Wednesday, November 17, 2010


In 2005, I received a phone call from a former student. He had returned to Saudi Arabia after receiving his doctorate, and was now running an Islamic school in west London. He needed someone he could trust to come help him with the academic programs at the school. It had once been a premier school, but had fallen on hard times.
A consultant had replaced almost sixty percent of the school's personnel the year before, and there was a great deal of confusion amongst the staff and students when my friend inherited the school. To make matters worse, the school was facing a national inspection, an arduous task for a well run institution. I was intrigued by the challenge.
I was working at a large university when I got the call. We negotiated a visit, as I would not commit to the job blindly. I went over for a two week visit. When I got to the school, I wasn't very impressed. The physical state of the school was depressing, and the building itself was large and sprawling, and not very clean. I met the new teachers on my third day, and the few returning veteran teachers a week later. They were an amazing group of people from at least twenty different countries. It was a good thing too, for the tasks they faced were very difficult.
The school had three main goals: 1) to change from the British curriculum to the IB (International Baccalaureate) curriculum, 2) to stabilize the deterioration of the school (both physical and administrative), and 3) to pass an impending, very strenuous national inspection. To make matters worse, the Saudi embassy wanted accomplish all three tasks simultaneously.
During that first visit, I watched the teachers work together during their two-week professional development program. Most were very enthusiastic, and they were taking in a great deal of information - particularly the large group of new teachers. Towards the end of the week, I did some training on study skills, and they appreciated the sessions. I left on a high note, to return the USA and consider the position.
I returned to my job in September, and didn't hear back from the UK for a month or so. In the meantime, my department at the university was moving to a different college in the school, and I was negotiating a new contract with my new boss. It was the classic case of approach-approach conflict: two very attractive possibilities were brewing. On the one hand, I was reworking my current job with all sorts of creative possibilities, and on the other, I was considering a brand new position with some very attractive challenges. In the end, one school stepped up, and the other showed its true colors.
As I was trying to chose between the two jobs, I realized that I did not have enough information about the cost of living in London. I had consulted a tax accountant, and I knew the tax burden. I just had no idea about the rest of my expenses. I also needed more insight into the workings of the school, and to see how the initial changes were settling in. I proposed a second visit, and my friend gladly complied. Before I left, I conveniently let my new boss know about my second option, and gently challenged him to finish his proposal for my new role and salary. He also agreed. I had one week to see what would happen before I crossed the Atlantic again.
My boss came back to me with an offer two days before I was scheduled to leave, but there was a catch. If I accepted, I had to turn the London folks down at the end of my trip. He offered me $65,000, a new office, and expanded space for my staff and programs. It was a good increase, and I accepted. I went to London to tell my friend I couldn't take the position, but I was also scheduled to do some more training for him, so I didn't feel bad - I was still helping him. During my second two-week stay, I conducted an extensive needs assessment, interviewing almost all of the 100+ staff. I talked to parents and students, and did some more training for staff. In addition, I did a few workshops for the community. It was a very productive trip, and my friend was pleased with information I provided. I told him at the end of the two weeks that I had decided to stay in Akron, and he graciously accepted, telling me that if I changed my mind, there would be a place for me. I stayed an extra day to do and additional workshop on communication, then jumped on a plane. When I got home, I had a few interesting surprises.
A few days after my return, I went to a reception for a visiting scientist on campus. I met my boss for the first time since I had been back, and he had a funny look on his face. He pulled me aside and told me there were a few new wrinkles in his offer. I reminded him that I had turned down the other offer as promised, and he broke eye contact. He stammered on and told me that he could get me $50,000 in salary and maybe $15,000 more in stipends. That meant that my subsequent salary increases would be based on the $50,000 and that the other $15,000 was in no way guaranteed year to year. He then advised that I get friendly with the new Vice President (a political creature I did not respect) to help grease the wheels. I smiled at him, turned on my heel, went home and waited patiently until it was 8am in London. I called my friend and asked him if the job was still open. He said yes, and we negotiated my salary - he not only met my needs, he exceeded them. Sometimes the jobs decide for you.
I gave my one-month notice, and prepared to leave the place I had called home for the past 15 years. It was the right decision.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Wadi Rum

This is my own private sand dune, kind of. I had the opportunity to spend two amazing days out in Wadi Rum, the desert valley in the south of Jordan. It is best known as T.E. Lawrence's (of Lawrence of Arabia fame) base in World War I. It is truly an incredible place, a place to lose yourself for awhile.
We arrived at Wadi Rum in the middle of the afternoon. As we were early, we were told we could take a foot trail to an original spring halfway up a mountain. We walked for an hour in high heat to find a little trickle of water bouncing over a makeshift brick wall - not a great start to our trek. We made our way back down to the camp and had some food. Shortly after, our guide arrived. He was large for a Jordanian, and very friendly. His English was very good, and we had no trouble with communication. He led us over to an open jeep, and just like that, we were off into the desert.
We stopped near the entrance to the valley to visit Lawrence's well. It wasn't much of a sight, but we understood its significance in that barren, arid place. There were other groups assembled there, and I wasn't very excited about the adventure at that point. After the obligatory visit to the well, our guide asked us if we wanted to drive out and look at some sand dunes before we made our way to the overnight camp. He let some air out of his tires, and we drove off into the sea of sand. It was the last time for several hours that we saw any other humans.
It is hard to explain what it is like to drive off into another world. In a few minutes, we had left all remnants of civilization behind us, it was like being on another planet (in fact many Hollywood movies are filmed there, including Red Planet, a flim about Mars). We made our way between massive outcrops of jagged rock separated by rivers of unending sand. He took us to several large sand dunes piled high on the leeward sides of the mountains. We took it all in from the open end of his jeep, knowing that we would explore the rock and sand wilderness the next day on foot.
It is somewhat overwhelming being in a place so open and yet so massive in scale. Nothing in Wadi Rum is not dramatic or stark or beautiful. It is welcoming and it is desolate. We drove for a few hours, then arrived at a Bedouin camp for the evening. We joined a few other tourists for a traditional meal and a evening of singing and dancing courtesy of our hosts. I slept like a baby that night.
The following morning we set out to explore some of the famous features of the valley. We climbed a large arched rock bridge, hiked through narrow valleys cradled between mountains, and ran down impossibly tall sand dunes. We had a light lunch at the foot of the dune pictured above, and stopped and had tea with a Bedouin woman in her family tent. It was a two day excursion in a land that needed little narration. I realized that Wadi Rum would not be a home I would choose, but that I would never leave it if I had raised there. There is a particular power in silence. Sand and rock are silent, very silent.
I look forward to returning to Wadi Rum. I look forward to just being there, lost in the expanse and silence. I look forward to it.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

"Ill Never Again Board a Plane With a Giraffe on it!"

I have a great story to tell when a stewardess comes up to me and says "are you able to open the emergency door in case of an emergency?" I nod and say "well, I have opened one." I am sure they don't hear that every day.
In 2000, I was working for the US Peace Corps in Tanzania. The country is massive, and I travelled most of it supporting and training Peace Corps volunteers and their host country counterparts. We trained our volunteers in Arusha, quite a distance from my office in Dar es Salaam. I found myself flying back and forth quite a bit during their three month training period. It was on one such flight that I got to find out all I ever wanted to know about airplane safety.
It was near the end of the training period, and a coworker and I were to fly back to Dar es Salaam. Me made our way from the town of Arusha to the international airport some 50 kilometers away. The airport itself is near the Kenyan border, an attempt I suppose to draw business from both countries. It is nestled between Mt. Meru and Kilamanjaro, two majestic peaks. To add to the effect, the airport is on the very edge of the Serengeti. It is truly the most beautiful setting for any airport I have ever visited.
We boarded the 737 for our one hour flight. Our seats were just behind the exit row which overlooked the wings. As we prepared to taxi, I found myself morbidly watching the engine under the wing. I had flown hundreds of times, and I wasn't nervous, just watching that engine. We quickly made our way out to the runway, and the pilot instructed us in Swahili and English. I remember seeing a young Arab couple with three young children a few seats in front of me. The kids were having fun, and it was all their parents could do to keep control of them.
As the jet started to lumber down the runway, my attention was drawn back to that engine. It seemed to take forever to get going, and finally the front end of the aircraft began to nudge upwards. At that very moment, I heard a loud boom and saw a plume of smoke pouring from the engine. The next ten seconds felt like an eternity -the captain shut the plane down and locked up the brakes. We skidded for quite awhile, turning sideways. As quickly as it began, we were stopped at the end of the runway, the nose of the plane sticking into the grassy field that was never intended to receive a jet. Several of the oxygen masks had deployed and there was a strange silence. We all just sat there quietly. After a few seconds, the captain came on the loudspeaker and told us to evacuate in two languages. There was an urgency in his voice. When his voice faded, the pandemonium began. People started yelling and jumping over seats. My friend patiently stood up and got into the aisle to move back to the rear exit. I started to follow, a bit scared, until I remembered the family a few rows ahead. I tried to push my way forward when I noticed two people having a hard time opening the exit door over the wing ahead of me. I pushed two others aside and grabbed the door. It was harder to open than I had thought. When the door swung upwards, smoke from the tires poured into the cabin. This accelerated the madness around me. I suppose the passengers thought the plane itself was on fire. I stepped back to let people out, and a group of wazungu (westerners) pushed forward past everyone frantically racing to get out. I guess they didn't want to die in Africa, but I was surprised how little regard they had for the women and children around them.
I pushed forward again and reached the family. The father was patiently trying to carry a newborn while shepherding two young kids and his wife to the rear of the plane. I got in line behind them and followed them out. When we got to the back of the plane, we faced the daunting task of jumping out onto the escape ramp. I asked him if he needed help, and he said yes. He had me jump out first to then help "catch" his two children while he jumped with the baby.
I took my shoes off and jumped, sort of having fun. As I began to stand up, I felt a shooting pain through my shoulder - a European woman had evidently pushed past the family and jumped too soon with her high heels on. She rolled off of me and crawled screaming out onto the runway. I turned around and grabbed the two kids as they bounced down the ramp/raft. Once the family was all down, we walked a few hundred yards to where the other passengers were congregating. After about ten minutes, we were told we could go back on the plane to get our carry on baggage if we wanted to. I was one of only two passengers to take them up on their offer.
I learned that day that karma sometimes exists. Two of the westerners who had scrambled out the wing exit had been injured, one breaking his leg. They thought the plane was on fire, so they went out to the furthest point on the wing to jump. The wings swept up, and they had long plunge to terra firma.
We were taken back to Arusha, and those of us who still wanted to catch another flight later were put up in a nice hotel. I saw the crew come in the lobby and they were very shaken. I supposed we had all come very close to a terrible conclusion. My friend did not come to the hotel, she opted for a very long bus ride back to Dar es Salaam. When I asked her why, she replied "I'll never again board a plane with a giraffe on it!" I understood.
I had to wait three days for another flight. The official word was that there had been a tire blow out on take off, but when I returned to the airport, I saw the plane in an open hangar with my favorite engine removed. I would later learn that if the plane had gotten off the ground and the engine had failed, we probably would not have survived.
Fifteen years later, I was sitting in an exit row on a flight to California. The stewardess came by and was chatting with me. When she got around to her obligatory admonition about the responsibilities related to occupancy in an exit row, I agreed then told her I had opened a door before. She smiled and went on her way. Later in the flight, she came by and asked me where and when I had opened an exit door. I related the basics of my story to her and she got very excited. She told me that she taught safety to flight crews, and she had reviewed that very incident in her training. A small, small world.


I first met Omega in 1999 when I was working with the US Peace Corps in Tanzania. Omega was a language trainer, and was living in Arusha where we trained our new volunteers. She was a very bright and pleasant woman, and I loved to kid around with her. She was one of the best trainers we had, and it was fun to see her interact with the volunteers. Omega was also very pregnant at the time.
Although she was a Tanzanian, Omega was very accustomed to western ways. I liked talking to her, as she was eager to learn more of our idiomatic language. One day our conversation turned to her pregnancy, and she did not hesitate. I mention this now, as I would learn that many Tanzanian women don't speak of their pregnancy, and pretty much everyone around them ignores the fact. I suppose it has something to do with the high infant mortality rate, and it was just bad luck to talk about the pregnancy. I did not know this at the time. We joked about her condition, and she even let me touch her belly. Once again, she did not hesitate, and I knew no differently.
A month or two before her due date, Omega started to have difficulties. So much so that they eventually took her to the infirmary. Several of us went to visit her after a few days, and I was shocked at the conditions of her room. There must have been a dozen beds in a room 15 x 15, with a dozen women in various stages of pregnancy. It was obvious the bedding wasn't often washed, nor were the women. Anything they needed had to be brought to them by family or friends, the infirmary didn't even feed them. Omega couldn't leave her bed, so I had to weave my way into the room to stand beside her bed. She was as amiable as ever, but I knew she was having difficulty. We joked according to our custom, and I left. Instead of going back to my hotel, I went down to the local market. I bought a few dozen oranges and a dozen Toblerone candy bars. I went back to the infirmary, bribed the guard to let me back in (past visiting hours), and entered Omega's room. I gave her the oranges and candy bars and she distributed them through out the room. They were all grateful, and we spent a gentle hour chatting, mostly them laughing at my baby Swahili. I was glad I could take their minds of their pain and the miserable conditions of their room for a short time.
Omega lost the child a few days later. By that time, another language trainer had educated me about their customs regarding pregnancy and childbirth. To this day, the ugly notion that I had "jinxed" her pregnancy creeps into my mind. Rationally, I know that I had nothing to do with it. But it still tugs at my soul from time to time.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Eating at Al Capone's in the Sinai, on the Red Sea

It may not have been the best food I ever ate, but it certainly was my favorite meal in many years. I had this seafood feast in a small village on the eastern side of the Sinai called Dahab (Arabic for Gold). I was making my around the Sinai with a friend a few years ago. We took a ferry from Aqabah to Nuweiba in Egypt. From there, we negotiated (and renegotiated and renegotiated) with the driver to take us to the quaint diving village of Dhahab. Unfortunately, we shared the taxi ride with three Americans, two who were very obnoxious. Both my friend and I had lived all over the world, and we listened to one guy telling his new friends all about Egyptian culture. My friend and I just looked at each other and bit our lips. It was a long hour drive to Dhahab.
When we finally arrived, the village didn't look very impressive. There were a lot of rundown buildings, and dusty empty lots. We didn't know that the heart of Dhahab was a long,narrow strip right on the Red Sea. Once we moved from the center of the town inward, we understood the popularity of that small and intimate place. We walked on a boardwalk and came to a beautiful arched bridge. From the top of that bridge, we could see the restaurant and dive shop area laid out before us. There were dozens of beautiful restaurants, all built up on pylons extending out over the water. The roofs were thatched, and there was a lot of bamboo. We decided to find a hotel, then to wander down the lane to a good restaurant.
We had a bit of a problem finding a decent hotel. It was almost Christmas, and the town was crowded. We did manage to find one place with a clean room. We walked up from the lobby to an open roof area with brightly colored rooms. The courtyard looked out over the sea, and there was a nice breeze blowing in. It was the start of a very nice evening. After settling in and discovering there were no towels in the hotel, we sought out and found a small store and bought some souvenir Dhahab towels. We took them back to the room and headed out to eat. We had no idea what we were in for.
When we crossed over the bridge, we were bombarded with pitchmen standing outside each restaurant. We had decided to make a thorough reconnoiter to make sure we didn't make a hasty decision. The first place we passed was named Al Capone's Restaurant. They had tables out front of the dining area with fresh seafood on ice. We would be allowed to pick our food. The barker haggled with us and tried to physically pull me in. We gently refused and kept walking. We repeated that scene maybe a dozen times as we walked on. I made the mistake of telling several of them that I would come back. For the next day and a half, as we walked up and down the seafront, I was reminded of my promise by a dozen Egytpian hawkers. I just smiled dopely and moved on. That night, we eventually decided that we liked the first place we saw, even though it was named after an American gangster. When we walked back up to the restaurant, our friend smiled broadly and said "I knew you would come back, welcome, welcome." We then went through the process of selecting our food, and haggling for a price (the picture above is just one of the trays they served us!). We sat at the corner of the restaurant and looked out over a dark sea. It really was a beautiful setting.
When the food showed up, we were astounded. They had taken so much care to construct the foil decorations, and the food looked incredible. We didn't know where to start. We had fish, prawns, and other shellfish. There were ornately cut vegetables and potatoes. For desert, they brought out another elaborate plate with fruit and pancakes. As we ate, we threw scraps to a group of feral cats under our table. It really was beautiful evening.
Of course, the bill we finally received was much more than our original quote. The experience had been so fun, that we really didn't care. That night we took a stroll back down the waterfront (constantly admonished for my earlier promises) and looked at some tourist shops. We stopped by an artists studio and talked to the owner about his art. The weather was perfect, there were brightly colored lanterns hung everywhere, and the whole place had a peaceful ambiance. It was one of the most relaxing evenings I can remember.
The next day, after walking out to the seafront, we ate breakfast at one of the places I had promised to return to, then boarded a bus for a long journey around the Sinai up to Cairo. I think though, that I left a little piece of me at Al Capone's Restaurant.

Train Kept A Rollin

From the time I finished the 8th grade to the day I entered the 10th grade, I attended four schools in three states. For once though, the fact that we kept moving might have saved my life. For if we would have stayed at our third stop, Pontiac, Michigan I don't think I would have survived.
We moved to Pontiac in January of 1973. It was one of the toughest places I have ever been, and I was 14 years old. We only ended up staying there for six months, and I was relieved to leave. We had rented a rundown apartment in a depressed area of town. The neighborhood was mixed, poverty being the only shared culture. Before arriving in Pontiac, I had lived in smaller, less diverse towns. I had no concept of what to expect from that big city, and no preparation for what I would see.
I met some of the local kids the weekend before the first day of school. I remember Rodney and Timmy vividly, as it was their story that shocked and horrified me. To this day, I haven't heard someone relay a personal experience like theirs. And I would not care to. Rodney was a street-wise kid who was the leader of the local group of kids. Timmy, who had lost both his legs, was an affable guy who did his best to keep up in his beaten up wheelchair. They adopted me and shielded me from some difficulties while introducing me to worse things. I sometimes wonder if either of them are still alive.
I will never forget my first day at school in Pontiac. It was a very large school just for 9th graders. There were kids of all sorts, a few who made immediate impressions on me. My first incident happened an hour or so after classes began. I opened a door to leave a class and it hit another student in the arm. He was about six foot two, 185 pounds. He looked like he was 22, and had a big afro. I apologized and he just stared at me. I wasn't sure what else to do, so I turned to leave. As I walked away, a nervous kid walked beside me saying "Do you know who that was? That was Spade, the toughest kid in the school. He is 19 and only stays in school to sell drugs to the other kids." I had dodged a bullet. Later in the day, I met a very charming student named Clarence James III (or as he introduced himself, CJ the DJ). He took me under his wing and we agreed to meet at the art room after school. When the last bell rang, I made my way down to our meeting place. CJ was there smiling. He ushered me into the art room and locked the door after we entered. He then introduced me to the art teacher who promptly took out a bottle of wine from his desk and poured us each a glass. I wasn't sure where I was at that point, it was just far too strange to be real. I learned to avoid the bathrooms at the school, as they were filled with smoke, drug deals, and the occasional brawl. The girls all scared me, as they acted and appeared as if they were ten years older. The students were all very foreign to me. I do remember the one exception, a slight black kid who dressed neatly and carried a brief case. He didn't socialize, he just went to class, studied, and went home. I often wondered if his focus ever got him out of that place.
Rodney, Timmy, and I hung out on weekends with some of the other local kids. I soon learned that they all enjoyed drugs, and I really didn't want to go down that road, but I didn't want to alienate my protectors. I turned to alcohol instead. It was a crazy six months. We lived on the edge of the city, and there were woods and remote areas nearby. We spent many an hour hiding out there, doing whatever we liked. By that point, my stepfather would buy me beer whenever I wanted, so I maintained my popularity with six packs.
I had also met a pair of twin brothers name Brett and Bart Hartsoe (named after Brett and Bart Maverick). They were good kids, and I had more in common with them. One weekend, we planned on me staying overnight with them. Their parents said no, but the brothers snuck me in through their basement window. In the morning, their little sister came down into their room and spotted me. She must have been about three. To this day, I remember her exact words as she ran back up to tattle on us:
"Mommy, mommy, there is more than one head in Bart's bed." Great line, had to fit it into the story somehow........
Each morning, Rodney and I and a few others would walk to school, a distance of about two miles. When the weather warmed up, we exploited a new form of transportation, hopping a train that ran past our neighborhood and eventually the school. It was exhilarating to say the least, I had only seen it done in the movies. The train ran near the woods behind our houses, in between two large ponds we loved to fish in. It was so neat to run up to the train, grab anything you could hold on to, and haul yourself up. It was about a five minute ride, rather than the half an hour by foot. I really felt grown up doing that (looking back, I suppose I would have made a good hobo). I rode the train for almost a month before I eventually stopped abruptly.
We were over at Timmy's house one night, doing what we always did. Timmy and Rodney were taking drugs, and I shared a bottle of whiskey with Timmy's brother. Timmy had a high tolerance for harder drugs, a result of his double amputation I suppose. Strangely, I had never asked how Timmy had lost his legs, it just didn't seem necessary. That night though, it came up in the conversation, and Rodney told me the tale. Something that is still horrific to me, and if they hadn't pulled out the news clipping, I am not sure I would have believed them.
A year earlier, Rodney and Timmy were on their way to school. They were late, so they decided to hop one of the freight trains that passed the school. It was a winter morning, very cold, wet and slippery. Rodney boarded first, and reached back to give Timmy a hand up. Just as Timmy grabbed his wrist, he stumbled and somehow slipped under the train. Rodney heard the scream and jumped off the train. Timmy had fallen legs first, and the train had amputated both legs well above his knees. The next part of the story is the most incredulous, but once again supported by the newspaper article. Rodney knew he had to go for help, but that Timmy might die of blood loss. They were beside one of the ponds, and Rodney quickly fashioned a plan. He found a large stick and thrust it into the ground just inside the shore. He then dragged Timmy over to the pond, slid what was left of his bottom half into the half-frozen water and made him hold onto the stick. He took off his belt and wrapped it around Timmy's hands and the stick. He then made the eight minute trip back to his house to call an ambulance. Timmy survived, and Rodney was a hero of sorts.
That night, sitting on the couch listening to that story, was a turning point for me. I couldn't believe Rodney was still hopping trains, or that he was introducing new converts to that form of commuting. I then took a hard look at the rest of their life, and realized that no, it wasn't normal for 14 year olds to be doing drugs, and that I really didn't want to be in the environment. Luckily, my step-father got in trouble somehow, and we had to move. If we hadn't, I am sure I would not be here now writing this. I don't miss any of those friends, but I do think of that lone Black kid with the briefcase, praying desperately that he made it out, that he survived that treacherous place.
*Postscipt: Although I was only in Pontiac for six months or so, I did gain a notoriety of sorts. I came to school one day to find out that most all of the 900+ student body were looking for me. A local executive, Harvey Leach, had been found murdered (grusomely) in the woods behind our neighborhood. Somehow, it got out that I had found his body. It was rumored to be a mob hit, making it that much more sensational. It all died down after a week, particularly since I took no credit for it, but it was a strange week. Leach headed up a local discount furniture store known for its catchy commerical jingle. If you like, you can view it here:

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Angst About Asha and Todd

I cannot remember the last time I was excited about a new television show. As a matter of fact, I don't think I have followed a half-hour sitcom since I was in high school. It has just been too difficult to arrange my life to be somewhere for 30 minutes one evening each week. I have watched many shows in syndication though, usually online or later in the evening. This year was different however, as I was very intrigued by the new comedy, Outsourced, I really believed it had potential.
Perhaps it was because of my fond experiences supervising Indian students at the University of Akron and Cleveland State University. And the initial trailers were very funny. They dealt with my two favorite topics quickly: The "yes head shake" and "vindaloo." There is a charming cast of actors and actresses with a lot of potential. The characters are human and funny, and the cross-cultural mayhem is obvious. I wasn't that impressed with the lead character, a young American named Todd, nor was I pleased with the other western characters, but the Indian actors really are worthwhile. Particularly Asha, the savvy, intelligent young woman who is meant to give Todd a run for his money. She has a foot in both worlds, understanding the eccentricities of the American company she works for, but dedicated to following the customs of her own culture, even acquiescing to an arranged marriage. I really thought this show would be different, at least for awhile.
There have been some really nice moments, not overly sexual or base. Like the time Manmeet, the young girl-obsessed employee is discussing courtship with Todd. He wants to know what "first base" is and Todd tells him it is kissing. He is astounded, the asks if second base is living happily ever after. Todd is confused and asks him if he knows there are four bases (American baseball metaphor), and Manmeet replies, "no, we have Cricket and it only has two bases." I laughed for a long time at that.
Since it is an American comedy supposedly occurring in India, there has to be some degree of controversy. I thought they could play with a few issues, but that there was an opportunity to show a bit of cultural sensitivity, making it all that more interesting. I thought wrong. In only the fourth or fifth episode, Todd is found kissing Asha, something that would never be shown in India, and completely out of character for the bright young woman, so much more together than her young American boss. I was very disappointed, and the other western characters have taken the humor to lower places.
Perhaps I should have known better, after all, The Office has become completely disgusting in its sexual innuendos. I am a bit saddened by the fact that we couldn't have an intelligent and cute comedy between two cultural worlds, but maybe I am the only audience for such a show. I don't think I will continue to keep watching.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

My Heart

My heart must be a lonely place: I don't often let people in, and I seldom visit it myself. Now that I have been asked to do a presentation at a large ESL conference in Jordan, I am thinking a lot about my heart. I am thinking about my heart because I have realized that when I teach, I feel grace. When I teach, I am honest. When I teach, I give. And sometimes, when I teach, I let my students in. I let my students see who I really am, not afraid of the vulnerability or risk. I want to talk about this in January in Jordan, I want to share what I feel, I want to share what I do well.
If you asked me a few years ago about sharing my heart with my students, I would have had a good laugh. It has only recently dawned on me that I do reveal myself (appropriately of course) in the classroom. This realization has come, in part, through encounters with former students. I have taught thousands of students in the past 25 years, and many have made a point to touch base with me. When they do, they seldom talk about a specific thing I taught them (I will not be listed in luminous volumes of great quotations), they comment on how I helped them. I never thought I was helping them, I thought I was teaching them something specific at a specific moment. This has made me reconsider the teaching process, at least maybe the most import process - sharing myself.
There are other things that have made me consider the state of my heart recently. I have realized that there is actually a wonderful potential being an American Muslim. Being an "American" and not looking like an "Arab", I am often approached by other curious Americans. It is an opportunity to share something of my faith, and to violate some terrible stereotypes. But before I can share, I have to come to grips with the aspects of my faith that impact my heart. I suppose if I lived in a predominately Islamic country, I wouldn't have to express this to many folks, as there would be an implied consensus. That understanding doesn't exist here, and there are many very nice and genuine people who would like to gain a better depth to their knowledge and acceptance of my faith. It has caused me to open up in ways I have never done before.
I feel a peace when I pray, knowing that I have put my own needs and desires aside to pray to my God, Allah. I feel a sense of purpose when I read my Koran, understanding more and more of the lessons the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH)has laid out for me. Sometimes, I believe I was a Muslim before I converted. My actions and thoughts (particularly in the classroom)were often noble and true. I love the fact that I have to reflect on my faith and my subsequent actions; there has to be a concord. My task now is to take that presence from my classroom to the rest of my life, in the shadow of my faith. This will involve opening my heart to more people and experiences. This is my task.
So, in January, I want to share this with a group of other teachers. In this age of technology, science, and innovation, I want to return our focus for an hour or so to our hearts. To that aspect of teaching where we open up and give to our students. Where we help and by doing so are helped. A state of grace that surpasses the moment, and is indicative of a larger connection that touches us all. I have no idea how I will articulate this..............

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Things to Talk About When you are Dead

I hit the telephone pole at about seventy miles an hour. I remember waking up as the car left the country road, feeling the tires bouncing over the rocks in the ditch. My eyes focused just in time to see the lone pole standing defiantly in my path. I didn't even come close to missing it. When I saw the photos of the car later, I realized I hit it dead center. If you are gonna do something, do it right.
I was on my way to work, a daily two hour drive to the oil rig. It was 1981, and I was making fifteen dollars an hour, more money than I could spend. The work was simple for the most part, the commute was difficult. I worked the relief shift which meant that I would work for two days on the morning shift, come back the third day and work the afternoon shift for two days, then return to work the night shift for two days. Four hours driving on bad roads each day at different times was the only downside to the job. The money was great, the work bearable, and I had a welcomed break from college for six months. In hindsight I think I was lucky. If I hadn't crashed late that evening, I might have stayed away from school longer, and perhaps never finishing my degree. Two weeks in intensive care was a high price however.
I woke up seconds before the impact, and again I suppose an hour or so after. I remember being shocked at how fast the world stopped. The car was rocketing through the ditch, jarring me as it careened towards its target. Then, in an instant, it stopped. I didn't feel the impact, just the end of the world. No noise, no feeling, no sight (later I would learn that my head had bounced off of the windshield cutting me deeply, the blood blinded me for several hours). It was about ten hours before anyone found me, and five more before they got me out of the car. I was conscious for most of the ordeal, pinned under the steering wheel. Plenty of time to think.
Through the night, I had a long conversation with someone. I am not sure that I knew who I was talking to, but I know I suspected that it was an angel, or God, or maybe my just the man I should have been. Whoever it was, he knew me well. I suppose now that it was a hallucination, but it didn't feel that way then. It was far too real, far too sobering. I was twenty-two years old, and I thought I was dead.
He asked me who I loved. I told him I loved my family. He asked me who else I loved. I told him I didn't love anyone else, that maybe in the future I would love someone. He told me there had to be someone else, I was missing someone. I eventually figured out that he was referring to loving myself, but I was stubborn and didn't let on. I didn't want to think about such a thing, even if I was dead, or if it was the last thing I would ever contemplate. I just didn't care to deal with it, probably still don't.
The conversation shifted to who I thought were good people. Once again, I asserted that my family were, and he acknowledged. I then asked him who he thought were good people. He told me that anyone who acted consistently in the interest of others was a good person (I am not making this up, nor do I suppose it has to make sense - this is what played out in my mind while trapped in that crushed car). He then said a very intersting thing, basically that mentally retarded people were good people. They saw the world as it truly was - the rest of us had been contaminated by the pursuit of our own selfish interests. Our vision had changed. We didn't know we weren't good because we didn't have the capacity to see the right path. The path in front of us was wrong, but it was all we could see. Struggling mightily to stay on the wrong path was our pitiful legacy. Not only were we doomed to fail to keep the path, it was the wrong one. Kind of a double damned state. I listened carefully.
We talked through the night about good intentions, right paths, the consideration of others. I don't remember the specific context of the later discussion, but I do remember being jarred by the noise of the "jaws of life" as the firemen eventually began to cut the door of my car. Just like that, I was alive again, and the conversation was over. But unlike any inspiration or epiphany before or after that night, my path changed immediately. When I got out of the hospital, I went back to school, changed my emphasis from coaching to teaching, and sent off for a Peace Corps application.
I don't often think of that night. Not because it was traumatic, just because I don't have to. It wasn't a rush of adrenaline that needs to be revisited or replenished. Whatever happened in my mind that night, rerouted my brain and my reality. I can honestly say that I have dedicated my life to improving the lot of others. Yes, I am still Michael, and I do things my way (not always perceived as altruistic), not always succeeding. But I have no ambiguity about my mission in this life, only as to the efficacy of my efforts. That is my question, am I making a difference, am I putting the needs of others first? I have lost track of this often, especially as to the needs of my own family versus the needs of others. Each night before I sleep, I do know that through the day, I was engaged in an activity designed to help someone else in some way. I just pray that I succeed, and the people in my life understand what I am trying to do. A simple prayer.

Demoted at the Special Olympics

The three truly Special Olympians above are Lee, Yogi, and Helen (left to right in the blue shirts, front row). I met them in 1984, and for a year, had a wonderful time with them, culminating with the Oklahoma Special Olympics. I miss them 25 years later!
I met them when I took my friend Rick (former post, "There but for the Grace of God, Go I") to his weekly bowling league. It was a league for bowlers with disabilities, and I have to admit, the only time I thoroughly enjoyed myself in a bowling alley. The athletes were excited, noisy, and competitive. There is no suspense in the world like waiting in the tenth frame for a bowling ball rolling ever so slowly down the lane with the outcome a few pins away. They rolled the balls with two hands, their feet, special ramps, all sorts of ways. And if three games of this unadulterated fun wasn't enough, there was the stop at the local pizza parlor for a post-game celebration. I think I really truly learned to laugh with Rick, Lee, Yogi, and Helen.
I kept going back to that weekend bowling league, even after Rick dropped out. When the state Special Olympics drew near, the staff supervising the league asked me if I would like to go to the games as a chaperon for the group. I jumped at the chance, despite my dubious record at the Special Olympics. For you see, I had been fired from one post a year earlier. I had participated with the Special Olympics the year before as an event judge. I was assigned to designate the third place winners in each race - had it been the second or first place finishers there would have been no problem. The first, second, and third place finishers win medals, the rest ribbons. I found out early on, that if I declared a tie for third place, more than one contestant could get a third place medal. It took them a half a day to notice the unusually high number of third place ties, once they ran out of bronze medals - I was demoted to a hugger.
The year before that, I had a truly incredible experience. Incredible for many reasons. I was assigned to chaperon one child, a young boy with extreme Autism. My primary job was to keep him safe, and to stop him from eating inappropriate things. He wore me out that first day. He said two words to me, and barely acknowledged my existence. On the second day, I mentioned dinosaurs somehow and the world changed. He turned toward me and said "are you talking about carnivores or herbivores?" Smartly, I said "Omnivores." He didn't shut up for two days. That night I drove to a bookstore and bought a beautiful picture book about dinosaurs and we spent the following day on a hillside talking all things prehistoric. When I took him back to his bus, his mother met us, took one look at him then smiled at me. "You said dinosaurs, didn't you?" I smiled back and proudly said "yep." I never saw him again, but I am smiling now remembering it.
So, anyway, a year after my demotion, I was going back to the games as a vindicated chaperon. I couldn't wait. When we got to the games, I was told I would be assigned to Lee, as he had MS and needed constant attention. I was happy to do so, as Lee had a beautiful spirit, and he always made me laugh - like the time in the pizza place when he made me play Aerosmith/Run DMC's "Walk This Way" fifteen times in a row, despite threats from the other patrons. So it was Lee and I for three days of fun and havoc. Lee didn't speak, but he used basic sign language and other gestures. Communication would prove to be challenging.
One afternoon, during lunch, Lee had an event. I looked across the table and noticed that he was choking. It was hard to tell at first because his normal motions were jerky and sudden. I stood up, almost in a panic. Helen looked over at me and said "do that hand lick thing." Hand lick? It took me a few seconds to realize she was saying Heimlich as in Heimlich Maneuver. I jumped over behind him, grabbed him under his rib cage and heaved violently. A piece of pickle shot out across the room and a dozen Olympians burst into laughter. Lee recovered quickly and was smiling too. I was a mess. It was starting to dawn on me that maybe I had saved his life until another of his friends looked over and said "it happens all the time." Evidently Lee's condition made it difficult to swallow food correctly. I payed much closer attention to Lee from that point on.
Later in the evening, we were eating dinner and Lee got excited. As before he was sitting across from me, and I couldn't tell if he was having difficulty or not. He was trying to speak to me (low grunts and sighs) and sign at the same time. I struggled to understand him, thinking he wanted to convey something very important to me. After fifteen minutes I realized he was saying "the food is good here." For some reason that upset me greatly - he had to spend that much energy and time to convey something basic and simple to me in a friendly conversation, and I was too ignorant to understand him. That night I spoke to one of the staff that had come from his group home about communicating with Lee. She told me Lee understood and was very patient. I told her I wished I could sign, and she surprised me by giving me a handout with the American Sign Language signs for the alphabet. I stayed up all night learning them. The next day, I shocked Lee with a "hello" and we had a great day. I found out so much about Lee just by him being able to spell random words throughout the day. I found out he had a slightly naughty sense of humor, that we shared the same tastes in the opposite sex, and that he loved hamburgers.
Later in the day, Lee won a race and I broke the prime directive of the games - I took him off campus to celebrate at a college hamburger joint where we stuffed ourselves with cheeseburgers and signed off-color remarks about the college chicks. I miss Lee.

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Weakness In Me

"If you are going somewhere where you know you will be alone, in a strange place, take along a lot of Joan Armatrading." German Sage

Ever stop and think how your favorite artist became your favorite artist? I ask this question in depth to my Philosophy of Human Nature students, and I get some interesting reactions. It seems for most of us, it is simply good enough to know it is our favorite without really analyzing it. Joan Armatrading has been my favorite artist for twenty three years now. I know it's odd that I know exactly, and no, I didn't decide one day to have a favorite artist. It is just that I can retrace my steps to the moment I knew I would love her music forever.
I first remember hearing her name from a friend, Leanne, in Jamaica in 1986. My friend had been a Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya, and was living with her husband in Montego Bay. They were the first Bahai I had ever met, and I really admired their faith. They weren't hippies or nuts, just two people living a pretty decent and simple life. They were fun (my accomplices on the Johnny Cash stunt, "Pranks") and we spent a lot of time together. I was fascinated by their religion, primarily as I saw it reflected in their behaviors. Leanne was very tall and thin with a great sense of humor - a sensible earth child I guess. Nahmi was a local doctor, originally from Iran. He was very intelligent and very playful. I spent many evenings with them, and they taught me about their faith.
When I left Jamaica, I missed my friends. I kept moving from there to new places and new experiences, and I found myself alone quite often. One day while reminiscing about my Jamaican days, I remembered Leanne's favorite artist Joan Armatrading. I stopped by the mall and bought one of her CDs (was very lucky, as many American outlets didn't sell her music at that time). I took the CD home and listened to it. It had a curious effect on me: there were no songs that "hooked" me immediately, but the music comforted me in a strange way. She projected a strong inner self, but also expressed pain in an unfamiliar way. Strong and vulnerable. I have felt that way often, strong and vulnerable. Strong in that I know I will keep moving on, vulnerable in that there will often be a high price to pay. I have felt that way often.
I discovered another joy that day - the joy of finding a new favorite artist who already has 20 albums! No waiting for a year to hear something new. And if you ever listen to Joan Armatrading through the years, her "genre" changes often. No wonder record stores have no clear idea what bin to put her in. I do know that countless younger female artists cite her as a major influence: The Indigo Girls, Melissa Etheridge, Tracy Chapman, etc. And of course, since no one hardly knows of her here in the US, I get that rare opportunity to feel erudite and snobbish - "What, you have never heard of Joan Armatrading, where have you been?"
Seriously though, I have spent a great deal of time alone, and some time hurting and depressed. Her music has helped, I am not sure how, but it has. To this day, when I hear one of her songs (usually in the soundtrack of a European or Independent film), I smile. Joan has filled some empty places of my heart from time to time, and for that, I will always be grateful.


This charmer is Delboy Trotter, salesman extraordinaire! He is the Cockney hustler that populates Britain's most popular sitcom ever, Only Fools and Horses. He was played by Sir David Jason, a former electrician turned actor. It was truly an iconic role, so much so that Steve Carell has made it known that he would love to reprise the role in an American version (after all, British tele has been good to him!).
The plot of this brilliant show revolves around two brothers trying to make a living conning "punters" in South London. Delboy is the eldest, having raised his younger brother, Rodney, on his own. Delboy is the mastermind ("this time next year we will be millionaires"), and Rodney does his best to provide a conscience to the madness. The show ran from 1981 through 2002 (the latter years were Christmas specials only). In those years the Trotters rose and fell without fail, but never lost their sense of family. Rodney and Dell were funny enough, but they had more help. For the first few seasons, their grandfather served as straight man. After his death, Uncle Albert moved in, providing the perfect understated foil (see the link below).
The brothers lives revolve around a local pub that furnishes a colorful cast of supporting miscreants. There is Boycie (the sleazy car salesman), Trigger (the hapless street sweeper), Roy Slater (Delboy's lifelong nemesis, now a police officer), Denzil (Delboy's number one dupe), and Marlene (Boycie's over-available spouse). These folk get drug in and through countless Trotter propositions, occasionally prevailing themselves. It was a brilliant cast in a small, slowly popular show. Jim Broadbent (Roy Slater) has gone on to play roles in two Harry Potter films and Gangs of New York. Roger Lloyd-Pack (Trigger, whose birth certificate under father states "some soldiers"), has also appeared in a Harry Potter film, Vanity Fair, and the Vicar of Dibley series. Sir David Jason (who barely won the lead role in 1981) followed his success in this role with an 18 year run as DI Frost, in A Touch of Frost, a very popular British crime drama.
This show has probably supplanted all my previous favorite television shows in a very short time. I have picked it up on the Internet, years after it ceased production. A friend recommended it to me, and I gave it a chance. From the very start, it felt like home. A bizarre twist on the working man formula, it is a story about a family dreaming, scheming, and living through life's capricous ironies. There is witty writing, madcap slapstick, French malapropisms, and profound poignancy at times. It is a gentler All in the Family, and a smarter Beverly Hillbillies. Their travails give me hope, as I can relate to my own sense of fortune being mediated by my own folly. No matter what happens to this family, at the end of the day, everything is just cushty.

Saturday, October 16, 2010


I didn't come to kusherie the usual way. I am not sure there is a usual way, other than being Egyptian. Nonetheless, after a year of build up, and a false start, I finally had my first taste of kusherie, appropriately served in a plastic bucket. It quickly became my favorite thing about Egypt!
I should say that before I actually had my first experience with true kusherie, I was somewhat hesitant about many things Egyptian. I studied Ancient Mediterranean Civilizations for a year in a graduate program, and at that time, I was dying to see Egypt, particularly after reading Herodotus' second chapter in The Histories. A few years later, when I got my invitation to go to Yemen as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I was ecstatic that I would be in the same region. That is, until I met my first group of Egyptians.
I knew, of course, that I shouldn't have stereotyped them, but it was hard. They were a group of Egyptian teachers contracted to teach in the Yemeni school system. When I arrived in my village (very remote) after three months of training in the capital city of Sanaa, no one knew I was coming. The local school was glad to have an additional teacher, they just didn't know what to do with me. After an hour of discussion, they decided to put me in a very crowded house with their Egyptian teachers. I had a bed in a room with five other teachers. This didn't bother me right away, but it soon became a problem. Literally ten minutes after I had unpacked, I looked over to the foot of my bed to see one of the teachers squatting by my stereo, plug in hand. Before I could yell "no" he plugged it into an extension cord. The inevitable combustion of spark and smoke startled him and he dropped it on the floor (different electrical current). At that moment, I learned the colloquial Arabic term for "oops." I don't remember it. He kept his distance for a few weeks.
My Peace Corps driver who brought me to the village made a huge mistake and told the other teachers that I had additional money if I wanted Arabic lessons. They bombarded me. I was sympathetic to this, as I knew how little they earned, and they were supporting families. It was their exploitation of their Yemeni students that really burned me up. Soon after the term began, they informed me of their "enhancement practices" and more importantly, that I had to follow suit or the whole enterprise would crumble. This included charging students triple for their tests, providing correct answers for tests, and any other creative way to make a Riyal. I told them I would think about it, and left it alone.
They began to lobby me a few weeks later. The first attempts were over invitations to tea, where we chatted for an hour or so with elephant in the room slowly growing. They never dealt with me directly on the issue, but they tried all sorts of persuasion. I was offered gifts, gratuity, and guilt. I never caved in, and our relationship deteriorated, especially when it was my turn to go to the city to photocopy tests (I then was in charge of collecting the test fees). We finally came to a truce: I would no longer take their tests to photocopy, and I made my own tests and collected my own fees. They didn't lose their supplemental income, and I kept a bit of my integrity.
I did not get to know any of them very well. There was one teacher, Ahmed, who didn't participate in the gouging of his students. He was a gentle soul, and I wanted to get to know him. Two things ultimately prevented this though: 1) he caught grief for associating with me, and 2) I couldn't bear to visit his room. Ahmed would insist that I have a drink on every visit (no, not alcohol), and each one almost killed me. He would take a four inch glass, put two inches of Tang in it and two tablespoons of sugar. I cannot describe the experience!
So by the time I left Yemen, I had a very narrow view of Egyptian culture, dampening my desire to visit the country. It was nearly twenty years before I did make it to Cairo, and I loved it. By then, I had met many other Egyptian folk who weren't scratching to eak out an existence. As I began my overland trek from the east side of the Sinai towards Cairo, I met many very nice people and I had a good time. My primary mission was not necessarily to redeem my perception of Egyptians, it was to find and eat some kusherie.
I had an acquaintance who raved about this dish, the original Egyptian fast food. My friend couldn't really describe its contents, only that I had to try it or my trip was a failure. I looked forward to the challenge of finding authentic kusherie.
My first attempt was in a little village on the Sinai coast of the Red Sea. The village, Dhahab (Arabic for gold), is a popular diving spot. After a gorgeous seafood dinner, I returned to the waterfront the next morning searching for my first dish of kusherie. I was told enthusiastically that they could accommodate me and I waited for an hour. Finally, they brought me a plate of something and smiled broadly. I tried it and was unimpressed. An expert on the matter told me that it wasn't the real thing, so I continued my search.
I arrived in Cairo on Christmas Eve, struggling to find a hotel. I opted for an upscale place, and was determined to pursue my quest the next day, then visit the pyramids - in that order, I had my priorities. When I asked at the front desk in the morning, the desk clerk was a bit perplexed. He looked at me and said quizzically, "you want kusherie?" It was if I didn't know what I was asking for. Finally, a clerk next to him came over and told me there was a place just around the corner. I was excited.
I left the hotel and navigated through traffic (Cairo traffic is unreal, you drive with one hand on the steering wheel, one hand on the horn, and no foot on the break). I walked into a very small restaurant with a few tables. On a shelf on the wall were hundreds of little plastic containers. There was a line of food stations behind a small counter, and I stood there mesmerized as the chef took ladles of all kinds of ingredients and slowly constructed my dish. I paid (about 25 cents) and took it to a table. I dug in and it was incredible - different flavors, different temperatures, different textures. It was the best breakfast I ever had. It gave me the fortitude to travel out to the pyramids and haggle with the guides providing horse back rides. It was a wonderful day.
Postscript - I managed to find an even better kusherie place in Alexandria, and I am very pleased to report that there is now a Mr. Kusherie in Amman, Jordan. The world is spinning in greased grooves!

Here is a recipe for this intoxicating mixture!

A few words about the pictures above: The kusherie is on the bottom! A satisfied customer sitting in kusherie joint a few hundered meters from the Library in Alexandria is on the top.

A Street Named Desire

This is my favorite street on earth! It is Rainbow Street in Jebel Amman, Jordan. I have walked up and down this beautiful cobblestone street a few times are out, and the British Council classes let out. I loved it there the first time I strolled up the street three years ago.
The Jordanians have worked very hard on this street. They have replaced the brick roadway, built beautiful benches, and many new stores and cafes have opened up. Most of all, I love how you get to this place. If you come in to town from the airport, you drive down the major thoroughfare for several miles. If traffic is good, you can fly at 60 mph. You pass six very large roundabouts simply named 7th Circle, 6th Circle, etc. You pass through a variety of districts in the city and a million restaurants, half of them seemingly American franchises. Rainbow street begins as 1st Circle (the last) ends. You travel around a very small roundabout and head up a slight hill. At that point, everything changes. The road is narrow and often congested with traffic. You can walk up either side of the lane easily though.
At first sight, Rainbow Street isn't very special. There are what appear to be many small insignificant shops, and a few cafes. But as you walk up and down it a few times, you notice the people, and an environment that is unique in Jordan. It isn't fancy like other sections of the city, but it is charming. One of my favorite activities is to visit the several men's shops up and down the street. I discovered them on my second trip to the city. There was one I liked the most, probably because of the young man and his father who operated it. The old man spoke no English and chain smoked. He sat a small sewing machine all day. His son, who operated at least one other store on the block, was always very cheerful. His response to any of my concerns was "Yes, yes, yes." I imagine I bought at least six Turkish suits from them in the course of a few years.
stores, and a wonderful hardware and home supply place. I have walked past a little ice cream store,always determined that I will stop on the next trip. I never have, but I heard Brangelina did (Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie). There are new coffee shops and a would-be pizza place serving some ting called fatir. It is like a very thin pizza, almost a pastry. They stretch the dough in front of you and cover it with your favorite toppings. I loved going there for take-out, usually getting a chocolate fatir for desert. I have so many wonderful memories of that street.
I don't know if I will ever be on Rainbow Street again. I would give anything to be there now, to be strolling down the hill early in the evening. I would give anything.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Earnest T., Bob Maloogaloogaloogaloogalooga, and Franz Kafka

I am often asked what my favorite comedy is, and I can never decide on a single movie. I do however know what my favorite moments have been watching comedies, and they are all single lines delivered earnestly and in good faith. Each of the three "moments" I am about to describe literally had me on the floor laughing. A warning note though, when I try to tell people about these, they just sort of stare at me. I will make this attmept anyway.
I will always remember my introduction to Earnest T. Bass (pictured above) on the Andy Griffith show. The character was an after-thought I think, played by Howard Morris, one of the producers of the show. Earnest T. was a backwards hill-dweller who was about as honery as one gets. In later episodes, he would terrorize the small town with his brick throwing proclivity and general obstreperous nature. He would do something fairly heinous then declare, "It's me, it's me, it's Earnest T." Apparently, Earnest T. had invented ADHD decades before the professionals.
The lead characters, Andy and Barney (sheriff and deputy sheriff respectively) go up into the rural hills to investigate a complaint. They are told a local neer do well is hindering the upcoming nuptials of a popular young woman. When the lawmen reach the cabin of Earnest T. they are met by a slow-witted relative. When they inquire as to the whereabouts of Earnest T., they are greeted by a very plaintive and dour response, "He went out to kill a mockingbird." I have never heard anything so beautifully poetic since. It said it all. I wasn't sure I wanted to meet Earnest T. at that point, and I am certain Andy and Barney wish they never had.
When I started started graduate school, cable tv was provided free in the dorm I lived in, and I watched a lot of movies I would have never seen (kinda like on a plane). One movie I would have never seen if I wasn't suffering from Techniques of Research procrastination was Big Man On Campus. It was a silly spoof of the Hunchback of Notre Dame set on the contemporary UCLA campus. A young, deformed man is found hiding in the bell tower of the campus. His mother had been a mental patient and had somehow kept the child from the rest of the world. The school's Anthropology professor discovers him and immediately recognizes the research potential. He assigns the welfare of the "experiment" to an underachieving student in his class. The subject of their research has little language ability and no name. After a series of typical comical gags revolving around his developing language skills, he chooses a name for himself: Bob Maloogaloogaloogaloogalooga. The rest of the story is a madcap scramble to study him and educate him for the real world. Towards the end of the film, a local investigative journalist has picked up on the Pygmalion manipulation and threatens to expose the professor and student. The duo are duped into appearing on a tv program thinking they will be allowed to present their positive findings. It is a trap however, and Bob Maloogaloogaloogaloogalooga must make his way to the studio set to save the day. He is pursued by folks determined to keep him safe, and he eventually arrives at the studio. Bob is still working on his language skills, not always having the correct words for every situation. As he is dashing across the lot, with his caretakers in hot pursuit, a Fruit of the Loom comercial takes a break and several large men dressed in underwear and as apples, grapes and leaves obstruct his path. You can see him pondering his next utterance as he is running towards them. Finally, he blurts out "out of my way (slight pause) fruit" and continues on. I laughed so hard I choked.
My final anecdote comes from an obscure movie, Kafka. It is a very clever movie that places the author Franz Kafka into a story composed of several of his famous plots (i.e., The Trial, The Castle, The Metamoposis). He is involved in a desparate mystery soon into the film, and finds that he must travel to and secretly enter an ominous castle. At first, he is befuddled but then his practical and intellectually challenged carpenter friend suggests a plan - Kafka could pass though a secret tunnel the carpenter knows of that begins in one of the tombs of the cementary adjacent to the castle. The two travel to a decrepit, dank charnel deep in the cemetery where the carpenter reveals the hidden passageway. The carpenter refuses to accompany his companion any further, being very frightened by the prospect of travelling through the dark, cold earth to the forbidding fortress. Kafka looks at him and says ok. He then descends into the tunnel and a few seconds later we hear him calling back to his friend, asking him to burn his manuscripts in the event he doesn't return. Now at this point in the movie, I was very pleased with myself because I knew that Kafka (in real life) had made that very request (obviously ignored as we are still discussing him). The carpenter scratches his head and bellows back into the blackness, "I am sorry, I cannot do that." After a moment the retort echoes back, "A friend would do that for me." The carpenter is even more distressed by the exchange, but finds reprieve, "No" he extorts, "But a wife would." Kafka had no further reply. Neither did I, as I was laughing so hard I could not speak.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Six Years for the Gun

This my friend, Jerry, who is serving a prison sentence for attempted murder. I knew him for a year and a half before he committed his crime, and he changed my life!

Jerry was not the first murderer I have taught, but he was the first student to murder someone after I taught him. I first met Jerry when he came to our literacy agency for help. I was the training and program development specialist, and I met many of the students working in our one-on-one tutoring program. Jerry's tutor was one of our Board of Trustees, Margaret. She was a fantastic woman who never stopped giving to our community. She brought Jerry to me because she felt he needed some help socially, and that the new student support group I was forming would be beneficial. I remember shaking his hand the first time, noticing his unkempt appearance and strong stench of tobacco. He was shy but pleasant, and he agreed to come to a meeting. I had no idea how far his education would go, how much he would teach me, and how suddenly he could be pulled back into the hell he was climbing out of.
Jerry did attend the student support meetings and gradually began to open up. We started the group not only to support the students, but to eventually develop them into public speakers - far more powerful advocates for the program than we could ever be. It took Jerry six months before he was ready to speak in public, an informational gathering for would be tutors. He did an excellent job, but he broke down and cried at the end of his two minute presentation. Jerry knew what all non-literates know in this culture: It is far more fashionable to have a drug addiction than a reading program. Tell someone you are recovering from most problems and you get sympathy, maybe a hug. Tell them you cannot read and they move away from you.
I started to spend more time with Jerry as he began to volunteer more and more at the literacy center. I was new to the area and he directed me to a lot of resources and events. One Saturday, after we did an early training session together, Jerry and I walked down to a local bar to get a drink. We both had cokes, and chatted for awhile. Afer about a half an hour, Jerry nodded towards two men at the bar and told me that they were gonna fight. Shortly after I began to respond (I didn't get that sense from them), one punched the other squarely on the jaw. Jerry had seen something I didn't. I had spent my fair share of hours in bars, but he could see more than I could, more body language.
Jerry and I would sometimes go to local auctions and flea markets he knew in the area. We had a good time, and he seemed at ease. We came from somewhat similar humble backgrounds, but his was far worse. His brother had been murdered years earlier, and I don't believe Jerry had ever had a fruitful full-time job. I knew he had had psychological problems, and that he was estranged from his wife and children. We didn't discuss his family much, as it upset him. I learned a great deal about Jerry, and a group of people like him. I thought I understood them well, but I did not. He provided a great deal of insight for me, positive and negative.
Jerry was making good progress with his tutor, and was doing well with in the support group. He was making more public speaking appearances, as was attending better to his hygiene. I really thought he was turning his life around. That is until one rainy Saturday Autumn morning.
I got a call from a colleague at work telling me to turn on the news. When I did, I saw a picture of Jerry, and heard the news report that he was being sought for the attempted murder of his wife. Jerry hid out for a few days before he turned himself in. He called me from jail with his one phone call. He told me that he spent the night in my parking lot thinking he would have me turn him in. He thought better of it,not wanting to involve me and eventually drove himself to the local jail. I called legal aid for him, and made arrangements to visit him a few days later.
I was shocked when I saw Jerry, he looked worse than when I first met him. He was tired and depressed. I asked him how he was, and he just looked at me in defeat. I couldn't help myself from asking what had happened, and he detailed the events very dispassionately. He told me he had tried to reconcile with his wife, and that she had taken him back. Something went wrong though, as usual, and she threw Jerry out. He returned with a large caliber pistol and confronted her in their driveway.
He told me that he hit her and she fell down. Jerry then informed me that if she had fallen on her front he would have killed her as he would have shot her in the back of the head. Instead she fell on her back and looked up at him. He told me he wanted her to suffer as she looked at him and he shot her five or six times in the chest. She was a big woman, and somehow she survived.
Jerry pleaded guilty to attmepted murder and was sentenced to 25 years to life, with six years to be served initially for the use of the gun. We corresponded for awhile when he got to prison, but eventually we lost touch. I miss him often. I saw Margaret a year later. She smiled sadly, but then said with a better grin, "let me know when he is released and I will tutor him again."

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Leslie "Set it Off"

I first met Leslie when I was teaching a graduate level research course. She was a very bright, precocious young graduate student. She was eager to learn and to apply the concepts we were learning to her teaching. She was an elementary school teacher like her mother, and like her mother, she wanted to eventually become a principal. She worked very hard.
She must have made an impression on me, because I discussed her with another colleague who taught a course on math manipulatives. We both had a very favorable impression of Leslie, and shared the belief that she was indeed going places. We just didn't know where.
Leslie made it through her Master's program in record speed and I soon lost touch with her. She did keep in contact with my friend though, and I got occasional reports. Whenever I thought about Leslie, I would remember our spirited conversations about music and movies - she loved both. I didn't like R&B or action flicks and she did. I remember discussing one movie in particular, Set It Off. It was a movie with Queen Latifah about a group of young women who robbed banks. I didn't like the film (partly because I was not that enamored with Queen Latifah) but Leslie loved it. It was one of many artistic subjects we did not agree upon, however I enjoyed the exchange and so did she.
Nearly eight years after I had met Leslie, our mutual friend burst into my office with a very flushed face sighing "you won't believe this." She handed me the following news brief:

DETROIT, Michigan – As reported by the Detroit News: "Leslie C. Washington, a 27-year-old elementary school teacher from suburban Cleveland, is not a typical bank robber.

"After racking up large losses while gambling at Detroit casinos with a man she met there, the teacher declared bankruptcy.

"…Washington bought a $30 gun and masks like those from the movie "Scream." She went with her boyfriend and another man to the Key Bank on Telegraph Road in Brownstown Township last summer.

" The trio was nabbed by police with $11,151 from the bank after Washington, driving a Ford Explorer, led officers on a 15-mile chase that topped 110 mph.

"The young educator is among a growing number of criminals goaded into theft by casino-gambling losses, authorities say. At least five people in Michigan have robbed banks in the past year to settle casino gambling debts, the FBI reports."

I have read quite a bit about gambling addictions since that moment. I never realized the extent of the problem in our culture. Of the many troubling statistics I have discovered, the following is particularly disturbing - More than 50% of admitted gambling addicts write bad checks to cover their debts, and 25% of them embezzle funds from their employers. Wow!
Subsequently, I don't respond well to political ads arguing the benefits of opening a new casio or betting lounge in the area. For me, gambling is like drinking and the Koran speaks very elegantly about the nature of alcohol - in my words: why indulge a practice that has minimal benefits but enormous destructive potential? I am sure Leslie has had time to consider this.

My Favorite Movies Part IV, Post 1970

This is probably my favorite movie that not too many people have seen. I believe it was made for cable tv. Regardless of its provenance, it is a fantastic film. It also holds the distinction of being the only movie I love that everyone I refer to it, likes also. Pretty high praise given my dubious taste!
The movie details the decade long search for the Soviet Union's most notorious prolific serial killer, Andrei Chikatilo.

It is in essence, a detective story. It is also a study in Jobian patience. It is also a buddy movie. The fact that it is centered around a serial killer is almost irrelevant.
The plot revolves around a new pathologist (Stephen Rea) who learns shortly into his tenure that there is a serial killer in the area. He is a very quiet, serious sort who wants to dive in and solve the case. His job is quickly complicated by the Soviet machine and its bureaucracy and ideology. His boss, played by Donald Sutherland, is more of a hindrance than help (so he thinks), and the two go back and forth as more bodies, mostly children, pile up. There are deeper levels of politics involved, but the story revolves around their different ways of navigating the system. Slowly, a friendship evolves under the most dire of circumstances.
Eventually the duo do make headway, particularly when they elicit the aid of a psychiatrist, brilliantly portrayed by Max Von Sydow. He has the greatest job in the film, notably commenting on the nature of the two men and their relationship. This is capped off towards the end of the film when he looks at Rea and Sutherland and says "together you make a fine human being."
They eventually solve the case, and each man learns from the other. It is a good lesson for those of us embroiled in our own red tape quagmires. Patience, politics, picking your battles, slow burning passion, and a begrudging friendship make for a slow-moving, delicious character study - and, oh yeah, there are 50 plus murders. The violence is graphic, perhaps necessary for us to understand the underlying implosion of the lead detective and the eventual risks his boss undertakes. It is very close to a perfect movie.

Monday, October 4, 2010

"You are No One, No One Stands There"

I had to go all the way to Hebron in Palestine to find out I was no one, and exactly where no one stands.
We had travelled south from Jerusalem to Bethlehem and eventually to Hebron. Bethlehem was incredible, as I expected. The only souring note was the large concrete barrier the Israeli's were building, similar to the one that is now being constructed around the Shou'Fat refugee camp in Jerusalem to circumscribe its inhabitants. I am pretty sure there are still Israeli's chasing former Nazis around the world, I just wonder if they remember why they are chasing them.
I was excited to visit the Mosque of Abraham, the burial place of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob and Leah. It was during the Eid period, and it was one of only a few days a year the site was open to Muslims, Christians, and Jews. We got into Hebron and were deposited into a desolate part of town. We learned that we were near the demarcation line between Jewish and Muslim communities. There was absolutely no one on the streets. Eventually, we found our way to the entrance of the Mosque. As expected, there was heavy security. We were not hassled at all, and once in, we were directed to the left, the entrance to the Mosque for Muslims. My friend, dressed in hijab walked up to the secured gate, and they waved her in. When I followed, the young soldier stopped me. He asked me why I was there and I told him I was a Muslim. He told me he didn't believe me. He asked if it was stamped in my passport that I was a Muslim. I sadly shook my head and waited for the inevitable. He then asked me to recite Koran. I did so and he stopped me after 20 seconds. He told me I couldn't come through the gate, but that I could walk down the hill to the barricade (at the bottom of the picture above) and enter one of the other two gates (the Jewish or Christian gate). I asked him how I could if I was a Muslim. He responded "you are not a Muslim, go down there." I asked my friend to take pictures for me and I walked down to the spot the armed soldier directed me to. By this point I was very irritated. I walked down to the barrier and was confronted by another guard who simply said "Jew or Christian?" I replied "Muslim." He looked at me quizzically and directed me back up the hill. I asked to see his supervisor. After about ten minutes, he called his superior. A few minutes later, a very serious looking soldier drove up and took the guard aside. A minute later he walked over to me and asked why I had a problem. His English was not that good, but he understood my explanation of events. He then asked me why I just didn't say I was a Christian if I wanted entrance into the holy place. I sighed and just said no. I told him my friend was in the mosque, and asked what I should do. He then replied "you are not Jew, you are not Muslim, you are not Christian, you are no one. No one stands there." He then directed me to midpoint between the gates and made stand there for 45 minutes until my friend emerged from the mosque. We were then allowed to leave.

Reciting Koran at Gunpoint

I will tell you that reciting Koran for me is difficult in the best of circumstances, and that I still am working on it. I never dreamt that the first time I would be called upon to read Koran publicly would at the behest of a 22 year-old hostile Israeli, with an automatic weapon (not mine) squarely between us. It was an experience I can honestly say I had no preparation for.
I was visiting Jordan and Palestine for the first time, shortly after my conversion. I started my trip in Jordan, and had a fabulous time. I visited a good friend, and made several new acquaintances in the process. After a week, my friend and I made our way to Jerusalem overland for the upcoming Eid. I was very, very excited to visit the holy land on a holy day! When we got to the border, we had little problems on the Jordanian side. We waited two hours to make the ten minute bus ride between countries. I remember passing through "no man's land" truly feeling glad I was in the bus and not outside - it really did look desolate and dead. I found myself singing an obscure Loggins and Messina tune that I had not heard for thirty years "it's an hours flight, but it takes all night to get from Cairo to the promised land. And is it people's rights or just people's lights, and can the line be drawn that thin?"
I could not believe the scene at the Israeli border crossing. We got off the bus and walked up to a semi-circular barricade. Here we all pushed to pass our passports over to a very disinterested guard. There were maybe 75 of us trying to get his attention. He just gathered them up and we waited. About a half an hour later, he emerged and just handed all the passports to whoever was closest. I asserted myself and managed to get my passport and that of my friends. We were then allowed to proceed into the building. When we passed through the initial metal detector, they detained my friend (she was wearing a hijab). She told them she was with me, so they made me wait outside the room she disappeared into. After about 20 minutes, they let her out and called me in. The young woman, probably about 19, asked me several questions about our trip and our relationship. I could tell she was looking for inconsistencies, so I simply answered honestly. After about 10 minutes, she released me and we made our way to the next stage. We got in line at the visa desk, and I was horrified by what I witnessed. We were in the "good" line as we were British and American tourists. The rest of the folks were huddled in several long lines beside us. It was a large open room with good acoustics. I could barely tolerate the cacophony that engulfed me. At nearly each desk, at the front of each line, sat a young Israeli woman dressed in a military uniform. And at each desk, at the front of each line, the young woman was screaming at the meek Arabs. They were demeaning, insolent, and openly hostile. Imagine the cruelest clique of girls from your high school with weapons and the power to humiliate anyone they pleased. It was nightmarish.
The woman at the end of my line did not yell or insult me. Nor did she make eye contact or show any interest in my application. When my friend approached the counter, she cast her a terrible look, but restrained her obvious contempt. My friend requested that her passport not be stamped as she was planning a trip to Pakistan where she could not gain entry with an Israeli stamp in her passport. This request is a common one, and the Israelis grant hundreds each day, but she told my friend that she could wait to see. We waited two hours for her to walk twenty feet to get permission to stamp an alternative slip of paper then insert it into the passport. We smiled and thanked her, and I think it irritated her greatly. We walked into another hall, passed through several other gates without incident and emerged into the sunshine of Palestine.
We enjoyed the crowded bus ride to Jerusalem, and I was astonished that I was about to walk through Damascus Gate, into the famed old city. We made our way to our hotel (a former Austrian palace) and cleaned up. We met an hour later to walk about the old city. It truly was incredible. We walked through the crowded streets (many covered passageways) and made our way to the wailing wall. I was very cautious to be respectful as I realized the significance of the place. We did not go up to the wall as there were people praying there and we did not want to disturb them.
When we left the wall, we walked up to the higher part of the city. We came around a corner to see a group of young Israeli boys playing soccer in an open courtyard. I smiled at them. One of them saw my friend beside me, frowned, and kicked the ball as hard as he could at her. We were lucky that he wasn't very talented, and the ball smashed into a building above our heads. I rushed her past the scene into another street. We turned a corner and came upon another check point. Initially, the guard returned my smile until he saw my friend. The smile evaporated into a frown, and we spent ten minutes being hassled to pass that simple gate. We returned to the hotel and arranged to meet again to go to the mosque for Eid prayers. I was so excited! I would be praying at the Al Aqsa Mosque (the Dome of the Rock) in an hour's time. Well it took more than an hour to get there (despite the fact it was two minutes away), and I was lucky my friend suggested we leave early. "It's and hours flight, but it takes all night.........."
To get to the mosque, we had to turn from the main thoroughfare unto a small covered alley. At the end of the alley we could see the checkpoint replete with guards and guns. As we walked up, I was in a good mood, somewhat nervous. Not about the Israelis, but about praying in such an important place so early in my conversion. They waived my friend in but stopped me. I was informed that the mosque was closed to tourists and that I could not come in. I explained that I was a Muslim, and he just smirked. My friend stepped back closer to us and affirmed my statement. The young man looked at me and said "say something from the Koran." I started to recite the Al Fatiha, the first verse in the Koran. After about ten seconds, he looked at me and told me to stop. He told me in broken English that I couldn't go in. I got irritated, as he obviously didn't listen to or understand the verse. My friend stepped in and defended me. He told her that now she couldn't go in. We retreated, and she offered another plan - we go in through another gate.
We tried another time with the same result. We waited for thirty minutes and returned to the first gate where the was now a new guard. Twenty something with a permanent scowl. When we approached, he stopped me. He turned his gun around on its strap, inches away from my chest, and commanded that I recite Koran. I proceeded and as before, he stopped me, this time declaring loudly that I wasn't a Muslim. This really irritated me and I started to protest. My friend grabbed my arm and we retreated once again. Finally, with a few minutes before prayer time, we found a new gate. When we approached, another young man stopped us. When I explained I was a Muslim, he called a young Arab man over. The young man looked at me and smiled. He asked me to recite the Al-Fatiha. I was nervous, humiliated, and somewhat scared. As I began to stumble, he gently prodded me by inserting a few words. I made it through the prayer and he looked at his Israeli counterpart and nodded. They moved aside, and just like that, I was in the compound. I turned to thank them both, tears in my eyes. The young Arab man smiled back.
We rushed to the mosques, one for women, one for men. I made my way through the large crowd, took my shoes off, entered the second mosque with thousands of fellow Muslim men. As we began to pray, no one took notice of me. I was simply another Muslim friend, praying to my God on a holy day. I never felt so at peace, despite the machinations it took to get there. When I left the mosque to meet my friend, it was raining lightly, and thought I was in the most beautiful place on earth.
Several months later, I was at home wathing the IFC (the Independent Film Channel) when I noticed an upcoming movie called "Close to Home" about the Arab-Israeli conflict. I watched it a week later. It told the story of two young Israeli women serving their compulsory military service. The movie detailed their training, particularly the focus on degrading Arabs. I cried openly, not for the Arabs depicted in the movie, but for the fist time facing my humiliation months before, my impotence and helplessness.