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 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 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 8, 2018

old-man-watch-time-160975

I always arrive at work at 7:50 a.m.  That’s ten minutes before I have to officially unlock the writing center door, turn on the lights, and open up for business.

This morning, at approximately 7:55, I made a quick trip to the men’s restroom.  Actually, I’m pretty lucky in that it’s located just a few feet away from our center.  (There’s a lot to be said for convenience.)  Anyway, when I stepped into the place, there was a man just finishing up his business at one of the urinals.  As soon as he zipped up and turned toward me, I noticed that he had a toothbrush sticking out of his mouth.  Seeing this prompted me to ask, “Multitasking are you?”  He found my question humorous.  I know this because he began to smile when I put it to him.  He then walked to the sink, spit a wad of froth from his mouth, and thoroughly washed his hands, face, and brush.

This rather inconsequential encounter in the john got me thinking about how busy our lives are.  It was both a little humorous and a little sad that this fellow couldn’t focus on either peeing or brushing and found himself having to do them simultaneously.  I hope it doesn’t come to the point that we have to carry around little pocket-sized planners to schedule our bowel movements.

Having lived in other countries I can say for a fact—at least it seems certain enough that it feels factual—that life in America is more hectic than in other places.  There’s always someplace to be, some call to make, a bundle of bills to pay, a job that needs doing.  The rich manage all this by hiring secretaries, managers, publicists, maids, nannies, and so on.  The poor manage this by going insane.  Those that don’t go crazy turn to the bottle or some other form of escapism that’s bound to be at least a little self-destructive.

I haven’t entirely figured it out yet, but I feel pretty certain that there’s some sort of relationship between living under a pretty hardcore capitalist economic system and the sort of panicky feeling I often have.  I’m not sure why that’s the case.  (Maybe it’s because we say that time is money in America?)  I wonder if people who live in more socialistic countries aren’t just a little calmer.  My guess is that they are.

I’m going to spend the rest of the afternoon—after I get all this stuff done that needs doing—thinking about this question of capitalism and anxiety.  There certainly has to be a connection.  I’m positively sure there must be.

 

Goodbye, Tony

anthony rip

I still find it hard to believe that Anthony Bourdain is gone.  On the morning of June 8th—not yet a month ago—I woke up, brewed myself a cup of Joe, looked at my Twitter feed, and saw that he’d used the belt from his bathrobe to hang himself in his hotel room in Kaysersberg, France.

I immediately Googled his name and started reading.  I needed to confirm that such a thing had really happened.  After looking at the internet for a few minutes, I turned on CNN and a variety of journalists—many of them just hearing about this and now teary-eyed—were talking about Bourdain’s life and his death.  Indeed, this horrifying news was true.

Anthony was one of the most decent people I’ve ever known.  I wrote “known” without consciously deciding to do so.  It is perfectly normal that I wrote it, though.  So many of us knew him.  He was our brother, our father, our son, our uncle, our best friend, the guy we could see ourselves hanging out with.  He was a fellow traveler.

It goes without saying that we are all travelers.  We are all on our way.  We are all wandering and looking for the right path.

While I was living abroad for nearly two decades—in Poland, the UAE, Turkey, and then Egypt—I only occasionally got to see Tony because I rarely looked at television in those faraway places.  But when I came home for vacation during the summertime, I watched, as regularly as the beat of a human heart, No Reservations and then Parts Unknown.  In Anthony, I saw myself.  He was the famous me.  Both of us traveled and explored.  His adventures made it to TV while mine didn’t.  This meant he spoke for me.  I turned on the TV to watch him tell my stories.  Thank you, Tony, for telling them even better than I could have.

Tony was an unapologetic internationalist and we will miss him for that too, especially now that so many Americans seem to be proudly proclaiming themselves “America First!” ultra-nationalists.  (Every time I hear America first, I can’t help but think “Deutscheland uber alles!”)

By the way, blessed be the internationalists because they promote a message of peace and mutual respect.

If you ever watched Tony on television, you know he had a really good time when he was out and about, but he also carried an enormous responsibility.  He explained other countries and the peoples who live in them to a nation of individuals many of whom don’t own passports.  This made him a teacher who didn’t lecture or draw up lesson plans.  In other words, he taught without teaching and he preached without preaching.  And we all sat raptly listening and learning and were converted.

So, Tony, I end this by simply saying goodbye.  I will miss you, and this nation and the world will miss you too, especially now.

 

 

 

Tiptoeing through the Tulips

So I was dining in this Indian restaurant a few days ago.  We’d pushed a couple of small tables together as we were a party of seven.  Six of us were Americans and the seventh, my wife, was Egyptian.  We weren’t drinking alcohol or anything, but the conversation was still silly and random as hell.  Many of us giggled and guffawed as the talking occurred.  If my memory serves me correctly, I believe there were even a few instances of people chortling.  That tells you what kind of evening it was.

At one point, just before the food was brought to the table, Ruthann, a fellow Texan from Dallas, turned to me and said, in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear, “Let’s talk about obscure celebrities from yesteryear.”  That prompted me to respond, “Hey, does anyone know whatever happened to Tiny Tim?”

Of course, Azza, my better half, had no idea who this miniscule person was.  One other individual, a child of twelve, was equally in the dark.  Everyone else immediately fell silent.  You could literally hear cogs turning in heads as people thought about my question.

I was the first person to break the silence.  I said, “Tiny Tim is actually an interesting study.  He’s a great example of how far an untalented person can go in show business.”

“It wasn’t necessarily that he lacked talent,” Lori retorted, “It was just that he had the right sort of talent for the 1960s.”

“Right,” said Ruthann.  “Weirdness was really in in the 60s, so he had what people wanted.”

I’ve embedded a video so you see an example of what Mr. Tim provided to the public during his heyday.

Now, days later, I’m almost embarrassed to admit it, but I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about Tiny Tim.  In addition to the clip I included, I’ve looked at a zillion videos of him performing and being interviewed.  I even called several colleagues into my office, showed them a few of the things I had watched, and asked them to respond, taking careful notes as they spoke.  Like I said, I’ve been a bit obsessed recently.

Perhaps that was his ultimate goal (and genius?) as a performer?  To create a persona and a sound we couldn’t turn away from and couldn’t get enough of?

If that was Tiny Tim’s goal, then he certainly succeeded bigly.