Friday, November 28, 2008

Humor in the office break room

Full disclosure: these two humorous exchanges took place several years ago in the break room of the Department of Agricultural Engineering.

First, four women co-workers chatting over lunch stopped their girltalk when a Middle Eastern graduate student entered to heat up his lunch.

I joked, "Adil, you are brave to come into the kitchen with all girls in here."

Another co-worker: "He's hungry!"

Adil, known for both his sense humor and his limited English proficiency, came right back with, "A hungry man is a brave man."

Of great concern to these agricultural engineers was nonpoint source pollution, or contaminants contained in runoff. (Point source pollution refers more to a outlet pipe from a factory, for instance. A Pakistani engineer who specialized in runoff from dairy feed lots mentioned that his brother was a proctologist.

"You see, we both deal with waste disposal."

A graduate student [now himself a professor]: "Yeah, but he is more into point source."

Friday, November 14, 2008

Clase de espaƱol

From mid-September to mid-October, I studied Spanish with an eclectic mix of classmates and a super-energetic instructor, Antonio Caraballo, in a non-credit course offered by the cultural outreach program of Texas A&M University's business college.

It was great fun, and I'm looking forward to the follow-on course. Our instructor, a native of Puerto Rico, was the epitome of an engaged instructor. Dodging an oversize podium while running back and forth to the whiteboard, acknowledging comments or questions with, "How interesting," then turning each into a mini-lesson.

No question, it seemed, was off-limits. When we were learning pronouns and noun genders, one unabashed undergraduate asked, "Is there a way to say 'girly-man'?"

Without missing a beat, our maestro darted around the hulking podium, whiteboard marker at the ready, "Yes, it is 'el ella,' the he-she," in the same enthusiastic, yet rational, instructional style as when someone asked about the syntax of direct objects.

The nonhomogenous mix of classmates enhanced the entire experience: two Turks, one Indian MBA student, several American undergraduates, a former college athlete, several writers and editors.

Our final exam—this was, after all, a non-credit fun course—was ordering dinner in Spanish at a Mexican restaurant, Los Cazadores. It was fun, dinner was excellent, the company entertaining. Los Cazadores is now my favorite Mexican restaurant ever.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Idiomatic expressions and the Chinese engineer

I am the coordinator of a graduate engineering program. The majority of students are international students, all of whom speak have high English proficiency. Occasionally, though, the odd idiomatic phrase trips them up.

Part of my job is organizing each semester's seminar series, in which experts are brought in to talk about their research in a classroom setting. The last slide of most presentations is usually acknowledgment of the presenter's colleagues. The most recent presenter, an age 50+ New Yorker, titled his slide listing those names in a more casual than usual manner: "I get by with a little help from my friends."

A Chinese student, probably younger than age 30, asked me the meaning of that phrase. Simple enough, right?

So I started, "Remember the Beatles?" He looked puzzled, but nodded. He was probably thinking, "What the heck would the Beatles have to do with electromigration and integrated circuit design?" But he was a good sport.

"They sang a song called 'With a Little Help from my Friends." I sang some of the lyrics. (From the Sgt. Pepper Lonely Hearts Club Band album of 1967.)

Ooookay, but I still have not explained the concept.

"'To get by' means to just barely . . . just pass with the minimum requirements. " I said, digging myself into a deeper hole. "The phrase means his friends help him make his way through life. The speaker was making a casual reference in his ackowledgments.

Such a simple sentence, but it requires a knowledge of the tone of an entire era; perhaps the meaning cannot be conveyed across both two generations, a cultural barrier, and an ocean.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Bore: someone who deprives you of solitude without offering companionship

A bore is someone who deprives you of solitude without offering companionship. (Oscar Wilde)

Several years ago, I published an essay in the Houston Chronicle's Texas magazine, a vignette of my night in Langtry, Texas, on my cross-country bicycle trip. Several people wrote me as a result, and one, a Houston CPA, asked me to dinner when he visited my city on business.

We met for dinner—me coming directly from work, him from a client's office—we agreed upon an Asian restaurant near the university whose parking is all in a metered lot. I warned him to bring some change.

He arrived a little late, seemingly surprised and annoyed, he said "All I can find are metered spaces, and I don't have any change."

I offered him some quarters, saying "I thought I mentioned the metered spaces."

He said, "You probably did; I was not listening," and refused my offer. He also said he pretty much ignored the [detailed and accurate] directions I sent via e-mail.

He turned down my offer of change and instead left and let me sit in the restaurant alone for 20 minutes while he found an unmetered spot. I thought of leaving after 15 minutes, but instead tried to give him the benefit of the doubt.

So, both my e-mail and my friendly advice on the telephone call were both ignored, and he makes me wait alone in a restaurant for 20 minutes while he seeks out a free parking space?

And he "talks long." We did not exit the restaurant until 9:30 p.m., although we met right after work. Maybe he is lonely. Despite its long length, I felt the conversation never "took off," and certainly there was no chemistry. Then it turns out his big hobby is having his photo taken with celebrities. I thought this was a bit odd. He said he graduated to this as asking for autographs was too juvenile. Ahem!

Fast-forward to last week. He again announces, via e-mail, that he will be in town to audit the same clients, and invites me to dinner. And although I don't have many dates, yet another 2.5-hour dinner listening to this man is not in the cards.