Sunday, November 8, 2015

Not Zen 177: Name-Calling

Their guest, Matais, left a stack of his underwear, combs, and a toothbrush on top of his sandals in the common room. Their youngest housemate, Leslie, stood over the pile and pointed down.

"This is disgusting," she said. "Not even sandals are to be left here."

"My apologies," said professor Aiken. He'd invited the visitor. "Apparently our friend doesn't understand the rules. I thought I'd explained."

"Well, I've started reading them," Matais said, "but there's a list. Anyway, I didn't know anyone would be so uptight."

He'd overheard the complaint from the kitchen. The thin, wild-haired fellow strode into the common room and picked up his belongings under one arm. Instead of taking them to his guest quarters in the basement, he set them on a kitchen chair. From another chair nearby, he picked up a psychology journal and returned to his reading as if he'd forgotten the interruption.

The professor approved of Matais's dedication to scholarship. He'd seen others like him, dressed haphazardly, as Matais was in a stained t-shirt and unwashed shorts. The fellow had arrived from a foreign university, where apparently they didn't require social sensibilities. Or teach them. But the professor had seen many men and a few woman pick up such skills late in life. He had hopes that Matais would acquire some during his visit.

The fellow had written a paper on the development of the human mind. Although he'd done it from the perspective of psychology, not neurobiology, Matais's views on the history of cognitive science had piqued the curiosities of many scientists. He'd received invitations to give lectures, first in his own country, then internationally. At one of the lectures, associate professor Daniel Aiken had met Matais and invited him to speak to the local college labs and also a private lab.

As was his custom, the professor offered a free room to his guest.

Unfortunately, on his first day Matias not only left out his clothes but a stack of wet towels on the hallway floor. The next lunchtime, he helped himself to the newly-bought food that belonged to another roommate, Samuel. The professor's wife, Hannah, caught him in the act.

"I'm sorry," he said. His cheeks flushed dark. "I didn't think."

"Have you never lived with roommates before?" she asked. When he began to tremble, she bit back her harsher words. She folded her arms.

"I lived with my mother in undergraduate school," Matais offered.

"Then no." She could almost see him rationalizing his limited experience. His gaze narrowed.

"That counts. Doesn't that count?"

"Our home has four bedrooms, five housemates, and a guest, you." She counted on her hands, pointed at him, and brushed away all of it with a gesture. "None of us are your mother. None. Our food is not yours."

"It looked like leftovers." He hunched his shoulders.

"No matter what it looks like, it's not yours." She watched him go from being contrite to thinking hard and trying to make an excuse.

"Most people aren't anal retentive about food remains." He pointed to himself. "And I'm used to eating them."

She sighed and shook her head. He marched out of the kitchen.

"Something about his language bothers me," she told her husband that night.

Daniel folded his arms. He knew that Hannah was quicker than he was to see the bad in people. That was a useful thing. When someone was lying, she spotted it. When a friend was victimized by theft, she deduced the probable culprit and, just as useful to friendships, deduced who could not have done it.

As for Dan's abilities, well, he'd grown up as a youngest child. He'd never needed to be mindful of cheats. Hannah had been the oldest of four siblings. Since she'd grown into a sort of caretaker role, she'd learned to ferret out the truth from her younger brothers, sisters, and cousins. Daniel was a decade older than Hannah. Nevertheless, he found himself learning a lot about people from her. He knew that she struggled to articulate her observations. That was a trait both of them found frustrating. If she couldn't describe her problem with their guest, it would be up to him.

"Matais seems to speak well enough," the professor ventured.

"That's not what I mean." She walked around the bed, hands on her hips. "There's something in his culture or his expectations that's putting our housemates on edge. He feels superior and inferior to them at the same time. He gets defensive in conversations. Then he can't listen to what we're saying."

"Defensive. Not listening." Those sounded right. Maybe Hannah would be the one to explain it to the young fellow after all. But Matais, as she pointed out, wasn't paying attention to her words as a voice of authority.

The next morning, Daniel rose early to make breakfast. In the kitchen, he found Matais awake. The young man had slicked back his hair with some kind of gel and he'd chosen one of the professor's neuroscience journals to read. He'd dressed himself in clothes from a local thrift shop, blue jeans and a faded, yellow shirt. They didn't look worse than what any other student on campus wore. Unfortunately, Matias reeked of sweat. He hadn't gotten into the habit of morning showers, it seemed. He'd simply masked his odor with cologne.

The professor took note of a few changes in Matais's habits. They didn't leap to mind because they were things the young man hadn't done. He hadn't left a pile of his clothes in a hall. He hadn't failed to brush his teeth. He hadn't raided the pantry for someone else's leftovers. He was making progress.

Another graduate student housemate, Samuel, joined them. He was a quiet, bearded young man. Samuel ate simply. He fixed plain toast. As he did, Matais finished his sandwich. He set down his plate in the sink. The professor noticed that Matais was adding to a stack. He must have left a couple of plates in the sink last night, too.

Samuel spoke up faster than the professor. Politely, he pointed out the problem.

"You don't have to be obsessive-compulsive about it," Matais complained.

"Other people need to clean their dishes in this sink," Samuel said. "Other people need to use them later. Yours are in the way. That's how the house works. I know you've had the rules explained."

"I can help you clean, Matais," the professor offered.

"Professor Aiken!" His guest rose from the chair. "There is no need. I will do it."

While Samuel quietly ate his toast, Matais cleaned his dishes, including the ones he'd left from the night before, and set them on the drying rack.

The professor thought about his wife's observation. Now he saw the pattern in the young fellow's words. The worst ones came from the field of psychology. Matais didn't use them in a medical way. That was the key. As Daniel considered how to broach the subject gently, Matais finished his last dish, set it in the drying rack, and left. Next, Samuel rinsed his plate in turn and said goodbye to the professor. Daniel finished cooking a second omelette, one for Hannah, in silence. He felt that he'd missed his chance.

A moment later, his guest returned. Matais clutched a note in his hand.

"This was on my door," he said. He offered the paper to his host. "Who is Elton?"

"Oh." The professor grimaced. He accepted the note but he let it fall to his side for a moment, unread. After a sigh, he lifted it up and scanned the careful handwriting. "'Matais,'" he read, "'if it was you who chipped the Asthma Cigarettes ashtray, please know that you should not use it. I have glued the chip back on but it is not meant to be used. It is very old. Elton.'"

"Is this the small, square tray by the window?" Matais asked.

"Yes. Did you chip it?"

"I maybe have." He folded his arms over his chest. "But who is Elton?"

"He's the housemate you haven't met. He works at night."

"Professor, it is a very passive-aggressive thing, this leaving of notes."

"Should Elton have woken you at four in the morning when he came home?" He knew it must have been tempting. The young computer scientist loved his old, thrift store knick-knacks. Elton treasured the humor of Asthma Cigarettes in particular. "You are calling him names but he was trying to be considerate."

"I do not call names, professor."

"If I'm remembering them all correctly, you've said that our housemates are uptight, anal-retentive, then obsessive-compulsive, and now passive-aggressive." Daniel counted them out on his hands.

"How is that calling names?"

"Once, people hid their insults behind references to religion." He paused to turn off the stove. "Later, upper classes slipped them into references to bad breeding or to natural selection. Now you hide them behind your popular psychology."

"They are real terms."

"You use them as insults." Daniel grew calmer as he grew more sure of his central observation. His young guest wasn't alone in using language this way. He'd probably had examples of such misuse from his professors in undergraduate school. "Now that I think about it, I suppose that's all they ever were. The terms never really had explanatory power. They were mean spirited right from the start. Even when a term had some use, like how 'passive aggressive' could describe a slave rebelling by doing the job poorly, some people quickly turned it into a crude way to deflect criticism."

"I do not think of it this way."

"You know what? Until now, neither did I." Daniel shook his head at his own acceptance of the insults. "I've said similar things. I was fooled by the references to science. But it's important to see things as they are. The terms are used to denigrate people. They've become the terminology of bullies."

"I'm sorry that you feel this way."

"Don't say it's belief-bias effect." He raised a hand to stop his guest, who seemed to be taking a breath in order to ward off such criticisms of psychology. "Don't say it's transference or it's projection. Don't talk about our defense mechanisms."

That got a smile from Matais. Maybe he'd been about to refer to one of those terms.

"For once, don't defend yourself." Daniel picked up the wooden spatula and the frying pan. With the spatula, he slipped the omelette from the frying pan onto a plate. "You don't need to, with me. I know you're a fine man. But just think. You don't have to use your intellectual strength to to insult anyone. You'll be better off without doing that."

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