November 27, 2018

jacky and johnnie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

November 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.

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.

 

 

 

 

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.