Monday, January 21, 2013

Out of Chaos


"You know, although it's crazy and loud, it all somehow seems to work," Jenn's dad comments, his voice barely audible over the din of a thousand car horns as our taxi stubbornly inches its way through the congested streets of downtown Cairo. I squint my eyes a little, breathing in the insanity, and retort, "No it doesn't! It doesn't work at all." We have been in traffic for about an hour and traveled less than ten miles. To be certain, we will probably (insh'allah) reach our destination eventually. In that sense, he is correct. His optimism is refreshing, if slightly optimistic.

 There is a natural tendency, arguably a compulsion, for people to seek and recognize order when we are confronted with chaos. We want to to make sense of information and sort it into a meaningful pattern. It is calming. Writers take it another step, needing to explain the order that they have found - to show off how simply and succinctly we can tame the madness into a (possibly humorous) story.

And so here I am in Cairo, one year later, punch drunk from the fight and still searching for that one knock out analogy that will satisfy my own desire for order as well as my writer's need to share it with you. Life in Egypt is frustrating and I want to pound some sense into it. But the chaos here is strong and the best that I have been able to do is to take small jabs at it while I duck and dance away from the jarring blows of insanity that this mixed up town provides.

The ancient Egyptians believed in a concept called ma'at. Ma'at is the natural balance and order in the universe. The ancients believed that it was essential that ma'at be maintained. They had a cool Goddess whose sole purpose was to keep the ma'at. They constructed a highly advanced civilization, complete with a complex written language and awesome architecture thanks in part to ma'at. They built the pyramids. But that was a long time ago and as far as I can tell the ma'at, like so many temples, has been covered with sand and buried by the chaos of the desert for many years.

Modern Egypt is a different story. It lacks structure and is very noisy. Sometimes it seems like twenty million people are all talking at the same time. These conversations are loud. It is hard to tell when people are angry because people are always shouting. And yet, for all of the yelling, people are remarkably indirect in what they are saying and very little ever seems to get accomplished. Egyptians tend to take it all in stride, having long since abandoned ma'at. They are generally quite good natured, laughing as loudly as they yell.

Back in the taxi, Jenn's folks try to decipher the incessant honking that is a constant, looping sound track to life in Cairo. They are not the first to suggest that there is a genuine, symbolic language to the hooting, a code that can be interpreted. I have heard Egyptians make the same claim - that all of the beeps and rhythms have specific meanings, like some sort of brain wrenching Morse code. I don't believe this either. The honking is more like the barking of dogs than words. There is intensity and tone, but not consistent language.

Thinking of finding order as a fight might be a little too intense and counter productive, like pounding a square peg into a round hole. I can blunt the edges and bully my own simplifications into words, but it will not solve the problem of finding the hidden order - the ma'at that already exists.

And so I increasingly find myself standing by the Nile and staring at the water. Perhaps I have been trying too hard to find ma'at and not simply allowing it to be revealed. Do you remember those posters that were so popular a few years back? The ones where a pattern or image was hidden in the pixels. In order to see it, you had to stand a while, slack jawed, while your eyes unhinged from the apparent randomness. After some time you were able to look beyond the picture to some place in the distance where you hoped to see the simple, perfect image of a flower or a sailboat.


Saturday, December 22, 2012

Christmas in Cairo

Jenn made the mistake of telling me that she was certain to win an online wager to see who could get the closest to Christmas without hearing the song, "Little Drummer Boy." She foolishly mentioned this while I was in the very act of trolling Youtube for oddities. Within moments, her dreams were crushed as a terrible modern rock version was pumping (rump a pumping?) out of our tiny, tinny computer speakers. I don't remember what she threw at me, but Christmas was definitely on.

One of the glorious things about living in a predominantly Muslim country is that it affords you the opportunity to allow Christmas into your life in small, digestible pieces without much of the wanton commercialism that has come to define the birth of Jesus in America. There are lights in some places and there are creepy Egyptian mannequins in shop windows wearing ill fitting Santa suits. But, by in large, it is a low key event.

The exception to this is at the American school where I teach. It is a school populated by international expats from all reaches of Christendom and a large group of demonstrative, filthy rich Egyptians (mostly Muslim, but with a love for gift giving). There is considerable competition to see which room parent can raise the most money to buy extravagant presents for classroom teachers. Tales of gifted iPhones and pearls replace discussions of curriculum in faculty meetings throughout advent. I am a special ed teacher. While my general education colleagues were raking in Amazon.com cards and bottles of single malt scotch, my kids seem to have forgotten their presents at home - possibly on the counter with their homework. I am not bitter. I don't like expensive presents and am grateful for the bottle of maple syrup and a partially consumed bar of dark chocolate that I did receive. It really was partially eaten. I do not make this stuff up.

In a gesture that probably seemed ironic the first time they did it twenty years ago, Santa arrived at our last school assembly on the back of a camel.  While not quite as common as cars in Cairo, camels are not particularly rare and all of our kids have seen or ridden on one at some point during their stay in Egypt. Still, they love the moment when the enormous beast invariably urinates all over the school lawn. The kids will be remarking about the amazing volume of pee expelled until the cycle repeats itself next year. What would Christmas be without traditions?

We bought a live tree that is small and bordering on being too obvious in its likeness to a certain, unnamed cartoon boy's tree. We didn't bring ornaments with us from Texas, so the girls made some while I played DJ, finding carrols online by the likes of Lou Reed and Dwight Yoakem. Luci worked on construction paper stars and Mina ripped the heads off of Luci's Barbies to attach by yarn to the small, almost pathetic branches. Some blinking lights and garland narrowly save the tree from appearing to be a yuletide homage to the French revolution.

And so I played more versions of "Little Drummer Boy." I like the tune, but have some sort of word/sound aversion to the phrase, "rump a pum pum." It just sounds wrong and makes my skin crawl. In the Johnny Cash version, the man in black won't even sing that bit. In his brilliant baritone, he practically grumbles the cool parts while a small choir of lessers follows him around, chiming in with the annoying "rump a pum" bit. The worst rendition we heard was by the Cranberries. Jenn disagrees, but I am convinced that her Irish accent is fake and that she is actually from Plano. I remember faking an English accent once. Many people do it. Some people don't know when to stop. The coolest of cool versions of the tune has to be the one by David Bowie and Bing Crosby. Their singing is great, but it is the funny banter between the two before the music starts that is priceless.

We will probably not have port or tamales this year. Nor will we have the opportunity to see many of our friends and family (though Jenn's folks are visiting for the holiday). There are traditions that will be missed or poorly recreated. But we are healthy, the weather is fantastic, and we have survived another year of transitions and apocalypses with more smiles than tears. And so it goes until the next time we find ourselves on this side of the sun.




Friday, November 30, 2012

The Desert and the River (part 2)

"Run!" I implore them, "Go as fast and as far as you can. Do not look back. Just run. Do you see those rocks, way over there? Run to them, touch them, and then come back and tell me what you saw. Or don't come back until the sun is setting and the smell of dinner grilling reaches you on a breeze. Go and follow the curve of the Earth until all I can see are the tops of your heads racing across the sand. Go."

At first it is difficult for the girls to believe that they are free. They have been tethered to us on such short lines these last few months. "Don't touch that. Come closer. Hold my hand. Look out for cars. Watch your step." We are all conditioned to the city, always fighting and flying - looking both ways before crossing every one way street. We are jumpy, hyper alert and flinching at the sound of car horns. But this is the desert and we have left the daily rules and frustrations of society behind in the city.

And then a scarab emerges from a tiny hole in the desert and they are off, chasing the bug on all fours - clambering to grab it and feel the tickle of six little legs, teasingly putting it on each others' backs. We are all laughing as they kick up sand, scampering around with their new toy. They play like puppies, tumbling and rolling. They play like children should.

I try to help our bedoin guides put up the brightly printed canvas wind break. They smile and humor me, allowing me to uselessly hold up a corner post while they neatly hammer stakes into the sand, fasten ropes against the wind. They are a father and son team, quiet and calm - proud in the subdued manner of the vast western desert. A smile between them tells me that they have everything under control, that they have been doing this for a thousand years.

I sit back against a white chalk boulder and breathe, attempting to comprehend the vastness. This desert flows across the great sand sea, across Libya and the seemingly endless Sahara to the Atlantic Ocean. It is too huge for me wrap my head around. Eventually I relax into the realization that I don't need to understand it, to grasp it or own it. My thoughts retract to the enormous glowing monoliths that jut out of the desert floor haphazardly, and closer still to my breath that is finally calm and even for the first time in months.

Our guides have been cordial, if slightly remote. Mina cements the relationship when she explains to them in gestures that we don't want to sleep in the provided tents. She lays out our familiar pallet of blankets and sleeping bags on the sand as the sun sets and the first stars appear on the eastern horizon. She helps build the fire and insists on heating pumpkin seeds on rocks beside the grill. She is in heaven, useful and competent. She glows with the confidence of a person who has broken the language barrier, communicating fluently with her actions. She is furious with me when I share a sheesha with her bedoin friends. Luci quietly busies herself just being Luci.

Our guides never stop feeding us - bread, slow cooked fava beans (fuul), tomatoes, carefully grilled chicken, and tea. The making and drinking of tea is a ritual of highly practiced motions. Small shot glasses and a steel kettle are unwrapped from a soft cloth every few hours. Water is poured and poured again over gunpowder tea, sampled and distributed. The tea is brewed brutally strong and sweet with small mint leaves delicately floating in the potion.

Night falls and the foxes emerge from the desert. This is the moment the girls have been waiting for. We have been observing their tiny prints in the sand, seemingly trotting from nowhere to nowhere with obvious purpose. They come in close to the fire, searching for scraps. The bemused looks on the faces of our guides tells me that these are the racoons of the deserts - fearless scavengers who are waiting until our guard is down to steal our food, to tear into anything that has not been carefully stored - sand colored varmints with burning eyes and enormous ears.

Jenn and the kids fall asleep, exhausted and contented. I am tired but not ready for sleep. Mars glows orange on the eastern horizon. I lay awake for hours, back on the sand, eyes in the sky. For the first time in my life I can actually feel the Earth slowly rolling eastward. I am riding it, flat on my back watching the horizon drop farther and farther away from Mars. I drift into sleep and I dream that I am in an enormous desert on a glorious planet breathing fresh air as a fox slips in close to steal my breakfast.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Pressure

"So do you understand what these numbers mean?"

"Clearly doctor," I replied. "Cairo is now officially killing me."

It is no longer simply a metaphor. I knew Cairo was frustrating, annoying, often agitating - but deadly?

I went to see the school nurse two weeks ago. My daughter had contracted a strange, but not particularly dangerous virus called hand, foot, and mouth disease (not the cow one). She had a sore throat, low fever, and a nasty rash on her hands and feet. The disease is quite contagious. So she was at home, supposedly resting while the virus ran its course. I went to work, but I wasn't feeling so hot myself - run down, depressed, exhausted. The nurse looked at me and told me to sit down. She wanted to take my blood pressure. It was high. She told me to come back and have it checked the next day.

The next day it was still high. And the next. Appointments were made. Blood work was ordered. Damn, I hate needles.

 She sent me to the doctor; the same doctor who nine months ago told me that I was surprisingly healthy and would be even healthier if I drank red wine, cooked with olive oil, exercised more, and dropped a few kilos. I have been remarkably compliant in matters of red wine and olive oil consumption.

Apparently that wasn't enough.

It seems that both my blood pressure and cholesterol have moved up the charts from, "Drink red wine and try to get a little more exercise," to, "Take these pills every day for the rest of your life and dramatically change your lifestyle." 

"So, have you been eating a large amount of beef?"

"No. Not really. I do eat entirely too much bread." Ironically, my pork consumption has also increased while living in Egypt. There is this great little Coptic store nearby that sells hand cut bacon. Also, I tend to binge on sausage and ham when we go for Friday morning brunches at the US embassy club house. It has been a delicious way to feel slightly subversive, a scrumptious and subtle protest against my life in Cairo. Now my bad cholesterol is up, good cholesterol down. I suppose Allah always gets the last laugh.

"What do you do to relax? Do you exercise much?"

"Mostly I brood and sweat as if I were exercising without actually doing any excercise. Do those count?"

It is hard for me to relax here, hard to exercise. My favorite things to do are to walk and swim. The streets are loud and chaotic, a little dangerous and uncomfortable for strolling. Swimming, the kind I like to do, is out of the question. Though I feel a sense of peace when I am near the Nile, I am rarely tempted to jump in for a swim.

In Texas I was stressed. My job was actually more insane and I was a regular at at least half a dozen local TexMex joints. I probably should have been in much worse shape than I am now. But in Texas I had outlets. I could walk for hours without hearing a single car horn, without quickly jumping out of the way of a careening taxi.

But things are looking up. Perhaps I needed a jolt to help me break some of my bad habits. I have replaced the daily lemon squishies and thick, melted mozerella sandwiches with raw veggies and cool, refreshing water. Breakfast now consists of only one (albeit large and strong) cup of coffee and a small bowl of muesli with honey. I am taking my pills. The doctor says that if I can get this under control quickly, I may not even need to take the dreaded pills forever. I have already lost some weight, my pants loosening after just two weeks.

But I know what really kept me relatively sane and healthy before I came to Cairo, and what will restore me upon my return home. It was the river that washed away the daily madness. I realize now that I am destined to be one of those crazy old people who wake up at the crack of dawn in any kind of weather, pull my swim trunks up too high, mount an old cruiser bike, and peddle down to the place where water magically pours from the ground. I will pause for a moment, take a deep breath, and serenly dive into the cold, inviting river that seems to make everything in this crazy life just a little better.









Saturday, October 13, 2012

When I Grow Up...

When I was eight years old I wanted to be the pope. There was a priest at our church, Father Lagezi, who delighted in weaving jokes into his weekly homily. Sometimes he was quite funny. Other times, not so much. But regardless of the quality of the humor, the congregation laughed at every punchline. I figured that if a simple parish priest could garner that kind of power, the pope could say almost anything even slightly amusing and sit back, self assuredly listening to the multitudes chuckle.

But time passed and I moved on to other ideas. It wasn't the incredible improbability of ever becoming the pope so much as the intensity of the vows that dissuaded me from my lofty goal. So, if not the pope, what would I be when I grew up? I toyed with possibilities without committing to anything. At times I wanted to be a journalist, a cartoonist, a bartender, an orator, a gentleman farmer, a feluca pilot, and an international man of leisure, among other things.

A month before I graduated from college with a vague and immediately useless degree in Communication and English, Jenn bought me a homebrewing kit. I made my first batch of beer. It was terrible and so I made another. The second time it was not so terrible. A few more batches and the stuff was becoming delicious. Suddenly I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. Remember that this was in the early days of the micro brewing revolution. There were still more NBA players in this country than professional brewers. The very first brewpubs in Austin were just starting to open. So I bottled a couple of batches of beer, printed my resume onto labels, and started knocking on the doors of these new breweries. I did not get a job on the first round. There were already too many ambitious homebrewers and too few breweries to employ us all. Still, I told myself that somebody had to be a starting forward in the NBA. Why couldn't it be me? I went back again and again.

While I had struck out with the first generation of brewpubs, my persistence paid off. I picked up a job at Austin Homebrew, which morphed into a brewing job at what may well be the coolest bar in the known universe - Lovejoys. It was a fantastic job and I worked there for four years. My boss, Chip, was great. He told me to make whatever I wanted. And so I did. Some of it was pretty good. I loved the artistic freedom of brewing small batches of craft beer for an eager and open minded clientele. Eventually the desire to move on and my waning interest in the science of brewing overcame me and I didn't want to be a brewer when I grew up anymore. Or maybe I just wanted to grow up again.

I started teaching because I heard that I could find a job in Mexico as an English teacher. I had never wanted to be a teacher. I never even wanted to step inside another school after graduating. I often ask myself now if I would be back in school if I had paid more attention the first time around. If I didn't want to be a teacher, I really never wanted to be a behavior specialist. But I am good with kids and for whatever reason, I have an ability to talk people down when they are about to do something stupid or dangerous - a talent that is sadly in high demand in American public schools.

A minor nervous breakdown and a lucky(?) break landed me a teaching job at an unnamed international school in Cairo. The job is OK but I'm tired of the stress and sick of the city. My blood pressure has become a clinically significant problem and I am increasingly asking myself, "What do I want to be when I grow up?" Last week I tendered my resignation and have until the end of this school year to reinvent myself and perhaps grow up a little.

I was discussing the prospect of growing up and moving forward with a colleague and told him that what I really want to do is this - write. I told him I want to be an essayist, or what the kids today are calling a blogger.
"People make a living writing essays." I naively told him.
"Sure, five people do." He replied
At first I was crestfallen. It is true that in a world where everyone is giving away milk, it is no easy feat to sell a cow. But then I thought about the five people who are doing it and about NBA players and how I was once a twenty-five year old hobbyist, pounding the street with a six pack of homebrew under my arm, knowing beyond any doubt that what was in my bottles was worth buying.


Thursday, September 20, 2012

Acclimation

It is not a long walk to the school where I work, just a few blocks. I leave early, while the traffic is still relatively calm and before the cruel sun has risen over the jungle of dusty six story buildings that spread east to the Moqattam hills. But it is hot already. By the time I arrive at work my forehead is pouring, my shirt soaked. As Ra begins his daily journey across the sky, I settle into another day of moist discomfort.

You have to know that I am not talking about a little bit of sweat - dark, damp circles on my shirt beneath the arms. That is typical. My case is more severe. My head sweats. The backs of my knees, my belly, chest, and even my buttocks are not immune to the daily drenching.

This summer, while back in Texas, I ran into a girl who had been in my kindergarten class four years ago. It is normally a joy to see former students. Although I was not a very good kinder teacher, I humor myself with the belief that I might have imparted something meaningful and long lasting upon the lives of the kids I taught - that they would have something special to carry with them that they learned in our class. I said hello to her and her mother. "How are you? Are you ready for fourth grade? Have you read any good books this Summer?" The usual stuff. She looked up at me with a quizzical expression, "So, do you still have that sweating problem?" She asked. That's what she remembered? I was stunned and embarrassed, unable to stop myself from quickly jabbing back, "I don't know. Do you still have that impurtenance problem?"
"Huh?"

People tell me that I will acclimate. I respond that I have lived in hot climates for most of my adult life. They look at me with a strange mixture of perplexity and pity. "And you haven't acclimated yet?"
 

Yes, in fact I have acclimated. It's just not particularly pretty or comfortable. Dogs shed their thick coats in the spring. Flowers close petals around delicate blossoms as the sun rises and the heat of the day increases. I sweat. It is remarkably efficient. Despite constant misery, my body temperature rarely rises above 97.2 F.

I have acclimated but not adapted. It took many, many generations of people living and mating happily on cold, rainy islands in the north Atlantic for me to become who I am physically. In context, I am really quite practical, if not beautiful. The thick, furry pelt that covers nearly my entire body ensures that I rarely feel discomfort in the cold. Even my pasty, white skin would be useful for gathering sun light if I were blessed to live in a land that didn't have quite so much.

If I can't change, at least there is hope for my children who were born in Texas. If you believe that, then you fundamentally do not understand natural selection. The best chance for my children is that they might have inherited persperation characteristics from their considerably less sweaty mother. If my moisture traits are dominant, they will suffer as I have.

The only way for evolution to work progressively, would be for me to have been so repulsive to the Texas girls I pursued in college that I would have been denied the opportunity to mate and produce viable, sweaty offspring. I would have grown old and died childless, with nothing but undesirable traits to keep me company. But I was crafty. I met Jenn in the dead of winter and courted her on the banks of a cool, spring fed river. We would sit together by the San Marcos that first Summer. Whenever my body temperature rose, I slipped into the water like a Galapagos iguana. She was smitten before she ever realized just how physically repugnant I actually am.

And now I live in Egypt, surrounded by people with dark skin and small, dry pores. I begin each day with a cold shower and then stand, drying myself in front of a small window unit air conditioner. I smear antiperspirant under each arm and across most of my torso and put on a clean shirt, dry for the moment. I gather my things and open the door, stepping out into a new day. I have not even left the porch before the first small drops begin to bead up on my forehead.







Thursday, September 13, 2012

I Like Jesus

 There are plenty of good reasons to like Jesus. For many, it is his simple words of peace and forgiveness that still ring true after two thousand years. Others grasp hopefully to the promise of eternal life in paradise. Some folks just like the beard. While I am drawn to his charisma and message of tolerance, what I love most about Jesus is the virtually limitless material he provided for single panel comics.

It started in second grade at Davinese Boys' school in Beaconsfield. We had to take a class called Scriptures. The format of this class was simple. The teacher would read bible stories to a bunch of squirmy, smart alecky British school boys (and me). We were tasked with listening attentively and then responding with drawings that depicted the stories we had heard. We were like prepubescent monks, illustrating a new, new bible with map pencils and crayons. I was in heaven - not literally, of course.

The cool thing about all of the old bible figures, and Jesus in particular, is that they are easy to draw. They all had beards and wore robes. Notable exceptions are Adam and Eve (but it would be years before I mustered the artistic courage to draw them). Once you have figured out how to make little circles for toes and lines to represent the sandals, all you have left to tackle are the hands. Hands and arms are always tricky. In the bible, they are often raised - whether it be to smite the wicked, raise the dead, or just hoist a glass of freshly vinted wine at a wedding. So, you bend the elbows a little, gap the robes around the wrists, and pray you don't screw up the fingers. A cool trick I learned at Davinese, was that if you dab a little Crayola crimson red on each palm, you have instant stigmata. It is a powerful image that conveniently distracts critical eyes from ungainly fingers.

As a boy, I added some secular touches to my pictures - fish gasping for water in a freshly parted Red Sea or a pair of wookies trying to sneak onto Noah's arc. But this was a private school and we avoided the profane out of self preservation, if not devotion. I grew up, somewhat, but never quit drawing Jesus. For a while I was publishing religious comics in a magazine called The Atheist. More recently Jenn and I launched a line of greeting cards, including a number of birthday/Christmas cards. Though the quality of the drawing has remained pathetically stagnant since grade school days, I like to think that the comics are funny and occasionally insightful.

I particularly like Jesus because I can draw him. I can draw him as a god or a man without fear of reprisal. And I've drawn some pretty offensive cartoon depictions of Jesus. I do so because I believe that Jesus had a sense of humor and that our gods and heroes are only worthy of devotion if they can stand up to fearless questioning while retaining their supposed message of peace. And if we are to be followers of these peaceful gods, we will strive to do likewise.


Peace.