Wrinkles

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I have this just-out-of-bed ritual that I follow every morning.  After successfully finding the floor with my feet, I begin making my way through my dark bedroom toward an unlit bathroom.  My eyes have adjusted by the time I reach the threshold that separates the place where I sleep from the place where I clean myself.  My hand knows exactly where the light switch is located without me needing to engage my eyes in the process of finding it.

My fingers touch the switch and I think, let there be light and then it comes, bright and jarring.  After narrowing my eyes, I step toward the wall-mounted mirror, located above the large countertop and sinks, and look at myself for a few seconds, turning my face to the right and left as I do so.  I also step toward the mirror and away from it to see myself from a variety of vantage points.

I try not to make any judgments about the face that looks back at me.  I mostly take note and catalog my observations.  I also try hard not to feel emotional about the version of Troy Headrick I happen to see on any given day.  I wish to remain detached, as cool as a cucumber or as cold as scientist.

It doesn’t take an observational genius to understand that the Troy I see now is quite a bit different than the Troy I saw twenty, ten, or even five years ago.  This is neither surprising nor disturbing.  This is simply the way things are going with my face, the direction my looks are headed now that I am firmly ensconced in middle-age.  I do not fear these changes or feel angry about them.

There is more grey hair, a bit more sag, especially above and below the eyes, and a general appearance of fatigue that expresses itself in a number of ways.  These are all signs of deterioration and demise.  Some mornings, when I’m feeling especially truthful and detached, I’ll whisper, “Troy, you know where you’re headed, don’t you?  Your face is providing you with a road map.”

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This past weekend, for the first time in quite a long time, my wife and I visited with my cousin, her husband—a man who rarely speaks, but when he does open his mouth, something worth hearing is certain to come out—and their precocious but reserved ten-year-old son.   We arranged to meet them in a Mexican food restaurant in the town where they live.

When I meet members of my extended family—I wish it happened more frequently than it does—I have this habit of blurting out that I’m older than I used to be (as if this fact wasn’t already perfectly clear).  This past weekend, as could be expected, within five minutes of us sitting down together, I said something to the effect that I’ve aged a lot recently, and I immediately felt as if a burden had been lifted from my shoulders.  It was the sort of liberating feeling one might experience when sharing a weighty secret that one had long kept to himself.

My cousin, an educated woman who works in healthcare, seemed older too.  The 800-pound gorilla at our lunch table was the fact that we hadn’t seen each other for a while and now we were all taking stock, making mental notes, about all the ways each one of us had changed since our last get together.

After we’d ordered our drinks and were waiting for our meals to arrive, I launched into a mini-speech on how well my father seems to be aging.  I based this on the fact that he refuses to slow down and never complains about any of his health challenges.  Nor does he ever act as if he wants others to feel sorry for him.  I went on to say that he has apparently made peace with the idea of his own demise and noted how he was able to talk, without looking even a touch morbid, about his own death.  I put forward the hypothesis that the greatest challenge we face—this is especially true of Americans who have this unspoken belief that they are going to live forever and look beautiful in the process—is to become comfortable with our unrelenting decline.

Americans are a funny people.  They are capable of uprooting themselves and moving on to new and different jobs and new and different places, but they have a lot more difficulty dealing with changes in their bodies and appearances.  Many seem to view the ageing process as an affront, and they fight it, every step of the way, tooth and nail.

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I don’t mind physical changes near as much as I mind changes in my emotional well-being.  I hate to see a waning in my overall sense of excitement about life.  When I was a child, I woke up feeling as if each day was going to be a kind of epic adventure.  I delighted in small discoveries, like the finding of an insect crawling across a stretch of concrete.  The blueness of the sky was utterly astonishing and could fill me with giddiness.  Tying a kite to a string and then sending it five hundred feet into the air was like the coolest thing I’d ever done, the coolest thing anyone could ever possibly do.  The nights were magical.  I was delighted by chasing fireflies at dusk and then falling down into the grass and looking up into the growing darkness.

Where has that sense of magic and wonderment gone?  I can do these same things today, but the experience isn’t nearly as intense and awe-inspiring as it once was.  Perhaps I’ve seen the blue sky too many times already and am too familiar with the scene and the color?  Have I become jaded or tired or something else?

I have recently vowed that this is the thing I need to work on most in myself.  I need to find a way to recapture that delight.  But, how, precisely, does one go about doing so?

That’s the million-dollar question.  This year, I hope to find the answer to it.  If I do, I’ll be sure to blog about it here.

 

If the Price Is Right!

Woe is me!  It’s Monday, but not just any Monday.  It’s the first one after the end of last week’s Spring Break.

Now that I’m a middle-aged fart, I’m no longer disentangled enough to have the sort of foot-loose-and-fancy-free spring holidays I once had.  Way back, when I had real freedom, I would (with a long-haired friend or two) load up into some fast car, ice down a case or two of adult beverages, drive to the beach, pitch a tent, and then go walleyed nuts.

Now that I’m a home owner and such, I spent a lot of last week mowing the grass and using one of those buzzy Weed Eater thingies.  I did manage, two mornings in a row (Tuesday and Wednesday, I believe), to watch The Price Is Right on CBS.  Here in Texas, they put the long-running game show on at 10 a.m. sharp.  Right after that, on the very same station, there’s a soap opera that goes by the title The Boastful and the Bashful (or something like that).

Drew Carey is the emcee now.  Pardon me while I write that he’s a poor substitute for Bob Barker, Mr. Have Your Pets Spayed and Neutered.  (Of all the great needs in this world, I always wondered why he’d chosen to focus on the fairly minor problem of what comes from animal fornication, but that’s beside the point.)

It was my first time to have seen The Price Is Right in like forever.

Watching it again got me curious so I went online and Googled “The Price Is Right 1972” and found the following video.  It happens to show the very first episode of what they were calling The New Price Is Right.

Here are some of my thoughts after watching the vid:

  • The 70s seem nearly like ancient history (even though I remember them quite clearly).
  • That was some truly trippy background music (especially the xylophone stuff).
  • The show certainly looked amateurish (to say the least) and I’m surprised the TV powers that be didn’t discontinue it after such a start.
  • Boo-Boo (the first contestant) perhaps wasn’t a ditsy blond in real life, but she certainly played one on TV.
  • I’m amazed that a person could buy a real live automobile for such a price.

By the way, those who didn’t finish reading this blog all the way to its conclusion will receive a lovely parting gift, courtesy of American Tourister.

 

The Man My Father Was and Is

My wife and I just got back from Georgetown, Texas, the town I grew up in and the place my father and stepmother still call home.  And now, this Sunday morning, I’m looking inward, to see what sort of thoughts bubble up about this recent visit with two people I’m very close to.

I feel that there’s a story I want to tell this morning about the visit.  There are thoughts, some tinged with a sense of melancholy, that need getting down and organizing.

Earlier this week, days before we took off to Georgetown, my father was much in my thoughts.  This preoccupation was triggered when I got into a box of old photos and found two of him that were taken when he was just a boy.  I spent a long time holding those pictures in my hands and looking at them.  They were likely taken in the early to mid-1940s, at a time when a great war raged and the world was a much different sort of place.  Today, in 2018, my father is an octogenarian, but I can still see signs of that boy when I look at those images.

 

Last night, I sat across the dining room table from my father after dinner and while the dishes were being cleared.  As often happens on such visits, I prompted him with questions about what his life had been like decades ago.  He often complains about how bad his memory has gotten, but he somehow always manages to recollect past events, in minute detail, and then share them.

“Did I ever tell you about Billy Dowdy?” my dad asked as he removed his glasses, an act which allowed him, I suppose, to see way back.

“I don’t think so,” I answered.

“So you didn’t know Billy Dowdy?”

Janie, my stepmother, said, “Roy, he couldn’t have known him.”

As it turns out, Billy Dowdy was a man several years younger than my father.  He’d grown up in a little shack of a place that was located in a field behind my father’s boyhood home and not far from the San Gabriel River, a vein of blue-green water that the two youngsters knew well and swam in together.

In 1953, after finishing high school, my father joined the US Air Force and was sent overseas, for four years, to places like Guam and Japan, to learn and send messages in Morse code.  Before being shipped off to those faraway places, he recalls saying goodbyes to everyone he’d ever been close to.  Of course, Billy Dowdy was one of those who’d received such a farewell.

In 1957, when dad had completed his military service, he returned to Georgetown and went to see Billy, to let him know that he was back in town.  Much to my dad’s amazement, Billy, the boy, was now Billy, the alcoholic man.  He’d aged more than four years could account for.  Dad recalls that his boyhood buddy now carried a bottle with him wherever he went and that he would take his first swig immediately upon waking up and wouldn’t take his last until the booze ran dry or he’d pass out.  Where had Billy, the lad full of life and possibility, gone off to?

My father liked to party too, and sometimes he’d pick Billy up in his old roadster and the two would go honky-tonking together.  Dad remembers how his boyhood companion could sing exactly like Hank Williams.  He had a beautiful voice, and my father would drive and listen to Billy sing those sad cowboy songs as the two moved through the dark night with the windows rolled down and the breeze ruffling their combed and oiled hair.

Billy got arrested a lot and died in the Georgetown jail.  That was how Billy’s story ended.  It was also the point my father stopped telling it.  He put his glasses back on and looked down at the table.

When he looked back up again, he asked, “How had Billy gone from what he’d been to what he’d become in four short years?”  Such a transformation was beyond my father’s understanding.

I’m sitting here thinking about the question my father asked and how universal it is.  How have any of us become the people we are now?  How much of all that was by choice and how much was outside our human control?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Never Mind

I want to share this cute TED Talk with you.  Toward the end of the presentation, the bald presenter takes out a ukulele and plays it in a terribly funny way.  I don’t know if my saying that qualifies as a spoiler (and thus I need to officially provide you with a SPOILER ALERT), but if it does and I do need to, then I sincerely apologize for not having done so in the appropriate way and at the appropriate time.

My point is really to write about the ukulele because it reminds me of my own boyhood.  For some reason I have no ability to fathom at this time in my life, I wanted, when I was maybe nine years old, a ukulele so badly that I could taste it—even though I never would have actually taken a bite of its wood if offered to do so.  But that’s beside the point.  More to the point is this:  I asked my parents to get me one for Christmas.

Due to the nature of parenthood, most mothers and fathers will do all manner of silly things including going to a music shop and spending real money to buy a thing that looks like a guitar that was born prematurely, which is exactly what my mom and dad did.  I remember it came in a little case and included a pick that looked like it was made of felt.  The instrument held my interest for maybe three months which was long enough for me to realize two things.  First of all, I had absolutely no musical talent whatsoever, and two, playing a ukulele, even though the instrument had been popularized by Tiny Tim, one of the greatest weirdo performers of all time, was one of the most boring ways a person could spend five minutes or ten minutes or whatever time one happened to spend strumming its four strings.

Once this realization came to me, it went back into its case and resided there until it died the horrible death of suffocation.

OK, so none of my story has anything to do with the video, but that shouldn’t keep you from watching it.

 

 

 

Hoot!

owlsI’ve always been a collector.  I can’t even remember when, precisely, this habit got started.  As a very young lad, I owned several hundred—it could have been as many as a thousand—stamps from many countries of the world that I would diligently paste into albums, using those little hinges that could be purchased in variety stores.

Over the years, you name it and I’ve obsessively acquired it.  I went through a period when I was interested in porcelain objects that had the worlds “Occupied Japan” stamped on their undersides.  I then got into refrigerator magnets and spent hours shopping for them on eBay.  I currently have a couple of dozen beautiful Middle Eastern rugs on the floor of my apartment.  I remember how much pleasure it gave me when I acquired each one.  Honestly, if I had an unlimited supply of greenbacks, I’d probably become something akin to a hoarder.  The feeling I get when I simply hold one these highly prized objects in my hands is hard to describe.

Having said all this, you probably will not be surprised to hear that I have been buying owl figurines—made of every sort of material that can be used to manufacture such a creature—for a great many years.  In fact, my collection is so extensive that I don’t even have all of them in my possession.  Many are stored away in boxes in closets inside houses that belong to a great many relatives.

My interest in owls began as a result of an interesting encounter I had, now a couple of decades or so back, with a real live bird of this sort.  This “meeting” (of the souls?) happened while I was visiting my maternal grandparents who happened to reside, at that time in their lives, out in the country, a dozen or so miles to the west of a little Texas city called San Angelo.

Just after breakfast, on the second day of a four-day visit, I announced that I wanted to take a walk, so I bundled up—it was a cold, wintry day as I recall—and then left the house.  I wandered for an hour or so.  My walkabout took me down forsaken country roads that meandered here and there and then petered out, becoming little more than footpaths in the process.  I breathed the crisp country air in and exhaled clouds of steam.  I looked up, studied the sky, and wondered if it might sleet or even snow.

During such a moment of speculation, a voice in my head said, “Turn around now and have a look at what’s behind you.”  When I did so, I saw an enormous bird—I didn’t yet know that it was an owl—perched on the limb of a dead tree, not more than ten feet away.  The creature had its back to me, and it stayed like that for several seconds as my eyes fixated on it.  Suddenly, its head swiveled around and I saw two large and seemingly inquisitive owl eyes peering at me.  The two of us held perfectly still like that, staring at one another, for what seemed like a long time.  The bird abruptly blinked, maybe three times, let out a preternatural hoot, and then flew away.

About ten days later, while wandering around in a junk shop, I bought my first owl.  Before deciding to make the purchase, I held the thing in my hands a good long time, checking it out for imperfections.  I found none and the price was right.  The rest, as they say, is history.

 

 

 

 

I’m Pretty Sure I’ve Been Here Before

Life takes some incredible twists and turns.  About a million years ago, I was born in San Antonio, Texas, a city that’s a little bit America and a little bit Mexico, and then, back when I was still pooping in diapers, mom and dad carried me off to Garland, a suburb of Dallas.  Over the decades, I have had one or two opportunities to return to my birthplace, but only as a tourist and only for very brief visits.  Mostly, I’ve been estranged from the locale that could rightfully be called my hometown.

Then, in the latter days of September of 2015, a few months after I’d left my post at The American University in Cairo, a very sudden job offer in San Antonio came my way while Azza—my Egyptian wife of five years and new America émigré—and I were camped out with family, in their guest bedroom, in another part of the Lone Star State.  Of course, I signed on the dotted line, right where my new employer told me to.  We then loaded up, headed to south Texas, down where the beautiful language of Spanish is ubiquitously spoken, and set up house.

All these years later, I am back in San Antonio, the place where I (literally) got my start.  From time to time, when I’m tooling around the city, I get this weird déjà vu feeling.  As a matter of fact, this past weekend, Azza and I went to the San Antonio zoo, and while standing in front of the flamingo cage, I had this odd sensation that I had stood in this exact spot before.  The bird scene before me seemed bizarrely familiar.  I lifted my camera, took a few photos of the pink, hook-nosed birds, while goosebumps rose on my arms.

flamingo

We spent three hours among the animals and enjoyed our time more than I can accurately articulate here.  I’ve always been a nut for creatures—this nuttiness was especially acute when I was a tyke—and I felt that old delight resurface as we moved from cage to cage.  For some reason, on this particular outing, I especially liked the fish in their various watery enclosures.  They swam past us, flashing a zillion neon colors as they went.  In fact, I was so captivated by them it took me a while to actually notice that in one particularly large aquarium there were two hippos, their grotesquely large bodies magnified by the water, floating among those finned and gilled darters.

I’ve included a few photos here and am upset with myself that I didn’t get a good shot of the gibbons as they swung through the treetops, picked insects off on another, and otherwise reminded me of how humanlike they are.  While watching them do their monkey business, I got so enthralled—my mouth was probably agape—that I simply forgot to lift my camera and click the shutter.

 

 

 

 

The Accidental Teacher: An Essay and Memoir (Part 7)

I think I’m having a midlife crisis. Some men, when they find themselves in a similar situation, go out and buy themselves a toupee or a snazzy sports car, but that’s not my way. My way is to sit down and write about my life as a teacher. I guess you could say that this blog has become therapy.

It’s funny (and a little scary too) how big of a role the workplace plays in turning us into the human beings we eventually become. My work certainly has played a key role in causing this crisis I’m facing.

This morning, when I was getting ready to step into the shower at 5 a.m. to get ready to go to work, I started thinking about my retirement. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the day when I can finally walk away from the classroom. That thought led to a memory of a conversation I recently had with a fellow who teaches at my current place of employment. He is seventy and still coming in, every day, to put in his six hours up in front of students. When I asked him about retirement, he said, “I tried that, for a while, but got bored, so I decided to start working again.”

FYI: Words you will never hear coming out of Troy Headrick’s mouth: “I got bored with retirement so I went back to work again.”

Yes, I’m sure I’m having a midlife crisis. I know this because I have little patience for silliness at work. I also have little tolerance for people who want to preach to me about how I should be doing my job. These “experts” are often about the age my children would be, if I had children. Lately, it’s been students who’ve been offering this “advice.” Would I use “anger” to describe my current mindset? Not really. I’m more like exasperated.

Lots of teachers end up getting beaten down by what our education system has become. Actually, come to think of it, it’s “schooling” that’s the problem, not education. There are important differences between the former and the latter. The former is what drives so many teachers crazy. Education is pure and wonderful. It sets us free. Schooling enslaves us. It turns us into bureaucratic idiots who have crises. The distinctions between these two is further clarified in this very interesting letter, written by Gerald J. Conti, a long-time teacher who finally decided to throw in the towel, primarily because schooling today is “data driven” and emphasizes teacher “conformity, standardization, testing, and a zombie-like adherence to the shallow and generic Common Core.” Conti also points out that “creativity, academic freedom, teacher autonomy, experimentation and innovation are being stifled.”

One of the things that has bothered me over the years is this: Back when I was a serious learner, when I was in college and grad school, I could honestly say that I was engaged in something noble and enriching. But not long after I became a teacher, especially at the college and university levels, I got caught up in a system that was far too often dispiriting and demeaning. Like Conti, I had to begin focusing on petty things, which turned me into a petty person. Too much of my time was spent on learning how to navigate the territory of the academic department I was working for without getting into trouble. As a result, I got good at acting like a robot and playing workplace politics but almost forgot how to read and think. Meanwhile, I’d been hired to do reading and thinking with my students.

Right here, I’d like to insert an important qualifier. My current place of employment, the institute I’ve been working at for nearly half a year, has hired me to “train,” not “teach,” even though I work in a classroom. This difference in terminology suggests something important. There is not even a hint of pretentiousness at my new gig. What I do is very mechanical and straightforward, and thus the expectations are crystal clear. This allows administrators to be a lot more honest with me, and I, in return, can be honest with myself and my students. And, as the old saying goes, honesty is the best policy.

The university taught me how to think critically and to cherish such thinking. Then I went to work and listened to a zillion school administrators speak emotively about the importance of instilling critical thinking in students. (By the way, those who practice critical thinking are, de facto, required to question everything and to accept practices, ideas, and beliefs only after they have survived a very withering scrutiny.) This double standard—critical thinking is a good thing to ask others to do and to apply to everything except us and our institution—puts teachers in a bind. They are torn between the way they have taught themselves to live and think and how their bosses tell them to live and think. My last sentence raises an important point: Being a critical thinker is about how one lives in the world and interacts with reality. It is a mode of being. Critical thinking is not something I turn on and off like a light switch. I live it all the time.

I can see that I’m doing a little critical thinking right now and wonder if I should be praised or chastised for doing so?

That’s a very good question, one I’ll have to ponder awhile. As I do so, I can feel my crisis deepening…