Goodbye, Tony

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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.

 

 

 

Building Bridges

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I met my wife, Azza, when I was employed by the American University in Cairo as an Instructor in the Department of Rhetoric and Composition, a position I held for seven years.

When Azza and I started going out, she owned a successful catering and food vending business in Cairo.  She’d been trained by an Italian chef named Samantha.  As soon as Azza became proficient in the kitchen, the two of them started making money together, and eventually Azza went “rogue,” breaking away from her mentor to open Azza’s Italian Kitchen, a one-woman operation that helped her earn some really good dough.

In 2015, I left Egypt, bringing Azza with me to the United States.  After a month or so of looking for work, I landed a position in San Antonio, Texas, my birthplace and a city with a cool, international vibe.

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Less than a month ago, after scheming and dreaming and filling out scads of paperwork, Azza opened up a home bakery—Zoozoo’s Sweet Treats (and More)—in accordance with the Cottage Food Industry laws of the state of Texas.  During the intervening weeks, we have done a few events and have made a pretty good start to her little kitchen enterprise.

Last Saturday, we sold Azza’s baked goods at a first-Saturday-of-every-month farmer’s market that had sprouted up in the parking lot of Marbach Christian Church, located on Marbach Road in southwest San Antonio.  We threw our tent up in the middle of a huddle of other tents and then covered a couple of tables with delicious, homemade edibles.  Right next to us, Ayse, our Turkish friend and a neighbor, sold some of her paintings and a few lovely ceramics that had come over with her from Istanbul.

During the course of the day, the church’s pastor, a fifty-something fellow named Darnell with a greying beard, came over to welcome us to the market and then chat.  He was a loquacious fellow with a bass laugh that came directly from his core.  He told us about the halfway house—he pointed at it across the street—that his church was sponsoring.  Then he told us about all the other initiatives—for instance, he acquired and repaired old bicycles for those in the area with no other form of transportation—he and his parishioners were involved in.

My wife and Ayse are both practitioners of Islam.  Ayse quite conspicuously covers her hair with a hijab, so the pastor, quite surprisingly, greeted her with a “hamdullah,” an Arabic word that means “thank God.”  A more appropriate greeting would have been “Salaam Ahlaykum,” but we were all thrilled that he’d even made the attempt and were surprised that he knew as much Arabic as he did.

When I told him that Azza was also Muslim but that she didn’t cover her hair, he seemed a touch baffled.  “So why do Muslim women cover their hair anyway?” he wondered.  Then he followed that up with, “And why does one woman choose to do so and another one not?”

We explained that it was all personal preference and that the idea that all Muslim women were required to wear the hijab was a misunderstanding of Islam and its precepts.  It was an example of a misconception that many have about the religion.

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As you might guess from what I wrote earlier, Pastor Darnell is a busy man, so one thing and then another kept pulling him away from our tent; however, after tending to whatever needed looking after, he always came back to where we’d set up shop, and we eventually invited him to pull up a chair and spend the day with us which he ended up doing.

One of my favorite pastimes these past several years has been educating Americans about the Middle East—I lived in the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, and Egypt for about a decade and a half—and the predominant religion of the region.  Given the current climate in America, where fear of “the other” is being used for political purposes, this pastime has become a vital mission.

After learning that I am a published writer and interested in the arts, Darnell started presenting ideas about projects he and I might collaborate on.  For example, he wanted to know if I would like to help him organize poetry readings.  For another, he asked me if I’d like to help him edit some of his writings.

All these ideas sounded interesting, but they prompted me to make a proposal of my own.  I told him that I thought we ought to organize a kind of “mixer” that would bring Muslims and Christians together for the purpose of building interfaith bridges.

He liked the idea a lot and we exchanged telephone numbers.  In my mind’s eye, I can even see Azza and I doing a little presentation on Arabs, Islam, and Muslims at his church.

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The idea of bringing people together during the Age of Trump excites me and fills me with hope.  Speaking of hope, I think everyone should check this out as a way of becoming a bit more informed and enlightened.

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.

 

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

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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.

Charles Bukowski Currently Teaches English at Starbucks

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The Real Bukowski in All His Glorious Madness

Last Saturday I met Charles Bukowski at a Starbucks in a Barnes and Noble bookstore in San Antonio, Texas.  He was arriving just as my wife and I had finished up our coffees and were gathering our belongings to leave.

Because he could see that we were getting ready to take off, he walked right up to us and asked, “Are you finished here?”

“Yes,” I answered as I stared at his acne-scarred face and misshapen nose—the bulbous proboscis of a wino.

“I ask because you’re at my favorite table, and I want to claim it if you are leaving.”

“You can put your stuff here if you’d like while we get ready to head out.  By the way, has anyone ever told you that you look exactly like Charles Bukowski?”

“Charles who?” he asked gruffly.

“Never mind.”

In fact, he was a spitting image of the renegade poet-madman-drunkard.

Because we’d bought books and had to put on coats and scarves to gird ourselves against the cold, it took us awhile to get our stuff together.  During this period, a conversation began to blossom.  “So you come here often?” I asked him.

“Every Saturday.  You see, I’m retired, but I give private lessons on the side to people who want to learn English.  Right now, I’m working with three young girls from Djibouti.  I always teach them at this particular table.”  After saying this, he leaned in to me and whispered, “Their English is very weak.”

Azza, my wife who speaks Arabic as her mother tongue, is not really a shy person, but she sometimes has a hard time inserting herself into a conversation between Americans when they are speaking a hundred miles an hour.

“I bet they’ll learn very fast, though,” I told him.  “They will probably be better at learning our language than we would be at learning theirs.”

“Maybe.  But who would want to learn whatever it is that they speak?”

“Ask them to speak their language to you and really listen to what they say.  I bet what you hear will sound beautiful if you open your ears and mind.  It’s my opinion that more Americans should learn a second language.”

He kind of frowned and then said, “So many people from crap countries want to come here.  They are just flooding in.  They have to learn English because it’s the lingua franca.”

I could feel the hair stand up on my neck.  Only days earlier, Donny Trump, the Hairpiece, had called African countries “shitholes.”  I had the feeling this old fart was likely a Trumper, and a part of me wanted to snarl.

“By the way, I’d like to introduce you to my wife, Azza.  She’s from Africa.  Her country and the people who call it home are beautiful in many ways.”

“I’m sure it is and that they are,” he said a touch snarkily.

“I think Americans should be a little more careful about judging others.  Don’t you think this country has its share of problems?” I asked him.

“Compared to other places, America is el paradiso,” he said, suddenly shifting to a foreign language.  “By the way, where, in Africa, is your wife from?”

“Egypt,” she said, finally asserting herself.

The man’s face suddenly changed and he started speaking Arabic to her.  As it turns out, he was born in Egypt and lived there as a child.  He asked her where, in “Misr,” she was from, and she said Cairo.  He, as it turns out, had been born in Alexandria.

From that point forward, I faded into the background because the language shifted to Arabic.  At one point, he asked her what her religion was and she said Islam.  He then called himself a “Yehudi,” which means “Jew,” and explained that this fact had played an important role in why his family left North Africa.  He shared some stories about how they had been victims of religious persecution under President Gamal Abdel Nasser.  Hearing these personal accounts saddened my wife.

We ended up talking until his three students showed up.  They were sweet girls.  Before they arrived, we found plenty to laugh about—the irony of an Egyptian Muslim and Jew meeting at the same table in a Starbucks at a Barnes and Noble bookstore in San Antonio.  We were reminded how small the world really is and how big it is too.  And how much we have in common despite our superficial differences.