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.

 

November 1, 2018

stoicism

I love my job.  I use my years as a university instructor of research methodology, literature, academic writing, philosophy, and critical thinking to manage a writing and learning center at a community college in a very cool part of San Antonio, Texas.

Our center is blessed to have four incredibly dedicated and talented tutors, all of whom have bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English or a related field.  It’s easy to manage people who are bright and resourceful.  Actually, I’m supposed to show them how to do things and to act as a mentor, but I find myself—on a daily basis really—learning things from them and feeling mentored myself.

One of our tutors is a guy named Michael.  He recently graduated from the University of North Texas with a kind of interdisciplinary degree and calls himself an expert in Tejano music, especially the part it plays in Mexican-American culture.  I really like him for a number reason.  For one, he is very much an intellectual and wants, eventually, to get his PhD and become a professor.  He’s also he’s very passionate about politics, and anyone who’s read any of my blogs understands that this makes us brothers in arms.  (He has said, on more than one occasion, that he has friends who are quite active in a variety of anti-fascist organizations.)  I have not pushed him for details on what his friends actually do and he has not voluntarily offered to say more than what he’s already revealed about them.

I mention Mike because he’s both cool and also recently said something that really got me thinking.  On the day he delivered his words of wisdom, it was a quiet time in our writing center, so we had an opportunity to chat about a variety of subjects.  Somehow, I can’t even remember how now, the subject of my goatee came up.  (I’d let it sprout out again after being clean shaven for months.)  While talking, I confessed to having mixed feelings about it because it’s so grey now.  I told him that it had been jet-black and really groovy back when I was younger.  After hearing this, he crossed his arms—I’ve noticed this to be one of his mannerisms—got that half-smile look on his face, and then said, “So you’ve got grey hair.  Embrace it!

His words were exactly the right ones to speak at exactly that moment.  They made me realize how much of an imposter I sometimes can be.  I mean, come on, I call myself a stoic, have read and studied all the great stoic texts, including Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, a book I would advise every human being alive today to read and to ready carefully, and yet here I was whining about having facial hair that was a little discolored due to age.  Michael’s words embarrassed me and made me realize that I need to live stoicism not just understand its tenets.  I need to fully accept that I am getting older.  That I am aging.  That this body I have is, slowly and inexorably, fading away.  I may not be dead yet, but I am certainly on my way down the path.

By the way, the stoics believe that one of the few things we can count on is that decay and impermanence are part of the natural order of things.  Thus, fighting against the aging process is like trying really hard to keep the sun from rising in the east each morning.  Michael had helped me see that embracing my greyness was a way of practicing stoicism.

I want to finish by thanking Michael for giving me a metaphorical slap in the face.  I certainly deserved the sting of his words.

October 18, 2018

brain big

It’s Thursday morning, and I am sitting among intellectuals.  We are talking.  I’m enjoying this interaction.

I have spent most of my professional life working at colleges and universities.  This way of earning a living started a long time ago, back when I had beautiful, dark hair and none of this middle-aged spread.  My point is this—I’ve been an educator for what seems like a lifetime.  It has been a lifetime, actually.

I’ve had opportunities to do things away from academe.  And I have even taken advantage of some of these chances.  For example, I was the director of a non-profit museum for a time and I worked in the corporate world as a “Creative Content Consultant,” a euphemism is ever there was one.  Basically, I did research and writing for a large, fortune-500 company.

I disliked the museum job and hated the corporate gig.

One of the reasons I’m drawn to universities is because I have always loved learning and being among learners and the curious.  I have discovered that one of the secrets to living a happy life is cultivating curiosity.  Curiosity is the mind wanting to eat.  The body needs to be fed, so it makes sense that the intellect would similarly require nutrition on a regular basis.  Plus, asking questions is natural and healthy; it’s innate and self-preservative.  If those who once lived in caves many eons ago hadn’t been curious problem solvers, it’s likely none of us would be around today.  Human beings could have entirely disappeared had our ancient ancestors not pursued answers to all sorts of interesting questions.

I think I’d kill myself if I had to be surrounded by the braindead and incurious all day long.  If this were the case, I’m afraid I would eventually end up like them.  That’s because stupidity is one of the most contagious diseases of all.  It breaks down the carrier’s immune system and destroys its host from the inside out.  Who wants to live with such a condition?  Certainly not me.  I’d rather hang myself than deteriorate to that point.

The incurious end up dying early, and after breathing their last breath, their bodies totally decompose in a matter of minutes.  This happens because they are hollow.  Their meager remnants are easily dispersed by the slightest breeze.

October 16, 2018 (Tuesday)

I’m sitting behind my computer.  I’m the manager of this place, so I need to have my eyes on this screen.  But I need to keep my eyes on other things too.

I have noticed that the computer seems to be an interesting contraption.  Of course, people know that computers are interesting, but I’m not simply referring to what they show us on their monitors.  I mean they are interesting because many of us hide behind them.  We don’t always use them as a kind of mask or shield, but we certainly do, when needed, use them this way.

What are we hiding from?  Why do we push these things around on our desks, positioning them just so, making it harder for people out there to see us?

Are computers turning people into introverts, making them shyer, less friendly?

While writing this, my mind returned to an earlier time in my life when I worked in a different place—I was doing writing assignments for a large, well-known American corporation—and had two computers sitting on my desk.  I could shuttle between them and would, from time to time, get this weird feeling that there was no reality beyond that which existed on those two screens.

In the job I currently have, the IT department switched out my old computer not long ago for something newer and faster.  When the technician was in my workspace making the change, he asked me if I wanted two monitors.  I told him I didn’t think so.  One was enough.  That made me wonder if the use of two monitors is becoming more the norm.  Probably so.  This makes it even easier for us to disappear.  With two of these things sitting in front of us, the wall is much bigger and certainly more concealing.  One of these days, I suppose, people will be requesting three monitors and then four and so on.  It will eventually be possible to completely wall ourselves off from a lot of the rest of the world.

I could have told him that I want two, but my natural tendency is to try to keep things simple, to streamline, to downsize.  As a matter of fact, I often find myself saying that less is more which is almost always true.  Less really is more, although I am afraid of making categorical statements.  A part of me is very much the ascetic, so this kind of thinking may be that part of my personality asserting itself.

I sometimes think I should have become a monk of some sort.  A part of me is made that way.

A part of me would like to withdraw from everything—even food—and spend the day sitting cross-legged in some quiet place.  My body would probably wither, but my mind would certainly expand.

I think I’ve said everything I’d like to say right now.  So, until my next blog entry…

 

People Who Drive Station Wagons Are Nerds

subaru 2

I just now looked out my window at work and saw him walking on the sidewalk.  The timing was perfect.  As luck would have it, I began writing something about him—he was front and center in my mind—and then, while I was trying figure out what I wanted to say, here he came, walking on the sidewalk right on the other side of this pane of glass.

I’ll have to keep using male pronouns when I refer to him because I don’t know his name.  I do know a few things about him, though.  I’ve bulleted these factoids:

  • He’s in in 60s
  • He wears a necktie and sweater vest every single day even when it’s very hot
  • He is retired and now does part-time work in one of these offices around here in one of these buildings
  • He drives a 2006 Subaru Forester station wagon

On point number four, I’d like to mention that I also drive an older model Subaru station wagon.  Mine is a 2002 Legacy.  That’s the difference.  Here’s the similarity:  Both are silver in color.

I got to know him because we work together at Palo Alto College, a little school that does yeoman’s work in an economically depressed area of south San Antonio.  We also arrive at work a little earlier than is required on most mornings.  (I’ll leave it to you to determine what this says about us.)  Anyway, because we are such eager beavers, our cars are often the first two to arrive and are thus the only ones around.  Despite having a million choices about where we might situate our rides, we both enjoy parking right next to one another.  (I’m beginning to wonder if this practice isn’t turning out to be something akin an almighty Subaru show of force.)

He arrives slightly earlier than I do on some mornings.  When this happens, I find him sitting behind the wheel—perhaps he is waiting for me to arrive?—and smoking.   I don’t know what brand he prefers.  (He’s probably a Marlboro man if I had to hazard a guess.  He doesn’t wear a ten-gallon hat or chaps or anything like that, nor does he generally go unshaven for a day or so or have that rugged sunburned look, but I’m pretty sure he’s a Marlboro man nonetheless.)  I pull up next to him and look across the little space that separates us and wave.  He fills his lungs with smoke and nicotine and other chemically things and waves back.  This is how we greet each other almost every morning.

Once parked, I’ll gather my things together and open the door to get out.  Often—maybe it’s a coincidence or maybe it isn’t?—we’ll lock up at just about the same time.  This synchronized exiting of vehicles gives us the opportunity to actually exchange a few words.  Because we have old Subaru station wagons in common, we mostly talk about our cars.  “How’s the Subaru running?” he’ll ask.

“Pretty good.  About a month ago, the ‘check engine’ light came on.  Other than that, pretty good.  How about yours?”

“I’ve got a little engine clatter, I’m afraid,” he said earlier this week.

His mentioning of the engine gave us a chance to stand in the parking lot for five minutes and discuss the famed “boxer” motor that older Subarus are so well known for.

As soon as the engine talk was done, we walked silently, side by side, until he veered off to the left and I veered off to the right to enter Nueces Hall.

I still don’t know what his name is or where he works.  Note to self:  Find this out next week.

 

 

 

Funky San Antonio Here I Come!

serpent

As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, I manage the Integrated Reading and Writing Learning Center at Palo Alto College in San Antonio, Texas, one of the coolest (but least written about) metropolitan areas in the United States.

I’m blessed to have really good tutors in the center.  One of them, Robin Gara, a retired reading and art teacher, paints and writes.  The two of us, when things are quiet in our place, often talk about all things artsy-fartsy.

This past weekend, Robin showed some of her paintings in an Art Deco pizzeria located on Fredericksburg Road.  My wife and I went to see Robin’s work, and by sheer happenstance, while we were there, they were having an open mic poetry reading.  So, after looking at Robin’s stuff—she does amazing things with a pallet knife—and before taking off, we watched some truly interesting characters read a bit of their writing in a funky public setting.

Robin has been after me to get involved in the local art scene—to read some of my writings at the several locales that sponsor public readings.  After what I witnessed this past weekend, I think I’m going give it a try.

When I was in my twenties, I used to publish a heck of a lot of poems—or pomes.  I kind of stopped, though, quite a long time ago, so I didn’t know if I had anything that I might read.  Then I found an old folder full of some passable stuff.  I’ve included a couple here.

The Free Man

I’m pissed.
There’s plenty of reasons to be.
That my life is not my own
Is one.
I mean I don’t own my life.
If I did, I wouldn’t be here, not now, not never.
If I did, I’d be gone, long gone, gone long ago.
If I did, I’d be sleeping or screaming
Or something other than this something I am doing
Or am not doing now,
This minute.
This thing I’m doing is not a thing for free men
To do.
My doing it proves that freedom is for others,
I guess.
I want to meet the free man, the other man.
I will sit next to him and not speak.
I will sit next to him and watch
And learn.
When he stands and leaves, I will
Stand and leave.
We two will walk together, not one in front of the other
But shoulder to shoulder.

I Am the Son of Eve

To teach is to be taught.
To learn is to unlearn.
To find the straight and narrow one needs to follow
A winding path.
Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge.
For Eve, I am thankful.
Adam was a wimp because he didn’t think of doing this
Before Eve planted the seed.
Poor Adam, a man
To be pitied.
I am the son of Eve.
I am not the son of Adam.
Like Eve, I do not fear the snake.
I listen to its words and make up
My own mind.
I do not follow the serpent without
Good cause.
When it speaks the truth,
I will not fear.
Fear is that thing which made Adam ashamed
Of his nakedness.
Eve walked proudly without
A stitch.