From left: Daughter Samantha, Ismail and wife Nazeera hold their respective favorite cats, Wahida, Athena and Xena. Photo taken July 2009.
The twig is bent
In school I made science (particularly biology and psychology) the focus of my studies, although such was the shape of my life that I never obtained a degree. Although my grades would proclaim me a “good” student, it is apparently not in my nature to specialize.
Often I have speculated about what would have happened had I remained true to my plans, at the outset of my time at university, to synthesize a dual major in ethology and ichthyology and study cichlids in their Amazon basin and east African lake habitats. To be sure, I think I would be more comfortable, probably happier. I would be flying around the world, visiting exotic locales, and learning about the problems and motivations of my own species by observing the behavior of other animals: a Merlynesque tuition in which a latter-day King Arthur would find glorious fun. With research grants and commercial assignments from breeders, I could easily parlay my studies into a sound living, and make my residence wherever my preferences took me.
But I would not, in that hypothetical happier and more prosperous existence, have met my wife. I would not have been true to my inherent preference for autodidactic learning of what I feel motivated to learn according to my needs and desires and on my schedule: I would have a degree to prove my knowledge, but I think I would actually know less about the world as a whole. And perhaps most important, I would not have produced my daughter, a creative genius of whom any parent could never fail to be proud; I would perhaps have had a different child, but this child would not exist.
It would be no exaggeration to say that everything I have written for the past eleven years and more — on this site and elsewhere — is in the deepest sense dedicated to Samantha. Posterity has become my concern, but it is my own posterity that is the center of that concern. I have looked upon the world my species has made for itself, and considered the path we are following into time to come, and realized that I could no longer pretend all was well. “Sam” deserves better than the purgatory that life will become for her generation and those to follow if we march on unimpeded to the inevitable destination to which our collective choices must lead. And therefore I feel a sense of responsibility: From those to whom much has been given, much is expected, and I believe that what talents my character and circumstances, as shaped by Allah, have conferred upon me I cannot refuse to put to what use I can to turn us onto a better course.
If I failed to try my best to do this, I could never look my daughter in the face, for I would have failed for want of trying, and not I but she would suffer the consequences.
I entertain no illusion. How improbable it is that I will prophesy to better effect than did Cassandra (although perhaps with no less truth) I cannot hide from myself. Even so, and come what may, the attempt must be made.
Having abandoned my contemplated career as an ethological ichthyologist when I found myself unable to dedicate my future to so narrowly focused a discipline, I underwent a series of metamorphoses.
At university, I was first humbled and then exalted by my first meeting with a really strong chess player, who became first my vanquisher and then my teacher, and as I began to gain ground on him, he offered me encouragement to try my skill in tournaments and try to achieve a high rating and perhaps make a profession of the game. Finally, I dropped out, having lost confidence in my resolve to follow the narrow path leading to my intended major but gained corresponding confidence in my powers over the board, and began to study intensively and play in tournaments. Meanwhile, I worked in such menial jobs as busboy, dishwasher and pizza cook, “paying my dues” and earning what living was available to me as an unskilled laborer in San Francisco in the mid-1980s.
Taking stock after a year of this, I found that I had earned a class-“A” rating and was progressing with reasonable but not brilliant speed. I was, after all, a talented chess player with a penchant for violent tactics, but not talented enough to make a profession of it; although, had I lived in a really strong chess center, such as New York or Los Angeles, I would perhaps have found a sufficiently demanding environment to force me to develop my skills at a fast enough pace, but as it stood, I was spending entry fees and earning nothing. Perhaps. I will never know. But I did know it was time to take reality by the horns and do my best to enjoy the ride.
So it was that, in 1984, this lifelong anti-militarist found himself in the U.S. Navy, on an eight-year enlistment that included three years of active duty followed by five in the reserve.
Having found the avenues to my preferred specialty (hospital corpsman) glutted, I began my enlistment as a student of dental technology, which promised decent working conditions and possible civilian post-enlistment professional opportunities. But by excessive honesty and naive trust in the sanctity of assurances of “anonymity” in writing an evaluation of dental technician “A” school, I contrived to get myself disenrolled (at the hands of the school’s director, a senior chief who found my evaluation intolerably disrespectful, and thereafter administered all of my personnel inspections and — in a shocking surprise for no one — declared me “unsat” in each and every one (although on the one occasion when another chief performed the inspection, she gave me an “outstanding” for the same uniform) until he amassed sufficient evidence of what he called my poor military bearing to justify the decision) and reassigned as a deck seaman on a supply ship. (What I didn't know, when I called marching to chow, as organized, “an exercise in idiocy,” was that the school director was the one who had implemented the practice.)
It was mere mischance that led me out of that Tartarus. My roommates in “A” school had made themselves scarce, leaving me, as the only occupant whom the company could find, to take responsibility for the bill for the mini-refrigerator we’d shared. I wrote a letter to the company, arguing that this was unfair. The letter failed of its purpose, and next time we went to San Diego, I had to pay the bill. But in the process, I called my writing to the attention of my department head, who recommended me — “silver-tongued devil” that I was — to the public affairs officer as a potential journalist.
Let there be no misunderstanding: A Navy journalist is not a journalist; he is a public-relations hack in newsman’s garb. “If you have a choice between telling the truth and saying what makes the Navy look good,” I was told repeatedly, “your job is to make the Navy look good.” Nonetheless, this marked a second transition, this one leading me into a second profession in putative quest of the truth.
The print period
I served as a Navy “journalist” — a profession in which I even managed to do some actual writing on occasion — from 1985-1987, when my active enlistment ended. I then continued in that rating as a reservist, but since this was at most one weekend a month, it could hardly be called professional experience. Meanwhile, I underwent a second brief transition, studying at a community college while working a series of temporary and part-time jobs, until 1990, when I finally wormed my way into journalism the old-fashioned way: by talent and persistence rather than by earning academic credentials.
From that time, I worked in the print media for eight years as follows:
- September 1990-June 1993: Lead writer and associate editor, Capitola Courier. Working for a publisher in the old style (who worked feverishly and constantly, did almost everything on his own, and put out a black-and-white tabloid-format newspaper with emphasis on news rather than design), I began with a front-page story about a low-income apartment complex, one of whose residents had alerted the paper to developing problems in an anonymous letter. Thereafter, I continued writing the anchor story for each issue (being paid the not-ungenerous rate of ten cents a word), and was also called upon to apply my layout and paste-up experience from working on my college paper and help put the paper together; this soon led to my designation as associate editor. Unfortunately, the Courier soon became a casualty of the early-1990s recession; pay fell to eight cents a word, and the publisher resumed doing most of the writing himself.
- June 1993-October 1994: Managing editor, Aptos Times. Finding work with the Courier increasingly scarce, I learned from my publisher that his former boss, who ran a series of newspapers based in San Jose, had a local paper in Aptos and was thinking of replacing his editor because of a personality clash. Soon enough, I talked to the publisher and was given the job — and the unenviable assignment of getting the stories assigned by the previous editor returned to the paper for publication; this was particularly urgent because the July issue was intended for a “keepsake” edition thanks to its special coverage of Aptos’ “World’s Shortest Parade” on Independence Day. My job: Get back all the material, get the writers to finish the other articles, and put out a 20-page paper — in 12 days. Somehow I managed this, and continued editing the paper, even when it was sold to its associate publisher, with whom I had both personal and professional differences. Eventually, I led a staff of 31 in publishing a monthly 32-page community newspaper, being paid for this the lordly sum of $400 a month.
- Between the economy and our professional differences, the publisher decided to fire me in favor of her close friend who then served as community editor and was then a candidate for school board — just in time for the election issue. However, this friend didn't get her wishes: The publisher fired her, as well, before the issue went to print. Meanwhile, I tried to raise funds to start my own paper (which I would have called the South County Sun). This failing, I then worked sporadically for The Connection Magazine, in Santa Cruz, as a writer and assistant editor until the end of 1998, at which time my future wife and I moved to San Francisco.
- Meanwhile, I also worked for a year of this period as copy editor for the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs; however, this lasted only until financial constriction led that journal to consolidate its staff, leaving the managing editor to wear my hat as well as his own.
The electronic epoch
I found myself, not long thereafter, in a new role: stay-at-home companion to my future (and now present) wife, who suffered disabling clinical depression and anxiety, and couldn’t be left alone without suffering emotional breakdowns. At first I tried to work around this, literally as well as metaphorically, but finally had to quit work and swallow a bitter pill, taking welfare as our means of subsistence until my wife, now well into pregnancy, was approved for SSI.
I am not, however, the kind of person who can simply do nothing.
By this time, the 2000 election had brought us President George W. Bush, and this began to revive my dormant concern with politics. And when in late 2002, it became apparent that we were about to invade Iraq, I reacted by creating a website — originally a purely personal and humor-oriented publication called Squort.com — and expanding it to 50 pages, most of them focused on politics and the war.
My daughter having been born in 2000, I also found myself two new jobs: father and then teacher to an absolutely unique autistic-spectrum child who spoke her first word at one month (not much of a word: “ell-uh” being then her best approximation of “hello,” but startling to hear nonetheless) and was creating digital art by age three. For a constellation of reasons which I will not explain because I trust you to infer them for yourself, conventional school didn’t seem the best learning environment for such a child, so I threw all my resources into becoming the best home-school instructor I could be.
Not long after my daughter’s eighth birthday, a complicated series of events led to our moving four hundred miles north. In my new home, I continued teaching my daughter, and for recreation, continued to play chess and engage in political chat on the Free Internet Chess Server (where I was known as WartHogsUNLTD). But politics led to clashes, and eventually I decided I needed to move on before I suffered a heart attack in my attempts to subdue the entire right wing.
My next and penultimate (to date) step was StumbleUpon, where several FICS friends spent much of their time. I began at that site for social recreation, and enjoyed myself with a minimum of mental effort for a few weeks. Then the news began to get interesting, and my occasional comments evolved into a journalistic blog in which I invested much time and work — and for which I garnered some kind words of praise — until late 2010. Then StumbleUpon began to move away from providing a blogging platform and concentrate on acting as a limited social medium and bookmarking site, which its operators found less demanding and more profitable. And by then, in any case, it had become clear that the constraints imposed by SU’s already limited blogging capabilities had become a serious hindrance to my producing any but the shallowest analyses, leaving me publishing anything longer than 800 words in multiple parts, which in turn proved to be a process of taxing complexity.
Today, therefore, here I am, forced at last to do what I have long suspected I would have to: operate my own independent site, in which I needn’t rely on the continued goodwill of a corporate entity to provide a platform for my (largely anti-corporate) journalistic writings. How will this effort go? I won’t try to prognosticate; I can only invite you to observe for yourself.
A note on names
Lest it not be clear from the preceding, “Abdelirada” is not my actual name; it is a pseudonym, or what some authors call a “pen name.” As I said, I anticipate that some of what I write may be looked upon with disfavor by certain powerful people, and it therefore seems advisable to make it rather more difficult for the latter to find me and my family and subject us to reprisals. I do not rely on this as a defense: If someone really wants to identify me, there is little I can do to prevent it. But I hope that in the time it takes to do so, a degree of logical reflection will have superseded the impulse to find and punish me.
As you’ll read in my coming introduction to the Religion subdomain, I’m a universal heretic: I believe that there is a God, but I don’t believe in any existing religious faith. My understanding of God is perhaps partially anticipated by Joseph Glanvill, and I have chosen my pseudonym in accordance with this principle. It means “servant of the Will” in Arabic.
UPDATE: Since I wrote the above, further developments and the accession of fresh information have led me and Nazeera, on 2 May 2014, to accept Islam. With this, I added the first name Ismail, in honor of the outcast prophet. In sha' allah, I will soon explain in the Religion section how the universal heretic is now a Muslim — although admittedly not a particularly orthodox one.