Noun

Swallop: (n.)

The feeling of being clobbered in the chest by a hasty gulp from a carbonated drink.

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One day, a few years ago, I’d taken my car in to the garage to have some expensive part re-expensived. After a mere five minutes I’d managed to annoy the mechanic, so when he offered to get me a ride back to my apartment (as it would take the day to re-expensive my car), I panicked and insisted that I could walk.

This was in August. In New Jersey. And the heat and humidity had already reached critical, mouth-like levels. This was also during the long chapter of my life when I refused to wear shorts (an almost Calvinist period of affected self-denial, courtesy of my 20s). So, leaving him my contact information, I trudged out the door and waded my way through a hundreds-degree swamp of blinding sunlight, and choking humidity.

In jeans.

For about four or five miles.

By the time I made it home, I was quite near death. I shambled into my apartment groaning like a madman. I unbuckled my jeans which, being completely soaked-through with sweat, dropped to the floor and pooled around my feet. I needed hydration desperately, so I flung open my refrigerator and grabbed a frigid bottle of seltzer water, which I downed in one sloppy, guzzling swig.

All was slaked and satisfied. All was crisp and cool. And in an instant… regret pierced relief like a knife in the heart.

The carbonation, all jazzed up by its whitewater splashing down my gullet, went full supernova in my esophagus. It felt like I’d swallowed a hot rock, or a fistfull of bees. My eyes watered, my ears rang. I listed about the kitchen like a drunkard, too dazed to be still, too beset to adequately flail. I pounded my hand on the countertop once, twice, the pressure building and building in my chest… as if at any moment a fount of seltzer would burst, Xenomorphically, through my ribcage and redecorate my kitchen in Panebianco Red.

Ready to pop, I reeled back, opened my mouth wide, groaned the guttural groan of the over-seltzered… and I burped. Burped a burp that was more than a burp – it was a kind of birth. A tearing, keening, muscle-knotting display of physiological theater.

A kind of meat opera.

I coughed. I drooled. I dabbed tears from my eyes. And finally I laughed – alone, in my underwear, standing in my kitchen beside an open refrigerator, my pants piled about my ankles, an upended bottle of seltzer glugging its remaining contents onto the floor. And, as ever, my brainless cat standing sentinel, gawping at me in abject befuddlement.

In another few seconds, that moment would be gone. I would wipe my face and pull my pants up… pat my cat on his furry head, and move on with my day. I’d cancel my car-contingent plans. I’d clean my cat’s litter box. I’d make a sandwich, and watch an episode of Frasier (no doubt). I’d return to the ordinary stuff of days that right now I couldn’t possibly recall with any accuracy.

But that episode with the seltzer bottle – that I can’t possibly forget. Moreover, it acts in my memory like a lens – bringing into sharp focus the moments that proceeded and followed it. Amid all the things I’ve forgotten – important and inconsequential alike – this day I remember in vivid detail. Had it not been for that idiot spasm of seltzer-fueled grotesquerie, followed by the absurdity of me in my undies, drooling like a doofus and wiping my face on my forearm… I wouldn’t remember that day at all.

That’s what a moment of foolishness does – it sticks in your memory like a pushpin through a photograph. It holds fast that which time and nature seem so dead-set to take away. And the only cost is a little bit of pride, and the reminder that your body is way more gross than you’d like to admit.

How lucky is that?

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Noun

Patrophy: (n.)

The withering and degradation of one’s national pride.

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Eligible citizen looking for something new that just feels like home. 38. Professional(ish) male. Non-smoker. Loves reading, hiking, baking bread, movies with and without subtitles, constitutional democracy, and the rule of law. Has a dog and a cat. Not interested in religious extremism, grinning stupidity, or fascism. Seeking same. 

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Noun

Doubtbreak: (n.)

The spread of disease caused by people’s irrational and baseless skepticism over vaccination.

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Anti-vaccination is not an idea. It’s the opposite of an idea. It’s a fevered, irrational panic without merit, sense, or decency.

It is the worst kind of selfishness: the baseless refusal of data empirically gathered, analyzed, and proved, pared with the arrogant assumption that your right to be wrong supersedes everyone else’s right to not get sick.

Life is already hard enough – not only here, but for people all around the world for whom the relief and luxury of vaccination isn’t even possible. Millions of people get sick and they die because they lack the access and infrastructure to avail themselves to this technology you so thoughtlessly toss aside.

120 cases of Measles to date. Of a disease that was all but eradicated thanks to vaccination.

This doesn’t have to be a problem. And yet it’s becoming one.

And that is absolutely fucking heartbreaking.

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Noun

Ambleguity: (n.)

The bumbling, directionless gait of the lost, the elderly, and those staring into their smartphone.

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You know when you’re walking…

Let’s say you’re at a mall or something. And you’re kinda angry to be there because malls are horrifying and gross and way too goddamn big and they smell like depression dabbed in cologne… and you’re trying to just get a goddamn pair of khaki pants (you refuse to call them chinos, because who authorized that name change?) but to do that you have to sift your way through a clot of sneering, obnoxious teenagers who slurp Orange Juliuses with the blithe indifference of a creature too blinkered and boring to be aware of its own mortality, and they’re all standing in a henge of kiosks hocking bright, cheap tchotchkes – bubblegum colored weaves! The Zero-G Yo Yo! Some crappy RC helicopter emblazoned with the Albanian flag! – and once you finally lace your way through, you’re pleased because you see the store ahead of you… but there, directly in your path, is some pocket-sized grannie with a sky blue knit cap who’s shuffling from foot to foot, not even looking where she’s going, just slowly floating along like some lost and derelict moon drifting aimlessly through space… and you try to go around her, but she oozes in your path, and so you dart a bit left, but she lurches that way too, and you find yourself on the balls of your feet, waltzing with some woman who doesn’t even know you’re there… and everything’s making you mad, but you can’t really be mad at everything so instead you just funnel all of your frustration at the back of this little old lady’s head even though you know deep down that she doesn’t deserve it, and she’s hopefully really sweet (but she’s probably a little racist) and you say, “Lady…” but not as under your breath as you had intended, and she jumps a bit and turns her head and looks at you with eyes that say, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I used to be so much faster…” and it puts a chill to all your hot blood, and you stop for a moment and think of how stupid you are to get so frustrated – to be in such a hurry all the goddamn time to get wherever it is you think it’s important to go… so you blink, and you say, “I’m sorry,” and she smiles, and then you walk into the store buy your pants…

That ever happened to you?

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Noun

Indeference: (n.)

The rote and meaningless portrayal of solemnity.

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One of the strangest things about getting older is realizing the moments that are clearest for you aren’t necessarily shared by the young. I’m always a little shocked to remember that for teenagers and even some 20-somethings, 9/11 has very little personal resonance. Or at least, an ever diminishing return on significance.

Never was this concept more clear than when I was a teacher.

Every year I’d assign my students an essay or article about 9/11 – most often Tom Junod’s heart-shattering Falling Man – then spend the entire class discussing it, their memories of the day, and what those meanings and artifacts have come to mean now. It was a hit at first… students pounced at the chance to approach an emotionally taboo moment in their lives and dig into it – get out their knives and flense a day they experienced as frightened children, armed now with the nascent sophistication of their burgeoning adulthood. But as years and semesters went on, my students’ memories and anecdotes grew fuzzier, less immediate, less distinct. The point of view in their recollections subtly shifted from a sharp, rambling first: I was in Geometry, and the vice principal came in and whispered to my teacher. She said that something happened, and we had to go home, and I knew something was wrong because there was this whole line of busses outside… to something bereft of both detail and feeling, not so much recalling their memories as reciting them as if they were read from an optometrist’s chart… I remember my parents were in the kitchen? No, the living room. My mom looked sad, I think. 

I was in bed when the first plane hit. It was right at the start of my sophomore year of college. I was living in my first apartment. Very adult. Very exciting. My roommate woke me up; there’d been some accident in New York; I should come see, it was all over the news. We spent the next thirty minutes watching the tower smolder on CNN, we hunted through our fancy new place, dropping books into our bags – we had class in an hour. When the second plane hit, we stopped. At some point we sat down. Didn’t move. I watched the towers collapse in my apartment that morning, bundled on the couch in my pjs beside an untouched bowl of cinnamon toast crunch. We watched it all with barely a word. And then we got dressed and went to class.

It’s bonkers in retrospect, but then everything is bonkers in retrospect. Absolutely nothing had prepared us for something so upending and uncanny. Indeed, when I arrived on campus I found I was not alone. Students ebbed across campus, dutifully shuffling from class to class; teachers half-taught their lessons, half-counseled their kids; classmates sat in shattered silence, entranced by the dream of it all, until their cellphones rang, and they exploded from the room desperate for news from their family. My university would cancel classes later in the day, of course. But for a few hours that morning, we all drifted together.

Eight years later, I took a job teaching at that same university… and every semester the sights and smells of campus autumn did their Proust thing. I’d walk into class on 9/11… and have to teach something. The day was normal. And that baffled me. I wanted to understand 9/11 as the evolving social metaphor it was becoming, so I started nudging my students to dig into the symbolism of it all – the remembrances, the rhetoric, the countless towers silhouetted as windshield decals, and the repeated insistence that we Never Forget.

I started assigning a short essay on the form and language of that phrase – Never Forget – “Why do we say never forget, opposed to always remember to commemorate 9/11Do the two statements convey the same sentiment? Which do you prefer? Why?” The answers I got were varied. Conversation lasted all class long. At least in the early years. Like I said… as time wore on, the farther my students got from the significance of 9/11.

I’ve always found Never Forget a troubling phrase. For one, I’m oppositionally defiant, and don’t like being told what to do. For another, I’m often skeptical and impatient of maudlin shows of dutiful remembrance. They ring hollow to me – and expect a unified response to something we all experienced, yes, together… but ultimately, terribly alone. We remember and we mourn as individuals – our experiences are ours… as are our forms of remembrance. There’s something tiresome, and to me horribly disrespectful, about how commodified our remembrances have become – bumper stickers, t-shirts, and decals, syrupy gifs and memes and schlocky slogans all insisting upon a certain tenor and tone of how we remember. Or, rather, reminding us not to forget. We’ve branded a national tragedy. And brands are ultimately empty promises, written in the language of sincerity. Invented by men like me to sell something. 

Never Forget has always been too easy to say, and too little to deliver. It requires nothing more of us than obeisance. It calls upon no action. Demands no reflection. Summons no alteration in our behavior. It urges no understanding of what caused it, nor wisdom for how best to combat another moment like it. For those who remember 9/11, Never Forget demands our static, silent, horrified appraisal. It’s a symbol now. Sacred in the public imagination. Deified by the dogma of our tweets, and shares, and likes. It’s content.   

For those too young to remember 9/11, it will doubtlessly shrink into the horizon… dwindling further into meaninglessness with every year. You can’t forget something you couldn’t remember in the first place.

9/11 makes me sad – for its own tragedies to be sure. But what saddens me most about it all is how little it means on any other day. We hurl ourselves into portrayals of mourning on 9/11. But what about 9/12? Business as usual. Two weeks from now? Three months? It’s gone. We’re back to the same blithe motions of 9/10.

We never forget. And as such, we’re never called upon to learn. We’re never expected to look at our own behavior. Demand more of our leaders.

Yesterday, John Bolton – Trump’s National Security Advisor – threatened the International Criminal Court, an organization designed to investigate and punish (among other things) those responsible for genocide and mass killings. The ICC had criticized the US military and intelligence departments for reports of torture and rape in Afghanistan. In response, our government threatened the ICC with sanctions.

I can’t help but feel that such imperious ego, such rage and indignity, such staunch refusal to observe the norms set by our neighbors, is the kind of thing we should have learned not to do by now. I can’t help but feel that we’ve learned nothing.

Always Remember.

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Adjective

Scholeric: (adj.)

Irritability and cantankerous one experiences while talking to the academically disinclined.

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I had a professor back in college who absolutely despised his students. You could just tell. There he was, a man who had spent decades of his life dedicated to study and scholarship, forced to share his painstakingly hoarded minutiae with a room full of yawning, boozy teenagers day after day after day…

Every class would begin the same – with him as fresh and buoyant as warm laundry. “This time will be different,” his posture seemed to say. “This time they’ll see why this stuff is so important.”

And, of course, each time we’d shrug and drowse and stare back at him with wide, bovine eyes. By the end of class, he’d be stalking around in front of the room, red-faced and burbling with a tepid, cerebral rage like a leopard in a sport coat. And still we’d just sit there and watch him rant. 

In the next year or so, I’d wake up. I’d start to give a shit. I’d come to class ready to discuss. But I wouldn’t fully understand the extent of his frustration until ten years later… when I’d be the one pacing in front of a room like that (in some cases, the same exact room… as I taught classes at the same college I’d myself attended)… flailing my arms around, trying to summon even a flicker of excitement in my students.

“Here, look at this,” I’d say to my kids, “some writer made this… he wrote it hundreds of years ago. And it’s still just as true now as it was then. Do you see how magical that is? That there are experiences that transcend culture, time, language, oceans… that there’s some seething undercurrent to existence that touches every human life? See how some play from the Renaissance, or some poem from the 1950s can both be about the same thing, and yet be totally different? That our heart and our mind are a set of rubix cubes that we jumble and solve, jumble and solve over and over and over again? See how everything matters? Even thought it doesn’t? Surely you can see how this could move someone. Surely you can understand why I’m up here talking about this to you, despite the fact that I can barely afford my rent while doing it. Because this language has affected me so profoundly that I want to be close to it. Share it with you. Because it matters. (and also, I’m allowed to wear slippers to work)”

Sometimes they’d get it. I was a decent teacher… hardly a scholar (I find pushing commas around a thesis to be soul-crushingly dull)… but I was good at infecting others with my enthusiasm. I was good at making people care. Even if it was just for 50 minutes.

But boy howdy… there were times. Students – usually boys, because boys are without question not less-intelligent, but better at stupid than girls could ever hope to be – who wore their apathy like a badge. Who’d roll their eyes and smirk and stretch their limbs disdainfully, “See that buddy? This is how bored I am. This is how few fucks I give.” These are the kids you hate. I mean hate-hate. That black, tarry muck hate that you can’t hide, no matter how hard you try. Some over-valued, under-challenged, mean, suburban puke of a kid who looked at college as a beer pong tournament rather than a place to learn… whose dad – totally – owns this dealership.

You look at that kid and think… someone isn’t in college because of you. Someone’s raking leaves, or salting french fries… and there you are, sprawled in a ballcap and sweatpants, checking your Facebook on your iPhone for $22,000 a year.

And then you remember that you were probably more like that kid than you’d ever want to admit. And you remember that poor, wan professor from ten years before… that poor schmucky guy with the widening belly and dwindling hairline who capered around the room at the start of every class trying desperately to show you why it all mattered… all while you doodled in your notebook, and tried to catch the eye of the girl you liked.

And you realize that you’ve been both those people. That they’re both so different, and they’re both the same… because they’re both you. And you wonder if anyone would want to sit and talk about that, and how much it reminds you of so many books you read with passion when you were young.

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