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(Coffee) Shop Talk

Welcome to the shop where I talk about things that go well with coffee, which is almost everything.

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The Parrot Guy.

This morning I was walking to work and noticed a guy dressed as a pirate with a huge, real-looking feather in his pirate hat. He was walking in the opposite direction as me down the sidewalk. Just before we passed each other, he paused, lifted one leg, and cawed like a parrot. It was a strong, confident caw that would indubitably have impressed any female parrots had such been present. Then he continued on his way and I went in to work.

I’m currently a full time graduate student and also teaching ESL about 30 hours per week. Sometimes I finish teaching/lesson planning at 2:00 and start studenting/note-taking at 3:30. When I started this…routine? lifestyle? I thought it would be interesting and enlightening to be constantly switching from one side of the story to the other, and to some extent it has. In some ways the experiences aren’t comparable because the level of student and teacher performance in my graduate classes is very different from my ESL classes. My professors clearly do a lot more work per class than I do, but then again, I assume they are paid accordingly. On the other hand, my students don’t have as many studently responsibilities as I do, but then again, most of them are just looking for a language immersion/study abroad experience rather than a Master’s degree.

I haven’t actually picked up that much pedagogy from my own professors (except for the concept that the instructions a teacher thinks are clear are not necessarily actually clear to the students), but I do think that teaching has made me a better student. I’ve realized that it means a lot to instructors when their students take notes and otherwise show signs of genuine interest. I’ve also realized that most teachers really do like it when you ask questions, even if your question demonstrates that you have zero grasp of what they just said. Most instructors would rather go over a point again than find out when they (or their graduate assistants) are grading the exam that that point obviously flew over most people’s heads.

I understand that this post is not super relevant to most people who are probably reading it, as they have finished their student experiences and are either professional teachers with their own insights or never plan on teaching. However, there is one little nugget of truth and human nature that sort of motivated this whole post, and that’s what I’m about to get to.

When you move from one stage in life to another, say from college to graduate school or from “studenting” to working, it’s tempting to look back on the previous stage and think about how easy it was compared to where you are now. When I got my first office job I used to fantasize about being back in a bookstore and shelving sports photography books for hours on end, interrupted only by cranky middle aged women who apparently could neither read section signs nor find authors who were in alphabetical order. Of course when I was working at the bookstore I used to dream about how peaceful and uninterrupted life was when I was sitting in my college library, plugging away at my senior thesis on dualism as interpreted from the Tao Te Ching by a novel about a planet where gender is totally fluid.

Yeah. None of those stages in life were actually easy or calm or pleasant when I was in them. I mean, they all gave me a certain satisfaction and had non-work or -study related fun stuff going on, but the tasks themselves were all pretty much the same once you average out the overall difficulty, frustration, and/or boredom involved with each.

But NOW…now I am forced to recognize that teaching and learning are also pretty much the same when all factors are taken into account. They both have different but roughly equal frustrations, difficulties, and boring parts. (At least, they do if you care about and are trying hard at both of them. I know that’s not always the case, on both sides.)

Basically, the whole experience is a constant reminder to appreciate where I am in life at any given point and stop trying to wish myself into a future or past stage.

…also, I just came from a yoga class, so I’m in a really “be zen in the moment” mind set right now.

And that makes me wonder what it would be like to be a yoga instructor…

I’ve been doing a lot of academic reading lately, and the stuff I read for my Knowledge Organization class is, as you might gather by the name, kind of abstract and dense. I honestly don’t mind things that are abstract and dense as long as, after I’ve read it three times, I realize that it does make sense and was worth the effort. What I DO mind is, after spending half an hour reading two pages, I realize that it’s not only abstract and dense but totally incorrect.

Specifically, I come across stuff to the effect of, “there is no real definition for data” or “anything can be considered information, including trees and antelopes.”

Wrong and wrong. The best part is that you don’t need a master’s degree in Information Science to figure that out. All you need is a dictionary.

The definition:

data –noun
. a pl. of datum.
.( used with a plural verb ) individual facts, statistics, or items of information: These data represent the results of our analyses. Data are entered by terminal for immediate processing by the computer.
.( used with a singular verb ) a body of facts; information: Additional data is available from the president of the firm.

See? Easy. No ten-page articles necessary. I think that’s pretty clear, concise, and most people would not take issue with it.

Now on to “anything can be information.” Well, let’s see what information actually is.

.knowledge communicated or received concerning a particular fact or circumstance; news: information concerning a crime.
.knowledge gained through study, communication, research, instruction, etc.; factual data: His wealth of general information is amazing.
.an office, station, service, or employee whose function is to provide information to the public: The ticket seller said to ask information for a timetable.
.Directory Assistance.

These are the uses of “information” in regular use (not special definitions for various academic fields, although those are also succinctly defined). You can see that it’s an abstract noun, like time or wealth or love, except colloquially when we use it to mean the office that gives out information. A piece of paper isn’t information. A lecture isn’t information, and trees and antelopes are certainly not information. They might be able to give you information, but unless they’re sitting beside a desk and answering a phone, that doesn’t qualify them to be called information themselves.

I spend so much time at my job trying to explain the concept of concepts to my ESL students, usually because I’m trying to explain why they do or don’t need articles (a, an, the) or why there’s no plural form of a noun. It’s pretty simple, basic grammar that most native English speakers don’t even have to think about.

Apparently, though, the rest of them have to write about it at great length in academic journals.

My second semester of library school is upon me. Working 20-ish hours a week, going to school full time, and doing an internship two days a week is always a fun way to spend a few months. It kind of hit me today just how much work I have to do just for this week, meaning just readings and short essays, no long-term projects or big papers have been started yet. It’s kind of terrifying. Two of my classes are rife with people who already seem to know what they’re doing, whereas I don’t. (Example: “Hi, my name is So-and-So, I was the studio art director at Company for ten years. This is my second career. In my old job I did a lot of *work pertinent to class topic* so I have a background in this. I’m just looking to expand my knowledge base in *obscure sub-topic that I didn’t even know about.*) Then the professor glows at them and asks a lot of lively questions I don’t understand and they both throw out a bunch of acronyms I can’t begin to guess at. Meh. I guess I’ll catch on eventually. Maybe after I finish reading and writing an essay about the seven journal articles assigned for this week…

I have so many mixed feelings about Christmas. I love carols, but I don’t believe in the messages behind them (peace on earth, sure, but not the religious part, which is most of it). I love the huge, electric snowflakes lighting up the streets and the festive store window displays, but the sheer commercialism behind it makes me a little nauseous. I’m not hating on capitalism or anything, I just don’t like the hijacking of happiness and innocence for sales purposes (ahem–Macy’s–ahem).

The list goes on…I like snow but hate the melty slush, I like winter beverages but don’t understand why Starbucks needs to charge $5 for them, I love my Christmas tree but I’m afraid my cats will choke on the needles, I enjoy family get-togethers but the travel logistics are a pain, and so on and so on.

I’m not sure what my point is. I guess just that Christmas used to be my favorite holiday, but the older I get, the more dark sides it seems to have. I guess that’s why they invented egg nog. 😛

*Note: I don’t actually intend to drown my troubles in ‘nog, and I don’t advise it to anyone else. Delirium Noel (TM) is a much better choice.

**Kidding again.

How do you get revenge on time?

Would you rather have an enamel flower or a real one?

New York City’s MTA just approved an ad opposing the building of Cordoba House, a mosque/Muslim community center, at ground zero. The ad will go on the side of city busses, and it features a picture of an airplane about to strike a flaming World Trade Center on one side, a picture of the proposed Cordoba House on the other, and the words “Why There?” in the center. It’s a completely tasteless ad and it makes me angry every time a picture of it pops up on NY1.

There’s been a lot of controversy over “the ground zero mosque.” Why? Because tons of people are prejudiced against Muslims. I’m not usually one to throw insults around or to come down categorically on one side of an issue, but this is one that really gets me.

I’ve been reading articles about the controversy on line, and this seems to be a good summary of the opposition stance:

“September 11th was a horrible tragedy, and it is inappropriate/disrespectful to build a mosque so near Ground Zero.”

I don’t think any sane person would disagree with the first clause in that sentence. However, no one seems to be asking opponents WHY it is inappropriate/disrespectful to build a mosque near the site. I’ve tried to think about all the possible reasons why someone might feel that way, and I would love for someone to explain to me a reasonable reason for opposition so that I can give up my conclusion that a huge percentage of New York State residents are irrationally prejudiced against practitioners of Islam.

The only reason I can think of for opposing Cordoba House is that you hold all Muslims or Islam itself responsible for 9-11. According to this Siena Research Institute report, the majority of New Yorkers hold this view.

Myra Adams of The Daily Caller holds this view:

Can you imagine back in 1950 if there had been an effort by Japanese-Americans to build a Shinto center honoring Emperor Hirohito just two blocks from Pearl Harbor? Furthermore, imagine that the building was planned to open on December 7, 1951 just in time to celebrate the 10th year anniversary of this cataclysmic attack. Faster than you can say “Tora Tora Tora,” one can hardly contemplate the absurdity of such a plan.

That is the introduction to her article entitled “Building the 9-11 Mosque Will Not Breed Tolerance.”

Her argument might make some degree of sense if Cordoba House were a monument to Osama Bin Laden. Underlying her argument and the argument of every like-minded person whose opinion I’ve read so far is the assumption that Bin Laden, 9-11, and terrorism are the same thing as Islam. In fact, Ms. Adams seems to be saying that Bin Laden is the head and primary representative of Islam.

This is NOT true.

Should I say that again? It’s NOT true.

Direct quote from an Egyptian Muslim teenager that I tutored: “If Bin Laden came to Egypt, he would be dead in five minutes.”

Most of the Egyptians that I talked to while I lived there were not what you might describe as liberal or freethinking, especially by New York standards, but I’m 1000% sure that all of them shared the opinion of that boy.

Newsflash: Islam isn’t going away any time soon.

Additional newsflash: Moderate Muslims are about as likely to commit any kind of jihad-y nonsense as my mother is. (My point being that neither they nor my mother are jihad-y, not that my mother is jihad-y.)

Conclusion: Moderate Islam is the world’s best hope for decreasing the number of crazy extremists who claim to act in the name of Islam.

And that is what Cordoba House is all about. It’s about giving Muslims who are committed to their faith a progressive way of looking at the world, and it’s about giving non-Muslims a way to understand that this religion that they apparently see as huge threat is really just the newest branch in the Abrahamic religion tree.

In my opinion, “the 9-11 mosque” is not only an appropriate way to use Ground Zero property, it’s the best possible way.

Three shirtless men of various ages and ethnicities were having a very loud argument in the middle of a very crowded Washington Square Park about how one of them kept mooching pot off the others. It was about 2pm, tons of young families, elderly people, college kids, and random singles like myself were all over the place. A couple of people nearby asked them to keep it down or take it somewhere else and were roundly cursed for butting in. That’s why I love Manhattan: because it’s so, so classy. 😛

My horoscope is an Air sign, but I don’t really like flying. I like some things about it, like staring at clouds or looking at the lights on the ground at night, but the up and down parts make my ears hurt, and I’ve flown enough that in the past year or so, every time my plane takes off I can’t help but think that my odds of being in a plane crash have just gone up a little bit.

For a long time, I thought that I hated busses. I still don’t like them much because they make me motion sick and I so often find myself on 8-14 hour rides, usually overnight. Something I like about busses over planes, though, is that when traveling by land I can retain a sense of continuity of geography. Being in London, sitting inside a small room for a few hours, then magically being in Chicago makes me feel disoriented on an almost existential level.

I really like trains. They don’t change altitude or go over speed bumps, and the seats are usually big and comfortable enough to keep me happy for as long as the trip lasts. Unfortunately, they don’t go over oceans or through very many non-east-coast areas in the US, so I’m usually stuck with planes or busses.

In a few hours I’m going to get on a plane and go to New York City (via Atlanta, which often as not turns out to be a pretty epic detour), probably for the next two years. This is pretty exciting and terrifying, because NYC and change are both exciting and terrifying. I find myself thinking about something I read last year, when I was moving from Brooklyn to Cairo. I wrote about it on a previous blog post, but to summarize briefly, it was about the unknowable nature of goals. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera writes that our goals are always hidden from us because a goal, by its nature, is something we haven’t reached yet (my paraphrase).

In preparation for this move, I’ve been re-reading Alice in Wonderland. This quote especially made me laugh:

“Alice had become so used to out-of-the-way things that it seemed quite dull and stupid for life to go on as usual.”

Much more lighthearted than the one about hidden goals. The two quotes are pretty much unconnected, unless you’re one of those people for whom the pursuit of “out-of-the-way things” is always a goal. I suppose that, according to Kundera’s sentiment in ULB, unusual things are one of the best goals because in pursuing them you already know that you don’t know what you’re getting into. That doesn’t always make you feel better once you get into it, but if you don’t get into it, then life goes on as usual. Quite dull.

I do actually have more concrete goals than that, but it’s good, especially in times of transition, to remember that goals and plans are not set in stone and that the one thing you can be sure of is a white rabbit when you least expect him.

And that’s science.