Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Color Weak 5 - The Multiplicative Property of Zero

Having decided to read a book he would not find, he settled his thoughts and turned the car towards his apartment. He was several blocks away when he figured he was feeling a bit better.  There had been no great insight or awakening, he just knew the emptiness had been abated and that he might even be able to sleep tonight.  The thought of a good night's sleep brought a smile to his face, he couldn't remember the last time his head hit the pillow without some sort of sleep aid.  Tonight would be different.
Feeling blood again in his veins, he turned the terrible power of his intellect back to his prognosis - eighteen months to live. The slight smile that remained grew broadly as he realized a new level of irony to his predicament, the fact that it no longer mattered that he had not paved his career towards a secure and sensible retirement - he could now relax about that issue, if for none other.  He allowed himself to slide back into another mental wormhole, figuring with only five or six blocks to go, he couldn't get into that much trouble.
He wondered what his life would be like if it didn't end so soon.  He wasn't lamenting the loss of his future at all, just coolly analyzing the contingencies that might have been, the probabilities a better prognosis would have provided.  As he began to unravel these paths, he realized just how poorly he had positioned himself in this, his sixth decade.  It seemed that there had been many junctures in his life where he had either derailed himself, or even sabotaged his own progress.  Much like the math rule he had taught the other day, it didn't matter how well you arranged your deeds (or variables), if you placed a zero or a really boneheaded move anywhere in the sequence, the product itself is zero.  There had been many such setbacks in his life, and he suddenly became grateful that he had enough time to examine the etiology of this recurring theme before he died.  Small favors.
There were the times he withdrew his retirement funds, for good reasons of course, the jobs he left in mid-trajectory, and a few relationships he did not actualize, never letting them develop.  He wouldn't say these acts had been deliberately self-destructive, more like the decisions of someone who had no fear of the future, not doubt in his own abilities. He smiled remembering all the jobs he had done, so many in fact, that no one ever believed him when he listed them - even the private detective that had reviewed his history for his security clearance for the US Government couldn't make sense of it all.  He hadn't worried about security as he knew he could always work, somewhere anyway.  It dawned on him for the first time in the three months he had been aware of his condition, that he might have been spared a more painful, pathetic end.
Perhaps the most puzzling thing about all of this was that so many people he had met in his life expressed admiration for the things he had done.  True, he had built a life of service to others, and conversely neglect of loved ones, but it always amazed him when people were impressed.  Did they not know the cost of his enterprise?  Or, had their lives been missing something, something so significant they lamented the absence of it despite their relative security? Was anyone, anywhere happy?
He had found a measure of peace in an odd way.  In the scope of an hour, he had reconciled his future, and more importantly his past - it really didn't matter how much more time he had.  He was less fortunate than some, more gifted than others.  He knew who he was, and he knew his time. Not a bad drive at all.
He smiled again, reorienting himself to his neighborhood as he made his way back. He barely noticed the red light above him and a large blur to his left, relieved though that it was big - easier this way, might even look like an accident.  As the door panel exploded into him, he hoped God hadn't noticed the five previous lights he had ignored.

Color Weak 4 - Pleasure

He finally decided to head back home, well to his apartment anyway - he hadn't lived in his own home for many years.  It was early in the day, and he didn't feel like going back to work.  Someone, somewhere earlier in the day someone had told him he needed to do something for himself.  He began to think about that idea, doing something for himself as he drove mindlessly through the streets.  He chuckled loudly as realized nothing came to mind.  There wasn't one thing that he could think of that would be pleasurable to him, not one thing.  It had been that way since she had left.
Determined to come up with something, he started to review his life in terms of pleasure rather than his typical review of pain.  There had been many things in his life that he had enjoyed, none surviving the last seven years though, nothing anyway that had been done without her.  Ironically, anything done with her had been wonderful, from the smallest of of gestures, even household chores,  to hiking and travelling. She had taken so much more with her than her smile and her love.  Now, he was faced with the prospect of teaching himself to enjoy things in life again, and he really had nowhere to start, other than to reach way back, way back to his youth.
He remembered playing as a child, loving to be outside and with friends. He would spend as much time outdoors as possible, preferring to avoid what ever house or apartment his family was renting that month. Play at home was a different thing - a cautious thing. The family dynamic seldom allowed playful interaction for any length of time. If things got too noisy, his step-father would get upset - if his step-father was involved and began to lose, he would explode.  He wondered silently if that heritage had been the cause for his inability to be too playful with his own children, wanting to hide the ugliness inside of him for so long, and the memories of those now ancient outbursts haunted him still. 
There was a time when he enjoyed fishing and golfing, and never missed a chance to do either. He still golfed, but didn't look forward to it as much, and found himself on the course less and less.  Reading remained a pastime, but it startled him when he realized that he hadn't read a work of fiction for almost twenty years - he read now to extract information, no longer languishing in style or description, not feeling any attachment to the words at all.  Being with others only reminded him he was not with her. For nearly a decade, he had no interest in any activity that kept him from her, that competed for her time, attention, affection. 
Hollowness is a unique emotion, and he could find no mention of it in the literature of his life. It was that place between pleasure and pain that envied both, but knew not which way to turn.  It loaths pleasure and is bored with pain - it rejects hope and despises despair - it is a black hole that absorbs self-pity as well as ego.  It was a dangerous place for him, and he didn't want to stay there for the next year and a half.
He drove on, determined to settle on something that could make him feel good, something he could indulge. He decided to go home and read, to pick up a classic novel and lose himself in the pages as he had so many years ago.  Nothing specific came to mind, but he knew he needed a distraction, perhaps the trials and tribulations of some created character could supplant his, at least for a few hours.  A few hours - what he wouldn't give to have her and his health out of his mind for that length of time, it was worth a try.
To be continued..........

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Hadith 12

"Part of someone's being a good Muslim is his leaving alone that which does not concern him."

Abu Hurairah

I am taking a break from the short story, as I was reading Hadith last night and came across this very short but very wise admonition.  I thought about this for a long time, and I realized I need to work on this issue, not only to be a better Muslim, but for my very peace of mind.  The key for me is not that I occupy myself with things that I don't think concern me, but that I do occupy myself with things that should not concern me but do.  As a matter of fact, these things might be the most difficult for me to deal with.
Letting go of things, of issues is sometimes very difficult for me. I can let them go, let them be, but they cause me ongoing pain nonetheless.  Opening up and trusting is not something I do naturally, and when I do invest I am not sure I am prepared to let go.  I know how to leave them alone, but not how to remove their presence from my heart.  This is what I want to learn from this Hadith, leaving those things alone emotionally. Perhaps it is just an ugly selfishness that tries to keep some sort of remnant near. 
Relationships are no different. I have let someone go, have left her alone, have truly wished the best for her, but the pain of her loss never leaves me.  I feel no pangs of jealousy, nor do I ever, even for a moment, feel like striking out at her.  I don't focus on where she is, who she is with, anything like that, only the space deep in my heart that was occupied by her love that now echos with the sad melodies of memories that can only resurrect her warmth for moments at a time. It sounds pathetic, but perhaps I cannot even let that go.  This is what the Hadith speaks to me, letting that last bit go, the thing that I no longer deserve, the thing that should no longer concern me.
I will work on this, and I will pray for the strength to let go of this last stubborn bit of loss. 

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Color Weak 3 - The First Death Sentence

As he made his way slowly towards nowhere in particular, he silently wondered why he wasn't more affected by this last verification.  He had no doubt the doctors were correct, there was no denial, anger, or regret - nor was there relief, numbness, or even sadness, only his cold calculating thoughts prevailed, his only reliable friends with him 'till the end.  Still he knew he wasn't exactly a sociopath, there had to be feelings buried in there somewhere about all of this, at least a tinge of self-pity hidden deep amongst his other repressed gifts, but he could not unearth them. As he turned a corner slowly past a medical clinic, it struck him clearly why he was not reacting the way he thought he might to his current news - he had faced this before, he had been sentenced to death a dozen years earlier.
The 21st century was ushered in just a few months after he had suffered a two week bout of HIV. Two of the worst weeks of his life, fourteen days of limbo waiting for a new test to clear him of his diagnosis. He had learned more about his own mind in that fortnight than in the forty years before.  It was a strange time and it was an enlightening time, probably as most major changes  seem to transpire.  In the end, he had escaped his one out of a thousand odds, and would never be shaken again by the prospect of his own demise.
It happened in the summer of 1999 as he began the medical and paperwork necessary to leave for a Peace Corps assignment in Africa.  Unlike his two previous experiences, he was now stepping up from volunteer status to that of a supervisor, overseeing some 100 math and science teachers and their native counterparts. His excitement was only partially dampened by the gruelling process of completing the governmental requirements and redtape.  Shortly before his comprehensive physical exam, he had developed a raging upper respiratory infection that eventually left him hoarse. It stuck heavily and stubbornly with him for more than a month, and it was at its worst when he underwent his tests.  The doctor supervising the examination gave him some antibiotics, and he was sure it would pass quickly, and that he had heard the last from it.  Not quite so.
He finished all the federal requirements for the job and left for a two week training retreat in Maryland.  It was a lovely isolated resort, and he enjoyed interacting with the other Peace Corps employees from around the world.  He teased the South African, played basketball with the giant from Mali, laughed with the Russian overwhelmed by the local WalMart, and debated late into the night with the Libyan.  The sessions were bearable, and he was growing steadily more excited about moving on to Tanzania for two years. Near the end of the training, he was involved in some role play with the others when he received a message that he had a phone call up at the office, and that he needed to take.  A bit irritated, he made his way back up the hill to the cabin office about a quarter of a mile away.  Once inside, he was directed to pay phone with its receiver off the hook, swinging gently from side to side a few feet beneath.  It was an odd site, one that could not possibly forecast a positive omen.
He picked up phone gently and realized he had answered in barely a whisper.  The voice on the other end was cold and cryptic as it proceeded through a litany of questions and protocols.  He didn't catch the identity of the caller for several seconds, almost mistaking it for a recording.  Finally, he fell in sync and heard the following words, "and do you remember we agreed on some security questions in case we needed to follow up with you?"  He grunted his affirmation although he did not recall the exercise, then dutifully answered several personal questions.  After the last answer, there was a long pause on the other end of the call before the voice returned, even more distant and said "you have failed both your HIV tests, the ELISA and Western Blot tests", and then there was even longer delay before he continued with "but it might be an error." His knees had almost buckled between the two revelations, and it was another minute before he caught up with the doctor on the other end of the line. He stopped the physician's monotone lecture with "what are the odds these tests are incorrect?"  "Less than one in a thousand between the two tests, but I think there might be an error, we can do a third test to be sure."  By this point the wall was holding him up, and he was barely able to extract the rest of the pertinent information the doctor was droning on about.  He was going home the next day, maybe for the rest of his abbreviated life.
He made his way back to the training activity and half heatedly continued.  One of the American participants who he did not care for came up and chastised him for missing a valuable part of the exercise.  It took every ounce of resolve not to erupt, but he just smiled and said "sorry."  Later, he would pull the training director aside to explain his impending departure.  He had never been so humiliated before, telling the stranger how he had to return home to take a third HIV test before he could continue in his training regimen.  He was embarrassed and afraid, and his world was slowly shutting down all around him.  Ten years later, he couldn't recall the plane ride home.
That first twenty-four hours with the disease were pretty numb - he didn't panic, wasn't angry, just couldn't register much of an emotion at all.  He knew he had to pack and get back home, then find his way to a new clinic to have his blood drawn the following day.  If all went well, he would know his true fate in a few weeks. It wasn't until he found himself sitting in the clinic waiting room that the whole thing became far too real.  He found himself sitting on a flimsy plastic chair face to face with a young woman who couldn't have weighed more than 75 pounds.  She looked like a skeleton, and moved very slowly and deliberately - there wasn't much life left in her eyes when they met his, just a dull acknowledgement of the obvious pathos on his face.  He knew then that this could be real, and that his life as he knew it might be over.  When they called him into the examining room, his head was low, and he felt defeated for the first time in his life.  The technician drew his blood quickly, then dismissed him.  He found his way out into the sunshine, and headed to work to his computer to the Internet.
The next few days were heavy ones, the atmosphere seemed thick and dingy.  He didn't sleep, nor did he eat much.  He could drive away the impending sense of doom for minutes at a time with thoughts like "I haven't had any high risk behaviors" or "no one I have known has been infected", but they returned promptly and he grew tired of  the game of volley. He moved slowly from place to place, almost as if he was swimming through a dense liquid prison. His only concern was to get to his office and to research the disease, to find the statistical anomaly that would save him.  The one constant image though was the emaciated brunette at the clinic, he wondered if he would resign himself as she had, so completely and certainly to his demise.  Years later, he would see hundreds of those vacant eyes as he travelled from village to village in Tanzania - but there was something special, something far more haunting to look into those faces five miles from your own home.
He researched the disease relentlessly on the relatively new Internet, and found little that gave him any comfort, that is until he stumbled on an alternative website.  He was dumbfounded when he read in very large letters, in the very first paragraph of the possibility of certain common ailments like upper respiratory infections creating antigens that mimicked those of HIV.  He had found his answer!  He hurried home to get the phone number of the doctor he could not remember, and after a few minutes reached him on the phone.  The doctor was impatient, and when he finally broke his news about the Internet discovery, the response on the other end was "no, that cannot be it."  And with that, the issue was over - he was to wait another ten days or so for a more advanced test. 
By the end of the first week, he didn't really care anymore, he was just anxious to get the news one way or the other and then get on with his life, whatever was left of it.  By the time he made his way back to the clinic, he was ready to face the disease, and was only mildly surprised when the nurse handed him a slip of paper and said "negative."  That was all the dialogue he got, "negative."  He noticed sadly though, that the brunette was nowhere to be seen.  He walked back out into the day, and drove home to pack for Tanzania.  He had told no one of the ordeal, so there was no one to celebrate with.  Two weeks of life and death hadn't left him with anymore appreciation or zest for life, nor had the entire thing depressed him.  It was merely yet another act, another scene he had witnessed from afar, dispassionately and detached.  He wondered if he would ever feel anything ever again.
Now, twelve years later, he nodded to himself silently registering the fact that no such reprieve would be extended, he had spent his one miracle a decade or so before.
To be continued..........


Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Color Weak 2 - Through the Windshield of Cars

He walked out of the doctor's office into a cold and damp autumn afternoon.  There was a new kind of lightness to him, not one of happiness and hope, but that of a man resigned to his short and likely painful future.  He took a deep breath, trying to recapture the flavor of the season, the scent that he used to love so well.  The cold crisp air that heralded a time of winter's darkness now had added irony for him.  He was not surprised though, it had been several years since he had loved the seasons separately and piously, not since she had left. Now all he had was a steady, stolid ache that neither escalated or abated with changes in temperature or pressure, an ache that was about to embrace the vengeance and agony of the malignancy growing inside him.  Frankly, he almost welcomed the diversity.
He opened the door to his three-quarter ton pick up truck, noticed the rust was progressing nicely, and climbed up in the cab.  He liked this old truck, so much so, he traded his table saw and a few other woodworking tools for it straight up.  As he reached forward to put the key into the ignition, he did something he could never recall doing - he slid the key in, then sat back in the seat and just sat there.  For as long as he could remember, he could never just sit in a car or truck - when he got where he was going, he had to get out, even if a favorite song was playing on the radio, he could not force himself to sit and listen. He had chalked it up to impatience, something he knew a great deal about. But on this day, he sat back, and let the reel continue running in his mind.  He looked out the windshield at nothing really, and drifted back a few decades.
He realized how much time he had spent behind a windshield as a boy - moving from house to house, town to town, state to state, and often relative to relative.  The purpose of cars it seemed, was to take him away from a place, his friends, as soon as he had grown accustomed to them.  They seldom took him were he wanted to go, certainly not on the dozens of promised fishing trips or other excursions that evaporated with his step-father's booze soaked binges. He had seen some terrible things from behind a windshield as well, brutal ugly events that would stay with him a lifetime.
One such incident happened when he was nine years old - a semi-truck had pulled in front of the family car, and his step-father chased the truck down, endangering the lives of the family.  He sat helpless as his sister screamed and his baby brother cried, as the car sped down a two lane highway, trying to cut off the truck, horn blaring. Finally, they overtook the truck, swerved right in front of it to make stop.  His step-father then proceeded to pull the driver, a much smaller man, out of the cab and began to beat him relentlessly into the ground.  The man's cries for mercy still filled his ears as if it was happening yesterday.  He felt helpless watching this spectacle, but a little relieved it was happening to someone else, and this made him feel very guilty. After what seemed like an hour, really only a minute or so, his step-father left the man lying broken and bleeding in the road, and walked back to the car as if nothing had happened.
The windshield didn't always "shield" him however, there were other incidents where he was not allowed to remain a spectator.  Six or seven years after the truck driver beating, he was with his step-father going across town on a side street when they saw a sailor yelling at a woman over what looked like a minor accident. His step-father mumbled something like "he's giving her a hard time" before stopping the car in the middle of the street, and getting out to intervene. For some reason, he watched the woman as the three converged in the street.  He face first eased in relief, as she must have thought chivalry had arrived, he knew better.  He also knew it was a matter of only seconds until the scene exploded - he had no desire to see the violence, only to watch her face. Like a mirror, he knew what was happening a few feet away.  Her face changed suddenly to astonishment, and he was sure that meant his step-father had just hit the sailor without warning, probably when the other man wasn't looking. Then as her face turned pale and she looked away, face in hands, he knew the sailor was on the ground, and that his step-father was pummeling him.  A few seconds later, she ran off, heading down the street, trying to escape the ugliness that had just erupted in front of her.  He envied her, the ability to just leave was never an option for him. As he watched her running down the sidewalk wondering where she thought she was heading, his singular focus was shattered by the loud bellow of "boy, boy can't you hear me, get out here." He slowly climbed out of the car and walked over to where his step-father was, trying to do so without looking at the sailor for as long as possible.  When he did make it over to his step-father, he was relieved to see the other man wasn't too badly hurt, but he was terrified by what came next.  His step-father was standing above the man holding him by the collar, keeping him on the ground,  He was then told to hold the man there while his step-father went after the woman, ostensibly to check to see if she was ok.  He was instructed to hit the man if he got up and tried to run away. In an instance, the horrible event had taken on a ridiculous hue - three people trapped in one man's nightmare.  He couldn't imagine the woman's terror as she turned to see the large man following her down the street, while looking down at the man at his feet, not believing the man wasn't moving, wasn't trying to escape.  In the course of a few minutes, three lives had been changed forever at the whim of an evil man.  He pulled the sailor up and told him to leave.  He then stood there patiently waiting for the police to come, and for his father to come back and club him in the ear for disobeying him.
He was about to let himself return from these reminiscences, when he reached up and gently rubbed his forehead, the last reminder of this day of windshields and blood.  At twenty-two, he had run his car into a telephone pole at seventy miles an hour, and had lain trapped in the vehicle for twelve hours before anyone had found him.  His head had shattered the windshield and he was blinded by the blood streaming down his face. His hallucinations had been vivid that night, and he had wondered if it truly was God he had conversed with.  He remembered not really caring if he survived or not, and he remembered knowing how odd it was that he felt that way.  Once finally freed, he spent two weeks in intensive care, where he emerged somewhat changed - no more or less ambivalent about life and death, but much more confident in the durability of his mind and body, and perhaps even more tempted to invite and court his own self-destruction.
He shook his head a bit, tossed out the thoughts of windshields, violence, and blood, and drove off in no particular direction - a good metaphor he thought, for his life.
To be continued..........................

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Color Weak

*A short-story, novella, or novel, depending on my attention span:

As he buttoned his shirt for the third time in a third office, he smiled ruefully as he wondered when it was exactly that he began to die.  This third visit, the second second opinion was merely a formality, a chance to responsibly postpone the treatment for his cancer.  All the necessary biopsies had been done, so this last visit really hadn't been that bad, but he still didn't understand the continual need to get naked in a cold and silly half-decorated room.  He smiled again a bit more warmly as he wondered who in the world would have a fantasy about a romantic tryst in a hospital.
There was something new he garnered from this trip though, one passing question that put him into one of his typical metaphysical tailspins that he would enjoy for several hours. The question was simple enough, "Haven't you noticed the blood in your stool?" Normally, the doctor would have received the lecture about color weakness vs color blindness, but he just couldn't manage to summons the thesis with the proper amount of verve it required.  Instead, his color weak world began to slowly replay itself against the screen on the inside back of his skull. From his early teachers who thought he was slow or stubborn, to the myriad nuisances he suffered when people found out (what color is this? what color is your shirt? what color is that car? giggle giggle, giggle), right up to the point he realized his gift was done playing with him and  now quite possibly murdered him.  He smiled once more, admiring its persistence.
For as long as he could remember, his vision was never quite right. As a boy, he could only read for a minute or so until the words began to blur and overlap sloppily on the page -  Amblyopia, a word he stubbornly never learned to spell, while having even less affinity for its nom de guerre - Lazy Eye.  He did, however, enjoy wearing the eye patch at dinner for a few weeks. Then there were the presciption glasses he got in junior high, the ones he had so much fun picking out then never wore. But as he grew, the constant incredulity of his peers over his "color weakness" began to wear on him.  By the time he was eighteen, he had the odd distinction of harboring a fairly significant jealousy for the rest of the world who could see numbers inside of large circles constructed somehow of smaller, dull shaded spheres.  He was assured the numbers where there, but he never saw one - and often wondered what was worse, not seeing what everyone else could, or seeing things they could not - as deficit diplomacy goes, he began to secretly envy schizophrenics.
Besides the eighteen month prognosis, his affliction had really only changed his life in two pertinent was:  He was crushed when he discovered he couldn't be an electrician, and he could never dress himself, at least in any ensemble more complex than blue jeans and tennis shoes. Once and only once, he dared to venture out without his mother's oversight, and was ever so grateful it had been a cold day - after his first encounter in the school hallway, he wore his coat the rest of the day. Later in his life people assumed that he wore his jeans and T shirts as some sort of casual or rebellious statement, never guessing it was out of fear and a need to be safe.  Recently even, when asked how he knew he was dressed well and ready for the day, he only halfway kidded when he replied "When my socks match and my zipper is up."
He had other problems with his vision though, probably more indicative of the brain behind his eyes. Never being anywhere very long, he seldom got the opportunity to correlate his initial impressions of people with the inevitable  behaviors and attitudes that eventually betrayed them. He watched his family too in these new situations, and he knew his parents were not the people others saw. It wasn't long before he realized his own applications, literally reinventing himself from town to town, school to school, teacher to teacher, peer to peer - or so he thought.  There was never a sense of normalcy though, and he grew to rely heavily on the surrounding context for clues, something that would eventually benefit him when he would walk into Third World villages with no introduction or mandate other than the confidence of whatever persona he had adopted that day. He quit trying to see the world as it was, and began to shape it as he wanted it to be.  He had always thought this successful, but now chuckled as he realized his motus operendi  had eroded from that of Don Quixote to Mr. Magoo.
He was always perplexed by people that could hide their inner selves successfully for any extended period at all.  When walking into a situation, he often knew an appropriate manner, but could not keep himself from being himself anyway.  It wasn't until late in his life that he realized that the impressions he had made in those moments were only positive in that the witnesses were gracious enough to grant him the temporary delusion out of decorum, but didn't usually care to repeat the gesture too often. Even here, his vision had betrayed him, for the reflection of his own buffoonery must have been shining brightly in all but the most talented thespian countenances. This revelation, constructed about the time his bare feet hit the cold floor of the examination room, startled him as he realized there had been an entire world around him of people who publicly tolerated him, but then whispered and joked in every other crevice of his environment.  The thought of all this counter-existence enveloping him unknowingly for so long was overwhelming, and he returned quickly to the one virtue he had left - his ability to stop thinking about anything that disturbed him, ironically the same asset that had created and maintained his false sense of reality and self all these years.
Slipping his shoes back on, waiting for the doctor and nurse who had graciously and ridiculously stepped out while he dressed (after all, they had coordinated the humiliating assault he had endured in the name of medicine a few moments ago), he knew he had a lot to answer for in his past, and would probably ignore the admonitions and prescriptions this third physician would provide him, with feigned empathy, as to how he should maximize his remaining year and a half.  In his true and logical (but of course not stubborn) fashion, he would forgo the predicated mercy of Kubler Ross for the cold comfort of Freud and Lacan - having lived in his head this long, he preferred to die there as well.
To be continued..........

Sunday, September 11, 2011


I first came across this term while reading my favorite psychologist, Lev Vygotsky.  Simply put, he defined it as "the process of making the familiar unfamiliar" , and pretty much dismissed much of what passed for poetry to this realm.  I think a lot about expression, that chance to share what is in my mind and heart with others.  I also think about George Orwell who admonished me to avoid "pre-packaged phrases." Those trite intersections where we think we connect but do so superficially, perhaps in a premeditated panic preferring the sloppiness of syntax and the gross manipulation of metaphor to a moment's awkwardness and the exposure of a brand new bit of our hearts. I think a lot about expression.
When I struggle to share what is in my heart, Countee Cullen, my favorite poet comes to mind, and his lamentation to poetic irony: "Yet do I marvel at this curious thing: To make a poet black, and bid him sing!"  Being Black in 1925 blessed with talent and passion and cursed by the muting mechanism that gave him the pain to forge his bittersweet melodies of faith and race. I too know irony - after a half century of trying to protect my heart and to stifle the soft nuances of the human pain and ecstasy that I flirted with but never embraced, I now need to open my heart and ask others in, and I know not the language of invitation, the argot of love.  I think a lot about expression.
I felt this terrible need long before I understood its calling. And maybe I didn't fully understand until this evening when two young women (whose combined age is about a decade less than mine) asked me a few simple questions.  Enas asked me why I converted, and Ayesha wondered aloud how one changes the world.  Simple questions from pure hearts -  no obfuscation, no cliches - providing a backwards byway to lead me back out of my aphasic angst.  I am thinking a little less about expression.
"I saw so much pain and suffering in the world, I no longer wanted a faith to explain it to me, or one that somehow favored me over those others less fortunate than I, but one that taught me how to humble myself and to look to my own heart, my own behaviors to make the changes I so wanted desperately to make in the world" was my response to Enas who is bravely preparing a lecture to give to a group of Christians about 9/11. I want to live this sentiment, not to profess it.  To do so, I need to know how to access my heart always, ready to share it without mediation or recompense.  I am feeling a little more comfortable with this pulmonary prose.
Ayesha was perhaps the first person to ever hear initially from my heart.  I answered her question without the meddling, calculating overcoat of cognition that displaces me and my heart from the human contact I have shunned for so long.  I cannot reconstruct the syntax or morphology of the sentences, but I do recall the ardor of the exchange, the warmth of her heart.  I am no longer thinking at all.
I have so far to go, so far.  I don't need to make the "familiar unfamiliar" as I am not sure there has ever been anything familiar in my heart to contort. I don't need "pre-packaged  phrases" to communicate cosmetically at arm's length (forgive me this one time) with my brothers and sisters, pining instead for the elegant romance of risk and disclosure no longer comfortable with the disengaged espial of espionage.  I am feeling.
Sadly, this is as close to poetry as I get, but I am ready to sing.


Friday, September 9, 2011


As I am preparing for the impending "event"  this weekend, I am struggling to conceive a name for the coming commotion - remembrance, observation, dedication, anniversary, celebration, admonition, protest, demonstration, denigration, degradation, vilification, attack........
Ten years ago, thousands of people died during a small window of time for absolutely no credible reason at all.  Ten years later, thousands of new people use the senselessness of those deaths to reify their own biases, ill-constructed truths, and ugliness - a horrible epitaph betraying the grossest of all manipulations. They take the twisted malice of a few individuals, soak it in the thoughtless sentiment of an undifferentiated tragedy, patch it together with their emptiness and angst, then spit it back at us as some sort of cockeyed cogent appeal to our empathy and patriotism. And despite our unease at the malignant ripple drifting through the rhetoric betrayed by the slight sneer, the spectre of 3,000 murdered souls raised so maliciously mutes our decency and the authors of this profanity walk away thinking they have created consensus.
It occurs to me that I am perhaps going about this business backwards - maybe I should invite these people over for a fight now. Might as well ostensibly spill blood over surrealistically silent television images a decade old than anything else I guess. So they can come over, and I will fight for my failures as a father, and they can fight for the women they have beaten, the people they cheated, the raise they didn't get, whatever - we can mix blood as Muslims and Christians, playing at a holy war that will relieve none of us from our true pain.  Now is as a good time as ever, for I do not want to wait until I pull in front of them in traffic, upset them on a golf course, bump into them coming out of a restaurant, etc. 
Who "owns" 9/11?  Do I as an American?  Do I not as a Muslim-American?  Do you need to hate to own it?  Is there a mortgage other than being born on this soil?  Can I own 9/11 and not Oklahoma City?  If I own either or both, what do I do with them? Who owns the 9/11 site?  Who owns the right to determine the zoning rights around it?  As a Muslim recently asked, "How many strip clubs, adult book shops, and liquor stores have to be between the site and the first mosque erected?"  When we invoke the tragedy of this terrible event, we do so for what purpose?  Perhaps the next time we hear something started with "9/11", we should look at the instigator and wonder if we would care to listen to him/her about any other subject at all.
I am not advocating that we ignore or forget that terrible day.  I am simply asking what we should do with it now, and if we should consider taking it out of the hands of the villains who grabbed it up seconds after nineteen evil men put those buildings down.  No one died that day in order that the rest us could hate a billion of our brothers and sisters around the word, a few hundred even laying broken and destroyed in the same rubble. Their souls should not be preserved in hatred.  My Muslim heart hurts as much for those victims and their families as any other - more so than the cowardly heart hiding behind a microphone and a war cry. If your heart revisits that day, and pulses for vengeance and retribution against a sea of faceless humans, I will pray for you, I will pray for the of us.
I can remember a time in this country when we held our hearts while we sang our National Anthem then recited our Pledge of Allegiance proudly.  Then, in times of darkness with heavy hearts, we would observe a moment of silence with solemnity and grace.  Sometimes thousands of us standing together, not one wanting to distinguish himself in his vanity of grief.  Silence. Maybe the only thing I can conclude about 9/11 these days is that 9 out of 11 of us probably shouldn't talk at all.  Silence. Silence

Wednesday, September 7, 2011


It's raining, probably because Enas is not smiling much these days. I was reading various Hadith late last night, and I came across the following:
Anas ibn Malik said, “While we were with the Prophet of Allah, upon him be peace, it began to rain. The Prophet opened his cloak so that the rain could fall on him. We asked, ‘Why did you do that?” The Prophet replied, “It has been with its Lord very recently.“
I have not been able to track down the exact Hadith, but it is a beautiful sentiment nonetheless!  It has been raining here a lot lately, and I have been thinking of rain and other things. Of all of God's blessings, I am guilty of neglecting this the most.  Rain is His gift that I ignore or avoid, and I have never thought that I was squandering another renewed miracle, as I have sunrises, sunsets, and cool summer breezes.
When I am not running from the rain, or casting suspending spells towards it on the golf course, I do acquiesce to it late at night when it is softly imploring me to sleep, relentlessly caressing my window, rolling up in velvet cascades streaming across the pane, pleading to wash away the vexations of my day. And no matter my mood, I surrender to its song, and settle in for a warm and peaceful slumber.  Callously I suppose, I awake the next morning, feeling alive and rejuvenated, eager to tackle my day, forgetting to thank my God for His sacred sedative.
Unlike my insomnia, I don't give my grief to the rain, I sometimes take it to it. I can remember the few times in my life when my world seemed to be folding in around me, and I was drawn out into a slow and heavy downpour, releasing everything to the steady, pulsing massage. Like a dozen iconic movie images, I stand for awhile staring into the distance, then gradually up to the heavens letting the rain wash down over me, knowing nothing else to do.  There is no time in this embrace, no humility or hubris, no defiant curse invoking wrath, no whimpering plea for release - just the crushing commune of a broken man and his patient, merciful God.
Now, I miss the rain when I am missing her. A soft drizzle that would buffet me gently and ease the provocation of my memories.  I would drag out those artifacts that populate my world, those ambushing reminders that bring me back to her reluctantly a hundred times a day, drag them out with me into the rain, letting them pucker and bleed eventually rinsing clean, giving them back to the earth that we stole them from.
Tomorrow maybe, just to walk out into the wind and mist without love or pain or misplaced grief, just to revel in this precious gift, God's newest grace tangled and mingled with the tears of joy on my face.

*I have started the movie Blade Runner a hundred times, yet had not seen the end until last night. This scene, where the protagonist (Harrison Ford) has just been rescued inexplicably by the villain (Rutger Hauer) in the rain, is one of the most beautiful I have ever seen.  Hauer, plays an android that has desperately fought his mandatory termination at the hands of Ford, whose job it is to protect mankind from the inevitable consequences of self-aware "replicants" who dare to approach human emotion and the threshold of a soul.  In his last moments, this near human teaches the man that love and pain are bargained plain, and lost "like tears in the rain."

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Buhkari Hadith 1:33

The Prophet said, "Whoever has the following four (characteristics) will be a pure hypocrite and whoever has one of the following four characteristics will have one characteristic of hypocrisy unless and until he gives it up.

1. Whenever he is entrusted, he betrays.
2. Whenever he speaks, he tells a lie.
3. Whenever he makes a covenant, he proves treacherous.
4. Whenever he quarrels, he behaves in a very imprudent, evil and insulting manner."

Wow!  A good friend had shared some interesting Hadith with me over Ramadan, and I decided to read some more tonight and started with this one, randomly I thought. Nicely, I had been thinking of writing a post today about trust, truth, motives, and conduct, but didn't like how it was coming together.  I deleted it and decided to read a Hadith instead - now my thoughts are clearer, and most likely more honest. Before I read this though, I spoke to another friend who challenged me about the way I sometimes express myself, and I am therefore being much more careful to disaggregate ego from honesty.  A lot to think about!
I fear this post will be long and it will be painful - painful not for me but for anyone who reads it, as it will contain a lot of ugliness, and the contrition I now feel reflects much that is unpleasant.  Also, this will be an analysis without prescription or prognosis - I just want to arrest these awful afflictions in my heart, later to deal with their disposal.
1. Whenever he is entrusted, he betrays.
I have been very blessed lately, as I have been entrusted with the support of many new friends from Jordan, Morocco, Palestine, and Syria. Some are here as students, some on various faculty exchange programs, and some are still at home, corresponding with me via the Internet. It feels so good to be on the other end of this equation finally, the one who provides support and reassurance to someone who is alone and/or out of his/her element. And if the term "pay it forward" has any purchase, then I have accrued a great deal of compounded interest I need to account for.  Ironically, I don't think they understand this when I try to defer their gratitude with my debt.
Many, but not all, of these friends are women who are younger than I, in the early stages of their careers.  And although they can entrust me with their friendship and openness, this wasn't always the case. I have been teaching/advising/mentoring students for more than twenty-five years, and many of them have been women. From the beginning, I often noticed the conflicting attractions I felt - the need and satisfaction of helping them, and the haunting whisper of their goodness and vulnerability.  I never offered my assistance based on a woman's physical attractiveness, but I was often aware of it, and on a few occasions, lost the perspective I was duty bound to maintain. Worse, I believe there were times when I  took advantage of the desperate and near sided gratitude that mistook patience and kind assistance for empathy and love. Never with malice or ill-intent, sometimes even deceiving myself with notions of authentic affection, but certainly without any responsible concern for the depth of emotions I dabbled with. If nothing else though, I loathed the fact that my needs were ever more than philanthropic.
I don't have those inappropriate thoughts now, but the soft echo of those blurred lines still resonate faithfully. And deep down, there is a small piece of me that knows not its age, nor its absurdity, and if set free, could still embarrass me and betray the trust I now hold so dear.
2. Whenever he speaks, he tells a lie.
I am honest, yet I lie.  I have conquered the hubris and insecurity that drove me to produce exaggeration, extrapolation, and equivocation.  I do not lie for advantage, evasion, or elation.  When I speak, the direction I take is true and constant, yet I lie.  I lie in that I often do not speak about that which I should. I don't address emotions or issues that trouble me, and instead, redirect my dialogue and environment away from the place where I cannot tolerate honesty. I am articulate enough, persistent enough, and stubborn enough to prevail in this enterprise consistently, probably deluding myself with the notion that no one notices.  More likely darkly aware that no one cares.
3. Whenever he makes a covenant, he proves treacherous.
I don't break many covenants, but I have broken one recently that has haunted me.  When I made it, I knew it was the most important of my life, would be the hardest to keep, and would define me as a ethical man. It was to be a noble covenant, one few men could guarantee.  Yet I broke it with the pathetic guise of a larger, more virtuous trust.  In my cowardice, I could not face my failure honestly, and created a lie that convinced neither me nor the beautiful soul I had embraced, promised, and betrayed. And instead of the enduring respect I longed to salvage from the lost relationship, I settled for the unceremonious dismount of my "high horse."  Poetic justice.
4. Whenever he quarrels, he behaves in a very imprudent, evil and insulting manner.
I think when I quarrel, I believe I am at my most honest, yet secretly know I am not.  I manage my passion with logic and restraint, lying in wait for my adversary to lose her composure, then deftly ignoring the context, and belittle or humiliate the emotional reaction.  I also tend to try to set the tone and conditions of the argument, not understanding or respecting an alternative, no matter how genuinely presented.  By doing so, I believe I am increasing the likelihood that I will prevail, forgetting that doing so is precisely the reason I will lose the relationship I want to maintain over the very exercise I pretend that will strengthen it. When I argue, I profess equanimity and composure but I expose a brute and a bully. I cannot now imagine why anyone would engage in such a slanted and dishonest process with me.

I believe I should read a Hadith and challenge myself to find the truth and applicability within.  Moreover, it would be very vain of me to pass over one lightly, imagining that the potential negativity applied elsewhere.  If there are warnings and admonitions, they are not intended for the ignorant in iniquity or the majority that make me an anomaly - they were written for me, and only me.  I will reread what I have written here, without self-pity or remorse, and I will make plans.  There are weaknesses, there are sins, then there is the special obscenity of hypocrisy - a sin that breeds atop another sin.  This is simply a comeuppance that will hopefully preclude the permanence of a portent I cannot afford.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

"They Hate Us Because We Are Free"

I have thought about this post all day, maybe all  my life. I have also come to the conclusion that if write this well, it will not be a popular post, but once again I am trying to express some very complex thoughts I have about American culture, Islam, terrorism, and the human heart.
I remember President Bush saying this quite awhile ago, and I remember having mixed thoughts about this declaration.  Mixed in that I know no one hates us because we are free, I wasn't sure who "they" were, I have no real idea what motivates the mind and heart of a terrorist, and I don't know what you tell your people in times like that when you are the president.  I must say, as I have before, that every American president is "my" president.  I can't pick and choose my leaders and pretend that I am not part of this society, yet qualify as beneficiary of its many advantages, and not culpable too for its sins.
I am writing this post today, as I heard that provocative statement on a commercial at the same time I was contemplating the many protests and revolutions occurring in the Middle East.  Do these people who are risking their lives in Syria, Palestine, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and other places hate freedom?  When was the last time an average American in the USA had to risk his life for his freedom?  Patriotism without risk, freedom without fear, liberty without peril, combine to make a vapid mind, one long since shuck of the true sacrifices of its heroic ancestors. Maybe "we"  hate "them" for their valor and courage in their quest for freedom - we may think that we would do the same, what our forefathers did, what hundreds of thousands are doing in the Middle East, but we just don't know. Maybe we have been shamed, and we hate or despise ourselves.
I have never met a "freedom hater" in my many travels.  I have met people who hate Americans, at least those vocal ones who travel like petulant divas, or the many who stay at home spewing malice and incredible ignorance about the world around them from their rusted and corrupted epicenters. No they don't hate us because we are free, but they and we might hate us for the unconscionable act of usurping the term, treating it like a dime store badge, and then professing the strawman we have built as a shining model for the world.  They don't hate us because we are free, but perhaps they hate us for squandering the treasure that their sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, friends and peers die for everyday.
I don't begrudge President Bush's attempt to assuage our terrible pain and grief, for to speculate any sort of critical or complex thought at that moment would have been disastrous - our pain demands hate and loathes love.  As I mentioned earlier, I cannot replace his attribution for terrorism with another, as I have no idea why these men who kill innocents with zeal do so. Perhaps it is just the "they" I keep coming back to, not knowing how inclusive the term was intended to be. Once again our pain seems to prefer undifferentiated and unilateral retribution, rather than the redemptive process of a patient and ethical sorting of good and bad constituents on either "side" of this war. But the latter would destroy the notion of sides, and the excruciating ambivalence would be far too great a burden to sustain the negative nurturing of our pain.
Perhaps it is time to examine this term "pain."  I am sure there are many people in America and around the world who have felt genuine and devastating levels of pain over the horrific results of terrorism. Theirs is not the sort of pain I spoke of above, or that which I will address now - they will deal with their pain, and the loss of innocent and guilty lives will play no part in their recovery. But there are those who profess pain for these terrible events, who secretly smile, knowing that the authentic pain of others may just be enough of a distraction for them to slide in their hatred and vitriol up under the grief, creating a simple answer, a simple suspect for an incomprehensible crime.
I am very tired these days, and my patience is gone.  Anyone who starts a sentence with "Muslims" is most likely an idiot - whether the subsequent syntax suggests positive or negative assignations to the faith, or at the very least, is incredibly ignorant.  Maybe each of us needs to hate, feel better about it when we find kindred souls "we" and necessarily need the anonymity of "them" to keep it hot and eternal. Whatever the reason, whatever the need, freedom has nothing at all to do with it, and to suggest so denigrates the one secular concept that could save us all.

Thursday, September 1, 2011


I decided to do a post about each of my daughters this holiday season, one before Ramadan, the other after Eid.  I flipped a coin, and Kesho came first (see the link below)  with Sindi second.  It is Sindi's time now!
For a long time, I figured Sindi was destined to be a weirdo.  She was always very earnest, but she swerved a bit around middle school. She took to wearing mismatched socks, and would've been a "goth" if she knew what that was.  We were quite concerned about her, but time took care of this slight detour. 
Sindi is the younger of our two daughters, and she was always serious and at times irreverent. She  looked after her older sister, and was very responsible from an early age. I didn't know how to communicate with her for a long time, and when I did learn, it involved mostly listening. I remember coming into the living room one evening seeing sitting in the middle of the floor with a forlorn look on her face.  When I asked what was wrong, she replied "I have no car, I have no money, I have only Kesho!"  I didn't know what to say to that, so I went back to my room.  On another occasion, I came back into that same room to find her singing a Johnny Cash tune, just in time to hear her belt out "I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die", and once again had no response other than retreating back to my room.
As Sindi grew older, she remained serious and developed a degree of impatience with the world around her. She caught a curious disease many young intelligent people are susceptible to, Preposterism - a term coined by Jacques Barzun for the condition where one just cannot understand why the rest of the world doesn't see the blatantly obvious around them.  Sindi was constantly frustrated by this, the ineptness surrounding her.  But like many critical people, she was driven by a large, caring heart and endless compassion for the less fortunate.  I saw this from an early age, and it has not waned.
Sindi is developing into a very intelligent and compassionate young woman who is learning to cope with her less astute peers and parents.  She is very diligent about most things, and has an usually clear sense of her morality and ethics.  Her world is still a bit dichotomous - things are either trivial or massively important, but she is learning a little more about human politics.  She wants to go to London and study after high school, and I have no doubt she will.  I am not sure if she knows exactly what she will do for the rest of her life, but it will be done with a lot of gusto and laughter.  I am very proud of her and I cannot wait to see what life has in store for her, or more likely, vice versa.


I was talking to a very lovely young friend the other day, and she mentioned that she was often uncomfortable when men complimented her, as she was never sure whether or not they did so with "tricky motives."  That started me thinking about beautiful women, and how men react to them.  We talked for awhile on the subject, and I came to some interesting (if not personal) conclusions. It occurred to me that men react to the beauty in a woman in at least three different ways, and that I had probably experienced all three. The first is a possessive reaction - he wants to have her beauty, to keep it, to control it, to take it away from the rest of the world.  Her beauty is an acquisition to be put away on a shelf, like a purloined piece of art, providing him the perverse pleasure of taking it out of the sun, letting it fade and decay, all  his. Even though he may display her beauty on his arm now and again, it is just another gesture of his dominant suppression. If he manages to convince her, she will surrender her beauty to this emotional erosion, giving him the satisfaction of watching it slowly die.
The second doesn't want to possess her beauty, but he does want to be near it.  He wants to admire it, to warm himself in its luster. He may have fleeting fantasies about having her, keeping her beauty for himself, but he knows this is impossible, he wouldn't begin to know what to do with it. The pleasure he knows admiring her eventually is corrupted by the pain of wanting her.  And on a random day, a random issue, a random comment will derail him, and the man she thought of as a close friend will strike out at her briefly and incomprehensibly, then flee in humiliation.
Finally, there is a man who sees her beauty, and wants to bring it in close and  tangle it up elegantly with the good and pure things he feels in his heart. He doesn't want to steal her beauty, or to own it exclusively, only to embrace it, let it connect the disparate constituents of  his soul.  Her beauty will fill the empty parts of his chest, will create the vessel he is meant to be - his soul, her beauty will manifest themselves in the exponential capacity of love. His love, her beauty will be conjoined, and his chest will rise and fall with the softness of a winter's sigh each moment he looks at her.  And if she takes her embrace back from him, he will find he has no internal systems of his own, no network of emotion or grounding rod for his pain - he will once again be hollow, but with the bitter sweet memory of  the consonant corporeal entity he once thought was his heart.
I have been these three men, and I have possessed, admired, and enmeshed the beauty of a woman.  When I finished my thoughts with my young friend, she asked me "which number are you now?"  I thought about it for a bit, then replied........................