The Fig-Eating Arab and the Meaning of America

. . . in which the proprietor sets aside his long-standing rule against diaristic ramblings in an effort to answer the perplexing question: “What do I do all day, anyway?”

6AM: roused from unusually deep sleep by the alarm. First question of the day: When you wake up with a song already playing in your head–for me, lately, Springsteen’s “The Promised Land”–was it playing in your head while you were still sleeping, or did it just start up when your mind switched to Daytime Programming? If a song is playing in an unconscious mind, is it in fact  playing?  One of Life’s Little Unknowables, I guess.

6:15: During bathroom visit, remember that I have some new New Yorker covers to put on wall. Started that a couple years back, bored with vanilla wallpaper. Only a few spaces left now.

Put on coffee, let dog out, wonder how mundane is that? Warm already and looks like rain. Get paper from yard, today’s little bundle of bad news about earthquakes, cyclones, military juntas, tornadoes, speculations about worsening weather patterns spawned by global warming. Two mid- aged columnists in DMN engaging in dialogue about race this week. One black, one white. Struck by the sameness of the conversation; why don’t blacks clean up their act and quit having illegitimate kids vs. why don’t whites quit making one loudmouthed preacher stand for an entire race. Been there, said that. From Gatsby: “He was forever  nibbling at the edges of stale ideas.”

Much better was yesterday’s piece from syndcol Leonard Pitts about how political correctness originally meant to protect minorities and women actually stifles expression and makes us all use less of our freedom.  Reminded me how PC fears kept me from pushing two ideas I had last year, fearing that PC meisters at DMN, KERA, various mags would think I was racist if I pursued them.

Idea One: During the massive coverage of last year’s Jena, LA protest marches, in which thousands of upset blacks descended on this small town to protest alleged injustices, one front page pic showed three hugely fat black people, two women and a man, each going about 300 lbs, holding signs and glaring at a skinny, dried-up white redneck from Central Casting. I doubt the photog meant any comment, but I couldn’t help but notice that in one sense at least, these black people were living, hulking  proof of American progress. In the race for caloric supremacy, for sheer intake of material wealth, they had far outstripped the bony White Master they had come to confront.

Idea Two:  In the summer two years ago,  as our huge fig tree was putting out massive quantities of fruit, I went out one morning and found a Middle Eastern woman in full burka or whatever it is, entire body covered, only her eyes showing,  placidly munching figs. I had seen her around the neighborhood, always walking a few steps behind a white-haired old man. I looked at her, she at me. Nobody spoke. She munched. I walked around to the other side of the house and did a couple of things, feeling oddly bothered. Neighbors pick from that tree all the time, we don’t really care that much for figs, the birds eat 50% of them, so who cares?  I was galled but I decided to say nothing. She ate for a while and left.

I thought about doing a newspaper op-ed or a  radio commentary on this encounter at the time  but 1) I feared being seen as some kind of Typical American War Loving Bush-Supporting  Imperialistic Christian Crusader Provincial …what’s the word????…. and 2) I really couldn’t fully explain my irritation to myself. I believe that we can’t think clearly if we don’t admit our own imperfections, blind spots and biases, so yes, I’m prepared to admit that some of my reaction was just …what IS the damned word…YES! xenophobia.  But that didn’t seem to be the whole thing.  so… the thoughts have been marinating and I’ve only recently gotten  clear on it.

Here’s how I decipher the mix of emotions and thoughts now:

A. one part simple, non-xenophobic irritation at presumptous fig-leeches who take without asking or thanking. After all, I got pretty hacked one time when I came out and found a white guy–ON A LADDER–filling a basket with figs. (And no fig-leech has  ever come back to help scrape the sticky, wasp-attracting  husks off the sidewalk, either.)

B. one part dislike of Her Kind. Without believing for a moment that she is somehow inferior to me (for all I know, she’s a former physics prof at a university in Dubai), the whole burka-wearing syndrome bothers me. I don’t like the weirdness of hiding your body that way. I don’t like her shuffling along behind the Dominant Man. And as I’ve often thought, I don’t like the way These People pick and choose from the cultural smorgasbord.

They come here to enjoy freedoms beyond anything offered in the Middle East (see yesterday’s NYT front pager on Saudi Arabia’s medieval dating customs). But they stay in their little insular bubbles of  dress and  language. I see them all over Richardson and Plano, driving brand new minivans, chatting on cell phones, partaking of modernity but still wearing these absurd Allah-pleasing burkas. They want the absolute best of the 21st and 14th Centuries. What does Donald Trump say? What does the mullah say? Let’s take what we like from both!  They strike me as major league Takers. She’s probably here to watch her grandkids while her son or daughter gets a degree at nearby UTD, which he/she will then use to open a software company in Cairo.

C. Some of this sounds pretty sour, I know. If there’s a more positive takeaway, maybe it’s this:  This woman, personifying foreignness, feels perfectly comfortable walking through the neighborhood and onto my property and eating my figs. Nobody bothers her and she knows nobody will bother her, and if someone did bother her you’d have big coverage in the media and a local Committee of Concern formed to dig out the roots of hatred in our community. (“In Richardson,  a City of Shame Asks What Went Wrong.”   “I was merely enjoying a fig, which is a delicacy in my native land,” explained Bhutora El-Wahadi. Then, tragedy struck. . .” )

Now let’ s flip it over. Let’s imagine an American woman perhaps teaching English at a school in Saudi Arabia or another Middle Eastern country. One morning she gets up and puts on a typical American outfit– Nikes,  tight shorts, optional sports bra,  and a skimpy blouse showing several inches of flesh including her pierced belly button–you know, something she might wear to the mall back home.

And off she goes walking or maybe jogging through this Middle Eastern suburban neighborhood to munch some free apples from a tree she spotted.  How many blocks do you think this brazen American harlot would make it before some very unpleasant things happened? Two max, I say, before it was time to play Attack the Infidel.

D. So it comes to me that the commentary, if I do one, illuminates this: What happened the day of the fig-munching Arab was a typical 21st Century American scene.

An immigrant comes from far away. She proceeds to chow down at the banquet table of freedom, which is of course her right as we define rights today.  Some “real” American is a bit offended  by her presence and her presumption, but the real American feels conflicted about it, says nothing, and even feels a bit guilty about being conflicted. (How You Know That PC  Rules: You not only don’t write or broadcast such thoughts, you feel the slightest taint of racism in even THINKING them. The perfect PCster, if he exists, would have an Auto Alert Brain Filter that shunted  such rebel thoughts into a synaptic gulag before they caused trouble.)

In some weird way, though, her actions and my non-reactions may say hopeful things about our system. We have a terrible history of racism and slavery which we can never fully erase, but today tolerance is one of our ruling values, as witness the Curious Case of the Fig-Munching Arab.

My heart was not  pure on this, and I bit my lip in irritation, but on balance I’m glad I said nothing unfriendly to her that day.  When it comes right  down to it I just can’t see stalking over there, grabbing the pulpy figs from her hands, splattering them on the sidewalk and, neck veins bulging, ordering her to get back on her camel and get  the hell out of my country.

That’s how the vast majority of Americans feel about this stuff–a little baffled, a little angry, a little cowed, a little guilty, and even, weirdly, a little proud, as in “You won’t find me moving to your country, sweetheart.”  By the way, this connects with the whole immigration crisis. We think the lifeboat’s getting awfully crowded, and we don’t really “get” some of the newcomers’ customs, but in the end we shove over and make room in the boat. That’s not perfect love in the Peaceable Kingdom,  but it’s not nothing, either, and it sure beats the alternatives practiced in so many other places.

6:30: Take shower and stretch afterwards, a morning ritual since major Back Attacks some 20 years ago. Imagine New Yorker cartoon as old lecher tells young blonde, “Babe, I’ve got back problems older than you.” Pain in left hip back again. “Diagnosed” as bursitus last year (the bad news) rather than the advanced bone cancer I feared (the good news). Comes and goes as it will.   I remember thinking as a younger person that doctors were supposed to cure you. Silly me.

Think I hear distant thunder. Hope it rains since I still haven’t had the two broken sprinkler heads fixed. In last summer’s freakish rains, I hardly used the system at all and grass grew over several of the heads, which I had to poke around and find the other day. Need to get someone out here. Weird weather thoughts recall global warming fears and McKibben book, The End of Nature, from late 80s. The guy was prophetic.

6:45: Put trash out. Think about what needs recycling. The first thing we need, if we’re really going to try to live “greener” and  stop wasting so much, is knowledge. I mean, can those sort of waxy paper cups be recycled? How do you find out? They ought to put the info on the packages. How about styrofoam? OK, wait, this block of styrofoam from a packing case has the universal recycle symbol on the bottom, so I guess it’s in.

7 AM: Eat breakfast while browsing paper and listening to NPR on radio. Read somewhere that multitasking actually reduces your IQ. Yikes.

7:15 Madeline rushes off to school for early Encore practice. Big Pop Show next week. She’s singing “Our Song” by Taylor Swift and a duet on “Hit Me With Your Best Shot.” She left her radio on in her room.  I go to turn it off. Local deejay Kidd Kraddick, a household god, rambling on as always about celebrities…Britney, Paris, J Lo, Kevin, Justin, more first names. When I complain to my daughter she says that Kraddick spends most of the time bashing them and criticizing their idiotic ways. OK, but when did these people become such a part of the aural wallpaper? Could there be a Celeb-Free Day?

7:30. Hit desk to address day. Start by pulling out today’s folder from the 43 Folders, the David Allen organizing system. I haven’t adopted everything from Allen, but this has been a big plus. Check to-do lists.

Need to finish transcribing tapes from current ghost-writing project and contact a DMN editor about my next book review. On this Biophysical book, I need to send a couple of follow-up queries to a psychiatrist at Cambridge I interviewed last week. Brilliant woman, possible Nobel winner for work in finding biomarkers of schizophrenia,  but she talked like a machine.

Should also look through radio file and send them an idea or two. Think I may send the Arab Fig Diversity idea now that it’s clarified. Also time to send invoice for the next Biz Book Discussion, which is the Allen book, Getting Things Done. That will be fun to discuss, esp. if some of the participants have actually bought the book and gone through the early steps of his CPORD plan: Collect, Process, Organize, Review and Do.

Today’s file has map to hair stylist’s new place, question about getting an acting resume photo taken, reminder to get tickets to DMA’s great JMW Turner exhibit, reminder to get tickets to this weekend’s Wildflower Music Festival, at which fossilized versions of The Guess Who and America will trot out the oldies. Also on tap is  Ray Wylie Hubbard, whom I profiled for a magazine some years back. Hoping to spend a few minutes with him after he plays. Need to email him today.

There’s also a question about an essay contest at Univ of North Texas with a $3,000 prize. Mid-June deadline, though.  Have no idea what kind of stuff has won in the past. Don’t think it’s going to happen this year.  Put it in next March file  for earlier start next year.

The in-basket contains several things to be processed. According to the Allen method, you have only one in basket and it is not your entire office or desk. It is one contained place where you put notes and other physical representations of things to be done. You take each item out and address it. Dont’ have to actually complete the task right now, but must decide next concrete step.

1. 30 Frozen Dead Cats…news clip for blog entry on info-overload. Why do I need to know that someone did this? Put in blog file.

2. spare SD card for camera. Pop it in and see if it works.

3. note to call city swim team to set tryout for Madeline this summer. This is probably a two-minute item, so I’ll do it right now. Left message.

4. Madeline wants me to check out old stories about Victorian women having ribs removed for tinier waist. Gotta be urban legend. Quick trip to confirms same.

5. reminder to purge giant pile of techno-litter behind file cabinet, some of it from the craze days. This will take about 45 minutes. Block out office duty time.

6. reminder to purge plastic stack files along wall. Ditto

7. reminder to take app. 100 unread, mint condition comics to Half Price Books or comic dealer. Put on Saturday to do list.

8. Harper’s article by American icon Wendell Berry, “Faustian Economics,” asking whether we are in fact entering an age of limits on consumption and, if so, what that will do to American way. Read and blog about.

9:30. Where does the time go? Off to get haircut. Take Allen book to read in chair.

10 AM. Hair salon. Again from Gatsby: “And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” The hair place turns out to be near my old high school–guess I haven’t gone far in 35 years–which touches off a wave of associations and memories of vanished friends.  Also, the radio plays the nauseating “Reminiscing,” by the Little River Band, which recalls a horrible year in my life when I was working a job I hated and my first marriage was falling apart. Uncanny how a mere song revives the pain.

12 PM. So now I’ve gone from “The Promised Land” to “Reminiscing” in six crowded hours. Back home now for lunch and then some “real” work–i.e., something someone either has paid or will pay me to do. Maybe I’ll just call this “Half a Day in the Life.”


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