Saturday, April 21, 2018

19 things that people from the American South and the Middle East have in common

More than half a decade ago, while I was studying at a small college in south-east Tennessee, I spent the summer doing an internship in Beirut, Lebanon. And it occurred to me either then, or shortly after, that there are quite a number of odd parallels between Arab and American Southern culture. I actually considered writing a blog post about it then, but since at that point I’d really only spent a year in Tennessee—and less than two months in the Middle East—I figured I would be criticized for making generalizations about things I had very little experience with. So I put it out of my mind, until in 2014, I moved back to Lebanon for what was to become nearly two years of life there, abridged only by stints of travel throughout the rest of the Middle East and north Africa. At that point though, I felt pretty far removed from the five semesters I’d spent in Tennessee, so a post comparing Arab and Southern idiosyncrasies felt neither-here-nor-there. But now, having just moved to north Florida for the foreseeable future, I think it’s time at last that I put pen to paper about it.

As to my qualm about generalizations, I can only qualify this by saying that am talking about societies in general, not people specifically. Indeed, I know many people from the Arabic speaking world to whom none of these things would apply, and many people from the American South for whom the same could be said. That said, I still feel qualms about it. In the end though, my excitement about making this list outweighs the qualms. Really, these are two parts of the world that I think terribly misunderstand each other. I think this is almost certainly due to the fact that their only interaction has been when they were conscripted by their national governments to fight each other, when in reality, they have so many things in common. So without further ado, Southerners and Arabs:

  1. Put alarming, tooth obliterating, diabetic-coma-inducing amounts of sugar in their tea
  2. Just can’t get enough of shows in which people phone in to ask a religious authority for advice on issues that have no apparently obvious connection to religion
  3. Are paradoxically ultra-patriotic AND…
  4. …deeply suspicious of their own governments
  5. Love guns
  6. Think the blinkers on the corners of automobiles have no other utility than expressing celebration
  7. Are Young-Earth Creationists
  8. Looooooooooooooooooooooooooooove fried chicken. Particularly in a sandwich
  9. Would like to see prayer back in schools
  10. Drive huge trucks/SUVs
  11. Express public, vocal, and often political opposition to things that they themselves frequently do in private
  12. Fried chicken again for emphasis
  13. Would probably feel they were being persecuted if less than 2/3 of the radio stations were playing sermons at any given time
  14. Like to have strong leaders
  15. Share a concept of Honor that is lost on people from almost anywhere else in the world and that isn’t worth even trying to explain short of a dissertation, but safe to say is in the background of almost every aspect of life. Perhaps because of this….
  16. …are exceptionally friendly, BUT…
  17. …things can go sideways horrifyingly fast if you break the rules
  18. Have an amazingly strong concept of Heritage and connectedness to an idyllic past
  19. Believe that keeping that connectedness alive is vital and worth fighting for, even when it’s challenging to contextualize it in a global and post-modern world


So there you have it. I hope you enjoyed it, and if I die suspiciously tomorrow, you may as well just call it an accident, because the list of suspects will be hopelessly long.

In all seriousness though, I do think these are real. At the same time, I wouldn’t want to leave you with the impression that everything is the same. There are several notable areas where there is a 180-degree difference (etiquette in line for the grocery checkout is a major one that comes to mind). Still, as major world cultures go, I think the similarities are very interesting, and I almost wonder if somewhere down the road it would be possible to do some sort of exchange program. Then again, that might be a bad idea. But who really knows?

Sunday, April 01, 2018


So I've just moved to Florida.

After two years in upstate New York, I'm trading the subzero windchill for humidity, the road-rage-in-the-shopping-aisle rudeness for the almost-stiflingly polite, and the bomb-cyclone for the hurricane.

Lest you think I went soft and moved south to escape the cold and the speed and the malice like so many retired snowbirds, I did not. This was a career-motivated move.

Okay, well at least mostly.

But reasons aside, I have moved. And I find that anytime I move, I begin having strange and unwelcome thoughts. The first of these is that I should get married; the second that I should buy a truck.

But for realz, moving by yourself is hard. There's like a bazillion things that you need to do all at the same time. Like go to the city utilities building that is really only open while you're supposed to be at work or find a time for the cable guy to come.

And then there's decisions, Decisions, DECISIONS — that you have to make and no one can really help you, because ultimately they only really affect you.

I should qualify this by saying that any of the places I've moved — even overseas — I've always had friends or family there who were awesome and more than willing to assist in anyway they could. But it's still tough.

Normally I really prefer being alone, but moving pretty much always makes me wish I wasn't.

And then there's the truck. If I bought a truck, it would be much easier to move furniture.

That's all I have to say about the truck.

So I'm here for the fourth time in as many years, having these strange thoughts. But I'm sure it will pass. It always does. And I'll continue to blissfully drive my subcompact on into my solitary and misanthropic future.

Which is not to say that if you're passing through Tallahassee at any point in the next couple years you shouldn't swing by for a visit. You absolutely should.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

On the eve of 2018

2017 was an unexpectedly punishing year for me. It started with a plunge, didn't let up, and landed a frustrating number of parting shots right in this last month.

After how crazy 2016 was, I'd planned for this year to be a time to rest and recover; make some friends and some money, and arrive on the other side with a firmer grip on life and a sound heading for where to go next. Yet somehow, none of that came to be. And I'm now standing here on the edge of a new year feeling even more battered and bloodied than I did at the end of the last one. 

Strangely, though, I also feel more hopeful than I did then. I'm not sure if I can really articulate why. Maybe it's that I can honestly say again that I no longer know where I'm going, and that in itself is my natural and healthy state.

While I may carry some scars from this year for a long time, I've reached the end still standing. Bloody, but unbowed, as that moving—if very blasphemous (and even more misquoted)—poem by Henley goes. 

I've learned, yet again, that I am certainly not the master of my destiny or the captain of my soul. But that doesn't mean I'm not free. And perhaps the realization that I am not either of those things is, in fact, the only way that I can be truly and fully free. 

So with that thought, I bid farewell and adieu to 2017, and welcome 2018, come what may. 

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Thanksgiving in America

I realized yesterday that today would be my first Thanksgiving in America—let alone with my family—in three years. 2013 was the last time that I was home for it. And, despite all of my annoyances with “home,” I can honestly say I’m very thankful to be here this year.

This morning I drove the hour south along the lake from Geneva and visited my grandma, this afternoon I ate Thanksgiving dinner with my immediate family, and this evening I played Settlers of Catan with my siblings.

Of course, not quite all of my siblings are here now. My sister, Mattea, isn’t. But she has probably the happiest excuse possible in that she’s now in another country, and part of another family.

So it’s different than Thanksgivings in the past, and who knows what the future will bring. But for at least a rare moment, I am very happy to be here and now. And I just wanted to say that, and that I hope you also have a happy Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

It could be worse

Last night I got home from work at 11pm and the only two things in my mailbox were a medical bill and a jury summons. And I was like to hell with adult life.

I felt like that most of today. That is, when I wasn’t too tired to really feel anything. Work didn’t help. Getting home this evening though, after a moment of continuing to feel miserable about everything, I thought about it from a different perspective.

I had the luck to be born in a country where criminal defendants are entitled to a trial by a jury of peers. Even if it threatens to kill me about every other day, I am gainfully employed. And the medical bill will only make me choose between it and how much money I put in my brokerage account this month, not it and the rent. Many, many people today aren't as lucky. 

So I felt much better about everything.

Until I thought back to the last time I really thought about the whole “count your blessings” thing. It was when I was working in Iraq, and I remember how perverse the whole idea seemed to me at the time.

Is our only recourse for suffering the fact that there are people who suffer more? And what does that feeling of blessedness for not suffering more do for anyone who is?

It’s fast approaching a couple years since I first really thought about that. I still don’t have an answer. The good news is, I’m generally too numb to really think about it now.

So it could be worse, which is good, right?

Friday, September 29, 2017

Another year

My first year of living here in the small city of Geneva, New York, quietly came and went earlier this month. I didn’t put much thought into it. I’d had to renew my lease way back April, so all the decisions and angst and thoughts of doing something else really happened back then. This past month has just been silently watching things happen for the second time: HWS students coming back into town and filling the bars on weekend nights just like they did last September; the same strange early fall heatwave that happened last year. Soon the heat will be over and one day in a couple weeks I’ll hear the eerie sound of the ancient steam radiators in my even more ancient apartment groaning and creaking back into life for another season.

Perhaps the only remarkable thing about this being the second year is that I now know what will happen before it happens.

I’d hoped last year that I’d have some friends here by now. But that hasn’t happened. The only people who recognize me are my landlord, the YMCA desk attendant, and a collection of bartenders (people that I pay) and people that I meet through work—who all hate me (but I won’t elaborate on that because if I did they might find this and would no doubt derive great satisfaction from the possibility of me being lonely and miserable).

So things progress onward.

The lake is beautiful. I stare at it occasionally. I decided it was pathetic that I just stare at it, so I took one sailing lesson. But it was really expensive, so I had to quit.

The church bells are beautiful too—even if they play for like an hour every day when I’d rather not hear them. I visited a couple churches here. One was full of the vaguely-aforementioned people who hate me. The other was better, but everyone was either 40 years older than me or a doctor.

The days are getting shorter again too. I guess they’ve always done that, but this is 150 miles further north than I’ve ever lived before, so it’s more intense, technically. Pretty soon it will be dark again whenever I go to the YMCA, whether it’s before or after work. I don’t like to think about that, so I’ll stop.

I’d hoped I might meet some people by going to the YMCA, but unless you’re 70, a jock or speak Spanish, it’s really difficult.

So I just signed up for Spanish lessons. I or I think I did. I mailed my registration form and money to the community college, but I haven’t heard anything back.

That was the same thing that happened with the Young Professionals group. Only fortunately I didn’t send them any money, because I never heard back at all.

It’s all beautiful though. The lake and the bells anyway. I’m not so sure about the YMCA.

In the event that I make it through this year, I think I might go to the Philippines, or maybe back to Egypt. Some place that’s cheap and I have a good excuse for not fitting in.

Or maybe Latin America. But that’s only if the Spanish classes work out.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Move Fast and Break Things

About a month ago I was sitting in the office with CNBC on in the background when they brought Jonathan Taplin on for an interview. I’d never heard of him before that I could remember. And what he said about how many of the Silicon Valley giants are really byproducts of a direct antitrust action by the federal government several decades ago was something I’d never heard before anywhere. So, at the end of the segment, when they made a plug for the book he’d just written Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google, and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy, I decided to buy it on Audible. It turned out to be one of the most simultaneously devastating and enlightening pieces of non-fiction I’ve ever read.

I don’t really have the time or emotional energy to write a proper review about it, so I’ll just say that if you work in advertising, media, music or art, or any business associated with those things—or if you’re even just a consumer those things—it’s a must read.

I’ll add the note that I don’t promise that you’ll agree with Taplin’s moral audit of what’s happening—I know I didn’t entirely. The thing is, even if you don’t agree with how he judges what is happening out there, the picture he paints of what is happening out there is the most prescient and comprehensive that I’ve ever seen. Whether you want to take it as a heart-wrenching lamentation—or just investment intelligence—it’s an invaluable read either way.