Thursday, August 31, 2006

The Auction

When the letter from Sotheby's arrived, he had to read it through twice before the words sank in. She was selling the poems he'd written for her. Selling them! He couldn't believe it. It was unimaginable, unconscionable. Those long, lyrical poems he'd written her, one for every week that they were together - poems so personal, so painful that he'd never had the courage to show them to anyone else, let alone publish them; poems that he'd spent long nights wrestling with, trying to get the phrases just right so they would express how he felt about her; poems like nothing he'd ever written before or since, the very heartblood of his fervid twenties. And she was going to auction them off to the highest bidder? Just like that?

Could it be that she needed the money? Impossible. After all, that apeneck husband of hers had always been rich - it was the only thing that could be said about him. And by now he must be an important bigwig in that investment bank he used to work for - Morgan Dimwit or something. They must be rolling in the stuff. No, this was avarice, pure and simple, an act of petty greed, a form of despicable profit-seeking that he'd never considered she might be capable of. It shouldn't surprise him, he supposed. He'd always known she was unsentimental. But this!

He tried to remember if he'd signed the poems when he gave them to her. That would increase their value. He couldn't remember when he'd last looked at them. He spent half the day rummaging through his old files until he found copies of the poems (so strange to think that in those days duplicating a poem meant using carbon paper, and hoping that the copy wouldn't smudge), and sat down to read them over again. He was half-hoping they would be crap, as poems written long ago often turn out to be; he had this image of himself shrugging them off with a laugh, as if to suggest that they were mere follies of his lovelorn youth, juvenile exercises in verse not to be taken seriously. The kind of thing a young man writes to impress a woman he lusts after. This would be a lie, of course, he'd meant them in all seriousness, but faced with so terrifying a betrayal as she had just dealt him, who was to say what was true and what was a lie?

In fact, the poems were heartbreaking. Page after yellowing page the phrases jumped out at him, sharp as the day they were written. He could feel the claws of them reaching out for him, reopening old wounds. No. Whatever he said about her or their relationship, these poems could not, would not be denied. He felt like a man who stands in the dock, watching a case being built against him and knowing, suddenly, that his alibi will not hold.

He told himself that he mustn't let it affect him this much. After all, the papers had more important things to focus on than the sordid love life of some obscure poet. The news of the sale of these letters probably wouldn't make the papers at all, or if it did it would show up as a tiny paragraph tucked away between the latest exploits of some teenage starlet and some inane quote about the state of the nation from a famous sportsperson.

As for her - what was one betrayal more to add to the long list of all she had done to him? And besides, it was twenty five years ago now, too much had changed in his life, too many good things had happened. In a way, he had her to thank for them - it was the book he wrote to get over the depression of her leaving him that first got him noticed. That was where it had all begun. And though there had been other books since (and other women) still the tenderest poems he had ever written, the ones that got the most attention, the ones that ended up in all the anthologies, had been written while thinking of her.

It was time he got over it though. He was a successful poet now. Even a famous one. He had a shelf cluttered with prizes, a reputation like a well-packed suitcase that he carried around with him wherever he went. There were even rumours of his name coming up in Stockholm, though it was probably too early for that. Meanwhile, other loves had come and gone. Even now he was not short of admirers, many of them female, many of them willing. He had seen the way some of the students in his creative writing class looked at him. Like frightened shepherdesses in the presence of Zeus.

And that was the trouble. These women did not admire him as a man, as a human being. They admired him as a legend. They didn't really want to sleep with him, they wanted to be able to say that they had. It was his reputation, not his cock, that he was bringing to bed with them. He supposed he should be grateful. He was 54 years old and hadn't been particularly good looking to begin with. If it wasn't for his fame, no woman in her right mind would give him so much as a second glance.

He went over to the mirror and stared at his own reflection. It was strangely comforting to see the frail, familiar figure that greeted him. Perhaps this was why Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection. Not because he admired it, but because the mirror was the only thing that saw him for who he really was. Was that why he was so obsessed with this love affair from a quarter of a century ago? Because it was the one time that he had been loved for himself and not for his poems? Was that why he needed so badly to believe that she had in fact loved him, never mind how it ended, never mind that she left him for someone else? Because if that wasn't true then he had never really been loved? And yet how was it possible to believe that she had loved him, to sustain that illusion, now that she was selling the poems that were, to him, the purest symbol of that love?

Could it be that she wanted to abandon the poems so that they would not interfere with her memory of him? Could it be that she had kept them from her husband all this while, but that he'd found out about them somehow and wanted her to get rid off them? But in that case, why not simply destroy them? Why sell them in a public auction? No. There could be no doubt that she was trying to humiliate him. There was no love there, only callousness and the desire to wound.

The thought of this worked on him like poison. He considered writing back to Sotheby's and denying the authenticity of the poems, but they were too good to disown, and besides, he had his pride.

After he sent off the letter authenticating the poems, he sat at his desk and tried to channel his emotions into poetry, just as he'd done that first time, twenty five years ago. He went three days and three nights without sleep, his study coming to resemble a slaughterhouse of paper, poems bleeding to death all around him. But somehow the words just wouldn't turn out right. Fatigued beyond exhaustion, he finally gave up on them, then finding that the urgency of his disquiet still wouldn't let him sleep, he fished out a bottle of sleeping pills from his medicine cabinet, took one pill, then another, then a third. At some point it seemed pointless to stop - he might as well be done with it now, he thought - and he ended up finishing off the bottle. His last conscious thought was to wonder whether she'd be sorry when she heard.

When the poems he'd written her were finally auctioned, two weeks later, experts said the news of his death and the fact that he'd been thinking about her when he killed himself (as evidenced by the last poems he'd written, naming her for the first time) caused the value of the collection to more than triple.


Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Animals, Trash, Litter or Money

The sign in my doctor's waiting room [1] reads:

"Always be sure to wash your hands after handling animals, trash, litter or money"

And I imagine a religion where all currency is considered impure, so that even to hold a dollar bill in your hand is to commit a mortal sin requiring complex rituals of purification. A religion where all commercial transactions are done on faith alone, and the priests burn incense night and day, to get the smell of money out of their temples.

I imagine a superhero so incorruptible, so unimaginably pure, that the offer of the smallest coin in payment (or bribe) will act like kryptonite on his powers, sapping him of all his strength.

I imagine my fingers touching notes pulled from inside a mattress, sweaty with insomnia and love making, crumpled with greed.

[1] No, I'm not ill. It was just a routine check-up.


Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Finding Refuge

"Books, though, have been my most enduring refuge, not the ones I've written, but the ones I've read - my good, long disappearances into them, how they always return me to the world; in the best of instances, to an enlarged world. In fact, a world with more places that I could have imagined in which to hide, get lost, or be found. A great book, I'm tempted to say, is a refuge for the negatively capable, those of us more or less at home with uncertainties, who are not made entirely miserable by the burden of consciousness. But I've also found comrades in books merely good, even mediocre. I've loved how some authors manage to give, if not refuge, then a kind of home to the displaced, the misunderstood, the estranged, give them names and secret thoughts, even chapters of their own - and the displaced, the misunderstood, the estranged among us turn the pages and find ourselves there and are less alone.

I tell my students that I once believed my strangest thoughts had only been thought by me. Kafka made me feel sane."


"The hunger artist had only his art, and therefore, when faced with neglect, had no place to go except further inward, that dangerous province where only touchy-feely folks find refuge. Get in touch with your feelings, they say, as if feelings were all sanguine and warm. Kafka would have laughed. He'd have his hunger artist shed another pound. He sent his hunger artist inward, however, to a point where success was concomitant with personal annihilation. That's scary enough. But he has no choice, he says. Where's the thin line between artistic courage and artistic suicide? Between restraint and timidity? Between a fine excess and indulgence? It seems that for artists who go all the way those are questions not often asked.

To the extent that Kafka was his hunger artist, his parable scared him as well, but Kafka, in a more important way, wasn't him. He was the hunger artist's maker, and was amused by what he made. Unlike the hunger artist, Kafka was able to look outward as well as inward, and he understood that the enemies of true seriousness are often compositional sobriety and earnestness."

- Stephen Dunn in the latest edition of the American Poetry Review (not up on the Web yet) speaking about finding refuge in books and in Kafka.

Monday, August 28, 2006


The first time she met him was at this party out on Long Island. She'd just broken up with Hugh and was staying with Ann till she got over it. Ann had thrown a party that weekend, hoping (she claimed) to cheer her up. He was there. He had just published his second book, the reviews were in all the papers (Michiko Kakutani had called it "the most vividly realistic work of the year"), and everyone was congratulating him. There was a buzz about him that day, a kind of glamour, a force both centripetal and centrifugal that drew people towards him even as it radiated out from his presence. She caught him looking at her and returned his stare. Their eyes met. Eventually, it was she who looked away.

Afterwards he found her sitting on the steps and struck up a conversation. Found out that she lived in Manhattan. Found out that she wasn't seeing anyone. Wanted to know if, maybe, he could take her out for a drink sometime. She told him she was likely to be away for a couple of weeks (a lie - she was going back to work on Monday) but would call him. He gave her his number, scribbled on the back of a card that gave his profession simply as 'Writer'.

The next day she went out to Barnes & Noble and picked up a copy of his book.

The book overwhelmed her. She'd never read anything so raw, so intense. There was a starkness to his writing, an air of naked violence, that thrilled her even as it made her queasy. All that misogyny, all that desperate alcoholism, all the bleary-eyed rough-jawed cynicism. And all of it rendered in incredibly authentic sounding first person. It was hard to reconcile the image of this narrator with the man she'd met at the party. How could he write like this, she wondered, unable to put the book down.

"How can you write like this?", the interviewer on TV asked. He shrugged his shoulders, smiled that half mischevious, half bemused smile of his. "It's just fiction", he said, "you make it up as you go along." She watched the interview till the end, noting the easy way he sat in the chair, the lucid confidence with which he answered the questions put to him. When the credits for the interview started to roll, she switched the television off.

The next evening she called him and asked if he wanted to meet up for a drink.

He lived in a one bedroom apartment in a brownstone on the upper West Side. He'd just moved in there, he told her, having tired of the Village. He'd used the advance from his third novel to decorate the place. She loved what he'd done with it. The black leather couch, the sleek bookshelves lining every available wall surface. The bed.

At first she was intimidated by the idea of them dating. After all, he was a celebrity. People recognised him in restaurants, asked for his autograph in book stores. It was surreal to wake up next to him and then find his face staring back at you from the morning paper. But he never seemed to be affected by all the fame. "I'm a writer", he told her, "it's not about the money or the recognition - it's about the words, the ones that are dammed up inside you, waiting to get out." He took the usual precautions to keep a low profile - the outsized dark glasses, the long raincoat with the collar turned up so no one would recognise him - but whenever a celebrity engagement proved inevitable he accepted it with good grace, smiling his way through it, but getting out as fast as he could.

They had some good times together. They went on a long road trip across the country (he loved to travel, was thinking about writing a travel book), then flew to Paris so he could take her on what he jokingly called the 'Hemingway tour'. She was a little concerned that all this might be keeping him from writing, but he told her that he needed a couple of months to recharge before he could start a new novel anyway. He told her she was just what he needed to get back into shape. He spent a week calling her his 'muse'. She laughed at this, but secretly she was kind of flattered.

When they finally announced their decision to get married, her parents were thrilled. It was the first time there had been a celebrity in the family, and besides, her father loved his books. The wedding itself was, inevitably, a gala affair. The press was there, along with the who's who of the New York publishing world, plus a scattered handful of writers - people whose books she'd read but had never dreamed of meeting in person. It was like she was stepping into a whole new world.

It was after they got back from their honeymoon in Mexico that the drinking started. At first she thought that it might have to do with the wedding. Was he just letting off steam? Clearing his mind of the anxieties of the wedding so he could go back to his book? Or was it something she was doing wrong? Had she done something to displease him, anger him?

But after a week of listening to him come home a little past midnight, staggering drunk, and then having him lock himself away in his study for the rest of the night, the dull rattle of the typewriter audible till a little after dawn when he would emerge just as she was getting ready to go to work and collapse on their marriage bed fully dressed, his breath smelling of alcohol and vomit - she began to realise that what she was witnessing was a routine, a habit. This was the way he wrote.

As the days passed his drinking got worse. He was hardly ever sober now - only when an important social occassion came around would he clean up his act. At these times he was still the man she loved: charming, suave, witty, the magnet of attention wherever he went. But as soon as they got home he would head for the liquor cabinet, and an hour later he would be reeling drunk again. In desperation she tried scheduling more and more social engagements, hoping to sober him up that way, but soon he started refusing to go to them, making up all sorts of excuses that embarassed her, made her look foolish. So she stopped trying to force him to go out.

The first time he hit her, she was too shocked to cry. Things like this simply did not happen - not in her circles, not among her friends. Not in real life. This was absurd. She felt like she was living with a monster.

What was going on? Could he be having some kind of breakdown? A creative crisis of some sort? But no, his book seemed to be going well. She'd sneaked into his study one day while he was asleep (he'd threatened to beat her black and blue if he found her 'monkeying around' in there) and there were already some 200 pages of manuscript. She just couldn't understand it. She kept telling herself it was temporary, that things would go back to normal, that she just needed to last it out. After all, he was a genius, and all geniuses are a little mad. She just had to be supportive. For both their sakes.

Meanwhile the media attention never flagged. She was part of it now, standing there beside him with a blank smile on her face, playing the part of the meek and loving wife. Her face radiant in the black and white photographs (he was always careful to hit her where it wouldn't show). Watching him charm the reporters who came to visit, watching the ease with which he put on the mask of normalcy, it began to dawn on her that this was a man with an incredible capacity for manipulation. He was a convincing actor, a brilliant liar, and he had a kind of instinctive cunning that helped him hone in on the one fact, the one giveaway detail, that would make all of the rest ring true.

Three months of living through hell and she couldn't bear it any more. One day she broke into his studio, screaming. "You lied to me", she shouted, "You made me believe you were this decent, dependable guy I would be happy with. And it turns out that you're a violent drunk who hates everyone but himself and only needs other people so he can have someone to bite into. All the things you promised me, all the things you said to me or did for me - all lies."

He laughed. "Not lies, my dear," he said, "fiction. I told you I was interested in fiction. You assumed that I was talking about my books. Whereas in fact every word in those books is the absolute truth. It's the other things - this apartment, this lifestyle, the profiles in the press, the persona I wear at parties, you - these are fiction. My life's work. You have to admit it's incredibly realistic. Think about it. What better way to create fiction than to live it? Remember the old days when the great novels were serialised and published in newspapers? That's what the newspapers are doing with my masterpiece now, even though they don't realise it. What they're publishing as fact in all these articles about me is actually fiction, a figment of my imagination from start to finish. Millions of millions of people are waking up in the morning to read my greatest novel, and they don't even know it. Meanwhile the stuff that the book publishers are printing as fiction is actually autobiography - the true story of my life. Hilarious, isn't it? And now, if you'll excuse me, I have my memoirs to get back to." And he laughed and turned back to his typewriter.

Categories: (?)

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Why women prefer Venus / The Editors of Forbes must be from Pluto

All you have to do is listen to the way a man
sometimes talks to his wife at a table of people
and notice how intent he is on making his point
even though her lower lip is beginning to quiver,

and you will know why the women in science
fiction movies who inhabit a planet of their own
are not pictured making a salad or reading a magazine
when the men from earth arrive in their rocket,

why they are always standing in a semicircle
with their arms folded, their bare legs set apart,
their breasts protected by hard metal disks.

- Billy Collins, 'Man in Space'


Amongst all the brouhaha around the Noer article in Forbes advising men not to marry career-minded women (the Boing-Boing coverage here; as well as posts on Indian Writing and Within/Without - just in case you haven't seen this stuff yet), I remain intrigued by the incredible leap of logic made from the 'research' that shows (or claims to show) that married women with careers are unhappier than those without, to the prescription that men should choose women who have no career aspirations as wives. [1]

Look at it this way. Let's assume, for a moment, that the research findings are true (I really should read the article). Let's resist the temptation to ask whether women who don't care to have careers tend to just have lower aspirations in general, and are therefore more likely to be happy ceteris paribus (after all, happiness is pretty easy to achieve - all you need to do is set your sights low enough). Let's ignore the question of why Forbes should be dishing out advice on who one should marry in the first place.

So: married career women are unhappier than married housewives [2] [3], and this is an issue because it's making their husbands miserable [4]. But if a wife has such an all important effect on a husband's well-being, it seems logical to ask what effect husbands have on their wives' happiness. Surely a plausible explanation for this finding is that the majority of men are insecure, ego-centric jerks who turn unsupportive the moment their wives meet with any success outside the home. This lack of support may manifest itself either as a refusal to participate equally in housework, resulting in a disproportionate work burden on the wife, or as a negative emotional relationship that leaves these women stressed and unhappy.

In a nutshell, this argument suggests that it's not that men should prefer housewives because they're happier, but that housewives are happier because a majority of men already prefer them. It also, of course, explains why career women may need to seek emotional support elsewhere - one of Noer's key 'facts'.

It's interesting that the Noer article completely ignores this side of things. The article reads:

Many factors contribute to a stable marriage, including the marital status of your spouse's parents (folks with divorced parents are significantly more likely to get divorced themselves), age at first marriage, race, religious beliefs and socio-economic status.
Anyone see 'supportive partner' in there? I've never been married, and I'm no expert, but somehow I think having a supportive spouse has a lot to do with the stability of marriage, don't you? The article also says:

to put it bluntly, the more successful she is the more likely she is to grow dissatisfied with you
If that isn't paranoia, I don't know what is. If your wife grows more dissatisfied with you as her career takes off, it must be because she's a needy bitch, or because she's met someone more interesting in office [5]. It couldn't possibly be because of something you're doing wrong.

Looking at things the other way around gives us some very different implications from the ones the Noer article arrives at. If anything, it suggests that career women are ending up in unhappy marriages because too many of them are making bad choices and picking an unsupportive spouse, and that therefore it is women, not men, who should be more picky about who they get married to. It's not men who shouldn't be marrying career women, it's career women who shouldn't be marrying unsupportive men.

So, the next time the guy of your dreams tells you that he's totally supportive of your decision to have a career [6] make sure he understands that this implies that he does half the housework (a decision that you, on your part, are doubtless totally supportive of) and includes the possibility that your career may take precedence over his. And the next time the girl of your dreams tells you that she wants a career, she doesn't mean just till the babies come, or only as long as it doesn't get in the way of housework.

As far as advise to men goes, the lesson we should be drawing out, if this assertion is true, is that they need to get their act together and figure out what it will take to ensure that women with careers have more, not less happy marriages. Because let's face it, career women are here to stay (and a good thing to). And besides, wouldn't it be nice if your wife was less likely to cheat on you, not because you've managed to rob her of all social opportunity but because (gasp!) you actually make her happy.

Understand, I'm not saying that the argument I'm making here is true (though personally, I find it a little more credible than the argument Noer is making). Maybe unsupportive men isn't the problem at all. My point is just that the 'research finding' that Noer's case is built on is equivocal and could easily be used to argue the exact opposite of what the Noer article ended up saying.

Sigh. I suppose there's no chance of my getting hired as a staff writer at Forbes any time soon, huh?


What I find even more damning than the article itself is Forbes' decision to first take it down, and then put it back up with a counter-article. What was that about? Can we assume that the editors of Forbes don't actually bother to read / think about what articles they publish? That they just throw in any old thing they find, and then go look at whether they think it's relevant / valid only if someone complains? Or, even worse, that they did actually think about it and read it carefully, and it never occured to anyone that the article could be seen as sexist (what are these people - blind?)? Exactly what reaction were they expecting? Parades of career women down Wall Street saying Yes, Forbes is right, don't marry us?

And what price the backing down? Whatever my personal disagreements with the Forbes article, they have the right to take whatever line they choose and publish whatever opinion they want. I'll go as far as to say that there might even be some benefit in having ridiculous arguments like these out in the open so we can debate them. But all of that implies that they're making these statements after due consideration and are willing to back them up. Not that they'll run at the first sign of opposition.

And what sort of response is putting up a counter-article? Oh, we said something really stupid. Never mind. We'll continue saying it and pretend that it is a valid point of view, and instead of defending it against all the criticism that's pouring in, we'll just put up a counter-article of our own (and a fairly mild one at that [7]) and this means we no longer have to respond to all the other criticisms?

It's hard to respect a news magazine when they put up an article as illogical and sexist as this one. It's even harder to respect them when they don't even have the nerve to either defend it or admit that they were wrong.


[1] I'm also very curious to know what these men are supposed to do in the meantime. Sit around twiddling their thumbs in the Drones club until all these 'career women' finally see the light and give up their challenging, satisfying careers for the privilege of marrying these insufferable prats?

[2] I use the term 'housewife' merely as the opposite of career woman. I don't imply that being a housewife is any less 'meaningful', nor do I particularly want to get into a discussion about where the two categories begin and end.

[3] There's the separate question of whether unmarried career women are happier than a) married career women and b) married housewives, but let's not go there.

[4] You would think Forbes would want to do a piece talking about the issue that so many career women are supposedly miserable, wouldn't you?

[5] This is another bit of the article I don't get. The only reason your wife won't cheat on you is because she doesn't have the chance to meet someone new (obviously pool boys don't exist)? And you're HAPPY about this?

[6] I'm consistently amazed by the number of men I meet who seem to think this is big of them. As if 'allowing' a woman to work were their natural prerogative.

[7] To be fair, Corcoran does sort of make the point about looking at what the guy is doing. But she goes off into some strange tangent about differential learning rates (before talking at length about how wonderful her own marriage is, as if that proved anything). This doesn't really make sense, unless she's claiming that men in general tend to develop less over time than women. At any rate, it seems a little far-fetched - and ignores the potentially direct link between the wife's success and the husband's negative / unsupportive behaviour.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

This just in: Life is now a Philip Roth Novel

Swede Levov rides again. An article in today's NY Times speaks of Jewish pride in the new Met's ball player Shawn Green:

Jews are famed for their prowess in many fields, but have long been stereotyped, even by themselves, as being weak in athletics. There might not be a group on the planet with a more finely honed sense of physical inferiority.

So when a star ballplayer who happens to be Jewish comes to play in New York, a capital of Jewish culture, home to nearly two million Jews, it is cause for much rejoicing.

Oy vey! They win an astronomical proportion of all Nobel prizes, produce musical geniuses by the dozen, and this they are proud of?

At any rate, I suppose it's only a matter of time now before a post office in rural New Jersey gets bombed, secret FBI files reveal that it was Lindbergh, not Roosevelt, who was running this country during WWII, and someone comes up with the bright idea of leading all the jews out of Israel and back to the countries in Europe they originally came from (which, if you think about it, may not be such a bad idea - compared to what everyone else has come up with).

I've always maintained that Philip Roth is a god, but it's nice to have it confirmed. After all, if life is a Philip Roth novel, then being cantankerous, screwed-up and in love with words actually improves your chances of getting laid.

I wonder if my local Barnes and Noble has a copy of Carnovsky yet?

Friday, August 25, 2006

Urania not a muse (Queen Victoria wasn't either)

Athens. August 25th 2006

In a landmark decision, here today, the Annual Special Symposium of Hellenic, Occidental, Latin and otherwise Erudite Scholars (ASSHOLES) determined that Urania would no longer be considered one of the nine muses. This august body, which comprises a distinguished group of senile men who were forced to learn this stuff at school, made the decision to oust Urania from the list of muses official last night, with a 5-1 vote over a bottle of extremely potent ouzo at a local bar. The decision comes after weeks of bitter debate among obscure professors of myth, coupled with frenzied attempts by supporters to pronounce Terpsichore correctly.

Acknowledging the gravity of the decision, ASSHOLES chair Stepan Galluppoullis said, "We've felt for a long time that Urania just wasn't pulling her weight. We're sorry to see her go, of course, but times are tough and even mythical figures have to tighten their diamond encrusted girdles." Defending the body's decision, Mr. Galluppoullis pointed to the recent adoption of a rigid set of rules to determine what would and would not constitute a planet. "The way we thought about it, if the future of astronomy was going to be all anal regulations, then why did it need a muse of it's own? Muses are about inspiration and creativity, after all, not about bureacratic nit-picking. If you can analyse and define it, it no longer needs a muse."

When it was pointed out to him that Urania was also the muse of Universal Love, Mr. Galluppoullis simply shrugged his shoulders and said "What's that?".

According to the new charter adopted by ASSHOLES, a muse must meet three criteria in order to be considered part of the official pantheon: a) She must have been invoked at least five separate times by Homer (the greek poet, not Simpson) b) She must have a name that 90% of the human population cannot pronounce correctly c) She must not be chained by reason or dull rhymes. Urania, unfortunately, fails on all these counts, and is therefore being ousted.

All is not lost for Urania fans, however. Scholars are now debating the creation of a new category of nostalgic muses - muses that may be invoked by those who want to look back fondly on earlier, simpler times. Mythologists agree that Urania will almost certainly be the prototype for this new category, though a vote to name this category 'Uranic' was narrowly defeated after one of the participants poured too much relish on his couscous.

At the same time, Hollywood is said to be preparing to come to Urania's defense. A new TV series is reportedly planned, featuring Urania as skimpily clad muse who goes around kicking inter-planetary ass. Producers say the series will help explore the more 'babelicious' side of Urania, an aspect that remains largely unexplored in the classic texts. The series will apparently star Lucy Lawless and will run right after 'Xena: The Warrior Planet'.

Critics of the decision have described it as 'lame', 'stodgy' and 'slightly overdone with a hint of too much basil'. An anonymous source pointed out that one of the delegates to the symposium was in the men's room at the time the vote was taken, while another delegate was under the misapprehension that they were voting on whether or not to have olives on their pizza. This raises questions about the scientific validity of the decision.

The decision to demote Urania comes close on the heels of controversy around the role of Clio, who was recently accused of fact-tampering in connection with the White House. It is rumored that Clio plans to forfeit the rest of the Bush Administration, though History was not available for comment on the issue.

Meanwhile, societal trend watchers have pointed to the increasing tendency towards the elimination of groups of nine. The decision on Urania follows a decision that demotes Pluto from its status as a planet, and Tolkien scholars are currently locked in heated debate on whether Pippin really deserves to be one of the fellowship of the Ring, given how often he kept getting in Gandalf's way. There are also rumours of evolutionary biologists, in association with researchers from the Schroedinger school, trying to determine whether cats really need more than 8 lives.

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Thursday, August 24, 2006

Sugar, spice, make-up and designer labels

An article in today's New York Times points to a growing trend of pre-tween girls getting into fashion and cosmetics:

"Premium jeans, for instance, an item coveted by Maisy Gellert, a third grader living in Westchester County, N.Y. “I’m very particular,” Maisy said. “Sevens are the only jeans I actually wear.”

Like many girls her age, her fashion antennae are finely tuned, her standards exacting, her desires well defined. “I like the stuff that’s in style, like leggings and shorts, tank tops and flip-flops,” she said, promptly adding to that list: “Gap camisoles that are white, because I can wear them with just anything. Puma sneakers, pink and gray — I’m on my third pair — and ballet slippers, but those are hard to find for my size foot.”

Not for long, if fashion has its say. Less than a decade ago the industry began courting middle-school girls, or tweens, offering clothing and accessories that seemed to have been conceived for a much older market. Today designers and retailers are training their sights on even younger consumers, girls roughly 4 to 9, diminutive in stature but with great big eyes for style. Indeed, to judge by the wares — miniaturized drainpipe jeans, footless hose, cashmere tunics and press-on nails — fashion and cosmetics makers are intent on capturing the hearts of pint-size fashionistas, and the purse strings of their parents."

Is it just me or do other people find this disturbing? I mean, okay, so I've always thought that people who obsessed about what brand of clothes they wear are brainwashed children, but it begins to worry me when they really ARE brainwashed children. Surely the last thing we want to do is send a bunch of 4-8 year old girls the message that style trumps substance, that appearances are all important (at least if you're a girl) and that what you should really be worrying about (and I mean really worrying about) is the way you look. I'd always hoped that we'd see Barbies going out of style, but I'd kind of thought it would be because children (and more importantly their parents) would move on to better things - like books for instance - not because 5 year old girls wouldn't need a doll to dress up because they could dress themselves up instead.

Whatever happened to the whole idea of breaking away from genderist stereotypes, from the tyranny of an overwhelming stress on appearance that goes hand in hand with the objectification of women? What does it mean for the future of gender relations when five year old girls are spending their time putting on make-up and trying to figure out what outfits to wear? Where's a feminist when you really need one?

Okay, okay, so people have the right to bring up their children any way they want, and it's one of the joys of capitalism that people can actually enjoy being suckered into buying the most outrageous rubbish and being charged the earth for it. But when the key values we're instilling in our six year olds are not the ability to distinguish between good and evil, right and wrong or (to be more topical) truth and spin, but rather the difference between DKNY and Baby Phat, it really gets me worried. What's next, I wonder? Pre-schooling nose jobs? Liposuction for babies? Perhaps some prenatal botox injections? Maybe we could start opening mothers up in their second trimester so that their children could wear Diesel jeans in their ultrasounds. Forget the abortion debate about when a foetus becomes human. The real question is: at what point does it acquire fashion sense?

P.S. I'm kind of hoping, of course, that this is one of those typical NY Times lifestyle articles where the fact that the writer knows two different people who've had the same experience is evidence of a 'social trend'. At any rate, it's fun to rant about.

P.P.S. A separate article in the NYT points to a glowing review of the new Paris Hilton single. "I, like, cry when I listen to it, it's so good" the reviewer says of the new CD, 'Paris'. Only hitch - the reviewere happens to be Ms. Hilton herself. Wannabe bimbettes from the Bombay Times - please take notes.

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"I often think there should be a superhero called Whateverman. Not an action hero like Superman or Spiderman, but an inaction hero, a hero of resignation."

"Is there a comma between 'Whatever' and 'Man'?

"Only when he can be bothered to speak, which, believe me, isn't often. When someone screams, 'There's a meteor headed straight for us! It's the end of all life on Earth!' he says, 'Whatever, man' with a comma in between. But when he is invoked, during an episode of ethnic cleansing, or paranoid schizophrenia, as in, 'this is a job for Whateverman', it's all in one word."

"Does he have a cloak?"

"God, no. He wears the same old jeans and T-shirt year in year out."

- from Edward St. Aubyn's delightful new novel Mother's Milk (review coming soon on Momus)

Other unlikely superheroes on 2x3x7: 1, 2

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Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Kite fishing

They leave just before dawn. Four unshaven men abandoning the prospect of a lazy sunday morning for the chance to get out of the city, to get away. Their equipment stowed safely in the back of the station wagon, the stereo playing the songs they remember from their youth, they will drive miles out of the city, looking for a place where the flying will be good.

Today they stop in the middle of a large cornfield. It's a likely enough spot. Low mountains rise on either side of the valley, creating a natural wind tunnel, and there's a dirt road that leads to the middle of the field, far from the busy hum of the highway. Alighting from the car, they stretch their half-sleeping limbs, then begin to ready the equipment. Working in practised silence, they thread string through the kites they will use as bait, check and recheck their reels for snags. Five, ten minutes later they are stepping into the field, their kites ready, casting them skilfully into the air and watching them sail gradually upward to where they hang suspended, awaiting the wind.

After that, it's just about patience really. And a little luck. Sometimes you barely get the kite up in the air before a mean old gust takes it, and you spend the rest of the morning fighting to gain control. But most times there'll be this long interlude, when the mind drifts, lazy as a kite, and there's nothing to do but wait for the wind to come along. Sometimes they talk to each other at these times, speaking words without consequence, slow updrafts of conversation that go nowhere but help keep them afloat. But often each man will stand by himself, letting the calm of this weekend morning soak into him, feeling that sense of relief that comes from knowing that nature requires no proofs from us, will accept us as we are.

Three of the men here today are regulars - they've been doing this for years. The fourth, the son of the oldest among them, is new at this. It shows. When the first breeze nibbles tentatively at his kite, he panics, lets out a shout of triumph, tries to reel the wind in too quickly. The wind, sensing danger, escapes, taking his cry with it. The boy feels the line in his hand grow suddenly slack, and disappointment comes fluttering through the air, crashing to the ground like a kite out of control.

The others shake their heads but say nothing. They understand. They can still remember what it feels like, the first time you feel the wind take your kite, the throbbing tension of the string between your fingers, that feeling of being connected to some alien and struggling being. The feeling of being handed a power too mighty for you to control. It doesn't matter, they tell him, when he looks downcast. There will be other winds. You will learn.

After the morning's flying, they pull out the icebox they have brought with them, sit in a circle in the grass, eating sandwiches and drinking beer. Now the conversation flows freely. They do not talk of worldly things though, of their lives back in the city, but rather of flying itself - sharing the old war stories they have told each other a million times but that they never tire of recounting. Today they have the advantage of a new listener, so their enthusiasm is doubled. In well-rehearsed words, they recount all the old memories for the boy's benefit, reminiscences about the good times they had, flying kites together back in the old days: stories about the distant places they traveled to, about irate farmers who chased them out of their fields, about drunken flying soirees that ended in comic disaster.

By the time they are done with this picnic meal the sun will have risen high in the sky, and the air around them will be starting to heat up. They will go back to their kites then, taking another hour or so to enjoy the drafts of hot air swooping invisible above the valley floor, the eagles up in the sky their only witnesses. And then it will be time to leave. And they will pack up their equipment and take the unexpectedly long road back to the city, to their families, to their homes and offices. And each man will carry back with him, in his memory, a small piece of the sky, as a trophy from this day's flying.

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There is a silence where hath been no sound

Okay, okay, I know it's formulaic to put up two poetry posts in under 24 hours, but the discussion on silence as a form of music on the Bismillah Khan post made me think of these lines from a Paz poem called 'Reading John Cage' [1]:

I hear within what I see outside,
I see within what I hear outside.
(Duchamp: I can't hear myself hearing.)
I am
an architecture
of instantaneous sounds
on a space that disintegrates.
we come across is to the point.)
invents silence,
invents space.
Factories of air.
is the space of music:
a confined
there is no silence
except in the mind.
Silence is an idea,
the fixed idea of music.
Music is not an idea:
it is movement,
sounds walking over the silence.
(Not one sound fears the silence
that extinguishes it.)
Silence is music,
music is not silence...

...Music is not silence:
it is not saying
what silence says,
it is saying
what it doesn't say.
Silence has no meaning,
meaning has no silence.
Without being heard
music slips between the two.
(Every something is an echo of nothing.)...

....Music is real,
silence is an idea."
- Octavio Paz (translated from the Spanish by Eliot Weinberger) [2]

P.S. Just in case, the title of this post comes from a Thomas Hood poem called Silence

[1] From East Slope. Cage, of course, is the most well known proponent of the theory that silence is music too.

[2] Phrases inside parantheses are in English in the original poem.


Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Road-side Dog

Poetry is an embarassing affair; it is born too near to the functions we call intimate.

Poetry cannot be separated from awareness of our body. It soars above it, immaterial and at the same time captive, and is a reason for our uneasiness, for it pretends to belong to a separate zone, of spirit.

I was ashamed of being a poet, as if, undressed, I would display in public my physical defects. I envied people who do not write poems and whom for that reason I ranged among the normal. And in this I was wrong: few of them deserve to be called that.


In the act of writing, a transformation occurs: the direct data of consciousness, our feeling of ourselves from inside, is changed into an image of other individuals, similarly feeling themselves from inside, and thanks to that, we can write about them, not only about ourselves.


He could not control his thoughts. They wandered wherever they liked and as he observed them, he grew uneasy. For they were not good thoughts, and if he were to judge himself by them, there was, deep within him, a lot of cruelty. He thought that the world was very painful and that human beings didn't deserve to exist. And he suspected that the cruelty of his imagination was somehow connected with his creative impulse.


What is deepest and most deeply felt in life, the transitoriness of human beings, illness, death, the vanity of opinions and convictions, cannot be expressed in the language of theology, which for centuries has responded by turning out perfectly rounded balls, easy to roll but impenetrable. Twentieth century poetry, or what is most essential in it, gathers data on the ultimate in the human condition and elaborates, to handle the data, a language which may or may not be used by theology.


How difficult it would be today to write Robinson Crusoe! The hero of the novel, when he found himself on a desert island, was incessantly active, trying to arrange his life as best he could. A new Robinson would probably sit and think, with the worst possible results. So in any case we must presume, judging by the general inclination of literature to introspection as well as to narratives in the first-person singular.


An artist, a poet or a painter, toils and pursues every day a perfection that escapes him. He is satisfied with the result of his labor for a moment only, and is never certain whether he is good at what he does.

Many share the fate of that painter. He was not concerned with earthly possessions, he lived and dressed haphazardly, and his sacred word was: "To work." Every morning he would stand before his easel, working all day, but no sooner had he finished than he would put his canvas in the corner and forget it, to start a new picture in the morning, always with new hope. His attempt to pass the examination for the School of Beaux Arts was unsuccessful. He loved masters of painting, old and contemporary, but had no hope of equaling them. Detesting worldly life, as it would lure him away from his work, he stayed apart. He lived with his model, with whom he had a son, and after seventeen years of cohabitation he married her. His paintings were systematically rejected by the Salons. He needed confirmation of his worth, but though his friends praised him, he did not believe them and considered himself a failed painter. He would kick and trample his canvases or would give them away freely. In his old age he despaired over his failure but continued to paint every day. In his native town, where he lived, he was slighted and hated; it's hard to tell why, for he did not harm anybody and helped the poor. Uncouth, in stained clothes with ripped-off buttons, he looked like a scarecrow and was a laughing-stock of children. His name was Paul Cezanne.

This tale may comfort many readers, since it confirms the familiar pattern of greatness not recognized and crowned late. However, there were numberless artists, similarly humble and hardworking, often living not far from us, whose names mean nothing today.


Wherever you lived - in the city of Pergamum at the time of the Emperor Hadrian, in the Marseilles under Louis XV, or in the New Amsterdam of the colonists - be aware that you should consider yourself lucky if your life followed the patterns of life of your neigbours. If you moved, though, felt, just as they did; and, just as they, you did what was prescribed for a given moment. If, year after year, duties and rituals became part of you, and you took a wife, brought up children, and could meet peacefully the darkening days of old age.

Think of those who were refused a blessed resemblance to their fellow men. Of those who tried to act correctly, so that they would spoken of no worse than their kin, but who did not succeed in anything, for whom everything could go wrong because of some invisible flaw. And who at last for that undeserved affliction would receive the punishment of loneliness, and who did not even try then to hide their fate.

On a bench in a public park, with a paper bag from which the neck of a bottle protrudes, under the bridges of big cities, on sidewalks, where the homeless keep their bundles, in a slum street with neon, waiting in front of a bar for the hour of opening, they, a nation of the excluded, whose day begins and ends with the awareness of failure. Think, how great is your luck. You did not even have to notice such as they, even though there were many nearby. Praise mediocrity and rejoice that you did not have to associate yourself with rebels. For, after all, the rebels also were bearers of disagreement with the laws of life, and of exaggerated hope, just like those who were marked in advance to fail.


Extracts from Czeslaw Milosz's Road-Side Dog (translated by the author and Robert Hass)

It's a fascinating book - not quite poetry and not really prose. A collection of pithy little pieces like the ones above: almost, in retrospect, what Milosz's blog posts would have looked like, if Milosz had ever kept a blog.

It's reading stuff like this that makes you wonder why you even bother to write.

The answer, of course, is that writing isn't a bother. It's a need. It's not writing, however prudent such silence might be, that is the real inconvenience.


Monday, August 21, 2006

Gott in Himmel!

From the sublime to the ridiculous.

Two news stories floating around the blogosphere that I can't resist commenting on.

The first courtesy of n over at random rambles which informs me that the gods are supposedly drinking milk again.

The thing I don't get about this is - why would you feel proud of a God who drank milk? I mean think about it. You're a God. You're feeling a little thirsty. You've got all these thousands of brain-dead devotees who will get you whatever you want to drink. On the house. So what do you ask for? A glass of 30 year old Laphroaig? Some vintage Napoleon cognac? Perhaps a delectable Alsatian Riesling, finely chilled? Or a Vodka martini, shaken not stirred? No. These gods want milk! Milk! Fed to them by a spoon no less. Talk about milksops.

Listen, I'm mortal, but anytime anyone comes trying to curry favour with me by thrusting a tablespoon of double-toned under my nose I swear I'll spit in his or her face. Instead these wimps we've got for deities are lapping the stuff up. Are these really the kind of beings we want to trust the universe too - those who can't even hold a drink? Give me the old Greek gods any day - at least they knew how to have a good time.

Personally I find this deeply disappointing. I have no real hope of making it to heaven, but I've always thought of it as a fairly exciting place, mostly because I've always pictured this ambrosia stuff as being real dynamite - kind of like liquid Exstacy. Watching these gods lapping away at their teaspoons of Amul's finest though, I can't help but wonder if the nectar of the gods isn't a lot more vanilla. Imagine spending your entire life being pious and self-sacrificing only to be rewarded for all eternity by Roohafza milk shake.


The other wtf story of the day comes courtesy of km, Desipundit and Sepia Mutiny and features the new Bombay restaurant called Hitler's Cross, which apparently has bad old Adolf as its patron saint, and is a bid, according to its owner to:

"tell people we are different in the way he was different"

presumably implying that they are megalomaniacal restaurant chain that will now proceed to annex Poland and France and murder six million people with their terrible cooking. [1]

One wonders where the owner, one Punit Shablok, got his marketing fundae from. IIPM perhaps? I suggest he finds a blackboard and proceeds to write "Different is NOT better" about 10,000 times.

Talk about bad taste. What sort of person (except maybe Mel Gibson) would want to eat in a restaurant that blatantly associates itself with Hitler? Somebody should give these folks a taste of true Nazi hospitality - invite them into the restaurant, take down their names for a reservation, then ask them to wait five minutes in the 'waiting area' where they're promptly gassed to death and converted into soap. It would serve them bloody right.

And what I want to know is: what does Churchill have to say about all this?

[1] So what do you call Indonesian Fried Rice in one of these places - a Nazi Goering?


Ustaad Bismillah Khan (March 21, 1916 - August 21, 2006)

The greatest trumpet player of our age died today.

And no, it wasn't Dizzy Gillespie or Wynton Marsalis or Miles Davis. It was this wizened old man, exponent of a centuries old tradition, performer of such extraordinary grace and power that to listen to his music was to hear the perfect marriage of rigorous discipline and endless, electrifying improvisation; the coming together of raw energy and exquisite form. Each time Ustaad Bismillah Khan put that shehnai to his lips what came out was music as revelation, as a life force, music that transcended itself to become something even more elemental, music (to use the exact urdu word) as ibaadat. To hear Bismillah Khan play was to lose sight of the boundaries between man and music, so that it was no longer clear whether the shehnai was the instrument of the player or the player was the instrument of the shehnai. Music erupted from this man as a metamorphic force, a sort of beautiful magma. It wasn't just the silence that was torn apart, it was the music itself.

Ralph Ellison once wrote of Louis Armstrong that with Louis the notes didn't go do re me fa so la ti, they went do re me fa so la ti peee! You could say the same for Bismillah Khan, except that with the Ustaad the music was far more likely to go do raaaaay me fa la so pee! tiiii. The sheer perfection of this man's improvisations is breathtaking - it's like listening to Bach jam. Performance after performance, Bismillah Khan would render the raag perfectly, and then just when you thought it couldn't get any better he would laughingly, almost mockingly, elevate you to an even higher plane. To say that this man was a genius would be an understatement. He was more. He was a daimon, sound incarnate, and what spoke through him was the voice of music as it was always meant to be heard.

Or played. As anyone who has ever attended a Bismillah Khan concert knows, the Ustaad's delight in music was mischevious, almost childlike. What you heard when Bismillah Khan played the kajri was a purity of joy equalled only in Mozart, a complete and unconditional surrender to the thrill of the sound (cummings writes - "joy so pure / a heart of star by him could steer"). This was a man who lived on and for his music, it inhabited him, possessed him, belonged to him only because he belonged to it first. It's difficult to believe that this man is dead, that such a man could die.

Not that he has to, or should, as long as his music lasts.

Look, I know I'm saying this badly. And while part of that is my own fault, I'm not sure it's possible to express in words the splendour of Bismillah Khan's music. Hell, it shouldn't be. So stop reading this blog, forget about mourning, and go listen to his music. Even better, get other people to listen to it. It's the only thing to do.

Meanwhile the government, I'm told, has ordered the closure of all government schools and colleges, as a mark of respect. Here's what I think they should do. Instead of shutting down the schools and colleges, they should keep them open. But instead of holding regular classes they should spend half the day making the students listen to Bismillah Khan's music. Giving them the opportunity to hear the consummate perfection of his notes, the passion of his joy, his absolute zest for life. There's more to learn - about life, about beauty, about God - from Bismillah Khan's rendition of Malhar than there is in every crummy NCERT textbook ever written.

P.S. Yes, yes, I know, the shehnai isn't technically a trumpet, but it's close enough.

P.P.S. Who came up with the ridiculous idea of paying homage to a great musician by observing a two minute silence anyway? I can't think of anything more absurd. This was a man who spent his entire life trying to perfect sound, and you want to honour his memory with silence!!?


Wikipedia Profile

Some Indian classical recordings, including a number of Bismillah Khan pieces as well as his recording with Vilayat Khan (hat-tip: KM). If you're looking for more Bismillah Khan recordings on line I recommend

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Rain Breaker

Beethoven Symphony 6 in F Major 'Pastoral' (Op. 68);
Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Herbert von Karajan

He slides the CD into the stereo system, flips forward to the fourth movement, turns up the volume. Then, as the first notes explode from the speakers, steps out of the door and into the rain.

At first the storm dismays him. He feels the wind buffeting him, the rain soaking through his clothes. He panics. This is insane, he thinks to himself, I can't fight the weather with music! As if confirming his fears, the rain seems indifferent to his presence, too disdainful even to laugh at him.

He shuts his eyes and tries to concentrate. Hidden deep within the swirling confusion in his head he hears what can only be a note of calm, and latches on. Slowly it comes to him then, the music opening like wings in his head, the chaos retreating as a delicate yet implacable beauty takes its place. For a moment he is lost in the perfection of it, and ceases to notice the storm, no longer remembering where he is or what he is doing there.

When he finally opens his eyes the rain is all but done - there's only the faintest drizzle in the air. Maybe this will work after all! For the first time he allows himself to hope, and the warmth of it flows easily through him, swelling in his chest even as the symphony builds up around him, like a genial mountain, rising from the earth.

But it is too early to celebrate. Again he shuts his eyes and concentrates and again that ineffable sense of peace finds him. But he senses the immense sense of power behind it now and he bends his will against the sky, and the music obeys him and he can feel the clouds slowly giving way, the first sunbeam coming joyously through. Intent on his task, not daring to breathe for fear of showing weakness, he pushes the cloudbank further and further back, unveiling a sky of purest azure, so that by the time the music peaks again his eyes open to see the entire garden bathed in clear, dripping sunlight.

It is done! He has done it! Or rather Beethoven has, his notes reaching out across the centuries to drive back the clouds. At the thought of this his pulse fills with an overwhelming sense of gratitude, with a feeling of awe for something so grand, so glorious.

And yet the joy he feels at this moment of triumph is not the exultation he had expected, not the leaping excitement of the lark that he had hoped to hear again. This is a calmer, more tranquil happiness, as much relief as exhilaration, a joy that deepens rather than exalts.

It begins to dawn on him that it not he who has used Beethoven, but Beethoven who has used him. That in drawing upon the fierce and majestic magic of this music he has unwittingly pawned his soul to it, made an emptiness in his heart that only sound can fill. He would say that Beethoven has betrayed him, but the thought is impossible. Beethoven has not betrayed him, Beethoven has given him more than he could ever have dared to ask for; he has betrayed himself by accepting the bargain.

As he listens to the last notes of the symphony parade victoriously back to their inevitable silence, he feels a strangely satisfied sadness within himself. So this is what nostalgia feels like, he thinks, the sensation in the pit of your stomach when you come over the top of a hill and know that from this point onwards all is descent.

When the music ends, he will go back inside and tell his girlfriend that the storm has passed. He will not tell her about the Beethoven, though - she would not understand. The news will excite her. She will want to go on the picnic they had planned but were thinking of abandoning. He will watch with amusement as she makes her preparations for the trip, enjoying the sight of her flitting about, but feeling in the exhaustion of his heart that he can no longer love her. Oh, he will smile at her pleasantly enough, acquiesce in her little whims, engage in whatever trivial chat she offers. But all the while the notes to that last movement of Beethoven's Sixth Symphony will be playing around in his head, filling him with music, making him their own.

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Friday, August 18, 2006

A start

When I wake up I'm alone.

Not that that surprises me. She didn't strike me as the kind who would stick around. I suppose I should be grateful.

It couldn't be too long since she left though. I can still smell her perfume in the room. That and the booze. Actually, I can smell at least four different kinds of alcohol in the air and the scent of the cheap fragrance she was wearing is only one of them. I'm gifted that way. Someone once told me that with my nose I could have been a sommelier. That is, if I hadn't taken up smoking. I told him not to worry - I'd make a profession out of drink yet.

The smell of the room disgusts me. I stumble over to the window and throw it open. It's twenty degrees outside and the wind bites at my face, but anything is better than this odour of stale flowers and ethanol. My mouth tastes really bad too. All dry and mangy, like the insides of a dead cat.

I need coffee. I consider going out to get some but I can't find my wallet. I look for it in all the usual places - inside my shoe, under the mattress, tucked away behind the Bible. Not a sign. Could she have taken it with her? Dizzy with exertion, I sit on the bed and try to remember. After a while a vague memory of throwing the wallet out of the window comes back to me. Something about wanting to be free from capitalist oppression. Yes, that's it. I go to the window and stare down the three stories to the street. Nothing but footprints on the snow. I didn't really expect it to still be there. Some bum must have swiped it. At least I hope it was some bum, someone who really needed the money, not some fat ass banker in an expensive suit who couldn't believe his luck. Not that there was much in the wallet. Just a couple of twenties. One of the best things about a situation like mine is that you don't have the credit rating to be eligible for cards, so you never have to worry about losing them.

I'm beginning to feel cold. I fish around among the clothes lying in the corner and find an old sweat-shirt from my college days. It's pretty faded now, obviously, but still warm. On the front it has the logo of some phony student body I used to be part of. On the back it has a couple of footprints and the legend "Follow the Leader". I guess that was someone's idea of a joke. Hell, it might even have been mine.

My hands are still cold. I really need that coffee. Now that going out is not an option I go over to the coffee machine to see if it's still working. I haven't touched the damn thing for weeks. There's still some liquid at the bottom of the pot, with a grey layer of fungus growing on its surface. It turns my stomach just to look at it.

For a moment I consider just rinsing the pot out quickly and making a new batch of coffee in it. How bad could whatever poisons the fungus leaves behind be, compared to the stuff already swilling around in my veins? Then I think about the last time I ended up in hospital with blood poisoning. All those nurses with their ugly white uniforms and their patronising voices - that irritating way they have of saying "How are we feeling today?" like they were talking to a five year old. It almost makes you wish you were feeling worse, even dying of something perhaps, so you could spit in their face. No, I don't want to risk that again.

Might as well get on with cleaning out the coffee pot. I suppose it's just as well that I don't have the money to be going out for coffee. A few more days of this and things would have turned really ugly. Plus which I can't go out on the street looking the way I probably do, not even in a stupid hick town like this one. Correction: especially not in a stupid hick town like this one. And I don't have any clean clothes to change into. I've been meaning to go to the laundromat, but the time just never seemed right. I really shouldn't let it come to this. I remember someone telling me about how Bukowski would always keep a freshly ironed shirt at the bottom of his wardrobe, underneath the bottles of whisky, just in case things got too much for him and he needed to step out for a bit. Not that I really believe that - I'm pretty sure he was making it up. But it makes a good story. One with a moral, you might say.

Going into the kitchen to clean the pot will mean running into my landlady and I don't have the stomach for that, so I go into the bathroom instead. I walk in cautiously, eyeing the place with care. I'm a little worried about what I might find. I don't always remember throwing up. The place seems pretty clean though. Not that that means anything. Only amateurs go around messing the place up when they have to puke. When you've had as much practice as I have you can feel it coming well in time, and you're careful to get your head right down in the toilet bowl before the retching starts. That way you can just rinse your mouth and walk out clean afterwards. And go right back to the bar. It's a knack, that's what it is. To tell you the truth, I'm pretty proud of it.

I look like shit, of course. I'm staring at myself in the mirror and my eyes are so bloodshot they scare me. I go back into the room and fish out my sunglasses. I suppose I look like some kind of nut, wearing my sunglasses in the bathroom with all the lights turned up, like an extra from some Tarantino movie, but what the hell. Carefully, I pour the contents of the coffee pot into the sink, then rinse the pot out a couple of times with scalding water. Next I take out the bottle of dishwashing liquid from under the sink and pour it in liberally. Then I plunge the pot into water again, and begin to scrub.

As I'm cleaning the pot, I get to thinking about what I'm going to do for money. The situation isn't really desperate. I have enough canned food in the house to last me three, maybe four days. Five if I can get my hands on a pack of cigarettes. That should be time enough. I've had it worse. I'll just have to get down to work today. Thrash out something. Maybe that story about the guy who listened to Beethoven so much he thought he'd turned into God, only it turned out to be true. Joan was telling me about some new artsy magazine over in the Village that would totally go for that kind of stuff. Maybe I could get Joan to lend me some cash too. I know she won't give it to me cold turkey, but maybe if I had a story to hand her. Yes, I really must write today. Right after I've had my coffee and steadied myself a little.

I think I used too much detergent on this thing. The lather just doesn't seem to stop. It's starting to flow over the brim of the basin now. White bubbles of it spilling over the edge and floating clumsily to the bathroom floor. I realise I'm laughing. It's a good feeling, this sensation of having bubbles rising up out of my fingers, flowing over my hands. I imagine the whole bathroom getting flooded with tiny white bubbles. I'd end up trapped inside. I'd drown. When the foam finally subsided, they'd find me lying on the newly washed floor, my body immaculately clean. Even my soul would be spotless, so that if I ever made it to Heaven I'd be the angel with the extra white wings. Not that there's much chance of that happening.

Five more minutes of washing the pot and I'm done. At last. Time for coffee. The powder in the can's starting to get a little lumpy, but the smell of it is still enticing. I don't have any new filters, so I dump the grounds out of the old one and fit it back in place. I like re-using filters anyway. It adds a special taste to the coffee. You should try it some time.

All set now. I sit and watch the black stream of the coffee slowly dripping into the pot and think of the IV lines running into my hand that time I was in hospital. Pretty soon the pot is full, it's round belly bulging with the coffee's warmth, proud like an expectant mother. I find a styrofoam cup and pour myself some. The coffee tastes rough and extremely bitter. Just the way I like it.

By now the smell of last night's drinking is all gone, replaced by the sharp tang of freshly brewed French Roast. I shut the window and turn up the heating. An anaemic sunbeam is trying to grope its way into my room. I let it. I stand by the glass staring down to where a man with a shovel is trying to dig his car out, all bundled up in snow gear. I wonder where he wants to go, this early on a Sunday morning.

I take another sip of my coffee. There are plenty of things I still need to get done. But at least I've made a start.


Thursday, August 17, 2006

What's in a face

I'm back. I've managed to fly half way across the country and back without getting blown up by someone else's toothpaste. I've recovered from post-conference hangover [1]. I'm slowly getting over the shock of having had to wear formal / semi-formal clothes, as well as the calamity of discovering that Starbucks in Atlanta close at 5 pm on Sundays (and then they wonder why the South lost the war). I've even managed to make my obligatory morning trip to the library and grab plenty of fuel to feed Veena's 2006 Booker Mela.

All of which means it's time to post again. And while I try to remember all the deep meaningful posts I meant to put up, here's a motley collection of snippets to keep the blog going.


One of the cool things about being a business researcher is that you never know where the next big idea is coming from. Take this whole Indra Nooyi deal, and this picture of her that's been doing the rounds of the blogosphere (hat-tip: DP and Amit Varma). In all the fanfare about her achievement and the lessons we can learn from it, everyone, it seems to me, is overlooking a key variable. The ability to have good passport photographs taken. No seriously. Go look at that picture again. Notice the neat hair, the eyes open and intelligent looking, the natural smile, the ever so slight tilt of the head. Do you or anyone you know have a picture from your past where you look even half as human? I certainly don't (as I've blogged about before)

The more I think about it, the more it seems to me that the ability to photograph well may be a key determinant of corporate success. It's not hard to imagine how this works. People with good passport photographs get picked for interviews over the rest of us, because they look like the kind of people the recruiter would want to work with. People like me get their resumes forwarded to the Department of Homeland Security as a safety risk. As a result people who photograph well gain more valuable and varied experience, and before you know it they're heading major multi-nationals while their less fortunate brethren are still hanging about boring other people with their baby pictures. So it's not about being a housewife, or the schools you go to, or how hard you work - it's about being able to hold your head up, say cheese with vehemence and not shut your eyes a split second before the flash goes off. If I never get to be the CEO of a billion dollar MNC, it's all the fault of the guys at Guddi Studios.


And speaking of the Department of Homeland Security, the New York Times informs me that airport security officials are now using facial expressions to screen for possible terrorists. The article reads:

Taking a page from Israeli airport security, the transportation agency has been experimenting with this new squad, whose members do not look for bombs, guns or knives. Instead, the assignment is to find anyone with evil intent.

The officers observed travelers’ facial expressions, body and eye movements, changes in vocal pitch and other indicators of stress or disorientation. If the officers’ suspicions were aroused, they began a casual conversation with the person, asking questions like “What did you see in Boston?” followed perhaps by “Oh, you’ve been sightseeing. What did you like best?”

The questions themselves are not significant, Mr. Robbins said. It is the way the person answers, particularly whether the person shows any sign of trying to conceal the truth.

Right. And of course there's no other reason why anyone could possibly be stressed or disoriented at an airport, airlines / airports being as super-efficient and extra courteous as they are. And clearly no passenger who wasn't a terrorist could have anything better to do than have casual conversations with random security agents. And obviously all of us like nothing better than a cosy, warm chat with someone wearing a uniform and a gun.

What annoys me about this is the way it tries to justify what is basically irrational prejudice under the guise of scientific screening. Forget all the important sounding terminology, what this process is basically saying is that we're willing to give security officials the right to harass and persecute anyone they feel like based on no evidence but their own gut instinct. Given that the decision to interpret behaviour as 'signs of trying to conceal the truth' or 'indicators of stress and disorientation' is entirely subjective and therefore not subject to review, any and every abuse of power could now be justified by saying that the victim 'looked suspicious'. Our ability to use this kind of intuition to understand other people is suspect at best. Our ability to do so in a multi-cultural, multi-lingual context where what constitutes 'normal' behaviour is highly dispersed is even more open to question. What do you want to bet that this kind of screening will greatly increase harassment of minority groups?

You could argue, of course, that if this kind of screening brings down the risk of a terrorist attack it's still worth doing. Three things. First, even if you believe that we should sacrifice civil liberties for the sake of (possibly) greater security, that's still no reason to hide behind some quasi-legitimate special program. Let's call a spade a spade and say that from now on we want security officers to have the right to selectively pick whoever they want, based on their own unquestionable judgement, and search / interrogate them in whatever way they choose. Personally, I'm against such a policy, but at least it doesn't pretend to be scientific. [2]

Second, isn't this already happening? Are we really to believe that security officials don't already use their intution while checking people? Can you imagine a security guard letting someone through even though he / she seemed to be acting suspiciously? So it's not clear to me what this program is going to achieve, except give security officials more power to bully people and make them less accountable. You might say, they'll be better trained to recognise suspicious behaviour, but personally I'm unconvinced that such training will work. Besides, if it does work, why limit it to some select officers, why not just train everyone, instead of creating some sort of special program?

Third, I'm not against screening per se. It's the subjective, non-verifiable basis of screening I object to, because it makes it impossible for the procedure to be debated or held accountable. If you were to introduce a procedure, for instance, where all men of a certain age group who had visited a particular set of countries in the last six months would be pulled aside for questioning, I might actually be okay with that, even if it meant that I would get pulled into the net. The difference is that a) we can test the statistical basis of that kind of an objective procedure better than we can that of something as nebulous as 'suspicious behaviour' b) we can hold law enforcement officers accountable - they don't just get to pick on whoever they like, they have to follow clearly defined rules and c) this makes the procedure predictable, so that the individual still has choices, albeit a more circumscribed set of them.

Meanwhile, if I tell you I'm going off for a few days and don't come back, it's probably because my flight was delayed by three hours, I couldn't get coffee, and when I refused to engage in a discussion about the book I was carrying with the flatfooted guard at the security gate I got strip-searched, interrogated and sent to Gitmo.


Speaking of screening, the other people who are really screwing this up are car insurance companies. In the last two weeks, I've got offers from at least four of them, all informing me that I have preferred driver status and that I should take the opportunity to lock in the historically low insurance rates.

This would be great, except that a) I don't own a car b) I don't drive, hell, I don't even have a driver's license. Whatever else being a preferred driver may or may not entail, you would think actually getting behind a wheel and driving would be pretty much a requirement. Apparently not. Ah, the wonders of modern technology.


Finally, from my weekend reading, Kierkegaard's delightful description of a diary by Kierkegaard - absolutely essential reading for someone who enjoys blogging:

"How, then, can we explain that the diary has nevertheless acquired such a poetic flavour? The answer is not difficult; it can be explained by his poetic temperament, which is, if you will, not rich, or if you prefer, not poor enough to distinguish poetry and reality from each other. The poetic was the extra he himself brought with him. This extra was the poetic element he enjoyed in the poetic situation provided by reality; this element he took back in again in the form of poetic reflection. That was the second enjoyment, and enjoyment was what his whole life was organized around. In the first case he savoured the aesthetic element personally; in the second he savoured his own person aesthetically. In the first case the point was that he egoistically, personally, savoured what in part reality gave him and what in part he himself had impregnated reality with; in the second case his personality was volatilized and he savoured, then, the situation and himself in the situation. In the first case he was in constant need of reality as the occasion, as an element; in the second case reality was drowned in the poetic. The fruit of the first stage is thus the mood from which the diary results as the fruit of the second stage, the word 'fruit' being used in the latter case in a somewhat different sense from that in the first. The poetic is thus something he has constantly possessed by virtue of the ambiguity in which his life passed."

- Soren Kierkegaard 'The Seducer's Diary' (translation by Alastair Hannay)

[1] Discovery of the week: Spending three days on a steady diet of nothing but cheese, canapes, chocolate, alcohol and coffee can wreak serious havoc on your system.

[2] And while we're about it, how about reading people's palms to figure out if they're terrorists. Or getting everyone who goes through security to drink tea and then get special psychic forces to read the leaves? Hey, it MIGHT work. Here's to the Deparment of Homeland Tarot Readings.

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Saturday, August 12, 2006

It's not the chocolate, it's germs

An article in the New York Times Sunday Magazine talks about new evidence which suggests that obesity may not be entirely due to diet or genetics, it may be due to the microbes present in our bodies.

First reaction: Yes! No more guilt! It's not my fault I'm putting on weight. It's the tiny little germs in my gut. They're the ones who don't have any self-control.

Second reaction:

But if genes or viral infection or gut microflora are involved, then for some people 3,500 calories might not equal a pound of fat, and 150 fewer calories a day might not mean they’ll lose 10 pounds in a year. As scientists continue to investigate how obese people are different, we can only hope that a side benefit will be a more largehearted understanding of what it means to be fat and how hard it is to try to become, and to remain, less fat.
You mean that because of some unicellular little git somewhere deep inside me, I now have to diet harder than thin people to lose weight? Aaarggh!!

Go read the article. I'd love to pontificate more about it, but the Ad-36 in my lower intestine has a sudden craving for well-done steak.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

The Stump

There used to be a tree in my garden. Down there in the far corner, where the four-foot high brick wall curves with the road. I'm not sure what kind of tree it was. There isn't much left of it now - just a gnarled stump like a dwarf's dinner table, the rings of its years rippling out in circles wobbly but concentric. Down at the post office they told me the previous owner of the place had it cut down, four, maybe five years ago. No one is quite sure why. Some people say the tree had been infected by insects of some kind and was dying. Others say it was fine and the owner just didn't like trees. He wasn't very popular in the village it seems. They speak of him with disgust.

At any rate, the tree is gone. I'm not sure how I feel about it. Sometimes, on clear days like this, when I sit at my writing desk and look out of the window all the way across to where the opposite hillside descends with a headlong rush to the valley - the scene like some Dutch landscape, bathed in sunlight - I can't help thinking that it's a good thing the tree isn't in the way to block the view. After all, it's this panorama, this sense of distance, that made me choose the house in the first place. What would be the point of living this high up and having this spectacular vista blocked by some silly tree?

But there are other times, times when, for instance, I'm sitting in the garden in the deck chair trying to read a book, one hand raised to shield my eyes from the afternoon sun, that I wish the tree was still there after all. How pleasant it would be to lie in its shade, book in hand, listening to the cool rustle of its leaves overhead while I mouthed Tennyson to myself. And there would be the birds: sweet-throated messengers, building their fragile nests in the tree's high branches, filling this lonely, hilltop garden with the pulse of life.

But birds can be a nuisance too. They'd be leaving their droppings all over the place, every now and then one of them would fly in through an open window, disturbing the calm of my house, filling its rooms with panic. And there'd be all that singing in the morning. I can't stand that. The thing is, I'm not a good sleeper. I have bad dreams. By the time I get to sleep at all, it's usually pretty late, and even then, the slightest sound is enough to wake me. Imagine a flock of birds sitting in the tree, striking up their infernal racket with the first light of day! I'd never get any peace in this house. And peace is what I'm up here for, isn't it. How am I supposed to write without it?

Just listen to me, will you? "How am I supposed to write without it." As if these words of mine, these putrid little droppings I leave on the page, really mattered. As if they were reason enough to cut down a centuries old tree, banish the birds from my garden forever. Isn't this precisely the kind of thinking I left the city to escape? The impatience of people, their arrogance. Their selfish belief that everything and everyone in the world must be shaped to their own satisfaction, their own convenience. And yet here I am, alone in my country hermitage, having abandoned the only life I know and already I'm trying to reshape the world to my own specifications. Was all my disgust with the city really only a kind of frustration then? Was I vexed by the city not because it presumed to order Nature around, but because I wasn't the one doing the ordering? No, it's not okay to cut down trees to make life easier for ourselves. It's the houses, the fences, the mass-produced, ersatz settlements that spring up like weeds in our meadows, that we should be chopping down. Not the trees. The trees foster life. Our plywood houses hold only Death.

I think I'm obsessing about this tree too much. After all, it's not as though I'm the one who had it cut down. It was already gone by the time I got here. No, that's not making excuses; that's simply stating facts. I must try and keep some perspective. What was it my therapist said about not trying to take the world's guilt upon myself? I called him about the tree. I don't have a phone up here, but I went down to the village and rang him up from there just to tell him. He told me I shouldn't think about it so much. That I should try to focus on my work. That's good advice.

The thing is, it's pretty hard to ignore, you know. I mean the stump's just sitting there, in the middle of the grass, like a boil, or an amputated limb. Every time I look at it I can't help imagining what the tree must have looked like. And then all the questions about the tree start up again.

My cousin came to visit and I told her about the tree and she said, "If it bothers you so much why don't you just have another one planted in its place?".

I could do that. It would be a nice gesture. I spoke to the gardener who comes in every Wednesday and Friday and he seemed to approve. He said that spot where the old tree was is the only one that will work, though. Which means before they can plant the new tree they'll have to completely dispose off the old one. Tear it up by its roots.

I imagine the scene. The tractor or truck or whatever it is that they'll bring straining away at the chain. The whine of its engine. And then, slowly, like a fist coming unclenched, the dead roots of the tree emerging from the soil, wrenched free from their hold of ages, from their centuries' long sleep. The gnarled and secret limbs exposed, the rotten underbelly of the stump. Do I have it in me to inflict this final indignity on the tree? Isn't it enough, that we have killed it, without digging up its skeleton and making a mockery of its age? And wouldn't this make me an accomplice of the man who first had the tree cut down, a co-conspirator, helping to cover up his crime by destroying the evidence of it?

And yet, is it so wrong to want to cast out the old to make way for the new, so wrong to clear the way for a younger life, for a fresher hope?

I can't make up my mind. I called my therapist again, and he said he thought this place was turning out to be very unhealthy for me. He asked me if I'd been writing at all, and I told him yes, I'd written a bit, but then he wanted details and I hemmed and hawed and he could tell I was lying. He wants to see me in his office next week. He thinks I may be better off living closer to the city. In an apartment in some suburb perhaps. I don't know. I've grown to like this place. Still, it does get lonely up here sometimes, with only a dead tree for company. And it's true that I'm not getting any work done. Maybe some place with more people.

The day before I head back to the city, I go out to the tree stump and sit beside it for an hour. There are a few ants crawling over it. I think they live inside it somewhere, feed on its bark. I run my hands over its sad, wrinkled skin, wondering if it can still feel my touch. "I'm sorry", I say, "there was nothing I could do".

Sometimes the choices we regret the most are the ones we didn't make.


P.S. Am going to be out of town the next 5-6 days (attending a conference) so may not be updating the blog. Regular blogging resumes next weekend. Try not to cut down trees in your grief. It upsets Dogmatix.