Badlands, retrospective.

(And by retrospective, I mean it happened a while ago.)

I like maps. I had spent hours visually analyzing the selection of westward route choices — freeway? state highway? around the cities or through? risk? reward?

I left Maine in the morning. I climbed the Poconos/Adirondacks/Appalachians (and feel free to let me know which mountains I was actually crossing). I skirted the Great Lakes. Quick change, pizza, bed, and toaster waffles. I rolled over the grassy midwest, detoured north to close the door on a nagging old relationship and rescue my art, waffle iron, and Nintendo 64 from the gaping abyss of a six-month-old break up.

I (full disclosure) nibbled an Adderall and as the sun set, like a cowboy a thousand miles too far east, drove west. Rolling hills flattened out into infinite planes. Perhaps I’ll build a mathematical matrix to represent the great plains of South Dakota along I-90. The buffalo herd is at (103, 37), don’t kill too many or you won’t be able to carry them back to your wagon.

As fortuitously incidental, and thanks to a suggestion from what essentially turned out to be a flavor of the week, the Badlands rose around me as the sun rose from behind me.

Camera and tripod in hand, amphetamines in blood, and awe in heart and mind, I slowed my pace to absorb this strange, stolen glory.

Badlands, sunrise.

I did not go out the way I came—avoiding cities, creativity and efficiency in route—in the North and out the South. Into the heart of Pine Ridge, the largest and most fundamentally heartbreaking and devastating open air human prison in my personal memory. The eighth largest reservation in the country, but I experienced it as eternal. Hidden by miles of barren lands and political gambits from the public eye and consciousness, I was in a world where the buffalo roamed free but the people were fenced in. Inversion, pen.

Entering Pine Ridge, I saw the land browner, surrounded by fences, geospatial politics delineating land appropriation and supremacy. Leaving Pine Ridge, I saw the grass grow taller and geologic formations more impressive. Public use land, preservation over reservation, imposed government over indigenous freedom. In and out, in and out, the boundaries increasingly clearer, then fences increasingly higher, or perhaps this was just my imagination, or my anger growing.

I move through a small town, which perhaps once thought it could attract tourists, but instead showcases only dilapidated pick-up trucks and run-down buildings.

Passing through

The dirt road, as it has been dirt since leaving National Park boundaries, left my small town behind in a cloud of dry red dust and I, like every else, forgot and neglected her, leaving her to waste away as per socioeconomic hierarchies required.

My radio blared the Oglala Sioux tribal station, the only station I could get. As I moved between fences—free like a buffalo, penned in like the Sioux—what I can only describe as chanting and, unimaginatively, traditional music (honest or cliche?) accompanied me on my objectively stunning yet subjectively depressing drive.

I came to established farmland, to bigger, ostensibly wealthier small towns, to state highways, eventually to Wyoming, to gas stations offering “cowboy coffee” with a handwritten sign next to the hazelnut and French roast, eventually to cities and interstates and, short hours later, within view of my snow-capped Rockies. I followed the spine of the Continental Divide until I crossed into my little hamlet, South Dakota far behind me, as it so goes.

29 Down: Pornography, to some.

I realize, entirely, that the source of my impending complaint is my own fault:

Facing an empty afternoon, it seemed my best option was to do both of the daily crossword puzzles staring at me with x-ray vision from the back sections of their respective newspapers. One of the puzzles was the Monday New York Times puzzle; easy, certainly, but a respected and usually well-written puzzle. The other was the syndicated puzzle, tucked alongside the never-funny black and white single-pane comic, and a litany of other inanity.

I never like those no-name crossword puzzles. I find them of internally variable difficulty with inaccurate and/or unclever clue-answer pairs. I try to avoid them, opting for the erudite, sophisticated, snooty and elitist New York Times variation, but boredom inevitably got the better of me.

I regretted my choice immediately, but I am not one to quit a crossword in the middle. Yet so many of the clues were just not right for their answers: natural aptitude and instinct? Weather conditions and climate? Crazy and daft? They’re not wrong, per se, I just think they could have been better.

None of these bothered me as much as the four-word answer to the clue “pornography”: “smut.” Smut has such a negative connotation, and pornography is simply a thing that exists that some people have opinions about; it seemed a little harsh for the puzzle to be levying such harsh judgment on such a nominally innocent noun, when there are so many greater sins in the world.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines pornograph as: “an obscene writing or pictorial illustration.” (The OED in turn defines obscene as “Offensive to the senses, or to taste or refinement; disgusting, repulsive, filthy, foul, abominable, loathsome” and as “Offensive to modesty or decency; expressing or suggesting unchaste or lustful ideas; impure, indecent, lewd.” Yes, I have a bone to pick with the evolution of the English language: why is lust loathsome?)

Pornography is more specific, at least according to the OED: “Description of the life, manners, etc., of prostitutes and their patrons; hence, the expression or suggestion of obscene or unchaste subjects in literature or art.”

Pornography is, essentially, the written or visual depiction of unchaste-ness, in particular (apparently) the sex industry. It seems to me that whether or not one finds that offensive to one’s taste and refinement is completely up to them.

Smut, on the other hand, when used as a noun is “a black mark or stain; a smudge,” or schmutz if Yiddish one-word definitions are to be employed. It is also a plant fungus, but that is not relevant. When used as a verb, the third definition of smut is “to make obscene” — not an overwhelmingly common usage. And reference to obscenity is not found until the fifth definition of the noun form of the word, as “indecent or obscene language,” which is hardly applicable to pornography as a whole, though there is surely an argument that the vocabulary of pornography is smut. (Perhaps an accurate crossword clue should have read “Pornographic words”.)

So is, as the questionable crossword puzzle would have us believe, pornography equivalent to smut? Is the written or visual depiction of unchaste-ness a black smudge, end of story? Perhaps for some, but obviously there are millions of people who would not think “pornography” and, in a game of free association, next think “smut.”

This is the inherent weirdness of crossword puzzles: the answer always reads as a definition for the clue, and so much can be implied about society and culture by paying attention to these nuances. By using “pornography” as the clue for the answer “smut,” we see that someone is telling us to define pornography as smut. They could easily have used an innocuous phrase like “something distasteful,” or the definition, “sooty matter,” to clue the wanted answer “smut.” Instead, though, it became a judgment call, labeling the expression of lust as something to be wiped away with zealous vigor.

Party Like it’s Saudi (and other fun facts)

(I’ll cross post from midthought/Your Middle East, where it is a featured post today, meaning it is in the scrolly thing on the home page. COOL:)

I first saw M.I.A.’s Bad Girls video (directed by Romain Gavras) a couple months ago, and have been stewing since then to try to figure out why, exactly, I am so fascinated with it.

Sure, on the surface, it is visually enrapturing and musically infectious. It also has deeper layers: it hints at another side to the Middle East, beyond our stereotypical, media-fed images of women in burqas who aren’t allowed to drive. The music video is steeped in sexually charged dancing, beautiful women, fast cars; it’s like The Fast & the Furious, Persian Gulf edition.

From M.I.A.'s "Bad Girls" Video, 2012.

But aside from its sheer (and vast) entertainment value, why I am so enamored with this piece of pop culture? I finally figured it out: Bad Girls reflects my own relationship, as I imagine it, with the Middle East. A windy desert, fast cars, beautiful women, a carefree rockstar attitude that is surprisingly applicable across the region combined with a laissez-faire attitude towards money (assuming one has it), a whirlwind of adventuresomeness and an unmatched esprit de corps. Gavras captures this vibe and my fantastical memories perfectly, and makes me want to party like it’s Saudi.

When I watch it, I am reminded of nights partying at clubs in Amman, learning to belly dance from Arab women, both strangers and friends, outdoor neighborhood weddings with raucous music and highly charged and energetic dancing, bonfires on the beach with guitars and ritualized dances around fires in the middle of the desert, midnights on the Sinai with hashish and Stella, driving for hours across the Jordanian desert on a whim and starry nights filled with hookah smoke. Bad Girls captures the passion for aesthetics, for art and music, for glamour and image, for passion itself.

What Bad Girls show us is that the Middle East is, for all its problems and in a bizarre twist of fate, a place of absolute freedom; where devastatingly beautiful women can dance on hoods of cars and men can drag race through the desert in souped up European sports cars, at least metaphorically.

This is how I do, and how I want, to remember the Middle East. Go for the seduction, stay for the beauty, come back for that piece of yourself you left somewhere on the side of the road. Though we might read it as Orientalism, the Bad Girls video embodies at an erotic, mysterious, seductive truth about my Middle East. We can drape these truths in accusations of conservativeness, backwardness, primitiveness, or whatever is designated for “the Orient,” but as in Bad Girls, the Middle East I know is beautiful and irresistible. The video and my Middle East are an embodiment of everything prohibited by our own puritanical fears of the unknown, of desire, and of temptation. This is, I believe, fundamentally what Bad Girls is all about: it challenges us to find the freedom and the perfection in such an unfamiliar place.

One without the other

Tom Robbins apparently has the knack to succinctly and colorfully describe everything I find distasteful about controlling, patriarchal organized religions. Today’s quote:

“For those who would pray but not dance, fast but not feast, baptize but not splash, flog but not fuck, for those who would buy spirit but sell soul, crown Father but deceive Mother, those men found Herod’s Temple a threatening place at vernal equinox and under a harvest moon.”

(Skinny Legs and All, h/t Leah)

Punishment without celebration, male without female, obedience without thought. This phenomenon is a sad truth not unique to a specific time or place, painfully relevant both to ancient history and modern politics. Though the story here is lighthearted, the message is, undoubtedly, not.

Announcement of Intention to #occupyUSA

I have decided, perhaps rashly, to go to an #occupy protest in every city I find myself in over the next few weeks.

I went to the original #occupywallstreet protest (and the 20,000+ person march with the labor unions) yesterday, and I was astounded by how truly universal it felt. I will post here and on midthought as I try to make this happen. If you know anyone who is interested in reading about what these protests are like, please feel free to let them know I am doing this and to follow along!

Here’s my tentative schedule:
Wed., Oct. 5: #occupywallstreet (NYC)
Sun., Oct. 9: #occupydc
Mon., Oct. 10: #occupyphilly
Then:
#occupyboston
#occupymaine
Then maybe:
#occupychicago
#occupymn (Minneapolis/St. Paul)
And if they’re still going:
#occupydenver

If you want to check one out near you, they are going on in a crazy number of cities.

Standing with signs, Zuccotti Park, #occupywallstreet