December 11, 2018

cover your cough

I’m in the clinic, the one I always visit when I need something medical done.  Exactly one week ago I was in this same waiting room, awaiting the commencement of a physical exam.  I was hungry that day because they’d asked me to fast.

Last time I was here my name was eventually called.  I stood up, walked toward a nurse who asked me for some urine which would have been a strange request to make in any other context. (I remember how warm the plastic container felt as I peed into it.)  And then she drew some blood.  She made me walk down a hallway, opened a door at the end of it, showed me a large machine that could peer through my skin and look deep into my body.  She directed me to remove my shirt, stand just so with my arms raised above my head.  She then let the contraption shine its magical light on me so that an image of my inner workings could be captured and studied.  Finally, she attached some electrodes to my body to learn more about my ticker.

Today, I am back to get the results of all those tests.  I am sitting in the waiting room now.  There are others here.  Some are coughing and some, although certainly not all, are covering their mouths with handkerchiefs.  One man has an odd coloration and makes me think he might be a touch jaundiced.  Two young women have comically large bellies on their otherwise insubstantial bodies.  (The way they keep smiling and whispering together makes me they think they feel a special bond and are cherishing the fact that they’re carrying life within their protuberant abdomen.)

I felt persuaded, after no more than five minutes of listening to those folks coughing up their lungs, to move to a more distant part of the waiting room.  Who needs to be near those airborne germs?  If I have anything to say about it, I won’t allow that sort of sickness to get inside my body and fiddle around.  Sitting any closer than I currently am—now that I’ve put distance between me and them—is really asking for trouble.

I have a book with me, so I take it out and start reading.  Its title is The Awakening of Intelligence and it’s written by Krishnamurti, an Indian philosopher and all-around swell guy.  I’m drawn to the words of wise people, mostly because I’m so lacking in the wisdom department myself.  A dumb guy can never go wrong spending a few moments reading what a smart guy has to say.

I tried to concentrate on the book but there was too much coughing and talking and such.  This caused me to put Krishnamurti down and look across the room.  Being around sick people usually makes me think that I’m about to die myself.  This happens because the ill remind me of my own vulnerability.  Actually, we’re all just flesh and blood and gelatinous, pulsating organs inside a wrapping of flesh.  There’s not much more to us than that.  It’s amazing any of us make it any time at all.

I’m reminded of a video that they showed us back when I was in middle school.  It was a videotape of a surgery.  (I still find it shocking that she showed such gruesome footage to a bunch of fifth graders.)  So they showed the patient being cut open and what his guts looked like. To this day, I remember being shocked at what the insides of a human being look like.  I was not impressed and almost immediately became a hypochondriac.

&&&

So I’ve just been called into the clinic’s inner sanctum to meet with my doctor and get what I hope to be good news—that I don’t have cancer or the palsy or the bubonic plague.  I don’t have to wait long.  He comes in and I stand and shake his hand.  (He’ll certainly hose himself down with disinfectant as soon as I take my leave of him and this room.)  He gets right to it and tells me that all my tests look good.  They haven’t found a single thing to worry about.  And then he informs me I’m free to go.

I step out into the waiting room and the coughing people are now gone—perhaps dead?  Despite their absence, I hold my breath as I head to the door.  I get to it, push it open, and step out into fresh, germ-free air.

 

 

December 6, 2018

lost cat

Earlier today I was doing something that is pretty unusual for me.  I was walking on the far western side of campus, in an area I’m not all that familiar with.  That’s because my office, the writing center I manage, and those places I most often frequent are located on the east side.

Suddenly, in these strange surroundings, I found myself face to face with a student.  He was a tall boy who had to look down on me.  His mouth opened and out came a question:  “Can you tell me where Brazos Hall is?”

When students ask me things—and they often do in my line of work—I almost always have a satisfactory answer for them.  In this case, though, I was dumbfounded.  I sort of cast a frantic look about and said, “I’m sorry but I don’t really know.”

At that precise instant, a coed who’d overheard our exchange stepped up to us and said, “It’s over there.”  Then she pointed in a northerly direction.

The young man smiled, thanked us both, and took off toward his desired destination.

On my way back to my office I started thinking about this encounter.  The more I thought about it, the more upset I became.  Why hadn’t I known where Brazos Hall is?  After all, this is the place I work!  It’s like the world I inhabit five days a week!

I like to think that I’m a kind of explorer, but in this particular instance, I seemed not to know much about this campus.  And this made me feel really disappointed with myself.

The key phrase in the previous paragraph was “I like to think.”  I like to think that I am curious and explore a lot, but this most recent experience, where I didn’t know something that I clearly should have, raises doubts about the veracity of the way I talk about myself when others ask me what sort of person I am.  Does this mean I’m not the person I claim to be or think myself to be?  Do I need to reassess what I think I know about the sort of person I am?  Have I gotten lazier?  More accepting of the idea that I know so little?

There is certainly some evidence to suggest that I get around and have discovered a lot about the world and my surroundings by exploring.  For example, I have lived in five countries—often under very difficult circumstances—and that takes guts.  Cowards don’t move off to live in countries like Poland, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, and Egypt, and they don’t travel, as a tourist, to as many off-the-beaten-path places as I have without having at least a bit of moxie.  But that period is now in my past.  I returned to America about three and a half years ago and haven’t left since.  I’m starting to think I’m beginning to look like the kind of person we think of as “rooted.”

I’ve had this job for nearly a year and a half and I still don’t know where Brazos Hall is!  Clearly, when it comes to this college, I’m rooted in my little part of campus.

While writing all this I’ve made a vow—to get out more.  To go to places that are off my beaten path.  To find Brazos Hall all by myself and to go inside the building and look at it closely, to know its every nook and cranny.  I want to know how many floors it has, what color its walls are painted, how it’s laid out.

If I don’t do this with Brazos Hall and with all the other places I haven’t yet seen—despite having been here long enough to know the place backwards, forwards, and sideways—then I’m going to feel like a failure.  I’m going to feel like I’m no longer the Troy I once was.  And I’m going to wonder where he’s gone.  (Is he dead?)  And, if he is, might he somehow be resurrected?

 

 

December 4, 2018

fear

For many years I suffered from “white coat hypertension,” meaning that my blood pressure would spike when I went to see a doctor—any doctor—for any sort of reason.  This happened, of course, because I found going to such places–where the smells of illness and disinfectant hang heavily in the air–to be very frightening.

You might think this sounds like a pretty weird phobia to have.  On the other hand, a little cursory reading on the internet shows it to be a fairly common one.  I suppose that makes a whole lot of us pretty weird.

Fear of doctors and going to see them is rooted in the fact that we mostly only go to talk with such people when there’s something amiss in our bodies.  Thus, the physician’s office is a place where one goes in mostly expecting bad news and is usually not disappointed in this respect.  Plus, one does things in clinics and hospitals that one almost never does in any other context.  For example, how often is a person asked to pee into a tiny plastic cup or is approached by an individual with a syringe who then proceeds to inserted said sharp object into one’s vein to suck blood—a vital fluid—out of one’s body.  Or how frequently is an individual required to stand partially or completely naked in front a complete stranger to be squeezed, poked, and prodded by fingers and a variety of cold, metal instruments?  To top it all off, nurses and doctors have a long history of asking really embarrassing questions.  As a matter of fact, I recall going to a clinic a few years back for a bit of a stomach problem and having a lovely woman with a stethoscope hanging around her neck ask me, with a perfectly straight face, “Are you very often flatulent?”

As far as I can recall, she was the first and only person to ever ask me, pointblank, about farting.

I am thinking about doctors and my fear of them because I had the first part of a physical examination about one week.  As is normally the case, it was a pretty unsettling experience.

Of course, a variety of exams were given, including an EKG.  Before the test took place, I was asked to remove my shirt and undershirt.  While doing so, I became painfully aware of how hairy my torso was.  In addition, I looked down, once I was half naked, and took note of the flabbiness of my midsection.  I considered, for a split section, sucking my gut in but wondered how long I’d be able to hold it like that before my face turned blue, raising additional medical suspicions.  I had been left all alone in the examination room to ponder my physical imperfections.  After five minutes or so, a nurse wheeled in the EKG machine, asked me to lie, face up, on a terribly cold and elevated examination table.  She started sticking what felt to be suction cups to my hairiness.  To pretend that none of this was happening, I stared up at the ceiling and began to fixate my gaze upon the light fixture. The machine was turned on and something started happening, although that something made no sound or gave any other signs that it was operating.  Luckily, after a very short time, the exam was completed, and she told me I could cover my embarrassingly white flesh as she wheeled the contraption out of the room.

After a few minutes the doctor came in with my file in hand.  He began to thumb through pages of information about me.  I was acutely aware that he likely knew more about me than I know about myself.  I’m pretty sure my white coat hypertension came back at that moment, but not being hooked up to a sphygmomanometer, it was nigh impossible for me to know for sure.  I could feel my face flushing, though, which was a pretty clear sign.

 

November 30, 2018

cars and buses

During the entire time I lived abroad—nearly two decades—I never once had to own a car.  Today, in San Antonio, my wife and have two.  It’s not that we want to live this way; it’s that we have no other choice.  There is certainly a bus system in San Antonio, and I have done research about how I might use it to get to work, but it’s not practically possible given where the stops are located, the number of bus changes I’d have to make, and the infrequency of these multi-passenger vehicles.  When I lived in Poland, in the city of Tarnow, a place with a tiny fraction of the population of the Alamo City, there was a more sophisticated public transportation system than what I find in this monstrously large metropolitan area.

So Europe kicks America’s butt when it comes to having figured out transportation.  I have lived on the continent and been a tourist in just about every European country and can provide firsthand experience to bolster such a claim.  Americans like to think that they live in the freest country in the world, but how much freedom do they actually have when it comes to daily travel?  Freedom is about having choices, and the average American has almost none when it comes to how he or she gets to and from work and such.  We have the automobile and that’s it.  The car industry, along with its buddy Big Oil and Gas, seem to own the country and have disproportionate power in determining how we live our lives.  We all know these powerhouses have played a pivotal historical role in having prevented America from developing a European-style public transportation system.

So my wife and I own two cars.  Of course, we have to insure these vehicles and register them and pay yearly inspection fees.  We have to fill their bellies with gasoline.  This means we literally spend hundreds of dollars, if not more, on a yearly basis to keep these two machines legal and in working order because we have no other choice.  This is money we could save or spend in much more meaningful ways on our home or on travel or what have you.  Of course, every American is in the same boat.  That’s one of the reasons the middle-class is being squeezed to death.  How much richer would Americans and America be if we could invest in affordable public transportation and ween the nation off the automobile?

Because of everything I’ve said in the previous paragraphs, I don’t think it would be strange for me to conclude that we don’t actually own these cars.  Instead, they own us.

I don’t especially like being owned by two high-maintenance mechanical divas.  Their moodiness drives me bonkers.  Not long ago, for example, I went to our garage and tried to start our Nissan.  I inserted the key into the ignition and turned it.  Nothing.  I tried again and again but the thing wouldn’t fire up.  I eventually ended up having to have my wife take me work.  As it turns out, there was something very minor having to do with the battery.  The mechanic looked at it for a few seconds, made the tiniest of adjustments, and the thing started up and purred like a contented kitten.

Because I am an American, I have had to learn a lot about how to find a good auto mechanic.  I have also learned that they speak their own indecipherable language, have their collection of secret code words.  They are the mystics we mere mortals turn to when our garage beasts get sick or simply want to make our lives a bit more complicated than they already are.

 

 

November 27, 2018

jacky and johnnie

This past Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, my wife and I drove—south to north—up Interstate 35.  We started in San Antonio and ended up in the beautiful village of Georgetown, Texas, my hometown and the place my father and stepmother live their idyllic lives as retirees.

Of course, there was food—they don’t refer to Thanksgiving as “turkey day” for nothing—so we ate it.  And we drank.  And we sat around long after the vittles had been consumed and were snaking through our digestive systems.  And while we sat and let the nutrients do what nutrients do, we talked and laughed and reminisced and smiled at one another across the dining room table.

Off and on, between gorging ourselves in ways that distended our already distended bellies, we watched football and took discreet naps while sitting heavily on a couple of large L-shaped sofas.

We woke up Saturday morning and Janie, my stepmother, suggested that we drive up to Burnet, a town located in what Texans call “the Hill Country,” to visit Jacky, my dad’s youngest brother, and Johnnie, his wife and survivor of cancer, a disease that had caused her to lose her hair but none of her spunk.  Everyone thought it was a great idea.

Everyone in the family knows and openly talks about how Jacky has become something of an eccentric.  He doesn’t like to leave his house very often except to hunt and fish.  He gets up at 4 a.m. every morning and is obsessively clean to the nth degree and beyond.  In fact, he has a large workshop behind his house and those who’ve seen it jokingly say that a person could eat a meal off its concrete floor.

The result of all this was that I expected our visit to be somewhat awkward.  This expectation was exacerbated by the fact that this would only be the second time I’d seen my aunt and uncle in the last twenty years.  So I sort of knew what to expect but sort of didn’t too.

After an hour of driving, we found ourselves in a wooded area not far from Lake Buchanan.  We parked in the driveway, were met by Jacky and Johnnie in the front yard, and then were escorted through the house and out the back door where we all took seats on a lovely screened back porch.  I spotted a rustic rocking chair and made a beeline toward it.  We all took our seats and then began to ooh and ah about our surroundings.

The backyard was huge with several large cottonwoods and oaks, all of them shedding leaves in the autumnal breeze.  Johnnie said something about how this was their favorite place to sit and be still and quiet.  She also mentioned how this was medicine for her psyche.  She said they ate out here and even slept out here when the conditions were right.  I understood how all this could be true as I felt myself decompressing and unwinding.

There was a large and melodious wind chime hanging next to me and I mentioned how pretty it sounded.  Johnnie then told the story of how they’d come to own it.  According to her, on the day they were coming home from her mother’s funeral, Jackie, knowing that his wife was feeling profoundly sad, stopped at a roadside market and bought it while she sat in the car.  Upon returning to the vehicle, he handed it to his wife and said, “This is a little something from me.  I hope you’ll think of your mother when you hear it.”

So, on the afternoon of our visit, we sat and listened to the chime while Johnnie told this story.  One or two times, during her telling, she paused and wiped, using the back of her hand, a tear a two that had rolled down her cheeks.

It was a sad story but a beautiful day, made even more so by wonderful fellowship among kin and kindred spirits.

 

 

 

 

 

November 21, 2018

buddha

We have this guy named Albert who cleans our writing center late every afternoon.  Not long after he started coming around with his brooms and things, I found out, sort of through the grapevine, that his janitorial colleagues call him “Blanco” because that’s Spanish for “white.”  As it turns out, because of his age, Albert has a full head of silver locks which he loads up with something sort of oily and then combs back away from his face.

By the way, I’ve mentioned this before, but it never hurts to remind people that I live in San Antonio, Texas, a place some sometimes call “The Alamo City.”  In this part of Texas, Spanish (or Spanglish) is the language of choice.  So it probably won’t surprise you to hear that Español permeates every aspect of life here, including the way people conceive of things, such as the color of Albert’s hair.

I like Albert a lot.  We always sing the Working Man’s Blues when he comes around.  Obviously, he’s slightly lower than I am on the hierarchy totem pole, so his blues are especially heartfelt.  And I always lend a very caring ear.  I try to put myself in his place, but it’s hard to imagine what it must be like to try to live on what they pay him.  I sort of get it because I once worked many menial jobs, but that was way back when I was a hungry student.  Today, by Albert’s standards, I’m what you might call a Fat Cat.

It’s hard to think of myself as a Fat Cat when I have such shallow pockets.  But I guess I sort of am one when I compare myself to some of those around me.  In the overall scheme of things, though, I’m about the skinniest feline you can imagine.  As a matter of fact, without even sucking my stomach in, I’m able to slip throw the narrowest of crevasses.

Often, when Albert’s around and we’re not talking the way two working men talk, I like to just sit and sort of allow myself to Zen out.  By that I mean I like to watch him, out of the corner of my eye, move around the center.  I know this might sound weird, but ever since I was a child, I’ve had this odd ability.  If I watch someone—it doesn’t have to be directly watching but sort of obliquely watching—moving about or engaging in some kind of repetitive action, it sort of calms me down and I become nearly Buddha-like.  I am able to slow my heart, silence the chatter of my mind, end the death of my cells, and fall down into a deep hole of profound self-awareness that I find to be blissful.

So I sometimes find myself able to achieve this odd tranquility when Albert is around.  I wouldn’t even try to explain this phenomenon to him for fear that he’d report me to whomever he’d need to report me to so that the men in white coats would show up, straitjacket in hand.

 

 

 

November 20, 2018

middle east

We have this new guy teaching part-time at Palo Alto College.  Mohamed Qashou, my Palestinian-American buddy and a guy who teaches math and engineering courses, introduced him to me one morning several weeks ago.  To respect his privacy, I’ll simply refer to him as “Jay.”  Jay of the beard, mild manners, and soft voice.  Jay of the quiet and introspective personality.

Like me, Jay has more advanced degrees than he knows what to do with and spent a lot of years teaching a variety of writing and similar classes in places like Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Egypt.  The first time we spoke together, we discovered that it is highly likely we were both teaching in Turkey and Egypt, in the same universities and at about the same times, though we didn’t know each other while we were living in those places.  Our conversation seemed to prove, as is sometimes said, that the world is an exceedingly small place.

Jay likes to wear Nehru jackets with short sleeves to work.  I am not surprised by this since he is married to a Pakistani woman and spent quite a lot of time in that part of Southeast Asia.  Like me, he lived for a great many years in what is called “the Islamic World,” as if a place could be defined solely by the religion practiced there.  He became a Muslim, but I’m not for sure how long ago that happened.  According to Mohamed, upon his conversion, Jay took Abdullah as the name he uses when he is with other practitioners of the faith.  When we talk, though, I always refer to him as Jay.

Jay dropped by my office early this morning because he was bothered.  Over the weekend, there had been a major conference on the topic of the MENA region in San Antonio.  Why, he wondered, hadn’t the gathering been better advertised?  He just heard about it by happenstance after it had already finished up.  He would have certainly attended, he said with a frustrated look on his face.  I voiced similar thoughts after he’d spoken.

We started talking about things we frequently see on TV, like how these so-called Middle East experts go on CNN, MSNBC, ABC, and CBS, and spout all manner of expert opinions based on what?  Some of them have never lived in that part of the world.  They’ve studied the region and its people in the cool way an entomologist dissects butterflies.  They even occasionally jet overseas, to a place like Istanbul or Cairo, for a few days.  While on such a trip, they hole up in some expensive hotel room, have a handful of conversations with local academics and politicians and the like, and then return to the United States to lecture the whole of America on Muslims, Islam, Arabs, North Africans, the Gulf Region, religion, culture, and fanaticism, among many other subjects.  We both found this both preposterous and aggravating.

I can’t speak with any sort of precision about Jay’s actual experience overseas, but I lived for four years in Abu Dhabi, capital of the UAE.  While there, I worked for that country’s military on one of their bases.  I taught their male citizens.  I lived amongst the many immigrants who call Abu Dhabi home.  I had a barber from India, a best friend from Sri Lanka, and regularly bought bread from Afghan bakers who prepared that food staple in a traditional tandoor.  I would chat with them while they baked.  Once my order was done, they’d wrap the hot naan e Afghani in regular newspaper and I’d carry it home.  I was in that country during September the 11th and watched the place as it prepared for the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq.  I distinctly recall there was a nervousness throughout the region at that time as the giant American military machine began to awaken and move about like a colossus.

After that, I moved to Ankara, Turkey, and taught writing, research methods, critical thinking, and philosophy at Bilkent University, a great place of learning, for nearly half a decade.  While there, I had several Turkish girlfriends and traveled into every nook and cranny of that vast and beautiful country.  I went south, north, east, and west by train, dolmus, plane, bus, motorcycle, and a variety of private vehicles.  I went into dusty, remote and ancient villages where the locals decorated their faces with primitive blue tattoos.  I traveled to Istanbul and Izmir, large and cosmopolitan places that seemed very European.  I went into places where few tourists had ever ventured.  I saw things and did things I never dreamed I’d see and do.

In 2008 I moved to Cairo, Egypt, after being hired by the Department of Rhetoric and Composition at the American University in Cairo.  From day one, Cairo blew my mind.  A crazy, more chaotic urban experience cannot be imagined.  By that time, I was already a world traveler and had had seen many cultures and a lot of different ways of living, but nothing had prepared me for living in the belly of the beast that is Egypt’s capital.  In 2011, the Revolution kicked off in January, following closely on the heels of what had taken place in Tunisia.  I decided to stay in the city even after almost every foreigner had bugged out and the place went full Mad Max.  I survived but got something akin to PTSD.  Then, Morsi was elected, fair and square in a genuine election, only to be the victim of a military coup approximately a year after he’d taken office.  Then came the Rabaa and Al Nahda massacres and the national insanity that followed.  Political prisoners were jailed, protests were snuffed out, the average citizen became paranoid in the old way.  Egypt slipped back into an authoritarian black hole and the citizens quit dreaming and speaking and acting out in ways they’d grown accustomed to during the brief period that followed the fall of Mubarak…