Hayat al-Flooz

As a wee-one in the Heartland, writing was my pleasure, solace and therapy all in one. As I settle into unsettled living in New York City, it is due time to reconnect with my old friend. Enjoy the attempted intellectual musings and personal reflections; comment with reckless abandon. Welcome to the life of Flooz.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

But where shall I store my years?

Warning: a quasi-sentimental post.

Dear readers, I am in the midst of one of life's great transformations. I am getting married to a wonderful man on Sunday. I am thus also engaged in preparing for this transformation, i.e. moving. Now, moving is a funny thing always, and much of my commentary is no doubt true no matter when you move or the circumstances surrounding it. However, there is something a bit more acute that I feel at this moment, as it is a defining one in the phases of my life. Weddings are a new beginning of sorts, yet you of course do not discard the old. It becomes integrated, and so with your material belongings. Now, sorting through old clothing and shoes is the easy part. But what of those things that you know you can never throw away, but you're not quite sure where to situate in your consciousness and in your physical space. This is of course a problem that is exacerbated by the astounding lack of space we New Yorkers have acquiesced to for the sake of living here.

As I dig through piles of wedding invitations, love letters from highschool boyfriends, breakup letters from the same boyfriends, obituaries of a friend who left us far too soon, poems from dear friends, pictures of moments that have passed but yet demand remembrance, and of people who are no longer in my life but without whom I would not be me -- i keep asking myself what one does with these remnants of life's occasions. Do I really need to save my ID card from my first internship? Will my grandchildren curse me if they are deprived of my melodramatic breakup emails (yes emails)? Will anybody but me ever care to look at this stuff? And perhaps more pointedly, do I even need this stuff? These are things that only surface when I move, that I never seem to spontaneously look for, but in whose presence I apparently find comfort. What would happen if I threw them out? Would the world quiver? Would I even regret it? In two months, would I even remember it?

But no, there will be no mass disposal of these artifacts of the past. I guess I will have to content myself with finding a new spot in my new apartment for my old lives.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Back to School

It's true. I've managed to convince the good people at Columbia University that they should pay for me to be a full-time student for another 5-7 years. While I'm overjoyed to be back in a classroom discussing the types of things people only seem to have patience for inside classrooms, I'm also left pondering the enormity of it all: I am being paid to learn. For me, that reality brings with it some excess baggage in the form of an obligation to make what I learn accessible and interesting to the average Joes and Janes. What follows is my deconstruction of today's events on Columbia's campus, and hopefully it lives up to my stated goal.

President Ahmadinejad's actual speech was greatly overshadowed by two things: first, President Ahmaninehad's presence on campus (and its discontents), and second, President Bollinger's extraordinary "introduction." The energy on campus was not just infectious, but had the distinct feeling of significance that one associates with historic moments. Outside Columbia's gates, shear madness reigned as protesters lined the streets chanting slogans that ranged from the factually inaccurate to the purposefully misleading. One individual held a "9-11-01, Never Forget" sign, either betraying his own ignorance as to who actually perpetrated the attacks, or, more disturbingly, embodying the tendency to reduce our enemies to single categories for easy digestion.

I'm hesitant to offer an equivalent to demonstrate the absurdity here, so suffice it to say that the Iranian president and Osama Ben Laden are not one in the same, but representatives of drastically different ideological agendas. In a similar vein, members of the Jewish community yet again demonstrated an unwillingness to abandon the Hitler paradigm for comprehending enemies. Ahmadinejad is a hateful, fear-mongering despot with an awful human rights records; but he is not, as one e-mail I received proclaimed, "genocidal." This type of reductionism ultimately stems for a disregard of the ways in which "different" people are also different from one another. By dividing our world into "us" and "everyone else," we effectively dehumanize with our indifference.

Inside the campus gates, things were far more peaceful. The coalition of student groups protesting the President's appearance demonstrated a level of nuance that those outside the gate lacked as they launched targeted attacks against specific actions perpetrated by the Iranian government. While powerful in their own right, these demonstrations were overshadowed by the afternoon's main event: President Bollinger's introductory remarks.

His brutally honest assault on the Iranian President's government would have been extraordinary in any forum, but with Ahmadinejad sitting a few feet away, it took on other-worldly proportions. Bollinger refused to be locked into a corner by both affirming the right of the Columbia community to engage Ahmadinejad directly and delivering a critique of the Iranian government that made the Bush administration look bashful. Better yet, he did it without a cry for war, recognizing instead that the Iranian people will in all likelihoods force this increasingly unpopular figure out of office in the next elections.

Despite my attempts to remain on the outskirts of things, take photographs and witness the diversity of opinions on display, I was overcome with emotion twice during the day. Once was at the conclusion of Bollinger's speech, when I, along with the thousands of other students on Columbia's South Lawn, got to our feet to applaud. I felt very proud that in an era tending toward binaries, Bollinger was able to critique all sides and pander to no one.

The second incident was far more visceral, and admittedly far more personal. A group of Jewish students and faculty members were holding a demonstration inside campus which was so different from those going on around them. There were no Hitler or 9-11 signs, just people singing and dancing in a circle with joy and the conviction that overcoming hate and fear is not just a negative process of rebuttal, but also one that must demonstrate life. They ended one song with something quite familiar to many of us, as it is found at the end of a central prayer recited daily by observant Jews: Oseh shalom bimromav, Hu ya'aseh shalom aleinu, V'al kol Yisrael, V'imru, v'imru amen (May he who makes peace in high places, make peace for us and for all Israel, and let us say, amen). To my great surprise, this disinterested observer's eyes welled with tears. Of exactly what, I am still trying to understand, but I know it to be far larger than today's events.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Humor for the Day

Guido: going to start wearing an eye patch

oh yeah?
any particular reason?

to make me look cool

what about a hook for a hand?

don't be ridiculous

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Marriage and The City

Well, here we are, 2 1/2 months before the wedding. I'm finally done with my job on Wall Street and was planning on figuring out all the details during this time. These details include finding a photographer, a florist, buying our booze, getting my dress altered and a handful of other things (like finding a hair stylist/makeup artist for the big day). Now, I was anticipating a very different reality than The City, my first love, seems to abide by.

Not only am I being told that 2 1/2 months is just not enough time to book any of the above professionals, but the cost of such professionals ranges from absurd to astronomical. It's not that we have an iddy biddy wedding budget here and I still can't afford, um.... anyone. So I'm wondering what people who really have small budgets do if I'm having this much trouble.
In the most expensive city in the country, it's expected that everything is going to cost more. I just was not prepared for how much more. And frankly, it's just not in my value system to spend $5000 on flowers, $2000 on hair and makeup and another $5000 for someone to photograph it all (these are the low-average prices for such services, not mythical numbers I just created).

I'm really hating the whole wedding industry for creating all this fantasy hoopla bullshit that then enables hairdressers, florists and the like to engage in bride extortion. It's similar price fixing that the wedding dress designers engage in: "well darling, it's actually impossible to find a decent looking dress for under $1500, and if you want something special, that will cost you your hypothetical first child." Hells no I say. Yet I can see how brides like me must start off feeling appalled, and gently get bullied into spending thousands of dollars on ancillary services because "that's just what they cost." Do they really? And do they have to?

I am now taking suggestions for creative wedding solutions. Got an artistic friend who wants to do arrange our centerpieces? Or a buddy who make my hair look better than I can do myself? I refuse to surrender this quickly even if I must go down fighting.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Love and Exile

In his tremendous (albeit somewhat romanticized) treatise, Representations of the Intellectual, the late Edward Said paints a compelling picture of the role of the academic in contemporary society. For many years this small book has been quite dear to me because it so powerfully articulates that the "role" of the intellectual is actually a set of obligations, the most urgent of which is to "speak truth to power." In Said's account, this task is facilitated by a certain exilic distance, and that exile is quite often solidified as the unfortunate byproduct of highlighting particularly inconvenient truths. It is not exile in the merely physical sense, but also a mental skepticism that looks critically at all master narratives, the irony being that "speaking truth" often involves dismantling the binary myths that pundits and politicians use to explain our world.

Having never fit into my surroundings while growing up in rural South Dakota, I became used to standing outside the established community and even enjoyed my state of quasi-exile because of the freedom it engendered: I could think and write about whatever I chose without fearing the cool kids (they were too cool to care what the hell I was talking about), and I could easily pack my bags and leave because there was no force that made me want to stay. It's the dork's fantasy version of being a rootless cowboy. Perpetual exile allows you the intellectual and emotional distance to go where the wind takes you without fear.

Years later, I am still living a self-imposed exile from most "-isms" and institutions because they usually involve a competing set of obligations that render intellectual honesty more difficult. Not impossible, but more difficult, because either the horizons of inquiry are narrowed or the subject matter is watered down as to not offend, limiting one's ability to really speak "truth to power" (even if the truth itself is quite ugly). Certain personal relationships can curtail one's intellectual life in the same way, and in the past I definitely repackaged my opinions in neater wrapping in order to not jeopardize a relationship with someone. And I fear the long-term impact that such watering down has on one's intellectual life and in this case, academic career. And in more concrete terms, I fear compromising my intellectual integrity--a most closely held obligation--for the sake of maintaining peace in the house.

It is thus not surprising that I thought I would never marry, and that so many academics do not. It's simply very difficult to be deeply invested in work that your mate deplores. And equally difficult to maintain a relationship with an someone who is either totally indifferent to your life's work, or an opinionless drone who agrees with you all the time. The solution is often a personal exile from the closest of all relationships, marriage, in an attempt to preserve one's intellectual freedom to roam.

So, given my historic comfort with exile and my highly politicized area of study (the Middle East, particularly Israel and Palestine), I'm a bit freaked out to find myself getting married in 4 months. My fears are only exacerbated by my religion (Jewish), my politics (left), my fiance's family (right wing) and my fiance's own deeply held convictions about what will become my life's work. Because you are no longer living in exile when you have a family on the other side of a deep divide to whom you must explain yourself. Is it really a choice between love and intellectual honesty? Can you do both without pissing everyone off, and thus probably screwing up the love anyway?

Or have academics just invented this notion of emotional distance in order to justify their inability to maintain personal relationships because they are so invested in their work that they forgot that the satisfaction generated by dismantling post-colonial narratives probably pales in comparison to watching your kid score a soccer goal? Or maybe it doesn't, and maybe those same "irrelevant" academics have much more of an impact than they know and than we're willing to admit and it's not just a question of intellectual narcissism. I know the professors who have taught me have changed my life, and I hope to change many more and maybe even the policies I find objectionable. It's like the academic's notion of trickle down economics, in which case, maybe the decision to wholly devote oneself to a field of study is worthwhile after all. Or maybe in varies by person, and it probably does, but I don't yet know what type of person I will become. Who knows. Town, my fellow thinking radical, I need some help. And for all the non-radicals, thinking or otherwise, your input would be much appreciated.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Comic Books, Heroes and the Post-9-11 Psyche

So, I'm back. I need to be back because I feel the faint pain of my brain shriveling up every day I spend devoted to the tumultuous state of....... multichannel marketing. It's almost like saving lives, no? Oh, I guess my bosses just treat it as such.

Anyhow, moving on, I saw Spiderman 3 with my dear friend The Town (aka J Town the intellectual metalhead) last weekend and was struck once again with the sheer number of comic book movies being made these days. I am not ill-informed enough to think that I am the only one who has noticed this or who has tried to establish the linkages between this genre of film and the contemporary state of political instability. With that disclaimer stated, I think there is still more to be said about the proliferation of super heroes (literally) flying our way: apart from the Spiderman franchise, we have the revival of Superman, Batman, the Hulk, the X-Men and the Fantastic Four.

We have to remember that many of these comic books were created in the aftermath of WWII, the "good war," by a nation confronting a communist force thought to be universally evil. What then are we to make of their resurgence during the wars on terror (of terror?), which have brought us face to face with both ultimate evil and devastating levels of collateral damage in our pursuit of freedom. In short, unlike WWII and the beginning of the Cold War, ours is not a time of broad-based support for our political leaders stemming from confidence in our political decisions. This is not to state that our leaders of yore always acted justly and thus, the clear cut dichotemy between good and evil accurately reflected the poltical reality. Rather, the absense of a long and costly war where victory could no longer be easily identified enabled the the public to embrace polarized views of good and evil (it is no surprise that the public's disillusionment with this paradigm would come with Vietnam). If these are the conditions under which comics initially flourished, what is the significance of their revival at a time where notions of the good, the evil and above all the just war have become increasingly ambiguous?

Joseph Campbell, the former professor of Comparative Mythology at Sarah Lawrence and one of America's great public intellectuals, spoke often of the psychological need for mythology as a means to comprehend the great suffering inherent in human existence. Myths, according to Campbell, "are stories of our search through the ages for truth, for meaning, for significance. We all need to tell our story and to understand our story... We need for life to signify, to touch the eternal, to understand the mysterious, to find out who we are." Campbell contends that we have largely abandoned the classical corpus of mythology that sustained us and that we are worse off having not found a replacement. However, as The Town postulated, comic books (and their cinematic spin-offs) may well be the mythology of our time. Awkward teenagers are almost certainly more likely to associate with Wolverine than with any figure from Greek mythology, but yet the functional qualities of the myth remain intact. The classical mythology is echoed within the confines of the comic book, through its presentation of justice, tragedy and above all, the hero's struggle.

Not unlike their printed counterparts, watching a comic book movie is a profoundly comforting experience. Within the neatly demarcated space of the film, we can rest assured that good will prevail and order will be restored, in a stunning reversal of the political situation we confront in our morning news. Spiderman can even appear against the backdrop of the American flag en route to saving the day, creating a convergence of emotional goodwill that, within the context of the cinematic experience, is simply exhilarating. Thus, while initially conceived during the uncertain battles between good and evil, these stories also have the capacity to provide reassurance during times of ambiguity. We as a public want, demand and perhaps need a more simplistic narrative into which we can escape the reality of 3378/"countless" dead (as keeping track of freedom's victims was never the goal of freedom). Again, I do not pretend that my conclusions are in any way profound or original (this is after all an exercise in "mental masturbation"), but I'm excited by them anyway.

So why do we need these heroes? The Town, in his infinite wisdom, spoke of 9-11 as a day both horrifying and strangely familiar. While we watched the towers burn and eventually crumble, it was as if we had seen the film footage somewhere else before -- perhaps in an end-of-the-world summer blockbuster or a political thriller. The imagery of destruction has become so cemented in our collective memory from countless on-stage depictions that, when the horror left the screen, we could not help looking to the sky for Spiderman or his peers to intervene and save the day.

Perhaps we need heroes because the world so often does not provide them. And perhaps we embrace these films wholeheartedly -- despite their lack of realism, convoluted plots and occasionally bad acting -- because we wish the world would. And until then, they help us believe that someday it will.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Musings on Gender, Passion and the State of Retail

First, the good stuff. I'm on a quest to buy new khakis. Nothing fancy, just comfortable, low-rise, wide-legged khakis that are comfortable enough to lounge around in and nice enough to pick up off the floor and wear to work. A conversation between me and several retail stores:

Me: Why hello J. Crew. It's been so long but it's good to see that NOTHING HAS CHANGED ON YOUR END. You still seem to be designing delightfully overpriced goods for the Lily Pullizter set. Now, while I have on occasion emerged with a good purchase, the last time was before THOSE PEOPLE reelected THAT MAN to drive our country into the ground.

J.Crew: Hi shopper! Would you like some summer weight cotton khakis?

Me: I tried those. They are as Aunt Sue would say, "ill fitted."

J.Crew: How about this brushed cotton pair for the bargain price of $128?

Me: I'm leaving now

J.Crew: But wait! What about our seersucker and madras and cropped pants and 146 varieties of flip flops?

Me: I'm walking across the street to your -- and I admit this is hard -- stylistically inferior step cousin, the Gap.

Gap: Hello disgruntled shopper! Perhaps I can cheer you up with our new boyfriend trousers!

Me: No, no, I want something I can pick up off the floor and wear to work, not something that looks as though it's been on the floor, under my dog, since November

Gap: But we thought the wrinkles were hip!

Me: Sigh, you just don't get it. You never did. Goodbye.

Gap: (tear drips down the register)

Me: Hmmm.... do I dare wander into the Abercrombie & Fitch? It can't be that bad, can it?

A&F: Hey ya shopper! Aren't you impressed by our dim lights, sexy aroma and giant pictures of nearly naked 16 year olds everywhere?

Me: What? I can't hear you over the awful club music, and you smell like my the boys at my high school prom (which is NOT a good thing), and you seem to have a kiddy porn fetish

A&F: Uh.... How about these terry cloth booty shorts with #16 on the ass?

Me: Someone give me a match. And some lighter fluid. Now.

I am, needless to say, unfulfilled. But on to more substantive matters, I am in the middle of a book by George Mosse entitled "The Image of Man." Mosse's task is to document the emergence of the modern male stereotype and the countertypes against which it was defined (mostly Jews, homosexuals and women, making a Jewish lesbian the ultimate threat). The book is fascinating for me because Mosse devotes much of it to addressing the connection between modern masculinity and modern nationalism, and specifically the ways through which the latter co-opted the former for its construction of an idealized social order.

Mosse provides ample evidence that one of the characteristics most associated with the ideal modern man was his ambivalence toward sex. It was at best an incidental part of part of his character, something he did for procreation's sake. Sexual desire was thought to be a sign of poor self-restraint that led to deviance and detracted from a man's honor. This was of course contrasted with the the popular characterization of women as emotionally driven creatures whose appetite for sex could never be sated (thus explaining their inability to play a role in the responsible business of civil society).

Now, it takes no great cultural critic to see that our contemporary stereotypes about men and women's sexual appetites are exact opposites of those propagated in the 19th century. Images of the promiscuous women have been replaced with that of the prude; meanwhile, men have been excusing bad behavior for at least 30 years by appealing to their inability to control their penises. So, a question for the class: when do we think this shift in association occurred? And what factors were responsible for such a 180? And where can I find some damn khakis?