The Desert, an extended metaphor; perception, or Analyze, but don’t Histor-icize.

9 Nov

Playlist-The Shins-Caring is Creepy, Michael Franti & Spearhead-Do it for the Love, The Mars Volta-Roulette Dares (The Haunt of), System of a Down-Streamline, Killswitch Engage-My Curse, Tool-Lipan Conjuring, Sublime-Jailhouse, Red Hot Chili Peppers-Breaking the Girl, 30 Seconds to Mars-The Kill, Incubus-Are You In?, Miles Davis-Flamenco Sketches, Wax-We Can’t All be Heroes, Bob Marley & the Wailers-Buffalo Soldier, Michael Franti & Spearhead-What I Be.

Cool Lyric of the Day:

I remember when there wasn’t no pressure

I just do this

Before the music was part of a to-do list

I love writing, but why I’m clueless

It’s peaceful, yet deceitful,

Like a Buddhist Judas

from We Can’t All Be Heroes by Wax

Wow, a “Buddhist Judas”-that is clear and accurate…you should know that these playlists are what is occurring during the events you’re reading about. Music has that sensory trigger that marks times in our lives. Depending on what I’m going through I can be immersed in an album, a genre, or a topic. Looking at this playlist, I see a representation of many things Lee…and certainly, my dear family and friends, as you have contributed to the diversity of who I am, so have I absorbed, and reflected, the details and sum of my perceptions.

To the reader who asks, “How does that fit?”, I say it doesn’t matter. As good ol’ Uncle Walt (Whitman—not the chocolate sampler guy, either) always said, “Do I contradict myself?/Very well then, I contradict myself/I am large, I contain multitudes…I am untranslatable…” (There’s a 5 or 6 line ellipse in there; poetic license, get over it.)

Ya know, we (well, I) never consider a young Walt Whitman. He was in his mid-thirties when he wrote “Song of Myself”. I am older than him. Strange. I guess that goes back to perception. The most common pic you’ve seen of him is this old, long in the tooth, gray-bearded man, but he couldn’t be 35 or so in that pic. It’s like Einstein. Remember that college poster that sold about 15 million copies every year to hip-thinking freshmen looking to instill originality into their dorm room? He couldn’t possibly have looked like that always.

You see, perceptions are not real. They are personal and they are yours; only you have built them. You can agree upon them, but at their genesis, from where they derive, deep in your id/ego, none are the same. I think we’d all do better to one another if we kept that in mind. During the first few weeks of my stay here, the kandooras and other traditional dress seemed interesting and novel. Like a costume gives a child that special feeling and identity; I was looking at them the same way. As friendships and working relationships with locals become the norm, you start to see the people, not the perception. You know what? There is no difference. Seems obvious, right? Any self-respecting liberal, or culturally aware person will say they don’t see clothes or presentation, they only see people. Good for you. So, ask yourself; do you tailor how you greet people? Do you look at someone and reflect what you think they expect? Does your perception of someone new begin with something, anything, preconceived? Why? I think we’re reflecting our fears when we do that. I think we are afraid of presenting ourselves in a vulnerable state. We go in guarded, and spend time knocking walls down. What an interesting way to forge a relationship. Start with a fortress, and break your way in. Why not start in an open space and build together? Much of what is going on in my life right now is starting in open spaces…and the desert, and this collaboration of cultures, and this educational reform, and this exponentially expanding city being built out of vast open space, is the culminating metaphor. I am shaking as all of this falls into line. My eyes are windows, not mirrors, again (a bit blurry with emotion), and the scenery is informing me everyday.

Ok, sorry had to get that out. Whew! I feel better. You?

What do you think about when you think “desert”? (That’s one /s/, you smart—ypants!) Again, out loud and be honest, be vulnerable…desert? Three words out loud. I’ll leave you to it………………..I won’t try to match you; perception is personal (see what I did there?). I certainly would never have thought that I’d be building something in the desert, but I am…we are.

Three weeks ago (YES, I’m behind…SO!?), 14 of us went on a desert safari and overnight camp.


Needless to say, it was amazing. I’ve been putting this off because I just don’t know what to write about. The experience was so organic and personal that words can’t convey the experience for me. Like Wax says above, writing can be like a Buddhist Judas, peaceful and deceitful, all in the same word.

Desert groupDesert group2

There are seven countries represented there, oh, and Mississippi, which I hear is a country in itself. (Certainly, Twain and Faulkner thought so). The guy kneeling by me isn’t with us, we grabbed each other after we bumped to stop from toppling from the top of the dune. He was happy to join in. The guy taking the picture was with us, too (Kneeling, to your right.). He’s from Houston, via Lebanon. (Woot! Woot! Lebanon!) He took some great pictures, I’ll be stealing them for this blog. (Bro, we’re both Lebanese, mumtaaz!?)

So the 14 (2 not shown, 18 total) of us piled into 3 Land Cruisers to begin our journey. I was running late due to a cheap watch I had to buy to cover the artwork on my wrist. Truthfully, the people at work care nothing about it, but permanent ink on your body is haram (forbidden by Islamic Law-though everything is up for interpretation), and who am I to offend anyone? (Wait ’til they see the COEXIST symbol inked across my shoulder blades!) Also, no one will ask what it means as the topic is personal, and personal questions aren’t polite. People are in the business of minding their own business here…kinda like that.

So, because I was late I was put into a truck with one other westerner, and a family of Filipino tourists. The first thing the Katie in the front seat said was, “Lee, I need the front seat because I always get car sick.” Yes, she said “always” and yes, she is consistent…poor thing. More on that later. Next to me was the most stoic octogenarian I’ve ever seen. I don’t think she uttered a word or a “woo!” the whole time. Included in this family was a very young boy, a very chatty, high-pitched, young boy. After a 30 minute ride into nowhere, we stopped to do this.


Better traction in the sand. As you’ll see, we’ll need as much tire surface on the sand as possible. How these things don’t tip is a lesson in physics (which I am not qualified to deliver).

Our first stop was a camel farm.


They are very calm animals, until you get by the babies. It’s obvious to say, but I am still fascinated by the protective instinct exercised in almost every species. Oh, if ever going to a camel farm, know that they don’t have a designated bathroom area. It happens. Everywhere.

On to the dune bashing! SO much fun. Keep in mind, I’m bigger than pretty much every 80 year-old Filipino woman. So, as we were sliding down the dunes sideways, at 70 degree angles, I was clutching the overhead handle so as not to make this poor woman into poi (yes, I know I’m mixing references). There is a lot of “Hey, what’s on the other side of that ridge…oh, sh–, a sheer drop…” and your stomach is far behind your brain. As we do this for awhile, our little buddy in the backseat decided to exercise (more like exorcise) both English words in his repertoire, “…Fasta! Fasta! Go! Go! Fasta! Fasta! Go! Go!…” Which is cute…for about the first five minutes. After thirty minutes, you start to question your normally amiable spirit.  We bashed on into the desert for about thirty minutes. The normally, very polite, and warm and conversational, Katie in the front seat had become suspiciously quiet. I take a break from trying to photo the sand flying overhead to look at the driver, who keeps checking on the Katie in the front seat. From the look on his face, she’s no longer enjoying it, and he’s thinking, why didn’t I Scotch-guard this carpet, yet?


A plume of sand flying over the passenger side window as we slide sideways down a dune.

A plume of sand flying over the passenger side window as we slide sideways down a dune.

We come to the spot where the pictures above were taken. The Katie in the front seat pleads in a dry-mouthed, last breath, hard lump in the throat, gasp, “Can I get out here, please?” (Always polite that Katie in the front seat). Poor thing jets from the vehicle and does, what I later learn, she has done in every country she’s ever been; and she’s been to many, many countries. She’s a fascinating and engaging personality; which helped me come up with an idea for a reality, travelogue TV show: “Katie Puked Here!” So, we send her on adventures all over the globe, Katie in the front seat throws up, and we learn about these amazing places. Whaddaya think? TV gold, I know. Brilliant. She’s so cool, she’s down for it! Call me Travel Channel…then, pay me, um, us.

A little more bashing and we arrived at camp. Once in camp, there was a henna tent, sand-boarding (like snow-boarding, but slower), camel rides, ATV bashing, and a dress up tent…see?

A not-thrilled camel

A not-thrilled camel

Moon-rise over camp

Moon-rise over camp


That poor camel. I was probably rider 25 or so, and again, I am not average size here. I swear he turned to look at me before we started and said, “Seriously? Dude? Would one less order of hummus kill you?” For all you guys who called me camel-jockey growing up…here’s your chance. Enjoy! The karmic/God/aura orb of light behind my head is still scientifically inexplicable…unless you understand electricity and flood lights, then it’s a total coincidence.

The night entertainment was food and a belly-dancer…and, of course, shisha.

Yes, Dad, of course she's Lebanese.

Yes, Dad, of course she’s Lebanese.


Also on the tour with us were Rihanna’s back-up singers/dancers. Of course, one jumped up and danced with the professional…and got schooled. She did a great job, though. After the show was over, everyone loaded back into the trucks and headed back to the city. Everyone, but us, of course. We had the whole camp to ourselves. Really, this is when the experience started. This is where I lose my words to explain the impact of the evening. All of these countries and experiences, these no-longer strangers, these educators, these friends. The conversation flowed freely, and I caught myself more than once, staring into the desert night, trying to make sense of it. Why me? Why here? Where am I? Who are these people? How is this possible? What should I be learning?

“Lee! Lee!?…hey man, what are you thinking?” Someone brought me back…

“You know…I don’t know? I’m having a moment. A real moment. Me, all of you, all of this. I don’t know what it means, and for the first time in my life, I’m glad not to be responsible for the answers. I spent a lot of time stressing about being the answer guy only to find out the notion of being the answer guy is totally false. A perception I misled myself into. I spent too much time TRYING to manage other people’s feelings…foolish, man, foolish. Heavy, ya know? I’m allowing myself to just experience, to be genuinely touched, no context, no preconceived notions, no false expertise. I’m absorbing. I just want to thank you, all of you. For this. For me, being a part of this us. Very cool, ya know…Oh, did I mention, I’m a crier?…” Duh, right?

Turns out, many of us, especially those embarking on a life-changing journey, go through these introspective moments. The brain gets a new experience and doesn’t know where to file it. There is no reference point. You need to hold on to it, but where does it go? I do this in my professional life. Something new comes across my desk. Something for which I don’t have an already labeled folder. I keep it on my desk until I can sort out where it goes. Or, I realize it deserves a new label, and I create a new folder. I am creating new folders as this experience progresses. First, it was “New Experience in Abu Dhabi”, then “The Dhabi!” (don’t forget, get your t-shirt!) Now, there is so much more.

The conversation ebbed and flowed until about 4am, I think? The sleeping tents were surprisingly comfortable and the night air was quite comfortable. The sun rose a few hours later and breakfast was served. There was a lot of looking at each other without speaking. People processing. As humans, we don’t spend enough time expressing our gratitude towards one another. We take human interaction for granted. Let’s start sharing more. “Hey, last night was really cool. Thank you.”

That’s the cool thing about 14 strangers encamped in the middle of the desert. There is no history to reference. No playing of the name game; just sharing from that point forward. Learning. The experience is unique and impossible to replicate. We talk about going again, and we probably will, but we will be different. There will be more points of reference, folders of memories and experiences will be filled with files, and the conversation will exhibit that we know each other in ways separate from the experience. We will compare.

I’m trying to get out of the business of comparisons. Comparisons are a set up for disappointment; “greater than” or “less than”, even “equal to” becomes a let down. I want my experiences to be free from comparative analysis. CA takes the wonder out of the stars. It locks us into a perception, and locking into a perception creates shortcuts that limit our ability to be free. Remember when you studied, “When I heard the Learn’d Astronomer”? (ummmm, Walt Whitman? Hello? Google now!) The poet is dizzied and nauseated, not by the numbers and figures presented by the Astronomer, but by the Astronomer’s inability to perceive, by his lack of awareness, of how beautiful the stars actually are. (Of course, you may argue, that is my perception of the poem, and not yours–see, I did it again.)

All this knowledge we have, can get in the way of our awareness. Continue to perceive, but be aware, that perceptions are historical, and the present is a gift. Open it everyday with the wide-eyed wonder of a child.

Yes, I am way behind. This was a tough one. I’m reckoning, you know?

Just to prove that I do work, here’s a pic of me and my main interpreter, Khaled. It’s hard to be witty during a presentation when you have to stop for translation…and when, sometimes, there isn’t one. I feel like a Mormon doing stand up at the Apollo…is thing on? Hello? I can hear you breathing…crickets.

PD Presentation 007

Can you say "Engaged Educators"? Oh yeah!

Can you say “Engaged Educators”? Oh yeah!

Thank you for your enduring support and love!



p.s. There’s no new ink on me. Gotcha!


8 Responses to “The Desert, an extended metaphor; perception, or Analyze, but don’t Histor-icize.”

  1. Dr. Phil Bender November 9, 2013 at 1:16 pm #

    This is all so incredible! Thanks for sharing all of this info with those of us back home who really have no idea what life is truly all about!

    • Milt Dabagia November 9, 2013 at 6:08 pm #


      • Milt Dabagia November 9, 2013 at 7:27 pm #


        Beautiful, absolutely beautiful.

      • ldabagia November 9, 2013 at 7:41 pm #

        Thank you, Uncle Milt. You’ve always been in my corner, and I really appreciate your support. You are a great Head of Family. It means a lot to many.

    • ldabagia November 9, 2013 at 6:50 pm #

      Dr. Bender,
      I have nothing on you. In fact, without what I learned from you and what we have discussed over the last few years, I would be having a hard time here. Our conversations about school community have shaped me in ways I can’t explain. That very topic is the heart of why this reform is such a struggle. Working on school culture is my love; I never considered school culture in a different culture than ours. I smell a dissertation. You deserve much credit, sir. I appreciate and apply what I’ve learned from you. Thanks, as always. Lee

  2. Michael Dabagia November 9, 2013 at 8:49 pm #

    Lee I see people posting pictures of themselves in Hookah Bars, mostly in Pasadena and Hollywood, these people have nothing on that photo it’s the real deal.

  3. Donna Barenie November 12, 2013 at 2:16 am #

    Thanks Lee, you are just awesome with your blogs……love them

  4. themodernwoman714 December 1, 2013 at 4:05 am #

    Thank you, Lee, for this post! I wondered when you were going to write about our desert trip. The labels we have always put on things must change here. Deciding where to put new memories, revelations, feelings, moments, etc. is challenging! I’m bringing back Manila folders from home when I visit to make new folders. Yes, we both think metaphorically all the time.

    I always enjoy your writing!

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