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…

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.

 

 

 

Unfortunately, I Give a F*ck

On Saturday and Sunday mornings, I rise and shine quite early, get myself dressed, usually donning shorts and a Hawaiian shirt, and drive over to a Barnes and Noble, the one located just off 410 and across from North Star Mall in San Antonio.  I do this to meet a Venezuela woman who wants to develop her conversational skills in English.  When we first started working together, she was pretty cryptic when I asked her what she was doing in Texas.  She said things about visiting family and wanting to be a tourist.  Slowly, she began to open up, and I’m now convinced—though she’s never openly said so—that she’s trying to leave her home country because of the chaos there.  I guess she thinks the political and economic situation in the US is better.

Of course, I frequently remind her that America is being led by one Donald J. Trump, Russian agent and head of a crime syndicate, as a way of subtly reminding her that she might want to think things through before making any rash relocation plans.

As usual, it’s taking me forever to get to my main subject.  I’m really hoping to blog about a book that I saw while working with my Venezuelan friend this morning.  It was shelved directly in front of the table we were sitting at.  Its title—one of the best I’ve seen adorning the cover of any book in recent memory—The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck:  A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life— immediately grabbed my attention.

bn1

As soon as my English lesson ended and my student had taken off, I walked over to the shelf and got a closer look.  I saw that it was written by Mark Manson.  I picked it up, opened up to the first page, and saw a reference to Charles Bukowski.  (The author immediately scored bonus points with me.)  I then turned it over and saw that it was selling for $24.99.  Because I am a cheapskate by nature, I decided I’d see if I could find it at any of the libraries I have access to.  Free, in my way of thinking, is always preferable to $24.99.

bn 2

This is certainly a book I very desperately need to read.  For almost my entire life—I did have a brief “bad boy” phase that doesn’t count—I’ve given too much of a f*ck.  From just about the moment I exited my mother’s womb, people have used words like “conscientious,” “responsible,” and “meticulous” when describing me.  Of course, these aren’t necessarily bad things, but when taken to the extreme, such attributes can turn one into a neurotic perfectionist who obsesses about everything.  Such a person wakes up at 3 a.m. in a cold sweat because the water bill is due in less than five hours and the possibility that the online payment might not be processed in time fills him with existential dread.

Such a person is me.  That’s yours truly in a nutshell.

 

 

 

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?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Portals

people-sign-traveling-blur

I miss airports. I know that might sound like crazy talk to those who travel, via air, all around these United States on business trips and therefore find themselves rushing from one terminal to another and one departure gate to another. It might sound like kookiness to other classes of people too. That’s possible, even probable. But to know how I lived for two decades of my life is to understand why I miss airports.

Facts are always important, so I’ll throw a few out there. I have flown over the Atlantic Ocean somewhere around forty times, and I have cruised, at thirty-something thousand feet above sea level, over many smaller bodies of water too. I have lived and worked in five countries—America, Poland, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, and Egypt—located on four of the seven continents. If my count is correct, my two size-eight feet have tread across the soil of twenty-three nation-states, and planes have taken me to all of them. Ergo, I have been in many airports of the world and have developed a great fondness for such magical buildings.

I don’t use the word “magical” casually.  If you think about it, airports are portals.  A traveler steps into one, boards a flying behemoth, defies the law of gravity by lifting off terra firm, only to be deposited in a new place quite far away from where one started.  At the airport where one departed everyone was speaking English.  And then, when one disembarks, halfway around the world, people are mostly using Turkish or Chinese or Tagalog.  Such dramatic changes are jarring and they have a tendency to wake one up out of the deepest of metaphorical slumbers.  Then there’s the jetway, the most magical of magical places.  The jetway, leading to the plane, is something like an umbilical cord, though the analogy is not perfect.  Once inside the womb of the jumbo jet, one is connected to mother earth.  At liftoff, that connection is broken and one finds himself as disoriented as a newborn.

Though I am in love with airports, I’ve never been that wild about airplanes. It’s not my idea of fun to strap myself into a glorified tin can and hurtle through time and space at hundreds of miles per hour and tens of thousands of feet in the air. Airports, on the other hand, are a different story. Airports are hub spots and make great metaphors. For example, they are hives where planes gather and live. People, like bees, buzz through these great hives too.

Though I had taken short flights from one city in America to another even as a boy, my real experience with airports began in 1994 when, after an incredibly strange series of events, I went around a bend in the road of my life and joined the Peace Corps. The US government, after looking at all my paperwork and interviewing me on the telephone, decided to send me to Poland to do educational consulting work and teacher training.

We soon-to-be Volunteers flew out of JFK International Airport in New York. If NYC is the world, in microcosm, then JFK International is a condensed version of that metropolis. Up until ‘94, I was a rural, small-town guy and a mere amateur when it came to traveling. In JFK, I saw, for the very first time, the peoples of the planet, gathered together in all their infinite variety, and was thrilled to death by the spectacle. It was one of those moments—they come on rare occasions—when the eyes behold something of great wonder and portent.

Many hours after getting airborne, we landed in gloomy Warsaw and disembarked at Okecie Airport.  Poland’s largest portal seemed tiny and poor by comparison to JFK. The Poles we encountered there seemed tired, world weary, very Old World, and fascinated by all the Americans suddenly in their midst. I recall that the locals spoke a language full of soft sounds and unapologetically smoked while we waited for our baggage to come around the carousel.  In airports, travelers get that first jolt of culture shock.  The newness of a new place walks right up to you and gets in your face.

Schiphol International Airport, in Amsterdam, is probably my favorite facility of its type in the world; although, I would give honorable mentions to Barajas Airport in Madrid, O’Hare in Chicago, and the International Airport in Dubai.  I also have a very fond recollection of sitting at a tiny bar that was located near my departure gate in Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental.  I recall that I was ordering the most exotic bottles they had and emptying them like a real pro.  I was the bartender’s only customer so he had time to talk.  I can’t really recall where I was flying off to, but it was probably Egypt.  He was very curious about North Africa and Islam and I had time to teach him a bunch.

Back to Schiphol.  I have been in that airport probably ten times and have taken the train—the station is just below the ground floor—into the city six or seven of those times. If you do so, you end up right at the main train station in the heart of the old city.  The train doors slide open and one exits the building only to be confronted by the grandeur and magic of Amsterdam.  Come to think of it, train stations are places of great wonder too, and I have been in many throughout Europe and in parts of Asia.

I have had long layovers in Schiphol. Because of such waits, I have had the opportunity to rent hotel rooms, inside the airport proper, on at least two different occasions. (Most recently, in 2009, I stayed in a postmodern place called Yotel and have vivid recollections of how the hallway leading to my room was lit by purple neon, giving the place a kind of Star Trek feel.)  I know Schiphol so well and find it so inspiring that I would easily choose to live there if I were rich enough and free enough to be able to make that happen.  I know that sounds like the ravings of a lunatic, but I assure you that I’m speaking the truth.  I would actually TAKE UP RESIDENCE inside Schiphol Airport if I were younger and freer and had deeper pockets.

Moving freely around the world and passing through airports is now in my past. My Egyptian wife and I have decided, for a whole bunch of reasons, some of them political, to settle, at least for the time being, in the fascinating city of San Antonio in Texas, USA.  We are doing what some call “putting down roots.”  In my former life, I was in international education and thus had the sort of free time which gave me ample opportunity to travel. Today, on the other hand, I’m working in educational administration and don’t have as many vacation days as I once did. In fact, I haven’t stepped foot inside an airport, as a traveler, since the summer of 2015. That’s a real change in my way of being.

On some day of great import, we’ll pull up these roots and become vagabonds again. When that happens, it won’t take me long to adjust to my old ways. After all, travel is a big part of who I am even if that part of me is now dormant. And the airport, that place that appeals to the dreamer in me, will once again become the closest thing I’ll have to a home.

This Morning’s Commute

commuting

I opened the front door and the cold hit me.  I stepped out into it.  The sun was just coming up in San Antonio, and the outside colors were muted and tending toward the grayscale.  We live a short distance away from Loop 410, the Alamo City’s inner ring road, and I could hear, even as I walked down the sidewalk toward the truck, a roar—the collective voice of a million cars being pushed along by human beings.

It was cold as I slid into the seat, closed the door, inserted the key, and fired up.  I shivered, blew steam from my mouth.  I punched a button that would, in a few minutes, get heat going into the cab.  The truck was ready now, so I released the handbrake, put it in reverse and left.

I know a way to avoid the nearby school zone.  San Antonio is a big city that is filled with people, many of whom have children.  For the commuter, school zones mean slowing down and pausing for buses and children crossing streets.  For the commuter, these delays are maddening.  What we commuters turn into, at 7 a.m., is something single-minded and harried.  We curse those things we would normally tolerate.  We become something other than what we naturally are.

There is a moment, shortly after I turn off Marbach Road, when I can see the on-ramp to Loop 410.  I punch it then and my machine, made by the Nissan Corporation, makes a guttural sound.  I feel like an astronaut in the early moments of liftoff.  The force of acceleration pushes my head back as I rocket toward the great flow of vehicles.

I know this route and routine well.  I am one of a million now, jockeying for position, weaving in and out, and watching for signs of danger.  We are heading south.  Soon, I will make the big eastward turn and the sun, just peeking above the horizon, will cause me to squint.  The sky is becoming more interesting, moment by moment.  I would love to spend more time studying its shapeshifting clouds and nuanced colorations, but I have to remain wary.  Surrounded by these machines, madness, and speed, anything, at any time, could happen.

We pass by all sorts of landmarks, including the factory that puts out plumes of steam or something else.  The place produces God knows what.  It marks the moment we turn toward the east, and I adjust the visor to keep my eyes shaded.  What I am witnessing now, all around me, in this great flow of machines, is the human condition writ large.

I eventually take the Palo Alto College exit and the frenzy dies down.  I have a left turn to make and then two right ones.  A sign tells us we may drive our machines at forty miles per hour but no faster than that.  I make those turns and then pull into a lot where I turn the key in the ignition, putting my machine to rest.  Its engine pings and pops as it begins to cool down.  It will spend the next few hours resting up and preparing to carry me home as the day moves from light to dark.

I envy my machine as I step away from it.  It’s now my time to roar.