Here’s a repost from August 2018 as I wait for my stomach to settle.
Today, I think I’ll write something silly as opposed to something depressing or controversial. It may not seem like it in most of my posts, but I actually have a pretty great sense of humor. When I was younger, I had a male friend in college with whom I used to spend a lot of time. His name is Chris.
I’m still friends with this guy, by the way. I just don’t get to see him anymore because he’s in Virginia and I’m in Germany. When we were in college, though, we were kind of inseparable. We spent hours hanging out and, when he was a drinker, we often got drunk together. He quit drinking when we were juniors in college.
Anyway… located right next to our campus was a McDonald’s. I didn’t eat there very often because I never had any money. But one night, my friend went there with some of his buddies. I believe they were all inebriated and likely pretty obnoxious, too.
Chris went up to the counter and ordered a cheeseburger. The guy who took his order apparently got an attitude and said, “You want a bun with that?”
Chris, who was likely feeling no pain, said, “What kind of a question is THAT? Of course I want a BUN with that! Who the hell orders a burger without a bun?”
The guys who were with Chris were gently trying to extricate him from the situation, but he was still cussing as the dude handed him his order.
Actually, I can think of a few funny situations involving Chris and fast food. One of his favorite things to do when we were in college was act like he was going to throw up. He’d make a fist and sort of hesitantly place it to his mouth, then start fake hurling. He said he’d always wanted to try that at a fast food restaurant. He wanted to go up to the counter and act like he was going to puke, then sort of settle down and say, “Can I have another burger, please?”
The funny part of this scenario is that he’d then revert to acting like the no nonsense female worker behind the counter. Her eyebrows would be raised, unbelieving, and her eyes would be downcast. And she’d say, her voice laced with attitude, “Do you know how to work a mop?”
Then Chris would revert back to his fake puking self and say, “I just want another burger, please.”
Chris, acting as the female worker, would say, “Do you see anyone else standing back here? Who you think gonna clean up the mess if you toss your cookies all over my clean floor?” With a wag of her head, she’d continue, “Now, you know how to work a mop, I’ll give you another burger.”
The little scenario would usually kind of end at that point. Sometimes, I’d join in and play the fast food worker.
Chris also told me once about how he and his mom went to a McDonald’s once and saw some woman cleaning with a toothbrush. Chris’s mom, who died in 2009, said, “Chris, I think that woman is a halfwit. Why is she cleaning like that?”
This isn’t to say, by the way, that I think people who work in fast food are halfwits. I don’t think that at all. There is no such thing as truly unskilled labor. I just laugh when I remember the way my old friend would do these imitations and act out these scenarios, especially in places like McDonald’s, where you’re liable to run into anyone…
This topic comes up thanks to the hamburger meat in our refrigerator that needs to be consumed. I probably ought to go vegan, but I don’t see it happening at this point in my life.
Yes, kids, this is what we did in the 1990s, when Internet for everyone was still just a pipe dream. I kind of miss those days.
Last night, I was on Facebook, reminiscing with fellow Longwood University graduates about a wonderful professor we all knew. In my case, she was the very first Longwood professor I met when I came to orientation during the summer of 1990. I was immediately impressed by her optimism and enthusiasm. She was friendly and fun and dynamic, and it was all 100% genuine. She really set an exciting tone for me during those early days at Longwood. I’ve never forgotten it, or her. She was the first of MANY excellent professors I had in college.
For many years, this professor taught speech and theater. I was an English major, but I had double minors in speech and communications, so I did end up having her for one of my classes. I always remember her to be a wonderful, kind, and energetic role model.
During my junior year at Longwood, I had this professor for a course called Interpersonal Communications. It was a large class, so after class began, she decided to split it into two sections. She wanted me to take the later section, which was co-taught by a teaching assistant. I had a conflict, though, because I was also taking voice lessons in the music department, and my lessons were scheduled during the time the other section was being held. Voice lessons were arranged privately between teacher and student. Obviously, my Interpersonal Communications professor had looked up everyone’s schedules, saw that I didn’t have another scheduled class, and figured she could just stick me in the other section.
I don’t remember why we did it this way, but I ended up attending both sections of the class. On the days I had my voice lessons, I went to the earlier session. On the other days, I went to the later class. It worked out fine, and I got an A in the class, although I wonder what would have happened if I’d had a job or some other commitment… but then, it was Farmville, Virginia in the early 90s, and jobs weren’t that plentiful in those days.
This professor’s class was always interesting. I remember she had people come in to speak to us. One day, a physical education professor, notorious for being a very tough grader, came in and told us about how he and his ex wife had lost a child to leukemia. I didn’t have this P.E. professor myself, but I remember my friends talking about how difficult his class was. When I heard his tragic story about how he’d lost a child and it ruined his marriage, I saw him in a very different light.
The professor also told us a lot about herself, and her history. I distinctly remember her talking about her first husband, the father of her sons, and how he was a severe alcoholic. My father was an alcoholic, so I empathized a lot with her story about her ex husband. One day, I wrote in a paper about my father and this professor gifted me with an insightful book about how to deal with alcoholics. I ended up passing it on to my mom, and she was so very grateful, because the book was helpful to her. I also remember going to this professor’s home one Saturday, along with the rest of our class, and being treated to a wonderful home cooked brunch. I still remember her delicious breakfast casserole.
Suffice to say… I have some very warm and fuzzy memories of this professor, and my college, where I got an excellent education in a supportive environment, and found so many lifelong friends. The professor is still living, but is currently in a nursing home/assisted living housing. Her health is declining. So we were all in this Facebook group, remembering her, and I was really enjoying all of the stories and memories… Someone shared her mailing address so people who love her can send cards to her.
And then, he showed up…
There’s one in every crowd, isn’t there? That person who just has to come in and shit on everything. That person who has to break wind in the middle of a room where there’s nothing but good vibes, sunshine, and fresh air. I’ll call him Dick, because frankly, that’s what he is. But that’s not his real name.
I kind of knew Dick when we were students at Longwood. We were both involved with the radio station. It was an activity I had really enjoyed and had a knack for doing. My junior year, someone nominated me for music director of the station. Dick was also nominated. He had ambitions to work in radio. I probably did too, although I don’t have the same kind of overbearing, domineering personality that Dick has.
I remember that Dick had rather forcefully inserted himself in the business at the radio station. He used to lecture everyone about the FCC regulations, warning the disc jockeys about not playing music with swear words, lest we get a “$50,000 FINE!”. I don’t remember why he was lecturing people, as at the time this was happening, he didn’t have any kind of official authority. We were all volunteers anyway.
I also remember that he was constantly ordering people to play new music instead of whatever they wanted to play on their shows. A lot of the music he wanted people to play, quite simply, sucked. But he was bound and determined to be in charge, and was trying to force everyone to do things his way, even though the station only had ten watts of power and could only be heard within a six mile radius of the school. He wanted to take over, come hell or high water.
I remember that Dick set his sights on vanquishing me in our mutual bid to be music director. He harassed me when I was on the air and complained about me to the station manager. He got his male radio station friends to gang up on me, even blatantly getting them to publicly endorse him during our meetings. His friends were popular and into music, but they were otherwise slackers who didn’t really give a shit about their educations.
I had worked very hard at radio, taking time slots for shows that no one else wanted. At one point, I was on the air from midnight to four in the morning on Saturdays. I did those shows because I truly loved radio, even though I’m not naturally a night owl and people weren’t always listening at that hour.
And then Dick came in and RUINED it. I have not forgotten that, nor, if I’m honest, can I say that I’ve forgiven him for being such an insufferable control freak and shitting on an activity I enjoyed so much. I’m not very good at forgiveness.
I couldn’t stand Dick, and since I was not as resilient or assertive back then as I am now, I ended up quitting the radio station so I wouldn’t have to deal with him anymore. I regret that I did that now. In fact, even then I hated to do it. Unfortunately, once the radio station was overtaken by Dick and his cronies, I just couldn’t stomach it, or him.
Of course, today I would politely tell Dick to go fuck himself. Therapy is a good thing.
I never forgot Dick…
So last night, there we were, posting our memories about this beloved Longwood professor. In comes Dick.
Do you know what that asshole did? He related a story of his own about the professor. He’d had her for a class. Because she was a very caring and engaged teacher, one day she pulled him aside and asked him why he wasn’t participating in class. And Dick wrote that he told the professor he’d already read all the books she’d assigned when he was still in high school. He related this story in a smug, superior way, as if we should be impressed.
Then, to the rest of us, he wrote that Longwood isn’t a prestigious school like the University of Virginia or Rutgers University (Dick is from New Jersey). And that none of his employers ever cared that he went to Longwood.
Before I knew it, I posted “You were a total jerk in the 1990s, and I can see that nothing has changed.”
Someone else asked him what he was doing in the group, since he had such disdain for Longwood. Clearly the rest of us love the school, even if it’s not the most prestigious university. And, actually, Longwood is a pretty good school, especially for teachers, although there’s a lot more to a good college experience than reputation and acceptance rates. My husband, Bill, is a graduate of American University, which is a well-known, prestigious school. But he marvels all the time about the wonderful experience I had at Longwood, and the fact that I still know professors and fellow graduates almost thirty years post graduation.
Dick’s self-congratulatory post about how “above” Longwood he is, especially in a thread about a wonderful teacher, was bad form and totally out of place. It reminded me of something Donald Trump would do.
Maybe Longwood isn’t for everyone, but it’s a fantastic school for many people. Dick has no right to come in and take a dump on other people’s good memories about a beloved professor with his negative, pompous, arrogant bullshit.
Dick responded to me. He wrote, “I don’t remember you at all.”
I’m not at all surprised that he doesn’t remember me; and, in fact, I am relieved. So I wrote, “Good. I’m glad you don’t remember me. Let’s keep it that way.”
This morning, I noticed that Dick’s comments were deleted. I hope he got deleted from the Facebook group, too, since he obviously has such a low opinion of our alma mater. What a narcissistic asshole!
Although maybe it was wrong for me to call Dick a “jerk”, it was obviously something he needed to hear. Or maybe it was just something I needed to tell him. I know I wasn’t the only person who couldn’t stand him back in the day. Based by the reactions he got last night, I’ll bet I wasn’t the only person who was shocked by his comments about our teacher. I’m sure a lot of people were suffering in silence.
Obviously, Dick hasn’t matured beyond who he was thirty years ago. But I have done a lot of growing… and I have Longwood, in part, to thank for that. It’s too bad Dick wasted his time at such an “inferior” school for his prodigious “gifts” and “talents”. Wish he’d gone somewhere else.
And now for a somewhat related segue about narcissism and how the universe allows us to fix recurring situations…
Bill and I have both noticed that sometimes, the universe gives you a way to fix wrongs from the past. Last night, I got a chance to tell “Dick” that he’s a jerk. I wouldn’t have ordinarily called him a jerk. Ordinarily, I would have used more profane language. But, because I was commenting in a thread about a wonderful Longwood professor, I decided to keep my comments rated PG. Yea for self-control! That’s something of which impulsive narcissists don’t have much!
Bill and I have had a lot of dealings with narcissists. Each time we deal with someone who is narcissistic or has a “high conflict personality”, we get better at handling or flat out avoiding their bullshit. Slowly, but surely, we’ve found ways to deal with difficult people more effectively, and in a healthier, more assertive manner.
It started with Bill’s ex wife. She is an extreme narcissist, and Bill’s years with her have severely affected us both. We still talk about her, although not nearly as much as we used to, since we’ve managed to process and completely recover from the damage she wrought on Bill. She still comes up today, though, because Bill has been talking to his younger daughter. Bill’s daughter is still extremely affected by her mother’s narcissism. She still talks to her mom, so she still gets injured by her. And then there’s all those years she spent growing up with her mom treating her like a possession/servant, rather than a separate human being who should have been allowed to be a child.
Bill and his younger daughter were kept apart for many years, so every time they Skype, they have a lot of ground to cover. The Ex inevitably comes up in every conversation… and with every conversation, new and shocking things are revealed. Last night, as I was reeling from “Dick’s” nerve, Bill was hearing the latest about his ex wife, and how she continues to use and abuse the people closest to her– especially the people she’s birthed. And she apparently HATES #3, but stays with him, because otherwise she’d either go on welfare or– horrors– be forced to work!
We really shouldn’t be shocked by Ex’s shenanigans, though. She’s just doing what all narcissists do. They behave in shockingly self-centered and inappropriate ways, leaving more reasonable and empathetic people with shaking hands and nausea, or maybe just a sick sort of amazement and head shaking at their incredible nerve.
I shouldn’t be so shocked when I hear stories about how, when Bill’s two daughters were growing up, they’d spend hours doing the laundry, folding and delivering the clean clothes. Ex would address the girls while looking at her cell phone. The piles of laundry would be sitting on her bed, and Ex would say, “Well, this is all fine and good, but you should be putting the clothes away for me, too.”
Younger daughter, to her credit, refused. She and Ex butted heads about a lot of things, because even though younger daughter is as kind and empathic as Bill is, she’s not a doormat. I saw this tendency in her when she was a child, and I remember telling Bill that I knew she and Ex would fight a lot as she came of age. At the time, I thought younger daughter was like her mother.
I knew she’d eventually get in touch with us, and I dreaded it, because I figured she’d try to manipulate us the way Bill’s former stepson had. But it turns out that, actually, younger daughter is a very good person who, underneath all of her empathy and kindness, has a backbone and a limit to what she’ll tolerate. And she very wisely got the hell out of her mother’s house as soon as she turned 18.
Unfortunately, older daughter is now 30 and still cleans her mother’s house, does the laundry, babysits her younger, severely autistic brother, and languishes with student debt that her mother forced her to take out and share the excess with the household. Older daughter doesn’t get along with the 18 year old daughter Ex has with #3, and she told Bill’s younger daughter that she was so happy because she’d gone into her sister’s room to change the sheets and suddenly realized her sister was at college.
Yes, it’s a shock that older daughter, who has a college degree and life skills, is still enslaved by her narcissistic mother and changing the sheets for her younger adult sister. But you get what you settle for, right? Ex’s daughter with #3 is allowed to go away to college, because she stayed in state, and Ex can exploit her student loans, just like she did with Bill’s daughters. But Ex didn’t want younger daughter to go to BYU… in fact, she even told younger daughter that she hadn’t turned out the way she was “supposed to”. She wasn’t supposed to go to BYU and marry a guy from Utah. She was supposed to stay close to Ex, so Ex could keep using her for doing chores and getting narcissistic supply.
Bill doesn’t mind talking to his daughter about Ex. They need to compare notes. That lessens Ex’s power, since younger daughter can get information for more credible sources than her mother, who lies and twists the truth to suit her agenda. Yes, it keeps Ex in our sphere, but we get better at dealing with her and laughing at her ridiculous antics, rather than getting upset by them. Just like last night, instead of suffering in silence when “Dick” stank up the room, I called him a jerk for hijacking our thread and making it about himself and his alleged superiority. Honestly… was he expecting us to be impressed by that? I’ll say it again. What a narcissistic asshole!
And, those of you who read my protected post from a couple of days ago, might also realize that I dealt with a similar troublemaker, who was stirring up shit in my wine group, by kicking her out and blocking her. I didn’t give her a chance to cause more trouble. She was literally making me feel physically ill with her toxic bullshit. So I kicked her out, dusted off my hands, and now, things are a lot more peaceful and stress free for me… and probably others who had suffered in silence.
I’m certainly not perfect. I have a lot of neuroses and complexes. I have a lot of hang ups that stem from my “troubled past”. I continue to work on them, though, and I think I’ve made some progress, even if it’s not always obvious to my readers or other people.
Maybe I shouldn’t have called “Dick” a jerk, but it sure felt good to do that, rather than suffer in silence. He needed to be called out for his self-important comments about how Longwood was “beneath him” and a kind, caring professor, who’d regarded him and her job enough be concerned about him, was “unworthy of teaching him”, since he was so well-read, skilled, and talented and belonged at a “better” school.
Likewise, I don’t have to suffer in silence regarding Ex… or toxic people in my wine group who don’t know how to behave like good citizens, rather than stirring up shit and sabotaging what I’ve built. There was a time when I might have let the troublemaker in my wine group shut me down, just as I once let Dick shut me down. But those days are over. I’ve evolved. Clearly Dick and his ilk are the same jerks they were 30 years ago.
And now, that we’ve learned and evolved, Bill and I can help younger daughter free herself from her mother’s craziness, too. What a good feeling that is.
Last night, I sat in front of my computer with Bill and a German beer. I tuned into Zoom, an application I had only used once before last night. The first time I used Zoom, it was for a wine tasting. Last night’s Zoom meeting was for a much more sober purpose. We were there to remember our dear friend, Matt Jensen. Most of us in on the Zoom call knew Matt because he served with Peace Corps/Armenia from 1995-97. But Matt was also widely known in other circles worldwide. He was also a Peace Corps Volunteer in Senegal in the 1980s, and most recently, he was a beloved teacher at P.S. 110, an elementary school in the Greenpoint area of Brooklyn.
It was in Brooklyn where Matt lost his life just after midnight on May 18, 2021. He was just trying to cross the street– a wide boulevard well known for being dangerous to pedestrians. He had just celebrated his birthday with friends and was on his way home. He’d almost reached home when he was struck and killed by a speeding car on McGuinness Boulevard, the driver having apparently not noticed that they’d hit him and left him for dead!
Apparently, there were no witnesses or surveillance cameras to capture a photo of the person who killed this man with such a huge heart and bright spirit. Based on debris found at that the site where Matt was found, police surmise that he was hit by a black Rolls Royce. He was someone who had devoted his life to helping others– especially through teaching. He was a very gifted teacher, and I learned last night that the young children at the school where he taught practically worshiped him, even if they weren’t in his class. He knew everyone, and they all knew him. He was a very tall guy with incredible energy, so he was hard to miss, even without that vibrant personality and charisma that defined him.
Geoff, the organizer of the memorial, had asked me to sing a song. It always cracks me up that no one ever asks me to speak at memorials or weddings. I usually get asked to sing a song written by someone else. Even at my own father’s memorial, I wasn’t asked to speak. I was asked to sing– and my mom even told me which song she wanted me to perform. I was happy to do it, although my college minor in speech has gone to waste.
Just as I had for my mom when my father died, I sent Geoff a couple of recordings I had made, and he really liked my version of “Imagine”, sort of done Eva Cassidy style. I sing it in her key and with her mood, but more in the straightforward fashion that John Lennon sang it. I guess you could say it’s really “my” style, though heavily influenced by others. I was glad to have Bill with me, as he had graciously downloaded Zoom yesterday so we could figure out the technical aspects of the application. I wanted to make sure we did the music sharing part right. I’m glad to say that it went off well, except that I was very emotional and almost started crying in the middle of it.
Last night, I learned that besides Matt, our Peace Corps community has also recently lost two others– Loretta Land, who was an amazing senior Volunteer who had joined the Peace Corps at age 62– and Don Flumerfelt, who was in the group before mine. Loretta died in January of this year and Don passed in 2019. I had recently been in touch with Loretta, but she kind of dropped off of Facebook. I wondered about her. I can’t say I was surprised about the news that she’d passed, but I am so glad we did get to chat a bit last year. I wasn’t as close to Don, but I do remember spending a great afternoon in Yerevan, making business English conversation recordings for him. I also remember that he was very inventive and had built a shower for another Volunteer.
We also lost an Armenian friend, Ashot, the drummer for a local band in Vanadzor called Snack. Vanadzor was where Matt was originally assigned to work). Snack was an Armenian band, but one of the Volunteers also played with them, so they often performed at our parties. In storage, I have a cassette tape of their music, which always reminds me of so many fun times in Armenia. Ashot would have been turning 49 today, but he passed away of a heart attack in his bed on Thursday of last week. Ashot was also, for a time, married to Rose, a Vanadzor based Volunteer from my group. They shared a son. She was also in attendance last night. Some of the guys would have performed last night, but since Ashot was buried yesterday, it wasn’t possible.
At 7:00pm Germany time, I joined about 25 other people on the Zoom call. I felt so honored to be among them, even if I wasn’t close to Matt in recent years. It was great to see so many familiar faces of people I knew in the 1990s, back when I was trying to make my own mark in the world. To be honest, I left the Peace Corps as an angry person. There were many complex reasons for my anger, and some of them had absolutely nothing to do with my service. But, suffice to say, I was ready to go home in August 1997, thinking that maybe things would get better. What ended up happening for me, personally, was a bit of a nervous breakdown. Ultimately, the “breakdown” wasn’t a bad thing, because it forced me to reset my life and make some changes, to include taking voice lessons that helped me sing last night’s song. But I worried about what people in that group remembered about me, as I was a bit of a mess in the 90s. I was determined not to make an ass of myself. 😉
There were several returned Volunteers from my group, as well as the former country director, the former TEFL director, several Armenians, people who had known Matt through the American University of Armenia, and a woman who knew Matt in Brooklyn. We were also joined by Matt’s cousin, John. I had never met John before, but I immediately liked him. I could tell that losing Matt has been devastating for him. I can’t even fathom how much pain he and Matt’s friends and loved ones felt when they got the terrible news that he’d been killed. I was glad to hear that Matt’s brother is taking good care of Matt’s beloved cats, Katie and Olive.
The participants in the Zoom meeting were scattered around the world. I’m in Germany, but we also had a couple of folks from Armenia, someone in Sweden, someone in Russia, someone in Belize, and a number of folks on the East and West coasts of the United States. It’s amazing to think of how far and wide Matt’s light has spread… and there were so many loving sentiments and stories shared.
One of Matt’s former students, Hoveek, really touched my heart as he spoke about how much Matt had impressed him. When we were in Armenia, it was just a few years after the fall of the Soviet Union. It was a time when there weren’t a lot of Americans there. And Hoveek was immediately moved by this man who was not at all like the people he knew. He spoke movingly about how he observed the way Matt dressed, and how when they visited the Peace Corps office in Yerevan, Hoveek saw the magazines about America and met others. Matt helped Hoveek get a job working for the Peace Corps. I could easily see and hear how much love and gratitude this man had for Matt. It was an honor to hear what he had to say… and really, just to be a part of the large group of people who got to know Matt and were touched by his spirit.
I learned that Matt wrote letters to so many people and had connections to folks in very high places. I think, if he had lived longer, he might have even delved into politics. He loved to talk politics and wasn’t afraid to speak out… but even in death, he will make a difference. There was a huge memorial for him in New York, and some very high ranking people vowed to finally do something about McGuinness Boulevard, a dangerous street that has claimed other people’s lives over the years. If they make that boulevard safer for others, then Matt’s death will have done a great service to so many people… again, a way of sharing that light and affecting others for good.
But I think the most profound commentary I heard regarding last night’s memorial came from my own husband, Bill. Bill never had the chance to meet Matt, but he’s heard me talk about him over the years. My memories of Matt are mostly about some of the hilarious things he said, but also his wild dance skills. Matt loved to dance, and had taken lessons. I don’t dance all that well, but I do like to spin around the dance floor with men with rhythm. I learned last night that Matt would dance with anyone! I have told Bill many stories about Matt over the years, but until last night, all Bill knew about Matt came from my limited perspective.
Thanks to our Zoom meeting memorial, Bill had the chance to hear about Matt from others who knew him through different channels. So, this morning, when I asked Bill what he thought about the memorial, his comments came from a totally different perspective. This was the post I wrote for the Peace Corps Armenia Reunion Facebook group:
My husband, Bill, was sitting in the Zoom meeting with me last night. I just asked him what he thought of the memorial, and he said it was interesting to hear all about Matt from someone other than me. Not having met Matt in person, he was struck by how personal Matt was in his dealings with others. He noticed we didn’t just gush about the positive things, but we mentioned his many quirks, too. And he loved that Matt wrote letters, since letter writing is such a lost art. He said he could tell that teaching was truly Matt’s calling.
And then Bill said, “It made me wish that the person who killed Matt could be there to see and hear just how many people have been affected worldwide by his death, and the profound loss and grief caused by that one careless act. Especially among the kids he taught.”
It really drives home how much we all affect each other, even if it doesn’t always seem like it. My husband never even met Matt, and yet he has been affected by him through me, and now by all of the people who spoke so lovingly about him last night. I take some comfort in knowing that there are so many people worldwide that he taught. Every single one of them has the potential to share his vibrant light with everyone they know, too. In that way, he’ll never truly be gone from the world.
When I think about that, it makes me realize that we all have so much potential… and most of us affect people in ways we’ll never know. We’re all connected. Not to be corny, but Matt’s life was a little like the proverbial “candle in the wind”. It glowed bright and cast warmth and light to so many… and then it was suddenly snuffed out by the careless actions of someone driving a Rolls Royce. Such a bizarre way for a man like Matt to die… it was as if Kurt Vonnegut conjured it for a novel! But in the end, his death may end up saving lives, as local activists continue to demand that something is finally done about that unsafe crossing.
Every person has the potential to share something unforgettable and good. Matt Jensen shared his light generously with people far and wide, and because he cared and shared so very much, that generosity is still perpetuating through people who will never, ever forget him.
Bill never met Matt, but Matt still affected Bill. Imagine what those young students in Brooklyn will do as they grow up. Maybe one or two of them will be inspired to teach. Maybe a few will decide to join the Peace Corps. Maybe one or two will learn to dance, or become fans of ABBA, or travel the world. Or maybe they will simply tell their friends and family about this tall, blond, monarchy obsessed ABBA fan who taught them so much , helped them learn English, made them laugh… or made them a memorable meal with beets and cabbage, or a delicious pound cake!
Matt was a thoughtful, kind, and loving person to the very end, and he always thought of others. Upon hearing of Prince Philip’s death in April, Matt wrote letters of condolences to Queen Elizabeth II and Princess Anne. Princess Anne wrote back before Matt died, but I think I heard that Her Majesty the Queen also responded, but her letter arrived after Matt’s death. I like to think that Matt knows how many people loved him and will remember him, sharing his light to infinite numbers of people around the world. And I hope he’s up there in the great beyond, sharing a toast with Loretta, Don, and Ashot… and anyone else beyond the bar who was touched by Armenia and knows how much Armenians love making toasts!
I’m so grateful that I was able to share my memories with other people… and in some small way, honor Matt with one of my own gifts. Maybe I can share my light the way Matt did with whatever time I have left. The most important thing Matt taught me is that no one is promised the next minute. So I hope this post inspires you to share yourself… because I promise, you matter to someone. And you probably matter to many more people than you will ever know.
Thanks to Wikipedia user Gerd Eichmann, who has made today’s featured photo of Yerevan’s Cascade Steps available for public use. I actually have my own photos of the Cascade Steps that date from the 1990s, but they’re currently in a storage garage in Texas, where they’ve been since 2014. I don’t know if or when I’ll ever see my stuff again.As usual, the future is a mystery.
Today’s featured photo is a lovely shot of The Cascade Steps in Yerevan, Armenia. That photo does not show the steps the way I remember them. The last time I saw the Cascades (as we Peace Corps Volunteers referred to them), they still weren’t quite finished. According to Wikipedia, construction on the Cascades began when I was still in utero, back in 1971. They were completed in 1980, when the Soviet Union was still very much in charge in Yerevan. However, even though the steps were technically “done” in 1980, there were still renovations going on in 1995, when I first laid eyes on this massive staircase up a hillside. They are a lot prettier now than they were in those days.
In 1995, there were no bushes on the steps. The fountains didn’t work, mostly because there wasn’t much electricity or running water in the 90s. At the very top of the steps, there was another, metal staircase that led to the very top of the hill, where a monument to fifty years of Soviet rule was erected. But to get to that staircase, you had to walk through a construction zone.
The landscaping in front of the Cascade steps wasn’t completed, so there were no flowers or shrubs, benches, or any other decoration. There weren’t even many streetlights. The lamps that were there didn’t always work, again, because there wasn’t much electricity. There were escalators to the left of the steps, and I want to say it cost 20 drams or so to use them to get to the top of the steps rather than climbing them. For reference, in 1995, one US dollar was equal to about 425 drams. 20 drams was also how much it cost to ride the metro (subway), and they used plastic tokens. I’ve heard that the tokens have since been retired, and I’m sure it’s now a lot more expensive to ride the metro.
The Cascades have changed a lot since 1995. They look very nice now, with the landscaping and fountains, but I have fond memories of the way they were in 1995, especially during the summer. The summer of 1995 was when A3– that is, my Peace Corps group– arrived in Yerevan for training. In those days, Yerevan was dealing with some pretty tough times. There was no 24/7 electricity, and some people didn’t have running water. There was no hot water. I had to heat up my bath water in a metal bucket, either with an immersion heater or by placing the bucket on a propane stove or kerosene heater. I’d then put the bucket in the bathtub and use a smaller container to pour water over myself. A shower, the way most of us enjoy them, was a true luxury. I even remember paying for the privilege a couple of times.
During training, I lived with a rather well heeled host family. The mom was an ear, nose, and throat doctor named Nelly. The father was an architect named Gevork. He worked at the airport. I remember liking Gevork. He liked to sing and had a nice voice. Nelly was very money oriented and concerned about the $7 a day she was getting to host me. I lost a lot of weight during Peace Corps training. I don’t know exactly how much, but I would guess about 25 pounds or so. You can see by the photos… I remember actually being able to pull on my jeans without unbuttoning them. I remember Nelly didn’t like that I’m a bit of a slob. I’m not a “dirty slob”– but I don’t keep things organized and tidy. I never have been one for being neat. She also expressed concern because she said I didn’t eat much. It was true that during training, I didn’t eat a lot. I remember eating fried Iranian pasta for breakfast, which wasn’t very appetizing. Sometimes, she even gave me fish! I didn’t mind the fish so much, but I couldn’t stomach Armenian beef or lamb. The lamb would pretty much make me want to throw up and, to this day, I can’t eat it.
After that sudden weight loss, I got sick, and it took me forever to get over the bug. The weight came back when I moved into my own apartment. That was a shame. I lost a lot of weight again when I waited tables. I probably never should have given up that gig, although I don’t have the best personality for it. I’d probably be better as a bartender. 😉
On Friday nights, many of the Peace Corps trainees would gather at the Cascades, where we would sit on the steps and play music. Three people in my group played guitar, and I, of course, would join in with singing. I remember we’d drink beer and sing Tom Petty and Bob Dylan songs. Locals would gather around and watch us. Sometimes, they’d join in. Other times, they might harass us a bit. It was a lot of fun, although I remember coming back extra late one night and getting bawled out by my “host dad”, Gevork. Using my new Armenian skills, I apologized and said, “Yes hooligan em.” (I am a hooligan.) Gevork laughed, and asked me if I was hungry.
Sadly, once training was over, so were our Friday night hootenannies at the Cascade Steps. My colleagues and I spread out all over the country. In 1995, Yerevan was still rough enough that several of us were placed there. I was among those who stayed in Yerevan. I really missed not being able to hang out with them on the steps on Fridays.
For about three months after I finished Peace Corps training, I lived pretty close to the top of the Cascades. I used to walk up and down those steps, often in very hot weather, to get around in Yerevan. It took me a long time to start using buses. I moved after three months because that living situation involved living with an Armenian woman who worked at my school. She and her much younger brother were nice enough, but I never felt like I could relax in that environment. We had incompatible lifestyles, plus her brother had an annoying habit of raiding my stuff when I wasn’t there. Once I moved, I didn’t need to climb up and down the steps so much. I didn’t mind stopping the stair climbing, although my fitness level took a hit.
Nowadays, they don’t put any Volunteers in Yerevan, even when they are in training. Looking back on it, I kind of wish I hadn’t stayed there myself, although staying there did afford me some unique opportunities that I otherwise wouldn’t have had, particularly given my affinity for music. For instance, I got to rehearse with the Yerevan Opera Choir. I also got to take some voice lessons at the Yerevan Conservatory… and on a few occasions, I would go to jazz clubs and sing with the band. These are all precious memories to me. I often miss those days, although I’m not sure I miss the tough living.
It’s funny to see the newer photos of the Cascades. They are so much nicer looking now. In 1995, they were kind of shabby, like much of the rest of Yerevan was. I do remember they were starting to be worked on as I was leaving in 1997. I recall one night, there was a night club opened in one of the levels. I had never been “inside” the steps before. They had always been closed, and a bit trashed looking. But someone did open a club where there was dancing. I distinctly remember hearing a truly wretched dance version of Olivia Newton-John’s song, “Have You Never Been Mellow”. Dolly Parton’s song, “Jolene”, was also made into a bizarre cover of dance music. I can’t find the 90s era techno version of “Jolene”, which could be a blessing.
I remember back in the summer of 1995, it was not uncommon to hear Russian pop songs blaring everywhere, along with music by Michael Jackson, The Beatles, and Sade. To this day, I can’t listen to Sade and not think of Yerevan. Or when I hear “rabiz” music, it reminds me of being in Armenia in the early days after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Tonight– or it will be nighttime where I am, anyway– we are having an online memorial for Matt Jensen, who was tragically killed two months ago in Brooklyn. Matt was in my Peace Corps group, and he was very much a leader. I suspect there will be some reminiscing among us, although I’m not sure how many people will show up. I wouldn’t say our group was particularly close-knit. I did get to know Matt pretty well, especially during our second year, when he came to Yerevan to work. He had previously been in Vanadzor, which is a city up north. It’s been a long time since I last hung with some of the people who will be involved in this reunion. I hope it will be like our Cascade Steps concerts, where we mostly all got along and got together in song on Friday nights, relaxing after another grueling week of training.
I see that now, the Cascades is a focal point in Yerevan. I doubt we could go to the Cascades and jam now, like we did back in the day. Now, even the actor, John Malkovich, has visited there. Funnily enough, back in 2008, we stayed in a tiny B&B in the Piedmont region of Italy where John Malkovich also stayed. In fact, we even stayed in the room where he and his wife, who is from the area, slept. They had come to the Pinasca area to see the wife’s family… Maybe someday, I will actually cross paths with John Malkovich. It wouldn’t be unheard of. After all, two years ago, I ran into Mark Knopfler in a bar after I attended his concert. I have a knack for running into people.
It’ll be interesting to see who I run into tonight… and hope I don’t embarrass myself, the way I sometimes did back in the day. I almost wonder if we shouldn’t have a backdrop of the Cascade Steps as we remember the time… 26 years ago! I can’t believe how long ago 1995 was, and how fast the years have flown by.
On an entirely unrelated note, yesterday, Bill got a lovely birthday card from his younger daughter. She even wrote “Dad” on the envelope. I really think younger daughter is Bill’s kid in so many ways. She looks like him and acts like him, and she loves mushy cards. So does Bill. He is the king of sentimental greetings. It’s so nice to see him being remembered on Father’s Day and his birthday after so many years of no contact.
Yesterday, I happened to see Jon Gosselin on Dr. Oz– the clips were uploaded to YouTube. I listened to what Jon Gosselin has been going through, as he’s been completely estranged from six of his eight children with Kate Gosselin. I never watched their show, but I really feel for him. I think he’s been painted as someone he’s not. Parental alienation is not a joke, and I think he’s definitely a victim. I hope his kids pull their heads out of their butts someday, but as they’re pretty much grown now, that’s really up to them.
Also… I mistakenly booked four nights in Zurich instead of three. I think we’re going to do the extra night, anyway. Bill needs the break. So do I. And it might be the start of a path in a new direction, especially for Bill.
Before I get started… anyone who hit this blog because of the expression, “caught with her pants down” should know that this is not going to be a perverted post. So if you came here because your mind is in the gutter, you probably ought to keep scrolling. When I write the principal was “caught with her pants down”, I mean she was caught doing something wrong while unaware or unprepared. It’s an idiom that happens to suit this particular news story, which I read first in the Washington Post. TMZ also ran the story, along with an accompanying video.
In this case, the principal is 37 year old Melissa Carter, of Central Elementary School in Clewiston, Florida. On April 13th, Carter took it upon herself to paddle a six year old kindergartner who had allegedly damaged a computer screen. The little girl’s mother, who doesn’t speak English and has not been identified, secretly recorded the incident, which happened right in front of her and 62 year old Cecilia Self, a school clerk who was there to interpret. The mother also said that Self’s interpretations of what was happening were inaccurate.
The girl’s mother and her husband are undocumented immigrants from Mexico and although the mom did not approve of her child being “beaten” with a wooden paddle, she felt powerless to stop it because she was afraid she would be reported to immigration authorities. Since the paddling, the girl has been transferred to a new school at her mother’s request. However, the girl has needed therapy; she cries often and doesn’t sleep. So the mother, despite being rightfully afraid of being deported, has reported the incident. Now, Melissa Carter may be facing criminal charges. It’s important to note that Florida does allow corporal punishment in schools. However, Hendry County school system, where Central Elementary School is located, does not.
Having watching the videos of the scolding and subsequent paddling, I tend to agree that it was less of a spanking and more of a beating. Carter rears back and hits the child with gusto. And when the child instinctively raises her hands to protect herself, the principal yells at her to put her hands down, then loudly berates her. I can understand why the child is now traumatized. It was hard for me to watch and listen to Carter speak– although in Carter’s defense, I don’t know if this incident was a first offense or the child was a repeat visitor to Carter’s office. Regardless, she had no right to hit the child, if only because that method of punishment is not allowed in her school district.
Some regular readers of my blog may remember that I had an unfortunate experience with being paddled in school when I was in the fourth grade in Gloucester, Virginia, which in the early 80s, was still very rural. During the 1981-82 school year, corporal punishment was still allowed in Virginia. That year, I had a young male teacher who was very popular and considered “cute”. I’ll call him Mr. A.
Mr. A. was memorable in many ways. I actually liked him a lot, because he was creative and a big believer in having fun. He used to encourage us to exercise and would take us out to run around the playground or play games– this was besides physical education class. He also had Armenian ancestry, which I found interesting even back then. I didn’t know that in 1995, I’d move to Armenia myself for two years. In the early 80s, Armenia was still part of the Soviet Union.
I remember when I was assigned Mr. A., he had a reputation for “whaling” kids. He actually called it whaling, because his paddle was shaped like a whale. And when he decided, rather arbitrarily, to hit children, he would do it in the front of the class, which was very humiliating. It happened to me once, for a reason that I think was completely inappropriate. Forty years later, I still haven’t forgotten it. It still pisses me off, because he had no right to strike me for any reason, let alone the reason he did. Below is part of the post I wrote in 2013 about the day I got a “whaling”.
…I was generally a pretty good kid and, in his class, I was one of the better students. But one day, he had asked us to exchange papers so we could grade them. I whispered to the person in front of me that mine might be messy. Next thing I know, Mr. A. was calling me up to the front of the room to put my hands on the blackboard and bend over so my butt stuck out. He made some inappropriate comment about how he had a good target, then proceeded to hit me with his whale paddle.
I don’t remember the paddling being painful. It was just very humiliating. To be paddled in front of a bunch of nine year olds is really embarrassing, especially when a lot of them tease you to start with. I remembering being very upset… like I had been publicly betrayed by a trusted friend. Moreover, I really didn’t think my offense warranted a paddling.
I went home still upset and my mom asked what was wrong. I told her what happened. She was upset about it, but my dad said I must have deserved it. My dad was very pro corporal punishment and that was pretty much the only method he ever used to discipline me. I still have a lot of lingering anger toward him for that reason. He would get angry and hit me, sometimes when he was out of control. Granted, I was a “handful”, but I was basically a good kid who caused little trouble, other than occasional disrespect and mischief.
Paddling in public schools was legal in Virginia in the early 1980s; it has been banned in public schools since 1989, but is still allowed in private schools. And maybe there were a few kids who deserved to be paddled, though I think that would have been better done in private instead of in front of their peers. I don’t think what I did justified a public humiliation… and obviously many years later I still remember it. I think if a teacher ever hit a child of mine, I would go ballistic.
I think most of all, though, I was disappointed in my mom. She objected to what Mr. A had done, but did nothing about it. She just went along with what my dad said, as usual.
The following school year, Mr. A. ended up moving to the next school with us because he got a job teaching P.E. He was in my school system the whole time I was growing up. I guess I eventually forgave him, but I never forgot and I think I lost some respect for him that day, too.
Later that year, Mr. A. had us outside playing soccer. For some reason, he decided to play the game with us. He was a pretty big guy with a powerful kick. At one point, he kicked the soccer ball and it happened to hit me in the stomach, knocking the wind out of me. I was actually unconscious for a minute and woke up with my head between my knees. That incident was also very embarrassing and painful for me. I remember Mr. A., who was originally from upstate New York, saying “Sore-y” (sorry, but with a Canadian accent) and sending me to the nurse to lie down for a bit.
Mr. A. was also notorious for playing a game he called “slaughter ball”. Basically, it was like dodge ball, but kids would line up against a wall as other kids and Mr. A. himself would throw the ball at them as hard as they could. I don’t remember playing slaughter ball with Mr. A., but I knew people who had him for P.E. class and did experience that. Having been both “paddled” and knocked unconscious by him, I can believe he was an enthusiastic player. Too bad my parents didn’t care enough about me to complain.
Because of my experiences with corporal punishment, both at home and that one time at school, I’m pretty much against its use as a disciplinary tool. I definitely don’t think it’s appropriate for school officials– teachers or principals– to be hitting children that aren’t theirs, particularly if the parents haven’t granted permission. Given the mother’s reaction to her child’s discipline session, I’m guessing that she did not give Carter permission to discipline her child in such a violent and disrespectful manner. I think if that had been my child, I would have raised holy hell… but sadly, I suspect that if I had been the mother in that case, Carter would not have dared to use corporal punishment. I’m not an undocumented immigrant and I speak perfect English. But at least she didn’t do it in front of a classroom full of the child’s peers… On the other hand, mom videoed this session and gave it to the press, so in essence, her daughter was just paddled in front of the whole world.
Although I remember still liking Mr. A. when I was a child, that was probably because a lot of men I respected (back then) hurt me physically, mentally, or emotionally. I never considered what they did abuse until years later, when I crashed into depression and crippling anxiety, told my story to a licensed psychologist, and was informed that I actually had been abused. In fact, one of my neighbors sexually abused me by exposing me to pornography when I was about nine or ten years old. I started thinking about all of this stuff I had compartmentalized for years and my mindset really changed. My father’s go to punishment for me was spanking, slapping, and yelling. He continued to feel free to do it until I finally told him, as an adult, that he had no right. And then I threatened to have him arrested.
In April 2016, there was another well-publicized case about a child who was spanked at school by his principal. That case, which took place in Georgia, also involved a Hispanic child and a mother who disapproved, but went along with it because she was afraid of law enforcement. The mother, Shana Marie Perez, claimed she signed a consent form under duress to allow her then five year old son, Thomas, to be paddled for spitting and almost hitting another student. Perez was told that if the principal was not permitted to paddle Thomas, Thomas would be suspended. Perez had been arrested two weeks prior to the incident on truancy charges. She had been booked into jail and released. If Thomas got suspended and missed more school days, Perez feared that she would go to jail.
In the 2016 video Perez took of her son being spanked, viewers can see administrators trying to get Thomas to bend over for his spanking. Viewers can also hear him begging not to be spanked and calling for his mommy. The teachers try to hold him down, but he continues to struggle, putting his hands over his bottom and fighting. Trust has no doubt been broken at this point as one of the teachers says, “He’s going to get a spanking. We have all the time in the world.”
Brent Probinsky, the attorney for the Florida mother and her daughter, says the girl’s mom calls him twice a day because the child has been “terrorized” by what happened. She cries and doesn’t sleep. To be honest, watching that video, hearing that principal’s harsh tone and threatening words, and most of all, seeing her really rear back and hit the girl with a wooden paddle, makes me believe that the child was traumatized. Probinsky insists that this was aggravated battery and he’s hoping that Florida officials will strip the principal and the clerk of their licenses so they will no longer be able to work in Florida schools. At this point, both women are on leave.
It occurs to me that if an adult hits another adult, a case could easily be made for assault and battery charges. But for some reason, many people think it’s perfectly fine for adults to hit children. And children are never in a good position to defend themselves against adults. I stop short of saying that corporal punishment is never appropriate, but I definitely don’t think it should be something that is done in schools. At best, I think it’s a last resort solution that should be done very rarely. I’m not sure what will happen to Melissa Carter or Cecilia Self, but I do think it would be appropriate if both of them were permanently relieved of their positions.
I just don’t think that hitting children is the best way to get their respect. When I was a child and got hit by my father, all I remember is hating him and wanting to either hit him back or kill him. I don’t remember him ever taking the time to talk to me about things I did wrong. I just remember his face turning red, veins popping out, and being turned over his knee while he took out all of his frustrations. And now that I’m in my late 40s, I still don’t have a very high opinion of him, even though I know he wasn’t all bad. The truth is, those discipline sessions were not actually very disciplined at all. When he died, I didn’t shed many tears… and to this day, I lament the fact that he treated me the way he did. Maybe it’s a blessing I didn’t have children of my own to fuck up.
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