Sunday, December 27, 2009

Fermi Has An 'Issue'

Our cat, Fermi, is usually maintenance free but he had an 'issue' that needed to be taken care of this morning involving a gland in a rather unpleasant place. I had to take him into the kitty ER to have him taken care of so he'd be our happy little bundle of chaos again.

Jim and I put him in his carrier (okay that's a lie, we had to shove him like a French royal going to the guillotine), and I drove him off to the vet. Naturally, he associates being driven anywhere with all sorts of bad stuff, so he was mewling all the way. I did manage to keep him pretty calm though.

Once I got there, I was waiting with the cat in his carrier. There were four other people in the waiting room. One had a dog. Since I know Fermi doesn't like dogs (actually, he doesn't like cats or people who don't feed him either), I had his carrier positioned so he couldn't really see the dog and the dog and the people couldn't see him.

After about ten minutes of waiting room silence, a long low sound like a hungry stomach squealing slithers out of the cat carrier like a sonic serpent. It grows into a groan with an evil vibrato and finishes as a low growl. Everyone in the room stopped what they were doing and stared at me and the carrier. I smiled and said: "We're here for an exorcism." Everyone laughed and it generated a brief conversation. At the end of which, one of the men pointed at the carrier and said: "So what's in there?"

Congratulations Fermi! You sound like something really scary! Good news is that - at least on this vet trip - we were able to get Fermi out of the carrier for the vet to examine without any undue drama. During a prior visit, the combined efforts of Jim and the vet couldn't dislodge our little darling from inside the carrier. They had to unscrew the top to get him out!

Anyway, Fermi is all better now, although we have to give him oral antibiotics for a week or so (that's sure to be a treat!). I'm looking forward to once again falling asleep with our warm little purr engine lying across my legs very soon.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Joy Of Gift Cards

Ever have someone apologize for a present as they hand it to you? They're really saying: "I'm sorry. I care, but I have no idea what to buy you." In these situations, one must be kind. After all, it's the thought that counts. Still I feel bad for them and the awkwardness they clearly feel, so I have decided to address the issue of gift cards.

Like everyone else, I get some gift cards for Christmas. This year was a nice take: $100 for amazon, $15 for iTunes, and $10 for ice cream. However, some poor misguided souls feel guilty about giving gift cards. Others openly spout off about how gift cards are impersonal, and people should take the time to personally pick out gifts. I disagree 100%. Gift cards rock! To understand why, think about it from the receivers point of view.

First, there's the joy of opening a present and finding a gift card. It's the same feeling I get when (or, more accurately, if) someone handed me $100. Yippee!!! It says: "I love you; have a shopping spree." I love that sentiment, especially since I'm 'difficult to shop for' when it comes to books, music, and movies.

But then, the realization of the power of the gift card sets in. I often have a lot of the music, DVDs, or books I'm interested in. So, because gift cards aren't my money, they are a great way to buy something I normally might pass on. Things that I see and think: "Nice, but pricey" or "I sure would like to try this author/director/artist, but what if I hate it?" I can splurge and experiment with no risk! Then I can tell the gift-giver what I purchased and be really, honestly happy about it. Which makes them happy. Side note: this is an often skipped step with gift cards. It's essential to tell the person that you used the gift card, and what you bought with it. It gives them closure.

But back to the gift card experience. Next comes the 'kid in a candy store' euphoria. Should I get that 5-volume set of ancient Zen translations I've eyed every so often over the past five years? How about trying something by Rafael Sabatini? I'd love to listen to more French rap music. I've always wanted a hard cover version of my Arion edition of Moby Dick; then I could use my paperback version as a place to write notes for the rest of my life. Another Tony Jaa flick for my slowly growing martial arts DVD collection? The possibilities are endless, and I spend quite a bit of time exploring to make sure I get something really good with my gift card money. Talk about a gift that keeps on giving; it's usually a month before I finish with my gift card by actually making that purchase!

Beyond all that: aren't gift cards really the essence of why we give at Christmas? Sure we give presents to let people know we care but, equally important, is that we want to make them happy (or, in some annyoing cases, as happy as they can be). Yes, it's the thought that counts. However, if I think of a way to ensure someone is happy with my gift, then that's a better thought than loading them down with some half-assed guestimated purchase that's just going to end up in the white elephant bag next year. At the end of the day, manners and etiquette are about common sense, not tradition.

Of course, there's always the shocked and offended change-resistant ninnies to deal with. "So I suppose people should just not buy presents at all?" Insert harrumph. The response is: Of course I don't think that! If I know what someone will like, then naturally I'm going to buy it for them. Presents are still as fun as they ever were. But if I don't know what they'd like - and with the ever-expanding accessibility to everything via web shopping it's not hard to have friends and family members you have trouble shopping for - then I think of them and go for the gift card. When it comes to spreading Christmas cheer, I do a good job.

So give gift cards with your head held high! And if anyone raises their eyebrows or in any way seems offended, shove their nasty Scrooge face in the pumpkin pie. And tell them: "It's the thought that counts." When they lift their head up to look at you with that shocked, pie-smeared face (hopefully you shoved it in there really good), then you can laugh at them. After all, 'tis the season to be jolly!

Plus it'll make you feel better about that hideous pastel sweater they just gave you.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Seasons Greetings to All!

Good wishes from around the world!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Little Treasures

I haven't written many Christmas poems in my life, but here's one I wrote over twenty years ago to someone who was very dear to me during a Christmas that was a difficult transition time for us both and neither of us had much to offer each other in the way of 'Christmas loot'. It may be a little too Hallmark for some people, but I still like it (even now that I'm addicted to giving and getting sweet Christmas loot)......

Not golden rings on silver lace
nor angel feathers shining bright
nor snowflake diamonds
glittering like crystals in the night
will bring elation to the face.

Little treasures
shining little lights
find their way to the heart.
Only the small precious sights
outlast the gold
spent to make them play their part.

Heart-shaped candle.
Tiny golden music box.
They conjure up
and never fade away.
Call them into play.

Riches and jewels pale;
little treasures never fail.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Yellow Belt with Green Stripe

Found out today I passed my rank test and now I have a yellow belt with a green stripe! A couple of the red belts became black belts, and both of them seem to now take a more active role in teaching us junior belts. I'm really happy about that because they are the red belts I liked being paired up with most. They push me, makes lots of constructive comments, and are really into martial arts. It's very energizing to practice with them. I think that's going to make each class even better.

I was pretty tense during this test, and there was really no reason for it. I probably even impacted my performance a bit. Not that I didn't do well, but I can't have as sharp an edge if I'm all doubting and second guessing myself. It's very unlike me to be that way, so I had to mentally bitch slap myself. In tonight's class, I made a conscious effort to stay relaxed and loose and I felt like I did a lot better overall and certainly I enjoyed myself much more.

Anyway, at the rank test, the yellow/greens testing for a full green belt did some actual contact sparring. Nothing like UFC or anything, just kick contact and stuff. That looks like a lot of fun, but I'm going to need to be loose and focused to do that well. If I'm all tensed up, I'll be slow and easy to throw off my game. Also I haven't yet been called out as 'excellent' at my two rank tests. I'd like to have that happen. So I'm just going to make sure I work hard and stay happy!

But for now, I'm proud of myself!

Sunday, December 20, 2009


Me, Jim, and bunch of my friends belong to a gay bowling league that hits the lanes once a month. It's a good time, you can meet new people, and blow off a little steam while hanging with friends and knocking back a few.

I'm not what anyone would consider a good bowler but, now that I have my own ball, I've seen a definite improvement in my game. In fact yesterday I bowled over 120 in all three games of the night. That's the first time I've ever done that! I also had the joy of bowling a turkey for the first time (that's three strikes in a row for you non-bowlers).

Our team (the Barracudas) won 5 out of 7 points, which we badly needed to stay out of the cellar now that we've moved to the mid-level division. If this continues, maybe it's time to get team T-shirts?

Friday, December 18, 2009

Christmas Party 2009

For the last seven years, Jim and I have hosted a Christmas bash at our house. There's a big spread, a real tree (I only had fake ones growing up), a grab bag exchange, and wonderfully spiked punch. One of these days, I've got to remember to get some mistletoe!

Anyway, we usualy get 20-25 people: straight and gay, married with kids and singles, old and young, adults and kids. Lots of different kinds of people, but everyone talks to everyone and it's very nice to have people we care about in our home like that. Here's a few pics from this years' bash. You can click them to see a bigger size.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The 'Real' Egypt (part 6 of 6)

Threads are bad enough. What about the knots?

Dr. Rifai took us to a dinner party at the house of a couple he knows. After dinner, everyone socialized. Though I’m not normally good at dinner party patter, I didn’t want to spend the night huddled with the other members of the tour group, most of whom were complaining about everything.

A student a little younger than I met my gaze and introduced himself. His name was Romani. He spoke perfect English. We spoke easily and, at length, he told me his ideas about the great future Egypt had in store for it. He mentioned the capital flight that plagued the country and added, “…it’s hard to attract foreign capital. You people in America think we don’t have electricity or that we all live like nomads.”

“I didn’t think that,” I was able to honestly say. “My uncle worked in Saudi Arabia for many years and my cousin told me things were modern.”

“That may be,” he replied not sounding very convinced, “but, in general, people in America have a lot of misconceptions about Egypt.”

Through some miracle I hit on a very good point, the kind you usually don’t think of until days after a conversation. “I’m sure your right,” I said, “but I think it’s natural to have misconceptions about a foreign country. I’m sure you have misconceptions about the United States.”

He waved his hand at me. “No, I know all about America.”

“Yeah, well tell me what you think about America.”

“In America, everything is very modern and people have everything they need…” he went on for a minute or two about the paradise of America. I felt an odd mixture of pride in the image of my country and amazement at how incomplete and generalized it was.

“You’re wrong,” I said.

“No, I’m not.”

“Do you know there are people in America who don’t have a home and sleep outside, even in the cities? And there are kids who don’t get enough food and who have to receive welfare from the government?”

If I’d sprouted a second head right in front of him, Romani couldn’t have looked more shocked. “Not in America!”

Another member of the tour group, who probably thought things were getting too animated, interrupted our conversation.

Later, our tour group walked back to the hotel and I thought about how odd it was Romani would have such a limited picture of America. What was even stranger was how strongly he held to that picture. Perhaps I really was right. Perhaps everyone has misconceptions about what foreign countries are like and, even worse, what the people who live there are like.

However, I also had to admit Romani was right to a certain extent. After all, when I’d told people back home I was planning to go to Egypt the first thing everyone said was: “Aren’t you worried about terrorists?” As if I were going to meet Yassir Arafat in Beirut! Nothing I said could sway those people from their belief that all of the Arab world was a series of car bombs and gun-toting extremists, and nothing I could say would convince Romani that America was not a perfect paradise for all who live there.

Being in Egypt is like looking through the wrong end of a telescope. My fellow students and I were the minority, instantly identifiable as outsiders by our pale skin and foreign language. We were a small petrie dish of America floating through this other world and displaying all our strength and weaknesses in startling relief.

I saw my lack of knowledge of other cultures. At the same time, I knew I was from a land where one could go a thousand miles without passing into another country or being immersed in any language or culture other than my own. I saw my relative wealth, but I also saw how I was defined by it. I was labeled with as tight a stereotype as any the students I traveled with cast upon the Egyptians. I saw things about myself which I have since tried to change, things I never would have seen without the lens of Egypt.

* * *

Just over ten years later. October 2001.

“Bomb all the sand niggers!” “Islam teaches violence and hatred.” “Those crazy Arabs are animals!”

And on and on. And from people I know have never been to Egypt or any land in the Mid East. They condemn two dozen or so countries and hundreds of millions of people with the carelessness I’d use to crumple a piece of paper.

I can honestly say I hate the people who perpetrated 9-11. I would have no moral problem shooting one of them dead. I can’t feel anything, one way or the other, about those people who celebrated the fall of the twin towers. They are reacting from a place I do not understand.

But I love Egypt and I respect the people I met and saw there. I sometimes wonder how they are and what their lives are like. I hate hearing them denigrated. I can’t explain this to anyone because a month in Egypt doesn’t make me an expert on the country or its people. I do speak up and sometimes people admit they’re being stupid. Many times they don’t. Most of the time, I don’t think they care one way or the other.

But mostly I just wonder about the dark waters that cannot be seen into.

The End

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The 'Real' Egypt (part 5 of 6)

As with all tours, the days in Egypt passed at a grueling grind. A week went by without unpacking. We walked in the hot sun over ruins, slept in the bus, waited each morning for Moumoud who was never on time (nothing in Egypt is on time), haggled with street vendors, and were constantly on the go. I was alternately excited beyond belief and bored to tedium. So many of my notes from the trip are scrawled words, hastily written scraps in between events attempting to preserve the swirl of input.

One day we stopped at a store where they sold carpets. They were all hand made and had the unique look of the Mid East woven into their multi-colored, silken designs. In the showroom, there were several looms set up and children of about seven or eight years of age wove the carpets with nimble-fingered dexterity. The guide tells us tiny fingers are required for the detailed work.

“Great,” Ruth commented in a low voice, “shouldn’t these kids be in school?”

“They are very poor,” Dr. Rifai said. “They work half the day and go to school in the afternoon. They use the money they earn here to help support their families.”

I wondered if this were true or if Dr. Rifai’s national pride sought to sugarcoat the less splendid aspects of his homeland. At the same time, I felt I was somewhat naive. Outside this store people tended goats and lived in dirty houses that looked like a good wind could knock them down. These children were healthy-looking and were earning money in a clean, cool environment. Egypt was not America. Why did I constantly impose my own sense of right and wrong on everything? Is child labor so wrong when the alternative is poverty and ignorance due to lack of money? Didn’t I myself have a paper route at this age? Maybe Ruth and I had read too many Dickens novels.

It’s like one man said as we cruised down the Nile in a boat belching out thick, black smoke. “You want us to use something else to power our boats? What would you have us use? We do not have the technology you do in America. You Americans want us to protect the environment but how are we to build our country if we cannot do anything? You don’t think of these things.”

Egypt has rules that make sense based on the realities within its borders. Not only the realities of life forge this national fabric, but also the history, religion, culture, and a million other details. They come together just like the thousand silk threads these children weave into a tapestry. Within the final design, the individual threads are so enmeshed as to be undetectable by the passing shopper.

So many threads.

Threads of national pride. A woman at an economic summit listening to the Governor of her province speak about the business climate. I see pride and determination etched into her face. Some Americans talk about how our country has oppressed people. I can tell this women would spit in my face if I suggested to her she were oppressed by anyone. And what hubris to assign everyone not as economically well off as we to the class of “the oppressed.”

Threads of history. One student at the summit was called on to make a statement about Egypt and, not knowing what to say, stated how Egypt had once been the leader of the world in art, engineering, science…everything. And it could be that way again. The last part was quite idealistic, but the audience responded with cheering from a fiercely proud people.

Threads of religion. There was a man with one leg and no arms hopping in the median of a street and begging for alms to be placed in a tin cup around his neck. “Look!” Alf snickered, “an Egyptian kangaroo!” I’d given up being disgusted by this point but Ruth shot a pointed rebuke at Alf. “He’s a person,” she finished. “Show some compassion! He could be homeless!” Dr. Rifai interposed: “All good Muslims give a certain percentage of their income to charity. I wouldn’t be surprised if that man lives in a very nice house.”

Threads of culture. Young men hold hands in Egypt all over the place. It’s just the way it is. Such an open attitude to towards male comradeship is impossible in America. Then again, we don’t enslave our women in shrouds and stone homosexuals (at least not openly).

And the largest thread of all, the Nile herself. We took a falooka ride on it. Sailing in a zigzag pattern over the serene waters at twilight is one of the most peaceful memories I possess. The wind blew softly over us and the water whooshed against the edge of the falooka. The quiet peace of the river makes clear the many instances of Egyptian lateness. It’s easy to see how time would be of no object in a land with a river like this at its core.

And, what about the threads I can’t see? How much wisdom flashes before my blind eyes like hieroglyphs on the surface of a river?

End Part 5...I'll be posting a part a day for the next week.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The 'Real' Egypt (part 4 of 6)

“Don’t tip them!” Moumoud shouts at us as men approach leading the camels we’ll ride to the Pyramids.

“Camel ride!” the men shout. “Baksheesh!” Baksheesh is tips or alms. The men obviously want them.

I’m lost in foreign culture and ways. Is Moumoud being a jerk? Are these people poor? Their clothes are a bit dirty but perhaps that’s the natural way a robe and turban look when you work amid the sand all day. I want to tip them, but is a dollar too much? Is it offensively low? Will they think I pity them? I don’t want them to think that. Or are they hoping I’m a foolish American tourist who drops cash into every hand thrust out at me?

I slip away from the unknowable at the sight of the camels. Have you ever seen a movie in which camels walk before a sunset? It looks so graceful and serene, but that’s all Hollywood. These lumbering beasts are as capable of such fluid movements as they would be of breaking into an arabesque. The men pull at the ropes, almost dragging the stubborn animals behind them. It seems it would be easier for me to sit on the ground, have them tie the rope to my legs, and drag me.

The men race to us, yanking their camels after them. A man stops before me. “Come!” he invites and demands. I step forward, Alf behind me. We have to ride two per camel. I stare up at the ten-foot high animal. “How do I get on?” I ask with a laugh.

The man pulls at the rope and fires a volley of rough sounding Arabic at his camel which responds with a curled lip and a jerk of it’s head. The man yanks again. The camel emits a loud hacking sound, like the noise Linda Blair made when she barfed on her exorcist, and refuses to budge. Infuriated, the man somehow makes the same horrid sound back at the camel. The beast drops to its front two knees then drops the back two to rest on the ground. A ridiculous red and gold padded saddle that looks like a harem pillow presents itself to me.

I get on, and Alf follows suit. “Damn this thing smells!” he growls. Only then do I realize the scent should bother me. I just don’t care to let it. The camel rises up and I grab onto the saddle so as not to fall off. The man drags the camel, which seems bent on going in any direction except toward the Pyramids, after him. The whole thing seems mightily inefficient and could easily be an “I Love Lucy” skit, but I dismiss this thought. I’m riding a camel! How Egyptian!

At that moment I see an image that wipes out everything else in my mind. The Pyramids are before us and from behind one a silvery car emerges and drives away. The juxtaposition of those structures from thousands of years ago and the 20th century technology knocks me for a loop. This country has been around forever. Pyramids, cars, America. It’s all a blink in the eye to the history of Egypt.

I wonder about the man tugging the camel. What would he think of my idea that riding a camel is Egyptian? Is it a stereotype? Why does he drag me on this camel when cars are available? Is it pride in the history of his country? Is it a quick buck? It is demeaning? Is any of this Egyptian? What is it to be Egyptian?

The camel ride is over and we stand before the Pyramids. They’re as big and silent as Time. Yet the pyramids are an illusion of Egypt. In movies they are grand and imposing, and I started this paragraph with an impressive statement about their presence. It’s very true but, at the same time, unless you’re at some photogenic vantage point, the Pyramids are rather underwhelming in a certain sense. They are tall, but in the desert there are no trees or buildings to give real scale to them. Their magnificence is muted. When you look up the face of the Pyramid from its base, it’s a series of large rocks shrinking into the distance and the top of the Pyramid represents a rounded arc rather than a point.

Worst of all, it’s impossible to get a picture of them “up close.” They’re too big. You can choose to see a lot of detail of the dozen blocks right in front of you or you can stand far away and see the whole structure while the individual stones fade into one another.

I reach out and touch the stones as if they have magical properties. How many hands over the past several thousand years have rested in that exact spot? A worker pushing the stone as part of his duty to his king and god? A conquering Roman soldier? A shifty tomb raider of unknown origin? An explorer from Napoleon’s France? Who knows?

At that moment, I’m treated to one of the students on the tour asking our Egyptian guide what she thinks about theories that aliens built the Pyramids because the ancient Egyptians couldn’t have done it alone. I wanted to slide under the Pyramids in embarrassment.

“You see over there?” the guide said, clearly irritated, and pointed to what looked like a series of rocky hills not far from us.

“Yeah,” was the dull reply.

“Those are quarries. The rock was craved out and placed here. Ancient Egypt was an agrarian society and the land was flooded for several months every year. A huge portion of the population was out of work and their king was their god.” She turned away and answered other questions, apparently mastering her outrage.

I looked at the quarries and wondered what I would think of an Egyptian standing before the Declaration of Independence and asking if aliens had written it for us. My faux pax at the mosque was a simple mistake, but the question about aliens was different. And it wasn’t the first or the last incident of this type I’d witness. Why did my fellow Americans have to say such stupid things?

End Part 4...I'll be posting a part a day for the next week.

Monday, December 7, 2009

The 'Real' Egypt (part 3 of 6)

“Boom Boom! Bambali booloo booloo! Boom Boom! Bambali naga naga!”

Those aren’t Arabic words (I don’t think) but a phonetic description of the chorus to a song our bus driver, Sofwat, is singing along to on the radio. We’re going to drive around Cairo and then off to the Pyramids. Sofwat snaps both sets of fingers over his head at once and somehow manages to shift lanes on a major thoroughfare of Cairo. I laugh at his devil may care attitude; he makes Chicago cabbies seem like old lady drivers. In fact all traffic in Egypt makes America look tame. There are four lanes painted on the road, but there are at least six lanes of traffic. Buses, dump trucks, cars, donkey carts, lots of bicycles, and even a few scooters vie to shift lanes to reach their destinations. Directionals are optional.

Sofwat toots his horn and swerves into the next lane. “Where the hell do these people learn to drive?” mutters a student named Alf. His name’s not really Alf. Everyone on the tour calls him that because he sort of looks like the sitcom alien. I look back out the window, slightly bothered by his negativity. Although we’ve traveled a good distance, I haven’t seen a single accident or near accident. Despite the lack of order, everything moves and nobody crashes. For a moment, I wonder if it’s the rules that create the accidents back home. Or maybe, I’m so used to the rules that I never even thought traffic could be handled in a different way.

We get out, walk around, shop at Khan Khallili, and tour a papyrus art dealer’s establishment. All fantastic stuff, but the thing I remember most about this day is something rather unremarkable on the surface. Dr. Rifai announces his intention to pray at a nearby mosque and asks if anyone wants to go. Most of the students are tired and hungry and decline. I vote to go with Dr. Rifai, as I’m impatient to see “the real Egypt.” Another student named Jean also decides to go.

I’m disappointed that we end up only a block from the tour bus, but the smell of Cairo - a pungent mix of horses, sand, and garbage - is stronger here. Jean isn’t allowed into the mosque because she’s a woman and we don’t want to leave her alone, so I stay outside with her. We’re both disappointed, but sitting outside doesn’t turn out to be so bad. We enjoy taking a load off without being on the bus. We people watch. We get some odd stares; people probably wonder why two white people, obviously tourists, are sitting here.

Suddenly an old man wrapped in a ragged set of white and brown cloth storms up to us. He’s not fierce looking, other than the massive dirty turban wound over his head, but he’s clearly upset about something. He starts chewing us out in Arabic.

“I’m sorry,” I say with a wide-eyed look and a shrug, “I don’t understand.”

The man rolls his eyes and look about ready to burst a blood vessel. He rags on us even more loudly. He points to the sky. I look up but there’s nothing over us. I shake my head in confusion.

“I’m sorry I don’t understand what you mean.”

“I’d better get Dr. Rifai,” Jean says.

“You can’t go in there, and I don’t think we should split up.”

She agrees but the man is getting angrier than ever, jabbing his index finger up at the sky like he’s trying to poke a hole in the air. Some people stop to watch.

Thankfully, Dr. Rifai emerges from the mosque at that moment and rushes up to us. He has a few words with the old man. Jean and I do not exist anymore. Within a few moments, both are smiling but the old man glares at us before he grabs his rickety bike, points at the sky yet again, and wheels away like Elvira Gulch in a turban.

“What was that all about?” I ask in amazement.

Dr. Rifai waves his hand in disgust. “He’s devout and he didn’t like that you were sitting in front of a mosque with an unmarried woman.” Jean and I looked at one another and burst out laughing. The idea of being in a foreign country was suddenly concrete. I had given offense without having the slightest idea why. Sure, this man was the Islamic version of some nutty Christian sect like Jehovah’s Witnesses, but it was clear I lacked the ability to know whether what I said or did was rude or not. The common sense rules were different – and unknown.

End Part 3...I'll be posting a part a day for the next week.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The 'Real' Egypt (part 2 of 6)

This day has not started well. I got up to be ready for the tour bus at 9AM. Breakfast was continental, and I was worried about how soon I’d be hungry. By the time I went to the westernized lobby to sit with the other students who were part of the group, Moumoud and the tour bus were an hour late.

After another hour, I went upstairs with Dr. Rifai, our teacher and the leader of the group. He was Egyptian. Two other students, Ruth and Angie, joined us. When the elevator opened, instead of seeing another standard lobby like the one below, there was a less brightly lit, more intimate room. The carpet and furniture were the dark red and gold you immediately associate with the Mid East. The tables were lower and the overall feel of the room more voluptuous and exotic. This was what I afterwards called “the real lobby.”

We walked in. Waiters in white passed by with carafes of tea. The scent of perfumed smoke came from the right. I’m sure I was gaping – and looking very foolish – when I spotted a golden hookah sitting on a low table. Three or four Egyptian businesspeople in western dress were seated around the table holding green velvet tubes from which they drew smoke.

I drew closer but, as they spoke in Arabic, I didn’t understand anything they said. I nudged Dr. Rifai, whom we all called “Papa,” and asked about the smoking device.

“Would you like to try it?” he asked.

“Y-yes?” I replied, unsure whether I did or not. However, I had a powerful fear of missing any opportunity to experience “the real Egypt” as opposed to the bland Egypt of the main floor lobby. After all, this was not Indiana. I couldn’t come back next month to do “all the things I should’ve done.”

I sat and nodded a greeting to the Egyptians as Dr. Rifai said something to them in Arabic. They smiled in return. Dr. Rifai handed me one of the tubes, I inhaled and…

“GACK! HACK! ACK! What is this? HACK! URK!”

The Egyptians laughed, not in a mean way, but gently as if they had expected this reaction.

“What was it like?” Ruth asked, wide-eyed, after I emerged from the table area with tearing eyes.

“Like a combination of car exhaust, old sweaty socks, and perfume,” I managed to choke out. My first taste of “the real Egypt” had left me gasping for air.

One hour later, Moumoud and the tour bus finally arrived.

End Part 2...I'll be posting a part a day for the next week.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

The 'Real' Egypt (part 1 of 6)

Take a look at the prior post for an introduction to this piece.

I leaned against the metal railing of the balcony as the muted call to prayer drifted over the yellow-brown buildings of Cairo. Structural steel is not common in Egypt, so few buildings rise more than a dozen stories high. The city spread out not up stretching like a carpet to a horizon hidden by smog. The call to prayer wafted softly through the air, like the voice of the setting sun. Only now, after a plane ride that seemed to take days, did it hit me. I was in Egypt! Tomorrow, we would be walking in the dusty streets twelve stories below, shopping in Khan Khallili, and visiting the Pyramids.

I walked back inside the standard-looking hotel room, which smacked of Peoria more than Egypt, and sipped bottled water. I flipped on the television, but the programming was almost all in Arabic. All the people had black hair and dark skin. I picked up a newspaper. In some languages you can get by since words often look like their English counterparts. Not in Arabic. Its beautiful loops and sloping hooks are almost like the script a wizard might use to catalogue arcane wisdom. I had committed Arabic numbers to memory before we’d left, so I scanned through the paper to pick out something, perhaps a date, but nothing made sense. It wouldn’t be until two weeks later that I learned Arabic is written right to left, not left to right.

I tossed the newspaper and its opaque language aside. I went back on the balcony and watched a river of people pass by in the streets below. Rectilinear buildings rose beside the sensually curved domes of mosques. The mosques had intricate designs carved into them, making them ornate pieces of artwork. Ladies in Western business attire strode past women covered from head to toe in heavy black cloth. Young men on motorcycles roared past other young people driving rickety, horse drawn carts. The call to prayer touched my ear peacefully as I saw heavily armed men in army fatigues pace like panthers. Ethnically, Egypt was homogenous but there seemed to be a diversity of another sort before me.

As the sunset turned into a pink and yellow wash of watercolors, the buildings and smog became a dull, hazy blue. My mind drifted and I was daydreaming. I recalled a trip I took to Arkansas when I was in grade school. My parents had rented a boat and we’d gone fishing on a big lake with hills all around. I’d been baiting my hook when my dad shouted: “Look over there!”

I turned just in time to see the broad back of a greenish-silver fish disappear into the dark water. I’d only caught a glimpse, but the size of the fish made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. For a moment I was stunned and understood why people might believe there were dinosaurs in Loch Ness. Then, while the rest of my family ran on about “the size of that thing,” I looked over the side of the boat and into the dark water.

I couldn’t see more than a foot down. What had just been a familiar lake was suddenly very alien and mysterious. How deep was the water here? It must be deep to hold a fish like the one we’d just seen. If the boat sank, how long would it take me to sink to the bottom? What else was in there? I wasn’t scared; I knew there was no danger. But I was unsettled. The lake had asserted itself.

I realized I knew nothing about this lake though I’d fished here a week. Then it occurred to me that, in fact, I could fish here a lifetime and never know any more than I did now. All I could see was the deadwood branches floating in the shallows, the lapping waves on the surface, and the dark murk even the noon sun could not penetrate. I had no way of learning more without some drastic intervention, such as suddenly being able to scuba dive.

The cool winds of the Egyptian night made me shiver from cold at the same time I shivered in my memory. I went back into my room. I didn’t bother to unpack since we would be leaving for Ismalia, a province along the Suez Canal, in a day or so. I just dropped onto the bed and drifted to sleep. I was twenty-three and expected something incredible to happen tomorrow.

End Part 1...I'll be posting a portion a day for the next week.

The 'Real' Egypt

During college, I signed up for a month long internship in Egypt over Christmas break. Half of the month took the form of touring the Suez Canal Authority and learning about how it operated. The other half was straight up tourism in one of the oldest and most fascinating countries on Earth. That's me in the picture riding a camel to the Great Pyramids of Giza.

If I ever had doubts that 'travel broadens the mind', this trip wiped them away. I learned an awful lot about myself and broadened my perspective beyond the borders of the United States. I think it really gave me a more balanced perspective on world events.

Anyway, years later, Jim and I went back to school to get our Masters of Liberal Studies at North Central College. One quarter, when Jim and I took different classes, I took a course called 'Creative Writing and Public Discourse'. This course was about transforming the creative process from one of introspection to one of looking at the world around us and addressing relevant issues using creativity. It was post 9-11 and, for one of the assignments, I wrote a piece of narrative fiction about my trip to Egypt and how that experience informed my reaction to the 9-11 aftermath. The piece ended up being strong enough to be published in North Central College's literary magazine and I'm very proud of it.

Narrative fiction is a genre in which the writer takes actual experiences in their life and tailors them a bit to create a story that dramatically illustrates an specific issue or theme. Writing this piece allowed me to dive back into my memories of Egypt and crystallize why my reactions to 9-11 - while full of rage and grief - were more measured than those of many people around me who seemed to quickly transform from sensible people into racist war mongers (e.g., 'bomb all those fucking Arabs' and 'Islam is a religion of hate'). I think this response was impossible for me after having been to an Arab country and seeing the wide range of people who live there.

I reread the piece recently, and I really would like to place it in another forum where others might be able to access it. I believe almost all of the experiences I relate in this piece actually happened. The 'fiction' part of the 'narrative fiction' is mainly the ordering of the events and my reactions to them, which are a mixture of what I felt at the time and what I realized years later in digging into those memories. So here it goes! I hope someone reads and enjoys.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Who Are The Biggest Douchebags?

Okay, I realize making fun of these people is like shooting fish in a barrel, and I shouldn't take potshots at such helpless prey. But I'm me, so why not? Leave a comment to vote for which group of people you think are the biggest douchebags. Is it:

A) Dorks who chase tornadoes in a car that looks like a geek's wet dream blend of a Road Warrior ride and the Batmobile?

B) Pansies who use high tech equipment to scare themselves stupid(er) in dark houses?

C) Goddamn hippies 'saving whales' with hilariously inept acts of unintentional slapstick?