Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Everything worth saying has already been said

And everything worth writing has also been written. Why am I persisting with this blog then? I don't know. Today, I just wanted to say that 'Things We Lost in The Fire' is a great film mostly because Benicio Del Toro is the risen lord of subtlety in it. He is so nuanced and accurate that you can't stop watching him.  He plays Jerry, a former lawyer with a heroin habit. You wait for him to dissemble and you wait for him to recover and you watch him watch his best friend's wife, Audrey, played by Halle Berry.  There, that's my review.  Anything more and I'll give away the film.
Another film I liked recently was 'Love Me If You Dare'(Jeux d'enfants) -- with its crazed young protagonists,  Julien and Sophie, who grow up into equally crazed lovelorn adults with an obsession for a childhood game. The best scene has the heroine (on a bet) wearing her underwear on top of her clothes for an exam. Weird as anything, but so good because their love, honest as it is, is sociopathic, as love sometimes is.
I know, my reviews are sketchy today. So am I, dear reader, so am I.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Small unidentified happenings

I love the little UFO moments in life where someone or something so utterly random crosses your path so as to be life affirming. Such a very thing happened to me today, dear reader. I was in Little India looking for a large sponge or a  broom handle attached to one of those squeegee things.  I stopped at one stellar shop which had populated the footpath with a constellation of aluminium utensils and plastic buckets of varying sizes and colours. I walked into the tube-lit store and found the ownerman who had one good eye and another eye which looked like a large white, carved marble. He stood up and said "yes, hello?."  
I said, "Hello, do you have one of those large sponges? Or those mops with a sponge, you know, to soak up standing water?"
He thought about it for a second and then he said, "No. I don't have that. But I have rope."

A good word for self doubt

There's so much literature out there telling everybody to feel good that we have no idea how to feel bad. For once, I read something that acknowledged this problem.  Richard Friedman, a professor of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College, writes in the NYTimes today, "The challenge of maintaining one’s self-esteem without recognition or reward is daunting. Chances are that if you are impervious to self-doubt and go on feeling good about yourself in the face of failure, you have either won the temperamental sweepstakes or you have a real problem tolerating bad news."

Messy Lives

You know, it has been quiet around here for months now. I've toured the districts and come full circle. Back on the island and happy to be here. Well, happy isn't entirely accurate. But are words really accurate barometers of feelings? Behold  the slippery slope of semantics as I struggle to name the feeling and fail.
Anyway, the real reason I'm writing is to link to a profile of Philip Seymour Hoffman, who is one of my favourite actors. I think of him as Capote and then as Freddie Miles in The Talented Mr Ripley and a whole host of other roles, and think how completely he inhabits his characters.
Here's a paragraph from it that I particularly liked:
"What’s so essential about this movie is our desire to be certain about something and say, This is what I believe is right, wrong, black, white. That’s it. To feel confident that you can wake up and live your day and be proud instead of living in what’s really true, which is the whole mess that the world is. The world is hard, and John is saying that being a human on this earth is a complicated, messy thing.” Hoffman paused again. “And I, personally, am uncomfortable with that messiness, just as I acknowledge its absolute necessity."


Sunday, September 14, 2008

The magic of the southern skies

One of the great things about being in the southern hemisphere and somewhere semi-rural is the fact that the night sky is so different to what I'm used to. The light pollution is negligible on the hillside where we live and on a clear night, the sky is a cascade of stars.
I still find myself looking for Polaris out of habit, but realise that New Zealand is too far down for that. Here, you can see the Southern Cross shining bright and clear.  
Anyway, the real story is that on Friday night, we went down to the Ward Observatory in Wanganui, which houses New Zealand's largest unmodified refractor telescope. The Wanganui Astronomical Society opens the observatory up for public viewings every Friday after sunset. I went up into the darkened dome and said hello to the people there and we exchanged names and pleasantries even though we couldn't see each other's faces. They were knowledgeable old men who had been looking at the southern skies for years.  
The first thing I saw through the telescope was the craggy and dimpled surface of the moon. This was followed by a view of Jupiter and his handsome stripes. I also saw Jupiter's moons, Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. But what made the evening special was the eerie red light in the darkness of the observatory and meeting the members of the astronomical society. They spoke so passionately about the hundreds of volcanoes on Io and dispensed many other bits of celestial gossip...it was the most fun I've had while also learning a lot about deep space and the intricacies of telescopes.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Movie night and teary eyes

La Vie Revee des Anges or The Dreamlife of Angels is the name of the extraordinary French film that had me weeping copiously into my oversize grey fleece last night. We borrowed it from the Wanganui Library, where I have spent some happy afternoons. And I digress. The story is simple enough but the treatment is complex. Two penniless girls, Marie and Isa, befriend each other at a sweatshop. Director Eric Zoncka, who co-authored the script, manages to portray all the intricacies of friendship; mutual need, exploitation and camaraderie. Elodie Bouchez plays Isa, the tomboyish optimist who approaches even her destitution with a certain madcap exuberance. Natacha Regneir plays Marie, a pessimist who is too afraid to need people. Still, she lets Isa into her life and the flat that she is housesitting for a mother and daughter who are in hospital after an accident. Together, Marie and Isa find that their hard lives, devoid of prospects, are made somewhat better by company. Friction is never far from their interactions though. Isa starts reading the diaries that belong to Sandrine, the room's original occupant, who now lies in a coma. She is moved enough to visit the comatose girl while Marie worries about when they might have to move out. Despite their obvious personality differences, the girls continue to comfort each other. Isa drags Marie to places she may have never gone, given her introversion. They manage to charm a couple of bouncers, Fredo and Charly, to gain entry into a club. I particularly liked the character of the Charly, the overweight bouncer who doesn't think he's fat. He's a gentle and wise giant who would have taken care of Marie if she'd let him. But Marie gets involved with his boss, a rich brat who sees her as an interesting diversion. This is where it gets ugly. Marie finds she can't let go of the brat, much as she dislikes him. What's evident is that through all their situations, the girls are by turn exploiters and by turn, the exploited. And yet, there is a sad hopefulness to them which I found all too human and honest and it stayed with me. Wasn't surprised to learn that they both shared the Best Actress Award at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The best thing about walking...

Walking around this town makes me happy. There is the quiet road by the river and the slip roads in the park by Virginia Lake. There are the old trees and dogs that come bounding up to you. A golden retriever appeared today wagging its tail at me and walked alongside for a while. Ducks came up to the entrance of our house the other day, it was amazing. Today, I was out walking for most of the evening. I watched the orange evening light turn into blue and inky black. The stars started to appear quite quickly in that pointillist way they do sometimes. I had the cold evening breeze on my face and I walked homewards. I thought of a paragraph from the book I'm reading. "Our lives spent in rooms, our imaginations and outlooks framed by windows--by concepts, logic, language--most of us continue to think of nature as a place to visit, wearing sunscreen and suitable protective clothing. Visitors in the museum of the great outdoors." (The book I'm reading is called The Picador Nature Reader and is edited by Daniel Halpern and Dan Frank)

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The consolations of poetry

Things hardly ever go as planned, especially big things and that's why there is poetry. Sometimes, there is much solace in words, not action. All it takes is a couch, a page with a few lines, a rhyme, a metaphor and suddenly the view changes. I discovered Urdu poetry on my trip back home this time, thanks to the man who has no name. I'm barely fluent in Hindi but I'm quite taken with Urdu's old world charms and wish I had learned Urdu in school. The men who write these poems seem to be posessed with an intelligence measured by self-deprecation and an appreciation for the absurdities of life. For instance, look at this couplet, which is among my favourite lines by Mirza Ghalib:
"Ranj se xuugar huaa insaan, toh mit jaataa hai ranj
mushkilen mujh par padi itnii, kih aasaaN ho gaiin"
This roughly translates as 'When a person becomes accustomed to grief, then grief is erased/ The difficulties that fell upon me were so many, that it became easy.'
It's a wry and useful way of looking at a series of misfortunes and it invariably makes me laugh at my troubles, varied as they may be.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Lost and Found

After two months of being lost in transition, I finally find myself in Wanganui, New Zealand. The Singapore shipment arrived shortly after I did, so now I am unpacking the boxes while the man I am married to is off at work. It's cold here but not at all gloomy. People are accessible in a way that is real, immediate and reassuring. And the thing that grabs straight away, is an unfailing sense of humour that crops up in the most unexpected of places. I went to Good Year Tyres today to replace a punctured tyre on our rental car. A handwritten sign said, "Please be patient. I only work here because I'm too old for the paper run, too young for the pension and too tired to have an affair." On a previous visit, the River City Cabs taxi driver who was driving me up the main street asked if I was newly wed. I said I wasn't and his reply? "Well, I like to say that Wanganui is a town for newly-weds or nearly-deads. So if you're in the middle, good luck to you miss." Yes, I'm here and I'm much in the middle so good luck to me indeed!

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Waving Goodbye to the Singapore house

I haven't been around puppies. No blog, no internet, not much e-mail or television. Just travel, family, friends and a whole load of good books. I should have been in Singapore today completing the formalities of handing over our empty house back to its owners. But I'm still in Bangalore, having decided to spend more time with my parents and friends. Three wonderful women have helped make this remote handover happen and I haven't the words to thank them. It's no easy matter. The house needed cleaning, the cats needed feeding and have now been shifted to the house of a friend who will forever be my sky fairy of much goodness. This is about the most slacker-like thing I have done in my life and I really should do it more. It is also probably the first time in six years that I have spent more than a week or ten days at home with my parents. I've only managed four or five days at best but at least the visits have been made at frequent intervals. It was my father, really. His big, thoughtful eyes were transparent with dismay and he said, "Do you have to go this week?" and I held his soft pudgy hand in mine and said, "No, I don't really have to go. I'll stay on a little longer."

Sunday, May 11, 2008

It's good to be on the road back home again

I love coming back to Bangalore. Too pleased at the moment and drunk on amma's cooking to say more than that.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Anxiety-relieving Bhangra (TM)

The packers are coming tomorrow. The forms are somewhat filled. New Zealand biosecurity is very strict and so there's all kinds of boxes to tick and sign. I'm sorting my clothes now, having mostly finished with all the papers. What am I forgetting? According to my files and my wind-up chronicle, all systems are go. Why am I talking like a fool in a hyped-up Hollywood movie? See, this is what happens. At weak and vulnerable moments in our lives, we fall back on stock plots and phrases for comfort. In other news, I was immensely entertained by this Billie Jean Bhangra video that is making the rounds of the interweb (said like the great world leader George W Bush.) In case you're interested, here's one of my favourite recent Bushisms from Slate:
"Let me start off by saying that in 2000 I said, 'Vote for me. I'm an agent of change.' In 2004, I said, 'I'm not interested in change—I want to continue as president.' Every candidate has got to say 'change.' That's what the American people expect." —Washington, D.C., March 5, 2008
Go George! Why should anybody be anxious when y'all are in charge eh?

Monday, May 5, 2008

Kneel and worship at the church of Charlie

Whether you read my theories or not, please read Charlie Brooker, the funniest and greatest genius columnist of our time, writing in The Guardian (which is also the greatest newspaper in the world) about existential angst. I love this paragraph: "The gap between your stupid face and cold hard reality is increasing all the time. We plod down the street holding remote conversations with voices in little plastic boxes. We slump in front of hi-def panels watching processed, graded, synchronised imagery. We wander through made-up online worlds, pausing occasionally to chew the fat with some blue-skinned tit in a jester's hat. We watch time and space collapse on a daily basis. Our world is now running an enhanced, expanded version of reality's vanilla operating system. As a result, it's all too easy to feel like a viewer of - rather than a participant in - your own life."

Theory of Life Central/You are here/ Welcome

Good morning puppies. Anybody who doesn't like being called that, I'm not sorry. I like saying it. Okay? Its my blog and I'll bark if I want to. But I'm richly brimming with theory, concept and witloads of understanding this glorious Monday morning (while earthly mortals work, I have morphed from reportergirl to skyfairy) By the way, anybody have any suggestions for what kind of costume would most suit a reportergirl ? Ah, but I digress from my richly theories. My theory this morning is that I've so far been looking at my life as a maze, while in actuality, it is a labyrinth. A labyrinth is not a maze. This is a very important distinction and lets not forget it. My expertise with Google (it has made experts of us all, none more so than I) reveals that a labyrinth is a circuitous path with one entrance point, that leads through a series of switch-backs to its centre. A maze, however, has dead ends and blind alleyways. Its intention is confusion and mystery. The labyrinth, when followed, leads eventually and without making choices to the centre. The French existentialists laboured over choice and came to the conclusion that there was no absolute right or wrong choice--you just had to make a choice and take full responsibility for it. (I'm talking macro life choice here, not your average bad choice of food, drink, etc) In simpler terms, bloom where you are planted or find a better soil and climate mix. But remember that repotting takes some planning and soil prepping. Don't be doing it willy nilly or you'll be wilting. So back then to the labyrinth, which may be thought of as a map of your innermost being. There is no right or wrong way to walk the labyrinth. It's comforting to know that the feelings that won't be tamed, the switch-backs and the meanderings they cause, will all eventually lead to the centre. As one of my favourite Indian playwrights Girish Karnad, says "You can't master knowledge through austerities. It must come with experience."

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Good notes and bad photographs

I can be quite inept with a camera but the results don't do much to discourage me. Some of my friends derive great enjoyment from these photoshop fix-resistant images. I'm flaunting a flawed photograph of my favourite vegetable market in Bangalore. I'll hopefully be there next weekend to see my parents and friends before I fly off to the new end of the earth.

Nudging yourself towards better decisions

I've started walking a lot more than I used to. It started off as a planned, incremental increase in exercise and now it's a way of life, even in 75 per cent humidity. I make an exception only on the days when I have let vanity get the better of me and have worn girly shoes that almost always hurt. My favourite columnist writes today that little and often is a better way to change than instituting dramatic militaristic regimens, which are bound to fail.
"The point missed by the "transform your life now" culture of pop psychology is that the changes most of us would like to make in our lives aren't enormous. We don't have eating disorders: we'd just like to eat healthier meals. We don't lurch through our working lives, always about to get fired: we'd just like to finish a project on time for once. We're not debilitatingly depressed or anxious: we'd just like to be a bit happier. All we need is a nudge, whereas many gurus would rather deliver a kicking." If there's anything you're looking to change about your life, I suggest reading this column as a starting point. Baby steps. That's where it all starts. So I'm going to gently shut down my laptop and walk down to this reservoir near our house where I love to go but don't go often enough.

Field Guide Poetry

Some months ago I attempted a poetry exercise set by David Morley in the excellent Books section of Guardian Online. An ecologist and poet, Morley, suggested we try and locate poetry in the scientific, somewhat opaque language of natural history field guides. I have a small book called A Guide to Growing the Native Plants of Singapore and these lines seemed mighty poetic to me. This is clunky and incomplete but I love the second paragraph and the fact that one can find poetry in the most unexpected places.

Native species, they evolved over millions of years
to cope with climate, soils, seasons and interactions,
with others in the ecosystem.

Accidentally-introduced species
come by various means,
on tires, earth-moving equipment
and in the ballast of ships.
They may just persist close to their sites of escape,
establish so well, they outcompete the native species,
though, the most exotic species are those
deliberately introduced by humans.

A quarter of native plant species are already extinct,
yet, most tropical cities grow the overexploited
Madagascan flame-of-the-forest,
the American rain tree.

Friday, May 2, 2008

This modern world of muchness

I slept like a child again and have woken up to a beautiful, breezy blue-sky day. Sold our beloved coffee machine yesterday and was sorry to see it go. I'm not attached to much but that DeLonghi machine was more than a machine you know? A memory of Italy and the warm ritual of many cafes for all the coffee lovers who ever visited our home. Yet, every single time I pack up a home (seven times in the last 10 years) I think to myself that I really must simplify my life, own less, buy less, accumulate less. And its so hard at least where I live not to go out and buy something. Trinkets and beads I haven't worn, a neck pillow that I have used once, because it breaks my neck far worse than sleeping on my own shoulder like a drunken lout, 100 multi-purpose cleaning wipes for cleaning the laptop screen (75 unused), sachets of sample hyacinth moisturiser or some such(yuck) papers, papers, papers, particle board furniture, nifty tools that have not been used at all, the list is endless. I'll manage to sell some things, recycle some and the rest will all end up in a landfill somewhere, while I take more long-haul flights and buy new things made in some factory in India or China.
What's the alternative? I'm not even going to talk about carbon footprint--rendered almost meaningless from overuse, misuse and dodgy calculations. Please read Specter's Big Foot in The New Yorker. Michael Pollan has also written a great article called, Why Bother? He takes the question of individual responsibility and works out some answers. It's really worth reading.

"Let’s say I do bother, big time. I turn my life upside-down, start biking to work, plant a big garden, turn down the thermostat so low I need the Jimmy Carter signature cardigan, forsake the clothes dryer for a laundry line across the yard, trade in the station wagon for a hybrid, get off the beef, go completely local. I could theoretically do all that, but what would be the point when I know full well that halfway around the world there lives my evil twin, some carbon-footprint doppelgänger in Shanghai or Chongqing who has just bought his first car (Chinese car ownership is where ours was back in 1918), is eager to swallow every bite of meat I forswear and who’s positively itching to replace every last pound of CO2 I’m struggling no longer to emit. So what exactly would I have to show for all my trouble?
A sense of personal virtue, you might suggest, somewhat sheepishly. But what good is that when virtue itself is quickly becoming a term of derision?"

"And even if in the face of this derision I decide I am going to bother, there arises the whole vexed question of getting it right. Is eating local or walking to work really going to reduce my carbon footprint? According to one analysis, if walking to work increases your appetite and you consume more meat or milk as a result, walking might actually emit more carbon than driving. A handful of studies have recently suggested that in certain cases under certain conditions, produce from places as far away as New Zealand might account for less carbon than comparable domestic products. True, at least one of these studies was co-written by a representative of agribusiness interests in (surprise!) New Zealand, but even so, they make you wonder. If determining the carbon footprint of food is really this complicated, and I’ve got to consider not only “food miles” but also whether the food came by ship or truck and how lushly the grass grows in New Zealand, then maybe on second thought I’ll just buy the imported chops at Costco, at least until the experts get their footprints sorted out."

Thursday, May 1, 2008

The joy of joblessness/ To say what one thinks, instead of what one should say

My last day at work was a breeze. At the coffee shop upstairs, it was also my favourite barista's last day. She's quitting to spend more time with her children. She gave her special customers free coffees and I was pleased to be among them. I'll miss her and the mean-faced fruit lady and the crazed Indian stall owners who put so much salt and MSG in their food that you can lose a litre of body fluid simply by eating lunch there. And then, there's the lovely woman across the road, who because I can't speak Mandarin, communicates with me in sign language. We've developed our own charades for noodles/tofu/vegetables, no meat, no fish. Two months ago, when I got to her stall, she smiled, nay beamed and handed over a laminated menu with an all-new VEGETARIAN section. How cool is that? And now I've gone and left, bah, ungrateful wretch that I am.
I've had such a good run here -- loved my work and met some incredible people whose stories will always stay with me because of the madcap humour and quiet grace with which they handled not-so-great-news from doctors. And yet I feel like my work here is done. Last night I slept a whole nine hours for the first time in months. I slept like the dead.
I have learned some very wonderful things in these last three-and-a-half years. Yesterday, as I was cleaning up my desk, I found a small piece of paper given to me by a woman I interviewed a year ago. It sums up some of the most important things that I have learned to do (lie), actually, I'm still trying very hard to learn these lessons.
"To see and hear what is there, instead of what one should see and hear. To say what one thinks, instead of what one should say. To feel what one feels, instead of what one should feel. To ask for what one wants, instead of waiting for permission. To take risks on one's behalf, instead of choosing to be safe." — Virginia Satir

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

I love it when they make fun of my profession

Why? Because we all take ourselves too damn seriously, that's why.

Delicious Lines

This just in. Three delicious lines from the poetry section of, what else, the New Yorker. What can I say ? I'm a creature of habit. Franz Wright calls this The World of the Senses. Here are the lines that grabbed me and set my neurons on a happy spin. Click link for the whole poem, don't be lazy. You need to work for poetry. Such lucky things we are, really, to have all these luxuries unfold at the click of a mouse.

"What a day: I had some trouble
following the plotline; however,
the special effects were incredible"

Monday, April 28, 2008

The Scale of Human Trafficking

William Finnegan investigates the trafficking of women from Moldova to Dubai and the rest of the world in this New Yorker article. He profiles Stella Rotaru, a young woman who works with the International Office of Migration to rescue women who are stuck in brothels, who are looking for a way out or a way back home.
When I started off as a crime reporter in Bangalore, I had to do one story on the trafficking of adolescent girls within India, and even that was one story too much. I don't think I had the maturity or the distance needed to write that effectively. I still remember the faces of the three girls rescued from some 60-year-old man's hotel room. One of them was 14 and schizophrenic. I don't know what happened to her after that, except that she was sent to some sort of a home.
I recommend sticking with this 13-page-long story, because unlike me, Finnegan finds out what happens to women after they've been trafficked and rescued. If you don't or can't stick with the story, here's a paragraph that tells you a little bit about Stella Rotaru, the woman behind some of the rescues, and why she never switches her cell phone off:
"Brothel raids in other countries yield many of Rotaru’s beneficiaries, as her clients are known. After a raid, she’ll get calls from the detainees, or from cops, consulates, families, or friends—even, sometimes, from prostitution customers. “Rescue calls” tend to be more urgent. Women phone clandestinely, from captivity, and Rotaru may have only moments to get the information she needs. The women don’t always have the information themselves; in extreme cases, they may not be sure what country they’re in. Look out the window, Rotaru will say. Any sign you can see. Exact spellings. Look for an address on matchbooks, or McDonald’s bags. What languages do the johns speak? If she can capture a number on caller I.D., it can be useful, although simply calling back without an all-clear is generally too dangerous."

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Do I dare?

Do I dare publish a random act of my own poetry? Yes, I do. Here then, is my maudlin offering for Monday.


Getting there is easy.
All you have to do, they said,
Is take the train out to the bay,
transfer onto a yellowline bus
and then,
walk ten minutes.
You’ll see.
Beyond the red flowers,
the blue house on a green hill.
It’s easy.
Except, the train wasn’t on time
And the bus did not wait for me
So I walked all the way
And when I got there
an hour later than they said,
it was too dark
to see the colours.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Rescuing Madam Butterfly

I helped rescue a day-old butterfly today. A chap at work brought this beauty called the Common Rose into the office because he was doing a story on Rosalind Tay. She's an occupational therapist turned senior operations executive, who started a butterfly garden at Alexandra Hospital.
Her rationale was simple: Watching the butterflies, with their colourful and magical symmetries is an oddly soothing and affirming experience for those in recovery.
Anyway, the Common Rose rode into work in a box, to be photographed. Knowing nothing about the species, I resorted to google. It gets its name probably because it is abundantly found in South India and Sri Lanka, especially after the monsoons. Botanists call it an "excellent generalist" meaning it has adapted to a range of habitats from up to 8,000 feet in the Western Ghats and South Indian Hills and up to 5000 feet in the Himalayas. And somehow, our youngling of a Common Rose managed to fly out of her box in Singapore and made her way up onto one of the light fixtures in this gigantic office. Luckily, that particular light wasn't on.
The only reason I even knew was because I sit next to butterfly boy and some girls were shrieking, being girls and all. If we had just left her there, Madam Butterfly would have died. Maybe its a mister butterfly, but I just like the sound of madam. And I didn't want her to die in some cold air-conditioned office among journalists. If I were to die, I'd want to be in the flower garden hanging with my friends, talking. And then, mid-discussion, I would die happy, just after I'd made my point.
So, I found one of the cleaner ladies who suggested calling the cleaning department. The good folks at the cleaning department sent a man with a long stick and he also went and found a net. Then I went and found wildlife woman from our office. I knew she could help. We all watched as he very carefully coaxed Madam Butterfly into the net and brought her down from her high perch. We helped her back into her box and she seemed to sit still in there. She's on her way back to the Alexandra Hospital garden now, where they have the kind of flowers she likes to sit on and where some 101 other species of tropical butterflies gather.
Even if her life span is only a few days, I'm so happy that it will be spent among flowers and friends and not in an office. My day is so much better for having encountered the spectacular symmetry of her black, pink, red and grey hues. It also made me think of our general attitude to small insects and animals ...do we value their lives at all?
JM Coetzee is perhaps one of the few authors who discusses our cruelty and indifference to the animal world. In an interview after he received the Nobel prize, Coetzee said of animals: "There is a temptation to project upon them feelings and thoughts that may belong only to our own human mind and heart. (You'll notice its exactly what I've done in my post)
There is also a temptation to seek in animals what is easiest for human beings to sympathise or empathise with, and consequently to favour those animal species which for one reason or another seem to us to be “almost human” in their mental and emotional processes. So dogs (for example) are treated as “almost human” whereas reptiles are treated as entirely alien." Coetzee says that the lives of animals remain unimportant existences of which people take notice only when their lives cross ours. And while he agrees that we may never know the inner lives of animals, the one thing we can do, he says, is respect their right to life.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Curse of Officialese

Further to our tele-conversation, I am pleased to append herewith our 2nd Revised Quotation for your kind perusal.
Yes, that's right. Read it again puppies. That's the sort of communication I'm dealing with every day and will keep dealing with until all our wordly posessions have been enveloped by cardboard and bubble wrap and set sail for Nuova Zealandia. Joy is my name, moving is my game.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The genius of Jack Kerouac

After an intense spell of work, I treated myself to an old Paris Review interview of Jack Kerouac. It's so delicious, it's like reading a chocolate gelato. I love this paragraph:
"Well, look, did you ever hear a guy telling a long, wild tale to a bunch of men in a bar and all are listening and smiling, did you ever hear that guy stop to revise himself, go back to a previous sentence to improve it, to defray its rythmic thought impact. If he pauses to blow his nose, isn't he planning his next sentence? And when he lets that next sentence loose, isn't it once and for all the way he wanted to say it? Doesn't he depart from the thought of that sentence and, as Shakespeare says, "forever holds his tongue," on the subject since he's passed over it like a part of a river that flows over a rock once and for all and never returns and can never flow any other way in time? Incidentally, as for my bug against periods, that was the prose in October In The Railroad Earth, very experimental, intended to clack along all the way like a steam engine pulling a one-hundred-car freight with a talky caboose at the end, that was my way at the time and it still can be done if the thinking during the swift writing is confessional and pure and all excited with the life of it. And be sure of this, I spent my entire youth writing slowly with revisions and endless rehashing speculation and writing one sentence a day and the sentence had no FEELING. Goddamn it, FEELING is what I like in art, not CRAFTINESS and hiding of feelings."

Friday, April 18, 2008

Overcompensation is a wonderful thing

See, immediately after promoting wrist-slashing links, I came across this mister on the left. What a cool, tubular and frickin smart dude is he?
What? What? It's Friday and I'm happy. Happy like him, happy like a girl in a flowing silk skirt and bitey shoes that hurt her feet but look good and I'm happy like somebody who has newly-hatched boundaries. And cruising like somebody who has drunk just the right amount of Daiginjo Sake--you know the rice wine that is so mellow and smooth that it won't give up even one secret easily. So yeah, that's the kind of smile it produces and that's what I'm wearing along with Mister Snoopy on the left. And yes, that's a disco tune in my head. But I'm not telling you its name, because I'm so happy that I'm silly like that.

Pure and Unfamiliar Silence

Jane Hirshfield is an American poet whose work I stumbled across quite by accident on this website. She has titled this strangely hypnotic arrangement of words, 'This Was Once A Love Poem.' I will now look out for her work because it moves me (like this photograph my husband took) and plays strings in my head that sound like Gustavo Santaolalla's Iguazu.
To maximise this opiate feeling, I'd recommend reading the poem first and then listening to the music.
Warning: If you're not into enjoying a little bit of wistful sadness, then this is a mighty good wrist-slashing combo. And you won't want fries with it or a large Coke. Har, I'm so funny, especially when I try, eh?
This Was Once A Love Poem
This was once a love poem, before its haunches thickened, its breath grew short, before it found itself sitting, perplexed and a little embarrassed, on the fender of a parked car, while many people passed by without turning their heads. It remembers itself dressing as if for a great engagement. It remembers choosing these shoes, this scarf or tie. Once, it drank beer for breakfast, drifted its feet in a river side by side with the feet of another. Once it pretended shyness, then grew truly shy, dropping its head so the hair would fall forward, so the eyes would not be seen. It spoke with passion of history, of art. It was lovely then, this poem. Under its chin, no fold of skin softened. Behind the knees, no pad of yellow fat. What it knew in the morning it still believed at nightfall. An unconjured confidence lifted its eyebrows, its cheeks. The longing has not diminished. Still it understands. It is time to consider a cat, the cultivation of African violets or flowering cactus. Yes, it decides: Many miniature cacti, in blue and red painted pots. When it finds itself disquieted by the pure and unfamiliar silence of its new life, it will touch them—one, then another— with a single finger outstretched like a tiny flame.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Profiling George Clooney

A New Yorker profile never fails to fill me with awe at the amount of work put in by the reporter, the variety of sources he or she interviews, the number of times and situations in which they meet the subject of the profile --it's just incredible. Ian Parker's profile of George Clooney is fascinating in the details that he has managed to elicit from friends--not gossipy bits but just observations that build a complete picture of what makes him vital, or as the headline explains, the effort behind his effortless charm. I particularly liked this part where Richard Kind, a long-time friend of Clooney's talks about him, because it underlines that peculiar need or compulsion that some great peformers have, well, that need to perform all the time:
"Kind told me, “I’m very protective of him. When I’m staying with him, I will never bring anyone to the house while he’s there. The reason? This is almost pathological: he has to entertain that new person. Even if he doesn’t want to, he will draw that person in with stories, and will entertain him. He could have been working all day, he could have a headache, it doesn’t matter, when he’s at that dinner, he’s got to talk to that person, and make that person . . . I don’t know whether it’s make that person like him, but he wants to make him feel at home.”

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Faulty Plumbing of Your Flaky Mind

My new TV-free life gives me a lot more time to read. Last night, I read a New Scientist review of Gary Marcus' new book, Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind, which was so damn mindbending, it made me want to buy the book. He shows how the mind is held together by gum and duct tape -- meaning it is of a clumsy design. Apparently, brain modules that evolved for one purpose often take on roles that they weren't really designed for. "So our mental functions, while adequate individually, can harm us when working together-such as when our reasoning skills and healthy sex drive conspire to talk us into disastrous affairs. I guess Shaggy was on to something when he sang that it wasn't me, song. "It wasn't me, it was my mind." Marcus'observations are somewhat scary because they make so much sense. Just read his Idea Lab article on our awfully unreliable memories and further complicate your view of yourself and all the dumb choices you've ever made.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Morning After

And so the date is done and I've counted another year, brought in the day with drink and an overflowing cup of friendship. (the last four drinks were probably unnessecary and show that I may be older but I'm not getting any wiser). The naked exhibitionism that is this blog is also testament to the immaturity and suspectness of my edifice, dear reader. So trust my words no more than you would the breeze.
The first person to call was my mother, who I love for her peculiar honesty and intuition, whose articulation of the fear that can accompany the birth of a child, has left me with a precious awareness of the subtext in motherhood. As a youngling playing with large-eyed dolls, I had always assumed that women were filled with immense joy after the birth of a child. That it was one of those blessed, unambiguous states of being....
I'm thinking today of women and men who don't quite feel so fantastic, who are hit with waves of doubt, who were/are good mothers and fathers, despite the apprehension and loss of self that accompanies birth.
I thought this sort of feeling was not possible to translate into language. But of course, a poet would find a way to do it. Sylvia Plath's 'Morning Song' is perhaps the most brilliant articulation of the awe and fear surrounding birth I have ever read. It's not important to know, but she wrote it shortly after she became a mother.
The startling genius of this poem is hard to break down, but read it once, pause and then read it again. Wonder at her command of language and metaphor, rythm and structure and then look around and see if your world still looks the same.


Love set you going like a fat gold watch.
The midwife slapped your footsoles,
and your bald cry
Took its place among the elements.

Our voices echo, magnifying your arrival.
New statue. In a drafty museum, your nakedness
Shadows our safety. We stand round blankly as walls.

I’m no more your mother
Than the cloud that distils a mirror to reflect its own slow
Effacement at the wind’s hand.

All night your moth-breath
Flickers among the flat pink roses. I wake to listen:
A far sea moves in my ear.

One cry, and I stumble from bed, cow-heavy and floral
In my Victorian nightgown.
Your mouth opens clean as a cat’s. The window square
Whitens and swallows its dull stars. And now you try
Your handful of notes;
The clear vowels rise like balloons.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Tale of Two No-Good Tribesmen

I woke to fresh lizard kill this morning. A tail-less corpse, upturned on the floor. The two layabouts pictured here no doubt assume that this is a great offering to be appreciated by their leader. There is much solemn skirting about said kill while I clean it up. Still, I am glad they accord me such respect. As we all know, hierarchy and power dynamics, especially in a tribe of three, are very important. So I have given them their reward: scratch under chin and soft white bellies. They've forgotten they have claws which is good. I also forget that I have claws. My personality hypothesis today is that my claws are way too retractable and that I need to sharpen them a little bit. Maybe I need to relearn some hissing too, while I'm at it, I mean if I even knew how to hiss in the first place. What am I on about? I am poor this morning and radioactive. Half-life = 32 years. But that's going up to magic number 33 soon. Oh how lovely are the peaceful notes of middle-age where angst is dulled and one thinks of soft rugs and plush carpets. I think I had better shut up now.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Moving To The Country

I'm moving countries in seven weeks. All it means is that I have a bunch of tasks and a couple of lists to follow meticulously. I have to complete said tasks by certain dates and cross out with a tick. That's all. Cool.
That's what I tell myself. Actually, even if I tick off things, I'm obsessing about tangential stuff, the accumulation of life, papers and memories bound up with this house, this island.
So I'm a little emotional it seems, which is fine. Why I expect to function like a robot is anybody's guess, but I think we all expect ourselves to be robotic to a certain extent. We assume it makes life easy. It doesn't. Nor does losing it. Balance, my dear Watson, is key. And for me, balance immediately arrives when I see images like these. Can only be described as tres, beaucoup good!

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

The Science of Wonderment

My penchant for quoting studies (usually to the long-suffering soul who listens to all my boring theories) is born out of a need to formulate my own rational understanding of behaviour. I like knowing, for instance, that women under stress tend to secrete more oxytocin--the hormone that promotes feelings of empathy and bonding while men tend to secrete testosterone, the hormone that is most associated with feelings of aggression. I think it explains a lot of things. It makes a lot more sense than those annoying 'women come from outer space' type relationship books that oversimplify the differences between men and women. It also explains why friendships between women are nurturing in very special ways. My women friends, you all know who you are, thank you for the warmth of your sparkly-eyed empathy. But I've actually been equally, if not more lucky, with my men friends, who have so often taught me the anatomy of grace in difficult situations.
But I digress. Through the ages, science has often been seen as an agent of disenchantment. The reasoning behind this line of thought is that science curbs the imagination and leaves the mysteries of the world in tatters.
A new book called Cosmic Imagery: Key Images in the History of Science, by John Barrow, a Cambridge cosmologist, challenges this view by showing how the history of art and that of drawing is tied to the history of science. The Guardian (How empty would my life be without Guardian online? Even the thought scares me) has a wonderful review of Barlow's book and an accompanying slide show which shows the original scientific image that inspired Van Gogh's Starry Nights, among other things. But what might happen as the technology of visual reproduction grows more and more sophisticated? Will the sheer power of immersive realities bump off the imagination? This is the scenario that Barlow envisages, and it's definitely something I'm going to be wondering about for a while:

"We can imagine what the next stage will be, with holographic creations and alternative realities. So, for example, instead of reading Shakespeare, we're increasingly going to find ourselves transported into a Shakespearean environment. Instead of imagining, which will be thought of as hard work, we will be dropped into an experience. We see this saturation of interactive experience already with the web, and I see the future very much as one where subjects are increasingly presented in a way that removes the need to exercise one's imagination."

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Best ever one-line review of The Prestige

I watched that Prestige movie -the one where Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman play crazed and obsessive-competitive magicians.
My friend, the New Asian who lives in LA, wanted to know what I thought about the film. New Asian and I go back a long way, bound by our mutual desire to deconstruct all manner of cinema, even really important films like Bounce and Bring It On.
I told New Asian that it was a good film. "That part where they squash birds was hard to watch. Their competition and obsession was believable and tension-creating so I quite liked it. It made me question what entertainment really means, how we sometimes enjoy watching things go bad, that we are secretly thrilled when we watch something macabre even as we shake our heads in horror and recount the trauma of it later to our friends. There's something vaguely self-congratulatory, a misplaced pride even, at having been a firsthand witness of something awful. And that's awful but true"
New Asian's response: "These are two really obsessive and bitter dudes who need to chill, though chilling would reduce their greatness."

This Post Will Change Your Life

There's a guy at work who buys a sugary biscuit before he starts writing his column. He's very focussed about his writing and incredibly disciplined. He's not always wandering off to get a coffee or a tea, mid-sentence, like some other people we know. (me)
I just read about a study which shows he's on to something good. Apparently, when blood glucose is depleted, we're less able to exert self-control. The researchers say that the brain has a limited reserve amount of glucose, which allows us to handle the initial task demanding self control. Once that glucose supply is depleted, self control becomes much more difficult, across an array of different tasks.
Oliver Burkeman at The Guardian refers to this study in his latest column, the title of which I love and have shamelessly lifted. He talks about the effort needed to resist the power of our surroundings. For instance, "food that gets eaten because it's there; evenings spent watching TV because there's a TV in the room. Or bigger things: a job you fell into because it came along, or a relationship."
The point is that resisting these things uses up real energy. Burkeman argues that this is why willpower can be only a temporary or partial solution in changing a behaviour.
"It's exhaustible, and if you rely on it too much in one area - eating healthily, say - you will find that you don't have enough left over for the rest of life."
But there is a moral here for me...if I really want to concentrate on something or resist something or hopefully, someone, I need to eat a bar of good dark chocolate first.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Girl Power

This new girl power thing is perhaps the worst version of feminism I've ever seen. You know the one? The I-m-a-girl-with-all-my-precious-girlie-ways, and I watch sex and the city, and I-go-learn-pole-dancing-because-Im-such-a-badass, version.
There's a baby-teen version too and its evident in the marketing of the 'Little Princess Culture' that will encourage girls to grow into self-obsessed brats. The kind who go on TV to talk about what strong and beautiful women they are.
I'm a woman and I'm crying on TV because I've lost so much weight and had a makeover. Makeover, makeover, makeover. I have a right to look sexy and pretty and h o t.
I'm a princess. And I better not look a day older than 45.
Let me be seen deriving no satisfaction from any pursuit that does not involve me flogging my tired sexuality, legs, face or hair. I'm sick to death of it, I'm sick of my friends talking about it, I'm sick of being marketed products that promise to fix it all so I can be the woman I was always meant to be, I'm going to stamp on the credit card meant EXCLUSIVELY for today's woman and jump up and down like a mad feminist, Yeah.

Anyway, mid-rant I came across this interesting bit of information from the New York Times that makes me wonder about the roles we take on:

According to a study of how children ages 5 to 13 spend their time, by Isabelle Cherney and Kamala London, psychologists at Creighton University and the University of Toledo, respectively, and published in the journal Sex Roles, girls tend to become less stereotypical in their play as they age — choosing more neutral toys, sports and computer games — while boys remain emphatically masculine in theirs. There was one exception to that trend: television-watching. The viewing habits of girls become strikingly more feminine in their tween years.

Whether girlie or girlist, girls, because they’re allowed more latitude in their identities, can still be girls: Boys, on the other hand, must be boys — unless no one is watching. In another study of younger children, Cherney and London found that if ushered alone into a room and told they could play with anything, nearly half the boys chose “feminine” toys as often as “masculine” ones, provided they believed nobody, especially their fathers, would find out. That made me question whether any more expansive vision of girlhood can survive without a similar overhaul of boyhood, which, apparently, is not in the offing.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Evidence of Things Unseen

I discovered the novelist Richard Ford in a university library in Los Angeles some seven years ago. The emotional lives of his somewhat lost characters with their moral quandaries and vulnerabilities drew me in. I learned much later that he enjoyed a long friendship with Raymond Carver , that they commented on each other's work, drew inspiration from each other...though Ford says he learned more from Carver than the other way around.
There's an excellent interview with Ford in the latest Granta (No. 99) where he talks about his work, literature and life. An excerpt:

Tim Adams: Has faith or church-going ever had any appeal to you?
Ford: Not church going. But faith, well... There's the famous line in Hebrews 11: 'Faith is the evidence of things unseen.' I've always been attracted to that line. But for specifically irreligious reasons. I deem that line to be a line about the imagination. I could almost say that, 'the imagination is the evidence of things unseen.' But again specifically I'd say that my 'faith' lies in the imagination and in the imagination's power to bring into existence essential experience that heretofore wasn't known to exist.

Adams: That reminds me of Franck Bascombe's line: 'The unseen exists and has properties.' Do you have an ongoing sense of that 'unseen,' or only at certain charged moments?
Ford: I don't think much about the unseen. For lack of great erudition, or a great education, I suppose I've stored a fair amount of trust in my instinct. But as soon as I see that written down I start to think that instinct may just be another word for luck and for trusting to luck -- which I've done. A favourite line I repair to is by the philosopher Daniel Dennett, who said: 'We have a built-in, very potent, hair-triggered tendency to find agency in things that are not agents.' I'm not sure if Dennett approves of that tendency or not. But certainly that's one of the things literature does-- it ascribes agency where before no agency was noticed: it says this causes that, this is a consequence of that, etc. It may be that writing fiction, imagining agencies, is my most trusted way into the unseen.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

What does art do?

Talking about art in Saigon got me thinking about art in general. How artists are treated is a pretty good barometer of where a society is headed. And from what I ve been reading over the last couple of years, India isn't doing so well in that respect. First, they drove MF Husain out of India, then some right wing idiot rolled up at at Baroda's prestigious fine arts university and attacked a student artist. If you thought they would arrest the right winger, well what do you know, they arrested the student instead..this was in 2007.
Even now, when I visited, I found the pluralistic Hinduism I knew had slowly but surely given way to various shades of Hindutva--a very curious and spurious mixture of fascist methodology and puritanism.
There were things that made me hopeful, a few reviews of new art and artists; women trained in traditional dance presenting contemporary modern pieces where once there was only orthodoxy--these things were encouraging.
Historian and critic John Berger has a wonderful explanation that tells you why art is important. (I found all his books in a second-hand book shop in Bangalore and was therefore reminded of him)
"I can't tell you what art does and how it does it, but I know that art has often judged the judges, pleaded revenge to the innocent and shown to the future what the past has suffered, so that it has never been forgotten.
I know too that the powerful fear art, whatever its form, when it does this, and that amongst the people such art sometimes runs like a rumour and a legend because it makes sense of what life's brutalities cannot, a sense that unites us, for it is inseparable from a justice at last. Art, when it functions like this, becomes a meeting-place of the invisible, the irreducible, the enduring, guts and honour."

Seen in Saigon

In Saigon, I encountered mass produced art on a scale I have seldom seen before. On all our travels, we (my travelling companion and I), usually buy something by a local artist. It's not what we set out to do, but something usually catches his eye or mine and then we buy it and wrap it with much care and cart it back home so it can find its rightful place on some wall in our house. The only thing we bought this time was a print of an old propaganda poster from the war. My eyes are drawn to tourist art for its mawkish sentimentality and also because it tells you what the mood of a place is, what its gearing up for.
In Vietnam, the mood is commerce. What sells, multiplies. So, yes there were many portraits of women in cone-shaped straw hats. That's fine. What wasn't fine were portraits of Vietnamese women --all the same except for different background colours--I guess you were meant to choose whatever would go with your colour of wall of furniture. Even stranger were the copies of Western artists which seemed almost to outnumber the hats and women--hundreds of copies of Klimt's The Kiss, Botero's rotund women and anything else that has ever graced a museum. Maybe we were looking in the wrong places or even the wrong city, because Hanoi is said to be a city teeming with original, contemporary Vietnamese art with its unique European influences. Apart from a cathedral and a post office, Saigon's city centre is rapidly giving way to the standard issue glass-chrome-steel high rise.
The main shopping area, Dong Khoi, is a snarl of silk and lacquer, the new malls flash the names Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Cavalli at you. Inside, uniformed and delicately-featured salesgirls look flustered as a man in a British accent, slows down his speech and asks for trousers in a "b i g g e r" size. So, here it is the new Vietnam and its open for business, just like anywhere else.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

The Other Person of The Year

I'm not sure Time magazine holds the kind of sway it did even a decade ago, but the choice of Putin as person of the year has clearly brought the magazine some much needed publicity. Garry Kasparov's oped in the Wall Street Journal shows how this choice is an endorsement of dictatorship. The magazine has made some weak justifications. Apparently, the Person of the Year is just somebody who made the news a lot, it doesn't mean that the person is good or a great leader or any such thing.

"The most revealing moment in Ms. Rice’s comments came when the topic of Mr. Medvedev as the next president was first broached. The official transcript reads:
“SECRETARY RICE: Well, I guess, they’re still going to have an election in March. ” (laughter)
Perhaps my sense of humor was dulled during the five days I spent in a Moscow jail last month for protesting against these sham elections. Or maybe it was reading about the constant persecution of my fellow activists across the country that did it. Madam Secretary went on to speak approvingly of Mr. Medvedev, making the undemocratic nature of his selection sound like a minor annoyance. The last remaining element of democracy in Russia, the transition of power, will be destroyed. Will Mr. Putin and his successor still be welcomed with open arms in the club of leading democracies?
In the early days of our opposition activities last year, when members of Other Russia were harassed and arrested, the “bright siders” in the West said it could be worse. Later, when our marchers were badly beaten in St. Petersburg and Moscow, Mr. Putin’s fans in the West said at least the police weren’t killing us in the streets.
Last week, 22-year-old opposition activist Yury Chervochkin died in hospital after several weeks in a coma. He had been beaten nearly to death an hour after making an anxious cellphone call to our offices saying he was being followed by members of the organized-crime task force known as UBOP, which has become the vanguard of the Kremlin’s war on political opposition. A witness saw him clubbed repeatedly by men with baseball bats.
Yury’s sin was not chanting Nazi slogans or praising the deeds of Josef Stalin, activities that regularly go unremarked in Russia these days. No, he had been caught throwing leaflets that read “The elections are a farce!” That was enough to make him a marked man. Now, for agitating for real democracy in Russia, he is dead.
This is a good opportunity to remember Anna Politkovskaya, the investigative journalist who was murdered on Oct. 7, 2006, Putin’s birthday. The police investigation into this infamous assassination has stalled and talk of it has died down. The Kremlin is counting on the same thing happening with “minor” cases like that of Yury Chervochkin."