The Joys of Rural America

5 01 2010

I’ve been residing now in Bardstown, Kentucky, since the middle of October and I’ve gathered some impressions about my new location. I never imagined myself as the kind of person who could stand to live in sub-20,000 population community and this largely remains true. Yet, Bardstown has a surprising amount of charm despite its diminutive census count.

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The Grass is Always More Blue on the Other Side

8 10 2009

After months of continuous searching, applying and being rejected, I have at last convinced a newspaper that I would make a worthy addition to their staff. Those poor fools at The Kentucky Standard. My stint of table waiting has come to an end (Thank you, sweet Jesus), and now I’m heading down south to Bardstown, Kentucky, to the land of Bourbon and Bibles, in service of democracy, freedom of the press and special sections promoting unbelievable deals by local merchants.

This will not be my first experience working at a community newspaper. Before I hopped a plane to Korea, I had been employed as reporter/editor/fall guy for the prestigious Lake Sun Leader, covering everything local and happenin’ for the Lake of the Ozarks area in central Missouri. As it turned out, there wasn’t really a lot happening, but I covered it any way. Are you a middle-aged cover band playing “Mustang Sally” three times a night for other middle-aged hoosier tourists? Congratulations, front page of the weekend Entertainment section.

I also wrote a video game column which contained slang and terms that vexed my publisher endlessly. He was convinced such language was the result of grammatical error rather than an intimate understanding of the subject matter. In fact, not a single person on the staff played video games or very much understood them or the culture surrounding the hobby. Yet, when I announced my departure from the paper, the first thing everyone said to me was not “Oh, too bad, we will miss you” but rather “So, are you still going to do that video game thing?”, even the moms from the sales department.

The job involved more editing than writing and as such allowed me to be blamed for all the mistakes that my editor did not catch. For some mistakes, however, I can claim sole responsibility. For example, the last of my nightly tasks involved sending the finished PDFs of the newspaper pages to the printer. A simple job that I usually finished with complete success. Yet, through a process still mysterious to me, I once managed to substitute the next day’s paper’s opinion page for the archived version of that page from exactly one year ago. Though this greatly enraged my publisher, I’m convinced most of our readers didn’t even realize the switch.

My new gig will involve considerably more writing though not really anymore prestige. My concern will cover two primary beats, Education and “Cops n’ Courts.” Though the latter may sound like a poorly conceived reality TV show, it’s basically means reporting on any sort of serious crimes, trials or accidents that occur. So, if you live in Bardstown and manage to drunkenly knock over the giant fiberglass rooster at the gas station on Rt. 245 before plowing headlong into the Baptist church’s Halloween display (splattering pumpkin guts everywhere) only to emerge nude from your vehicle and protest your innocence when the cops arrive, I’m probably going to put your name in the paper.

Hopefully, events equally adventurous and hilarious will occur during my tenure at The Kentucky Standard, which I will chronicle here. Though I do not own any guns, have never voted for a Republican and can read above a 5th grade level, I’m sure I’ll have no problem fitting into rural Kentucky life.

Author’s Note: The above remarks are only meant in jest and in no way do I mean to offend or insult the fine people of Kentucky. Both my parents were born and raised in Lexington. I have visited the state many times and have always enjoyed myself, and I am looking forward to taking up residence there.

Adventures in Sanitation

3 09 2009

As I toil away in my current employment, carrying pizzas to and fro, I often comfort myself with the thought that it is not the worst job I’ve ever had.

The summer after my freshman year of college, I had a shit job. Literally. My source of revenue for that season came from the Sanitation District of Decatur, who employed me as a lawn mower, grounds keeper and any-other-shit-that-needs-to-done-around-here doer for three long months.

The Sanitation District of Decatur can be seen to the left of your computer screen

The Sanitation District of Decatur can be seen to the left of your computer screen

Boredom formed the core experience of the tasks set before me, long monotonous hours astride a tractor or riding lawn mower, ruthlessly cutting down stalk after stalk of sprouting grass. Two experiences stand apart from the rest, one a brief lesson in abject terror that I will detail here and the other I will reserve for a later post.

Well, those two and the time the ex-marine on the crew chased down a rabbit with his mower and then rode around for the rest of the day with its severed head on the metal guard covering the blades. Not really a nice (or even normal) guy, that one.

As I said before, mowing the vast grounds of the sewage treatment plant formed my primary duty. To accomplish this purpose, we often used large tractors with a mower attached in addition to the standard riding mower. Urban dweller that I am, I had never had the opportunity to mount and operate such a steed.

A brief tutorial was given to me on its functions, but my mechanical aptitude has always been pretty low and the early morning hour of the lesson also subtracted from my attention span. My key misunderstanding had to do with the relationship between the brake and the clutch and how to properly make the metal behometh stop.

You see, tractors like that do not have an accelerator as a car does. Instead, there’s just a clutch and a brake and when the you let your foot fully off the clutch, the tractor goes. Its default mode is go, speed is controlled by gear.

Cruising on the pavement toward a patch of grass in need of reduction, my understand of the tractor was thus: If I push on the clutch, the tractor stops. A more proper understanding of the motor’s functions would have gone “If I push on the clutch, the wheels stop moving” or even more exactly “If I push on the clutch, the drive shaft stops turning the wheels but since the motor is engaged there is nothing to stop said wheels being moved by more natural forces like, say, gravity.”

Blissfully ignorant of the near-tragedy I was about to barely avoid, I reached the corner of the compound assigned to me. A tall metal fence perched on a small, steep mound of earth ringed the plant’s perimeter and ensured that at least some of my grass-cutting would incur on an incline. I worried nothing about this, confident I was in the tractor’s mechanics.

I lowered the mowing deck, engaged the blades and began to make the first of many concentric circles. I reached the edge of the compound, ascended the small upward thrust of land and traveled along the top, next to the fence.

Moving carefully along the ridge, I contemplated that soon I would have to maneuver the tractor back down the hill. An easy task, I would simply apply a little pressure to the clutch to slow the vehicles roll downward. The result of this ill-conceived plan is that when I set the tractor on the decline, the motor stopped turning the wheels but the wheels did not stop turning.

In fact, to my great surprise and growing alarm, they begun to turn very quickly.

In a matter of seconds I went from idling along like an old farmer, peaceful and relaxed, to gripping the steering wheel of a roaring metal death machine. The descent become completely uncontrolled, the tractor began to wobble and I began to consider praying for my soul’s eternal salvation.

Fate spared me, however, the ground leveled out and I slowed to a stop. Immediately, my surpervisor and others who had been in the area rushed over to me, obviously to express their concern for my safety and well-being.

“What the fuck are you doing?”

My supervisor immediately asked me this question and I quickly noted a sever shortage of sympathy in his voice. I stumbled through an explanation, muttered about the clutch and the brake and how no one told me that the tractor motor will automatically maintain its speed on a hill. All for naught, the expression on his face and my coworkers was resolute — I had been labeled, for the rest of the summer, an idiot.

My weak and ineffectual explanation for why I had not properly understood how to operate the machine become a kind of standard for the numerous other mistakes to come. For example, the time I incorrectly put together a weed whacker so that upon starting its various pieces burst apart, some of them ending up in a canal carrying sewage water.

The most surprising aspect of this story is that despite the clear evidence of my lack of manual skills and common sense, the very next summer I took another landscaping job with the University of Missouri.

I hope to post part two of my experiences with the Decatur Sanitation District soon. A teaser: A giant puddle of processed feces, urine and other toilet waste is involved. Interested now?

The Hazards of My Profession

20 08 2009

The job of table waiting brings with it certain inherent dangers. Glasses wobble precariously on uplifted trays, plates of food stray dangerously close to a table’s precipice, floors are slick from various liquids and the scene is imbued with a general frenetic chaos during peak hours.

Such physical perils I expect and do my best to avoid or mitigate the damage should an error occur. Yet, the successful earning of a large tip presents more varied challenges and I cannot anticipate all eventualities, as was the case last night.

At one table, I faced two unique threats, whose uncharted waters I found myself unprepared to navigate. In addition to the treacherous new seas, my vessel for plying such waves was full of holes created by absent-minded nature. Equipped with little knowledge of how to operate my rickety craft and surrounded by unfamiliar water, I plunged onward nonetheless in search of a calmer clime and 20 percent tip.

The table in question contained five persons, a couple in their late 30s and their brood of two kids and one infant. Husband and wife had an aura of physical vigor if not necessarily attractiveness and engaged me in seemingly innocuous small talk. Within this conversation I encountered the first of my unforeseen difficulties.

Pinned to my chest during all working hours is a name tag so that I every person I meet is automatically an acquaintance of mine whether I wish it or not. The tag also contains a piece of ancillary information, a location representing where you are from or where you were born, which in my case reads “Korea.” Most guests perceive this for the blatant lie that it is with various expressions of disbelief, wherefore I explain my recent experience teaching English in the country.

That situation had played itself out many times, but the man at this table cut short the usual string of questions and instead immediately inquired about the number and condition of Christian churches in Korea. Not an unusual question considering the number of Korean churches in Arlington Heights, I thought, and described the contingent across the Pacific as small but vocal. He then asked me if I still attended church, and I saw my tip flash before my eyes.

I fumbled my response, seeking some sort of religious middle ground and described myself as “all churched out” due to my attendance at Catholic schools and their abundance of Masses. Then, instead of ordering an appetizer or maybe asking about one of our new salads or even just lapsing into silence, he encouraged me to check out his church (surprise, he’s a pastor) so that my heathen soul might be saved. Noting my youth, he emphasized their contemporary worship and Christian “rock music.” I feared he might ask me to follow his church on Twitter.

Still, I accepted his overtures graciously and consider my financial outlook for the table bright. Yet, when I returned bearing beverages I noticed the infant of the party had been moved out of his stroller and into the arms of his mother where (under the cover of a too-small blanket) he was having a drink of his own. Or, I tried not to notice it. However, no matter where I looked, the breast-feeding baby seemed in the corner of my eye.

On my subsequent trips to the table, I kept my vision locked above the neckline of all parties at the booth with great success. As the meal winded down, I begun to relax. The honor and dignity of the minister’s wife would remain intact (and with it my tip), my eye’s not perceiving anything untoward.

I presented the family with a dessert menu and begun explaining the various options contained therein. Then, for one instant the baby pulled away from his mother, the carefully arranged blanket slide down and in-mid spiel I caught an unfortunate glimpse.

The large, round nipple of the minister’s wife filled my vision in a flash. Like the time I hit a deer driving 60 mph late at night, it appeared for a moment in freeze-frame and then vanished.

I saw it. She saw that I saw it. He saw that she saw that I saw it. Their two kids obliviously chewed on their plain cheese pizzas.

All was lost and I felt the water pooling around my legs as my brave ship floundered, rocked by two successive waves. An atheist at worst and an agnostic at best, I had now viewed a sacred sight, something ensconced by God within the bounds of holy matrimony. I had two black marks, enough to surely sink my potential earnings.

When the group finally departed the tip (and, in retrospect, the tit) made a sight I was sorry to perceive.

A Life of Servitude

21 07 2009
An example of a menu item from California Pizza Kitchen.

Even though it is called California Pizza Kitchen, all of the menu items at my work are made in Illinois.

My stint as a waiter has started in earnest at California Pizza Kitchen. I have been cut loose from the training strings and now fake happiness, laughter and general enjoyment to seated patrons on my own terms. My nature has always been prone to indulgences in self-reflection and spontaneous mental vacations, so I wondered, prior to beginning the job, how that would jibe with the responsibilities involved in serving.

In truth, not very well.

Matters become worse earlier this week when a cocktail of drugs prescribed to me for a rapidly escalating case of poison ivy (acquired this weekend via gathering firewood in the dark) plunged me into a mental fog. I moved about the CPK floor, dimly perceiving shapes in the haze and engaging them in conversation as best I could. To describe it in a modern sense, I could feel a significant amount of lag between the time I heard a customer say something and the moment I could bring forth a response.

My brain felt suspended in a thick porridge and incapable of operating with the kind of rhetorical agility usually associated with earning good tips. I’m sorry, group of wise-cracking old ladies, but I cannot issue a rejoinder to counter your overflowing wit. My apologies, mother and young child combo, but today I am not able to cater to your every pressing need, so you will doubtless become fussy and agitated. I humbly regret any errors, business men discussing something in earnest, but you are probably not paying attention anyway.

Oh God, teenagers. Please just go away, you are pretty insufferable and you should know that drinking so many sodas in such a short period of time is like asking for diabetes for Christmas when you are forty.

Serving enjoyment aside, I’ve spent the time since my last update completing some other writing endeavors, which I would kindly ask that you view. If you assess any enjoyment from reading the following, please leave a comment expressing your general satisfaction.

I’ve written a little piece of fiction as a kind of creative writing exercise for a blog I maintain with some friends. I had a lot of fun creating it in hopes that you would have fun reading it.

Also, I’ve done some more work for Matador, a travel Web site that has previously published my stuff. This time around it’s sports-related, a quick guide to becoming a long-distance running all-star.

Lessons in Authoritarianism

21 05 2009
pagoda 3

Can you ever imagine listening to a guy like this? The answer for most students seemed no.

The initial response I gathered upon announcing my intention to teach English in Korea provoked some playfully derisive skepticism from friends and family. Most of this stemmed from the fact that I have a very low, gruff voice that tends toward mumbling and often renders me incomprehensible to listeners. I’m also infamous for mispronouncing certain words, namely “archive” with a soft “ch” instead of a hard one.

However, I had my own personal doubt that I thought would far exceed my sometimes garbled speech. Teachers, especially those of young kids, need to possess a presence that commands authority. Ever since I tried (and failed) being a patrol leader in Boy Scouts, I’ve known that I lack leadership qualities as such. I can’t really summon the kind of demeanor or personality that would instill terror in the heart of anyone, especially misbehaving Korean children.

I said to hell with it and flew over there anyway. Plus, I expected that upon arriving I would undergo a week or two worth of training to compensate for my complete lack of teaching knowledge. Instead, I arrived for my first day of work, was handed a stack of books and a schedule, and then shoved in front of a classroom of 12 nine-year-old children with absolutely no instruction as to what I should do with them.

Deep breath.

The kids were enthusiastic enough, gleefully shouting out the names of objects as I pointed to them in the class book. “Bee!” “Flower!” “Lizard!” Okay, fun enough, but it took all of about five minutes to knock out the first two pages in the allotted six for the entire class. I looked up at the clock, at my increasingly talkative (not in English) students and realized with dread that I had another 45 minutes to kill.

It was a rough first day.

For the next six months, I struggled for control. I tried making jokes (went over their heads), yelling fiercely (they couldn’t understand what I was saying) and giving up (class time = game time!), all to no avail. Overall, my approach’s defining characteristic remained its inconsistency. Depending on my mood, the boundaries about what constituted acceptable behavior and not shifted. This made enforcing rules difficult on the rare occasion that I had the courage and energy to enact them.

All this frustration culminated about halfway into my year-long contract with a physical altercation. There are no laws in Korea forbidding corporeal punishment, and Korean teachers often carry thick bamboo sticks with them to class. I had on occasion tapped kids on the head with a marker or folder to get their attention but never with any force behind it. On this particular day, I found myself so annoyed with an individual kid that I lost my temper, rolled up a book and swung full force at the standing boy’s head. Lucky for him (and me, in retrospect), he nimbly ducked under my brutal swing, resulting in gales of laughter from his classmates and extreme embarrassment for me.

This incident caused me to seriously rethink my general approach. I realized that I had been trying to control and corral these mischievous kids but losing control of my own self in the process. A flustered person does not inspire much respect.

Over the next few weeks, my teaching style evolved to compensate for this. However, I didn’t consider how I had changed or what I had accomplished much until after I came back. The realization occurred to me as I was dispensing tips to a friend about how to deal with authority problems at her new job. I had actual, constructive advice (which I almost never do on any subject) gleaned from my trial-by-fire in Korealand.

Thus, I present the three most important maxims for exercising brutal authority:

1) Develop an impenetrable skin. People are going to say or do things that inevitable rankle you, but remaining calms is key. Learn to yell without yelling. If your emotions start to color your scoldings, this signals victory to most misbehaving children.

2) Lay down the lines. Two parts to this, you must make it clear what isn’t allowed and then convey with your body language and tone of voice when the rules are being violated. My default mode was friendly and joking, but I would quickly lose the jovial tone if some kid started acting out and adopt a very even and serious voice. From there, I would ratchet up the anger and noise until obeyed. However, because my rage wasn’t emotional, I could just as quickly switch back to being fun and kidding again.

3) Know when you’re beat. Some kids just don’t listen, so don’t waste your time with a situation you can’t handle. For me, this meant sending a kid down the hall to one of the Korean teachers who would ream them in their native tongue. Korean mothers can be quite scary, so threatening to inform their parents worked well also.