Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Internet was right

Lo these many years ago when I was in college, working as the managing editor for the World's Best Student-Run Newspaper, there was a guy named Aaron. He was a little older than the rest of us, had a family and everything. Smart guy. Nice. Enjoyed baseball. And he was in charge of the fledgling Web site.

University Daily Kansan newsroom, circa 1997.

That's where my confession of wrongness comes in. Getting stories onto the Web site meant an extra layer in the news editing process, which I did a few times a week. Processing stories for online was often done the next morning anyway--why should I gum up the production process with some Web nonsense?

So he and I would have periodic arguments about why I didn't have time for the Internet.

And, of course, he was right and I was wrong. This point is especially clear now, as I am shepherding stories online myself, trying to keep us ahead of the other guys and make sure readers know where they should go to get the goods if they want to buy a newspaper. I'm having to rebut the same arguments that once tumbled from the mouth of a much younger (and less wise?) Doyle.

Aaron--and I apologize for not remembering your last name--you win. And I'm posting it online for everyone to see.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The best kind of earthquake

Last night, a 7.5-magnitude (depending on whose figures you trust) temblor hit Pakistan. Fortunately, it was a remote part of Pakistan... so remote, in fact, that the area is where the nation has tested nuclear weapons. So ideally the population is not just small, but nonexistent. No one killed, no one hurt.

Not pictured: my apartment.

Pakistan is a long way from the UAE, but people felt the quake here. Including Mrs Blog and I, although I didn't realize it at the time.

Just before we went to bed, the wall unit door--loosely hung glass--was rattling for no discernible reason. Mrs Blog noticed it... it stopped after 20 seconds or so... and that was that.

The next day, reading about the earthquake, we assembled the facts and I realized that, yes, this was a momentous occasion: my first quake. A lame one, at least where we were sitting, but an earthquake nonetheless.

I wasn't expecting this. Mother Nature-dispensed trauma seems to avoid me; I grew up in Tornado Alley and never saw a twister, spent two years in Florida and didn't come within 500 miles of a hurricane. No fires in Chicago, either.

So as far as introductions to natural disasters, this one worked well for everyone involved.

Monday, January 17, 2011

In __________, inspiration

Writing has always been a fickle thing for me. Sometimes the words flow in a way I can't--and don't want to--control, a river of fire burning through the middle of my head that I just have to get onto a page before it incinerates me.

Other times... well... it's more like trying to pry a nugget of gold from the center of a mass of lead slag.

But you take the good with the bad. That's the way inspiration works too, at least for me. You can't force it. You try too hard to think through a problem (or invent the seed of a great story), and you end up with just a tangle of threads that start someplace promising but end nowhere.

That's why I wasn't surprised when inspiration hit tonight.

While I was doing the dishes.

Like I said, you take the good with the bad. And when I was done scrubbing, I sat down and tried to get as much of this nascent idea out in front of me where I couldn't forget it or otherwise condemn to oblivion. Mission successful... at least until I try to start writing it for real.

And there is no pattern to it. Mrs Blog is busy freelancing; I had a busy day posting stories online (most hits from the section--holla!), a belly full of delicious leftovers, two beers and vague fears about the first day of Arabic class tomorrow. A night like any other, except a beautiful idea fell from the sky and into a suds-filled sink.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Why the "Hey Song" is stuck in my head

For the first time in forever, the Chiefs have a playoff game that I can watch. And for the first time ever, I will be watching that game in the Middle East. It is just the latest in a long string of moments where ordinary things seem weird when you do them in such an odd place.

I watched a ton of football growing up. It was kind of a weekly ritual: I and several Friends of the Blog, six to 10 or so, would gather at one of our homes. There would be lots of soda. Pizza, usually--the square kind from Little Caesar's, which was cheap and made right down the street. We'd go outside to throw around the football at halftime. There was a heavy punching bag hanging in my parents' laundry room on which we would occasionally take out our frustrations if the game were going badly.

Jamaal Charles was 4 years old when I started watching the Chiefs. Ouch.

Now there aren't really any rituals. Sometimes Mrs. Blog and I go to friends' houses to watch the games. Sometimes there is pizza. Once there was even a football.

The only point here is that I'm happy the Chiefs are in the post-season again, and I'm happy to have so many good memories of cheering them on as a kid. And who knows, maybe someday I'll look back and recall how one year, my favorite NFL team won the Super Bowl when I was living in a part of the world where the halftime ads constituted the best programming of the year.

Monday, January 3, 2011


So let me tell you a story. And let me preface it with a quick explanation of my attitude toward this country.

The UAE gets a lot of bad press. You read screaming headlines about sensational cases in which someone is arrested and jailed for a couple of months for a microgram of marijuana "found" on his shoe (true), or a couple arrested for kissing in a mall at 2 a.m. after a local woman complained it was corrupting her kid (true), or the water taps at the Atlantis gushing nothing but cockroaches (false).

Sometimes the outrage is justified; sometimes it is manufactured. They are not especially common. But the events that trigger that outrage do happen--they are not imaginary or created by paranoid Westerners.

And now I know that first-hand.

Last night, Mrs. Blog and I went to the grocery store to refill our fridge after being away for a couple of weeks. It was crowded. Lots of families stocking up for 2011, I guess.

Oh, what a magical journey it was, wandering through the aisles of imported high-fructose corn syrup. Eventually, we paused by the bread section to consider our carbohydrate options. Mrs. Blog suggested that we should make fondue at some point this week. And because that idea, of eating gooey cheese and bread together in our cozy (if not well-situated) Tanker Mai apartment, made me happy, I leaned in and gave her a peck on the lips.

Do you see where this is going?

Maybe 10 or 15 seconds later, after we had moved on to discussing whether to buy sandwich rolls or a loaf, an Emirati woman in an abaya and burqa arrived at the scene, wagging her finger at us. Surrounded by several other younger women (also in traditional dress), she bestowed upon us some good, old-fashioned self-righteous chastising.

How dare we kiss, she said. You are not in the West anymore, she said. I will call security, she said.

The last sentence, of course, is the one that gets your heart racing. Both of us dived in to placate her. I pointed to my ring finger--look, it's OK, we're married. Mrs. Blog apologized for offending her. I said, there's no need for security to get involved. And so on.

I'm not sure what, exactly, we said that eventually worked. I think it was another apology from Mrs. Blog. But the woman clucked some more, made another threat about security, then stalked off with her friends--none of whom had said a word.

What a depressing experience. At just a basic level, it is really disheartening and angering to be chewed out by someone whose face you can't even see. It just doesn't seem like a level playing field. Kind of like the legal principle of the accused being able to confront their accuser.

The deeper you dig down--and this process lasted, for us, the rest of our shopping trip--the angrier you get. Let's leave aside, for the moment, the fact that although the kiss was loving, it was pretty tame by any standard. A step above holding hands. There's no accounting for what will offend people, and cultural mores, and blah blah blah.

Focus instead on the woman's reaction. It upsets me because instead of simply asking us to stop (which we already had--see above) or telling us we were behaving inappropriately, she threatened to throw us in jail. Or at least Carrefour's version of it. Is there not a way of expressing displeasure or distaste without being accusatory? This seems in the same vein as someone smoking where they shouldn't be--if it's bothering you, you politely ask them to stop. Not difficult.

Focus also on how we reacted. There are, without a doubt, places in the U.S. where someone might threaten to call store security on you for the T-shirt you're wearing, or for the things you're saying in a private conversation, or even for kissing in public. The difference is, in those cases, I know my rights. I'm not going to jail. I'm probably not even to get harassed by security, because THEY know what my rights are, too. No, the correct reaction in that case is to ask your accuser to be a little more polite and, if that fails, to suggest that they can go... well, you know.

But that surety of one's rights just doesn't exist here. Hell, the surety of the law doesn't even exist here. You can be accused of things that aren't illegal while things that clearly are (c.f. the bizarre alcohol laws), are routinely ignored. And in any case where it is one person's word against another's, the expatriate is at a disadvantage from jump street. Get caught up in the legal system, right or wrong, and you're in for a lengthy and unpleasant experience.

So instead of standing our ground, we just said whatever we could to keep her from escalating it--no matter how out of line she may have been. And that's humiliating.

In the end, no security was called, we finished our shopping in uncomfortable silence and vented on the way home. The night got better. We even found a good parking space in Tanker Mai, which in terms of miracles is right up there with the parting of the Red Sea and the Seahawks making the playoffs.

But here's the thing: Incidents like this bury the idea that we're all living as equals here. Until that changes, the UAE is never going to have the type of integrated, productive society that will move it forward into the big leagues.

Congratulations, Carrefour lady, for making that point--whether you realized it or not.