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 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.

#NotMyPresident #TheResistance

points-of-light

I have this friend named B*** S******.  We got to know each other while we were both teaching at The American University in Cairo.  I returned to the US in 2015 and he did so a year later.

When I came back, I got a pretty lucrative education and training job with the Department of Defense as a private contractor.  I was hired to work with foreign military personal—both enlisted and officers.  I had students from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Djibouti, Jordan, Mauritania, Togo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Afghanistan, Georgia, Bulgaria, the Ukraine, Mongolia, South Korea, and Indonesia.  I might have left out a country or two, and I apologize if that’s the case.  Then, student enrollment declined, beginning in the springtime, and I got laid off exactly one year after hiring on, making me collateral damage which sounds a lot better than a bullet-riddled corpse that had been mutilated beyond all recognition.  It was the first layoff of my life and it came at the worst time imaginable.  In fact, it’s left me with ugly scars and something akin to PTSD.

B*** came back and got a job at a community college in some Podunk in the Midwest, an area sometimes called “flyover country,” and for good reason, because to land there puts one at risk of contracting a deadly form of ignorance, the sort that turns the brain to mush, making someone like Donald Trump look like a reasonable human being who might make a good president.

I might be giving my friend’s current place of abode away by saying it garnered national news a while back when the police arrested three scraggly, lily-white, neo-Nazi-looking guys who were in the midst of plotting to blow up a building inhabited by Somali refugees who had committed the heinous crime of leaving their troubled homeland to start life anew.  I’ll go back and look at the reports again, but I believe one Donald Trump, the fellow who froths at the mouth like a rabid skunk when you suggest he’s opened up Pandora’s Box of hate in the country, had been the rednecks’ primary inspiration.

To quote one of my favorite writers of the 20th century, a kinky headed dude named Kurt Vonnegut:  “And so it goes.”

B*** and I talk about politics on the phone from time to time.  During one of our pre-election conversations, I said, “There might be a silver lining to the election of DT if it happens.”

“What the hell would that be?” B*** asked incredulously.

“Well, in the short run, I agree it would be catastrophic, but in the longer term, it would likely be a powerful impetus to kick start a truly robust progressive movement the likes of which American has maybe never seen before.”

Do I see such a coming together of progressives happening now that we are living in the alternative universe known as Trump Reality?  Quick answer:  Hell yes.

The last time we talked—about two weeks after that very flawed presidential election—B*** was terrified.  (I could hear him quaking in his boots through the phone.)  His fear was that we were entering a phase where the fascist brutes, aligned with law enforcement, would just start rounding people up or mowing them down—whatever was most cost-effective and convenient.  I advised my buddy to get on Twitter and just have a look around at the pushback that was taking place against the Chief Nihilist of the US and his fascist minions.  If he did so, I exhorted him, he’d feel a lot better.

I have always felt that STEP ONE in the resistance of despotism can only come after millions of people have linked arms—this linking can start virtually, on places like Twitter—become comrades, and have declared a common goal.  This is happening as I write this.  If you’re feeling alone, hopeless, and isolated, reach out to others who are your political brothers and sisters.  Once you do this, you will begin to feel a part of something that is much bigger than yourself.  This will embolden and inspire you.  You’ll see that lots and lots of people have your back.

You will also discover resistance movements and find out about street protests and planned acts of resistance and civil disobedience.  Join one and become an activist.  Use your feet to move through the streets.  As your feet carry you along, your voices will rise up to say “No!”

My feeling is the fascists are really mostly bluster.  (It is no accident that the most obnoxious ones hide behind fake Twitter handles, afraid to show their true identities.)  Stand up to them.  Get in their faces.  And they will ultimately slink away.

Forced Awakening

seeing-whats-there

I can’t believe I’m being dragged back into politics.  But that is exactly what’s happening.

In 2015 I quit visiting all the political websites that had held my interest for many years.  I stopped thinking about politics and discussing the topic with others.

2015 is also the year I left Egypt after living and working there for seven years.  During that time, I was very political, at least from 2008 to 2014.  In 2011, I witnessed the mass uprising against Hosni Mubarak and found myself swept away by the euphoria that followed his deposing.  Then, two years later, during the month of July, I watched in horror as Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, was overthrown in a military coup.  Some very scary characters referred to it as a “second revolution,” but the more apt term was “counterrevolution.”

The counterrevolution crushed my spirit but not because I was a Morsi fan.  I was devastated because I had seen how hard brave Egyptians had fought to free themselves.  And I saw the sacrifices they’d made.  Suddenly, though, they were right back at square one or even worse.  The only way I could survive such devastation was to numb myself.  So, I withdrew from politics and became apathetic, which takes me back to the point I was making about myself in the second paragraph.

I had a bit of a revival when Bernie Sanders decided to run for president.  The old political juices began to flow again.  From the moment he declared his candidacy, I felt the Bern.  Eventually, he built an incredible following and I began to see a glass that was half full.  Egypt had certainly lost its way but America, it seemed, was on the verge of finding its soul.

Then the Democratic Party machine decided that Hillary Clinton was somehow owed the nomination.  Bernie was treated unfairly and his supporters were pushed aside.  Many of us warned that Clinton was too compromised and therefore vulnerable.  Too few listened to those warnings.  Too many people were too certain about what they thought was a foregone conclusion.  There were many ominous signs for those with the ability to see and read them.  With Bernie out of the race and everyone saying Clinton was a shoo-in, I began to lose interest again.

But I never drifted entirely away.  That weird sense of foreboding I felt wouldn’t let me turn completely off.  The mood of the nation reinforced the sense of dread I felt.  It seemed all too possible that something catastrophic might happen.  And it did on November 8, 2016, a date that go down in infamy.

Now that the world as we’ve known it is in the process of vanishing, the old jump-up-on-a-soapbox Troy has reawakened.

I grew up during a period when Americans smugly believed that the nation and its people were somehow special—or exceptional.  They watched as other countries fell apart or came under the influence of evil powers but felt that such things could never happen in the greatest country the world had ever seen.  America would always remain the beacon.  It would always set the model for others to follow.

But just look where we find ourselves now.  Just look.  Look long and hard.  And while doing so, make sure not to turn your eyes away.  Don’t delude yourself into believing that what you see isn’t as bad as many are suggesting.

The truth is, it’s every bit as bad as people are saying.  We cannot know for sure how bad it may get, but it is already way beyond horrific.

Our Saturdays and Sundays

estate liquidation

When Azza and I moved from Cairo, Egypt, to San Antonio, Texas, USA, we didn’t bring a lot with us.  Actually, I take that back.  We transported a hellacious load of boxes, via a cargo container that was loaded into ship that had dropped anchor in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria, but that lot didn’t include much furniture.  So, when we set up house in SA, we lived a Spartan existence for a while.

We did not despair about our lack of furnishings.  Instead, for months now, on weekends, beginning early every Saturday morning, we rise and shine to make the rounds at garage sales, yard sales, parking lot sales, estate sales, and any other kind of retail enterprise, large or small, where folks hawk previously owned goods at affordable prices.  We learn about these buying opportunities via the World Wide Web, on this site and this one.  We also locate them by sheer accident as we drive around and through the sprawling metropolis that is San Antonio.

I have to admit that this sort of shopping beats the hell out of a visit to IKEA or some such place.  I am particularly fond of estate sales even though I always feel a little sinful—that might not be exactly the right word, but it’s close—while picking up and handling a family’s once-cherished possessions.  Poking my nose into their bedrooms, bathrooms, living rooms, dining room, kitchens, and private crawl spaces invariably leaves me feeling a bit like an impertinent ogler.  For example, if I walk into a home where the owner had an obsession for footwear—there are plenty of houses that are simply stuffed to the rafters with an obscenely large number of pairs of women’s shoes—I always feel like I’ve discovered a family secret that the inhabitants would have preferred not to have become common knowledge.

shoes

Estate sale shopping is always a little sad, too.  I invariably run across wheelchairs, walkers, and packets of unopened adult diapers, the tell-tale signs of deterioration and demise.  I often find that my eyes fixate on these items as my mind tries to conjure an image of the person (or persons) who used them.  I then turn away and wander into a new room, one where the walls are decorated by dusty black-and-white photos of people I’ll never know and who are probably long gone and forgotten.

Not long ago, while the two of us were walking down the hallway of a particularly large house that was simply bursting at the seams with stuff, Azza stopped me dead in my tracks by grabbing my arm.  “Troy, promise me one thing,” she said with a troubled look on her face.

“What’s that?” I asked her.

“When we die, you’ll never let anyone open up our house in this way.”

“OK,” I said.

She then let my arm go and we continued moving from room to room, picking up a few purchases as we went along.

I’m Pretty Sure I’ve Been Here Before

Life takes some incredible twists and turns.  About a million years ago, I was born in San Antonio, Texas, a city that’s a little bit America and a little bit Mexico, and then, back when I was still pooping in diapers, mom and dad carried me off to Garland, a suburb of Dallas.  Over the decades, I have had one or two opportunities to return to my birthplace, but only as a tourist and only for very brief visits.  Mostly, I’ve been estranged from the locale that could rightfully be called my hometown.

Then, in the latter days of September of 2015, a few months after I’d left my post at The American University in Cairo, a very sudden job offer in San Antonio came my way while Azza—my Egyptian wife of five years and new America émigré—and I were camped out with family, in their guest bedroom, in another part of the Lone Star State.  Of course, I signed on the dotted line, right where my new employer told me to.  We then loaded up, headed to south Texas, down where the beautiful language of Spanish is ubiquitously spoken, and set up house.

All these years later, I am back in San Antonio, the place where I (literally) got my start.  From time to time, when I’m tooling around the city, I get this weird déjà vu feeling.  As a matter of fact, this past weekend, Azza and I went to the San Antonio zoo, and while standing in front of the flamingo cage, I had this odd sensation that I had stood in this exact spot before.  The bird scene before me seemed bizarrely familiar.  I lifted my camera, took a few photos of the pink, hook-nosed birds, while goosebumps rose on my arms.

flamingo

We spent three hours among the animals and enjoyed our time more than I can accurately articulate here.  I’ve always been a nut for creatures—this nuttiness was especially acute when I was a tyke—and I felt that old delight resurface as we moved from cage to cage.  For some reason, on this particular outing, I especially liked the fish in their various watery enclosures.  They swam past us, flashing a zillion neon colors as they went.  In fact, I was so captivated by them it took me a while to actually notice that in one particularly large aquarium there were two hippos, their grotesquely large bodies magnified by the water, floating among those finned and gilled darters.

I’ve included a few photos here and am upset with myself that I didn’t get a good shot of the gibbons as they swung through the treetops, picked insects off on another, and otherwise reminded me of how humanlike they are.  While watching them do their monkey business, I got so enthralled—my mouth was probably agape—that I simply forgot to lift my camera and click the shutter.

 

 

 

 

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.