A Guide to Communicating Via Communication

Communications has to be one of the weirdest classes I’ve ever taken. I’m taking it now, and I took it once before in high school, and the more I think about it, the more I realize how much happy self-delusion one must possess to teach a communications course, or any course that proposes to teach us or tell us about something we’ve all been doing anyway all our lives and will continue to do regardless of whether or not we ever take or pass the class.

It’d be a bit like taking a class called “Eating.” Not everybody eats the same way—some people use chopsticks, some people forks and spoons, some people only use their right hand, some people eat parts of an animal or vegetable that other people throw away—and it could be interesting to learn about that, but at the end of the day, I’ve been eating my whole life and I’m not likely to change the way I shove my food into my mouth because I’m aware others do it differently. Or imagine taking a class on sleeping. Sure, not everybody sleeps the same; some people are insomniacs, some only need four hours a night, and some need nine. Some people have sleep apnea and have to sleep hooked up to a breathing machine. Some people snore. Some people can only sleep with socks on, and others can’t even have a blanket on their feet when they fall asleep. Some people tuck the end of the sheet under the mattress. Some people don’t ever make their beds. We all fall asleep and stay asleep differently, but knowing that you toss and turn unless you’ve got an east-facing window open 1-7/8” won’t stop me from being able to sleep pretty much anywhere, including on top of the washing machine and, on one memorable occasion, the seventh row back at somebody’s wedding.

Some would argue that communications courses teach people how to be better communicators, but I think there are other classes that do a better job of it. English, for example, would teach somebody how to write or say things in a way that expresses an idea clearly and (*coughCOUGHcoughcough*) concisely. Sociology or anthropology could teach a person about cultural customs, the differences between the sexes, and about people from various religious backgrounds. A decent psychology course would, at the very least, give somebody insight into how different opinions and perspectives are formed and shaped, and a basic philosophy course is an exercise in patience and understanding. It was for me, anyway. If half of communication is knowing what NOT to say, Philosophy 131 was a crash course in holding my tongue, as I spent most of the course wanting to roll my eyes until I broke them and tell my professor that I wasn’t drooling all over my notes because I was bored out of my skull and about to fall asleep, I was philosophizing. (Please note that I have taken at least one college course in all of the subjects mentioned above.)

Anyway, my point is that your basic communications course seems to be nothing more than a mash-up of several, better courses (except maybe philosophy), all of which do more than feed students easily digestible bites of pertinent information before moving on to something else. It’s like you could either take the above mentioned courses and gain a lot of real insight into human beings, culture, language, and perspective, or you could take a communications course and kid yourself into thinking you’ve learned anything at all.

If I’m being too hard on the subject you’ll have to forgive me. I’m twenty-seven years old, and college is an entirely different experience for me now than it was when I was nineteen. For one thing, I work to pay my bills now, not just to buy candy and magazines, and I work many hours every week. School has to be juggled with my day job, my commitments to family and friends, sleep, and my relationship with my boyfriend. I don’t like classes which I feel waste the precious and rare commodity that is my time. Unfortunately communications has become one of those classes everybody has to take, because somebody somewhere convinced everybody else that without communications under their belts, students would devolve to culturally insensitive expletive bombs during important occasions like job interviews and funerals.

So I have to take it, and, yeah, it’s an easy A, so I should just shut up about it already. But the more hoop-jumping assignments I do (“Tell me about a situation in which you had to use communication to make a point…” ASKFHO0IUREIOUASDASD1771FRUG?! Dude?! How is it possible to make a point without communication of some kind?! Is it considered communication if I set my textbook on fire in your front yard? I’m sure it’d make a fucking point.) and the more of the textbook I read (“Cross-cultural communication is important because you will occasionally have to deal with people who are different from you…” Well, in THAT case I’ll just move to Connecticut and communicate with the people who are different from me the way everyone else there does: by screaming at them in offensive pseudo-Spanish and threatening to have them deported when they forget to dust the baby.) the more I feel like somebody would really have to try to get something out of this class that they didn’t already know or couldn’t have figured out on their own.

The textbook and assignments stress the importance of communicating well to avoid misunderstandings or offense, but I don’t really buy that. Misunderstandings are unavoidable, and no amount of effective communication will prevent them. Here at work I’m the unofficial communicator for my department. When we need to train HR managers on processes or send emails or write up training modules and walk-throughs, I’m always the one assigned these tasks. Why? Because I’m good at conveying information clearly and foreseeing (and thereby eliminating) possible issues that could arise due to differences in software, for example. (We use Office 2003 in Admin, half of the company uses Office 2010, and at least one of our HR people uses Open Office, and we’re running XP while all our new employees get Windows 7, and some people use Vista, and still others are running Macs… It’s not even a nightmare. You get to wake up from nightmares.) My boss proofreads everything before I send it out, and I’ve gotten nothing but excellent reviews on training calls. And guess what? People still misunderstand my instructions, either because they don’t read them all, or because they don’t follow the steps I created, or because they’re just not very good at their job, or… There are a million other reasons. My point is that effective communication doesn’t stop some people from just being lazy idiots or stupid jerks. I could suck at what I do for a living and I’d have the same amount of people calling me and emailing me everyday asking questions like, “What do you mean in step four when you say Hit Enter?”

And when it comes to offense, my opinion (OF COURSE I have an opinion) is that people cause offense in two ways: accidentally and on purpose. If it’s accidental, it’s usually pretty obvious that there’s no malice behind it. A simple, “Oh, I’m so sorry!” usually clears things up. People who cause offense on purpose do it on purpose. When I act like an asshole, trust me, I know I’m acting like an asshole, and I’d venture to guess the same can be said of most people. The problem there has nothing to do with ineffective communication. Hell, if we hadn’t had to take a communications course in high school and college we might not have been able to cause offense so clearly and effectively, so maybe communication is the weapon. Way to shit the bed, communication. Why do you hate the world?

Anyway, the whole subject seems self-serving and pretty useless to me. And I’m starting to think I’d rather take a class on eating or sleeping. At least the practical assignments would be more fun.

I Watched Transformers 3, And All I Got Was This Sleep Apnea.

[I realize this review is about two months behind. I wrote it and forgot about it (just like the movie), but, hey, it’s still being posted before the DVD comes out and pisses you off.]

Before I begin, let me state for the record that I didn’t go into Transformers: Dark of the Moon planning to review it. That, to me, would be the same as a New York Times book reviewer critiquing a third grade book report: tedious, unfair, and wholly predictable. The Transformers films haven’t been good from the beginning, but I understand why they’re popular. Giant robots who can turn into cars fight each other while destroying American cityscapes and being intercut with footage of Shia LaBeouf trying too hard to take himself and his career seriously. What’s not to like, right?!

This latest installment of the Transformers franchise even has the advantage of being slightly controversial, since the previous pair of boobs with a name that everybody (read: guys) got attached to, Megan Fox, was ousted in favor of Rosie Britishname-Foreignass. As far as I can tell, the new girl was hired to shake her Victoria’s Secret junk on screen and try to get her lips to pout into the fourth dimension. She certainly wasn’t hired for her acting ability, because she and Shia LaBeouf have all the romantic chemistry of a hammerhead shark and a housecat.

And yet in spite of giant robots and a new Michael Bay-approved assemblage of lady parts to gawk at, Dark of the Moon manages to achieve something both unbelievable and unforgivable for a summer blockbuster: it is boring.

No, really. I actually nodded off no less than three times, and my brother nearly slipped into a coma. Keep in mind that this is a guy who measures most media on a sliding Star Wars scale in which all films simply need be better than Phantom Menace to rate as “pretty good.” So unless the soundtrack was broadcasting Enya music subliminally or the theater had a carbon monoxide leak, a film that hinges on huge robots and hot chicks put two grown-ass people to sleep.

I don’t ask that my giant robot blockbuster have a stellar plot, and I don’t even ask that they make sense. But goddamn you for taking something as pure and wonderful as big metal men with swords and turning it into something I’m still shotgunning caffeine to overcome, Michael Bay. You are a bad man. I’m beginning to suspect that Megan Fox was right about you.

Save your money. Get yourself some Transformers toys and a Victoria’s Secret catalog and make your own movie. Just…do what Michael Bay should have done and keep that shit to yourself.

Somebody’s Got a Case of the Go-Fuck-Yourselves!

Dear Coworker,

I am flattered to learn that you hold both me and my intelligence in such high esteem as to assume I am a walking Life for Dummies book, but do not ever make me have a conversation like this one again, or I will bludgeon you to unconsciousness with your own desk chair.

COWORKER: I need to get money out of my 401(k). I wonder what form I need to use?
ME: Oh, I have no idea. I’ve never borrowed against my 401(k).
COWORKER: Well this one says [blathers on endlessly]… Do you think that’s the one I need to use?
ME: I’m sorry. I don’t know. I’ve never borrowed against my 401(k).
COWORKER: Well, then this form says [tedious chatter ensues]… Do you think I should print this one?
ME: Once again, I have absolutely no knowledge of borrowing against one’s 401(k) having never attempted to do that exact thing you are both attempting to do and get my opinion on before in my whole entire life, which at this very moment in time feels like a möbius strip of apathy, so please stop asking me these questions.
COWORKER: Hrm… Maybe this form and this form will [OH MY GOD, THERE ARE SO MANY WORDS, YOU GUYS.] What do you think?
ME: I think I’m going to poison your coffee.
COWORKER: . . . Maybe if I attach a voided check to THIS form…

Most Sincerely,

(Not Exactly) Roughing It

I remember an episode of NPR’s The Diane Rehm Show that featured a man who was touting a life without smartphones. He and his wife and children had all gotten rid of theirs and replaced them with normal mobiles, and the man said that his life felt calmer and he felt like his time was used more wisely. I found myself agreeing with everything the guy was saying. I’m pretty sure I even tweeted about it from my BlackBerry.

Yes, even though I thought this man had a point, I was very much enthralled with my own smartphone. And yet at the same time I felt resentful of it. In addition to being alerted every time I got a call or a text, my BlackBerry let me know every time somebody emailed me at two addresses, left me a comment on Facebook, mentioned me on Twitter, or instant messaged me through AIM, Yahoo!, G-chat, MSN, Skype, and BlackBerry Messenger. If one of my friends sneezed while thinking about me, I’m pretty sure it triggered some sort of alert on my phone. Some of my friends even took it personally if I didn’t respond to their messages INSTANTLY because they knew my phone was telling me I was being summoned via a complicated series of lights and beeps and vibrations. And while I could have shut off any or all of these alerts, once they started, I couldn’t stop them. It made me too anxious to silence my Berry. I was worried I was missing out not just on something, but everything.

At the risk of sounding like I’m fishing for compliments, y’all, I’m just not that important. I’m a paper-pusher and freelance writer. Nobody is going to die if I can’t be reached via 75 different applications. Nothing is going to explode if I don’t have instant and constant access to the internet. I sit in front of a computer all day at work and check my email, bank account, and Facebook page regularly, and though I’m loath to be in front of the computer at home after spending eight or nine hours working at one during the day, I usually take a few minutes to check my Twitter feed as well as my email and Facebook again before I go to bed. I spend Saturday or Sunday mornings catching up with my favorite blogs and hunting down recipes, and any time I think of something I need to check, I can grab my netbook and head over to Google pretty much whenever I want.

My point is that even removing the BlackBerry from my life wouldn’t mean I was suddenly removed from the technology I rely on to keep me in touch with people. But the thought of being without it while I listened to and agreed with this guy preaching the gospel of simplifying his life by cutting his iPhone out of it made me want to break out in hives.

Then my beloved BlackBerry fell into a toilet. And before you ask, no, I wasn’t texting or talking in the bathroom. I’m a full-time student in addition to a full-time employee, and since I carry a bottomless school bag that swallows small, expensive gadgets instead of a purse most of the year, I’ve long since gotten into the habit of keeping my phone in my pocket. I bent over to tie my shoe or adjust my pants leg or something and the phone just slipped out and landed in the (mercifully clean) toilet with a horrible splash. It blinked pitifully at me for a few seconds while I resisted the urge to plunge my hand into the bowl to get it, and then the screen went permanently black.

Even with insurance I couldn’t afford to replace it, so I didn’t. The decision to cut my smartphone from my life was made for me by the mere fact that my finances wouldn’t allow it. I may have loved my BlackBerry, but not more than I love having a roof over my head, food in my fridge, and hot running water. My brother kindly loaned me his old Samsung Sway, which, while not pretty, works perfectly. I had to get used to texting on a T9 keyboard again, which has been a pretty hilarious adventure for me and my friends, but what surprised me most about unwillingly downgrading my phone technology was this: after the initial shock and disappointment wore off, I didn’t miss the BlackBerry. I don’t miss the BlackBerry. Everything that guy said was right. I have my free time back. I don’t obsessively check my phone for status updates and new tweets and messages and emails because I can’t.

I know I’m not the only one who’s gone through this. Many of my friends have become very dependent on their smartphones. And I’m not knocking them for it. I loved my BlackBerry because it was fun. It gave me lots of things to look at and play with when I was in a doctor’s office or airport. It allowed me to share weird or funny observations with the world every time and everywhere they occurred to me. If it hadn’t fallen into the toilet, I’d still have my smartphone, and I’d still love it.

But I’ve made the best of my loss and I’ve wound up feeling better without my Berry. I read more now. I enjoy my quiet time more. I still text a lot (and boy, have those old T9 skills gotten rusty), and I’m in no way trying to suggest that I’ve gone from being tethered to my Berry to living in a shack in the woods without running water. I enjoy technology very much (I’m even looking at getting a Nook), but the difference now is that I own my phone. My phone doesn’t own me.

Today I became eligible for an upgrade, and the decision to keep a basic phone or upgrade to a smartphone again was before me. My brother has offered me his Droid Incredible for free, so it was merely a question of whether or not I wanted to (or could) pay for necessary data plan. I could reasonably do this, but after I thought about it—and I mean really thought about it—I ordered a basic phone. I did upgrade slightly: the new phone has a slide-out QWERTY keyboard. T9 really is the pits. But it was free, I can most definitely afford the bill (it’s what I already pay), and it will serve my mobile phone needs fully and well. I’m not only satisfied, I’m happy.

I realize I’m in the minority for my age group here, but I’d still like to know: how do you guys feel about this? Do you think you’re (for lack of a better word, though I hate to overuse this one) addicted to your smartphones? Have you avoided getting a smartphone on purpose? Have you had one and gone back to a basic phone, like I did? Or would you rather eat glass than get rid of your smartphone? I’d like to read your thoughts on this.

American Suicide Pact Counsel… of America

So I’ve spent my morning cleaning the bathroom and kitchen floors, doing dishes and laundry, unpacking a bit, baking homemade bread, helping old women across the street, and being a generally good and productive person. I decide to take a few minutes–just a few minutes–to watch something on TV. I’m laughing along to some comedian and thinking life is pretty damn good when the shrill violins of horror movie doom start to screech in the background. But do I hear them? Oh no. I’m too busy being oblivious to my terrible fate like every other douchebag who ever scampered scantily-clad toward their own destruction. And before I know it, tragedy strikes. I hear the first piano chords, and before I can register what horror is about to ensue and reach for the remote to change the channel, Sarah McLachlan starts wailing “Angel” at me over footage of every horrible thing humanity has ever done to a dog or cat.

SARAH McLACHLAN: “Hi, I’m Sarah McLachlan, and I enjoy destroying your hope for the future and making you cry…”

It’s too late. The dog with third-degree burns on its side reduces me to a quivering, pathetic mass on the floor. The kitty getting heartworm medication brings on the snot and tears. The one-eyed puppy makes my brain explode.


If you need me, I’ll be drinking alone and crying in my closet.

All Quiet on the Eastern Front

I realize this blog has been uncharacteristically quiet (even for me) since my last, rather depressing post. I’ve been suffering from a bit of writer’s block since Maria’s death, and though I’m trying to exercise the patience that’s gotten me through past cases, I admit I’ve experienced my share of frustration over it every time I come to this blog and see the impromptu eulogy I wrote for my friend over two months ago. So I’m not promising this is going to be a great post or anything, I just wanted to do something to get that last post moving on down the page.

Part of the reason I suspect I’ve been feeling unmotivated, creatively speaking, is that I’ve been too busy to take in the usual things that inspire me, like bad movies and television. My free time is so scarce these days that when I do sit down to watch or read something, I have to make sure it’s something I like. Yeah, believe it or not, I actually like things! I know that’s hard to believe given the stuff I usually post here, but I’ve spent my free moments lately watching old episodes of 30 Rock, Scrubs, Arrested Development, and Mystery Science Theater 3000. I’m also steadily working my way through the Southern Vampire Mysteries (also known as the Sookie Stackhouse books), as well as a slew of Terry Pratchett books (My library just got I Shall Wear Midnight when it came out in paperback!!!!125!) and my old friends, the Harry Potter books.

Otherwise I’m working, both for money and for fun, the former at my full-time job and the latter with a community theater, preparing for a couple of upcoming mini-vacations to Connecticut and the Outer Banks, and basking in the glow of having finished my last semester of school with a 4.0 GPA. (New semester starts on August 22nd, and I’m taking, among other things, Chemistry. MEEP.)

My birthday is in two days (June 21st), and that’s also pretty exciting. I’m not a superstitious person, but because my birthday falls almost exactly halfway through the year, I tend to think of it as a time to address what’s gone wrong since New Year’s (the only other day in the year I treat with a reverence that belies my non-superstitious nature) and try to start over again… again. Not that things have been terrible this year. Considering all the upheaval of past years, the first six months of 2011 have been a mixture of awful and wonderful that sort of even each other out. But I won’t elaborate, since I’m trying not to rehash the contents of the last post.

I hope this finds the few readers I have well. And at the very least, the first half of the last Twilight movie comes out this fall, so you can be pretty sure I’ll have something snarky to say about that.

Later, gators.

The Penguin Spoke a Haiku

I want you all to know about somebody named Maria [Last name redacted per family’s request].

I first crossed paths with Maria in late 2005. She was a writer like me, though more so. She was funny like me, though more so. She was a prankster, a reader, and a bad film buff like me, though more so. She was dark like me, though more so. Infinitely more so.

Maria went back to college full-time while working a full-time job and got her degree. This is what I’m currently doing, and if I told you the fact that Maria did it has nothing to do with my resolve to do it too, I’d be lying. Though her degree isn’t the same as the one I’m pursuing, I looked up to her. I admired her. I believed that hers was an example worth following.

Maria has influenced everything from my vocabulary (I cannot say, “Huzzah!,” “Harumph!,” or several other antiquated—and hilarious—words without thinking of her) to my own writing, both fiction and non-fiction. Maria was a brilliant writer who penned short stories I had the honor of proofreading for her.

Maria is dead. She killed herself. She was found yesterday.

The rest of the details I have are few and not mine to share. I’m still very numb and feel a little lost, but I can say this:

Maria was lots of things to lots of people, but she always made an impression whether she believed it or not, and she was missed by many before she ever took her own life. We reached out to her, but she didn’t want to be reached. She didn’t want to be missed. She just wanted to die.

She leaves behind many people who love her and who will miss her, not the least of which are her own family members. Her many friends and acquaintances are drifting between devastated sadness and furious anger over what she’s done. Personally, I’m somewhere in the middle and keep veering between the two extremes in a way that threatens to give me motion sickness, but putting my own feelings aside, I just wanted you to know who she was. She was important. She was loved. She was appreciated. She was my friend. Despite everything she believed to be true about herself and the world, Maria was not insignificant, and she will not be forgotten.

I miss you, Penguins.