Saturday, April 27, 2013

Atheist Logic

Having just heard that there will be a group of anti-gay folks exercising their constitutional rights on my campus Monday, I am preparing myself for the inevitable arguments my personal reaction will engender from the atheists and theists in my lebenswelt. For the purposes of this post, I will stick to the atheist logic I will endure.
As a Muslim, I might surprise some by need to support our Gay and Lesbian students on campus Monday against these bullies. Yes bullies! The same sort that hang out at abortion clinics and "protest" the most vulnerable. Years ago, driving down a street in Akron I saw a small protest near a non-descript building. I saw a group of men encircling a woman with signs and what I perceived to be threatening gestures. I stopped and pulled over and sprinted over to the scene. Half-way there I realized it was the Planned Parenthood Center, and who the protesters were. I squared off with the first one that made eye contact with me and called him a coward. This seemed to startle him. He attempted to engage me in a discussion (much less animated however in the presence of someone who might be able to defend himself). I kept my composure and repeated my slander, asking why he and his brave friends didn't go down the street to picket a crack house. By that time his comrades had joined him and we had some more words. In the meantime, the woman (a nurse, doctor, patient, friend, I didn't know) had left. I didn't rush into the scene to defend abortion, or even the woman being badgered by the men - I reacted to a decades old loathing for bullies, a disdain I had earned with blood and broken bones.
When I show support in these type of circumstances, the non-believers I meet are quick to point out the discrepancy between my stance and the tenets of my faith. I have two reactions to this: first, I am not sure how my faith, or any other, would allow for the victimization of the vulnerable or less powerful (at least in the context of the moment) for any reason. This vituperative bullying belies any compassionate belief. Two, I look into the eyes of my questioner and realize that this person believes I cannot hold a faith or philosophy unless I subscribe to every detail, every commandment, every principle perfectly. Looking deeper, I realize why they demand this concrete concordance - the only doctrine they worship is their own, and of course, they form their own solipsistic solidarity. To them, anything that doesn't make perfect and constant sense, or that doesn't fit their current or long-term goals is rejectionable. Their selfish logic makes the possibility of a shared faith impossible, and they ride cheaply on the moral back of a society built by faith and selflessness. I make sacrifices for my faith, and my faith is patient with me as I sort things out.
So Monday, as a Muslim, I will look to support my colleagues, friends, and students against a hate group that would prey (not pray) on them in the very sanctuary I would give my life to defend. I haven't spent my life teaching and advocating to turn a college campus into a place where good people fear to go. Call this Jihad or The Good Fight, I really don't care.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Conspiracy Theories

The other day an Arab friend of mine opined to me that the floodgates  would open soon in the Arab-American community and a spate of conspiracy theories about Boston would come forth. After all, he said, "Arabs love conspiracies."  I smiled remembering similar attributions by and about African-Americans, Jamaican, Brits, Africans, and virtually any group of people I have lived with and known. His casual observation sent me on a weekend journey processing what I know about conspiracies.
I think we all love, or at least, understand conspiracies given that we have participated in countless numbers of them in our lifetimes. We conspire against friends with other friends, family members with family members, teachers with classmates, the strong with the weak, the weak with the strong, opponents with teammates, political parties with political parties, on and on. Winning, surviving, thriving, seem to depend often on these secretive enclaves. We laugh at the elaborate conspiracies we hear long enough to suspend the current conspiracy we are practicing. The naive and almost magical possibilities of luck, chance, and serendipity have been replaced with the petty and cynical notions of more comfortable and familiar notions like collusion, envy, treachery and deceit.
We are a sophisticated generation, so we think, therefore our personal conspiracies must be elaborate and must be detectable only to like minds. Minds that are as intelligent, intuitive, or experienced as our own. There is no prize in detecting and identifying a conspiracy, only the self-satisfaction of possessing that particular form of exclusive enlightenment. I have Facebook friends who post the evidence of conspiracies constantly - and I am not sure if this is to lead to change in the world or simply the world recognizing their exceptional insight. It must be lonely having this much inside knowledge of such cruel and suspicious realities. The notion of "wonder" for these folks is no longer the amazement in the discovery of new and beautiful things, but the pedantic loathing of a world full of dupes and dummies.
My favorite people lately though, are those wise friends who don't subscribe to the smaller and focused conspiracy theories created by minority groups or those "less educated", but who endorse gigantic, world-wide cabals involving billions of people endorsing a faith other than theirs. With all the complex racial, ethnic, cultural, economic, political, and religious components responsible for the psyche of these two brothers from Boston, these pundits will focus on the faith of these two misanthropes, then will extrapolate this one convenient splinter and gleefully extrapolate it to the Islamic world. Islam thus becomes the conspiracy. The Chechnyian piece will be ignored as it produces too much dissonance for us - Chechnya was victimized by the evil Russians, and we sympathized with them. Now if these boys are Chechnyian and not Muslims, we have a problem. Or if they are outcasts, or political fundamentalists, or racial extremists, those things ring too close for comfort. So we take the small sliver and indict a good part of the rest of the world for the sake of our convenience, laziness, or our often suppressed desire to be openly bigoted and hateful.
The greatest conspiracy of all, of course, is that nearly 2,000,000,000 hate America and are its greatest threat. That two billion people think the same, share a preponderance of weaknesses and evils, and are more cohesive in effect than any other populace on the face of the earth. This is ludicrous and frightening in the same breath. I try but am unable to understand this thinking - instead, I spent some time creating a few conspiracy theories of my own to explain this hatred aimed at Muslims. It was easier than I thought, as human nature may indeed be lazy and self-serving. I don't think I really believe these somewhat playful contrivances, and I would not speak them seriously. But, as an exercise in pure speculation, here goes:
  1. Why older Christians are threatened by Islam - Take a tour of Catholic and Protestant churches around this country; enter from the back and look out over a sea of grey and white. Perhaps they notice the legions of young Muslims quoting religious text as well as teen aged non-sense and they worry about the future of their diminishing congregations. As they lose their youth (their own and their children), they despise a faith that stays connected.
  2. Why politicians use Islamaphobia - Politicians need votes, and often end up endorsing things that will win favor with their constituency - They recognize that they have a large group of people in their district who are stupid and hateful, and who have had to run from their enemies so fast in recent decades (Jews, homosexuals, Blacks, Catholics, etc.), that they are desperate to lay their ugliness on something, and to do so publicly, loudly, and proudly.
  3. Why American women are so eager to proclaim the oppression of their Arab counterparts - Simply, Beyonce'. Women in this country are still oppressed and don't even understand the mechanisms involved. In fact, they contribute to their own oppression. No matter how successful, how talented a singer is, she still has to perform half-naked and spew sex-laden lyrics. Using her sexuality gets a woman further than her intellect. Instead of examining this complex dynamic, it is easier to look elsewhere and to point at something they don't like, that looks simpler to their dissonant minds. It must be disheartening to realize though, that your daughters' most successful role models are Beyonce' and Madonna.
  4. Why people in Kansas are so afraid of Sharia - Because they live in Kansas - enough said (fill in your own conspiracy here).
I don't believe these things, but I do recognize that I have dug them up from tiny seeds of prejudices and poorly constructed patterns. I do not profess them publicly, not because I am afraid of condemnation, but because I know they would indicate a weakness in my own intellect and in my humanity. These things are handy sometimes when I don't want to think or even possibly reconsider my stance on a subject. They are also useful when I get in the right company and I want to feel the false affirmation of brazen bravado bounced off of thick skulls. As I said though, I understand conspiracy theories all too well, just trying not to love them so much.

Monday, April 15, 2013

No Apology, No Condemnation, No More

I was horrified today to see the events in Boston transpire. As horrified as I find myself too often these days. But there has been a change in me, another response is rising. I am no longer worried that the perpetrator of this atrocity labels himself/herself Muslim or not. I am no longer worried about Islamic/Christian, Islamic/Whatever relations in the United States or elsewhere. I feel no need to apologize, condemn, defend, or explain anymore. As a responsible citizen of this country and this world, I have transcended these second-class accommodations.
Honestly, I do not ask NRA members to apologize for or condemn the nuts who take those guns and shoot school children (although to some of them guns don't kill, Islam does) - I understand that the bulk of their membership are like me, decent human beings who abhor such actions. I do not look to my American or European Christian friends when people like McVeigh or Breivik pervert their faith to justify their hatred and blood lust. I do not crawl through sacred religious text with a contemptuous lack of context and good faith looking for cheap under girding for my venomous soul. I don't demand consistency from some liberal media experts who think that an American male who murders dozens isn't a terrorist, only a mentally ill individual, probably bullied and harassed as a child. I don't track down the few racist rednecks I meet occasionally to tell me what they think when one of their brethren ties a Black man to their pick up for some fun. They don't owe me anything. And although I don't owe any of them anything either, I can think, I can reason.
I love the Christians I see everyday living their faith - the differences in my belief do not demand that I seek out the exceptions among them to diminish what is all around me, what I can see with open eyes and and an honest heart. I have wonderful friends who own guns - I don't need to point out the terrorists who hold pieces of my country hostage periodically with automatic weapons as somehow indicative of these citizens who practice their constitutional rights. Finally, I don't need to practice the folly of attempting to educate the innumerate around me that extrapolate the actions of literally hundreds of "Muslims" to the billions who loath those violent actions and who illuminate my faith perfectly, daily. I am done with this. I am a Muslim, I am Michael.

Scrabble Rabble

They are really not a rabble, although the game was a bit spirited and disorganized at times. For the past seven months or so, we have been hosting a English conversation group every Saturday at Moraine Valley Community college from ten a.m. until two p.m.  Volunteers like Kipp, Manal, Justin, Mohammed, Sara, and Carmela come in and we spend a very unpredictable four hours immersed in the language. We talk, play games, go over vocabulary, go out for lunch occasionally, and always, always have fun. Today we played scrabble after a vocabulary lesson, and it was an interesting glimpse at culture, international affairs, and human nature.
I often marvel that so many students come week after week for these four-hour sessions. Kipp and his crew have succeeded in making a safe and trusting environment where they feel comfortable and supported. There is a lot of spontaneous hard work that happens along with a lot of laughter. They listen and they participate and their English skills are improving, but there is so much more happening there. They have made friendships and they have taught us so much about the human condition as they chase down their dreams in this new country. It is the most quietly amazing thing I have witnessed in some time.
We have quite a collection of folks coming to these weekly meetings - fraternal twins who are very competitive and both want to be doctors; two Syrian women, probably on either side of the conflict who put that aside and share a ride in on Saturdays; another Syrian woman displaced by the war, finding herself here with her daughter as a refugee trying to forge her own path forward; kids from Pakistan, Jordan, and China, not afraid to have a little fun with us older folks; Palestinian and Yemeni women whose English skills are slight but whose hearts are big and courageous; a couple of best friends from Brazil who are polar opposites; pragmatic but fun Eastern European students who keep us honest; and of course, the wonderful volunteers who give up a significant part of their weekends just to share some time with these special students. I am very proud to be a part of this.
So no, not a rabble, but a spirited group of people that could teach or reteach a lot of us about the dignity and poise of immigrants who make this a better place to live.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Awkward Interviews

I have had my share of interviews, and I have won some and lost some. The one conclusion I have drawn from those experiences is this: There is no preparation for interviews other than interviews! My career has peaked with my current post, and I have had the time and security to look back and think about all those interviews, all those discussions with a bit of introspection. I was reminiscing the other day about some of the memorable exchanges I have had during these often awkward encounters (perhaps because we are interviewing several people for jobs here at my school lately), and a few stick out clearly in my mind. For lack of a better introduction, I will label them in impromptu categories:

Toughest Question: I had been working at the University of Akron for several years when I was approached by a co-worker who told me her husband had heard about me, and my experiences, and wanted to interview me for a position in a new unit he was creating at the local children's hospital. It was to be a Recreational Therapy unit on the psych ward. His wife had shared with him some of my work in orphanages and refugee camps in Jamaica and Yemen, as well as my educational background. Given that I was still piecing together my family's existence on a series of part-time jobs, the opportunity intrigued me.
I had no experience in Recreational Therapy, nor had I recalled hearing of the program before. It did turn out to be a relatively new field, and I benefited from the low number of applicants with the specific degrees. When I arrived at the interview, the first real panel style interview I attended, I was very intimidated. The panel consisted of the three psychiatrists who supervised the psych unit: An East Indian man with a vest sweater and an unlit pipe in his mouth; A Korean woman who sat there sternly with no expression: And a White Male, fiftiesh or so without a hair out of place, a wrinkle anywhere in his immaculate outfit, and the most rigid posture I had ever seen. They started right in without introductions with a scenario: What (pronounced Vat by the Indian doctor) would you do if you came into the sleeping room of four boys and one was masturbating? I paused for a second and just answered it honestly. They continued with traditional questions and odd scenarios for about 45 minutes. I eased up and just did my best, knowing that I didn't have to have the job and that I wanted them to know who I was and how I thought. In the end, I was rated the best of the three finalists and was offered my choice of the shifts. My boss was a bit disappointed when I didn't take either of the two full-time positions, but instead opted for the two ten hour shifts on the weekends. It was one of the many good career moves I would make, not leaving education full-time. I did well in the position, and learned a lot more about human nature from the milieu of talented professionals I worked with. I was never taken back by another interview questions again either.

Simulation Drill?: Often, in interviews, you are asked situational questions where you can simulate your responses and they can get an idea of your affect and behavior. Sometimes this is done as a role-play. Well, I had the mother of all role-plays in 1985, but I don't think it was scripted. I had arrived in Jamaica as a Peace Corps Volunteer without an assignment (long story, other posts) and had heard about an orphanage that needed a teacher for a year. I contacted them and scheduled an interview with the director the next day. When I arrived at the school, I was surprised to see it had been an old tourist hotel overlooking Montego Bay. It was quaint and dated, and the boys lived in the old guest rooms (four boys to a room). There were only two floors, one central area, and an abandoned pool. I made my way upstairs to meet with the director and casually looked down the railed hall of the second floor. I could hear activity at the end of the balcony and I figured classes were going on there. I went into the office and began what was to be a half-hour interview - it didn't last nearly that long.  We exchanged pleasantries, and he explained the nature of his need: The regular teacher was pregnant and needed to take a year's leave. She presided over a one-room school with seventeen boys ages 7-17. In his words, these were the boys "too spirited to appreciate the benefits of a traditional education." I got his drift.
He seemed pleased with my answers and was in mid-sentence with another question when we heard a very loud scream from outside. I knew it came from the end of the hall I had passed, and my instinct led me to bolt up and run down to the room. I emerged first, with the director close behind, and saw a very large, very pregnant Jamaican woman against the wall with her hand over her mouth. My eyes followed her gaze and I looked over to see a small boy poking a homemade knife into the belly of a much larger boy. Once again, I acted without thought and tackled the larger boy sensing he was the cause of the problem. The director caught the smaller child and calmed him down and I held the older boy until we could take him down to the office. He had only superficial cuts to his stomach. I survived the interview (new meaning to that phrase now) and I got the job, and after a year and a half, I did make some progress trying to reach David, the older bully. The kids were wonderful and I learned so much about education in that little room without resources.

Completely Clueless: After finishing my undergrad degree, I went off to Stillwater, Oklahoma to study Ancient Mediterranean Civilizations at OSU. I spent a year there before travelling off to Jamaica, and the experience taught me that I no longer wanted to be a college professor. I enjoyed the coursework, but I couldn't see myself trapped in a small office pounding away at minutiae, old minutiae at that. While there, I needed to work and I was determined not to go back to construction or fast food enterprises. While scouring the want ads, I came across a short listing for a night auditor at a local hotel. I had no idea what that was, but I sent in an application anyway, one of a few dozen to places that didn't produce grease.
To my surprise, I got a phone call and an invitation to interview at the hotel. Once there, I met a very congenial, very large fellow named Jimbo. We sat down in the restaurant and he interviewed me over lunch. He asked me all kinds of questions as we ate, and I tried to remember what I had read about lunch interviews - not salting my food too quickly or something to that effect. I left the interview in a good mood, full, but not having an earthly idea what the job entailed. Two days later Jimbo called and asked when I could start. The job turned out to be perfect for my school schedule, and I eventually caught on. After about three months when I was sure of myself, I asked Jimbo a question that had plagued me from the moment he offered me the position: Why did they hire me with no experience at all?  His answer was short and logical - "We had hired several business students from OSU but found that they thought they knew what auditing was but did not and they couldn't adjust. We figured you were halfway bright and knew nothing about auditing and would learn whatever we taught you and accept it as auditing." I shrugged my head and turned back to find the $135.68 charge that was missing from the night before.

Incredible Venue: I have interviewed in many places - airports, schools, hospitals, restaurants, job fairs, etc., but nothing will ever top an interview I had a few years ago. Without going into too much detail, I will cut to the itinerary: I was flown to NYC and picked up by a limo driver with my name neatly printed on a large card (not the first time, but it never gets old). He drove me to a very nice hotel downtown where I had a few hours to freshen up. He then returned and dropped me off at one of the largest buildings overlooking Central Park. After checking in with security, I took the express elevator to the top floor penthouse where I was greeted with a properly attired British maid. My soon-to-be employer appeared and ushered me into his office. It was hard to concentrate as I talked to him; the office had full-length windows on one side overlooking the park. We chatted for about 20 minutes or so then he sat me at his desk and had me take a logic test. It was hard to concentrate as I wondered about the scope of business that might have been transpired there. After a half and hour, he returned and told me he would be in touch. On the way out, he gave me a baseball cap (a new one of the major league franchise he was in the process of purchasing) and wished me well. I walked the 15 blocks back to the hotel, trying to understand what had just happened. It was a very surreal but pleasant experience.

Ignoring My Gut: There is an old cliche that you interview the job while it interviews you - I have learned the hard way that is very true. I once flew to another coast to interview for a position at a college, having outgrown my current post. When I got there I was very impressed with the hospitality and interest they showed me. They gave me presents, and the interview process went well until the final stage when I spoke to my would be boss one-on-one. To this day, I don't recall having said two words in that hour, and I do recall this person laughing and saying "I have done all the talking." I left the office to drive back to the airport with a funny feeling about the whole thing, but I didn't have much time to process it all as I got the job offer before I got off campus. I accepted and it turned out to be a difficult situation for me. I found out later that I was the only candidate and that they had run off the last three incumbents. Since I have left, they have been through a few more. I have learned to pay more attention to the subjective nature of these processes.

I have been on many interviews, and have interviewed more folks than I can remember. In the end, it boils down to a simple proposition - show them who you are, and take a good look at the place, the people, and most importantly, the person you will report to. A job interview should be the beginning of a joint, informed decision. I have learned from my experiences, and I believe I have finally leveraged them in my current position - it was a long road but well worth it.