Tag Archives: opinion

Sick days and substitute teachers 

Substitute teacher sitting in front of classroom with books on desks

My nerdy half-sister, Clara, often fills in as a substitute teacher. It’s one of the few occupations where you can end up with a “Kick Me” sign taped to the back of your shirt. That doesn’t happen in most office jobs.

Substitute-teacher days were always weird.

You knew something was off as soon as you walked into class. You could feel it churning in your gut – along with the undercooked corndog you’d eaten for lunch.

Some random adult would be standing at the head of the classroom, looking lost and out of place, as if they had wandered onto campus for their 20-year reunion and taken a wrong turn into the science lab.

Some of the students would stare, their eyes wide and startled, as if a spaceship had landed in their yard. The smart alecks would sneak discrete glimpses at each other, already plotting mischievous deeds, while some goody-two-shoes girl would exclaim, “Oh, no! Is Mrs. Ryan sick?”

And of course, the substitute didn’t know, so he’d shrug and mumble, “I have no idea. They just called me here this morning.”

I always pictured substitutes as impoverished vagabonds whose entire livelihood depended on a full-time teacher calling in with a hangover. They’d be awake and dressed at 4 a.m., standing by the phone and waiting for the call – a call, perhaps, from the principal himself, that most venerated of educational leaders.

A call that — on most days, no matter how long they waited — just wouldn’t come.

In defeated anguish, with no moneymaking gig, they’d wander the isolated streets — alone — scrounging for loose change to buy a loaf of day-old bread. If there was enough left over, they might get a secondhand picture frame to display their second-rate teaching certificate.

But if they did get the call, they’d show up in their corduroy pants and stand slump-shouldered at the head of the class – a flaccid, uncertain sergeant commanding a troop of baggy-pants know-it-alls. They’d kick things off by taking attendance, fumbling over names and biting their lip as they withstood the snickers.

After that, we students expected a free period to kick back and relax. In our minds, you see, there was a tacit understanding between the school and its students that the substitutes would make no effort to actually teach.

Instead, they’d distribute word-search puzzles, or assign busywork, or maybe put on a movie. They were supposed to be glorified babysitters, not aspiring educators striving for full-time status.

If the substitute did open a textbook and start to lecture, we’d have to set him straight. A kid would pull the book from his hand and say, “Sorry, but no — this isn’t how it’s going to work. You see that VCR attached to the TV stand — the one that’s flashing 12:00? Well, you’re going to pop in a National Geographic special from 1979 and play it for us.”

“Oh.” The substitute would place a fingertip to his lips. “Will I be giving you a quiz at the end of the film to ensure you’ve internalized the information?”

The student would shake his head — slowly — his eyes wide and threatening. “No.”

On another note, it seems like teaching is the only profession that gets substitutes. How come it’s a perk that never caught on in other workplaces?

I mean, when I can’t make it to work, I’m not allowed a stand-in. I can’t call up some random guy to do my job for a day. If I don’t show up,  my co-workers have to pitch in.

And when my boss is out, there’s no auxiliary superior to distribute word searches to me and my co-workers. No one plays a National Geographic special for us in the breakroom. We’re still expected to do our jobs, even without the watchful eye of a surrogate overseer. It doesn’t seem fair.

But maybe it’s just as well. Knowing me, if I had a substitute supervisor, I’d be one of the smart alecks sneaking discrete glimpses at my co-workers, plotting mischievous deeds.

What can I say? Even though I’m no longer in school, some things never change.

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Welcome to the Period of Post-Quality, where the details don’t matter

Two men sitting in conference room

Remember when attention to detail used to matter?

A lot has changed since the 2008 financial crisis.

Some of the aftershocks are more obvious. There are fewer jobs. Fewer opportunities.

Wealth and abundance flow into Wall Street, while capital and resources are siphoned from Main Street.

Yet some of the effects are more abstract — harder to define. People sense there’s something off, but they’re not sure how to put it in words.

It’s vague, and harder to pin down, but there’s a definite difference in the way we do business.

I thought about it for a while, and out of nowhere, it hit me:

There’s less of a commitment to quality these days, and more of a focus on volume.

You see it everywhere, from the way we communicate to the products we buy to the superficial summaries we hear on the news.

Instead of forging a few meaningful relationships, we’re firing off friend requests to everyone online.

Rather than reading an article in-depth, we’re glancing at our phone and skimming the headlines.

Instead of fine-tuning the tiniest of details, we’re glossing over the aggregated data.

Like I said, it’s abstract and murky, but it’s a general sense that we’re not doing things as well as we could.

And I’ll be the first to admit: Maybe it’s just my perception. Maybe I’m turning into a crusty, old curmudgeon who grouses about social media and laments the good-old days when every phone had a cord.

But I don’t think so. I’m an older Millennial — just on the verge of being in Generation X — and I remember when things were different.

It’s not a dramatic change — like Marty McFly traveling to an alternate 1985 — but it’s there. It’s noticeable.

Details used to matter. Meticulousness used to count.

Go-getters would seek methods to add value to their jobs, and their motivation would be recognized and rewarded.

I’ve had some unpleasant experiences in the past. I was a receptionist for a small office, so I endeavored to create value for my employer. I was tasked only with answering the phone, but I offered to write ad copy, shoot video, start a blog, design intricate flyers.

I wasn’t looking only to advance. I wanted to develop a reputation as a valuable go-to and a knowledgable resource. I wanted people to regard me as an indispensable member of the team.

Yet that didn’t happen. The effort went nowhere. The details didn’t matter.

Despite my asking, the position didn’t expand to encompass all my skills.

Now granted, that’s only one bad experience. And it encouraged me to seek employment with my current company, where grit and heavy-lifting are appreciated.

But there’s a general malaise these days — and not just among Millennials like me. People in generations before mine feel the same way.

How do I know? I talk to them.

I’ve always felt more comfortable with people older than myself — which is a huge benefit in the workplace. Experienced professionals have stood in your shoes, and they can advise you on how to avoid the mistakes that they had to learn on their own.

I’d rather someone instruct me on the wisdom of tying my shoes, rather than falling flat on my face and finding out for myself.

I’ve heard many Baby Boomers talk about how things aren’t as good as they used to be. People cared more, they say. A job well-done was a badge of honor.

People aren’t as invested now, they tell me. Employees show up, but they shovel work onto others, or they make pompous declarations without considering all the facts.

These aren’t burned-out cubicle-dwellers on the verge of retirement. These are people I admire and trust. They’re not begrudging change, or holding their era in higher esteem.

When they tell me that things used to be better, I believe them. And I agree.

We’re living in a high-gloss, low-wattage society. There’s no substance beneath the surface. The perception of competency is paramount, but actual experience is scarce.

We pad our LinkedIn profiles with buzz-terms and jargon, but there’s no actual wizard behind the curtain. We build dense, keyword-specific resumes, but there’s no character beneath the clutter.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Whether it’s technology making us complacent, or the aftershocks of an all-embracing recession, we can choose to be the indispensable go-to who’d do anything to help out a colleague.

We can decide to be the master of details who’s known for accuracy and efficiency.

We can elect to be the resourceful collaborator who’s always seeking new ways to add value.

This doesn’t have to be the Period of Post-Quality. But it’s up to us.

If we can shake off all the malaise and complacency and rediscover our entrepreneurial roots, we could be living in a golden age where character counts, hard work is appreciated, and demonstrated proficiency is valued higher than smooth-talking swagger.

Details should matter. Competency should count. Hard work and resourcefulness should be rewarded.

That’s the way things used to be. And I’m hopeful that one day — once again, with any luck — that will be the way things are.

Being curt doesn’t make you businesslike

two businessmen in officeI’m noticing a trend lately where people respond to e-mails with an abrupt, terse tone.

No greeting. No “please” and “thank you.” Just a curt, one-sentence response, with a sprinkling of condescension.

I imagine they’re trying to sound confident and authoritative. After all, real professionals don’t waste time with pleasantries or kindness. Real professionals are tough and domineering, and they command respect with their aloof detachment and emotionless demeanor.

But if goal is to sound cool and confident, I’d like to remind these people that they’re failing spectacularly.

Instead, they’re just proving themselves to be clueless jerks with no skills to back up the swagger.

In fact, there’s a direct correlation between a person’s curtness and their incompetence.

The more curt the e-mail, the more incompetent the worker. It’s a rule.

I’d also like to remind these people that real competence stems from patience and understanding and putting yourself in another person’s shoes.

True professionalism comes from listening to the needs of others and responding to the best of your ability.

Genuine respect is earned by appreciating others and recognizing their contributions.

Humor and warmth go a long way in cultivating relationships and building trust. A person who can laugh projects much more poise and confidence than a sleaze-ball who tries to control others through fear and intimidation.

Most people want to be perceived as competent and able. It’s understandable. And our professional correspondence speaks volumes about our personality and the image we’re trying to project — even more so than the way we dress.

But please don’t mistake aloofness for ability. Don’t confuse curtness for competence.

No matter how stiff your upper lip, being a prick will never make you a professional.

So let’s cut it out with the abrupt, terse e-mails, OK? Si “hi” in your greeting. Tell someone you “hope they’re doing well.” Respond with a “thank-you” when they fulfill your request.

After all, isn’t common human decency worth a slightly cluttered inbox? If someone doesn’t appreciate a “thank-you” e-mail, then they always can delete it.

I’ll never subscribe to the notion that civility and decorum have to be sacrificed for the sake of doing business.

Skill and proficiency may define a professional, but it’s kindness and compassion that constitute the soul.

The kind that produce gas

man and woman on date in dinerI like to conclude a romantic evening with a beautiful woman by reaching across the table, taking her hand, and extolling the many virtues of beneficial gut bacteria.

It’s not often I get a second date.

Actually, I’m not even a big proponent of probiotics. Not anymore. I took them regularly for a few years, guzzling the little buggers before every meal and championing their magnificence as if I were Dr. Oz.

But there are so many different strains — so many brands and varieties — that my microflora mastery is quickly degenerating to obsolescence.

So no longer do I extol the virtues of beneficial gut bacteria.

Instead, I reach across the table, take my date’s hand, and urge her to research the subject herself.

It’s still not often I get a second date. But I can tell I’ve given her something to think about, even as she’s dashing in a panic for the restaurant door.

After all, the scientific literature regarding the safety and effectiveness of probiotics is quite extensive.

At least, I assume it is. I wouldn’t know. Everything I know about probiotics, I learned from the Internet (as well as how to self-diagnose on WebMD):

  • Some probiotics inhabit the small intestine while others inhabit the large.
  • Some work best with others; others work best alone.
  • Some slim the stomach while others cause gas and bloating. (Try not to confuse the two before a big date. I’m speaking from experience, here.)
  • Some should be stored at room temperature while others are best kept cold.

I guess it’s not the best dessert conversation — at least judging from the looks I get. I admit, the mental image of microorganisms surging through your digestive tract (and we’re talking billions and billions of them, here), is a little unsettling.

But they say dating is a learning experience, and if I can impart some of my wisdom over cheesecake and coffee, then I feel I’ve served humanity.

Of course, the dates always end soon after — and often, the women insist on driving themselves home.

Which is understandable … considering that earlier in the evening, I confused my waist-trimming probiotics with the gas-producing variety.

TV Guide listings for my five favorite shows

House Hunters funny meme

Sometimes TV Guide listings can be a little too detailed. (Keep in mind that these are shows I actually like.)

House Hunters:

In this stellar, Emmy-worthy ode to the American Dream, a young couple tours three gigantic homes they can’t afford with a list of demands that reads like War and Peace. As they explore the homes, they make several snide remarks about how the rooms are too small and how the kitchen cabinets need updating (even though they’re perfectly adequate and show no visible defects). In a pulse-pounding, nail-biting conclusion, they’ll choose one of the houses not only to live in, but to use as an ATM machine when (and if) the property value goes up.

MonsterQuest:

Scientists with questionable credentials team up with a band of rednecks in a harrowing search for the elusive Bigfoot. Trudging through the dense forests of the Pacific Northwest, they attempt to capture visual evidence of the creature by tying high-definition cameras to the trunks of several trees. In the process, they obtain dozens of blurry images of deer, squirrels, chipmunks and other mundane, everyday forest inhabitants. They also spot an indentation that could either be a Bigfoot print or an ordinary hole in the ground.

Top Chef:

Seventeen culinary professionals with badass tattoos and perplexing haircuts compete for a grand prize of $125,000, as well as the underwhelming title of “Top Chef.” Gratuitous shots of Whole Foods abound as the chefs run around like unleashed hellions to buy their ingredients. Manufactured drama ensues as the chefs prepare meals in extreme situations in an alleged attempt to gauge their cooking skills. A panel of judges sneers and makes disparaging remarks about the food — even though they’ve never had to cook in similar conditions — before telling the losing chef to pack his or her knives and go home. The remaining chefs drink gallons of alcohol and talk endlessly about their need to stay focused to win the competition.

Hell’s Kitchen:

Michelin star-winning TV personality Gordon Ramsay screams hateful remarks at red-faced chefs as they drip sweat into undercooked risotto. Then all the chefs go outside to smoke cigarettes and talk smack. The pattern repeats for twenty episodes as Ramsay belittles the chefs, disparages their food, and makes their lives a living hell. The least-crappy chef then wins a coveted job working with Ramsay full-time.

Ghost Adventures:

Four frat boys duct-tape Xs to the floor and wander around haunted locations in dim-green night vision while calling out malicious spirits. They debunk obvious camera flares as “not being bugs or dust particles” because dust has a marked snow-flurry pattern. Tiny sounds — such as mouse scurrying or a radiator rattling — are immediately classified as “paranormal,” and any hisses captured on audio are portrayed as a disembodied voice. The voice will be replayed over and over until the audience hears what the show’s producers want them to hear. The lead investigator will shush the others if they try to speak, but then he’ll babble endlessly about a supposed cold spot or the hair standing up on his arm. A new electronic ghost-hunting device will be unveiled that won’t work.

Cheating vehicular miscreants who sponge off your stops

stop sign

Unless, of course, you’re a Stop Deceiver — that is, someone who surreptitiously runs a stop sign by driving alongside another vehicle. Horrible people.

I hate it when you’re at a stop sign and a car approaches alongside you, just as you’re about to take off. Instead of stopping, they simply slow down and match your speed, to give the illusion that you’re driving in tandem.

And as you accelerate, they use your forward momentum to falsify their stoppage.

It’s an age-old con known as the “stop deception.”

These so-called “stop deceivers” are among the sneakiest of miscreants. Essentially, they abscond with your stop so they themselves can run the stop sign.

You can call them “scum,” but it’s not a strong enough word. These bottom-feeding parasites require an innocent driver from which to scrounge their stops. Without an unsuspecting, law-abiding host to drive next to, law enforcement would identify their vehicular misdeeds and put an end to their reign of wrongdoing.

They’re more numerous than one might suspect. Basically, if the timing’s right, and a conveniently placed car is waiting at the intersection, everyone and their mother will try to pull a stop deception.

It happens to me every day. I’ll come to a complete stop, and the approaching person alongside me will pilfer my momentum to plunge through the intersection, their maniacal eyes focused upon the unfolding road.

And once we’re through the intersection, they floor it — to prove to me and to the rest of the world that they’re far too superior to stop at a stop sign.

And I bow my head in abject defeat, saddened by the knowledge that my law-abiding ways are woefully inadequate. If life is a pissing contest, then I’m a browbeaten loser with an abbreviated stream. I accept that fact with every fiber of my being.

Love and God bless, stop deceivers. May a city street sweeper brush up a cloud of dust to flutter upon your freshly washed car.

Reclaiming my right to recess

Children on a playground climbing a jungle gym

Sure, being an adult has its perks. You can stay up late, watch R-rated movies, and even eat ice cream for breakfast if you’re so inclined. (With my IBS, I’m not so inclined.) But I’d gladly give all that up if I could get my morning and afternoon recesses back. Why does recess have to go away when you grow up? All they give you in adulthood is a measly lunch hour … and maybe a cigarette break, if you’re lucky.

I hate to exercise.

I mean, I really hate to exercise. I hate it more than life itself.

But you got to do it. If you want to live a long life and accomplish great things (or even if you want to be a humor writer, like me), you’ve got to maintain your body.

A healthy body promotes a sharp and healthy mind. (It also discourages fellow beachgoers from laughing at your Speedo.)

I realized today that I need to exercise more.

And by that, I mean I need to exercise, period. As in, performing some sort of enhanced physical activity — something beyond my current regimen of rising from the couch to find the taquito that slipped between the seat cushions. (If it’s fuzz-free, it’s still good. Just got to brush off the cat hair and any loose change.)

It dawned on me that I’m tired. I sat down this evening to hammer out a post, and I was dismayed because I had nothing. My brain was dead. Static. Foggy.

I was tired. I’m always tired.

And I’m tired of always being tired.  Keep reading…

‘State of Play’ and the state of journalism

Author’s Note: This piece originally appeared on my now-defunct blog, The Barren Regions. I wanted to include it here because it brought back memories of when I worked at a newspaper (and when I could still refer to myself as a “twenty-something”).

I recently rented the Russell Crowe suspense flick, State of Play. I wanted to watch it because the title intrigued me. I wish I could say the same for the plot.

State of Play

Just kidding. Actually, the movie was OK, although unrealistic. Crowe plays a hard-nosed newspaper reporter who becomes ensnared in a D.C. murder mystery. He risks his life to uncover the truth — all in the name of getting the full story and informing the public.

That was the part I found unrealistic. I mean, c’mon, a journalist who actually works for a living? Get real. The most hustling you’ll see in a newsroom happens when someone accidentally leaves a box of doughnuts in the break area.

Other parts were all too real. Ben Affleck plays a conniving congressman. Helen Mirren plays a desk-pounding editor who hollers about deadlines and corporate responsibility and sits in a big office. Rachel McAdams plays an underpaid blogger who works at the same paper as Crowe.

In one scene, Crowe and Mirren sneer at how McAdams churns out gobs of copy for little pay while Crowe dawdles on his stories and earns twice as much. As a twenty-something budding journalist, I appreciate the realism (though truth be told, I don’t churn out tons of copy; I’m too busy eating doughnuts in the break room). Keep reading…

The greatest Christmas movie ever 

Now that the holiday season is upon us, it’s time once again to watch the greatest Christmas film in history.

And no, I’m not talking about It’s A Wonderful Life or A Christmas Story, or even one of the several dozen renditions of A Christmas Carol — including the CG one with Jim Carrey. (Everyone knows the Muppets made the definitive version.)

Instead, what I’m talking about is Vendetta: A Christmas Story.

This movie’s awesomeness is unparalleled. For the uninitiated, “Vendetta” is a 20-minute film that first appeared on the Internet in the late 1990s. Back then, the movie took about three hours to download. Surfing the Web in those days involved lots of thumb twiddling, as well as enduring your modem’s electronic screeches.

The film, produced in the style of a 1980s cop show, depicts Santa Claus being pursued by special agents. He gets shot at, beaten, chased and stuffed in a trunk. It’s everything you could ask for in a holiday film.

I especially loved “Vendetta” when it first came out, because it demonstrated that you don’t need expensive sets, famous actors or lots of cash to make a film. You just need heart … and a lot of free time.

“Vendetta” was made in that weird era when professional, homemade films were possible — albeit relatively difficult — to produce. These days, consumer video-editing software is abundant, and computers are much, much faster.

That’s not to say filmmaking is easy — it’s not. But it’s definitely easier now for people who know what they’re doing.

“Vendetta’s” filmmakers had little money but plenty of creativity. They essentially made a fun, entertaining flick with consumer-level cameras and dollar-store props.

And I admire that. Audiences today are desensitized to the big-budget splendor of Hollywood. We take all their work for granted. That’s why it’s refreshing when a good, low-budget film comes along. We can see filmmaking’s fundamentals in their raw form.

Also, low-budget filmmakers have to have the basics nailed down. They can’t use big-name actors or special-effect sequences as a crutch. To pull off their film, they have to have a solid script, competent camera work and exceptional editing — all of which “Vendetta” showcases.

What’s more, “Vendetta’s” creators give the the film away. I doubt they’ve made money with it. They should have, if they haven’t. It’s a creative gem, and what’s more, it’s hilariously entertaining.

So this holiday season, here’s a giant thumbs up to “Vendetta” and to its creators. For me, Christmas isn’t complete until I’ve watched it at least once.