Active Versus Passive Reading in the Age of Over-stimulation

Information drives opinions.

Opinions drive actions.

The actions can be very obvious–like taking a political stance, voting for a party you prefer, even identifying yourself as a group of people based on some form of identity. Or they could be much more subtle. You may not even notice the opinions you’re developing in the back of your head until one day you might find yourself giving direction to your children. I use this example to illustrate the fact that everyone has a stance on everything. Some are more aware, others more expressive than others. Some may be nurturing thoughts they didn’t realize they had and will one day hand it down to their children, should they choose to have any. Even not taking a stance on something is a stance in itself. The important thing to ask is: where did that come from?

It is a huge pet peeve of mine when people aggressively share/reblog content on Facebook, for example. I have unsubscribed to every Facebook friend who shares and shares and reshares videos and posts which are quick reads, a message handed to you in a bold and easy punchline/headline, perfect for going viral. There have been so many instances when a friend or family member reports to me in complete disgust what is happening in Syria, or Pakistan, or the United States– a dramatic retelling of some post they saw that day. 90% of the time when I look at what exactly happened, it is far, far from the truth. We are playing Chinese Whispers with the news. The irony is, the news isn’t even completely accurate to begin with. We are playing Chinese Whispers and the first word that was spoken was Fork instead of Stork. By the time it reaches the last person it will be Pork and we will be confidently and incorrectly complaining about a lack of Islamic representation. So we need to just pause and take a moment and ask does this come from Virgin Radio Lebanon? Does it come from UNILAD?

You should ask yourself two questions when taking in content: where is this coming from? What was the motive behind publishing this content? Most, if not all media serves an agenda. Something can be purely artistic in nature, therefore not deliberate in its agenda, but art reflects the artist. I am not saying we should dismiss everything we read or see because we disagree with the owner of the content. Not at all. UNILAD can be absolutely hilarious. But is it the best place to develop your socio-political opinions? Probably not. Moreover, a lot of these collaborative channels are the the voice of many people, all different, all working towards getting views and reads. Nothing wrong with that. We just need to be aware of it.

I read a lot. All the time. I read when I’m doing other things (not a good thing). If I’m talking to you, I’m probably reading something on my phone. About two years ago I realized my mind was becoming a complete mess of the different channels that were feeding into the content in my head. I decided to narrow down what I would read on a daily basis and pick four-five publications and stick to them. Two years in and I feel much more informed than I ever did when I was reading from a wide source of material, more comfortable of my knowledge and my opinions.

I read the following publications daily:

The Economist

The New York Times

The New Yorker

Buzzfeed

And the following publications bi-weekly:

Into The Gloss

Nat Geo

The Paris Review

Vogue

It is important to note that I don’t always agree with what I read. But now I have an understanding of who is writing it, what their views tend to be (so-and-so tends to sway to the right… so of course this article was heavily against so-and-so). It is just as important to read ideas you don’t agree with as it is to read ideas you agree with. But this came for me afterwards. I started reading not knowing what my opinions were at all, and in order to develop them, I needed to understand well what and who was feeding them. In our 20s we graduate from what we were told is right by our parents and teachers into independent, objective thought. This is much more difficult than it seems. I find myself always searching for those pure moments when I am completely un-influenced by anyone or anything, knowing the thoughts will be just mine. I try to make decisions on airplanes because I feel suspended in time and space and somewhere between the stale meals and 8-9 episodes of Black-ish, my thoughts become very clear.

In an early episode of Girls, Jessa gives Hannah some simple but brilliant advice: “Just read the newspaper. Just read one newspaper.”

If you are anything like me–fairly uninformed but quietly curious, then I would say this is the best place to start. Just read the newspaper. One newspaper.

C is for Culture

It has been a long time since we traded our kurtas for polos, though it’s hard to point out exactly when this happened or whose decision it was. This lack of clear causation often times results in a lack of clear blame, and there lies a lot of the conflict “we” face while making decisions. What will we do and why? What are the factors catalyzing the decision making process? Is it faith or is it tradition? Is it philosophy or ethics? But most important of all: who can we blame for being this way and where do we shed blame if we make a mistake?

I was born an ex-patriate, as they say, a strange way to say non-native (though considerably less odd compared to “non-resident alien”), to a microcosm that became progressively more “global” with its growing economy and tourism industry: Dubai, of course. And so by default I became a citizen of the world, simply because I was not a citizen of anything else. The irony that I had seen very little of this world did not miss me: my homes being Pakistan, UAE, and the US for a few years. I never felt alone in my otherness because I was surrounded by people just like myself: second generation immigrants who only understood one generic language and anything local seemed unfamiliar and confusing. Our teenage years (circa Seinfeld and FRIENDS) were marked by our attempts to anglicize ourselves, and as we got older vague attempts to adopt our own heritage fell short in authenticity. We played a part we thought we were supposed to play–an outside-in mask but a mask nonetheless: eating Mandi cross-legged on the floor, drinking milky sweet-smelling tea while listening to Urdu folk songs (or folk-pop, let’s be honest). It was clear that the strongest thread that ran through us was food–no matter how far we emigrated from our homes: nothing quite compared to rose-scented chicken korma and naan… naan, a bread so powerful it transcends all boundaries.

When I see Pakistani families at the airport, emptying overstuffed luggage into plastic bags or arguing over the window seat, I feel a small twinge; and suddenly my meticulously organized and deliberately underweight carry-on feels a little empty. I cannot then help but think of my mother and her brightly pastel cotton clothes and twinkling gold bracelets, positively refusing to pay excess baggage (and refusing to pack light several hours earlier). Overseas, if I hear the adhan I want to pray, perhaps not for the right reasons but because it reminds me of home or my father in his crisply starched Friday shalwars. Dubai has faced unending criticism for its glittery and temporary culture, maybe a myopic view that perhaps doesn’t notice all the thousands of in-betweeners bonding over burgers on the beach, settled and safe in their home away from the homes they fled for better opportunities.

People who come from different diasporas are one of two types, I think: those who crave anonymity and find their place between boarding gates and fleeting encounters with strangers, and those who find themselves returning to their roots once they have exhausted their Vampire Weekend records. Yet I find myself asking—as I have so many times this year—is it possible to be both?

Practical Beauty Tips from History’s Most Beautiful Woman*

Image result for empress sisi

There is very little I enjoy as much as reading the tricks of the trade of “beautiful” women. If there is a mud mask that helps you with your pores, I need it. If I can pour out the contents of my fridge into a bowl, whisk it together, and slap it on my face, I’ll do it. Yoghurt, tomatoes, honey, mayonnaise, eggs, they’ve all been on my face or hair at some point in my life. If there’s a facial yoga exercise that prevents you from aging, well, brb while I run to the bathroom and stick my tongue out at myself for 2 minutes straight. My motto is, maybe there isn’t proof that it works, but there also isn’t proof that it doesn’t, right? (I know, catchy motto). I’d rather not take my chances to be reminded of myself when listening to Radiohead (gravity always wins).

That is why I was so excited when I discovered the world of Into the Gloss. I followed Emily Weiss and her work for years, so when Glossier launched, I was thrilled to try out her products (my favorite- the Generation G lipstick, I’ve never quite seen anything like it).  What I loved most about Into the Gloss was it’s voyeuristic peek into the beauty cabinets, a much more detailed and thoughtful version of the What’s In My Bag Youtube videos. Weiss’s vision was to create a space to profile women who weren’t typically considered “beauty moguls”, and that vision has trickled into her product portfolio as well: it’s for every woman. Every woman may not be beautiful, but everyone woman can be. She’s profiled everyone from Emma Watson to Lindsay Lohan (my favorite quote from Lohan’s interview “Water is so boring, I never drink water”) to Ariana Huffington. What started off as a simple blog has turned into a revolutionary turn in the cosmetic industry and how we approach beauty and skincare. She did it so effortlessly: suffice it to say, Weiss is a genius.

For someone who always enjoyed reading about the routines of random historical figures (I always reference this, but did you know Sylvia Plath’s favorite lipstick was Revlon Cherries in the Snow? Well, now you do), the blog just offered an organized space for me to read endlessly without going on an internet rabbit hole of mindless topics to get to the fact I wanted. And it was in one of those rabbit holes that I discovered Empress Sisi, the OG beauty mogul. Sisi was the Empress of Austria and the Queen of Hungary (no big deal) and lived an incredibly complicated and unfortunately tragic life.

Below are just some of the things she did to maintain her reputation as one of the most beautiful women to have ever lived. Practical, easy-to-follow with promising results.

She refused to be photographed beyond the age of 32, thus immortalizing herself: pretty smart, if you ask me!

She took a warm olive oil bath every evening to keep her skin soft and smooth

She made a face mist of violet vinegar, made from freshly picked violet blossoms, cider vinegar and distilled water

She made a face mask with 2 oz rose water, 1 oz milk, ½ oz grape juice, 5 drops frankincense essential oil and 2 whipped egg whites

She wrapped herself in hay… for some reason

She also made a face mask of pure honey and crushed strawberries

She slept with a leather mask that had slices of raw veal to keep her skin young

She slept with clothes soaked in vinegar as she thought it would keep her slim (?)

She used something called slug cream (made with real slugs…)

She used a mixture of egg yolk and cognac on her hair

That’s just a tiny portion of her incredibly complicated beauty routine.

Hope this was helpful! I would write more, but I need to fashion myself a leather mask full packed with veal and fresh strawberries.

*Supposedly

Disclaimer: on a more serious note, it is pretty clear that the Empress suffered from some kind of an undiagnosed eating disorder, maybe body dismorphic disorder and some obsessive tendencies as well. I am obviously not encouraging her habits for anyone who mistakenly thinks I am, this post was written in jest so I hope it was read in jest as well.

Displacement, Magic Doors, and a Timely Dose of Good Old Fashioned Reality

On Eid morning I was getting my nails done in a scarily overpriced Boston nail salon when I got a text from Dubai. I am impatient in salons and struggle to sit still, fidgeting and talking and reading while most women drink cucumber-infused water and smile airily at each other. I was alternating between Exit West and an article from Into the Gloss about sustainable products and my manicurist was getting irritated as I would momentarily pull my hand away from his to scroll through my phone. When I saw the text I immediately lit up and yanked my hand away altogether.

It was an old friend and he had some bad news. He wanted to tell me that an employee at an organization was being asked to leave, and was being replaced by my ex-boss. What he didn’t know when he told me this, was that this employee was also my ex-boss. My ex-boss was due to replace my other ex-boss and there was another connection, too. I was working for the first boss, a lady, who had mistreated me to the point of emotional abuse, when the senior leadership quietly moved me under the second boss, a younger man. He was perfectly normal to me and under his understated, nonchalant guidance, I recovered from the extreme anxiety I was suffering from. She was now replacing him, for reasons unbeknownst to me (or beknownst but perhaps too controversial to acknowledge even here).

I was heartbroken. Very, very heartbroken, because I guess some part of me still believes in some kind of cosmic judicial system where the good guys win and the bad guys lose and whenever this system gets tested, feel tested. I could only close my eyes and remember those day s with her when every second would tick away slowly into a minute, and then an hour, where I would have not very much work to do other than edit MS Word Documents so I would do those fast and then read about the Amanda Knox trial in obsessive detail (it was 2014) only so I could focus on something. And I would have flash drives thrown in my face and superlatives screamed and worst of all–when she would lean in very close to my face and tell me what a God awful disappointment was– and- how could I do this? How could I forget to memorize Clause 38.7C because I was like a daughter to her, and daughters don’t go to the bathroom without permission or eat at their desks or speak unless spoken to. I would hold my pee for as long as I could, rushing to the cubicle as soon as she’d leave for the day, contracting infection after infection as the months wore on.

Months later, I grew somewhat ambivalent towards the whole episode, mainly due to the passing of time, the realization that it wasn’t normal behaviour and a general disconnection to her, I would often joke about those days because they were so insane. I’m not laughing anymore. I am just deeply heartbroken for a man who has too much pride to even accept my sympathy, who would chuckle when I would show him how my hands shook when she walked by and even jokingly yell out her name and say BOO! to rattle me up and then walk away in a fit of giggles. Who came to work and did his job and bothered no one, his only crime being his lack of pretentiousness or the lesser-addressed privilege that he wasn’t born with–that I wasn’t born with either.

That day (the first month of my new role and first Eid completely away from home), I talked to my family and friends all over the world, my heart sinking a little each time I saw the lavish dining room tables or pictures of hands inked with intricate henna patterns. I ate McDonalds for lunch (no, that isn’t punchy symbolism, I actually ate McDonalds for lunch) and took a mid-day nap, my dreams infused with the magic doors from Exit West, blue and starry like the cover, and starchy shalwar kameez from the snap stories on my phone. I woke up and put on my jeans and went to the movies alone- a first- and found myself feeling like I wasn’t there at all, but somewhere else, an unending curse of the nostalgic but then found myself remembering that this was a choice- my choice. I had done the leaving, after all.

It was difficult for someone as rooted as I am to choose the life of a modern-day vagabond. At the end of the weekend I found out I was being kicked out of my hotel because they were overbooked. I felt uneasy about having to adjust to new surroundings right as soon as I had started to make this one feel like home.  Yet just when everything was starting to get more difficult I was given a very practical reminder of just how much more difficult they could be. Just how much more difficult they used to be and I decided to, well, suck it up and pack and leave. How strange to me that the very doors through which I had walked through to get to where I was, had shut on themselves right behind me.

And as for magic doors, well… this weekend was just another reminder that, for better or for worse, there are none.

 

 

 

Midnight in Paris in Boston

The week following my visit to Dubai was sad and difficult. I bounced between moments of productivity to feeling low, demotivated and confused about my life choices in general. Unable to turn my mind off for even a minute from wondering about my life and the changes I need to make, and what I’m doing wrong, and so on and so on, I fully drained myself of energy. I’m also not the best at time management, unable to fully disconnect from work and therefore unable to rejuvenate and then get back to work in full swing. I tend to stay lingering between both states and it drives me crazy.

On Friday night, upon the wise advice of my mother who told me turn off my computer if I was unable to think clearly,  I finally gave up, got a vanilla and caramel Magnum bar, and got into bed with my Netflix. I quickly selected Midnight in Paris, an old favorite. (dreamy Paris, historical literary figures, dry humor, what’s not to love?) and very quickly I found myself finally relaxing to Owen Wilson’s nasal, good-natured rambling.

I love the movie because I am always reading biographies, it’s a strange obsession of mine. At any given time of day I am always reading at least a biography on the side, many times reading about multiple people at the same time (this past week: Frida Kahlo, Virginia Woolf, and Zelda Fitzgerald). My favorite things about biographies are never the big events that mark somebodies lives (birth, deaths, family) but all the random quirks: sleeping habits, clothing choices, eating habits, and so on. The more irrelevant the fact, the better. Sure, John Steinhback won a Nobel prize, but did you know how he took his coffee? Click here for a fun article on sleeping patterns vs productivity of some famous writers. It’s also fun to see how we, as mere mortals stand up against the minds that created works that have lasted centuries and mean so much to us (on second thought, don’t bother going down this self-deprecating rabbit hole, I’ll save you some time: we don’t). I don’t remember which article said this but a journalist referred to Midnight in Paris as Night at the Museum for the Liberal Arts major. I wholly agree with this analogy and am now wondering if I would be the kind of person who would enjoy Renaissance fairs if I had lived in the US longer. Maybe it’s a good thing I left.

The plot is simple: ordinary man Gil falls fast in love with the pretty and sleepy-eyed Adriana, a muse to Picasso and Modiliani (NBD). Gil is in love with the past in which she is present, but she is in love with the past, too, which is further back in time than his.

Adriana chooses to go back to the Belle Epoch, taking up a job as a costume designer. Gil, on the other hand decides to stay in the present day, for all the magic it lacks, bringing to mind the powerful words of Jean-Paul Sartre:

“There may be more beautiful times, but this one is ours.”