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.

 

 

 

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.

 

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.

Never Mind

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

I’m the Boss (and So Is Bernie)

I want to start by saying something that should be obvious to everyone:  I’m the boss of this blog.

Oddly enough, even though I’m the owner and CEO of Thinker Boy, Inc., it wasn’t entirely obvious to me, though.  My most recent posts, all of them personal reflections on my profession—I’m a teacher—had started to feel stale and I was growing bored while writing them.  Still, I hadn’t turned away from the topic because I had promised to complete the project.  Guess what?  I’m going back on my word.  I’m discontinuing the series of blogs I’d been calling “The Accidental Teacher.”

I blog a lot like I travel.  When I go somewhere as a tourist, I never make a plan before arriving at my destination, nor do I carry a guidebook.  I like to arrive in a state of naiveté, which assures that I’m going to be surprised as I roam around.  When traveling like this, I wander upon an interesting spot, one I’d never expected to find in the first place, and stop to look for a while.  When the time feels right, I turn my back and walk away.

I’m using this analogy to tell you that I’ve been looking at the topics of “education” and “my life as an educator” long enough.  I’m now ready to stroll away from them and make new discoveries.  I guess I could be a more focused writer if I were a more focused person.  Part of the reason I’m unfocused is that I have so many interests.  I’m all over the place and so is my blog.

One of my interests is American politics.  Lately, I’ve been obsessed with the competition between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton.  (FYI:  The Republicans only interest me to the extent that their current crop of candidates are capable of disturbing my sleep by giving me nightmares.  One of them in particular—I think you know which one I’m talking about—seems hellbent on causing the whole sane world to have really bad dreams.)

I’m a Sanders guy and I FEEL THE BERN every day of my life.  If you want to follow my thoughts on the contest, go to my Twitter page and have a look.

My Egyptian wife and I live in San Antonio, Texas, and we are very active people.  While moving around and through Texas’ second largest city, we see many streets with houses that have Bernie Sanders signs in their front yards.  To date, I have not seen a single Hillary Clinton sign even though she won the Texas primary a while back.  Who are these Clinton supporters and where are they?  They sure seem like a shy bunch, at least in these parts.

In an attempt to get to the bottom of what motivates HRC supporters, Camille Paglia has written an interesting piece with a very provocative title—“Enough with the Hillary Cult:  Her admirers Ignore Reality, Dream of Worshiping a Queen.”  I wholeheartedly recommend that you read it.

Sanders is constantly calling for a revolution in America.  By this, he means we need to revolutionize our thinking.  Sanders, of course, would never ask others to do something that he hasn’t already done himself.  If you want to see what he means by this sort of thinking, watch the video below—it’s the speech he gave at the Vatican—and you will certainly see a politician who has embraced the sort of progressive ideas that many would find revolutionary.

When was the last time you heard a candidate for president talk about the weak and downtrodden and argue that America’s profits-before-people economic system is “immoral” and even “unsustainable?”  If you can’t hear the voice of saint—or a jewel of a politician—when Sanders speaks, you need to get your ears checked.  You might want to check your ticker too—to make sure you haven’t become heartless.

We in the 99% are those who Sanders is looking out for and talked about in Rome.  By running for president, he’s throwing us a lifeline and we need to be smart enough to grab it.  If we don’t, we may find ourselves sinking to the bottom of the deep, blue sea.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Accidental Teacher: An Essay and Memoir (Part 9)

I have had a pretty unique job during most of my adult life.  I have been a teacher—for what seems like forever now—but I’ve never really been the sort who wanted my students to become more knowledgeable, which I associate with acquiring information.  Instead, I have tried to help them hone skills that promote wisdom or shrewdness.  In other words, I haven’t focused on what they should know but on how they should know.  “How” one knows is often referred to as thinking.

Most people believe that thinking comes naturally to everyone because we’re all born with brains.  It’s true we’re born with this organ, but there is a world of difference between run-of-the-mill thinking and critical thinking (or good thinking), just as there is a world of difference between the sounds made when my untrained fingers hit the keys of a piano and the music produced by a world-class concert pianist when his or her fingers touch the ivory.

There are a million things which interfere with good thinking.  At the moment, I don’t have time to get into all these factors.  The old saying, “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” explains one of the most important influences on our intellectual development.  Most grow up thinking in the same way their parents did and thus believing in the same things too.  Our parents are our first models and their influence leaves a deep imprint.  To be able to “fall far from the tree” requires that we have to, at some point, question our parents’ way of seeing the world and this takes great courage.  In fact, there is no activity in life that requires more bravery than to think critically because to do so one must sometimes say “no” when important others (or maybe even the whole community or world) is saying “yes.”  Saying no when others are saying yes can be costly or even dangerous.  It’s certainly easier (and more comfortable) to just go with the flow.

I’m thinking a lot about thinking these days because that’s what I do.  Plus, it is campaign season in America and that means the news is full of stories about powerful and ambitious people putting their thinking on display in an attempt to get others to vote for them.  In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll just go ahead and tell you that politicians with the most progressive points of view generally tend to think a lot better—I’m not talking about their ideas, which I also find attractive, but about the methods they use to formulate their ideas and then state them to the public—than do conservatives.  Political conservatives—I actually like to call them “regressives”—make a lot of very classical thinking mistakes that many others might not catch because they aren’t trained to look for them the way I am.  In fact, regressive politicians often make arguments that simply leave me shaking my head.  The fact that so many Americans find such unskilled thinking attractive often makes me despair about the future of the country.

At this point I should probably tell you that I made myself a promise several years ago.  I promised to do whatever was necessary to become the best thinker I could possibly become even if this meant that I would ultimately have to embrace very unpopular ideas.  In my attempt to constantly improve myself intellectually, I often find myself butting heads with what is called “conventional wisdom,” which is mostly a first-rate oxymoron.

I want to conclude by reiterating something I said in a previous blog.  Critical thinking is a way of being.  It is a method of living life with great integrity.  It is not something I turn on and off at will.  It has become the way I conduct myself in this world.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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