Thursday, September 20, 2012


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?"

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.


Friday, September 7, 2012

The Desert and the River (part 1)

They say that if you fall into the water, you will emerge covered in unspeakable bacteria. They say that whole villages of people along the Nile have been blinded by parasites from bathing in this water. They say that the sides are the worst and if you must get in the river, do so in the deep and flowing middle section. We step carefully from boat to boat, not wanting to slip and fall between as we board. There are eight of us. There could be as many as twenty, seated comfortably on the cushioned seats of the feluca. We are going for a short outing - a couple hours around the sunset. But I could stay on this river forever, lose myself in the reeds and tiny islands, never returning to the city.

The picnic table is spread with the usual snacks: hummus, nuts, greasy little egg rolls, and cans of beer. Around the table, we recline and chat. If we are lucky, Jenn will actually pick up the guitar that she has been coaxed to bring along. She is timid to play. She doesn't want to be that person - the one who brings a guitar everywhere and monopolizes all attention, playing boring and endless songs. I can't quite convince her that the simple fact that she doesn't want to be 'that person', is proof that she isn't. 'That person' doesn't have a clue. Besides, her songs kick ass and her voice is amazing. She sings, quietly at first. She pauses to watch a pied kingfisher hover over the water for a few moments and then dive for a fish. With a clicking buzz, the bird is gone and Jenn resumes her song.

There is no motor on a feluca, only the soft creaking of timbers pushing gently against the wind and the water. The pilot smiles when I ask him if he has the best job in Cairo.  The feluca has no car horn. And so the pilot communicates with waves and friendly calls to other boats and farmers along the banks. He tacks expertly into the breeze. Mina wants to work the rudder. She pokes me, "Will you help me ask him?" He is grinning, clearly understanding her as she works up the courage to speak to him.

From the middle of this peaceful river, serenely passing islands of tall reeds and small rowboats full of fishermen, it is hard to believe that we are in the middle of Cairo. Just a few hundred yards away the city begins at the banks and sprawls off into the desert on either side. Out there in the city twenty million people are all talking and yelling at the same time. Twenty million people are stuck in traffic, uselessly honking their horns over and over again. Twenty million people throwing garbage on the ground in unison. The city is vibrant and annoying. It assaults and offends, overwhelms people like me - people who crave serenity as much as we need human interaction. But we have options. Though we are tied to the pulsing city through our jobs and apartments, we make these short forays out to find peace. Whenever possible we journey out to the desert or inward to the river. Like the pilot, with his head back and eyes half closed in the breeze, we breathe deeply and slowly, inviting the current to wash away the tension.