How I Ended up Being Sent to Poland

flying to Poland

During the spring of 1993—a long time ago now—I was a young academician teaching at a community college called South Plains College located in Lubbock, Texas.  After a very weird series of events that, if depicted in painting form would resemble something done by Salvador Dali, I suddenly found myself unemployed and on the public dole.  As the government checks rolled in, I pounded the pavement to find work.  The only result of all that pounding is me developing a bad case of fallen arches.

I got desperate.  I became a human testimonial of the wisdom of the proverb “Necessity is the mother of invention.”  It was necessary for me to find work, and I was not finding it no matter how many doors I knocked on and CVs I handed out.  On a day where I simple reeked of so badly of frustration that no amount of cologne splashing could ever hide such an odor, I happened, partly by happenstance and partly by thinking outside the box, to hit upon the idea of applying to join the United States Peace Corps.  I’d always heard it said that becoming a Volunteer would be “the toughest job” I’d “ever love.”  Hell, tough or otherwise, if I could do all the paperwork and somehow get accepted, I’d have work, albeit challenging.

To make a long story short, I did get in though it took me nearly a year to complete the arduous application process.  The federal government, in all its infinite wisdom, decided to send me to Poland.  It was the best choice they could have made for me.  I’d always been intrigued by those countries that used to reside behind what we called “The Iron Curtain.”  As a boy, I’d always wondered how a curtain could be made of iron and dreamed of peeking behind such an odd partition.  Now was my chance.  And the government was even going to pick up the plane fare to get me there.  All I had to do upon arrival was pass what was called “Pre-Service Training.”  If I managed to do that, I’d be sent off to do educational consulting work and teacher training…

November 30, 2018

cars and buses

During the entire time I lived abroad—nearly two decades—I never once had to own a car.  Today, in San Antonio, my wife and have two.  It’s not that we want to live this way; it’s that we have no other choice.  There is certainly a bus system in San Antonio, and I have done research about how I might use it to get to work, but it’s not practically possible given where the stops are located, the number of bus changes I’d have to make, and the infrequency of these multi-passenger vehicles.  When I lived in Poland, in the city of Tarnow, a place with a tiny fraction of the population of the Alamo City, there was a more sophisticated public transportation system than what I find in this monstrously large metropolitan area.

So Europe kicks America’s butt when it comes to having figured out transportation.  I have lived on the continent and been a tourist in just about every European country and can provide firsthand experience to bolster such a claim.  Americans like to think that they live in the freest country in the world, but how much freedom do they actually have when it comes to daily travel?  Freedom is about having choices, and the average American has almost none when it comes to how he or she gets to and from work and such.  We have the automobile and that’s it.  The car industry, along with its buddy Big Oil and Gas, seem to own the country and have disproportionate power in determining how we live our lives.  We all know these powerhouses have played a pivotal historical role in having prevented America from developing a European-style public transportation system.

So my wife and I own two cars.  Of course, we have to insure these vehicles and register them and pay yearly inspection fees.  We have to fill their bellies with gasoline.  This means we literally spend hundreds of dollars, if not more, on a yearly basis to keep these two machines legal and in working order because we have no other choice.  This is money we could save or spend in much more meaningful ways on our home or on travel or what have you.  Of course, every American is in the same boat.  That’s one of the reasons the middle-class is being squeezed to death.  How much richer would Americans and America be if we could invest in affordable public transportation and ween the nation off the automobile?

Because of everything I’ve said in the previous paragraphs, I don’t think it would be strange for me to conclude that we don’t actually own these cars.  Instead, they own us.

I don’t especially like being owned by two high-maintenance mechanical divas.  Their moodiness drives me bonkers.  Not long ago, for example, I went to our garage and tried to start our Nissan.  I inserted the key into the ignition and turned it.  Nothing.  I tried again and again but the thing wouldn’t fire up.  I eventually ended up having to have my wife take me work.  As it turns out, there was something very minor having to do with the battery.  The mechanic looked at it for a few seconds, made the tiniest of adjustments, and the thing started up and purred like a contented kitten.

Because I am an American, I have had to learn a lot about how to find a good auto mechanic.  I have also learned that they speak their own indecipherable language, have their collection of secret code words.  They are the mystics we mere mortals turn to when our garage beasts get sick or simply want to make our lives a bit more complicated than they already are.

 

 

November 27, 2018

jacky and johnnie

This past Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, my wife and I drove—south to north—up Interstate 35.  We started in San Antonio and ended up in the beautiful village of Georgetown, Texas, my hometown and the place my father and stepmother live their idyllic lives as retirees.

Of course, there was food—they don’t refer to Thanksgiving as “turkey day” for nothing—so we ate it.  And we drank.  And we sat around long after the vittles had been consumed and were snaking through our digestive systems.  And while we sat and let the nutrients do what nutrients do, we talked and laughed and reminisced and smiled at one another across the dining room table.

Off and on, between gorging ourselves in ways that distended our already distended bellies, we watched football and took discreet naps while sitting heavily on a couple of large L-shaped sofas.

We woke up Saturday morning and Janie, my stepmother, suggested that we drive up to Burnet, a town located in what Texans call “the Hill Country,” to visit Jacky, my dad’s youngest brother, and Johnnie, his wife and survivor of cancer, a disease that had caused her to lose her hair but none of her spunk.  Everyone thought it was a great idea.

Everyone in the family knows and openly talks about how Jacky has become something of an eccentric.  He doesn’t like to leave his house very often except to hunt and fish.  He gets up at 4 a.m. every morning and is obsessively clean to the nth degree and beyond.  In fact, he has a large workshop behind his house and those who’ve seen it jokingly say that a person could eat a meal off its concrete floor.

The result of all this was that I expected our visit to be somewhat awkward.  This expectation was exacerbated by the fact that this would only be the second time I’d seen my aunt and uncle in the last twenty years.  So I sort of knew what to expect but sort of didn’t too.

After an hour of driving, we found ourselves in a wooded area not far from Lake Buchanan.  We parked in the driveway, were met by Jacky and Johnnie in the front yard, and then were escorted through the house and out the back door where we all took seats on a lovely screened back porch.  I spotted a rustic rocking chair and made a beeline toward it.  We all took our seats and then began to ooh and ah about our surroundings.

The backyard was huge with several large cottonwoods and oaks, all of them shedding leaves in the autumnal breeze.  Johnnie said something about how this was their favorite place to sit and be still and quiet.  She also mentioned how this was medicine for her psyche.  She said they ate out here and even slept out here when the conditions were right.  I understood how all this could be true as I felt myself decompressing and unwinding.

There was a large and melodious wind chime hanging next to me and I mentioned how pretty it sounded.  Johnnie then told the story of how they’d come to own it.  According to her, on the day they were coming home from her mother’s funeral, Jackie, knowing that his wife was feeling profoundly sad, stopped at a roadside market and bought it while she sat in the car.  Upon returning to the vehicle, he handed it to his wife and said, “This is a little something from me.  I hope you’ll think of your mother when you hear it.”

So, on the afternoon of our visit, we sat and listened to the chime while Johnnie told this story.  One or two times, during her telling, she paused and wiped, using the back of her hand, a tear a two that had rolled down her cheeks.

It was a sad story but a beautiful day, made even more so by wonderful fellowship among kin and kindred spirits.

 

 

 

 

 

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…

October 30, 2018

I lived in Egypt from 2008 to 2015.  That put me in the country during the 2011 Revolution.

After the Egyptians flexed their collective muscles, others, including the Americans, were inspired to follow suit.  (Everyone remembers the Occupy Wall Street movement, right?)  Activists squatted in Zuccotti Park just like the Cairenes had done in Tahrir Square.  Then the movement metastasized.

Eventually, though, the occupiers dispersed or underwent a metamorphosis.  (Energy of that sort never fully disappears.)

Lately, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about Zuccotti Park and Tahrir Square.  And I’ve gained some insights about what happened in those places.  For example, I’ve come to see revolution as a metaphor. It is a kind of human flowering that occurs even during a drought.  Actually it occurs because there’s a drought.  That makes it very ironic.

Revolution is an ending.  It is a beginning too.

It can also be seen as an expression of that which can’t be fully expressed.

October 25, 2018

pumpkin scary halloween

I’m scared.  It’s mid-October, but my fear has nothing to do with the ghouls and goblins that normally occupy the human imagination this time of year.

Trump, politics, and the upcoming midterm elections have me shaking in my boots.  If you’re not scared about what’s happening in these dis-United States of America, you ain’t paying attention.  Pull your head out and open your eyes and ears.  If you do, you’ll certainly see and hear the rambling and wildly irrational speeches of a demagogue with an impressive comb over.  He’ll likely be surrounded by a throng of red-hatted septuagenarians with angrily contorted faces and raised fists.  Many who make up such a mob will likely be frothing at the mouth and hurling insults at a variety of scapegoats.  Their Great Leader encourages their ire and expertly directs their hatred.  He plays them like a musical instrument, but the sound produced lacks all beauty.

These screaming cultists simply need to be given marching orders.  The moment he sets them loose on the rest of us is the moment of the lighting of the fuse.

Not long ago, seeing where things were going, I made sure I knew where my passport was located.  And because I’m married to a North African émigré who practices the religion of Islam, I very quietly and without causing alarm, put together a Plan B just in case Plan A—staying in America—became, suddenly, unworkable.

I’ve lived in countries where things rapidly unraveled because of politics.  What I see happening now, in this “first-world” country, reminds me a lot of what went down in the “third-world” nation-state of Egypt during the run up to the deposing of Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

I know that might sound like hyperbole to many Americans who think IT CAN’T HAPPEN HERE.  To those who feel this way I would say that IT’S ALREADY HAPPENING HERE.

For folks who are as concerned as I am and want to know what they should be doing to prepare for the Zombie Apocalypse, I leave them with this fantastic piece—an oldie but a goodie—by the brilliant Timothy Snyder.

 

October 23, 2018

zeyneb

Last week was terrible.  Six days ago, at approximately 3 a.m. in the morning, my wife’s mother, Zeynep, died.  As soon as we heard that tragic news, I began to send texts and make calls to a variety of people so that I could stay home from work to tend to my wife and give vent to my own profound sadness.

Zeynep had been suffering from kidney disease for a couple of years or so.  Her treatment had primarily consisted of dialysis treatments that left her exhausted and depressed.  Then, about three months or so ago, something changed.  Her body—for whatever reason—began to reject treatment.  It became harder and harder for the doctors to administer dialysis and her medicine seemed to stop working.  As a result, my mother-in-law’s condition deteriorated which led to more depression which led to a worsening of her physical state.  It was a vicious circle that she’d become trapped in.

On the morning of Zeynep’s death, Azza, my wife, had trouble sleeping.  She tossed and turned in the bed next to me.  A few minutes before 3 a.m., she woke up and called her family in Cairo, Egypt, to make sure everything was Okay.  She started telephoning her brothers and sisters but none of them would answer.  Finally, she got someone on the line only to learn that her mother had just passed to the other side.  So, about the time my wife had had her premonition, her mother was breathing her last breath.

I cannot tell you how bad I feel for my wife.  I understand her loss completely.  I actually witnessed my grandfather—I man I was profoundly close to—die in his bed in his home.  That was the culmination of a long, debilitating illness.  And when he finally left us, it took weeks for many of us to fully recover from that devastating blow.

Death is so final.  That’s why it makes us feel devastated and sad and angry.  There is no one to complain to when it happens.  You can shake your fist and scream, but none of those actions will do any good.  Death cannot be reversed upon appeal.

From time to time, my wife turns to me, and with tears in her eyes, asks, “Is she really gone?”  To which I quietly answer, “Yes, she’s gone.”

I wish I could tell her that she’ll be back soon.  But that would be a lie.