24 November 2014

Observations from KSA - II

I don’t know who flipped the switch, but the weather suddenly got gorgeous – cooler, sunny, low humidity, cool nights.  It was broiling hot, and then we had a dust storm.  The students said it was mild, about a 3 on a 1-10 scale with 10 being the most severe, but it was, without doubt, the single least pleasant meteorological experience I’ve ever had – and I lived in Chicago the year all those people died from the heat.  We were buffeted by high, hot wind gusts, sandblasted (literally), and effectively breathing grit.  The visibility dropped, and honestly it felt like walking through a blast furnace and it was hard to breathe - just oppressive.  And the next day was clear and sunny and about 10'F cooler, and since then it’s been really nice. 

The ratio of Tagalog to Arabic I hear daily is roughly 1:1.  The Filipinos I talked to that work in the Saadeddin pastry shop said that working on camp is much better than working off – "people are friendlier" they said.  They only get one day off a week.  The one guy has been here 17 years.  The bus driver – not on camp, but on the Saudi public bus – was Filipino who’s been here 16 years.  My Pinoy taxi driver the other day has been here 20 years but says he’s going home at the end of this contract now that his kids are out of school.  He's been with his family two months a year for the last 20 years.  I’ll never work as hard as they do.

Saadeddin Pastry Shop makes the best goddam cheesecake I've ever eaten.  It's light and fluffy and heaven.  There are a surprising number of chubby-to-obese people here.  Don't know if it's the loose clothing, the fact that nothing is legal here EXCEPT sugar and tobacco, or that they have an American lifestyle (no mass transit, drive everywhere) but there are a surprising number of overweight people.  Maybe it's the Saadeddin cheesecake.  That wouldn't surprise me, actually. 

Arabic text is read right to left but numbers are read left to right.  So in a block of text with a number, they read the number as a whole word, just backwards.  Good luck if you've got dyslexia - no idea how you'd manage. 
We use Arabic numbers, right?  Not Roman, not Chinese, but Arabic?  I'd always thought so.  Except we don't.  Or, well, they don't.  Or something.  A dot is zero; a zero is 5; what looks like it could be a seven is a six - well, here they are <---- .="" font="" nbsp="">

What this means is that I flail at the register, every time, and that I pay with a lot of purple 50s and thus have a passel of 10s floating around my wallet.   
I was a few steps behind a woman in an abaya and full face veil and head scarf walking out of the commissary at breakfast on Saturday.  The foyer was a little darkened and the electronic eye didn’t “see” her. She had to take a couple of steps back and then side to side to get the door to open.  That seems to me to be an apt metaphor.

There is a debate raging at Dammam University about women whose abayas are not all black.  They should be, evidently.  The police have urged the school to clamp down, and they've gone to abaya sellers encouraging them to sell black, all black, and only black.  Sinners. 

I don't know if the TV I've seen on camp and in the hotels here is the same that Saudis get, but there's a lot of violence - a LOT of violence, most of it crap US films - broadcast here, and a surprising amount of sex.  For a country with a "Nudity not allowed in the locker room" policy, I sure have seen some on TV.  Filipino soap operas and sports are on half the channels; stern looking Imams are on a few (I think they're imams - maybe they are sternly discussing cricket?), and stations out of Dubai show lots of HBO, and unedited movies like "Wolf of Wall Street" and German dramas.  Odd.   

Bahrain is a separate island nation 30 miles, 3 hours by bus, and a world away, but it’s a world that Saudis flock to every weekend (along with Dubai and Abu Dhabi, according to two of the drillers in one of my classes, or more correctly, according to one driller who said of Dubai “I go every weekend – and I see THIS guy there too” pointing at another driller) for a drink, for bacon, for vanilla, for a drink, for a flirt, for a drink… On the 13th floor of my hotel in Manama, Bahrain's capital, I could still hear the “mm-ch-mm-ch-mm-ch” from the club on the ground floor down the block.)

I didn’t expect Saudi Arabia to be multiethnic, but according to my students there are a lot of distinct cultural variations around the Kingdom: Jeddah and Mecca are more cosmopolitan and open, and far more diverse, while Riyadh is more traditional.  The two black students I’ve had were both from families from Jeddah, on the west coast, and looking at a map it makes sense: that’s the port where people come through for the hajj, and the Red Sea isn’t that wide; Sudan is *right* there.  (I'm in Ad Dammam, in the northeast on the Gulf, and the city nearest Bahrain.)

One Sudanese guy I met here was born in KSA of Sudanese parents and he doesn’t have a Saudi passport – only a Sudanese one, though he's only been to Sudan once.  He can’t get Saudi citizenship, either, unless he marries a Saudi woman like his brother, and even that isn’t easy - both parties have to be over 35, which is considered ancient here.  He has to renew his residence visa every year, and the cost has recently gone up from about $500 USD to about $1500.  If he gets convicted of any crime beyond traffic violations, tests positive for HIV, or any number of other things, he’ll be deported.  I didn’t ask my black students, obviously, if they were Saudi passport holders. 

There are plumeria (frangiapani in the UK and the empire) everywhere around the camp, making it redolent of Hawai'i.  It's surprising given how much water they need.  And I've just learned that Vanilla is a haram – or forbidden – as liquor is used to make it.  Tobacco use is fine.    

There are shuttle busses from camp into town – to both malls, the Mall of Dhahran, a sprawling affair with some shuttered store fronts that’s seen better days but that has an Outback Steakhouse and Paul’s, a French (?) chain with amazing bread; and Al Rashid Mall, the more exclusive of the two with a bookstore and a GNC.  The shuttles will also drop you off at Ikea or in the downtown shopping district, if you’re so inclined.  The malls are malls.  Well, except that they shut down at the call to prayer, a call which most of the shoppers gleefully ignore as they mill around the locked doors and security grates waiting for the all clear.  And it’s not just us and the Filipinos who are milling around (though, true, some of the Pinoy are Muslim too) – you’ll see Saudi women in full Abaya, head covering and even face veils, and Saudi men in the traditional thawb and head covering (shumagh – usually red and white in this part of the kingdom), milling around too.  Few people seem to pay the call much heed.  My favorite sight from the mall has to be the early 20s Saudi guy, traditional thawb, and Texas Tech baseball hat.  On backwards. 

Morty Seinfeld has NOTHING on me.  The other night I was milling around the commissary at 3:50 PM waiting for them to open at 4 PM so I could eat.  Our day starts at just past 7, we break for lunch at 11:30 – and the whole company does, which is, frankly, annoying, as there is a resulting scrum in the lunch lines and outlandish din in the caf, but prayer time is at 12:30 so there we go – and we wrap up at 3:30. 
And as I’ve been telling my colleagues, since we go to bed, wiped, at 8 PM, we just need to think about the schedule being 2 hours later and then it makes sense: we work from 7:00 9:00 to 3:30 5:30 so dinner at 4 PM is really 6 PM and it’s less crazy.  (Saudis are horrified – they eat late, like 9, but by that point I’d likely be dead.) 
It’s important to be on time at the end of the day as the female students who don’t live on the camp need to know what time to tell their drivers to pick them up.  

Nearly every car I've seen still has the plastic over the seat covers.  It gets over 110'F routinely here, and often hits 120'F with high humidity.  KSA has one of the highest rates of road fatalities in the world.  Maybe it's just from people men trying to scooch around on the plastic over the car seats in a billion degree car interiors?    

Me pretending that I know anything about Saudi Arabia after four weeks here would be like someone new to the US going to Mountain View, living on a Google housing complex, eating in the Google cafeteria, and taking a bus to San Jose 3 or 4 times and pretending they knew what the US was like.   

22 November 2014

The Best We Could

It's hard to write about my dad.

It would have been his 84th birthday today, and I've thought about him and our relationship a lot since he died last year. I've kept coming up short when I try to write about him, though, which is as apt as a metaphor for our relationship as any: he and I, despite our efforts, kept coming up short. But upon reflection I've come to realize a couple of other things, too, despite it all: we both kept trying, and we both did the best we could.

And since writing was 
how we kept in touch over the last two plus decades, writing seems apt as the best way for me to remember him.  

I'd try, sometimes, to be in touch in other ways. We had sports (if not many teams) in common, but even then it could be tricky. Baseball players had unions against which he would fulminate, and there were other, unlooked for challenges. One perfect NorCal afternoon, buoyed by the weather on my walk to the bar to watch Indy play a Monday Night game, I called Dad with what I had presumed to be some safe topics lined up. I started with the past weekend's Notre Dame game, but I got "I don't follow them now since they invited that baby killer Obama to campus." Deflated, I quickly wrapped up the call.

He'd try sometimes, too. He'd call and I'd see the caller ID as I sat freezing in the UH library, or while reading or doing laundry or smoking on my tiny back porch in Honolulu or on my roof in San Francisco, and I'd let it go to voicemail. The time difference and our respective travel and work schedules gave us a fig leaf to cover our mutual wariness.

Letters were safer. Writing multiple drafts gave me a chance to see and excise some of my anger and self-righteousness. (Some, though not all, I'm embarrassed to say - some of what I'd written in the letters I found when cleaning out his house made me cringe.) I'm not sure if he wrote multiple drafts or not, but his letters were angry, paternalistic, deliberately hurtful, and often oscillated between the forced-friendly and the furious.

But he read my letters, or at least some of them -- I knew this because I'd hear from those people we had in common that Dad was pleased about a promotion I'd received or a recognition I'd earned. And I read his -- or at least some of them. I learned that a quick analysis of the envelope could reveal something of the tone of its contents. GOP elephant on the return address label and a President Nixon stamp? Likely bombastic, confrontational, and political, with the added bonus of quotes from Rush Limbaugh. A Knights of Columbus or Right to Life return label? Milder but still hectoring, and likely to include quotes from The Catholic Answer or the Pope. A collection of stamps in different denominations (i.e., a 23 cent, an 11 cent, a five cent, etc.)? Likely playful and familial, without anything about the baby killers or how my sinful lifestyle was going to result in my terminal sickness and early death.

He also made copies of his outgoing correspondence. Each of the ten of us had a file, we found, and in mine, in addition to a number of my letters to him, were copies of at least some of his to me. And other things. My folder held funding appeals from organizations like Focus on the Family talking about how "homosexuals" - always "homosexual", never "gay", a convention he followed - were imperiling the moral fabric of America; how crimes committed by these homosexuals were never reported in the press, how homosexuals were pushing their - well, to be clear, "our" - agenda through the godless courts and via the godless Democrat (sic) party. These were all things I'd heard before. They land differently when you hear them from your dad, though.  

I came out to my mom when she was already dying from cancer in 1991. She cried, and we had some difficult conversations about it, but she said that she loved me -- and she also said, "Don't tell your father." I waited a decade, in part with my mom's words in mind, in part because I believed that coming out -- especially to a parent -- should be an act of kindness and not of anger. It took me a while to get there with Dad. And I was nervous about how it would go. I finally decided, when living with my then-boyfriend, to give my dad "the opportunity to do the right thing" as I'd put it to myself and my friends. Wanting us to have a more honest relationship, if nothing else, I came out to him. In a letter.

It didn't go well. 

First the questions: was I gay because he had traveled so much for work and was an absent father when I was growing up? Was I gay because my mom had a strong personality? And my favorite: was being gay why I was no longer a Notre Dame fan?  

And then the statements: your sinful lifestyle will result in your early death, due to HIV/AIDS. You shouldn't work in education because you'll molest kids and infect them with your sinful lifestyle. Don't come home unless you come alone, and only then if you have pre-approval from siblings so they can keep their kids away from you if they choose to. And then, after about a year of this, another letter with this question: did I become gay because I'd been molested by a priest? Dad wrote that he had been: a Catholic Brother molested him when he was 13, and "...let's face it, at that age, pretty much any sexual contact is pleasurable." I was deeply shocked, even though it's all too common a story. I just ached for him -- it broke my heart, and pulled back a curtain to reveal so much. I'd never known that, and I doubt if he'd told anyone else. Ever.

What effect had that trauma had? Survivors of untreated sexual abuse often suffer long term effects -- what had he suffered because of this? What had this introduced into his personality? How had this warped what was there? Had he ever talked about it? He never mentioned it again and never answered any questions when I asked about it. I'll never know.   

We never have a complete understanding of someone else -- we can't, it’s always imperfect -- and I'd aver that most of us don’t have a complete understanding of ourselves. I hope that this knowledge about my dad's journey made me less angry, more patient, gentler. I like to think it did, when I brought it to mind, and for a couple of years I thought of it often. 

Despite his towering temper, after I was nine or so he never hit me, and I remember the spankings I got as a kid being forewarned and a result of my actions. We never went hungry - none of the 12 of us - when we were under his roof. He worked impossibly hard - long days, many nights, many business trips to El Dorado, Arkansas, of all places - to make that happen. He never drank, ever: I saw him have one beer, once, before I graduated from high school. He never swore, ever: I heard him swear only once, after a storm destroyed the roof, the siding, and every pane of glass on two sides of our house in Fowler, and then it was a simple, exhausted, "damn."

But it wasn't easy. Through his illness and death I've been surprised by others' recollections of my dad: a cousin mentioning in passing how he was intimidated and nervous around him; a brother I'd always thought of as a favorite of his recounting Dad’s petty and mean-spirited bullying; forgotten letters from my mom telling me not to take his anger to heart. I took comfort in these recollections. It wasn't just me. From the available data, it was just dad.

And I'm sorry to say that I didn't help matters as much as I could have. I knew how to push his buttons, and I did - certainly in some of my letters to him, but also in person. Some small part of that might have been healthy since so many people tiptoed around him, a learned response to his bullying, and after all, what did I have to lose? I was never going to meet his expectations unless I signed up to be a priest; since I was gay I was beyond the pale, I had tremendous freedom from his opprobrium. In one letter, asking after his recovery from a car accident, I didn't stop myself from asking if he was getting his pain med prescription filled by sending his housekeeper (which he didn't have) to a parking lot with a cigar box (which he didn’t smoke) full of cash like his buddy Rush Limbaugh had. Like many of his generation he was notoriously tight -- even though one of his sons was a builder and submitted a bid to build his retirement home, he went with the guy who submitted the lowest bid. When I went to the house -- before I came out to him and was thus effectively banned -- I’d eyeball a wall and asked if he’d paid extra for its pronounced warp. When he was showing a group of us the blueprints for this house before its construction, he pointed out where the pool table would go in the basement. I looked at the drawings and said "I'm no expert but it looks like something's missing - where's the change machine?"  

I remember many instances of his support when I was a child. He drove me and a friend down to Tennessee one weekend when we were doing research on Confederate POWs who were captured at the Battle of Fort Donelson who were housed -- and died -- in Lafayette during the Civil War. He encouraged me in Scouting and came to a troop meeting to show the other kids how to carve leather work, and even though I had no real skill at it, he encouraged my interest in his hobby as well. He helped me anytime I needed it with homework whenever he was home, no matter how tired he must have been, without a word or gesture of complaint that I remember.

In fact I never heard him complain - about work, or his hours, or anything. (The Cubs, sure, but that's like distant cicadas buzzing on a summer night - part of life for many in the Midwest.)  He put his head down and worked hard, very hard, as a matter of pride, and expected that we all would, too. At many points in my life I've stopped and thought, "When Dad was my age he had to provide for x children." It was never a small number, and it was always nearly viscerally daunting.  

When I was a kid on Sunday mornings he'd get me up at 5:30 to do the paper route around Fowler, which we'd finish in time for the 7 o'clock mass, then come home after church and make waffles from scratch and play hours-long military strategy games, just he and I, until everyone else got home from church.  When I was in the 5th grade he took the day off - something he almost never did - and we rode a bus up to Chicago to see Pope John Paul II say a mass in Grant Park, just he and I.  (Well, and about 7 million others.)

I don't know when or why we began to drift apart. I hit adolescence and began to rebel, though it was nothing like what he'd been through with my brothers: I didn't smoke, flout rules, or show any signs of being counter-cultural. I served daily 7 AM mass intermittently through high school and was a devout Catholic - to the point that I fought with a church youth group leader to make sure we could attend mass on a weekend camping trip - but still, Dad and I drifted apart.

By the time I got my ear pierced my junior year in college we weren't on great terms. I'd timed the piercing so that I could take it out before I came home for Christmas, but mom was sick with a vague but worrying malady so I came home for Thanksgiving with a fake gold stud in the hole so it wouldn't close, though I knew that hell would likely break loose. It did. That was it. He didn’t speak to me for a few months.  I stayed in Milwaukee and worked over Christmas break; in February I only learned Mom had been diagnosed with an aggressive cancer when I called a brother to bitch about my course load and he asked me how I was doing with mom's news. And after mom died that November, quite understandably, grief subsumed him.

He had a car accident and broke his back two years ago, and each of us ten kids took turns going to spend time with him to help his convalescence.  I was nervous about my week there, but honestly it was good. He was still mostly lucid, and I asked him about family stories, about his siblings and childhood, about my mom. We didn't talk much about me, and we certainly didn’t talk about anything in my life after I turned 22 - he didn't ask and I didn't offer - but we had time to be together, and I got to thank him for all of his effort and hard work.

Before that week I looked back and thought about my father's life, and I tried to understand the stress he must have felt about money, the shame he may have felt at taking charity the years we qualified for government support and the kindness of neighbors, the never-ending fatigue that he must have had so often so deeply in his bones. I thought about how the abuse that he experienced from a member of the Church might have contributed to his extreme rigidity, or his temper, or his emotional paralysis.

And I realized, painfully, that I could have done better. I could have been more mature, more thoughtful, and kinder in my letters; I most assuredly could have connected more often. I could have more often let sleeping dogs lie and not comment on something in a vain and futile attempt to make or score a point.

But there was a context for these actions and reactions, for both of us. If we were petty and churlish, easily offended or bullying -- and we were, both of us, all of those things -- well, we're human. In the end, we didn't act from malice. And, in the end, critically, we made the space -- and took advantage of circumstances -- to arrive at something like d├ętente before he died. And in the end, that's enough; it has to be, but it is.

And at the end, here’s what matters: we did the best we could.

19 November 2014

Observations from KSA - I

Here in Saudi Arabia for five weeks. 

And it’s a desert.  Like the desert that Bugs Bunny would get lost in when he took the wrong turn at Albuquerque kinda desert.  Unsurprising, but still, it overwhelms.  On the way in from the airport, looking around from any small rise in elevation (and there aren’t many), it’s sand for miles and miles and miles.  Every bit of land that isn’t irrigated is sand.  Every car is covered in dust unless it’s been freshly washed.  And it’s hot.  Midday heat is oppressive, the kind of sun and heat that feels like it’s pushing you into the (slowly melting) asphalt kinda hot. 

Wonder how Chrysler is still in business?  Come to Dhahran.  Every third sedan is a Chrysler 300, and every fourth one is a Dodge Charger.  There is, no question, a greater market share for US automakers here than in LA, and maybe even Chicago.  Every SUV is a Suburban or an Escalade or a Tahoe.  And my dad woulda felt right at home among all the huge Ford Crown Vics and Chevy Caprice Classics. 

I am living on a wholly self-contained and secured compound that a co-worker speculated pre-departure – entirely correctly – would have the look, feel, and charm of a Navy base.  (She could have added “cuisine”.) Our digs are clean and safe and well air-conditioned if not well ventilated, and there is daily housekeeping service.  It could be worse. 

All service workers are non-Saudi, and there is a pretty strict hierarchy: menial work is done by south Asians, front-of-house service positions and domestics are nearly all Filipino, and while India, Bangladesh and the Philippines all have compulsory English education, and while certainly their English is better than my Hindi/ Bangla/ Tagalog, there are opportunities for misunderstanding.  I asked for directions to the gym (there are three on the compound) and I got them, only to discover when I got there that I had received directions to the women’s gym.  Even though I asked standing there in t-shirt and shorts.  Not super helpful.  At the post office I asked about postage rates to the US, and was assured that it was 2 SR for an airmail letter.  I got out of line, posted a 2 riyal stamp on the letter, and went back to ask if it was correct.  No, no, you need two 2 – 2 riyal stamps.  Just glad I know just enough to be polite to a point in Bangla and Tagalog (though not yet Arabic) – especially since the IT guys - and the guys with all the keys - are Filipino. 

On the compound women can be absolutely scandalous – drive, show an ankle, leave their heads uncovered.  It’s illegal for women to drive elsewhere in the kingdom, but in these few acres they can.  It’s still oppressive – the compound I mean – as there are many Saudi women and men working on the compound, of course, and many of the women are in the full burka.  I feel self-conscious going for a run in shorts so I wait until nightfall (though see above re: the heat, so it’s not a hardship); there are signs in the men’s locker room of the men’s gym (that I eventually found) that you are not allowed to change in the general area, you need to go into a stall for that. There are signs in the large commissary building that you are to be modestly dressed to enter. It’s still, despite the topography, not Arizona. 

My colleague has said that she’s ruined for life on feta and hummus.  I’m not a feta guy but I can say that the hummus is stoopid good.  I’m missing leafy green veggies, but the fresh fruit is great (though I feel vaguely guilty about it as I know how much water it takes) and the rice dishes that I’ve tried, and I have no idea what they are, I just point, have all been really good, too.  Chicken "sausage" and beef "bacon", however…

If a Saudi is keen to show his gratitude (and I use the masculine 3rd person pronoun specifically here), he’ll say thanks and then touch his open right hand to his heart with a slight bow.  Some of the students have done this, and I find it to be incredibly charming, each time.

Uh, California?  Desalination is NOT the answer.  The water out of the tap is potable, yes, but it tastes like seawater without salt – because it is seawater without salt.  It’s not like Bangladesh where if you forget and brush your teeth with it you’ll be sick for a week, but it does take a lot to get that taste out of your mouth. 

Universally, people on cell phones walking and texting are a hazard.  Universally, some service sector workers are just surly.  Universally some guys in the gym are just douchy, and when it's an all guys gym?  Even douchier.  Finish your set, asshole - you're not going to see any improvement in your abs from the set before.   

Thumbs up for “good” is fine here – it starts to get offensive a little east of here in Iran and Pakistan, according to one student.  My usual go-to gesture at home for “that’s enough, no mas” – making a slicing motion across my neck with an open hand – seems in very poor taste here.  I’m casting about for a new one. 

And again I’m reminded, as I have been in other parts of the world – the crowning glory of American civilization?   The bottomless cup of coffee.