This is something I have been trying to process for awhile, so I’m just going to write it out in a short post here to see where it takes me.
When I woke up this morning, I saw this article in the Omaha World Herald about the Millard South Principal who is accused of assaulting a student. My first thought at seeing his face and name in the article were, “His life is over.” If I, as a teacher, were accused of something like this, it would be hard for me to find a job ever again. Even if I were later found innocent and the chargest against me were dropped, the image of me in the newspaper with my name against that headline would be enough to discourage many future employers. I am not condoning what this guy did or is accused of having done, so please do not think that.
I found out that not all media works this way. I had my students perform translations of crime stories, and I noticed a trend. None of the stories had names. Here is a quick example from the Baltic Times. Notice that it does not include the names of the suspects. This is not an accident. My students pointed out that in Latvia, you are innocent until proven guilty. So journalists do not publish the names of the accused, but only of the convicted.
How simple is that idea? In the United States we claim that people are “innocent until proven guilty”, but as we have seen, the court of public opinion is a much more powerful force than perhaps even the justice system. It moves quickly to convict those who are accused as soon as a face and name are shown on the local news. Reporters go out of their way to dig up dirt on suspects and, if the story is sexy, they will milk it until it bleeds.
I really do not have much more to say about this topic other than the simple and clear point of how wrong it is in our American journalism to convict those on trial before a jury or judge has a chance to. I wonder if it has always been this way, and if there is any way to turn the clock back to make it so that suspects are given at least some rights? Why is it that I only had this notion after leaving the system and seeing that it could be done another way? It always makes me wonder about how many things we just assume are done a certain way… and thinking that this is the right way… only because we have never seen anything else.
If you know me at all, you know that I am no mechanical genius. However, I have come to terms with this in my own way, and I am able to fix most things around the house. I grew up with no understanding of tools. We had a screwdriver, and we had a hammer, so we were in good shape. I thought screws and nails came in different shapes and sizes, born of a can in the garage. A butter knife was as good as any flathead screwdriver, and for everything else, there were duct tape and pliers.
Since then, I have learned that the right tool for the job is the simplest response to most household crises.
But here in Latvia, the rules don’t necessarily apply.
Last night, we had some guest over, and they asked me about the difference between living in Latvia and living in the United States. My reply, somewhat to the dismay of my Latvian friends, was that everything in Latvia seems to take three tries or three times as long to get right. I used some of my bureaucratic quests to illustrate my point.
Today, I set off to change the inner tube of my bicycle which had developed some kind of leak as I was riding home the other day. The tire and tube are almost brand new. I bought a set of those little plastic levers and a new tube from my favorite store, Depo.
I have changed many bike tires in my time. The process, sometimes frustrating, usually takes about ten minutes. My bike has quick releases, and I had thought that once the tire was off, everything would go pretty smoothly. As you have already probably guessed, this was not the case.
First off, I thought I bought a presta valve tube, but it was some kind of weird hybrid that looked like a presta but was as wide as a schrader. Luckily, it fit into the hole of the wheel. I had to figure out how to inflate it a bit before replacing it in the tire. So far, everything went pretty much as planned (aside from dropping things and fumbling a few times). But then, when I tried to get the wheel back on, I could not coerce it into place. I had to go back upstairs to find this wonderful video that even had the same brand of tire as mine! Wire bead. I had never encountered this before, but with some determination, I was able to get the tire on and inflated.
Now came the hardest, strangest part. Normally, this would be easy. Just put the wheel back on, tighten it up and hook the brakes up. Done. But for some reason, this bike makes nothing easy. The wheel would not go back on. I had to completely remove the quick release for it to fit back into the slots. Then, I had to really coerce it to get it to sit properly. Then the brakes were too tight, and the tire kept rubbing on the fender. There just seemed to be no way to properly balance the wheel in place, and every adjustment I tried to make, only made it worse.
After 20 minutes or more of making tiny adjustments to the fender, wheel, and brakes, I got it back together, but nothing would completely eliminate the slight rubbing sound coming from somewhere.
Ultimately, I gave up trying to make it perfect and instead accepted the repair for what it was. Complete but imperfect. I am sure this has some deeper philosophical resonance, and I should learn from the experience. I have always just wanted to be a person with a system, who could do things the “right” way, but very few things I do are completed with perfect, precise, professional results. Instead, things are thrown into a pile, rearranged, and I hope that the chaos comes to some kind of final order. Perhaps I should stop hoping for change, and just accept this life that I have chaotically created. After all, chaos ultimately trumps order, so why fight it?
I will not call this my Christmas letter or epistle or whatever. I am just sitting here on a Sunday night thinking that I should really probably be writing something.
There is this interesting phenomena that I have noticed happening when you disconnect from people. When you are in the immediate circle of intimacy with a person, you know what they do in general each and every day. Their pattern of life is known to you. You share their daily work stories, their relationship ups and downs, and even the minutiae that, at the time, seems unimportant you later realize was exceptionally intimate.
These friends are few and far between and should be cherished.
Once you lose the intimacy, you are left with the occasional hello. The big picture is put into focus through updates here and there. It is the difference between watching 30 seconds of highlights on ESPN versus watching the whole game. I believe this is called, “Keeping in Touch.”
Social media was created with the promise of allowing us to be close with people from around the world. And yes, it does give us that broad picture of some of the people in our giant friend circle. It picks and chooses stories giving us glimpses into the lives of all of these personas with an image here and there to really make it feel real. But it isn’t real or truthful. The general picture we get from the social media posts is just a persona. I often wonder what people must think of me if they just read a post here and there based on my Facebook or Twitter profile? What is the impression you get from me?
More dangerous is that these tiny updates become expectations, replacing actual conversations and intimate moments. Rather than listening to one another, we simply expect others to follow our thoughts on our pages, and sometimes we feel burdened by having to repeat something that we posted. “Just read my feed!” One of my most hated phrases is, “Didn’t you read the email?” Yeah, I read it, but is it so bad to actually use my voice to ask a question? I have been guilty of saying this as a teacher, I am sure. But I have tried to be much more open to repeating myself as often as needed, because hearing a person say something is much more real than reading an email or social media post.
We talk about different learning styles, and I think I am a social learner. I used to think I was a good reader, but I am pretty sure I am awful at it. I go too fast and miss little details. But when I talk to someone about what something says, I get it. I appreciate giving my students chances to cooperate in class. ESL training really taught me the power of this social structure in the classroom. How often must we rely on just ourselves to understand? Are we in a vacuum?
The worst possibility, however, is that we are misunderstood. Sometimes I fear responding to people’s posts because I am so often misunderstood. Sarcasm and humor just do not work well when typed in isolation. A smile or a wink can go a long way to sell irony or a fun idea.
So in this reflection in the darkness of Winter 2017, I encourage you all to talk to one another, and that includes me. Maybe during our mutual Christmas Breaks, we can touch base. One of the patterns that people notice about Americans is our relative insincerity… “Let’s keep in touch!” or “I’ll call you!” we say with a smile, knowing full well that we will not do these things. If there is one thing I try to do it is to maintain a certain sense of sincerity.
Now, some fun observations?
I love the Christmas Village in Riga’s Old Town. I have been through the market 5 or 6 times, and I cannot resist the hot mulled wine or Balsam drinks they serve. The little shops and vendors are wonderful, and, if you get the chance, make sure to get yourself a crepe. Incredible.
I think the dark of winter affects everyone. I notice my students getting smaller and quieter as the sun goes down by the end of the school day. They do not learn well in darkness, and everyone is just a bit tired. It is kind of cool to be caught up in this pattern of life. The weather here and everything is much more gradual than in Nebraska. There are no days when it is 60 and then -10. Here, it is always just around freezing. There have been some windy days, but nothing like the Midwest. We have had a few flurries, but the snow always seems to melt almost as fast as it falls. It is very beautiful while it lasts. Everyone is tired of the grayness.
Many people ask me about the weather, and I will repeat what the locals say. This pattern of relatively warm Decembers has been on the rise. I think that most people here do not doubt that global warming has had a direct and definite impact on the climate. They have become used to it not actually freezing until January and winter really beginning in February. I haven’t done the long term research to confirm or deny their claims, but you will hear it from almost any Latvian you ask. “It just doesn’t snow like it used to.”
I bought Latvian Scrabble. I have only played one game, but it was fun. There are 30 Latvian letters, and I do not know how to spell very many words. I think that if I played regularly, I would learn. I am currently taking Latvian language lessons. I was going to type some Latvian, but it is after 10 p.m., and that is when my brain just kind of stops working so well.
I would love to hear your thoughts on what the purpose of life is. I keep engaging people with this question. I had a nice talk with some Latvian teenagers who were aghast at the seemingly American drive to be happy no matter what the cost. As if happiness were enough. And if it isn’t happiness, then what is it? An accumulation? Good will? Good deeds? Progeny? How do you measure a life well lived?
Maybe it isn’t a question that needs to be answered, but it’s a good way to start 2018. I am hoping to write a Christmas letter at some point, but in the meantime, enjoy a random flurry of photos!
Maybe part of the meaning is just to live to see what Laima unveils when they show us their rejuvinated clock!