Archive for February, 2011

February 28, 2011

More about my mediocre oud skills

I’ve already lamented my lack of steady progress at learning how to play the oud so I won’t dwell on that. What I’m sharing today is the aha! moment I had while reading through some blogs this afternoon. Today’s inspiration came from Pete the Planner who was actually quoting someone else:

There is a difference between interest and commitment. When you’re interested in doing something, you do it only when it’s convenient. When you’re committed to something, you accept no excuses, only results. (Ken Blanchard)

It’s no mystery that the reason my oud skills are lagging is because I’m not committed. But here’s the real secret: I didn’t want to learn how to play it because I think the oud is the most beautiful instrument in the world (that spot is taken by the mbira and the kora) but because I want to use it as a means to claim a share of my culture.

I’m of Arabic descent and grew up in Europe without learning how to speak the language. As a result, whenever I travel to Lebanon, I always feel like an outsider and somewhat diminished because I can’t partake in elaborate discourse. My family and friends have to translate a lot of things for me and I find that both frustrating and humiliating. I’ve tried learning Arabic numerous times but do not feel any connection to the language to keep my interest sustained.

Last summer, while I was in the mountains in Ehden, I listened to a man play some beautiful oud and was so moved by it when I realized I could connect to my roots through music. The fact that nobody in my immediate entourage (except an uncle) plays the instrument, or any music for that matter, was an added benefit: with everyone to support me (my parents are my cheerleading squad) and no one to patronize me, I would be free to forge my own path and build my own relationship with my “Arabism”.

The clip above is of a song I’ve been working on since the fall and that I’m still not good at.

Having said all that, I resolve and commit to play at least 30 minutes of oud on a given day before I’ll allow myself to pick up my beloved mbira. That ought to keep me accountable and focused. And, who knows, maybe one day playing the oud will feel like its own reward.

February 27, 2011

Book review: Let’s Take the Long Way Home

Just finished reading “Let’s Take the Long Way Home: A Memoir of Friendship” by Gail Caldwell. It’s the story of her close friendship with Caroline Knapp and of her grief after she lost her to cancer. I started reading it shortly before the third anniversary of my best friend’s passing and finished it last night. Am still not over it. Her relationship was vastly different from mine but the way she wrote about her grief really struck a chord. I’ve never been able to put my feelings into words but recognized them in Caldwell’s writing.

The same shock and feeling of unpreparedness (felt like getting the wind knocked out of me – every single time I thought of what had happened):

The only education in grief that any of us ever gets is a crash course.

The same disbelief:

But no one I had loved—no one I counted among the necessary pillars of life—had died suddenly, too young, full of determination not to go.

The same dreams, reaching out for them in vain, imploring the dead to come back (in one of my dreams, she looked annoyed because I was making her late for her lunch date with God and his girlfriend):

In the dream I knew she was dead, and I reached out for her and said, “But you’re coming back, right?” She smiled but shook her head; her face was a well of sadness.

The same fierce attachment to material things that belonged to them (I have a pair of her shoes that’s half a size too small and a sweater that itches awfully – they’re treasures):

I wanted to claim whatever of her was left. I’d always heard stories about grief-stricken families arguing over ugly lamps or cheap coffeemakers; now I understood. The frantic hunger I felt was not trivial or greedy; it was possessive, in the most primal sense. I still have her gym bag and her rain jacket, and for a while I even tried to wear her winter boots, an entire size too big, which was absurd but comforting. Memento mori: reminders of the dead. I think we must long for these signatures of history (…) because they take up the space left by the departed.

The same perspective and outlook shift:

What if dying weren’t a bad thing? Caroline’s death had left me with a great and terrible gift: how to live in a world where loss, some of it unbearable, is as common as dust or moonlight.

The same inner transformation (The day she passed was like having my drive formatted. For the following months, I was a blank slate with all my limitations temporarily wiped away):

Grief is what tells you who you are alone.

The same hole in the heart:

Caroline’s death was a vacancy in the heart, a place I neither could nor wished to fill. (…) her goneness was a thing unto itself, a memory outlined by crime tape it would be an outrage to remove. Now here was Neruda, entreating mourners to inhabit death as though it were a dwelling: Absence is a house so vast that inside you will pass through its walls and hang pictures on the air.

The same reification of her death, now an integral component of life:

I knew I would never have another friend like Caroline (…). That she was irreplaceable became a bittersweet loyalty: Her death was what I had now instead of her.

I’m quoting the book extensively because I still don’t feel comfortable writing about all this. My life still feels split in two parts: the one before her death and the one after. Processing the fact that she’s gone is a continual work in progress.

I’ve read a whole bunch of books about loss and grieving but none hit the mark like this one. The other books tell you pseudo-scientifically what you’re supposed to feel with the caveat that everyone feels things differently. This book is raw: the author puts all her thoughts and emotions out there and you can’t help but connect and relate. Self-help books make you think grieving is a set of phases you have to go through in order to heal; this author shows you there is no such thing as healing because there is no sickness to heal from. The pain may ease with time but you will continue to grieve because it is now part of your life. And that is okay.

The book will also appeal to dog lovers, recovering alcoholics and people who simply enjoy beautiful writing.

February 17, 2011


By now, you should know I have mixed feelings about anonymity. While beneficial in certain situations (therapy, support groups, etc.), it also creates an environment that encourages people to become their worst passive aggressive selves.

After reading “Deindividuation“, a post on the “You Are Not So Smart” blog, I’m convinced it’s the root of all evil (mild hyperbole). The post contains anecdotes about people who were contemplating suicide (from the top of a building) and who made that fatal jump after being encouraged to do so by a crowd. Very disturbing. Who in their right mind would do something like that? Answer: You and me.

According to the author:

The risk of a spontaneous cheering section goading a person into killing themselves is high when people in a group feel anonymous and are annoyed or angry. It only takes one person to get the crowd going. Those are the three ingredients – anonymity, group size and arousal. If you lose your sense of self, feel the power of a crowd and then get slammed by a powerful cue from the environment – your individuality may evaporate.

This phenomenon isn’t limited to the streets and takes place online as well. You’re probably familiar with the story of the girl who offed herself after being taunted by online bullies.

The more anonymity a user is allowed, the more powerful the effect of being protected by the group. (…) your identity can spring a leak in the presence of others, and the more others there are, the more you dissolve into the collective will of the group. Looting, rioting, lynchings, beating, war, chasing a monster with torches – the switch is always there, and it doesn’t take much to flip it.

Very depressing.

The post does give a small glimmer of hope though: all this energy could potentially be harnessed for the greater good by making people feel “safe from judgment” and by providing “prosocial cues”. I’d really like to know what a prosocial cue looks like to begin with, especially in the online world. According to Wikipedia,

Prosocial behavior is caring about the welfare and rights of others, feeling concern and empathy for them, and acting in ways that benefit others.

That’s all fine and dandy but how does that stand a chance when online society is governed by incredibly strong forces such as Godwin’s Law?

As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches. In other words, Godwin put forth the hyperbolic observation that, given enough time, in any online discussion—regardless of topic or scope— someone inevitably criticizes some point made in the discussion by comparing it to beliefs held by Hitler and the Nazis.

(If you don’t believe this statement, I suggest you go spend some time in the comments section of the Austin American Statesman.)

I really don’t mean to be a cynic. I just think that, unless you live in a country where freedom of speech is repressed (sorry ACLU activists, the United States is NOT China or Syria), you should own up to your thoughts and opinions.

February 7, 2011

Predicting creativity

After discussing nuclear fission and solving the world’s problems, my husband and I started daydreaming about the upcoming release of the new Fleet Foxes album (out on May 3). Will it be better than their first LP? Or at least as good? What will the future bring?

(best song on their last album. I “hearted” 10 out of their 11 songs on my mp3 player.)

John, being a realist, dished out the following piece of advice to help manage our expectations:

Think of the worst song on their last album and imagine a CD comprised entirely of that.

According to him, the worst songs on an album are symptomatic of artists running out of creativity and needing to produce fillers to complete their projects. Many times, artists use up all their creativity in their first albums and fizzle out when they work on the sequel.
We’ve seen this happen to Band of Horses, Midlake, and too many others who we describe as now “hanging out in the Shearwater house.” So this could very well happen to our beloved Foxes (shudder).

(worst song in my humble opinion. The only one that didn’t get a heart.)

I wonder if this theory can be applied to other creative areas in life. I was trying to think of this concept in terms of books and chapters, but, according to John, songs are “self-contained environments” when chapters aren’t (can you tell how philosophical we get about music?).

While I appreciate John’s conservative and rational approach to creativity prediction, I like to hold on to the hope that sparks will fly no matter what. While music can be created scientifically using algorithms, a true piece of art also contains a soul. This soul may waver, explaining some inconsistency in the musician’s output, but it’s still there. It cannot be mathematically replicated or measured. Pressures of the music industry may cause great songs to be born prematurely, with little time to mature, but talent will find its way through the system.
If an artist’s music has punched me in the stomach, leaving me breathless and in an awe, I’ll stick around – weathering the blandness and waiting for the next revelation.

February 4, 2011

Kenneth Cole Tweets

The end of the era I foretold a few posts ago isn’t here yet. And the past day has been a momentous one in Twitter affairs (Noam Chomsky won’t mind me borrowing his sentence).

It all started with the following remark tweeted by Kenneth Cole, the clothing retailer:

Millions are in uproar in #Cairo. Rumor is they heard our new spring collection is now available online at

There was some uproar indeed but it came from the online community who was outraged by this callous tweet. Kenneth Cole was blamed for making light of a serious situation, exploiting current events and hijacking the #Cairo hash-tag, used to group Egypt-relevant tweets.

Kenneth Cole responded by deleting the tweet (bad move!) and publishing an apology on his Facebook page (smart move). I’m against deleting tweets because by the time one realizes they should be removed, they’ve already been re-tweeted by a bunch of people and, as such, will always remain on record anyway. This makes the deletion of tweets appear like an attempt to conceal things.

Lo and behold, a newcomer enters the Twitter scene less than an hour later. Behold KennethColePR – the impersonation account – and the following zingers:

Parents of Hiroshima — you’ll melt when you see our new kids collection! #KennethColeTweets

People of Australia: Water up to your ankles? We’ve got your Kenneth Cole capris right here! #KennethColeTweets

(there’s more where these came from.)