm at work. It might catch the attention of an occasional interlocutor if I'm seated and happen to cross my legs just so, and my pant leg rides up enough. I tend to remember not to let that happen, but too many times I've been exposed, leading to as many calls for explanation.

I used to think the most straightforward approach was to state the essentials succinctly: I flipped my bike and its kickstand pierced me all the way to the bone. Throughout school and college, other kids had no problem leaving things at that. But my colleagues often did not accept that such an improbable thing could happen, Stilton among them.

I told him to check the Web, rife with similar stories, mine distinguished only by lack of severed arteries, of prolonged entanglements, or of paramedics being called. Somewhat assuaged, and assisted by scribbled diagrams and calculations, he surmised a few scenarios that could have effected the result I'd described, all of them involving a kickstand with a weak spring. I reported that my dad and I had investigated and found the offending apparatus just so, albeit then adorned with medical debris. (Dad installed an improved and shinier kickstand before he'd let anyone use the bike again.) Stilton's visage betrayed his persisting lack of conviction.

When I told Panquehue the story of the scar, she pronounced me guilty of yet again keeping from her the most important things. I admit here that she had a point: I'd told no-one about The Picture Frame or The Argument. (Many of my colleagues are also my friends, but I don't typically share deeply personal things with anyone but my spouse.) It's not that I regretted the experience---I've grown from it, and had it not happened as it did, something else would have taken its place in my history. But every time I speak of it, when left alone to my thoughts again, I relive it all. I think of how I could have comported myself better, and although the capacity to come to such retrospective realization is itself a product of growth, the endeavor always exposes new scabs to pick, other old business unfinished and fraught.

If I could ask of the world one favor in this matter, it would be leave to face it on my own schedule. But that is far too much to demand, and I can't fault those who unknowingly touch a raw nerve or topple the first domino; it was I who contrived to preserve their ignorance. Nor can I blame my colleagues for their curiosity---it's what academics do: we question, prod and poke, sometimes provoke. But till I had fallen in with this crowd, I had not thought myself so transparent. Panquehue declared that one day, she would have the truth; I don't doubt that she will, or that when she does, she'll tell it to me.

At the end of what had been a recent, tiring day, Bryndza and Feta were in my office; a situation with a problem student seemed intractable. I clasped my hands behind my head and leaned back to seek answers in the ceiling tiles, frustrated and lost for words, the latter combination exciting a phantom itch deep within the scar (it's done this so often that I've drawn the causal connection). The scar bereft of nerve endings itself, no amount of surface scratching will ever satisfy its itch; however, I have caught myself absentmindedly trying it anyway in the past when sufficiently cognitively encumbered. My colleagues' stares fixed to my leg alerted me to the fact that I was trying it now.

"Sorry for flashing so much leg," I chuckled sheepishly, tugging the pant towards my ankle. "You won't report me to HR, will you?"

"No," said Bryndza, "it's just that..."

"There's this..." continued Feta.

"This old thing?" I winked and jabbed a pinkie into the fabric draped over my lower leg, forming a pit that engulfed the fingertip.

"Whoa, there's got to be a great story behind that!" announced a smiling Bryndza.

My frustration of earlier in the meeting spontaneously reignited and flashed over to this other thing. I wished not to be questioned and my answers again found lacking. I wished to avoid the sullen, self-medicated evening that was sure to follow. I wished myself retroactively and forever rid of this peephole into my psyche. But not wanting to act unbecomingly in the presence of my friends, I resigned myself to the task at hand.

"Well, it's probably not as great a story as you'd think, but I'll tell it if you really want to hear it."

They nodded the affirmative in synchrony while untested sentences took form in my quickening mind.

"So," I waxed, "as you are surely aware, sometimes I can be an asshole. It seems that once, I pissed off the wrong person at the wrong place, wrong time, and they just up and shot me."

Their eyebrows raised but slightly, and they nodded knowingly, saying nothing till discussion resumed on a different topic. They'd bought it! A wave of relief washed over me---I felt slightly giddy! During lulls in the ongoing conversation, I contemplated how a gunshot so delivered would likely have mimicked the observable physical result in my case. It also had the advantage of probably hurting less at time of injury, and of (so I thought at the time) attracting less emotional freight afterwards. I considered rewriting my memory and felt empowered.

Several minutes after the meeting ended and my colleagues had departed, I mentally replayed my telling of "the shooting." It was then that I apprehended how they'd begun nodding, barely perceptibly at first, just after I'd said "asshole." And then I didn't know how to feel.

---from OPH.



  1. CrotchetyCanadianCrankApril 5, 2016 at 3:23 AM

    You might be my favourite 'asshole' and I love this.

  2. I wish that on campus interviews we could ask candidates just what kind of asshole they might be. Every department needs at least one--like OPH.

    1. The particular denomination of church I attend (or at least the one I'm skipping when I don't go most Sundays) uses a lot of congregational governance. And for proper running each such gathering must have one or two grumpy curmudgeons: the people who call committee chairs out when they try to pull a fast one, or question the rosy projections in budgets for capital improvements.

      They are often not particularly well liked, but every such church I've been to that was without one started spiraling out of control shortly after loosing their anchor asshole.

      I would not be surprise to hear that it is the same with faculties.

    2. I think we may belong to the same denomination (or at least closely related ones). And yes, the grumpy curmudgeons are both (a) occasionally useful and (b) dying out.

  3. Oh, this is wonderful. Thank you!

  4. Can I come work with you? I want to hang with you and your colleagues!

  5. I always wonder OPH generates a lot of office visits from the university ombudsman. In a good way.

  6. It strikes me that the paired pictures could serve as an interesting conversation-starter with students, since they say something about the nature of learning (and the spirit which informs and supports learning -- and yes, sometimes, we're also proving something to someone who doubts us; there can be too much of that, but a bit here and there sometimes helps).

    But it could be a perilous conversation with someone who is still in the older-adult-blaming stage (which I think most of us go through, and some, sadly, get stuck in). And many college students are, in fact, in that stage (especially when it comes to parents).

    And besides, the bullet story is too good to spoil (and much more imaginative, because more mysterious, than the standard jealous-husband tale that often goes with such injuries).

  7. "...I pissed off the wrong person at the wrong place, wrong time, and they just up and shot me."

    Tough committees at your joint, OPH!

  8. Thanks for the encouraging words, all.

    @CCC, It's an interesting turn of phrase, and I'll take it. This suggests a slogan such as might be suitable for the header: "All your favourite assholes in one place."

    @1184, I think I might do that with the next candidate. "Just what kind of asshole are you?" I'm sure they will understand my intent. Followon questions: "Just what kind of asshole would you become if you were offered the position?" "How do you see yourself interacting with the assholes in our department?"

    @PP & @CC, I'm not sure I've achieved the level of grumpy curmudgeon, but I have been a token anchor asshole.

    @Bella, yes, many of my colleagues are indeed fun. I think I may have already accepted an earlier, similar request from you, along with that of Proffie Galore and perhaps others here. I seem to recall we were going to make Bingo cards to play together at committee meetings. Speaking of which, @EC1, our committee meetings make the "Cantina Scene" from "Star Wars Episode IV" look like a kid's tea party, except our meetings have less live music.

    @Nick, I am well acquainted with the ombudsman (ombudsperson?). So far, nothing has "stuck".

    @CC (again), I like the idea of the bullet story morphing "asshole" into "badass". If familiarity breeds contempt, the opposite must be true of mystery, so let's go with that.

    Some of my students can be motivated by desire to prove themselves to someone else who doubts them, but others just use that doubt to confirm their own, and they crumple. I'm not as good as I wish to be at predicting who is which. My defense against that is to report my observations and gently prod: "The numeric evidence indicates that what you're doing isn't resulting in success. Here are some things that successful students do. I don't see you doing any of those. If you want to be successful, doing some of those things could be a good start."

    But I will reflect further on how my own experience might inform my dealings with students, and whether certain media might assist.

    Apropos of that, of personal growth, of older-adult-blaming, and as a sort of epilogue, I relate this conversation that occurred soon after, partly as a result of, my daughter's birth. Dad was perhaps a bit in his cups and saying something like, "People talk about how much influence you have on your kids. At some point in their lives, you see them, what, a couple hours a day, if that? How much can you do with that? Against all the other crap that's out there, you know, how much can you do? But you do what you can. You have to. Do what you can. And let's not forget, it goes both ways. Parents influence their kids---how about how kids affect their parents? You keep growing till you die, or at least you should, and you grow from the people around you, and for a while, those are your kids, big time. No way you've got it all figured out till you're finally grown up and your kids are grown up and it's too late. You'll make mistakes, and you'll regret them. The things I've done---I didn't do as much as I could, or I didn't do it right..."

    And my sister, two years my junior and two-tenths as tightly wound as I, said this: "Well, it's not like we're axe murderers or anything. We've got jobs and we're paying the bills, and we're not fucking millionaires but we've lost and loved and we've got friends and families and we're actually doing all right, okay? So I kind of think you've been off the hook for some time now."

    I didn't speak, but I did one of those one-eyebrow-raised, tilted-head things that is the universally-acknowledged sign of "yeah, what she said."

  9. More thanks are in order.

    Thanks to the RGM for keeping the lights on, for supplying the customary shitty graphic on this post, and for any HTML cleanup that was needed. (I hope my efforts to minimize the latter bore fruit.)

    Thanks to Kimmie for her heavily-coded post of the other day, which reminded me that I had a "bike story" too.