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.

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 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


"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.