Thursday, October 9, 2014

Under Water


I never really believed that the stories I read in your magazine were true, until yesterday when a very strange thing happened…

I love to snorkel, on reefs near beaches, in lakes and seas. But my very favorite place is the top of the San Marcos River. It is a convenient ten minute walk from my house to the headwaters of this beautifully clear and refreshingly cool spring fed river. And on warm days, of which we are rich beyond imagining, I will often take a short break from whatever I am pretending to be working on for a mind clearing, energy restoring dip in the sacred waters. I only swim the first half mile of the river, getting out before the riverbed becomes a tangled mess of algae and beer cans.

Of course I bring my snorkel. On the walk to the river, I typically pass people. It is curious that almost every day somebody asks me, "What are you looking for?" And, when I am getting out of the water, dripping wet and headed home,  somebody else usually asks, "What'd you find?"

I shrug uncertainly when asked what I'm looking for. I'm not really looking for anything more than a few minutes, swimming amongst the fish and plants. There are other snorkelers out there some days. Some of them are hunting for treasure, either artifacts from any of the many peoples who have populated this section of river for thousands of years, or more modern treasures. I've certainly found both. I have friends who are really into finding indigenous artifacts and will spend hours scouring a section of river for that little gleam of flint that is sometimes an arrow head. I don't really care much about arrow heads. They all look pretty much the same to me, and I couldn't be bothered to search so diligently.

Modern treasure is slightly more appealing. I've found money, keys, plenty of sunglasses, and a pretty large cache of jewelry. I'm not really looking for that stuff either. But it is always cool to find something valuable. I have found one class ring and several wedding bands. The class ring was fairly easy to track to an ungrateful sorority girl from San Antonio. The wedding bands, when they fit, I use to replace the more than twelve rings that I have personally lost in that same river. Sometimes I wonder if the marriages that these rings represented were good ones. Were they accidentally dropped by someone madly in love or thrown from the bank to carry away the despair of a bad marriage? I doesn't really matter. I always lose them before they bring me either good luck or ill. Things come. Things go.

My older daughter is a huge enthusiast of treasure hunting. This summer, she found five dollars and decided that she would search for money on the river bottom until she found enough to buy a GoPro camera. The very next weekend we were snorkeling at Sewel Park. She got out at the ladder. "Dad, I think I see something at the bottom. It's a little too deep for me. Can you get it?" And so I swam down about ten feet to the spot where a GoPro camera was resting on the river bed, its head band swaying pleasantly in the current with the long, slender leaves of wild rice.

We tried to find the owner, to return it. There was one clue, a video on the camera. The video reveals a pair of scuba divers performing routine safety checks on one another. All is well, camera adjusted on head mount. They swim down the river about 100 yards. There is a moment of awkward equipment adjustment caught on the video, and then you see the divers swim away as the camera slips off and floats silently to the river bed. Then there are ten minutes of nothing but rice moving serenely in the soft current until the battery goes dead. We called the local dive shops to see if anyone had come in to return an air tank, griping about losing a camera. We even scoured the internet for stories of woe and loss in the San Marcos River. After a couple of weeks, I let Mina buy some GoPro accessories and really call the camera hers.

I mostly just pick up pieces of broken glass, which are sadly plentiful, even near the headwaters. They fill my pockets, providing ballast to offset my preternatural buoyancy. For some reason, I avoid beer can pull tabs. It would be easy enough to collect them also. Maybe it is a touch of OCD that compels me to stick to my plan - just pick up glass. Perhaps it is that the aluminum tabs are too light and would do little for my above mentioned buoyancy issues. The glass in my pockets does give me something to say, when I am invariably asked, "What'd you find?"

Yesterday I was avoiding looking for a job. I was avoiding looking at all. So I headed down to the river to look for nothing. It is still hot here, and the water felt divine. My anxieties were rinsing away and I was going into the snorkel zone, calmly collecting broken bottles and gazing into the thick beds of wild rice and red hygrophila when I swam around a bend in Sewel Park, finding myself suddenly snorkel to fin with a group of nearly naked mermaids.

This section of the river is popular with students, so it's not strange to swim up on coeds, but these weren't regular students in regular bathing suits. There were three of them. One had the long flipper tail that you immediately thought of when you read the word mermaids. The others appeared to have legs and were wearing uncomfortable looking thong bathing suits. They were topless, save a smattering of what looked like pearlescent barnacles scattered across their breasts. I think they were those large aquarium stones, maybe affixed with glue. I don' know. I have heard enough stories about sailors and sirens to be cautious.

It was awkward because this is a spot where the water deepens and I usually like to swim around a bit before heading downstream to the the place where I get out. I also wanted to know what they were doing and how they got the stones to stay glued to their breasts in the water. But I didn't want to disturb them, to be that creepy guy with a snorkel. Neither did I want to be dragged to the bottom, drowned by them as their faces changed into those of hideous monsters. And so I swam on.

Oddly, it seemed at first that they were following me, past the bridge and out of the section of park with walls and ladders. I turned once and saw one of the mermaids a short way behind me, slipping effortlessly through the water and the thick river foliage. I kept on my course until I was alone again, just turtles and fish in sight. Rounding another bend, I came to the place where I like to get out. Climbing from the water, pockets full of glass, I saw an old guy with a skinny dog and a large can of beer. "What'd you find?" he asked.

"I'm not really sure."



Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Night Sky by Mina


I don't typically invite guest writers to this site, not being in a hurry to share the attention. But Mina wrote this one last night and asked me if I would post it…..




One evening I was enjoying the dark sky.
I saw a small light flickering across the yard.
It was a firefly!
I thought my sister would love to see the sight.
I ran inside and told my dad what I saw.
My dad said it would lift my sister’s spirt, because she already felt bad. She had a
stomach ache. So I brought her to see the starry sky filled with fireflies.
She is one of those people who gets interested in lots of things.
We came out to see the sky filled with stars, fireflies, and the almost full moon.
My dad was right; it sure did lift her spirit.
I watched as my sister gazed at the sight. Her eyes were filled with excitement.
When I went into the backyard, my dog jumped on me.
I heard my dad in my house calling my name

and went to bed.

Friday, October 3, 2014

The Write Up

Thursday afternoon my youngest daughter jumped off the school bus and skipped home in her typical loud and carefree manner. She grabbed the mail from the post box, manhandling important letters and leaving a trail of colorful advertisements all the way to the door. When it came time to unload her backpack, placing her homework and behavior folders on the table, she became more sheepish, not really wanting me to open the manilla behavior folder. My darling child had earned her second write up in only two weeks.

"So, is there something you would like to explain to me?" I asked sternly, looking at the two letter code that indicated she had been talking out during a quiet time. Suddenly the typically bubbling, noisy child was unable to speak to me clearly, her voice reduced to a nearly inaudible mumble.
"Why don't you answer me in the voice level you were using when you got this write up." I suggested. And she did. She had received the write up in the morning from a teacher who was working in a common area, trying to get the kids to read quietly. My daughter chose to continue talking loudly to her friend despite being aware of the expectations and the warning she had already received.

I worked in school long enough to know why she got the write up. She got the write up for the same reason that nearly all kids get write ups. She was being an asshole. You can call it disrespectful or sassy if that sounds gentler to your sensitive ears, but it doesn't change the fact that the kid was rude and deserved to be redirected.

The teacher did me the service of letting me know what occurred so that we could reinforce the school expectations at home. My kids generally do pretty well in school. They don't get in trouble often, but when they do, they have to answer for it at home also. We expect our kids to behave better in public than they do at home. And they generally do.

Beyond being an asshole, sometimes kids get write ups for procedural issues, like not turning in an assignment or repeatedly coming to class unprepared. There is something to be said for treating these situations differently, as the children are not behaving like assholes so much as they are behaving like losers. At the bottom most behavior logs, there are long keys of various abbreviations that cover most common discipline and procedural issues. Perhaps all behavioral folder infractions could be streamlined with a simple "A" for asshole behaviors and an "L" for loser behaviors. That way parents would quickly know what direction to take to best help their kids succeed and avoid continued problems.

Many teachers are reluctant to write up kids because they don't want to have to deal with the parents, who are often bigger assholes than their children. My friend, who still toils in the bonds of public school, got an email this week, telling her that she needed to call some parent to explain why she wrote up their precious son. The kid had been running around, yelling, and generally being an asshole. My friend reminded him of the expectations and attempted to redirect him in a discreet and polite manner. This did not work so well, so she gave him a write up. At home, big sister lied to defend the boy, explaining to mom that he was just out of his seat so that he could give her a hug. Mom called the school to defend her precious, innocent darling.

I really understand calling the school if you think that there has been some real injustice (and there sometimes is), or to gain more information that will help you understand the situation to better discuss it with your child. All too often teachers are put on the spot, having to defend themselves for calling out a kid for her behavior and correctly communicating it to the parents (in the folder). The simple truth is that if your child has a write up in her folder, she was probably being an asshole. That's how you get write ups.

I spent years working in special education. It is worth noting that there are many kids and many circumstances that require significant flexibility and creativity to best teach them how to behave properly. Some disabilities come with particular behavioral challenges. In which case, the kids may need a special plan and specific interventions to help them. But even if your kid has a disability, you still don't want him to be an asshole. I implore all parents, including those with kids who have disabilities, to stop assuming that anytime your child's behavior is corrected it is somebody else's fault. Quit complaining and start teaching your kid to behave better. The most basic belief that all special educators share is that ALL kids can learn. I want to extend that premise and suggest that ALL kids can learn not to be assholes. I know and respect how hard it can be. But it is essential.

And so my daughter will not get to go out for a special drink from Sonic this afternoon. This is the weekly celebration we have with the kids when they have gotten all their work done and NOT received any write ups their folders. For a long time it seemed like a given since they just were not being written up. It will bother her. She may even cry. And that is OK. Hopefully it will stay with her through next week, reminding her that she is in school to learn, not to act like an asshole.


Friday, September 19, 2014

And a Slightly Late Eid Said to Y'all

I was wandering through the produce section of my local HEB, marveling over the amazingly cheap price of bananas, when I looked up and saw a young veiled woman, also shopping. I paused a moment. Having lived in Egypt twice in my life, I am very accustomed to living with Muslims. But you don't see too many veiled women at the little HEB in San Marcos, Texas.

I felt an awkward desire to say something pleasant and welcoming, the way so many people in Egypt did to me and my family. But I don't know her. Maybe she has always lived in San Marcos. Maybe she says "Y'all" and "fixin' to" like the rest of us rednecks. This was a couple of months ago, during the weekend of Eid al-Fitr, the celebration that marks the end of Ramadan. I'll say, "Eid Said!" (Happy Eid), I thought. It always made me smile when people wished me a "Happy Christmas" in Egypt. And then I thought that maybe it was not appropriate for me to approach a Muslim woman alone, to say anything to her at all. My goal was to be kind, not pushy. But then again, this is America. Hell this is Texas, where we pride ourselves on being friendly and where there is no taboo against saying something nice to a stranger in grocery store, man or woman.

But why did I want to say anything? Was it really to make her feel better, or was it selfish? Was I just trying to counter my own strange and irrational discomfort with diversity in my little corner of the world? I think that the truth is that I just like making connections with people. Still, I didn't want to feel like a tool, like the annoying white folks who went around trying to high five black people right after Obama was elected.

We have such a peculiar relationship with Islam, here in the United States. While there is a large population of Muslims living in America, public discourse around Islam rarely rises above a discussion on middle east politics, and always seems to end up with some sort of talk about terrorism. This is beyond unfortunate. I spent nearly three years in a city teaming with Muslims who were, by and large…. wait for it… wait for it…. Yes, totally peace loving, decent folks who abhor violence and prejudice as much as any hippy in Austin. It is really true. For years I wandered through busy streets without being really scared. Well, maybe I was scared a little, but that was because Egyptians are such terrifyingly awful drivers - even the Christian ones. The fact is that I was overwhelmingly and vigorously welcomed by people when we mingled freely together in the largest predominantly Muslim city in the world.

I still really don't understand much about Islam. I know some of the basics, but have never delved too deeply into learning about the religion. It may actually not really be so different from my own tradition. I am a secular Catholic with a deep fondness and admiration for the story book Jesus of my youth - the one who preached only peace and forgiveness. That Jesus didn't talk about revenge or crusades. He included everybody. His whole bit, as I learned it, was about loving sinners. That's you and me, guys.

I guess I don't really understand much about Christianity either. Fortunately I am rarely asked to defend it or to explain the actions of crazier, less secular Christians. I have no desire to team up with the fundamentalists either, though it wouldn't hurt for me to behave a little more Christ-like.

I am generally skeptical and more than a little bit suspicious of all religions, and particularly of religious people. Perhaps that is why I find the veil threatening. It seems like a big commitment, certainly more than one that I would be willing to make. But the veil isn't Islam either, just one aspect of a complicated and broad tradition. It is certainly not for me to tell anyone how to dress, or what to believe.

That's a job I don't want. What I want, I suppose, really is to be more Christ-like; to be the guy who says "welcome" or "Merry Christmas" or "Eid Said" to a stranger in the store, and to really mean it. But I guess that's not me, not yet or at least not all the time. I didn't take a chance to make even that small, momentary connection when I had it, by the bananas in HEB. Instead, I just smiled mutely and moved on, hoping she had not noticed all of
the attention that I had given her.


Friday, September 12, 2014

A Snake by Any Other Name

This is an essay I wrote in September 2001 while living in Guanajuato, Mexico. I thought about it again yesterday and decided to share it here. I don't think anything has changed, not for the better anyway.

Letters to Gringolandia - Part 14.5
A Snake by Any Other Name
September 2001
There is a legend of a snake in northern Mexico that my friends and I learned about last summer while on vacation. This snake slithers into the cradles of nursing babies. Whereupon it enters the child's body through the rectum and slowly, in its snaky way, works its way through its victim's digestive system until its head is poised just inside the child's mouth. As the child nurses, the snake steals the nourishment, growing larger and stronger while its victim withers.

Like all of you, I have been badly shaken by the events of the last few days. I am at once confused, saddened, and angry beyond words. My feelings of helplessness and inability to help heightened by my remoteness from my country and people. The people of Mexico are similarly shaken. They are worried about the 200,000 Mexican Americans living in New York City, and the millions spread throughout the United States. They are worried about the instability of the US and of the world. The value of the peso is dropping rapidly and hard times are coming. But that is secondary, I believe, to their concern about the dreaded humanity of it all. What has happened? What will happen? Our government is recoiling into defense and attack position. our president has vowed revenge. And it is certain that we will find some measure of revenge. Whether it is the leveling of Afghanistan, the destruction of Baghdad, or another public execution of one of our own fanatical citizen whose nourishment from mother's milk was stolen by the snake that lived within him. I am doubtful that we can or will rise to this occasion to right our wrongs and view the world as our joint responsibility and our home. My friend, Jonatan, reminded me that we can look into every event and see the positive ways in which we react as people. I am certain that he is right. But at this hour, I am only seeing red.

What will happen next? Who knows? And this is just one event in our story. Even as i write this, we are coaxing more serpents into the asses of hungry children, in the jungles of Colombia, the archipelago of Indonesia, the mountains of Eritrea, the deserts of Irag, the slums of Gaza, and in barracks on the Golan Heights. How does the song go… "From the halls of Montezuma, to the shores of Tripoli.." With snakes under our arms and in our bellies, we march to the corners of the earth. You know that we helped make Bin Laden? We fed his snake that was born of desperation, supped on American rations, and grew ever more dangerous in the throes of fundamentalism. We taught his snake to shoot guns and to fly aircraft. I am not trying to jump on the liberal bandwagon of blaming the US for that which has befallen it. It is not just us, but all of humanity. It is the story of creation. The snake that became us from the beginning of the world. The snake that learned to climb ladders by impaling itself in the rear end of humanity.

So where do we go from here? I do not know. How can we starve out the beasts within our own hungry bodies and find the good that we posses? I do not know. The positive is already coming to light. Citizens of the world are lining up at hospitals and clinics to help replace the blood that has been spilled. Yesterday Arafat sent a pint of his own. I do not know what his blood type is. But it will find a new home somewhere in New York or Washington, in the heart of one of our own. I only hope that we can overshadow our destruction with our healing, that we can rise above our own fundamentalism and our desire for blind and vicious revenge. It is possible, if unlikely, that we will have the power to end the perpetual violence and corruption to humanity. I am not speaking from atop the mountain. I, like you, wanted to throttle the Palestinian woman, whom the TV showed dancing and singing in the streets, joyfully celebrating the attack on New York. If the people who performed and planned these acts of terror were in front of me right now, I would probably try to kill them with my bare hands. The snake is within me. But where do I go from there? I do not know. I only know that we will never find healing in blame or revenge. "We shouted out, 'who killed the Kennedys' but after all it was you and me."
-by Paul Koonz in Mexico, September 2001

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Hunt

The hunt is becoming me. I am learning and growing through the hunt. There may be moments when I will feel hunger, frustration, possibly even desperation. But I will persevere. I will come out stronger, smarter, more employed. 

My brother in law may be the only person in the family who is experiencing some degree of financial success. He is an engineer. He designs things, builds things, has an extremely useful shiny metal object in his hands at the end of the day that proves that he has not wasted his time. Of course, I had to ask him for a job.

“Do you like drilling mud?” he responded to my inquiry.
“Uh...” I quickly did a search on drilling mud. It was a perfunctory search, just scanning the top few items to appear. I didn’t need to be an expert. I just wanted to know what the hell he was talking about. I quickly read and absorbed the high points in a feeble attempt to gain an instant, conversational knowledge of drilling mud.
“So, is the drilling mud that you are referring to intended for a high or low velocity bit?” I asked, starting to feel smart.
“I didn’t ask you what it was. I asked if you like it.”
“Um... yes, I like it alot. I didn’t get the job, did I?”
Afterwords, I read a little more about drilling mud. It turns out that I probably would really not like it at all. But I sure would have liked having a job.

All Summer I watched as Jenn filled out one online application after another. She wrote and rewrote her resume, concocted multiple cover letters. Every morning she checked the status of each application, hoping for some kind of response. After well over a month, the “Thanks for your interest” emails started to arrive. She wanted so badly to talk to someone, to explain the gaps in her resume, to show them that she was the best person for the job. And now she is back with the district, working hard and barely being paid.

I decided to work backwards, to talk to people first and then, if they seemed interested, I’d fill out the application. I wish that I could say it is working. Well, maybe it is working. Maybe it just takes time. I’ve met with some old friends, talked to former bosses and colleagues, not so much asking for specific jobs. Mostly I’m trying to pick their brains, to come up with an idea or direction to take. Invariably I keep going back and talking to my brother, John. He doesn't have a job for me, but he usually springs for beer when we get together. And that is something.

I am trying to break into the world of professional writing. This search is taking a two pronged approach. The most obvious route for me, a former teacher, is through educational writing. While not particularly sexy, it could be enjoyable and lucrative. This is where my brother has been more than simply a beer donor. He works for an academic publisher in Austin and has written a number of science text books. I have been writing to the contacts he provided, hoping to find free lance work. 

I've also been fortunate to reconnect with an old high school friend named Jay. Jay was a couple of years ahead of me in school. He was always a good guy, kind and interesting at a time in life when that wasn't the norm. Now he is employed by biggest of all educational companies (bigger than Jesus) and has kindly offered both advice and contacts. It looks like he may have some freelance work for me soon too.

The second prong is more creative, writing essays and feature articles. To this end I am reading the entire Writer's Market 2013 from cover to cover, learning the tricks of the trade and how to get started. It seems like a long road. It is possible but it is going to take time. I have a couple articles written and submitted to an Austin based online newspaper and I am hoping to write more for them. Writing articles about Austin is fun and ironic. I probably should not have told the editor that I don't like Austin. It's neither true, nor a really good way to ingratiate myself to a guy who does Austin for a living. Since I left the public schools, my filters have been largely off. Good that the editor is also a friend and has a sense of humor, even if Austin often doesn't.

And so it goes. Things will work out. If they do not work out as planned, there are always tables to bus and dishes to wash. I've done both in leaner times. For now I will continue the hunt. I will search high and low. And when the thirst becomes too much to endure, I will venture back to Austin and ask John for another pint of contact.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Stupid World

I was walking my dogs down the street, our morning routine. But this morning was different, my heart was heavy and  my mind racing. You see I can't seem to get the image of that guy being beheaded out of my mind. I should clarify that I haven't actually seen the video and I don't intend to look for it, but I still can't shake the image. Walking and trying not to trip over the dog leashes in my quiet neighborhood I couldn't make sense of it - of the vulgarity and brutality, that humans can be so devoid of mercy.

I am an adult and I can barely stand it - don't even know what to do with the emotions this evokes. And if it were just these few incidents, it would be hard enough. But it isn't. Violence is pervasive, a real part of humanity that we can't ignore or deny. How do I explain this to my kids? How do I explain God to my kids, or Allah, or whatever name people hide behind when it seems like we are farthest from divinity?

I wanted to walk and to clear my mind, but it just wasn't clearing. A house door opened and a young mom walked out onto her front porch carrying her baby.
"See, two dogs. One dog, two dogs." I could hear her telling her child in the sweet tones of a mom who is not thinking about decapitation or how seriously fucked up her son's world actually is.
"One dog, two dogs." Maybe the baby raised two fingers or giggled. I don't really know, my eyes suddenly full of tears. I felt like I needed to run home, to get away from this perfect scene before I corrupted it with my own despairing thoughts .

I also wanted to stay and to listen to this exquisite little conversation. Mom makes observations, baby smiles and responds. Everything she told him was true and wonderful. There were exactly two dogs walking by. I didn't stick around but I am sure that the next thing she said was equally loving and correct. Maybe she mentioned the clouds, which were plentiful and with a hint of a promise of rain. "Clouds, grey." Maybe they switched gears and she started talking abstractly about how much she loved him. I knew I had to keep moving.  She wasn't telling him the whole story. When would she talk to him about death? That would be hard enough, but what about murder? War?

I thought of my own daughters, old enough that we don't count dogs together anymore; old enough to hear the news on the radio on the way to school in the morning. Sometimes they ask questions, difficult questions. And I try to answer as well and as honestly as I can, even though I don't have any answers, not to the really tough questions anyway.
"Dad. Can we just listen to music?"
"Sure honey, of course."
"Dad. Did you see the deer?"
"No. How many were there?"
"At least two."