TA Diary: The very model of a model Sunday morning


A chill Sunday morning breakfast. Not pictured are the eggs and salmon that soon graced my table.

At NYU Tel Aviv, students experience life in one of the world’s most intriguing and multidimensional cities. A vibrant coastal metropolis on the Mediterranean, Tel Aviv is the cultural, financial, and technological center of Israel. Students explore this truly global city and acquire a sophisticated understanding of Israel, the Middle East, and the interrelationships between cultures, political movements, and religious traditions. Students benefit from high caliber local professors, who teach students in areas such as biology, chemistry, politics, Hebrew, and Arabic. Students connect with local culture through experiential learning, partnerships with a local university, and excursions to surrounding areas in Israel.
— Extract from my welcome brochure, given out to all NYU Tel Aviv students.

Quiet first morning here. I fell asleep around 1am and woke up around 6am. I would’ve liked to sleep more but assuming I can make it to 9 or 10pm, I should be alright.


Tel Aviv’s gay beach, described to me by my RA as “a real hotspot (pun intended)”

I went to breakfast at Café Zurik, two blocks from the dorm, which had an eggselent breakfast and two of those Israeli café con leches. I sat there for about 2 hours watching Tel Aviv wake up and reading THE PACIFIC, by Simon Winchester. What a great Sunday morning.

From there, I caught the bus ($1.25 each way) to the city center and, in Dizengoff Mall and bought an Israeli sim card ($10.30/month) and some toiletries.

After that, I headed east to Frishman Beach and walked up the promenade. Israel has about 250KM of coast, along the Mediterranean, and Tel Aviv is a city glued to the water. I walked the 40 minutes back to Bnei Dan, my dorm, along that promenade.

IMG_0457In the afternoon, I mostly mooched about — one of my best friends from Arabic arrived this afternoon, and we spent some time catching up and getting some groceries. NYU Tel Aviv doesn’t provide students with a meal plan, which is why the kitchen is so good. I imagine I’ll subsist on hummus and falafel when at home but want to try my hand at something more complicated once in a while.

At 5pm, we have a short orientation, which is when all the students will meet one another, and then a communal dinner on the patio.

That’s all for today, I think. This week is mostly going to be orientation, which is nice. I’ve to finalize my classes and plan some travel, but those are nice jobs to have.


TA Diary: “We begin!”

IMG_0422They say Tel Aviv is one of the food capitals of the world, and the setup of the NYU TA campus would seem to back that up — the bedrooms are all organized around one central kitchen area, with large doors that open up onto a patio area with more places to sit and eat. They don’t call them companions for nothing, I suppose.

I’m sitting in that kitchen now, chilling with one of the Residential Assistants who’s preparing for the arrival of the rest of the students tomorrow. She made me a cup of Israel’s version of café con leche (espresso topped with milk and sugar) and gave me some figs, so I was set as far as dinner was concerned. It’s nice to have the chance to meet people and get to know them before a deluge of students

I’m one of two students who arrived a day early — the other, who I met briefly this evening, arrived in at 8am this morning and promptly slept for 12 hours. It’s now 11:16pm and my plan is to go to bed within the hour and set an alarm for 8am. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Screenshot 2016-08-20 23.08.25
This is my dorm in north Tel Aviv. The park across the Yarkon is supposed to be lovely, and it’s only a 20-25 minute walk to Ha-Yarkon St., which sounds like the main thoroughfare through TA.  The area I’m in was described to me as “the Upper West Side” of Tel Aviv.

Orientation doesn’t start tomorrow until 6pm, so I’m planning to spend most of the day tomorrow wandering around and exploring my new neighborhood.It’s supposed to be a fairly warm 83ºF/28ºC all next week, which is only slightly warmer than where I spent the summer in Oakland, California.

I’m in Tel Aviv, and just to the south is another port city, Jaffa. It’s known for (among other things) as being where Jonah set out on his journey whence he was eaten by a whale. Hopefully this is not a metaphor for my visit.

Okay, bedtime. Catch you soon!

You can read previous entries about my time in Tel Aviv here.

That time I took a capital V Vacation, and all that followed

IMG_0360I’m sitting here on the balcony of my hotel with a book and a Corona. The sun set about 20 minutes ago, one of those satisfyingly photogenic sunsets that I caught on camera yesterday and just sat and enjoyed today. The sound of the ocean in that photo has been my soundtrack for the last four days as I paused any and all responsibilities and took my first actual vacation in a couple of years.

Sure, I’ve had some time off during semesters, but this is the first time I’ve blocked off a few days in my calendar, said Sorry; I’m not going to get to you just now to my email inbox, and made decent headway through a pile of books that have been eying me for a few months.

I made a good stab at the books. I picked up THE NEXT DECADE: EMPIRE AND REPUBLIC IN A CHANGING WORLD, by George Friedman in the airport bookstore and finished it in two great gulps. The book was written in 2011 and he seems reasonably on track with his predictions — the book is a series of short essays on the challenges facing the undeclared empire that is the USA. On the fiction front, I thoroughly enjoyed THE MAN WHO WAS THURSDAY by G.K. Chesterton and can’t wait to find a child in my life which I can share THE GRAVEYARD BOOK by Neil Gaiman with. Finally, because no vacation’s complete without a Stephen King book, I read 11/22/63 by the pool — his best in a while.

Considering that I’m going to be spending some 25 hours on planes in the next 7 days, I’ve restarted my to-read pile: King’s THE GREEN MILE (I have another 24 hours of vacation!), Mortimer J. Adler & Charles Van Doren’s HOW TO READ A BOOK, and Robert Fisk’s THE GREAT WAR FOR CIVILIZATION. Incidentally, if I end up one hundredth as good a journalist as Fisk, I’ll have done exceedingly well.

This week is going to be eaten up by last-minute preparations for Tel Aviv, ahead of my flight on Friday. It seemed far off and distant all summer, and now my four month stint abroad is coming in less than 7 days. I’m looking forward to more Arabic, good food, and the chance to do some traveling in a new region. Now that I’ve finished Middlebury, I think I’m going to sit down and try reading هاري بوتر و حجر الفيلسفر — Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. (Just maybe not on the plane or in an airport.)

My orientation for NYU in Tel Aviv starts this day next week, but given that I mostly know how college works, I think the week will mostly be making friends with the 60-student cohort and planning weekend trips in the region. I definitely want to hit Morocco, Jordan, Egypt, and maybe Turkey depending on what happens. Expect lots of pictures!

It’s all fun and games until some of those Olympians live in countries where homosexuality is illegal

When I worked at Washington Square News, I oversaw the group of writers who contributed to the paper’s opinion section.

One of my central aims was to have a wide variety of writers — nothing overt, but I liked when my two-page section had pieces from across a spectrum of human experience. I saw it as something of a duty of mine to expose readers of the paper to a variety of different viewpoints and experiences.

As a disabled person working in the media sphere, I also see it as something of a duty of mine to comment on disability and its representation. Last year, when the news site NYU Local published a profile of a disabled burlesque dancer, I called out what I –and others– saw as language deeply disrespectful toward people with disabilities.

All this to say — The Daily Beast published on Thursday a bizarre article about dating app use at the Olympics in Rio. For the article, the author, who’s straight, married, and has a kid, downloaded Grindr and proceeded to chat with and meet gay athletes.  As originally posted (it was then edited, and ultimately taken down), the article reportedly included descriptions and the home countries of many of the athletes using the app.

I can’t for the life of me see what the point of the article was, since gays and lesbians use dating apps for the same reasons straight people do.

This prurient interest in LGBT life –and sex– is damaging, especially when it risks people being outed.

The same day this article was posted, the New York Times reported on a CDC study which corroborates what people have been saying for years about the inherent risks involved in being young and queer:

These adolescents were three times more likely than straight students to have been raped. They skipped school far more often because they did not feel safe; at least a third had been bullied on school property. And they were twice as likely as heterosexual students to have been threatened or injured with a weapon on school property.

More than 40 percent of these students reported that they had seriously considered suicide, and 29 percent had made attempts to do so in the year before they took the survey. The percentage of those who used illegal drugs was many times greater than their heterosexual peers. While 1.3 percent of straight students said they had used heroin, for example, 6 percent of the gay, lesbian and bisexual students reported having done so.

It seems that for straight people, LGBT life and culture can be interesting in a way that going to the zoo is interesting. I’ll never understand the need for some straight people to go barging into predominantly queer spaces and start writing with all the exoticism of Darwin in the Galapagos.

New York Times to cut back on metro coverage

Liz Spayd, writing in the New York Times about a new plan to revamp (and pull back on) local news coverage.

Top editors are also looking at how much space local news should take up in the daily newspaper. (The answer: less.) The modernized Metro section that emerges, he believes, will be one more suitable for the age in which The Times now finds itself.

What exactly does this mean for readers? Fewer stories about individual murders, assaults or routine crimes. Fewer stories about lawsuits and criminal cases, or about legislation wending through Albany. And it will mean fewer stories about fires in the Bronx.

I’m skeptical about this plan, but I think the worst thing the NYT could be doing right now is not experimenting. I’m curious to see how this goes, even if I have some misgivings about the notion that Albany (“corruption’s such an old song that we can sing along in harmony…”) might be subject to less scrutiny.

Let’s see how it goes.

Here’s What’s Next. Sort of.

There are two types of writing.

The first involves people commissioning you to write a thing. They tell you what it should be about and how may words it should be and when they need it by. Sometimes, they even pay you for it. Whether you want to write the thing or not is of secondary importance. You have column inches to fill, or rent to pay, or a deadline to meet, or all three. You write the thing for the same reason that a plumber fixes a pipe or a firefighter fights fires: it is your job. This has been most of my writing at college, as a student and journalist and editor.

The second type of writing is when you have an idea — a story or an essay or a piece of art that doesn’t exist in the world yet, only between the ears of the artist. In my head, I always see Michelangelo standing in front of a block of marble, or Neil Gaiman sitting in front of a Microsoft Word document, the cursor blinking up at him.

Michelangelo reaches for his chisel.

David is in there somewhere.

* * *

I came to Middlebury for a bunch of different reasons, among them a desire to learn more Arabic and a desire to get out of New York. I had just finished my third of four years at NYU and it was past time for me to start thinking about life after graduation. What does Tommy-in-five-years look like? Where does he live? What does he do?

Middlebury involves a lot of time studying Arabic, but this summer is also a chunk of time to think about these questions. Around the midpoint of the program, something fluttered into my head and came to rest.

Smartphones are net-good, but they rob us of time spent idle — time when your mind wanders and settles on whatever it wants to think about.

This summer, bound by Middlebury’s Language Pledge, I spent a lot of time sitting on my bed staring at a crack in the paint in the wall of my dorm room. My mind kept coming back to that idea.

I hoped that Middlebury would give me an opportunity to figure out the answers to these questions, but I’ve realized that the answers to the Tommy-in-five-years questions are less important than the answer to the question of “Okay, Middlebury’s almost over: what’s next?”

And now, I think I know.

I have an idea of what’s next. It’s something firmly in the camp of the second type of writing. Nonfiction, full-length. More details to come.

I write a monthly newsletter for family and friends over on TinyLetter. it’s a way of sharing news and photos with a smaller audience. I’ll be talking more about the book there once I firm up the details. Interested in hearing about the book sooner rather than later? You can sign up here.

Okay, now for the last week of Middlebury.

Backup, Backup, Backup

This month marks three years in the US, and in that time I’ve become spoiled by my Spotify subscription and my mobile data plan. I’m going to be traveling a good bit for the remainder of the summer and the fall and assume I’ll have little to no cell coverage in that time.

Last week, I bought one of those old 80GB iPod Classics on eBay for $20. It fits my entire music library on it, which is a nice change in the age of streaming.

I don’t know why, but I’ve always focussed better when listening to music, and can do work anywhere I have a keyboard and access to headphones. I think me and this little thing are going to have adventures this year.


Report from Middlebury

Saturdays are quiet at Middlebury — the folks who’ve come from Tasman Bay or Jerusalem or Shenzhen or Michigan who’ve never seen San Francisco usually clear out of campus and go exploring. Me? I enjoyed sleeping past 06:40.


Basem, Amal, and I at the Arabic dinner from last week.

Yesterday, my class went to a Lebanese restaurant in Foster City and ate ourselves silly on the cheap. Tabbouleh, meat shawarma, baklava, and Turkish coffee. It was fun to spend time with the others outside the classroom. We talked, tried to translate the English songs on the radio into Arabic, and chatted about what we were all going to do when the program ended next week. Some of my favorite parts of the program have been spent talking to people over meals, and the most understated part of Middlebury is just how interesting everyone is. Their brochures don’t specify this particular benefit of the program, but it should.


My desk for the summer, in the Mills library.

I’m feeling mixed about finishing up next Friday. To rephrase Sam Altman, the days were long but the weeks were short. I learned a lot of Arabic and made some good friends, but Middlebury is only the first half of a great big adventure I’m taking away from New York, and I’m ready to start the next portion: once I finish up here, I’m taking a few days off, and then flying to Tel Aviv in mid-August.

But as for today — I need to get started. I think we’ve finished all the new stuff we’re going to cover, so we’re in revision mode now. Four chapters’ worth of new vocabulary and grammar (stuff we learned since the midterm), plus shooting a short clip with the class (think Friends, but in Arabic), plus writing the remaining 300 words of my final paper on the state of journalism in Egypt and watching a Lebanese movie and writing a short report on it.

The work waits — let’s go.

Why It’s Important for Journalists to Speak the Language of the Region They Cover

Zeynep Tufekci, writing for The Huffington Post on the Wikileaks/Turkey email dump:

“We are talking about millions of women whose private, personal information has been dumped into the world, with nary an outcry. Their addresses are out there for every stalker, ex-partner, disapproving relative or random crazy to peruse as they wish. And let’s remember that, every year in Turkey, hundreds of women are murdered, most often by current or ex-husbands or boyfriends, and thousands of women leave their homes or go into hiding, seeking safety.”
“WikiLeaks Put Women in Turkey in Danger, for No Reason”

This came to me via Jon Evans, who makes an excellent point that reporters who cover a region risk making these sorts of mistakes when they don’t speak the language of that region. The beginning of the 21st century, the creation of Twitter et al. and the proliferation of new, online-only media outlets has changed the face of journalism, and mostly for the better, but it’s worth remembering that the same period has seen cutbacks in newsroom staff and the shrinking (if not the doing away outright) with foreign bureaus.

The news today reminded me of this passage from an Arabic textbook I use. The reference to Ted Koppel dates it somewhat (I think it was released in 1997 or thereabouts) but the message here is the same, and the book is used fairly frequently here in Middlebury in 2016.

If you master even just the material so far presented in this text, you will have made a great stride toward becoming proficient in this language in terms of reading. If you do not master the material presented so far in this text, you will never be able to do anything in Arabic. If you do not have the will to learn the material, which is fine, as one’s individual worth should not be based on whether one wants to be good at any one particular thing, then forget about it and go do something else. I just hope that I will not one day see you on Ted Koppel’s Nightline in the role of “The Middle East Expert” who is illiterate and unable to communicate in the language of the people on which the expert is supposedly so knowledgeable.


Work Ethics

CC-BY. Credit: John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Lin-Manuel Miranda hard at work. CC-BY. Credit: John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Recovering today from a Friday evening and night spend feeling totally lousy and sick. I don’t think it was anything in particular — more likely a culmination of a crazy 10 days where I wrote half a paper, presented a stanza of poetry in front of 100 people, took an exam, gave a 15-minute on the issue of conflict in Arabic filmmaking, and did 2-3 hours of homework each and every evening.

At the beginning of that stretch, Lin-Manual Miranda, the Hamilton wunderkind, tweeted that he was taking a vacation after leaving the show on July 9.

That the idea for the hip-hop musical came to Miranda while on vacation from his previous show is now part of the musical’s folklore. Miranda got the idea for Hamilton some time in 2008, and spent the intervening 7 years between then and the show’s 2015 Off-Brodway opening working on it.

He obviously deserves the vacation, but I’m willing to bet that Miranda won’t rest of his laurels or coast on his Hamilton fame for long. Give it six months at most, and he’ll be working on what’s next.

I love that about theater people. The actors and producers I know in NYC are among the most hardworking and dedicated people I know. They work just as hard, for just as many hours than the Silicon Valley success stories we love to talk about. Art is work, too — but that’s what makes it worthwhile.

Longer report on Middlebury to come after the program, but suffice to say their claim that the program will be the most physically, emotionally, and academically demanding thing you’ve ever done is not hyperbole. I’m taking three or four days off in August and then we’ll talk about what’s next.