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."

Wednesday, August 27, 2014


It seems like just yesterday that I was on summer vacation, sleeping late and swimming in the river with my kids every day. We relaxed and watched very nearly every World Cup match, did day long marathons of Cake Boss on Netflix, and took impromptu overnight trips to visit my mom in Shiner, sometimes during the middle of the week. What did it matter what day it was? For two amazing months we allowed ourselves to shed the trappings of time and timeliness. We did what was needed, but mostly what we enjoyed. We even finally got around to taking the dogs for morning walks around town, changing our route daily to follow our whims. The days were long; the lid of my grill almost always warm to the touch. It was a fine time. At least it should have been if not for one thought constantly nagging me, dragging me into a profound state of anxiety.

You see, I am now unemployed. My final paycheck from the district arrived on Friday. I probably should have seen it coming when I turned in my letter of resignation over three months ago. I suppose that I could have spent the summer searching for a job, embarking on a new career, and reinventing myself. But I really needed that time off. I earned it. I only wish I had been better at enjoying it.

I was a teacher for over ten years. Most of that time was spent in the field (trenches really) of severe behavior. It was difficult, generally thankless work that took a toll on my health and on my very sense of being. I don’t really want to talk about it very much except to say that I was initially chosen for that line of work because I was seen as being creative and open minded. The experience wore on me, leaving me feeling cynical and conventional, not a person who I want to be.

It is not quite accurate to say that I did nothing practical over the summer. I applied for several teaching jobs in my district. These were for academic positions, still stressful, but somewhat out of the line of fire, safer feeling. I had interviews and perhaps naively assumed that I was a shoe in for one or another of the jobs. That I was passed over twice still stings like an insult, but it is quite possibly the best thing that has ever happened to me.

It should not be a surprise that they didn’t take me back. In one interview I described my resignation as jumping from an airplane. “About half way down I realized that I had not packed a parachute,” I told the interview panel earnestly, “But I don’t even care. I just know that I had to get out of that plane.” In my other interview I told them that the only way to save special education was to abolish it. I think I used the word “crap” twice. Remember when Joquin Pheonix went nuts a couple of years ago and said crazy things on all the late night talk shows? I was sort of like the elementary school teacher version of that.

Now I am free. Well, that is to say that I am as free as one can be with a mortgage, car payment, multiple bills, and a family to support. I am nervous as hell and more than a little bit desperate, but I’d be a liar if I told you that there wasn’t something really cool about the prospect of being unemployed - no boss, no schedule, nobody trying to bite me or thinking of suing me. Probably the best thing about unemployment is that I don’t have to go to work in the morning. It is a little thing, but marvelous. I could get used to this if I weren’t certain to run out of money in a month or two. 

Still, it is liberating not to be a public school teacher. I feel compelled to finally be open about my political and religious beliefs, to draw cartoons with controversial topics, to use profanity on facebook, perhaps to quit writing under this goofy pseudonym, to no longer labor under the weight of having to be a role model for anybody else’s kids, or conform to the lunacy of public school.

So I am committed to enjoying this new time, this weird uncertain time. I don’t know exactly what will happen, but I am opening my mind again, crawling out of the box. And outside of the box, where I belong, it seems that there are prospects. I think I just sold my first essay yesterday. So I will rejoice and move from one adventure to the next, blessed and confused - maybe just a little crazy, but inspired.

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Name Game

She told me to meet her at the new Chinese buffet, the one by Weiners. To the best of my knowledge, there has never been a Weiners in San Marcos - well at least not as long as I’ve been coming and going. But I knew what she was doing. I knew the game we were playing, the game of ‘let me show you how long I’ve been in San Marcos’.

The rules of the game are simple. Always refer to any building, business, park, or even personal residence by the name it had the year you arrived, or were born, in San Marcos. If played well, it will solidify your relationship with your San Martian contemporaries and provide you with ample opportunities to feel smug and more settled than more recent immigrants. 

Like many college towns, San Marcos residents can be roughly divided into three groups: those who have always been here, those who are passing through, and the ones who came and never left. This last group, the ones who came, generally for school, may or may not have ever graduated, but they never got around to moving to Austin. These are the people who mostly play the game. They tend to take more pride in the town than even the people whose families have been swimming at Rio Vista since the Alamo was besieged. But like so many adoptees, they harbor a deep need to belong and to reinforce their relationship with momma San Marcos. And so they play.

The most commonly changing businesses are bars and restaurants. These places also tend to loan their personalities to people who identify them with a particular time in life. As such, people who came to Southwest Texas in times of yore, still refer to the large music venue on the square as Deveraux, with little regard to an ever changing marquee  that has claimed so many names. Others, who came later to Texas State, may fondly remember eating a burger in the same place, only it was called Gordo’s.

Extra points are awarded for using particularly colloquial names from specific times. Let me give you an example. The little HEB was an AppleTree from the late eighties until the mid nineties. It is a smallish store, located very close to campus and has always been heavily patronized by students and younger folk. It is traditionally a place that could be hard to visit without running into a friend and feeling obliged to chat. A quick trip for a frozen pizza and ice cream could take an hour for a social type. And so it became known as ‘the Appletrap’. Using this term now will either befuddle or amuse whoever you’re with. Even as I write this, my wife leans over my shoulder and smugly says, “Oh, are you talking about the Safeway?” Well played, spouse, well played.

While the San Marcos River is generally simply called ‘the river’ by young and not so young alike, various banks and parks along the river have multiple names. Across from Rio Vista Dam, is an area many refer to as ‘the girl scout camp’. Deep behind tangles of grape vines and poison ivy is an old, rectangular swimming pool that has filled to the rim with dirt. If there was ever a girl scout camp here, it was really long time ago. Most people forgo this part of the park, never thinking about what it might be called. At the other end is a fantastic swimming hole where Spring Lake cascades into the top of the river. This is a very popular spot for many generations. As such, it has quite a few names. The area is called Peppers, ‘the headwaters’, ‘the top’, The Salt Grass, or even ‘the forbidden’ zone depending on who you ask and when they arrived. 

So she wants to meet near the Weiners, eh? Not wanting to be beaten by my slightly senior San Martian, and remembering that the new Chinese buffet is on the highway near where the Blanco and San Marcos Rivers converge, I decide to break the rules a little, to pad my San Marcos resume. I responded in my best 1800‘s Comanche dialect, “Oh, you mean the one near Paa Tosaybita (Blanco River)?

But she was quicker and older than me, shooting back, “Yes, Ligai Koh“ in what certainly sounded like fluent Lipan Apache (circa 1750). I am bested once again.

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.