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.

 

 

 

 

 

My Recent Telephone Conversation with Mom about Trump and Trumpism

forest-trees-northwestisbest-exploress

My Egyptian wife and I left Cairo and moved to America in 2015 to escape political instability and the personal danger that comes with it.  And now, a little more than a year after arriving in what was supposed to be a sanctuary, we find ourselves in the same predicament, in a country that seems to be politically unraveling or exploding or just going to the fucking dogs.

This morning I had a long and heated telephone conversation with my mother, a septuagenarian who lives in a beet red part of a mostly backward southern state.  (By the way, calling a state both mostly backward and southern seems to be a tad redundant, don’t you think?)  The purpose of my call was to see if she’d read an editorial that had been published on DallasNews.com, the online version of the Dallas Morning News, a daily—one of those old-fashioned things composed of real ink that’s been printed on large sheets of paper—which is destined to eventually go the way of dinosaurs.  I’d emailed the article to her several days earlier and had introduced it by saying, “It has come to this in the US—that sober experts, people with real credentials, are actually writing and publishing this sort of stuff.”

By the way, I advise everyone to read the piece at the link and then follow the writer on Twitter @TimothyDSnyder.  Snyder is a well-known historian at Yale University who offers advice on what Americans can do to prevent totalitarianism from arising in the US.  The underlying premise of the piece is that such ugliness is on its way and that we all need to be planning how to resist it (or at least survive it).  If you do read the editorial, you might want to spend the next couple of evenings sleeping with all the lights on.  Otherwise, slumbering in the dark after such a reading might cause you to have really terrifying dreams.

My mother said, and I quote, the writer of that article, “has gone off the deep end.”  My mom is obviously one of those Americans (of a certain generation) who believe “It can’t happen here.”  Because Americans have grown up thinking the nation’s shit don’t stink, many of them can’t recognize seedling fascism/despotism/totalitarianism when it sprouts up right in front of their eyes.

American exceptionalism is something I’ve discussed with her before.  The idea is deeply ingrained in her that the nation is somehow protected by something resembling a force field.  This weird belief that the US is somehow “chosen” and special is a danger unto itself.  The more people who think this nation is immune from fascism and the like, the less likely they are going to be able to see danger and realize that the time to take appropriate action was yesterday.

My mom, it seems, is one of those who is trying to rationalize or normalize what’s happening.  For more on the dangers of doing so, listen to the podcast found at the link below.

https://megaphone.link/SM3064947354

Anyway, getting back to my conversation earlier today with my mother.  Toward the end of our exchange, she said, “I trust the American people to not allow anything like tyranny to happen.”

I asked her, “You mean you trust those same people who voted for a man who ridiculed a handicapped person, called Hispanics rapists and murders, talked about grabbing women by their pussies because his fame allows to get away with such, and has blurred the line between ordinary Muslims and terrorists?”

Of course, my query flummoxed her and thus she didn’t have an immediate comeback.  I then followed that question up with a declaration:  “Clearly, your faith in the American people seems to be a touch misguided.”

I do think there are good Americans out there and that many of them, like Professor Snyder, are bravely writing about what’s happening, making them something akin to heroes.  I’ll have more to say about such types of people in a future blog.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

The Accidental Teacher: An Essay and Memoir (Part 6)

There were ten of us in Professor Randall’s philosophy class. The room could easily have seated fifty, so we were pretty spread out. It’s likely most of us were trying very hard to remain aloof (and perhaps even invisible) by putting as many desks as possible between ourselves and our nearest neighbors.

I, on the other hand, chose a seat right next to a buxom coed named Linda Louise Gartman, a nineteen-year-old from Iraan, Texas (spelled just like the Ayatollahs’ place but with an additional “a”). Her daddy owned a hardware store there—or maybe it was a Dairy Queen?—and she was studying business to prepare herself to partner up with him someday. Most of the other students were male—snuff-dipping types who likely drove pickups that sported Confederate flag decals—and were majoring in agriculture or some such. As for me, I was “undeclared” which is a collegiate way of saying “confused.” I had no idea what sort of work I’d be doing in the future and would have been shocked silly had anyone suggested that I’d end up being a teacher a few years into the future.

I chose my place in class because I liked Linda’s dirty-blond hair and the way her shirts fit. On about the second or third class meeting I put together a masterplan which involved me telling her my name and then saying a few perfectly chosen words that would cause her to fall in love with me. On the day I was to put my scheme into motion, I arrived early to class, slid into the desk next to her, and then froze up. No utterance would leave my mouth no matter how much I tried to push it out. Still, the sheer possibility that I might speak to her made me so hot and bothered that I had heart palpitations throughout the remainder of the class period.

The book the professor had us buy was full of excerpts from the great philosophy texts of yore. Not long into the semester, she assigned a piece that contained the “Allegory of the Cave,” from Plato’s Republic, a text I highly recommend—I count it as one of the hundred most important books ever written. After reading and then discussing it, I could see that the ancient Greek philosopher had had people like me in mind when he wrote it. I was certainly one of those who’d been exposed, up until that point in time, to mere “shadows” flickering dimly upon a wall. In his allegory, Plato was arguing that philosophy can free our minds and lead us out of darkness and into the “sunshine” of greater enlightenment. The idea that I had spent my entire life living in a cave of ignorance caused my head to explode.

I’ve spent so much time on Dr. Randall’s course because it was pivotal. It was the beginning of the beginning for me. It was the class that inspired me to start thinking about what it might be like to live the life of a thinker. To do so, though, I’d have to continue to read texts that would challenge my existing worldview and so I’d have to register for other courses of a similar type. The class was also the end of the beginning. After my introduction to philosophy, there was no way I could remain an intellectual child. I was no longer willing to accept the conventional wisdom—passed off as genuine wisdom—that authority figures had been feeding me all my life.

The course was also memorable for two weird occurrences. The first happened when Dr. Randall asked me to read aloud in class on day. I started off fine, but once I began to take notice of my voice being projected out into quiet space of our classroom, I became queerly self-conscious and terrified in a way I cannot fully put into words. I began to choke up and could barely complete the reading. Luckily, Linda was absent that day. The second weird experience had to do with the young woman I’d been so attracted to from day one. Right at the end of the term, after nearly four months had passed without me saying much at all to the object of my desire, I made Linda an offer—I sort of blurted it out, really. I told her I’d be happy to drive her back to her dorm room if she was headed that way. She then smiled and said, “Would you really do that? That’s so sweet! Yes, I’ll take you up on the offer.” We then loaded up into whatever jalopy I happened to be driving at the time and took off.

After a short trip, I pulled up into a parking spot right behind what was called “The Women’s High Rise.” Linda gave me this telling look and said, “Thank you, Troy. You’re so sweet! I’m sorry I didn’t say this to you earlier,” shortly before leaning over and giving me a kiss on the cheek. Needless to say, I felt completely flabbergasted. After gathering my wits, I drove absentmindedly away. Because the term was almost over, I saw her once or twice more, but then, after the final exam, never again.

 

 

The Accidental Teacher: An Essay and Memoir (Part 4)

Before I tell you the full story of how I had my mind blown at college, I want to let you know that I’ll be voting for Bernie Sanders for president this year. Yes, I am truly and wonderfully feeling the Bern—as are tens of millions of other citizens!

What does this political confession have to do with this essay and memoir? Aren’t I in danger of losing my focus by veering off like this?

Not in the least! I’m at least partly a Sanders supporter because he seems to understand what many other candidates do not—that the President of the United States has to be the nation’s educator-in-chief.

We take for granted that all American presidents have an important military job to play when we refer to them as the commander-in-chief. We also understand that they have a vital role in keeping America’s economy humming along. It certainly goes without saying that the head of the executive branch of government has a myriad of other duties to play.

What we often don’t realize is that perhaps his most important job of all is to help the populace better understand the world in which they live. This makes him or her—I hope we have a woman president very soon, but just not during this election cycle—the teacher of greatest importance and outreach in this large and complex nation-state.

It is perfectly clear that Sanders understands all this. That’s why he expends so much energy telling the electorate things that make so many so uncomfortable. That’s why he speaks about how out of balance America has become and about how the super-rich have rigged the political and economic game so that the remaining 99 percent of us have found ourselves incredibly marginalized.

In a sense, Sanders is not saying anything that many of us don’t already viscerally understand to be true. But to watch someone running for president break such a taboo—to suggest that America has a variety of fundamental shortcomings—is downright cathartic. Most politicians talk about the country in syrupy, self-congratulatory ways that some interpret as “patriotism,” but Sanders shows us that all is not well in paradise. In fact, his critique raises questions about the very notion that America is an “exceptional” country.

To see so many responding to Sanders so positively suggests that the nation is ready for such an explainer-in-chief. Sanders happened along at a moment in American history when a large segment of the population was feeling self-reflective and ready to accept uncomfortable truths. Learning is often a painful process whereby the learner has to give up old habits and beliefs in exchange for growth. The nation appears ready to make this tradeoff, and I couldn’t be happier about it.

The Accidental Teacher: An Essay and Memoir (Part 3)

I grew up just north of a tiny community called Georgetown, Texas, a sleepy place of approximately five thousand inhabitants. The nature of the village was such that it was easy for its citizens to live dreamy lives.

I have vivid recollections of the town, as it used to be before it became fast-paced and congested, before it became Austin’s premier bedroom community. Today, the town—it’s more of a city really—is on fire with development. The few old-timers who still live there speak wistfully of a slower and simpler past.

But, back in the day, it was a quiet village, filled with grand Victorian houses that were shaded by tall pecan trees. There was a stop sign or two and maybe a traffic light. People got their groceries at the little Piggly Wiggly and their clothes at Gold’s Department Store on the square. There were a handful of churches and every family attended one. The schools weren’t crowded, nor did they resemble the fortresses of security that we so frequently see today when we drive past one. I guess it was pretty much Central Texas’ version of Mayberry R.F.D. I realize I’ve dated myself some with that reference to The Andy Griffith Show spin-off. I remember a slew of other programs that are part of the lore of 1970s television. Such is the memory of a man my age.

When my parents broke up, I moved, with my mom and brother, to Forsan, Texas, with the result being that I left my life in a small town to start anew in an even tinier one.

The point of all this is that I came of age in conventional places where people never dreamed of entertaining thoughts that were the least bit radical. Most citizens of Georgetown or Forsan didn’t even know what they didn’t know. The vast majority of children grow up similarly, I suppose, in places like I’ve described. It is universally true that the family and the local community give us our shape. By “shape,” I also mean our “limits.”

When I went off to university, I was a small-town boy who was intellectually stunted due to no fault of my own. But because of the influence of those individuals I mentioned in my previous blog, I was also the fertile ground into which the seeds of all sorts of new ideas could be planted. So, when I registered for classes like philosophy, political science, sociology, psychology, and literature, strange flora began to sprout and the terrain of my mind was changed forever.