I’m still here. I Think.

On the plus side, it’s been only three months, not six, or twelve, or seventy-three.

I’d like to say I have a valid excuse for not entertaining my vast, innumerable readership with more regular musings on nothing at all. My pseudo-valid excuse is being busy, which is probably everyone’s excuse for ever not doing anything. After all, you’re not going to say “How dare you not do that because you’ve been busy!” but you might say “How dare you not do that because you’re lazy!” Either way, what I’ve been NOT doing has been writing. Here’s what I have been doing: watching Bones. I’ve learned a lot about human anatomy and crime-solving, so at least its been productive.

What I realized today, though, was the actual reason for my post-radio-age radio silence. It’s not that I don’t want to write things, or that I can’t think of moderately entertaining things to write about, but that I think they are so inane, uninspired, or repetitive that no one will want to read them or I will bore myself into oblivion simply by putting them on paper (or internet). I mean really, who wants to read about skiing AGAIN? Do you really REALLY want to hear about the absurdity of the people? The idiocy of the customer? How many pictures of stunning mountainscapes can a person POSSIBLY look at? You HATE amusing anecdotes and funny observations, don’t you? I thought so.

Oh, you do want to read those things? Well, I’ll get right on that. After I watch three more season of Bones. Oh, and The Americans. I started that last night. Spies! Russians! Reagan! Galore!

A quick one before I go? Statement of fact: there are two kegs sitting on the deck. I have no idea if they are empty or full or somewhere in between, nor do I know (sad truth) how to tap a keg and find out. Even sadder truth: it’s Passover so I can’t be drinking the beer, anyway. Now, if only they were kegs of rum…

How to Win at Life, from Some Chick in the Times

I have recently faced my demon (one of my demons?) that is a) my fear of failure, which is actually related to b) my fear of being rejected for the imagined expectations by the socioeconomic class of my upbringing. Yes: I am afraid of failure to meet non-existent expectations. Let me tell you, it makes that dark head space really entertaining.

For those who don’t know, the socioeconomic class in question is the socioeconomic class of doctors and lawyers and Wall Street investment bankers. Functionally, this meant I grew up with the innate social pre-emption that service = lower class = bad. So when I found myself in the service industry—which was fine as a high schooler, less fine but acceptable (and attributable to “taking time”) just after college, and now, at 25, causes me to hedge answers to “what do you do?” by leading with my occasional freelance work, only at the end adding the fact that, 30-40 hours a week, I sling joe. That’s right, nay-sayers. Career barista, right here. And, in case you weren’t clear, I dig it.

Soak THAT one in.

According to some people (like parents, who I am disinclined to believe because it is in their DNA to make me feel better no matter what), these expectations are imagined. But they’re not. They’re not necessarily expressed, certainly not in my household, but they are by my peers to each other, to my peers by their parents and mentors, and by society/”The Media” in every pop culture depiction of twenty-somethings. We are almost always depicted as being gainfully (read: non-service-industry) employed, and if not, in hot pursuit of that happiest of endings.

The fact that these expectations (which I may or may not imagine) make me feel terrible about myself on a daily basis is why this article, forwarded to me by my mother with pure intentions, made me so gosh darned angry.

Read it, and come back.

This girl makes me angry because THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH WHAT I DO. She is modest to the point of self-righteousness, normalizes the misguided expectation that all young people have defined career goals and passions (and, beyond that, know what those are), and is sickeningly optimistic. It’s a guilt trip on everyone who hasn’t done, or “achieved,” what she has. Harsh, perhaps. But really: “My heart has always been in Africa” just screams white guilt to me. Perhaps my daily discussions have just been so racially motivated that that’s all I can see, which might be unfair. Good for her, you know, good for her for knowing she wasn’t doing what she wanted to do, but I have a hard time understanding people like her.

Let me put it this way: I am not sure I trust anyone who, at 22, claims to know what they want to do for the rest of their life, or can claim with sincerity where their heart lies. Or perhaps it is closer to personal offense: that she, of my generation, has chosen to incidentally judge my choices and reinforce my own insecurities: I’m just not good enough.

Know your audience.

Theme of the day:

The first hilariously this-isn’t-me piece of junk mail arrived addressed to me, from a local-ish bank (who, incidentally, is represented for their PR by a former colleague — whoops). “Cheap” bank account? Credit card? What goodies did they have in store? Well, aside from an insert advertising a “free” $100 to open a financially-not-feasible checking account with them sometime in the next eight weeks, it included a letter beginning “Dear Audrey” and which continued “Congratulations on your upcoming wedding!” and went on to describe how many couples-to-be neglect to think about the combining of finances during the wedding planning and this bank was here to save the day! Hooray! Well, No Name Bank, not only am I very much not getting married, but if I were, the first thing I would do would be to think about finances and their combination, or not.

The next instance of Know Your Audience came with the second piece of junk mail I decided to open.

This plea for monetary support was addressed to my father, but reading the envelope which announced its intention to secure financial SUPPORT FOR ISRAEL on behalf of some foundation named after some old presumably Jewish guy, I just had to open it. I knew he wouldn’t care, but sorry anyway, U.S. Government. OopsFelony.

I can’t really describe the letter, except to say there were some embarrassing grammatical errors, so here’s what happened in visual re-enactments (I apologize for the wonky quality of these scans):

The third junk mail I opened was Obama campaign mail (what a lovely infographic they included on job growth) — free sticker! — and the fourth junk mail was actually not junk mail at all, but a notification telling my mom it was time to get her car serviced. So, mom, add it to the to-do list.

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.