Friday, August 31, 2012

Cloud Gazing

At a long and boring faculty meeting, somebody mentioned that people who get into teaching for the summer vacations are doing it for all the wrong reasons. Perhaps I should delete that part from my resume. Although it isn't just the summers off that I enjoy about teaching. It is also the two weeks at Christmas and a week for spring break that inspire me to sign my dreaded contract year after year - to sign my life away to another year of public scrutiny and constant, unrelenting stress. It is a trap. My leg is clamped painfully in its steel jaws, but I am too weary to bother chewing it off to reclaim my freedom.

My brother was a public school teacher. He now works in the private sector. I asked him about how hard it was to give up his summers. He told me that he had worried over this very question constantly before the fuse was lit, while it was burning, up until the moment that his career ended dramatically in a glorious explosion of profanity and threats. He said that now that he is done teaching, he no longer needs summers off. As I look toward a future away from education I am reassured by his words.

Back home in the Texas public schools, people worked very hard - hell, we toiled. There was always too much to do and too little time to do it. We often worked very long days, but we didn't delight in it or boast about it. Sure some folks were driven and inspired. Many were brilliant. But there was an understanding that many of us were just trying to get through the day, the week - counting down days until the next break. There was no shame in that.

People here in the international, private schools are different. There is what strikes me as an oddly competitive attitude about how hard they work and particularly about how many hours it takes. If I tell someone that I came in at 9am on Saturday to get some work finished, she will likely counter with, "Well I came in at seven." If I left at two, she invariably stayed until at least five. It is as though we are in a bidding war over wasted time. When I ask a person what he plans to do on the weekend, he will always make some mention of working at least part of the time. The funny thing is that when I do actually drag my lazy self into school on a weekend to do something that I should have completed weeks ago, I rarely actually see anybody there at all. It seems to be enough just to say you are working - to continually work on the illusion that you are busier than everybody else. If I thought that people were trying to support and inspire one another, I might have some respect this ridiculous game of one upmanship. But it does not feel like that at all.

The same attitude extends to extra curricular activities. I love to take long walks. People here train for marathons. I mentioned to a coworker that I just went swimming. "How many laps did you do?" Probably not as many as you. I don't do laps. I am more manatee than porpoise. Why would I waste valuable water time swimming back and forth over and over again?

As such, I don't really like to tell people what I am doing. I don't want to relate everything to work or to compete about how much of my free time I have spent at school. Jenn suggested that I just say I am working on whatever I am doing... just use the word 'work' in every sentence. This evening I will start by working on eating too much really good Korean food. When I get home, we will work together on finishing off that case of foul tasting Sakkara beer. Then I will work on watching a TV show about teenage vampires. Tomorrow morning I will work with my kids on playing soccer and dig into a project based on Scooby Doo.

If I am inspired to work really hard this weekend,  I will slip away to a quiet place where I can lie on my back in the sand. I will gaze at the heavens and begin the arduous task of finding and identifying images in the clouds as they float past.

Hard at Work

Saturday, August 18, 2012

You Say You Want a Post Revolution

 "And so I dropped one of those, how do you call them? Yes, cinder blocks, through his windshield and pulled him out of the car by his shoulders, like this. I threw him on the front of the car and told him that he and his friends are not welcome to drive like that in front of my store anymore. He was scared, crying a little. They won't come back." I listened as Hamny, my buddy who owns a small souvenir shop in the midan near our apartment, regaled us with his tales of post revolution machismo and civic responsibility. The story sounded a little too intense to believe in its entirety. But who am I to judge a man by the accuracy of his words? I certainly hadn't seen the young punks around in a few days - the ones who were increasingly present near our house, doing donuts during rush hour, yelling, fighting, scaring common citizens in this new anarchic, post revolution Egypt. Besides the story was good, and Hamny tells it in a great voice with huge, overblown gestures.

Time in Egypt was once measured in dynasties. These lasted hundreds or thousands of years and were defined by giant monuments and the deaths of pharaohs. But that is all over now. All time now is divided into two periods - pre-revolution and post-revolution. Some wax nostalgic for the pre-revolution, which was characterized by tyranny and a relative (very relative) degree of order. Post revolution is uncertain, sometimes hopeful, a little bit frightening, and increasingly chaotic.

Street crime, which was virtually nonexistent in Cairo until the revolution, is on the rise. Purses are snatched, cars are stolen. It is still safer here than in most cities around the world. But it is not as safe as it was before. You can walk at night, but it is worth keeping an eye out for muggers. They say not to wear purses or bags across your shoulders. The mode for most theft is drive by style, three dudes on a motorcycle. They grab your bag. If you let it go it is gone. If it is around your shoulders they go anyway, dragging you on the ground until the strap breaks.

I am not a tough guy by nature. But when I walk the streets I pretend that I am. First I convince myself that if anyone wants what I have they had better be ready to kick my ass to get it. Who knows how scared I'd be if I were really mugged. I believe that I am big and strong. And I don't get messed with, with the rather glaring exception of when I was pick pocketed in the shadow of the great pyramid one week after my arrival. That was a crime of cunning and finesse, unsettling but not as intense as being mugged or dragged behind a shitty Honda motorcycle by a trio of post revolution wannabe thugs. I will swagger. I will put my cash in my front pants pocket. I will not go down without a fight.
OK, enough bravado.

Before the revolution, the police were a rather intense presence, sitting in pairs on street corners in black berets, Kalashnikovs locked and loaded. People avoided the police. They feared, respected, hated them a little, and did what they had to to avoid their attention. And then the revolution came. The brutality of the police was no match for the collective will of the Egyptian people. Hundreds died at the hands of the Egyptian police force before the regime toppled. The army took control, but faded into the background as the police came back out to the streets. You can find the police now, shadows of their former selves. They are generally unarmed and sheepish. They enforce nothing, seem to see nothing. They avoid eye contact and crime scenes. Post revolution Egypt is a  little rough around the edges.

I was walking across the midan on my way to work the other day when I saw a car accident - a very common occurrence in a town where forty people a day die in wrecks. One guy had rear ended another guy. I didn't see the lead up, but I'm sure they were both at fault. Nobody in this town can drive. They jumped out of their cars, ran up to each other, and started yelling and pushing. Yelling and pushing are never out of place in Cairo. People yell at each other when they are buying falafel. But these guys were about to go at it. I slipped away to a safe distance, curious but eager to avoid any involvement. Some fist flew, landing loudly on chests and faces. Suddenly I saw the door to Hamny's shop fly open. He emerged, broad shoulders back, chest puffed out. The dude looked eight feet tall. Hamny strode into the middle of the melee, picked up first one guy and then the other. He bodily placed them onto their respective car hoods, speaking calmly and authoritatively to each man. They shrunk. They cowered as he stood above them, explaining the new way - the way it would be in Hamny's post-revolution Cairo. Withing minutes he had made them shake hands, get in their cars, and drive away.

And then I noticed his t-shirt and realized that there are still pharaohs who walk among men. Things would be rough for a while. But there is hope for post-revolution Egypt.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Jet Lag

"Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place"
-TS Eliot "Ash Wednesday" (excerpt)

It is dark again, suggesting that perhaps I should sleep. Although I am not tired, I am fixated on the idea that tomorrow I will be. Or later today. I look at my trusty little analog alarm clock. It is battery powered and impervious to the black outs that have increased in frequency and duration during our absence. Even though I know it is correct, it is confounding. My head swims a little as I try to mentally roll the hands backwards (or is forward?) to determine the time in Texas where I was two (or is it three?) days ago - hoping to understand why I feel the way I do. If I were home, which is an increasingly abstract concept in itself, what would I be doing right now? Sleeping? Probably not. Am I hungry because my internal clock is calling out for dinner or breakfast? I am confused. Feelings of exhaustion and hyper alertness battle for control of my brain.

Piecing it together: at 3am the kids finally went to sleep. By 6am, two of the four bottles of wine from the duty free were empty and my eyes closed. At 9am Mina came into the room, seemingly refreshed and ready to start again. She doesn't like to miss out on anything.

It took three planes to carry us back to Cairo. The first was small and particularly miserable. With our heads craned and shoulders rubbing, we hurtled through the heavens from Texas to DC in a plane that looked and felt entirely too much like an Airstream trailer with wings to inspire confidence or provide comfort. I did not sleep on this plane.

The next plane was glorious, a Boeing 777 with a cathedral ceiling and large, comfy seats that have little TV's on the back. They have a menu of movies, including fairly new ones and many choices for kids. Luci watched Dumbo. I snuggled into a documentary about A Tribe Called Quest, bass and turbulence dancing together as I slipped in and out of semi sleep. Though it wasn't restful, my dreams were vivid. I was crossing the desert on a camel, part of a caravan of spice merchants. But I was actually a black kid from Queens with a gift for rhyming and a kick ass record collection. I woke up floating in a lake in central Texas. I could hear Jenn, laughing - giggling even. I couldn't see her in the darkness, but I knew she was out there. A foot in the ribs and I was jolted awake, still in the plane. Luci's legs were sticking out in the aisle as flight attendant was passing with a drink cart. Yes, please.

After a night of flying we had a ten hour layover in Frankfurt. I've never been outside of the airports in Germany. Although exhausted, we could not waste this opportunity. We quickly learned how to buy train tickets, checked Jenn's guitar into storage, bought some Euros, and headed into town. I love European cities. The kids chased pigeons and heckled gold painted human statues while Jenn and I feasted on sausages and potatoes, giant hot pretzels and large mugs of beer. We strolled through town. I was dreading the last flight... the one that would take me back to Cairo. It was on a Lufthansa plane. The flight attendants were German. The passengers were mostly Egyptians - boisterous and hungry after a day of Ramadan fasting. I sat back, bleary eyed, and watched the cultures clash. After repeated warnings that broke down into threats, the crew was able to seat the passengers. Dates and water were passed around to break the fast and we took off for Cairo.

I don't know what time the guys from the local market came by to drop off water. It was nighttime, late even by Egyptian standards. I had just fallen into something that seemed like sleep when they banged on the door. I couldn't find my glasses or the light switch, fumbling for cash in the darkness. Jenn always over tips the water guys. And so they stood there in my door way, clearly not willing to budge until I fished out enough change from my wallet to match her kindness. In a daze, I sat on the couch and stared at the computer through insomniac's eyes.

There was a moment, dozing on the couch, when I realized it was now or never. I walked into the bedroom, stepping lightly so as not to wake myself. My bed in the apartment in Cairo is wonderful. It might be the only comfortable thing in the whole city. Finally, there was no doubt that I was ready to crash. The instant my body hit the bed my eyes flew open.