If my Arabic could talk back to me:

You have the audacity
to sigh and roll your eyes at me
when I seem a little distant
or take some time to come when you call for me?

After you hid me in your closet
refused to be heard with me in public;
After you left me
shunned and neglected me;
And after all those years
When you wouldn’t speak with me
even when I called

Now somehow,
you expect me to leap back wholeheartedly
the moment you want me to be your little side bitch?

Well forgive me
if I take some time to warm up to the idea
If I have some trepidations
about touching your lips again.

Because bitch, I am beautiful.
Do you know how many artists
have drawn testaments to my infinite curves?
How many poets have blown their minds 

just trying to channel the shades
of sonics and meaning
resonating from my every syllable?
And the bits of me that felt too rough for your mouth—
that’s the stuff that music is built upon.

You had your chance with me, but do you even know what you turned down?

Nadia, ya habibti
You say you miss me
And I want to believe you
We can talk, and see where this goes
But I have to take this slow.

To Remind Myself in a Rut:

Remember:

That your turning points have never come from glowing revelations,

But from those yet-unworded fuzzy pangs of off-ness
you didn’t think would ever emerge from your background noise;
From the feelings that leaked out where they weren’t supposed to;
From the moments when your words stumbled upon the gaps in what they could say, into the wormholes of what you were missing. 

That you’ve come to feel amazing
about things that made you feel like shit a few years ago.
That you’ve come to feel nothing
about things that made you feel like shit a few years ago.
That you’ve come to feel powerfully enraged
about things that made you feel like shit a few years ago. 

That you’re feelings aren’t special.
And isn’t that great?

Bad Language: French Edition

I’ve talked a bit a before about being  bad at Arabic. Well I’m even worse at French:

Growing up, French was what my parents used to speak to each other when they didn’t want me and my sister to understand.

My parents may be your usual semi-French-educated Lebanese trilingual bosses (being good at lots of languages is kind of like the consolation prize for colonialism), but I’ve never delved into French myself much beyond the likes of pliépirouette, and croissant. 

Sure, multilingual childrearing might trendy now (well, especially if you’re white and American and not scrutinized for your English abilities), but I guess it was considered less impressive back then when your kid goes to preschool and starts asking for “ماء.” My parents decided that two languages would be a reasonable compromise, and I picked up about 1.4 of them.

So the majority of my French experience was listening in for the words “les enfants,” so that I could scream “Hey, stop talking about me!”

You might expect that this would have motivated me to actually learn some French. Then again, you might also expect that planning for a month-long program in Paris this year would have motivated me to learn French. Unfortunately, my motivation has failed to live up to the expectations of the hypothetical second person in both cases.

Over winter break, I decided I was going to learn French online and downloaded Duolingo. After I learned how to greet people and ask for various food items, it told me that I was “3% fluent,” which made me feel so good about myself that I decided to take a little break–which grew up into a full-grown break. To rub it in, they still send me emails about how I haven’t done my 15 minute daily practice.

Now, in some respects, I guess I wasn’t as unprepared as I thought. As worried as I was about taking dance classes in French, ballet vocabulary has equipped me with a large supply of action verbs (albeit mis-conjugated and squeezed through the filter of every American dialect you can think of), and the tendency for dance instructors to be physical in their corrections and repeat things a lot comes in handy. As a result, I’ve developed a pretty detailed vocabulary of French anatomical terms and breath-related words in the past few weeks.

But speaking is another story–ask me to say these things out loud and I might end up choking on a guttural “R” until some gracious soul saves me with “Anglais?”

Of course, I never had that much cause for concern, knowing that tons of people speak English here. But what could be more obnoxiously stereotypical than an American tourist going around automatically expecting everyone to speak English to them? I promised myself that I would at least use enough of my memorized phrases to look like I was making some kind of effort.

That plan kind of went out the window as soon as I stepped off the plane. After 12 hour flight and a 2-hour delay that had me missing the group shuttle and trying to figure out how to get to my dorm, my ineffective je voudrais‘s dissolved pretty quickly into “Where can I get a Taxi?!” At least it worked.

“Only English?” the cab driver asked me.

I nodded, aware of how painfully stereotypical I must seem.

His English was pretty minimal, but better than my French, and enough pull our conversation through “Where are you going?” (15th arrondissement) and “Where are you from?” (California?)

He looked at me “But you’re not really, completely American, no? Where you from?”

Ah, I sighed, sounds just like home. 

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It’s Time for Men to Apologize More

Ever wonder why articles on gender differences in language automatically assume that men are the standard and women are doing things worse? Yeah, me too.


Is it time for men to stop diminishing their credibility as leaders with their diction and syntax patterns? A linguistic analysis of professional communication shows some marked gender differences, which can only be interpreted as indicators of male incompetence:

Men disproportionately underuse apologies, appearantly neglecting to account for how their actions effect others. Perhaps this is because men are not raised to develop the skills of accountability or empathy needed for a functional work environment.

They are also less likely to use “just” as a qualifier in describing even their most trivial activities and intentions. Such language gives the impression that they overestimate the scale and importance of their own work, not fully aware of the larger workings of their organization.

Men are unlikely to introduce their statements with an acknowledgement of their subjective existence, such as “In my opinion,” or  “I feel,” instead stating their opinions as if they were indisputable facts. This suggests they subscribe to the fallacy that they are neutral observers uninfluenced by their personal standpoint and experiences–an mindset especially inappropriate for companies with international operations.

In a typical mansplainy fashion, men are also less likely to hedge “I might be wrong,” or “I’m not sure,” to acknowledge when they are commenting on something they are terribly uninformed about. This unrealistic over-estimation of the scope of one’s knowledge is warning sign for brash, uninformed, and ultimately disastrous business decisions.

Would anyone trust leaders who seem so irresponsible, egocentric, and irrational? With these flaws, it’s hard to understand why men still seem to dominate corporate leadership positions (After all, what kind of organization would encourage selfish and risky behavior?). Maybe it’s a result of historical inequality or something, but now that sexism is over (so I’ve heard), men will quickly loose their ground unless they learn to project a more responsible, considerate image.

Of course, we can help fix this problem by asking men to constantly monitor their language to avoid gender-typical patterns, but given that language is so deeply ingrained, real change will only come through the purchase of my products.

I offer speech coaching for only $250 a session to help men de-gender their speech habits. For those unwilling to make that commitment, I have developed an app which will scan your email drafts to identify and correct overly masculine language (No, it can’t interpret meaning, intention, or context, but it can indiscriminately sprinkle in phrases like “Sorry,” “I feel that,” and “Does that work for you?”).

Of course, the issue of men in the workplace goes beyond just language. I have also published Stop Leaning on Me, a guidebook for young ambitious male executives hoping to rise above the of lack of personal responsibility and regard for others that plague leaders of their gender (pre-order your copy now for $50).

After all, when it comes to undoing the results of long-standing and socially pervasive gender inequality, the one person who needs to make the change is you.


Seriously though, I do understand where the “don’t say sorry” movement is coming from: it is worth looking at how internalized sexism affects confidence in language, and “fake it till you make it” can be a useful personal strategy in some situations. But the emphasis on female-language-correction seems to be missing the point–and conveniently, getting women to pay for it.

Identity, Labels, and the Rectangular Approximation Method (What?)

Major dorkitude alert: may bring back unpleasant memories of high school calculus.

In the category of conversations I manage to have:

(Referring to an increasing number of words used to talk about gender, sexuality, and such). “Why do people need all these labels? Why can’t we all just be people? I thought the point was to not put people into boxes.”

Me: “But in a way, having a ton of labels is kind of like having no labels.”

“How?”

Me: “It’s . . . it’s like the rectangular approximation method.”

“What?”

Me: “You know, from calc, where you use rectangles to approximate an integral. You want to use boxes to represent this weirdly shaped area, and it’s never going to be quite right, but the more boxes you use, the closer it gets to the real thing.”

Okay, let me try to explain what I was getting at.

So lets say this area under the curve represents the actual spectrum of people’s experiences. It’s complicated and funky-shaped (and really it should probably have at least 6 dimensions, but I can’t draw that). If we had an equation that represented the true shape of the graph we could do an integral to find the area, but we don’t, so we can’t.

Untitled drawing (1)

Instead, we have to do the next best thing we can and approximate by using boxy rectangles, which are a pretty good parallel for language. These boxes can never fully and accurately encompass what they are trying to describe. Some stuff parts get exaggerated, some stuff just gets left out entirely, and the complexity of the shape gets lost. But we try.

Untitled drawing (3)

Now we can also change the number of boxes. Having just a couple is a pretty grossly inaccurate representation of the shape and a lot gets excluded.

Untitled drawing (2)

But adding more boxes, which are more specific and varied, makes it more inclusive and closer to reality.

Untitled drawing (4)

Of course it will never be a perfect representation of the real thing unless you have infinite boxes. I think language always fails to fully capture reality–but each expansion of language gives us the option of failing a little closer to the target.

Like this


Side note: do all the people who say “who needs labels anyway” in response to other people’s identities actually think that everyone should stop using words to describe experiences? Because I would actually be totally down with a system in which everyone has to describe themselves through interpretive dance.

Side note 2: I think the new answer to “when are we going to use math anyway?” should be “to come up with strange and dorky metaphors for identity and language.”

Spork Appreciation

Sporks. Some of the most versatile and underutilized eating utensils. As children raised in a seemingly clear-cut world where forks poke and spoons scoop, we usually encounter these boundary-defying do-dads at bowling alley birthday parties or the occasional fast food joint, places we would hardly expect to see our paradigms shaken. For most, the spork’s existence is easy enough to laugh off and forget about, since they will rarely encounter one in their everyday dining experience. But for some of us, it is enough to shatter the foundations of the very dinner tables we sit at, sending us questioning.

Are they a simplification of cutlery usage? Are they a complexification? Are they both? Neither? Is there a difference? Maybe they just are–though by their very existence outside of our limited tableware categories, they chip away at our perceived boundaries.

Maybe that’s why we banish them from our tables. It’s easier to ignore what doesn’t fit our existing boxes, or at least to trivialize and mock its existence. We’ll take sporks in our Taco Bell drive-through bags*, but to allow them in our five-star restaurants and dining rooms would be an embarrassment.

Because sporks are a joke. At least that’s how people see them. Never quite forked enough to be forks or spoonish enough to be spoons, they don’t quite belong anywhere. They want too much. They want to be too much. They’re mixed-up and funky, good enough for the occasion novelty, but no one is going to rewrite the table-setting rules for them.

My current spellchecker doesn’t even recognize “spork” as a word. Perhaps that’s because it clings to linguistic convention as if it were a virtue in itself, an full set of acceptable possibilities rather than a descriptive form that constantly to encompass the breadth of reality. 

But I’m here to call for a renewed appreciation of the spork. The utensil that will cut through your cake and carve through your ice cream. The utentil that refuses to fit your boxes, if only because your boxes are too small to fit it if it tried. The utensil that hints at the infinite possibilities of form and function for human eating devices. The utensil that reminds us of just how many ways there are to be. 

Whether it’s a plastic spork with your rice bowl or a double-sided golden spork (see below) with your caviar ice-cream sundae; whether it means adding “spork on the left” to your etiquette handbook, adopting a post-structuralist method of non-linear, non-categorical table setting, or just sticking the one spork you own in the one bowl you own because you’re in college and don’t have to deal with that stuff yet, the spork can have a place in your life. Use the spork. Embrace the spork. Be the spork.

*I don’t wish to diminish or erase the existence of sporks that are in fact plastic fast food cutlery, but only to push for a world in which we don’t see this as the only possibility of spork life. There are, of course, sporks that don’t wan’t to be a part of your rigid table arrangement, and that’s fine too. There is no wrong way to be a spork.

Now lets just take a moment to appreciate the wonderful beauty and diversity of the spork world:

A spectrum of sporkitude

Crushing the spoon/fork dichotomy in style

Not your Taco Bell spork.

 

Who says sporkitude can’t include some knifery? Some strong, independent sporks that do it all.

But as a team, sporks are really unstoppable.

Who says all sporks are the same?

Note: This is not how heredity actually works. I just like the smiley faces.

Bad Language

I’ve been in Lebanon this week, visiting extended family. This means a lot of things, and one of them is speaking Arabic. Or trying.

I suck at Arabic. I really do. My parents made casual attempts to teach my sister and I when we were young, which lead to my sister being practically fluent and me . . . not so much. I understand fine, particularly when the subject is familiar and my brain is in full-power mode. When it comes to speaking, however, I frequently find myself resorting to either English or (especially) silence. This leads to conversations like:

Relative: (To my sister): Wow you can speak Arabic so well!

(To me): Why not you?

Me: I try.

Relative: Your sister tries a little harder, no?

And while that conversation isn’t particularly fun, it is kind of true. I know that I probably could make a lot of Arabic come out of my mouth if I wasn’t so concerned with looking stupid by messing up or being unintelligible (Now I don’t think this is a particularly rational fear–I’ve seen plenty of people mess up at English and never would think of that as “stupid”–but it’s still a real and persistent one.) It is also completely possible that my Arabic is harder for them to understand than my English.

And of course, it’s just effortful and frustrating to operate in a language in which you can’t say as much as you think. I feel a lot less smart on the outside than on the inside and my sense of being an independently-functioning adult is pretty impaired. This is something that some people deal with on a daily basis, but I only experience it on occasion, so the obvious kind of slaps me in the face.

My internal monologue is something like:

Oooh I’m totally following what’s going on here. And I have a thing I want to say. I know most of those words. Um, but how do I translate “start-up?” Do I need to? I bet I’m conjugating stuff wrong too. Wait, I just missed about 5 steps in the conversation. Are they even still talking about the same thing? Wait, are they talking about politics now? Is this worth the brainpower to digest? I just want words in my head now! Okay, I’m lost. Have we really only been here for an hour? I wonder when someone’s going to bring out the chocolate . . .

I’ll be honest. In theory, I believe in the benefits of multilingualism and all, but in practice, I really hate learning languages. More specifically, I hate having to express myself in languages I’m bad at. I was super relieved to have finished my intermediate Spanish class, and therefore my language requirement, first semester.

People tell you to learn languages to learn about culture and become more “worldly.” They tell you to learn languages to travel. They tell you to learn languages because of the global economy. They tell you to learn languages because it’s good for your brain. They sometimes even tell you to learn languages as a super indirect method of improving your verbal SAT score, if you care about that sort of thing. Some of these are good reasons.

What they don’t tell you is that being bad at the language you are speaking is an important experience in itself. It teaches you a bit of what it’s like to feel voiceless, or at least like you have to put in way more effort to make your voice heard than everyone around you, who merely has to open their mouth. And it forces you to get past insecurities, to expose your voice and yourself in their imperfections, because it’s sometimes more important to be heard than it is to be exactly right.

That doesn’t mean I like it. But I’ll try.

Dance Writing and Killing Butterflies

I’ve been doing quite a bit of writing about dance performances lately. And I feel kind of guilty.

A dance is alive. It’s made up of infinitesimal moments of movement with emotional flavors which occupy a space not necessarily beyond words, but between words, in the range of deeply specific experiences that our linguistic boxes forget to catch. It’s alive because people make it and people do it and people watch it and people are never the same from moment to moment. It’s alive because sometimes dancers fall and sometimes they don’t. It’s alive because it’s fleeting, morphing, dying before you. It’s alive because, at least on some level, people usually don’t really know what it means (even in super literal narratives, all the dancing in between the narrative landmarks is up for interpretation). This way, it can mean everything at same time, or a strange mix of things, or whatever you at that moment need it to mean, and you don’t have to describe any of it.

And then there’s words. Words are definite and limited and discreet. At best, they can hint at the essence of an experience. At worst, they reduce it. Words can be vague (and I like this kind), but we usually (at least in the case of performance papers) try to make them clear, so that their meaning is stable and universal. This makes words immortal. It also makes them dead. A clearly worded sentence will still be there tomorrow, telling you the same thing it did yesterday.

When I was in second grade, someone from a museum came to my class to talk about butterflies. I loved butterflies. I loved trying to catch the ones that fluttered around my back yard in the spring. And I never succeeded.

But this lady brought in some glass frames with pinned down dead butterflies. She pointed out colors and talked about species, but all I could think about was the fact that they were dead. She said that they had saved the butterflies so that we could learn about and understand them more. She said that they wouldn’t have lived long anyway.

But they were still killed and pinned down. Their flurry of movement was reduced to a single static moment, forever. I could catch them now, but that was no fun.

And that’s how I feel when I write about dance performances. A one-time experience is pinned down so that it lasts, but isn’t really the same. Intangible moments are reduced to a crude linguistic approximation. I write down one interpretation and kill the rest.

I still like writing about dance. There are advantages to killing butterflies. You can look at their colors up close and point out their patterns. You can discover and classify the range of types. You can introduce them to people who don’t have butterflies in their yard or those who never thought to go outside and look. But lets not forget the violence that’s involved.