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February 17, 2014

And You Think Characters in MY Books are One-Dimensional




Mike? Is that you?


We had a record-breaking snowstorm in Yokohama on February 7, and then another one on February 14, which must have made the February 7 storm feel rather like the Mark Maguire of record-breaking Japanese snowstorms.1

Anyway, I stayed home all weekend and heated up my room. I heated it up, and I thought of Mike.

Mike—just Mike—was a character in a textbook series that I used early in my English teaching career, at the International House of English. There was a chapter on “two-word verbs,” the presentation of which consisted of twelve illustrations captioned with sentences like “Sally picked out the dress. She picked it out” (the point of the second sentence being to show how a pronoun falls between the words of the verb phrase). I vaguely recall that one of the other sentences involved “work out,” as in “Jennifer worked out the math problems. She worked them out.” As to the others, they are lost in the ether. “Ted fucked up the Senate. He fucked it up” might have been in there, for all I can recall.

But getting back to Mike. Understand that this is his lone shot at the limelight. If he doesn’t shine here, he’s not getting called back for the more advanced books in the series. But you wouldn’t sense any pressure on him from looking at him. He’s not doing anything—just sitting in his chair sporting a smug smile, supposedly reveling in the heated-upped-ness of his environment, over which he has established his mastery. He's like one of those dubious characters in the original Legion of Super-Heroes: Matter-Eater Lad and Bouncing Boy, meet The Human Radiator.

Though long since out-of-print, Mike lives on in the jargon of my marriage. As reported in How to Pick Up Japanese Chicks And Doom Your Immortal Soul. 2, Mrs. Muggins and I first met at IHOE, and this very lesson served as a minor element in our bonding. To this day, whenever either of us does any heating up of any sort—be it leftovers, bath water, the car—it merits a jaunty third-person “Michiko heated up the curry. She heated it up” or “Josh heated up the Rolling Fella Bomber. He heated it up.3

In the pantheon of chair-sitting mooks, however, Mike was to be vastly under-shadowed by a character I would encounter a few years later in a company that offered English correspondence courses for business persons. One of the exercises asked students to write a description of a room in which a mustachioed chap sat, reading a book. As befit the inferior quality of the artwork, this vegetating moron did not even merit a name.

The structure being activated in the unit was “there is/are,” as in “There’s a bookcase along the wall” etc., but students could not help focusing on the nameless bloke, by default the most charismatic presence in the frame. “A man is shitting in his easy chair,” a student would occasionally inform us, much to our delight, after we had opened the morning mail and sorted the assignments. One memorable participant ran with this theme: “It is his favorite chair,” he explained, “so he shits in it every night.” Judging by the glossy zen look on his face, this is some pretty cold-blooded shitting going on here.

And then there was Carlos from the old version of the Streamline series. He appeared for one six-line dialogue in which he lamented to his friend that he was too shy to speak to Americans. His friend—whose role was even more poorly written than Carlos’s—advised him to speak first, and thereupon the dialogue ended without Carlos deigning to reply. This was accompanied by a stock photo of two Latinos, in which the hangdog Carlos sulked before his unsympathetic compatriot.

What a piss-poor excuse for a Carlos, eh? The name summons up exotic images of fugitive terrorists or rock gods or, at the very least, flamboyant politicos who immolate their careers by sexting random ladies way less hot than their wives…until, that is, you become an English as a Second Language teacher, whereupon every textbook you open introduces you to yet another thin-blooded, weaselly Carlos. They should form a club, these dreary Carloses of English textbook fiction, and then they should choke each other to death.

My career as a teacher of English to Speakers of Other Languages began in 1979, and will certainly end by 2021, when I become sixty-five. It may end earlier than that, and not necessarily on my terms. If so, I must bear it cheerfully, for my career has been something of a miracle. After all, teaching ESOL didn’t even exist as a recognized profession when I was a child and, owing to developments in translation/interpretation technology, it very likely will cease to exist in the next decade or two. In the meantime, I have ridden this milk truck to the tune of 140,000 Yankee Dollahs per annum in my peak years.

So I now look toward retirement in a wistful but hopeful manner. I will miss the humorous and sometimes sexy students. I will miss the private office, replete with mini-basketball hoop and dartboard. I may even, for brief flashes between tropical cocktails as the sun sets on the equator, feel a tinge of nostalgia for a colleague. But I will never miss this whole gallery of simpering, room-heating chair-shitters; no, not one whit.






1 Because, you see, Maguire was much hailed for shattering a long-standing record, only to have that record shattered by Barry Bonds a few years later. Ha-ha! And then, just as Maguire’s and Bonds’s records were tainted by their use of performance enhancers, these two freak storms were illicitly bulked up by climate change! So… Isn’t that the funniest analogy ever??




2 Gratuitous and obligatory book plug to be inserted into each post—check.




3 Actually, that is the lone act of heating-up that is exempted from the must-be-reported rule.