December 6, 2018

lost cat

Earlier today I was doing something that is pretty unusual for me.  I was walking on the far western side of campus, in an area I’m not all that familiar with.  That’s because my office, the writing center I manage, and those places I most often frequent are located on the east side.

Suddenly, in these strange surroundings, I found myself face to face with a student.  He was a tall boy who had to look down on me.  His mouth opened and out came a question:  “Can you tell me where Brazos Hall is?”

When students ask me things—and they often do in my line of work—I almost always have a satisfactory answer for them.  In this case, though, I was dumbfounded.  I sort of cast a frantic look about and said, “I’m sorry but I don’t really know.”

At that precise instant, a coed who’d overheard our exchange stepped up to us and said, “It’s over there.”  Then she pointed in a northerly direction.

The young man smiled, thanked us both, and took off toward his desired destination.

On my way back to my office I started thinking about this encounter.  The more I thought about it, the more upset I became.  Why hadn’t I known where Brazos Hall is?  After all, this is the place I work!  It’s like the world I inhabit five days a week!

I like to think that I’m a kind of explorer, but in this particular instance, I seemed not to know much about this campus.  And this made me feel really disappointed with myself.

The key phrase in the previous paragraph was “I like to think.”  I like to think that I am curious and explore a lot, but this most recent experience, where I didn’t know something that I clearly should have, raises doubts about the veracity of the way I talk about myself when others ask me what sort of person I am.  Does this mean I’m not the person I claim to be or think myself to be?  Do I need to reassess what I think I know about the sort of person I am?  Have I gotten lazier?  More accepting of the idea that I know so little?

There is certainly some evidence to suggest that I get around and have discovered a lot about the world and my surroundings by exploring.  For example, I have lived in five countries—often under very difficult circumstances—and that takes guts.  Cowards don’t move off to live in countries like Poland, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, and Egypt, and they don’t travel, as a tourist, to as many off-the-beaten-path places as I have without having at least a bit of moxie.  But that period is now in my past.  I returned to America about three and a half years ago and haven’t left since.  I’m starting to think I’m beginning to look like the kind of person we think of as “rooted.”

I’ve had this job for nearly a year and a half and I still don’t know where Brazos Hall is!  Clearly, when it comes to this college, I’m rooted in my little part of campus.

While writing all this I’ve made a vow—to get out more.  To go to places that are off my beaten path.  To find Brazos Hall all by myself and to go inside the building and look at it closely, to know its every nook and cranny.  I want to know how many floors it has, what color its walls are painted, how it’s laid out.

If I don’t do this with Brazos Hall and with all the other places I haven’t yet seen—despite having been here long enough to know the place backwards, forwards, and sideways—then I’m going to feel like a failure.  I’m going to feel like I’m no longer the Troy I once was.  And I’m going to wonder where he’s gone.  (Is he dead?)  And, if he is, might he somehow be resurrected?

 

 

November 21, 2018

buddha

We have this guy named Albert who cleans our writing center late every afternoon.  Not long after he started coming around with his brooms and things, I found out, sort of through the grapevine, that his janitorial colleagues call him “Blanco” because that’s Spanish for “white.”  As it turns out, because of his age, Albert has a full head of silver locks which he loads up with something sort of oily and then combs back away from his face.

By the way, I’ve mentioned this before, but it never hurts to remind people that I live in San Antonio, Texas, a place some sometimes call “The Alamo City.”  In this part of Texas, Spanish (or Spanglish) is the language of choice.  So it probably won’t surprise you to hear that Español permeates every aspect of life here, including the way people conceive of things, such as the color of Albert’s hair.

I like Albert a lot.  We always sing the Working Man’s Blues when he comes around.  Obviously, he’s slightly lower than I am on the hierarchy totem pole, so his blues are especially heartfelt.  And I always lend a very caring ear.  I try to put myself in his place, but it’s hard to imagine what it must be like to try to live on what they pay him.  I sort of get it because I once worked many menial jobs, but that was way back when I was a hungry student.  Today, by Albert’s standards, I’m what you might call a Fat Cat.

It’s hard to think of myself as a Fat Cat when I have such shallow pockets.  But I guess I sort of am one when I compare myself to some of those around me.  In the overall scheme of things, though, I’m about the skinniest feline you can imagine.  As a matter of fact, without even sucking my stomach in, I’m able to slip throw the narrowest of crevasses.

Often, when Albert’s around and we’re not talking the way two working men talk, I like to just sit and sort of allow myself to Zen out.  By that I mean I like to watch him, out of the corner of my eye, move around the center.  I know this might sound weird, but ever since I was a child, I’ve had this odd ability.  If I watch someone—it doesn’t have to be directly watching but sort of obliquely watching—moving about or engaging in some kind of repetitive action, it sort of calms me down and I become nearly Buddha-like.  I am able to slow my heart, silence the chatter of my mind, end the death of my cells, and fall down into a deep hole of profound self-awareness that I find to be blissful.

So I sometimes find myself able to achieve this odd tranquility when Albert is around.  I wouldn’t even try to explain this phenomenon to him for fear that he’d report me to whomever he’d need to report me to so that the men in white coats would show up, straitjacket in hand.

 

 

 

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…