Copyright 2016 by Wendell Blue
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“In my little town, I grew up believing God keeps his eye on us all …”
Like the words in the Simon and Garfunkel song above, I also grew up in a small town with the same belief. Observing my fellow citizens in this hillbilly-infested small town, though, I could not help suspecting that there were times when God would simply have to avert his gaze in horror and disgust. He might even feel like plucking out his eyes.
I left my hometown 40 years ago, so many people have been forgotten. The memory of some, however, still rings fresh because of things they said or did. The following characters have kept their place in my aging mind after so many years.
In order to pay for college I worked at different low-paid manual labor jobs during summer vacations. Some of my co-workers were other college students trying, like me, to earn money for university expenses. Others were simply locals stuck in lousy jobs as a result of bad luck, bad genes or a combination of these.
One summer job I shared with these unlucky ones was on the local golf course. A young man named Eric belonged to the “bad genes” group mentioned above, forever doomed to work in dead-end job due to a lack of functioning gray matter.
One afternoon as Eric and I chatted while busy with one of our mind-numbing spirit-killing tasks, we discovered that we had both been previously employed in another dead-end job. As it turned out, we had both been employed in a warehouse, unloading box cars. That job had been torturous for me, but Eric had enjoyed it and found it a challenge. And there had been no bigger challenge or source of pride for young Eric than the one he told me about that afternoon.
In his words, “One day I unloaded a whole boxcar full of Kotex and didn’t get a hard-on wunst!”
Hearing this revelation, I was at a loss for words. By the expectant look in his otherwise vacant eyes, I could tell that he expected a response from me. Incredible as it may seem, the expected response was clearly one of praise. What could one say, though, in response to such a boast? Should I congratulate him on his restraint?
I was fairly sure that I couldn’t tell him what I was thinking (Is this really a sentient being standing next to me?)
Not knowing what else to say, I finally muttered, “Wow, that’s really something, Eric.” A proud smile slowly spread across his face in response.
Anonymous Golf Course Idiot
Although it is true, as mentioned above, that many of our tasks on the golf course were mind-numbing and spirit-killing, there were moments when it all seemed worth it. Moments when we sweaty peons almost didn’t mind the fact that the richest people in the community were paying us the minimum wage. One such moment occurred as I was mowing the roughs early one morning. As I trudged along behind the mower, I noticed a bright white handkerchief lying at the base of a large tree. Thinking somebody might have lost what looked like an expensive handkerchief, I went to pick it up. As I did so, I had two realizations: 1) The owner’s initials had been embroidered on it in gold thread, and 2) The owner had almost certainly not lost it. Rather, he had been caught short while golfing and had used it to clean himself after taking a dump behind the tree.
What does one do in such a case? On the one hand, I felt a strong desire to throw it back on the ground. It was, after all, covered in shit. On the other hand, it occurred to me that maybe I should take it up to the clubhouse and post it on the bulletin board with the handwritten sign, “Found behind large tree in rough.” The owner, and all the other club members, would surely be able to identify the object since the golden initials were there for all to see. The owner of the handkerchief would presumably be pleased to reclaim his stained possession.
In the end I just threw it back down behind the tree, but who knows? If I had posted it up at the clubhouse, he might have sought me out to give me a reward for posting it in such a handy and visible place.
Earl & Burl
Since my hometown in Southern Indiana offers few good jobs for young people, especially those that manage to get an education, bright people often leave in search of better opportunities elsewhere. The result is that the population becomes “denser” with respect to the ratio of dimwits to clever people. And as I grew up I encountered few residents denser than a set of identical twins named Earl and Burl. (The choice of names for the boys speaks volumes about the parents.)
Born into a poor family with grim prospects, Earl and Burl were about as successful as one might expect, given their names and family situation. They performed badly in school and eventually dropped out, thereby ensuring themselves a future as impoverished as that of their parents. Although most aspects of their lives were not noteworthy, Burl did manage on one occasion to distinguish himself.
Late one night the local police received a frantic call, informing them that someone was breaking into the office of a local grain mill. Officers were dispatched and, sure enough, upon arrival they noted that the thief had shattered a glass pane on the door in order to gain entry into the office. Inside, the police followed a heavy trail of blood from the door to the company safe. The safe had not been opened, but right in front of it the police found a large puddle of blood. Leading off from this puddle at a 90 degree angle, a trail of blood drops led directly to the office phone. The phone was off the hook, dangling above the inert body of Burl, the informant – and the thief.
Panicked by the amount of blood he was losing after accidentally slashing his wrist while breaking the glass on the door, Burl had given up on breaking into the safe and had called the police. When young Burl eventually regained consciousness in the hospital, he explained that he had seen someone else break into the office and had rushed to the office phone to call the police.
The mill owner’s son who told me this story was skeptical about Burl’s account of events, as were the police, and Burl ended up, unsurprisingly, in jail.
I don’t know how Burl’s life turned out after this event, but I suspect that if you google “rocket scientists” you will not find anyone named Burl.
Patty & Bonnie
My close encounters with idiots began at an early age. The words and actions of some of my earliest classmates were so obviously outrageous that even as a child I realized that something wasn’t quite right. My first such reflection took place in first grade when a classmate, Bonnie raised her hand with a distressed look on her face. When our teacher, Miss Ruby, asked what the problem was, Bonnie confessed that she had peed her pants. From my excellent vantage point in a nearby seat, I was able to note a yellow puddle in Bonnie’s seat when she stood up.
“Would you like to go change your clothes?” Miss Ruby kindly asked her moist student.
“No, my pants did not get wet,” replied the dripping student.
I don’t claim to have been a precocious child, but even at the age of seven I was able to look at the puddle in her seat and conclude that this statement was incorrect.
Bonnie disappeared from my life after grade one, but I hope that in subsequent years she has managed to overcome her incontinence and that she has learned to come up with more realistic explanations for embarrassing situations.
The reason I lost contact with young Bonnie is that my family moved from our home in town to a place in the countryside. As a result of this move, I was enrolled in a rural school and rode to school every day in a big yellow bus.
A mixed bag of farmers’ children and inbred offspring of hillbillies provided for lively, if not uplifting, experiences on the way to and from school each day. One incident on “show and tell” day stands out. Patty, one of the aforementioned inbred offspring of hillbillies, took a baby chick to school in a shoe box to show her classmates. When she got to school, she decided that she should have poked air holes in the top of the box so that the chick could breathe. Reaching into her desk, she pulled out her scissors and created the air holes.
In retrospect, one could argue that she should have taken the chick out of the box before she punched the holes, though, because she also managed to poke a hole in her chick. The chick died, so Patty’s show-and-tell item was less animated than she had hoped. Her spirit wasn’t dampened, though, and she happily showed the dead chick to her classmates. On the bus ride home that afternoon I also got to see her chick.
The image of that chick has stayed with me all these years later. At the bottom of the shoe box the poor dead chick lay, its intestines strung out alongside its body. I had to conclude that Patty had punched the holes in the lid very vigorously. She was quite a boisterous girl.
Patty wasn’t the only person on the bus who did, said or thought stupid things. I also had my moments although they never took the life of an innocent chick.
Every morning and afternoon school bus number 3 hauled the country kids to and from Franklin Elementary. I usually sat near the back of the bus, but one day I decided to sit directly behind Bob, the elderly driver. From my vantage point I noticed that each time Bob stopped to pick up a child, he would lean to his left and pull a lever which caused a rectangular “Stop” sign to protrude from the side of the bus. This lever was right in front of me, and I began to think that perhaps I was just the boy who could take over the “stop” sign duties.
Too shy to begin my duties immediately, I began to fantasize about my career at the lever. Within minutes I had visualized the uniform that Bob, out of gratitude, would make for me. A little cap, a brightly colored jacket and lots of big shiny buttons. For a nearly exact image of my uniform, picture an organ grinder’s monkey. Once I had decided on my uniform, I began to imagine the effect that my position of responsibility (along with the uniform) would have on my fellow passengers, especially two girls whom I was passionately and eternally in love with. Even at that age I realized that no woman can resist a man in uniform, especially when the uniform in question is that of an organ grinder’s monkey.
After several minutes of pleasant daydreaming about my bright future as the operator of the bus stop sign, I sprang into action. When I noticed that Bob had begun to apply the brake to pick up a young passenger, I leaned forward to grab the lever and begin my glamorous career.
No sooner had my hand touched the lever, though, than Bob shouted angrily at me, “Git yer hand off that lever and don’t ever touch it again!”
My career was over. The girls would never see me in my uniform. Their loss as much as mine!
I wish I could say that I have wised up as I have aged, but that is not the case. Consider an event that occurred many years after the abrupt end to my career as the school bus stop sign operator.
At the age of 24 I was sent to Costa Rica to train for the Peace Corps. In my training group was an immature accident-prone twit named Kevin, with whom I once attended a sporting event. As we filed out of the stadium in the darkness after the match, I noticed that there was quite a deep ditch to our right. Knowing Kevin’s tendency to walk right into trouble, I warned him about the ditch. Moments later I found myself inexplicably lying at the bottom of the ditch.
I wish this were an isolated event.
Looking at the lyrics of some of the songs that were popular when I was growing up, one has to wonder if perhaps we were all dimwits. Consider, for example, the message in the song “Teen Angel”. This was a major hit, and its tragic tale of the death of a young man’s sweetheart touched the souls of many teenagers.
“That fateful night the car was stalled upon the railroad tracks… I pulled you out and you were saved, but you went running back.”
Really? A whole generation mourned the death of a fictional idiot who ran back in front of a train after having been saved? She deserved to die! It’s better to have the fictional idiot out of the gene pool. Otherwise, she might produce a whole litter of fictional suicidal dummies with a fatal attraction to oncoming trains. A song about her death should have been a cause for celebration instead of one that saddened the young hearts of American youth.
Luckily, we now have rap “artists” like Snoop Dog who seem to have a better understanding of relationships and young love. In his words, “Bitches ain’t sh*t but hoes and tricks / Lick on these nuts and suck the d*ck.”
Surely the world is a better place now that we moved past the melodramatic lyrics of my childhood.
“There was a time before these tools were invented when they simply did not exist.”
Profound words from a university scholar.
Some students go to university in order to acquire knowledge and perhaps find answers to the big questions in life or to help humanity progress.
Others, like the author of the words in the quote above, go to university so that they can teach woodshop in secondary schools. Tim, the genius who put this truism on paper, belonged to the latter group.
Because Tim was aware that he could not write well, he always brought his essays to me for editing. We lived on the same floor of the student dormitory and were on friendly terms, so I was willing to do him this favor. He didn’t pay me, but I decided that the entertainment value of the gems he produced was reward enough. In the quote above, he was describing a plane, the woodworking tool to smooth surfaces, and apparently could not resist the temptation to get philosophical.
I have had no contact with Tim since leaving college, so he might be retired by now. It’s comforting to know, though, that Tim was probably able to pass on his wisdom to the youth of America for many, many years.
In 1973 Indiana State University built a modern new library. This library was a vast improvement over the previous library, and it had lots of new and exciting features. I was a student there when the library was built, and the feature which excited me the most was the listening center on the second floor. Students could select a cassette at the librarian’s desk and then go to a listening booth to listen to the selected music through a headset while they studied. I often took advantage of this new service, and was blissfully unaware of the world around me as I read while listening to my music.
One day as I studied, I was suffering from tremendous intestinal gas and a fart slipped out. At a subconscious level, a wave of relief flowed over me since it apparently produced no sound. Well, at least I didn’t hear the fart, which is not surprising since I had music blaring in my ears. My gas attack continued for quite a while, and I farted repeatedly – always relieved that they seemed to produce no sound. As I let my guard down, given the apparently silent nature of my farts, I grew more comfortable and even began to cock my leg up so as to allow the gas to flow more freely. Why not? There was no incriminating sound.
It was only after I took my headset off and became aware of the silence in the library, punctuated occasionally by people whispering that I realized that my farts probably (almost certainly) had not been silent. I just hadn’t heard them because of my headset. Looking around, I noticed that all the chairs around me were empty.
In retrospect, raising my leg to facilitate the farting had probably not been as clever as it had seemed.
Even students who seem reasonably bright can sometimes say or write dumb things. For example, I once asked my students in Finland to write an essay comparing two characters from different literary works. One of the characters to be compared was that of Laura from the play “The Glass Menagerie.” The other character was Miss Brill from the Katherine Mansfield short story of the same name. Both characters are socially isolated, but for different reasons. In the play Laura is a painfully shy girl who has a limp and has withdrawn from society. Miss Brill is an elderly teacher of English in France, who has few social contacts other than with her students.
My student, Ilona, when comparing the characters wrote, “Laura is handicapped and has only her mother and brother to talk with though she doesn’t even talk much. Miss Brill is an English teacher and it’s probably a job where you aren’t so respected.”
I have put the sentence above in Italics because the person who was going to read and mark this essay was her English teacher (me!) In fact, I was not upset, but it does strike me as less than clever to write that your teacher is probably not respected. Especially since that person is going to give you a grade on what you have written.
Of course, young Ilona might be right about English teachers not being respected.
During my 35 years as an English teacher I have taught two students named Yahya. One was an officer in the Royal Saudi Air Force and the other was a student in the Intensive English Program in Indiana University. My heartfelt conclusion after teaching these two is that parents should think twice before naming their sons Yahya. You might as well hit your child with the “dumb stick” as name him Yahya, at least in terms of learning languages. Neither one ever learned to speak English.
The Yahya I taught at Indiana University was sponsored by the government of United Arab Emirates. While it was kind of the UAE government to send Yahya abroad and foot his bills, it was a pretty worthless investment of their not-so-hard-earned petrodollars.
One day while teaching in a classroom that was separated from the adjacent classroom only by a flimsy divider I asked Yahya to read a sentence to the class, “Could you read number seven aloud, Yahya?” Coincidentally, as soon as he started to read, the (female) teacher in the next class shouted, “Number eight! Number eight!”
Yahya paused, looked at me blankly, and said, “Oh! Number eight.” He then proceeded to read number eight – to my chagrin and his fellow students’ delight.
Anyone who has ever lived in a university dormitory in the USA is well aware that a certain percentage of residents are eccentric. In my dorm there were a number of oddballs, two of whom seemed to be joined at the hip.
Short and dumpy with wavy hair, Wayne always talked breathlessly as if his words were the most exciting thing in the world. They weren’t. In fact, most of the time the topics of his breathlessly delivered messages were excruciatingly obvious and mundane. And they were occasionally incorrect. His sidekick Rick, a thin, greasy-haired young man would generally listen soberly as Wayne held court. Only when Wayne stepped a bit too far out of bounds with regards to reality would Rick speak up, quietly expressing reservations about Wayne’s claims.
While it is always annoying when a person points out the glaringly obvious, there are times when it is more than merely annoying. Take for instance the impact of Wayne’s words one night in the recreation room of the dormitory. A crowd of students, roughly half black and half white, had gathered to watch a basketball game in that year’s NCAA basketball tournament. The two teams they were watching were Austin Peay and Kentucky University. Interestingly, Kentucky had an all-white team, while Austin Peay’s players were all black.
I’m certain that this fact was immediately obvious to everybody in the room, with the exception of Wayne.
Several minutes into the game, Wayne finally became aware of the racial divide of the two teams. He then shouted out, in his breathless Captain Obvious way, “Hey, look! One team is all white and the other team is all black!”
Given the racial tension that was already present in the room, Wayne’s exclamation had the interesting effect of causing the room to go completely silent and become uncomfortable. Only Wayne was unaware of why the room had gone silent; that is, if he even noticed that it had gone silent.
Having made the mistake of choosing the boring Indiana State University for my undergraduate studies instead of the much more interesting Indiana University, I tried to make up for this error by spending many weekends visiting friends at Indiana University. Since I had no car, I had to hitchhike to and from IU, which was fairly easy and safe back in those days.
One weekend, while traveling back to my university in the car of a pleasant middle-aged woman, one of the car’s tires suddenly had a blowout. Pulling off the road, the lady said, “Now I’m really glad that I picked you up because I don’t know how to change a tire.” “Don’t feel too pleased,” I responded, “I don’t know how to change a tire either.” We decided to depend on the kindness of strangers and waited patiently for a passing car to pull over and offer to help. After about a hundred cars had passed us by with barely a glance, we came to the conclusion that the passing drivers must assume that a 21-year-old man could fix the tire, so they didn’t stop. In other words, not only was I not an asset, I was a definite liability.
Together we decided that I should disappear from sight so that a Good Samaritan could fix the tire. I went off and hid behind a big tree about thirty yards away, and a car almost immediately stopped to help. Ten minutes later the tire had been changed.
I don’t know if the inability to change a car tire actually qualifies someone as an idiot, but I certainly felt like one while I was hiding behind that tree.
While teaching at the International School in Estonia I once had a restless student named Ala. The young boy had considerable trouble sitting still. This would perhaps be normal if he were in third grade, but Ala was in high school. Every day he asked to go to the toilet at some point during class. It seemed a bit excessive to me, but I didn’t want the boy to suffer so I always let him go. In a teachers’ meeting one day it became clear that Ala was doing this same thing every day in all six of his classes. We teachers decided that, given his restlessness, it was probably better to continue to allow him to walk out of class for a break every day even if he didn’t really need to go to the toilet that often. He was usually more relaxed after he came back into the class after his so-called toilet visits, which were probably just walks around the hallways.
One day, however, I felt that he had pushed it too far. Ten minutes after returning from a supposed visit to the toilet, he stood up and asked to go to the toilet again.
“Nobody needs to pee that often!” I told him.
Continuing out the door in spite of my protest, Ala responded in an urgent tone of voice, “It’s not pee this time!”
Too much information from Ala – but at least his fellow students were very appreciative of this announcement.
I taught for many years in the International Baccalaureate Programme, which is a challenging program offered in many schools around the world. As the English teacher, one of the skills I had to teach the students was literary analysis. The poems they had to analyze for the program were often very difficult, so I gave them several tips on how to maximize their result even when they did not fully understand the text they were presented with. One of the tips I gave them was to focus on what they did understand rather than speculating on matters they were confused about. Some students listened to my advice, but others were like moths drawn to flames. They simply could not stop themselves from writing at length about what they did not understand, hoping that something they put on paper would be correct.
Walter was one of my worst offenders. When faced with a poem entitled “The Knight and the Steed” he had a serious problem: he didn’t understand the word “steed”. Instead of focusing on the elements of the poem which he did understand, he kept returning to the matter of the steed. It was as if he thought he could decipher the word if he mentioned it frequently enough. His plan did not work, and he concluded his commentary with the sentence, “The speaker seems to be uncertain of who is the rider and who is the steed.”
Nice try, Walter.
I have come across some horse-faced women in my time, but I don’t think anybody has ever been unable to distinguish between a horse and a human.
Walter ended up dropping out of the program. There were too many things he was uncertain about.
The Director of the English Program
Having taught in several countries, I have come to realize that “cheating” is a culturally defined concept. Behavior which Americans or British might call “cheating” is considered “helping” in some countries. In my experience, Chinese and Arabs are both very good at “helping.” In fact, they’re almost obsessive “helpers.” To give only one example, consider the measures we took when giving the final English examination at King Fahd University of Petroleum & Minerals in Saudi Arabia.
After packing the hundreds of students into the auditorium, we had them sit in every other row, so the seat in front of and behind every student was empty. The final exam was multiple choice, and we made six versions of the test with the numbers of the questions scrambled so the students could not copy from their neighbor. For further security, a teacher was assigned to each row and throughout the test each teacher was required march back and forth in front of the students in his row. You might think that all these measures would discourage the boys (all the students were males) from attempting to cheat, but every semester we caught a handful of them desperately trying to “help” each other.
The real cherry on the cake was the year when the 300-pound director of the English program, deciding that the above-mentioned measures were inadequate, sat on the stage at the front of the auditorium with a pair of binoculars. While the earnest young scholars in front of him answered the test questions, this conscientious director used his binoculars to continuously scan the crowd of test-takers. Even with the students’ willingness (eagerness) to help each other, this seemed like a bit of overkill, and the obese director looked like a proper idiot.
Dean, a former colleague, might qualify as the biggest idiot I’ve ever met. I say this because in spite of his apparent intelligence, he eagerly engaged in a hobby that could have gotten him into really deep shit.
A naturalized American citizen originally from Germany, Dean taught English alongside me in a training center on an air base in Saudi Arabia. Whenever he had vacation, this 55-year-old man invariably headed for the Philippines to cavort with teenage prostitutes. An avid photographer, Dean also took nude pictures of the girls whose services he purchased. Back in Saudi Arabia, he developed these pictures – and then brought them to the office, where he arranged them on poster paper in “Top Ten” lists. Morality aside, this was dangerously reckless since pornography is strictly forbidden in the kingdom and the penalties are harsh.
Besides his addiction to pornography, Dean was also a bad teacher and students frequently complained. When he was given a warning that he might lose his job, he decided to secretly record a lesson to present as evidence of his competence. To make a long story short, the students realized that he was secretly recording their lesson and protested loudly to the director of the training program. The director, a Saudi who, like most Saudis, was paranoid about security, immediately told Dean that he was fired, and that the military police would be going to his home on the Lockheed compound to see if he had any other secret recordings.
Hearing this, Dean ducked into the teacher’s office and frantically asked me to go quickly to his house and remove pornographic photos that were in his bedroom. I left immediately and went to his room, only to find that there were dozens of big boxes containing thousands of photos. I cleared out several of the boxes, taking them to my house before the military police arrived. There was no way to carry away all the pornography, though, as that would have taken far more time than I had.
After I had done what I could, I returned to the office. Sitting at my desk, I couldn’t help but wonder how someone could be so oblivious to the danger this man had put himself in by importing all that pornography into that strict Muslim country.
Then it occurred to me that the police were going to the Lockheed compound and my room was now filled with boxes full of Dean’s photos. My house was right next to Dean’s.
(They did not go into my house.)
In the early 1980s I taught English to Warrant Officers in the Royal Saudi Air Force. They were generally nice young men, about half of whom were named Mohammad and the other half Abdullah. After class one day one of my Abdullahs called me over to the window of the classroom and asked me if I knew what the tallest building in the world was. I had to admit that I wasn’t certain. As I was growing up, the tallest building had been the Empire State building but I suspected that this was no longer the case.
Pointing out the window at the small mosque on the air base, Abdullah proudly told me, “That is the tallest building in the world.”
I was confused. The mosque was small, and the tips of the minarets probably weren’t much higher than a two-story building.
“I don’t understand what you mean, Abdullah,” I replied.
“The Quran says that the mosque is the tallest building in the world,” young Abdullah explained to me.
He might be right that this is stated in the Quran. Although I’ve read the Quran (hey, I like fiction!), I don’t remember this little nugget of “knowledge” being there. Regardless of whether or not this fascinating tidbit is in the Quran, though, we infidels have ways of determining the height of a building, and even a glance at this mosque told me that it was nowhere near the tallest building I had come across in my travels.
On the other hand, I didn’t want to disillusion Abdullah, so I concluded our conversation with a respectful but noncommittal, “Oh.”
Over the years I’ve noticed that religions can sometimes help to give people a sense of purpose and dignity, but they can also do a very good job of dumbing people down.
The Conference Presenter
Not only can certain religions dumb people down, they can also take away their ability to think critically or independently. Consider the case of a religiously-inclined gentleman who presented a paper at an international nursing conference in Brunei which my wife attended.
Naturally enough, nearly all of the speakers at the conference were from the field of medicine, many of them from abroad. Surprisingly, though, one speaker was a local religious leader who gave a talk entitled “Implications of Health and Hygiene in Islamic Injunctions and Prohibitions.” I was fortunate enough to receive a copy of the text of his talk.
Among many other things, this man pointed out that “cleansing after a call of nature is compulsory” and that when a man urinates “he cannot urinate against the wind to avoid being hit by the spray.”
I’m sure he’s right about this, and I find it reassuring to know that there is an omnipotent and omniscient being looking out for me. Somehow, though, even without divine guidance I realized long ago that I should not piss into the wind.
The Test Maker
In addition to the text explaining the incorrectness of pissing into the wind, I also have a copy of the Bruneian drivers’ test from the year 1994. It is normal, I suppose in most countries for prospective drivers to be tested on their knowledge of the rules of the road. In most countries, though, the person/people who make the test have a better sense of how to construct a multiple choice test than whoever made the test I have. Whoever made the version of the drivers’ test that I have either lacked knowledge or common sense, or both. All of the 48 questions on the test are worthy of mention, but for the sake of brevity I only include three examples below (along with my comments in italics):
1. Can you overtake from the left of the car turning to the right?
a. Cannot because in dangerous.
b. Cannot it against the rule.
d. Cannot you must overtake from right only.
Aside from the obvious language errors, there are some other problems with the possible answers. For example, if *a ,b,] _or d are correct, then surely e must be considered correct as well. (In fact, the correct answer is [_*c, “Can”.)
2. What must you do when you hear the seren or the flashing light from An Ambulance. Police or Fire Bridge when you driving?
a. Don’t take care.
b. Give way.
c. Challenge and drive faster.
Based on my experience driving in the country, most Bruneians’ natural first response would be “c” – Challenge and drive faster. The correct answer, however, is “b”. This must have been thrown in as a trick question since it has such a tempting distractor.
3. Can you drive over the speed limit at the area 30 m.p.h.?
b. Can if no other vehicle
c. Can if you think is safe.
d. Can because in hurry.
e. Can if no police.
The correct answer is “a”, of course. It’s the only negative answer alongside four positive answers, so an experienced test taker could get it right even with no knowledge of Brunei road rules. Once again, there seems to be a tempting distractor (“e”) which might have tripped up more than a few young male prospective Bruneian drivers.
I don’t speak Malay, so I don’t know if the grammar and spelling are better in the Malay version of the questions, which were immediately above the English version. I suppose that original language version was at least grammatically correct. Nevertheless, no matter how correct the language might be, these questions and answers were pretty bad.
Muslims call their religious leaders Imams, and in the Muslim world they generally command a great deal of respect and are considered wise since they are well versed in the Quran.
The “Arab News”, a daily newspaper in Saudi Arabia, published a column in their Friday editions in which Muslims could write to an Imam, asking for explanations or solutions to problems. This “Dear Imam” column was much like a “Dear Abby” column in Western newspapers.
I did not personally know the Imam who responded to the queries. However, as a regular reader of the column I almost felt like I knew him. Incredulous infidel that I am, I must admit that I read the column for entertainment purposes rather than for enlightenment.
For me, it was difficult to say which were more absurd, the questions posed by readers or the responses from the Imam.
Q. Is it true that a child born to adulterous parents should be killed by strangulation the moment it is born in order to save it from taunting when it grows up?
In response, Dear Imam noted that Islam abhors adultery, but that the child is not to be held responsible for the sins of its mother. He then referred to a similar case in the past where Islamic scholars had recommended delaying the punishment of the mother until after the child was weaned, “Only after the child was weaned, the punishment was enforced”.
Incidentally, the punishment for adultery is death by stoning.
I guess one could argue that the Imam showed wisdom and restraint in allowing the woman to feed her baby before having her killed with rocks. In my opinion, though, the moron who sent in the question, should have been “killed by strangulation” the moment he was born.
Of course, unlike the Imam’s, my opinion is not based on knowledge gained from years of studying the Quran.
Q. After passing water and making sure that there are no traces left, I feel that a drop comes out involuntarily. Could you explain how I should proceed in order to offer my prayers correctly?
In his own inimitable style, Dear Imam explained how to solve this vexing problem, “If this is frequent, you should attach a polythene bag to your organ, and put a piece of tissue or cotton in the bag. When it is time for prayer, you change the tissue and offer your prayers after doing your ablutions. You should do this for every prayer.”
The good Imam never lets his readers down. Since lots of men dribble after pissing, I suspect that a number of his readers were praying with their cocks wrapped in polythene after reading this column. As well they should.
My all-time favorite question to the Imam came from a confused Indian Muslim. He had been working on a single contract in Saudi Arabia for fourteen months and was about to go home on leave for the first time since arriving in Saudi Arabia. On the one hand, he was happy to finally have a vacation, but on the other hand he was concerned because his wife (who had been in India during the entire fourteen months) had written to say that she had been faithful to him in his absence, but she had somehow become pregnant and was about to give birth.
What’s a husband to do? Should he believe her, or should he assume that she had been unfaithful and divorce her. Dear Imam’s wrote in response that the man should look his wife in the eye and ask her very seriously if she had been faithful. If she admitted that she had not been faithful, he should divorce her. If, however, she responded that she had been faithful, and there were no others who disputed this, then he should accept her at her word and accept the child as his own. The wise Imam then went on to mention other curiously long pregnancies. According to him, the longest pregnancy on record was 27 months, in the case of Abu Bakr, a Muslim leader who had been on a military campaign and came home to find his wife pregnant.
How sweet is that?!? Not only did he survive 27 months of fighting, but on his arrival home he discovered that he had impregnated his wife prior to his departure!
(Have I mentioned that religions sometimes do a very good job of dumbing people down?)
Not all people writing to the Imam need to be told what to do. Rather, they just want clarification on issues in their lives. One young woman who wrote in, for example, informed the Imam that she was about to marry her cousin. She was curious to know whether her soon-to-be husband would still be her cousin after the marriage. The answer was, “Yes.”
Before leaving the topic of “The Arab News”, I should point out that Dear Imam was not the only journalist with a keen understanding of religion and of human nature. One article I read told of a Thai maid working in the Kingdom. According to the article, the maid claimed that she had been raped by her employer. This is not an unlikely scenario since, in my experience, Saudis often mistreat their domestic employees. The journalist who wrote the article explained, though, that this was not possible. “Why not?” you might ask. The wise journalist pointed out that the Saudi employer couldn’t have done it because, “He was married.”
The first time I taught in Helsinki I had a colleague named Janet who stalked, er, I mean, befriended me. One of the first things she told me was that she had been in Finland for 17 years. She then proceeded add, “The worst 17 years of my life!” I guess I could have asked her why she stayed so long if she was miserable there, but the question might have made her uncomfortable and I didn’t want to add to her misery.
Before I managed to develop Janet-evasion tactics, I once accepted her invitation to dine in a Turkish restaurant. We went to the restaurant in Janet’s car, and she talked at her captive audience (me) all the way. At one point, on one of the busiest streets in all of Helsinki, she became confused about the location of the restaurant and suddenly stopped the car, causing a considerable backup of traffic. As we sat there blocking traffic, the driver in the car behind us honked his horn. As I squirmed uncomfortably, Janet looked in her rear view mirror and then spat out, “A man, of course!”
In that situation I suspect that any driver behind us would have honked – even if it had been a woman, or a transsexual … or even a hermaphrodite.
Like religion, obesity seems to dumb down some people. Unable to accept the fact that they have almost certainly become obese from eating too much, they blame their size on their genes and come up with all kinds of diet plans to offset this “genetic” problem.
Over the years I’ve come across people employing all kinds of diets, but none were as imaginative, unlikely and unsuccessful as those of my former colleague Greg. Shaped like Humpty Dumpty, only bigger, Greg was a mountain of a man and must have weighed at least 350 pounds. One day Greg and I found myself sitting in the recreation center of the university, waiting for a speaker to arrive. Impatient and hungry, Greg went up to the snack bar and bought a large bag full of donuts. After eating half of the donuts he ceremoniously stood up and walked over to the trash bin where he threw away the other half of the donuts. I was curious but said nothing. When Greg had returned to his seat, he proudly announced to me that he was on a “fifty percent diet.” His uncle had taught him this method.
According to this plan, Greg could buy and eat anything he wanted as long as he only ate fifty percent of what he had purchased. He was very confident about the diet, but I couldn’t resist pointing out that I had eaten no donuts, so his caloric intake had been considerably greater than mine even though he had only eaten half of the donuts in the bag. Needless to say, my reasoning had no effect on him.
On another occasion when Greg and I were together, he eagerly explained that he was now on a “chocolate milk diet.” He could drink as much chocolate milk as he wanted, and the result would be that he lost weight. That might seem counter intuitive to most people, and there’s probably a reason for that. Even Greg realized that it was an unlikely way to lose weight. As he noted, “It sounds crazy, but, hey, it works!”
I probably don’t need to mention that when I left that job Greg had not lost any weight. If anything, he was bigger than ever. As impressive as the “fifty percent diet” and the “chocolate milk diet” might sound, at the end of the day they really are pretty stupid ways to rationalize doing exactly what one wants to do in the vain hope that weight loss will miraculously occur.
Censors in Saudi Arabia
Somewhere in Saudi Arabia there are rooms full of men who are employed to censor magazines. Armed with thick black markers, they go through imported newspapers and magazines and diligently mark out the bare arms or legs of women that appear in photos. After living there for several years, I was almost starting to believe that all women had black limbs.
One day as I sat in the library leafing through a copy of “Travel and Leisure” magazine, I came across an advertisement for a Polaroid camera. The advertisement consisted of a photo at the top of the page with a small section of text commenting on the photo at the bottom of the page. There was no way to know exactly what was in the picture because the censor had completely blotted out the photo with his black marker. There was just the black smudge at the top of the page, which made the text below quite ironic.
“WHAT’S WRONG WITH THIS PICTURE?”
Is it the composition? The exposure? The color? They all look fine. It looks like a typically beautiful instant picture to us.
After all, this picture was taken with the Polaroid Spectra System.
I have to admit that I never met any of these censors, but after viewing their handiwork for so many years I felt like I knew them. Just as an afterthought, I wonder what these people wrote for their job descriptions on their CVs when they applied for future jobs.
The ink smudges produced by the diligent censors weren’t the only black smudges I came across in Saudi Arabia. A friend once showed me a book written by a Muslim woman. In this book the author explained that while all three of the great monotheistic religions held elements of “the truth”, only Islam contained the FULL truth. Inside the cover there was a photo of the author with the caption below, “The Author.”
In the photo the author was fully covered in a burkha, so she appeared to be a black smudge against the white background – or a black garbage bag floating above the ground. While thoughtfully observing this photo, a number of questions popped into my inquisitive mind: Why would anyone bother to present a picture of herself if she was completely covered? Is it possible that this woman does not realize how ridiculous this looks? Could anyone who views this picture take what she has written seriously? And most importantly, why would an omniscient deity allow such an imbecile to exist and claim to understand his divine message?
Drinking alcohol in Saudi Arabia is strictly forbidden as is the sale of alcohol. The result of these restrictions is that Westerners living there often brew their own wine and beer. This was certainly the case on the Lockheed compound, where I lived. Virtually every villa on the compound had some kind of brewing activity going on.
The wine-making process is not difficult; one simply adds some yeast and sugar to juice to get the fermentation process started. After a couple of weeks you “rack” the wine, which means you siphon off the wine into another container in order to get rid of the yeasty sludge which forms at the bottom of the first container.
While this process is not complicated, it certainly confused one Lockheed employee. It is fair to say that the employee in question, Ron, was “not the brightest penny in the coin purse.” One day I noticed he was staring fixedly at the plastic hose I was using to siphon the wine from one container to the other. Since he looked troubled and confused, I asked him what was on his mind.
“I’m just a’lookin’ at those two containers, and I’m tryin’ to figure out if the wine is going from the container on the chair down to the one on the floor, or is the wine goin’ from the one on the floor up to the one on the chair.”
Ever heard of gravity, Ron?
Of course, one shouldn’t expect much out of Ron. He is, after all, a man who spent a considerable amount of time one year trying to decide in which direction he should fly while on his round-the-world trip. He was trying to figure out which direction would give him an extra 24 hours on his vacation.
Since he was beginning and ending his trip in the same airport, I gently suggested to him that it probably didn’t matter which direction he flew in. My suggestion had little effect on his considerations.
One has to assume that when an architect plans a public toilet the matter of privacy is taken into consideration. Unless a man is an exhibitionist, he probably does not want the general public to watch him take a piss, for example, so toilets are generally planned accordingly. But not always.
When I first arrived in Brunei, the university was still housed on the old campus, and the door to the men’s toilet near our department opened in such a way as to fully expose the “trough-style” urinal. The result was the public exposure of any person urinating any time the door was opened. This was clearly a planning flaw.
The electricity to the toilet had apparently been installed incorrectly, since there was never a functioning light in the toilet while I was there. In order to be able to see anything inside, the door had to be kept propped open. This meant that the men urinating in that toilet were always on display to anyone walking by.
The university now has a new campus, and the doors to the toilet open correctly, so I guess they hired a different architect.
Another Bruneian Architect
The South China Sea is beautiful, and the employees of the Bruneian government are fortunate in that there is a small hotel which is reserved for them right near the beach in the city of Kuala Belait. For a very modest sum, employees can reserve a room at this hotel. On one side of the hotel are beautiful palm trees, the sandy beach and the lovely sea. The view from the other side of the hotel is that of the city, which, incidentally, is not very picturesque.
All the rooms are on the side facing the city; on the beach side there is a corridor on each of the two floors. To enjoy the view of the sea, a client has to leave the room and stand on tiptoes to peer through tiny rectangular windows. Very romantic!
The Indian Salesman
While on vacation in Spain several years ago I saw a nose hair trimmer for the first time. As a man with quite luxuriant nose hair, I thought that this just might just be the greatest thing since sliced bread. The salesperson was a swarthy young Indian who noticed my interest in the device and praised its effectiveness.
After he had praised all of its qualities, he confessed that he used one himself. Then, in the ultimate sales pitch, he leaned towards me and asked, “Would you like to see how nice it keeps my nostrils?” As he spoke these words he tilted his head back, giving me a far better view of his inner nostrils than I would have ever wished for.
I did not buy the trimmer, and all these years later I have still not been able to erase the dark haunting memory of the inner workings of that man’s nostrils.
I don’t actually know Sarah Palin. And she might not have ever traveled abroad. But somehow I just can’t imagine a book about idiots that does not mention her.