December 11, 2018

cover your cough

I’m in the clinic, the one I always visit when I need something medical done.  Exactly one week ago I was in this same waiting room, awaiting the commencement of a physical exam.  I was hungry that day because they’d asked me to fast.

Last time I was here my name was eventually called.  I stood up, walked toward a nurse who asked me for some urine which would have been a strange request to make in any other context. (I remember how warm the plastic container felt as I peed into it.)  And then she drew some blood.  She made me walk down a hallway, opened a door at the end of it, showed me a large machine that could peer through my skin and look deep into my body.  She directed me to remove my shirt, stand just so with my arms raised above my head.  She then let the contraption shine its magical light on me so that an image of my inner workings could be captured and studied.  Finally, she attached some electrodes to my body to learn more about my ticker.

Today, I am back to get the results of all those tests.  I am sitting in the waiting room now.  There are others here.  Some are coughing and some, although certainly not all, are covering their mouths with handkerchiefs.  One man has an odd coloration and makes me think he might be a touch jaundiced.  Two young women have comically large bellies on their otherwise insubstantial bodies.  (The way they keep smiling and whispering together makes me they think they feel a special bond and are cherishing the fact that they’re carrying life within their protuberant abdomen.)

I felt persuaded, after no more than five minutes of listening to those folks coughing up their lungs, to move to a more distant part of the waiting room.  Who needs to be near those airborne germs?  If I have anything to say about it, I won’t allow that sort of sickness to get inside my body and fiddle around.  Sitting any closer than I currently am—now that I’ve put distance between me and them—is really asking for trouble.

I have a book with me, so I take it out and start reading.  Its title is The Awakening of Intelligence and it’s written by Krishnamurti, an Indian philosopher and all-around swell guy.  I’m drawn to the words of wise people, mostly because I’m so lacking in the wisdom department myself.  A dumb guy can never go wrong spending a few moments reading what a smart guy has to say.

I tried to concentrate on the book but there was too much coughing and talking and such.  This caused me to put Krishnamurti down and look across the room.  Being around sick people usually makes me think that I’m about to die myself.  This happens because the ill remind me of my own vulnerability.  Actually, we’re all just flesh and blood and gelatinous, pulsating organs inside a wrapping of flesh.  There’s not much more to us than that.  It’s amazing any of us make it any time at all.

I’m reminded of a video that they showed us back when I was in middle school.  It was a videotape of a surgery.  (I still find it shocking that she showed such gruesome footage to a bunch of fifth graders.)  So they showed the patient being cut open and what his guts looked like. To this day, I remember being shocked at what the insides of a human being look like.  I was not impressed and almost immediately became a hypochondriac.

&&&

So I’ve just been called into the clinic’s inner sanctum to meet with my doctor and get what I hope to be good news—that I don’t have cancer or the palsy or the bubonic plague.  I don’t have to wait long.  He comes in and I stand and shake his hand.  (He’ll certainly hose himself down with disinfectant as soon as I take my leave of him and this room.)  He gets right to it and tells me that all my tests look good.  They haven’t found a single thing to worry about.  And then he informs me I’m free to go.

I step out into the waiting room and the coughing people are now gone—perhaps dead?  Despite their absence, I hold my breath as I head to the door.  I get to it, push it open, and step out into fresh, germ-free air.

 

 

December 4, 2018

fear

For many years I suffered from “white coat hypertension,” meaning that my blood pressure would spike when I went to see a doctor—any doctor—for any sort of reason.  This happened, of course, because I found going to such places–where the smells of illness and disinfectant hang heavily in the air–to be very frightening.

You might think this sounds like a pretty weird phobia to have.  On the other hand, a little cursory reading on the internet shows it to be a fairly common one.  I suppose that makes a whole lot of us pretty weird.

Fear of doctors and going to see them is rooted in the fact that we mostly only go to talk with such people when there’s something amiss in our bodies.  Thus, the physician’s office is a place where one goes in mostly expecting bad news and is usually not disappointed in this respect.  Plus, one does things in clinics and hospitals that one almost never does in any other context.  For example, how often is a person asked to pee into a tiny plastic cup or is approached by an individual with a syringe who then proceeds to inserted said sharp object into one’s vein to suck blood—a vital fluid—out of one’s body.  Or how frequently is an individual required to stand partially or completely naked in front a complete stranger to be squeezed, poked, and prodded by fingers and a variety of cold, metal instruments?  To top it all off, nurses and doctors have a long history of asking really embarrassing questions.  As a matter of fact, I recall going to a clinic a few years back for a bit of a stomach problem and having a lovely woman with a stethoscope hanging around her neck ask me, with a perfectly straight face, “Are you very often flatulent?”

As far as I can recall, she was the first and only person to ever ask me, pointblank, about farting.

I am thinking about doctors and my fear of them because I had the first part of a physical examination about one week.  As is normally the case, it was a pretty unsettling experience.

Of course, a variety of exams were given, including an EKG.  Before the test took place, I was asked to remove my shirt and undershirt.  While doing so, I became painfully aware of how hairy my torso was.  In addition, I looked down, once I was half naked, and took note of the flabbiness of my midsection.  I considered, for a split section, sucking my gut in but wondered how long I’d be able to hold it like that before my face turned blue, raising additional medical suspicions.  I had been left all alone in the examination room to ponder my physical imperfections.  After five minutes or so, a nurse wheeled in the EKG machine, asked me to lie, face up, on a terribly cold and elevated examination table.  She started sticking what felt to be suction cups to my hairiness.  To pretend that none of this was happening, I stared up at the ceiling and began to fixate my gaze upon the light fixture. The machine was turned on and something started happening, although that something made no sound or gave any other signs that it was operating.  Luckily, after a very short time, the exam was completed, and she told me I could cover my embarrassingly white flesh as she wheeled the contraption out of the room.

After a few minutes the doctor came in with my file in hand.  He began to thumb through pages of information about me.  I was acutely aware that he likely knew more about me than I know about myself.  I’m pretty sure my white coat hypertension came back at that moment, but not being hooked up to a sphygmomanometer, it was nigh impossible for me to know for sure.  I could feel my face flushing, though, which was a pretty clear sign.

 

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 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.

 

M****** Wanted to Ride Me Like a Donkey

A few days ago I started penning  a memoir as a way of coming out of a period of creative dormancy.

This post–the part that follows this intro–is an excerpt from that not-yet-titled autobiographical work.

This will be my second autobiography.  The first one was called Blue Yonder.  It was never published even though I sent it off to several literary agents in NYC (and elsewhere) and was able to generate considerable interest.  M****** K******–I don’t remember the name of the agency she worked for–strung me along for months.  She liked the manuscript but requested a few rewrites which I completed.  She also asked me to write up a book proposal.  Again, I obliged.

I sent the proposal off and she took a long while reviewing it.  She came back with a critique of my marketing plan.  She asked me to do a little research on how to market a work of nonfiction and then resubmit the proposal.  Being the good boy that I am, I did all that she asked.

To make a long story short, she eventually, after giving me the run around and building my hopes up, sent a cursory rejection note.  This had been the culmination of months of work on my part and lots of to and fro emailing.

This whole experience taught me lessons.  For one, my writing is good enough.  (She even told me so.)  Secondly, her sole reason for rejecting me was rooted in the fact I hadn’t proved to her that I could be a good salesman.  By the way, I never, not once, not even in the initial query letter, promised that I was an experienced hawker of books.  (Isn’t it asking enough that one be able to write one?)  Wasn’t she supposed to do something other than contact the publishing houses after I’d put years of labor into the project?  Her webpage promised that she would be with her authors every step of the way.  Did she really mean that or were those just pretty words?

What M****** wanted was to ride me like a donkey.  I was supposed to carry her to the place where all the money could be found and then she would jump off my back long enough to fill her saddlebags with dough.  Had I signed up with her and had book sales lagged, I sure she would have taken out a stick and flogged me on my butt along with digging her spurs into my flanks.

Anyway, I’m ready to try again, but not with M******.  The first couple of pages of the first-draft of this second attempt can be found below:

***

My heart is untroubled, and my face wears a permanent smile.  When I close my eyes and try to visualize what I look like, in my current state, I see myself as a contented Buddha-like character, sitting with crossed legs under a lotus tree.

I’m speaking metaphorically, of course, as well as beating around the bush.  I’m trying to say that I’m in one of those rare good places in my life where everything seems to have worked out perfectly well and now, as a result, I am truly happy.  I don’t know if this wonderful turn of events happened because I was able to engineer it to be so or if it’s the result of pure dumb luck.

Most of the last two years—up until about four months ago—have been damned hard, and I was, during that period of darkness, not at all feeling blissful.  Looking back at my recent past, I could say—without being guilty of anything that even remotely resembles exaggeration—that I’ve just come through hell.  On my trip through the fiery pit, I got a bit singed but wasn’t wholly reduced to ashes.

My story starts on the evening of July 2, 2015, the day I landed at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport in Austin, Texas, and was greeted by my father and stepmother.  I hardly remember my arrival in Texas’ capital because I was so exhausted.  I’m sure that the three of us talked about how my flights had gone and other inane subjects while we waited for my two pieces of luggage to find their way onto the baggage carousel conveyor belt and then into my hands.  We then made our way to my parents’ parked car, loaded my suitcases into its trunk, and drove the whole kit and caboodle to Georgetown, Texas, a beautiful, smallish city that’s located just up Interstate 35 about half an hour or so.  Once in Georgetown and at my folks’ place, I went immediately to bed and slept the fitful sort of semi-slumber I always have after completing one of my international sojourns.

This particular trip had been a really long one.  I’d started it in Cairo, Egypt, and had passed over portions of three continents—Africa, Europe, and North America—and two significant bodies of water—the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean.  I’d had a long layover at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle International Airport where I wiled away the hours awaiting my next flight by wandering among souvenir shops and looking at tiny, plastic versions of the Eiffel Tower.  My movements through said shops bore a strong resemblance to the way a zombie might wander in a post-apocalyptic landscape.  On a side note, many people who travel by plane have the good fortune of being able to sleep aboard those big birds as they cruise high above terra firma, but I am not blessed like this, which means that I always have to find ways to kill time.  Often, while on board, I achieve this by drinking as much alcohol as my belly and bladder can hold.  This method is tried and true for me and I took full advantage of it as I made my slow way over land and sea…

 

 

Hoot!

owlsI’ve always been a collector.  I can’t even remember when, precisely, this habit got started.  As a very young lad, I owned several hundred—it could have been as many as a thousand—stamps from many countries of the world that I would diligently paste into albums, using those little hinges that could be purchased in variety stores.

Over the years, you name it and I’ve obsessively acquired it.  I went through a period when I was interested in porcelain objects that had the worlds “Occupied Japan” stamped on their undersides.  I then got into refrigerator magnets and spent hours shopping for them on eBay.  I currently have a couple of dozen beautiful Middle Eastern rugs on the floor of my apartment.  I remember how much pleasure it gave me when I acquired each one.  Honestly, if I had an unlimited supply of greenbacks, I’d probably become something akin to a hoarder.  The feeling I get when I simply hold one these highly prized objects in my hands is hard to describe.

Having said all this, you probably will not be surprised to hear that I have been buying owl figurines—made of every sort of material that can be used to manufacture such a creature—for a great many years.  In fact, my collection is so extensive that I don’t even have all of them in my possession.  Many are stored away in boxes in closets inside houses that belong to a great many relatives.

My interest in owls began as a result of an interesting encounter I had, now a couple of decades or so back, with a real live bird of this sort.  This “meeting” (of the souls?) happened while I was visiting my maternal grandparents who happened to reside, at that time in their lives, out in the country, a dozen or so miles to the west of a little Texas city called San Angelo.

Just after breakfast, on the second day of a four-day visit, I announced that I wanted to take a walk, so I bundled up—it was a cold, wintry day as I recall—and then left the house.  I wandered for an hour or so.  My walkabout took me down forsaken country roads that meandered here and there and then petered out, becoming little more than footpaths in the process.  I breathed the crisp country air in and exhaled clouds of steam.  I looked up, studied the sky, and wondered if it might sleet or even snow.

During such a moment of speculation, a voice in my head said, “Turn around now and have a look at what’s behind you.”  When I did so, I saw an enormous bird—I didn’t yet know that it was an owl—perched on the limb of a dead tree, not more than ten feet away.  The creature had its back to me, and it stayed like that for several seconds as my eyes fixated on it.  Suddenly, its head swiveled around and I saw two large and seemingly inquisitive owl eyes peering at me.  The two of us held perfectly still like that, staring at one another, for what seemed like a long time.  The bird abruptly blinked, maybe three times, let out a preternatural hoot, and then flew away.

About ten days later, while wandering around in a junk shop, I bought my first owl.  Before deciding to make the purchase, I held the thing in my hands a good long time, checking it out for imperfections.  I found none and the price was right.  The rest, as they say, is history.

 

 

 

 

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.