Uniting Power of Hate – Ouagadougou to Timbuktu

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When I was an insolent adolescent, my father, in a period of midlife-crisis-enlightenment-seeking, went through a New Age phase, in which he adopted a New Age guru who walked him through past life regressions, chakra balancing and, perhaps his favorite activity of all, chanting. It was an awkward and transitional time, probably for everyone involved. During this hazy period, my father decided to try to address my permanent “Oscar the Grouch” take on life:

Dad: “Erika, why are you so hateful?”
Me: (rolling eyes, sarcastic tone) “Gee, I don’t know”
Dad: (enlightened tone) “Well, your mother and I could teach you some neat things.”
Me: (rolling eyes again) “Like?”
Dad: (even more enlightened) “Like… how to chant!
RAHHHHH-OHHHHHHM!

Check it out – “Nasty Dan” from Johnny Cash visiting my dear Oscar the Grouch on Sesame Street! “Say, aren’t you Johnny Trash?” “Cash. – Have a rotten day.” “Wow, there goes my kinda guy.”

So, the hateful thing goes back a ways. While I won’t go so far as to say that I seriously hate anyone or anything, I readily admit that I am easily annoyed and enjoy sarcasm and complaint a great deal. I derive joy from this kind of casual and idle hatred and dismay/disdain. It is not often that I meet kindred hating spirits in the world; that is, people with sour attitudes who find something to dislike about almost everything but who still actually are quite sweet people who find a lot of things to like and even love as well.

I don’t look at my attitude as sheer, unproductive negativity the way many do – I think of myself as a realist and sometimes a pessimist. It’s hard to live in the world and see reality without rose-colored glasses and not be a bit pessimistic at times, even if there are always rays of bright sunlight here and there. This approach and attitude has been polarizing and divisive at times and has brought about the demise of a few friendships (and I won’t pretend that that didn’t hurt).

On rare occasions I met up with people with almost as dark a view on the world, with as many complaints and who reveled in sharing complaints, with similar dark senses of humor, with similar misanthropic and impatient tendencies. But I had never quite met my match until now. My heart – be still, dear heart – has been stolen by someone who told me that he makes mental lists of all the things he hates while he is walking to work.

Sigh.

I once advised a girl who had had rather iffy relationships and made iffy relationship choices to stop accepting and settling for stale crumbs and to only accept the “the whole cake”. I knew I had my whole cake already – but when I heard about this hate list – and knew that the person behind it could also laugh about all the annoyances on the list, I knew I had the icing on the cake as well.

All this is not to say that I think real, visceral hatred and anger is healthy. I don’t like to waste energy or in-depth thought on any of it, which is why I think it’s great to make a mental list or voice the little complaints here and there – it is a means of just letting them go and moving forward. Save the real anger and hatred for bigger stuff – the major injustices in the world. The sexism, racism, abuse and all the other real travesties. I mean, yes, a group of people walking side-by-side taking up the entire width of a sidewalk is really damn annoying and virtually impossible to get around without running into road traffic, but it’s not the end of the world or particularly destructive.

It’s a pick-your-battle kind of war, really. One man in my … sphere of influence (haha – I make myself sound so mesmerizing!) complained heartily about racism and racial stereotypes, and how he is so tired of them he might just move back to Africa one day so as to not hear these things any longer. And I thought, yeah, but I suspect you will hear different stupid things in Africa and maybe get Ebola. Okay. Probably not – that’s just one of my ignorant attempts at being funny. (I had been watching the news and saw that Guinea is facing its first-ever Ebola outbreak.) My serious point was that it makes little sense to abandon an otherwise comfortable life just because you don’t want to hear things that are unpleasant to live a less comfortable life and probably just hear a different set of annoying generalizations. Of course, I don’t have to bear the weight of racist (inadvertent or otherwise) commentary all the time, and it may well feel much more powerful and daunting than just being “unpleasant” to someone exposed to it all the time.

Naturally all of this made me think once more of the elusive idea of “Africa”. Mostly because I talked to someone about African place names that sound foreign to our western ears, and for example, as children, we scarcely know that they are real places – they sound so exotic that they could be figments of someone’s phonetically rich imagination. Timbuktu came up a lot when I was a kid – and when I ask people these days what they associate with the word “Timbuktu” now, they rarely name a place, mention Africa or – heaven forbid – mention the country of which it is actually a part (Mali). Same goes for Ouagadougou (capital of Burkina Faso). When I mentioned “Burkina Faso” to my mother, she too just said, “I don’t know what that is.”

Backbiting

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While perhaps I could be a willing proponent of literal back biting (haha), the whole concept of “backbiting”, as in badmouthing someone who is not present (or, as I define it here, complaining about something rather vague only to have someone with whom I was speaking create a drama about it and turn it into backbiting – even if there was no text or subtext to indicate that), is not my thing. I have suffered the consequences of, but not permanently learned a lesson from, confiding in all the wrong people – or just by being opinionated and unabashed about opening my mouth. The most understanding ear is often attached to the most treacherous snake. The problem comes when you realize it too late. I am not really in a situation like that although I suspect that some of my complaints are making the rounds (but not in a malicious, backbiting, drama-creating way), but I have not yet pinpointed who the “culprit” is, so still freely sharing my opinions and frustrations. (In such scenarios, images of the film Raise the Red Lantern spring immediately to mind.)

I don’t know why this train of thought makes me think of a teacher I had in junior high and high school. Maybe because we ended up making fun of her behind her back all the time? Maybe because, in the course of a fairly short span of time, people can change, and you (and they) want to preserve you exactly as you were when you met them. In this case, the teacher in question taught my pre-algebra class when I was about 12. She was an incredible teacher who made all manner of mathematical complexities seem simple, assigning everything very methodical approaches that were so grounding and solid that they carried me through algebra and various other mathematical pursuits long after that class had ended, and I was exposed to much less gifted math teachers. You know what they say about getting the basics right. She left the junior high to teach at the high school, and I relied completely on the fundamentals she had taught, but little by little, each step I made in math was a downhill step. By the time I hit geometry in 9th grade, I was lost and had no idea what was going on (not to mention that I have no ability to conceptual shapes and angles and could not begin to write a proof about how an angle as big as my fingernail was the same as some angle that was as big as a house).

This teacher had her quirks, of course (ultimately why we made fun of her), from the laminated posters of Neil Diamond plastered all over her classroom to the what I can only refer to as “whorehouse chandelier” earrings, to her love for expressions like, “Yowza!”. She was her own character. Her self-satisfied attitude and even the “I am cool” voice she adopted in her teaching was enough to sicken me. But you can’t really argue with a virtuoso, particularly when she clearly not only knew her stuff but knew how to convey that information in a neat and palatable way. (I still can’t quite erase the memory of her smug expression and tone when she would show you some easy way to solve an equation and say, “All you have to do is plug… (pause for effect) and chug.” My response: Ugh.

But people change. I am sure she was still a math-teaching whiz by the time I got to the high school and landed in algebra II/trigonometry. She just did not apply herself. It was in fact only because of her mastery and teaching skill that I could manage the more algebraic elements of trigonometry. But for me there was WAY too much geometry mixed into trig (just seeing a webpage about trig has me petrified), and I was completely derailed. And by this time, the once careful, methodical, albeit arrogant, teacher, had taken on all kinds of extracurricular duties, like coaching the track team and god knows what else. She created all kinds of barriers between herself and the students, such as insisting that during class, she would only accept two questions on the homework. As a result of all these limitations, I got more and more lost, and by the time I began failing exams, it was too late. She, reflecting on her memory of my identity as a “good math student” from our previous time in the same classroom, called me in for a one-on-one chat and basically asked, “What happened to you?” (She was also not impressed by my brief pseudo-goth appearance, which seemed to make her think I was on drugs.)

Frankly, I wanted to ask the same thing, so far was she from her teaching roots. “What happened to you?”

Ultimately we were, in those three short years, in completely different places in our lives. When she finally saw how much I was flailing about and bothered to ask me if something was wrong and whether she could dedicate any time to help me further – because suddenly she was more than willing to answer as many questions as I had – it was too late. I was so far gone that I did not even know how to ask questions about what I did not understand.