Saturday, November 12, 2011

Challenge 11: Reverse

I have challenged my students to write a college application essay of at least 300 words every day for 30 days, working off a long list of essay topics. Below is one of my attempts. (Note from the future: Out of about 50 students, 22 actually completed it. I tried but gave up after 18 days.)

#142. Don’t write about reverse psychology. (U of Chicago)

This writing prompt makes me think of one of my all-time best friends, Colin -- a fellow ESL teacher in Japan, an alcoholic from Liverpool, a guy who could curse in a dozen languages. I only knew him for about a year, but I still count him as a true friend, someone I miss.

I remember a random Sunday morning. The two of us were wandering around Numazu, the city we had just moved to. We were both new to the job and had been paired up as roommates at the Ooka City Plaza by our employer, a large language school. We were going nowhere in particular, maybe just walking off hangovers, maybe just checking out the city, maybe just looking for something to eat. Everything that morning was funny. One of us would point at a tiny car driving by or a grandmother on a bicycle, and both of us would burst into laughter. At one point, Colin pointed at a vending machine full of tiny canned tea -- I wish I had a picture of it -- and we realized it was the funniest thing we had ever seen. How can a vending machine be funny? I don't know, I'm sure it can't, but we laughed. We stood there laughing for a good five minutes, doubled over in pain we were laughing so hard. I looked up and saw our Japanese manager driving by, giving us a strange look. We thought we'd be fired the next day. The thought of being fired made us laugh some more.

I have no idea where Colin is today. We lost track of each other when I still lived in Japan, and that was more than 10 years ago. He truly was an alcoholic, perhaps the one true alcoholic I've ever really known. We got paid at the beginning of each month, and he was broke within two weeks, having spent all of his money on beer and o-sake. I would lend him cash to get him through his two-week dry spells. Some mornings, I'd go to the bathroom and see four or five beer-bottle labels stuck to the wall above the bathtub -- Colin used to take long baths and drink the night away. The drinking didn't drive us apart; even the unreturned loans didn't. I was transferred to a school an hour away and we each found new drinking buddies.

Colin had a way with words. You could tell him a phrase in a foreign language -- like I did with Polish -- and he'd remember it. Forever. His brain soaked up words the way his liver soaked up alcohol. He'd try to pick up girls, usually unsuccessfully, in English, Polish, Japanese, but also French and Mandarin and Hindi. He'd also go on these ridiculous rants. "If the opposite of insane is sane, what is the opposite of invert? Vert? And what's the opposite of incognito?" he'd ask some unsuspecting soul. "If the opposite of undercook is overcook, what's the opposite of understand? Overstand? If it's misunderstand, is the opposite of undercook really misundercook?" And because he was good with words, he'd ask about a slew of negative words with no positives: disdain, disgruntled, dismayed, disrupt, as well as nonchalant, nondescript, and nonplussed. This kind of wordplay always cracked me up, but I could never keep up, could never think of an opposite that he hadn't already mentioned.

I played one of my all-time greatest pranks on Colin one night. We were out at an izakaya, a type of bar that serves big drinks and small plates of food. With us was a couple we had just met -- an American guy and Japanese girl. At one point, maybe because he was out of money, Colin left. The couple and I stayed for another round, then decided to go back to the Ooka City Plaza to hang out and listen to some music. When we walked into the apartment, Colin was lying passed out on the floor in front of his bedroom. It looked like he had sat down to untie his shoes and then just fallen over. I thought of a brilliant plan: I asked the girl to lie down next to Colin -- she did -- and I took took a picture with my Polaroid camera (you know, the kind that instantly develops a tiny, square photo). I taped the photo to Colin's door -- a photo of him "cuddled up" on the floor with some random girl. The next day, he almost had a heart attack. "I swear I remember the walk home, and I was alone," he said. "Well, I don't really remember walking up the stairs, but there's no way I met some girl between the entrance and our door." When I finally told him the truth, all he could do was shake his head and say, "Well done." We laughed about that photo for many weeks.

I have no idea where that photo is today. I think I kept it, but I don't know. The thought of it still makes me smile. The thought of my long-forgotten friend makes me smile, too. If I ever do run into Colin again, I'll finally have something to add to his string of ridiculous questions: "How can a person not write about reverse psychology?"

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