‘Tous les Matins du Monde’: a great movie

Last night I finally had the chance to watch a movie that I had on my ‘must see’ list for a couple of centuries — Tous Les Matins du Monde (1991), directed by Alain Corneau, after a novel by Pascal Quignard.  It’s a fictional story based on historical characters.  Gérard Depardieu plays Marin Marais, a viola da gamba player and court musician to Louis XIV.  As a young man (played by Depardieu’s son Guillaume), Marais was a student of M. Sainte-Colombe, a recluse after the death of his young wife.

The movie is about music, love, betrayal, regret, longing, and the meaning of true art.  It has a largo pace, with long takes allowing you to imbibe scene and nuance.  It’s hard to imagine a Hollywood movie allowing any one character to speak as long as the young Marais in his first visit to Sainte-Colombe, where, in an incredibly discursive and ballsy monologue, he makes his case for being taken on as the maestro’s student; or to have so many scenes of uninterrupted bucolic beauty; or to dare to dwell on close-ups conveying worlds of meaning with the subtlest of facial gestures.  Although the score is ravishing — put together by Jordi Savall from his own and the protagonists’ compositions — in a movie about music, the silences sometimes speak the loudest.

In my research into the movie, I made a heartbreaking discovery: Guillaume, who plays the preposterously handsome young Marais, died of a freak lung infection in 2008 at only 37.  That this eerily paralleled some of the fictional action underscored the film’s pathos.

In the end, if the best art compels us to nobler thought and deed, Tous les Matins du Monde certainly qualifies.  Should you watch the movie — to paraphrase Coleridge from the closing lines of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner — a sadder and a wiser man (or woman) you shall rise the morrow morn, and more human.

The Persian Primer: How to Understand and Properly Make Fun of Iranian-Americans

Everywhere I turn these days, Iranians seem to be in the news. Back in the home country, the women are causing tremors through sheer power of thought and implied hotness under the tents they wear. Both the women and men are causing minor tremors in the US, becoming culturally prominent in ways that I can no longer ignore. And it’s not just here in Los Angeles – they’re everywhere!

Iranian authors are all over the bookstore: Marjane Satrapi with Persepolis; Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran; Roxana Saberi’s just released Two Worlds: My Life and Captivity in Iran; Firoozeh Dumas’s Funny in Farsi. Shirin Ebadi took the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003. Nasim Pedrad is our very own Saturday Night Live cast member. The founder of eBay, Pierre Omidyar, is Iranian. So is Firouz Naderi, the head of NASA’s Mars Exploration; Omid Kordestani, Senior VP at Google; hundreds of super-genius university professors; and about 12 million doctors and dentists, one of which has made you say ‘aaah’ in the past week.

Unfortunately, there has not been a commensurate rise in Iranian-American jokes. There are jokes about Irish-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Polish-Americans and Italian-Americans. (To be fair, there are also no German-American jokes, but what is there to make fun of? Punctuality? Good hair? Superior engineering? But I digress.) Heck, there are even jokes making fun of Southeast Asian drivers.

But who’s making fun of Iranians? Nobody. Except for Iranians themselves, like Maz Jobrani and his riotous US Census videos. Most likely, this shortcoming stems from Continue reading “The Persian Primer: How to Understand and Properly Make Fun of Iranian-Americans”

The New Yorker Conference 2008: A Hail of Big Ideas

Last year was the first time The New Yorker magazine organized a conference around innovators. At first, I was a bit skeptical, especially since the whole affair lasted just a day and cost a pretty penny and a half. But over the weeks, as every issue of the magazine teased me with yet another brilliant speaker eager to share presto-neato ideas with the world, I decided to plunk down — to find that it was sold out. I had already bought my plane ticket to New York City, so I flew in anyway and spent some quality time with friends. Of course, not before making a quasi-valiant effort at socially engineering my way into the conference — le système D, as the wily French put it.  But pan out it did not, leaving me resolved that this business of being shut out of overpriced conferences will never happen again.

So when the 2008 edition of the conference was announced, I made a big sticky note of the date and time online registration opened, and hopped on it mere seconds after the e-doors opened at 9.00am PST on February 6, 2008. This time the conference cost two pretty pennies, but clearly that was not going to deter this here man on a mission. I was in, baby, in. Later I was informed by one of the kind organizers that I was the very first registrant. Zealotry = results.

Fast forward to the morning of Thursday, May 8. I arrived by cab on a rainy New York morning before the whimsically imposing InterActive Corp (IAC) Headquarters building by the Chelsea Piers. The first impression I got of this building was of a giant wedding cake, with a lot of reflective meringue frosting, if that makes any sense. The swoopy lines and curvilinear facade practically scream “Frank Gehry was here.” And the frosted glass with the transparent bands makes it look like the entire building is Continue reading “The New Yorker Conference 2008: A Hail of Big Ideas”

Rio de Janeiro

When I arrived in Rio de Janeiro’s Antônio Carlos Jobim International Airport (confusing three-letter symbol: GIG), it had more of the feel of the tiny Treviso airport (trip to Croatia, Summer 2003) than one serving a city of 8 million. João was holding up a card with my name in the small receiving area — let the royal treatment begin! — and directed me towards my cab. I found it heartening that a country would name one of its biggest airports after a composer — namely, “Tom” Jobim, the man who wrote the lilting tones of The Girl from Ipanema (in Portuguese: A Garota de Ipanema). Can you imagine an American airport being named after Irving Berlin or Aaron Copland instead of some dead president? Ladies and gentlemen — I had officially arrived in a place that was Different.

There are shiny airports, and then there are not-so-shiny airports. Airports tend to reflect the rest of the city. JFK is marginally shiny. LAX is shiny. Amsterdam’s Schiphol is way shiny. Heathrow is gleaming. GIG is not shiny. And Rio itself is great, but shiny it is not. In fact, it may even disdain shininess.

The drive through Rio immediately reminded me of Tehran, another vast metropolis with upwards of 8 million people, lots of culture, and great disparities in wealth. As we drove towards our condominium in Ipanema — about as far from the airport and downtown area as you can get — we went through the favelas, the slums made famous by movies like City of God (Cidade de Deus). I had imagined these shantytowns to Continue reading “Rio de Janeiro”

Penguins and the Meaning of Life

A couple of nights ago, I had the pleasure of seeing The March of the Penguins, the acclaimed Luc Jacquet documentary.  The screening room at the William Morris agency did the sweeping Antarctic vistas and majestic aerial shots of the movie justice, and some friends were on hand to
share the experience.  If you haven’t seen the movie, it follows the breeding ritual of the emperor penguin, one of the few animals that
makes its home on Antarctica (where I hear beachfront real estate is still eminently affordable — buy before everyone else catches on to
this whole global warming thing).

The story goes something like this.  Towards the end of the Antarctic summer, penguins rocket out of the water and start a
migration en masse to the breeding grounds where they were born. Now penguins are pretty picky about their real estate.  Because
they will be particularly vulnerable during this time, they need to be far away from predators.  They also need to be in a place where Continue reading “Penguins and the Meaning of Life”

Costa Rica

As with all trips, there was some pre-departure hesitation before leaving for my cousin’s wedding in Costa Rica last week.  Right at that metaphorical threshold which has “Go” on one side and “Stay” on the other, all the demons of habitude and hebetude rise from the nether regions of the psyche and insinuate themselves into your internal dialogue with such profound pronouncements as “Dude, it’s gonna cost you money”, or “It’s going to be so different — you sure you want that?”  The tautological reasons, even though they generally come under the “It’s a feature, silly, not a bug” heading, seem strangely compelling at the moment you’re about to plunk down hundreds of hard-loaned bucks and several days of life for what is basically a deliberate venture into the unknown.  For such occasions, it’s handy to have a rule to live by (rules being, in my book, what you use only when common sense fails).  My rule is simple: When in doubt, go.  So go I did. 

The 1.05am departure from LAX arrived in San Jose’s Juan Santamaria Airport to a blazing 8am sunshine through crisp skies, resulting in an industrial-strength reset of my circadian clock by a solid 2 hours.  The airport is named after the wily drummer boy who torched the wooden fort where the crazed invader William Walker had taken refuge in February 1856. Walker fled as a result, Costa Rica was Continue reading “Costa Rica”

Confessions of a bookaholic

It all started innocently enough.  I was having a little promenade on the Promenade here in Santa Monica when I saw the shop window.  At first I tried to ignore it, but resistance was futile.  Slowly, the decidedly straight path my feet were on turned into an arc, like an electron deflected by a magnetic field, as some mysterious force drew me towards the front entrance.  Oh no, not again — I had just promised myself last week that I was going to lay off for a spell.  Go cold turkey.  Force of will.  And I had been doing so well.  But I saw the wares in the shopfront, in all their seductive shapes and colors, and before I could muster up some resistance, Continue reading “Confessions of a bookaholic”

“Can I help?”: A Sojourn in Cambridge

A late welcome from the banks (and BoGs) of the Cam

It is a Sunday morning here in Cambridge, with an absurdly forceful wind whipping through town, ripping off tree branches, launching horizontal raindrops at pedestrians at relativistic speeds and making cyclists ride at oblique angles just to maintain balance. It’s been nearly three weeks since I arrived here, having left on a Sunday afternoon to arrive at the Monday morning opening ceremonies of my course with 150lb of luggage in tow. Just days before, I had been told by the course assistant director that “There’s no reason for you to show up before October 5”, only to be informed the next day that orientation begins October 7. As it turns out there were many reasons to be present before the 5th — somewhat symbolic of the slapdash nature of this course, as it is the first time it’s being done. More on that later.

It is just after brunch at the Caius College (pronounced “keys”) dining hall, which comprised two fried eggs, a croissant, a bowl of yoghurt, a glass of Minute Maid orange juice, canned pear tomatoes and beans, and a raft of bacon and sausage and hash browns which I dodged — all notable because they form the essence of the Full English Breakfast experience.

I’m sitting here in the computer room, in the basement of the Caius College Library, right next to the Senate House. The latter is a rectangular building in the grand neoclassical style, where the Praelectors of the various colleges lead their graduating gowned flocks to receive their degrees, each college marching in the order of their founding (Caius is fourth, after Peterhouse, Clare College and Pembroke College). But, pray tell, where is the Senate House — or, more specifically, what street is it on? The answer can initiate you into the some of the folly and madness that is Cambridge (and, ultimately, England).

You see, the Senate House is technically on King’s Parade (not King’s Parade Street — just King’s Parade), on what I consider as the main Cambridge U drag. Except that the northern edge of it starts being called Trinity St. But the southern edge becomes Trumpington St. What you start to notice is that over the course of 500 yards, this street changes names 4 times: St John’s St, Trinity St, King’s Parade, Trumpington St, Trumpington Rd (see http://www.cam.ac.uk/map/v3/drawmap.cgi?…), and it’s not the only street that does this. So, even armed with an address such as ‘6 Trumpington St’, you can have a hell of a time finding a place, because you are never really sure which street you’re standing on unless you already know the town well. Add to that the capricious nature of numbering houses (sometimes alternating even and odd on opposite street sides, sometimes not) and the sporadic presence of street signs, and every new address becomes a new adventure.

But these names are old, old, and going against 750 years of history remains a losing proposition around these parts. And, until the 19th century, the Colleges had hegemony over the town, to the extent of setting prices for such things as bread and ale. So the little stretch of street in front of Trinity College will be called Trinity Street, and 50 meters up, in front of St John’s College it’s St John’s St, hallelujah and amen.
And to put in perspective how old Cambridge is, just think of this: when Sir Isaac Newton, the Lucasian Professor of Mathematicks, was writing his Principia Mathematica, Cambridge was already older than Harvard is now.

Keep that bike off the pavement, mate

In the battle against archaic addressing, your best weapon (save memorizing the damn map — oops, I mean memorising) is speed. And that is achieved through the humble bicycle. Even beyond the spire- and cornice-lined streets, it’s the preponderance of bicycles that struck me most upon first arriving here. Every bicycle rack, street sign, and building wall is festooned with metal and rubber, spoke and mudguard, three or four deep. There being at least three times as many cycles here as there are things to fasten them to, most of the two-wheeled conveyances are freestanding, leaning against a wall (which, by the way, would NEVER happen in Boston — the bikes would simply vanish).

Almost all streets are marked with cycle paths, even one-way ones having a little bike lane going the opposite way. And, at the top of every hour, as lectures let out, a stream of pedalers floods every street even more than before. Students, professors, fellows, rich people, poor people — everyone cycles. Those who have children of their own wear helmets; the rest (85+%) meander blissfully bareheaded. In sheer volume, Amsterdam ain’t got nothin’ on this town when it comes to bikes (NB: I have since been to Amsterdam, and I sit corrected. Still — whole lotta bikes.)

And so, wishing to be part of the wheeled and mobile masses, on my second day here, I set out on a bike hunt. You will be shocked to find that I
bought the first bike that I found at the first bike shop that I visited (those who know me well realize the improbability of such an event). There
it was: a Trek 700 hybrid, fully tricked out in the Cambridge Urban Geriatric package — mud guards front and back, front and back lights (required), rear rack (for passengers), chain guard (to save your trouser cuffs — key!) and the all-important front basket. An older gentleman had customized his bike for commuting, found that his knees couldn’t take the strain, and returned it less than a week after its purchase.

I immediately recognized how much time and money I’d have to spend to get a bare-bones bike to have all these accoutrements, and how I could never get them for a mere £150 ($230 or so, and rising). So, relinquishing my penchant for rock-devouring aluminum moutain bikes or speedy racing bikes, I plunked down on the spot for this incredibly practical instrument, and have enjoyed many a ride with nary a pant rip, chain-oil smudge or a wet rear, even in driving rain.

Now you would certainly be looked at askance if you were to tell an English person that your last bike used to rip into your pants. Or that you like to ride on the pavement. Because ‘pants’ around these parts means ‘underwear’, and ‘pavement’ means sidewalk. So you can imagine my mild bewilderment when, on my first day on my trusty steel steed, I was told that riding on the pavement was strictly forbidden. And when you say something is ‘pants’, that means it’s no good. (On the other hand, if something is ‘the dog’s bollocks’, then it’s grrreat — ‘brilliant’, in
fact.)

Now some of these differences aren’t strictly deadly, e.g. ‘tap’ for faucet and ‘post’ for ‘mail’, ‘lorry’ and ‘lift’ for truck and elevator. But, as a driver and cyclist, you can get into real trouble if you don’t know ‘give way’ means ‘yield’ and if you have no idea what a ‘rising bollard’ is.

Ahh, the rising bollard. See, there are certain zones of the city which are closed to all traffic, except for buses and taxis, at certain times of day. The borders to these zones are marked by ‘Caution: rising bollards’ signs, and woe betide he who obliviously or willfully drives onto the division zone, because from the very heart of Mother Earth majestically rises a ‘bollard’ — a metal column or pylon 3 feet high – impaling the car smack on its engine or transmission, instantly destroying it. Now the car-cass (ha) has to be towed, and the shame-faced driver has no choice but to pay something like a £1000 fine. Wild stuff.

And so the real shock of the new hit me as soon as I started cycling. ‘Stay on the left side, because it’s the right side’, my initial mantra, proved less helpful than it sounded. So I just decided to follow the direction cars were parked. That was a bad idea, because cars park facing either direction, on both sides of the road. OK, follow other cyclists and drivers then. Turnabouts (rotaries) go clockwise, not anticlockwise (counterclockwise) as I learned the hard way, and right turns are the dangerous ones, as oncoming headlights remind me time and time again which country I’m in.

One thing that I have yet to get over is the momentary horror of passing a car on the left, looking inside and seeing a small child in the driver’s seat (eek!) or, even worse, NOBODY in the driver’s seat (double eek!). Two and some decades of conditioning is hard to live down in two and some weeks.

Gonville and Caius is the baius knaius

Let’s get back to the initial story of my arrival here. Now, on that very Monday, I actually did not have a full acceptance from Cambridge University — or, more specifically, the Board of Graduate Studies. This latter institution is responsible for handling the affairs of graduate students here, and they do a magnificent job of devouring, swamp-like, any correspondence, email or phone call that comes their way without actually responding, and of generally doing business at the speed of a rapidly advancing glacier. Hence, my affectionate title for them, ‘The BoGS’ (which, in local parlance means, perhaps even more appropriately, ‘the toilets’).

Anyway — for whatever reason, even though the Bioscience Enterprise Programme, my course of study, had accepted me in early June, these swamp dwellers had not (long and complicated story which I hope you will never hear), so on Monday morning, I was homeless and addressless. Luckily, through the intercession of Dr Joe Herbert, the course director, on Tuesday evening I had been accepted at Gonville & Caius College, one of my top 3 choices, and the next week received an actual letter from the BoGS welcoming me to Cambridge. The amusing part of the story is how, fast on the heels of my acceptance to Caius College, I received my first letter from them the next day (even though I had no address) — the bill for the term’s charges. They can be on the ball when they really want to, you see.

Gonville & Caius was founded twice — once by Mr Gonville in 1348, and the second time by (you guessed it) Dr Caius. Now, for whatever reason, his name is pronounced ‘keys’ — some latinization of ‘Keyes’, which was fashionable in his day. But this gives our college double Cambridge snob status. First, because only yahoos from the outside even mention the ‘Gonville’ part; and second, because of the way ‘Caius’ is pronounced. Magdalene College has the trick pronunciation (’maudlin’) and Peterhouse the trick name (not ‘Peterhouse College’; just Peterhouse), but Caius got both. Of course this is also great fun to play with, as you can send a message to your fellow Caian (’kee-an’) saying ‘plaius excuse my snaius’ with a knowing chortle, har.

Since the original Dr Caius, this place has been a haven for medical students (aka ‘medics’) and natural scientists (’natskis’). Lots of the streets and buildings are named after famous alumni: Harvey Court and Harvey Road are tributes to old William, the Western discoverer of pulmonary circulation c. 1628 (Ibn an-Nafis, the Arab physiologist, did it first c. 1250). Glisson Road, where I live, is named after Dr Glisson, discoverer of the eponymous capsule of fibrous tissue encasing the plumbing that goes into the liver.

On my second day in Cambridge, as I was exiting the College one evening, I had a near run-in with one of the more famous living Caians. First I thought it was a handicapped student, but then I realized that I had narrowly avoided collision with none other than the current Lucasian Professor of Mathematicks, Stephen Hawking.

When Jesus, Christ, Corpus Christi and Trinity sit to dine

There are 32 Colleges at Cambridge, and the students harbor the same fierce and irrational loyalties towards them as we all do to arbitrary elements of identity like country, religion and name. Some are more hoity-toity than others (Trinity being the ne plus ultra); some are more liberal (Kings). All are absolutely enamored of their rules and traditions. One of the surviving traditions is that of Formal Hall.

Dinner is served in two seatings: 6.20 and 7.15. At the second seating, all students are required to wear their academic gowns before sitting down at the long benches of Caius Dining Hall, listening to a Latin benediction, and sharing a three-course meal which ranges between being repulsive to marginally edible. The ploy for getting the students to show up in spite of the shoddy cuisine is to mandate the pre-purchase of 16 meal tickets, at £4.50 each (about $7), which is certainly much easier than providing good food. One saving grace is that we are allowed to bring our own wine to the table and share with whomever we want, with a loosely enforced limit of one bottle per person. If you just asked yourself, “Wait a second there — shouldn’t one bottle per Homo sapiens be enough?”, read on.

As it turns out, drinking in general and wine in particular provide a cornerstone — nay, THE cornerstone of Cambridge life. When I first read The Double Helix at the tender age of 15, what struck me most was how much of business, even of Watson & Crick magnitude, was conducted at pubs, over beer. Every College has its own pub, open to everyone, with absurdly cut-rate drink prices (pint of cider £1; pint of beer £1.50; shot of tequila £1.40 — dangerous!). Every Wednesday we have after-dinner port at 8pm, which goes on and on and on. And regularly there are fancy dinners (the last of which was the Graduate Matriculation Dinner) where we sit with the Fellows of the College, eat from a menu written entirely in French (of course ‘pommes de terre’ taste better than potatoes!) and have 4 different courses of wine, capped off by your choice of port or claret, passed around in a crystal decanter, around in a crystal decanter, around in a (burp) crysal descanter, roight.

Unfortunately, these occasions are the only time when we dine with the Fellows. The professors and such always eat at the High Table, which is not open to students, graduate or non, and this hierarchical arrangement echoes itself throughout English social structure. My hopes for having regular chats with Prof Hawking have thus been temporarily dashed.

Of course, no account of a sojourn in England is complete without some mention of how unlike (and, by implication, inferior to) America it is. None of you know me as a cheerleader of things American, but I cannot help but notice some peculiarities of life here. The most amusing is easily the hot & cold faucet arrangement: in every sink, they are separated by 2 feet of space, such that thou shalt scald thine hands or
freeze them, but though shalt never wash them under a temperate stream of water. Seeing as how some of the tubs and showers actually have the technological wonder of the mixer tap incorporated, I am dumbfounded as to why sinks should be so deprived.

There is also a strange fondness for rules and an unabashed willingness to enforce them, even to perfect strangers. In my 12 years of cycling nearly every day in the States, people reminded or reprimanded me only a handful of times for my kamikaze tendencies, even in the most flagrant case. But here, somebody says something nearly every time. The most surreal incident was when I was locking my bike, and a friend that I had not seen in 3yrs called my name, prompting me to exclaim ‘Holy fucking cow!’, to which a grey head stuck itself out of a Caius College office window and said, emphatically, ‘No. NO.’ This lifetime had not prepared me for that.

At risk of flagrant generalization, what epitomizes my experience here is the phrase with which shopkeepers greet you: “May I help?” For some time, I have found the absence of ‘you’ at the end of that query to be particularly jarring, and my over-philosophized explanation is thus: they don’t really much care about ‘you’ here, as evidenced by the absence of customer service and the presence of the National Health Service. Collectively, people matter (hence, rules and the penchant for them); individually, not so much. Here, rules are rigid physical things that you run into, as if hitting a wall; not at all nice and bendy like back there, and not at all guidelines for when common sense fails. And saying ‘Can I help’ instead of ‘Can I help you’ conveys the same amount of warmth and sincerity as saying ‘I love’ instead of ‘I love you’.

Hey, America may not be so great, but at least sometimes they fake it well when it counts. (NB: My English friends have since brought to my attention that they feel exactly the same way about American rules, especially when it comes to bars and carrying ID. Acknowledged.)

Of course, you’re all more than welcome — nay, encouraged — to visit. There’s really no place like Cambridge (except for Oxford), and it’s quite fun for a quick swing-through.

 

Travels in Red America

About a month ago, I had the opportunity to visit parts of the US that I had not seen before. Having lived mostly in Boston and Southern California, I had left the vast middle portion of the country unexplored. So I welcomed the mission to get some work done in San Antonio, Dallas, Ft Worth, St Louis and Cleveland. The cities were lovely: San Antonio’s Riverfront eating/shopping district was quite charming even late on a sleepy Monday night; Dallas had an upstart, upwardly mobile feel to it with a very lively youth culture (and exceptionally welcoming people); and St Louis seemed to have much more to commend it than just a big ol’ arch. I was particularly gratified that in my 24-hr sojourn in St Louis, I very nearly got caught in a hailstorm of 2-inch ice pellets and a tornado. To this here left- and right-coaster, that was as quintessentially Midwestern an experience as having an earthquake and brushfire would be to Joe Sixpack visiting LA for a day from Kansas City.
Although my time to roam amongst the natives was limited, I thought that a scan of the area radio stations from the comfort of my rental car would be a step towards capturing the local zeitgeist. And so, armed with the craftily-named ‘Scan’ button of the radio, I listened. The very first station that tuned in caught a female voice singing the chorus of a song: ‘God is with us.’ The second station was talk, not music, and sounded like a speech or a sermon — something about Michael looking across the water to see Jesus walking on it. The next one was a Christian rock station. Of the seven or so stations that I scanned before settling on some classical music, four were broadcasting either Christian music or preaching. Now an evangelical radio station per se is not anomalous, but what struck me was the preponderance of such formats in these markets. Clearly all these stations have an audience to make them economically sustainable. Although my survey was informal, you would never get such a high percentage of Christian stations in Los Angeles, New York City, Boston or San Francisco. I’d even argue that there isn’t a total of 4 such stations on the FM dial in any one of those markets.
OK, so what? In my last blog entry, I talked about my surprise at finding out about the vastness of the evangelical book market. And these travels along the highways of Middle America, where billboards urge passersby to accept Christ as their savior at a weekend-long revivalist retreat, confirmed my suspicion of the existence of an America with which I am less familiar: what the journalists have been calling ‘Red America’, after the infamous map of the 2000 Presidential election showing the states voting for Gore in blue (mostly seaboard states) and those voting for Bush in red (the inland states). The designation ‘Red America’ is particularly ironic, since the color red has historically carried strong anti-American connotations: first symbolizing the perceived Native American threat (the ‘red man’) to homesteaders in the nation’s earlier years; and then standing in for Communism (the ‘Red Menace’) from the early twentieth century till 1989 (and today to some extent).
This evening I had the privilege of seeing Robert Reich, the Secretary of Labor under Bill Clinton, give a speech at the United Methodist Church in Venice, CA. He was his usual self-deprecatingly funny self, opening with: “All these years in public service have worn me down. I started out being 6’2″, and now look where I am.” Although me may stand a mere 5 feet tall, his persona and charisma more than filled the room. He talked about many subjects, including his forays into Red America along his cross-country drive from Cambridge, MA to Berkeley, CA with his eldest son. At the roadside diners, he would sometimes be approached by locals (“because I looked peculiar”), who would engage him in discussion with a “You’re a Democrat, aren’t you?,” to which he would respond, “Yes, and I’m proud to be one.” After the native would proclaim himself/herself a Republican, Reich would ask why he/she would vote for Bush. According to Reich, the near-unanimous response in all of these states was “because he’s honest” (which elicited audible groans from the Venice audience). After Reich presents his interlocutor with a few incontrovertible counterexamples to this trope, the native changes his tune and says, “Well, it’s really because he’s so folksy.” Aaaah. So that’s it — somehow W’s good ol’ boy talk and broken English conveys to these Reds that he’s one of them, in spite of his blue-blood pedigree and life of perpetual privilege. The surprising and even encouraging part of Reich’s report was that, after only 3 or 4 minutes of presenting some simple facts about the current administration’s record, many of those he spoke to were quite willing to admit, “Well, y’know, maybe I won’t be voting for him after all.”
All of this brings me to this question: Is America really as divided as the red-blue map would make us think it is? Reich would have us reconsider that, and there’s evidence to support that. You can see the red-blue map from the 2000 election at this site  http://www.makethemaccountable.com/misc/…). If you scroll down further, you will see another quite ingenious (and utterly logical) map that colors each state in a blend of blue and red in its proportion of Democratic and Republican votes cast in the 2000 elections. What this map shows is that almost all of America, with the exception of a handful of stronghold states (CA, IL, NY, MA, RI, HI for the blues; ID, NB, WY, UT for the reds) is more or less the same shade of purple. So perhaps there are more of the 40% self-identified evangelical Christians in those red states, who may identify with the Bush born-again persona and some its attendant dogmatism, and maybe they did vote for him in the 2000 elections in greater proportion. But in the end, we all want to be able to stand tall as Americans and be proud of the values of freedom, tolerance and high-mindedness that has made this country great, prosperous and a model of hope. And all Americans are smart enough to know that no amount of folksiness can ever make up for a compromise of those values, or being worse off then they were four years ago, or the threat of being drafted to an unjustified war, or having their sons and daughters come back from halfway across the globe in a body bag. Reich’s note of pragmatic optimism, echoing that of Clinton in his BEA speech three weeks ago, resonates with me. The American people have consistently chosen and will choose unity, democracy still works, and we’re gonna be alright. Now get out there and get the word out.

Meanderings Amongst Words: Book Expo America, Chicago, 2-5 June 2004

People have brought to my attention that my blog here has been gathering e-dust, languishing in the vast underworld of unheralded, undersubscribed blogs. It ain’t for lack of material — lord knows all kinds of zany things have been happening. So, best to write up the events of last week before they get corrupted and ultimately deleted by the editorial caprices of that gentle tyrant, memory.

I spent the better part of this past week at Book Expo America in Chicago. I arrived in the Windy City — so-called apparently because of its fickle political affiliations and not the hearty sweep of air through its skyscraper-fortified corridors — on a Tuesday night, and through some strange convergence of fate, all of my Continue reading “Meanderings Amongst Words: Book Expo America, Chicago, 2-5 June 2004”

Castes in the Bhagavad Gita

Friday night I attended a talk by Chris Chapple (pronounced like ‘chapel’), professor of theology at Loyola Marymount University, on the Bhagavad Gita. I’ve just started reading the Bhagavad Gita, half out of pique, since TS Eliot has this habit of referencing it gratuitously in his work and I’ve been re-reading some of his stuff lately, half out of complementarity, since along with the Tao Te Ching it is one of the main texts of Eastern philosophy, and half out of morbid curiosity since I’d never gotten around to reading it. And yes, Mr or Ms Smartypants, I’m fully aware that three halves make for one and a half, and one and a half of everything makes for a fuller life, and I like it better that way; thanks for noticing. Anyway. One cool thing about the Gita — basically a conversation between Arjuna, the super-warrior wracked by guilt and indecision before the imminent bloodshed of his kinsmen, and Krishna, his charioteer/advisor, who is really an avatar (earthly incarnation) of the powerful god Vishnu — is that it makes for a powerfully dramatic story. And, in the conversation between Arjuna and Krishna/Vishnu, a great deal of wisdom is passed along, much of it in the vein of Lao-Tse and the Tao. But every once in a while, something like this creeps in:

Krishna: If I did not continue to work untiringly as I did, mankind would still follow me, no matter where I led them. Suppose I were to stop? They would all be lost. The result would be caste-mixture and universal destruction (italics mine). Bhagavad Gita, Ch 3

So ‘universal destruction’ and ‘caste mixture’ are uttered in the same breath here. OK, so maybe this is just an aberration, they’re not really serious, right?

We know what fate falls/ On families broken:/ The rites are forgotten,/ Vice rots the remnant/ Defiling their women,/ And from their corruption/ Comes mixing of castes:/ The curse of confusion/ Degrades the victims/ And damns the destroyers. (Ch 1)

Well. Glad we made that one clear. I’m only up to Chapter 4, and there have already been 4-5 mentions of how caste-mixing is the ultimate evil, almost as bad as deep-fried chocolate bars or voting Republican. Could it be that this book of scripture — as influential in India as the gospel of Hinduism as the Bible is to an American audience — could have perpetuated the hereditary Indian caste system for centuries while holding back the development of egalitarianism even to this day? Could it be that the priesthood, the Brahmins, the members of the highest caste and the only ones capable of writing, conveniently slipped in these oppressive clauses in the otherwise transcendent, timeless narrative of the Gita? I’ll read more before I decide, but in the meantime I refer you to my particular translation, published by Barnes & Noble, which is not only quite easy to read but also has a magnificent introduction by Aldous Huxley, who not coincidentally, names the escapist drug in the epochal Brave New World after Indra the thunder-god’s favorite hallucinogen — soma.

Affluence as blessing and disease; tipping in the USA

Recently I spent a weekend in Las Vegas, and before I go on any further, let’s go through all the possible nicknames for that town and get it out of our system: Lost Wages, Sin City, Lust Vegas, The Meadows (you’d think ‘vegas’ would be Spanish for ‘arid lifeless desert’, but it’s not), insert your favorite nickname here. Now every time I go there I have a blast, as long as I limit my sojourn to 48hrs or less (and even then, I need to undergo a full mind-and-body disinfectant scrubbing before I’m fit to re-enter proper society, but that’s a story for a different late Sunday night). A particularly surreal moment occurred when I was in the poker room of the Mandalay Bay casino, overlooking the sports book. There, amidst the solid burghers and dedicated hedonists betting on ace-king or Dudley’s Dignity the harness-racing horse, two monitors were turned to CNN, which just happened to be showing an undercover special on trafficking and prostitution of minors in Romania. The contrast between this industrial-strength dose of reality and the foam upon the foam that Vegas rests on was sobering. Of course, both scenarios are real, in the sense that they are both occurring and constitute economic activity. However, I will hazard to say that the Americans in that poker room were experiencing a higher standard of living than the hapless Romanian abductees. The US is a remarkably affluent society, as even its poorest members enjoy a remarkable degree of abundance. Merriam-Webster online weighs in on the word thus  www.m-w.com):

affluence, n. 1 a : an abundant flow or supply : PROFUSION b : abundance of property : WEALTH

But let us abstain from conjecture and refer to the facts instead: per annum, the average American consumes 7960 kg of oil equivalent and 730 pounds of paper; use 484,000 gallons of water; own 844 TV sets and 774 vehicles per 1000 people; and consumes 269 pounds of meat (compare these figures to those for China: 880, 73, 116,000, 292, 16 and 104, respectively). (Source: National Geographic, 3/04, p 91). From this and anecdotal evidence (I’m living in Santa Monica, CA now — enough said), we will conclude that there is much abbondanza in our fine country. But abundance, a complicated boon like all others, has its side effects. Too much of it can make you ill or just plain kill you. Back to Merriam-Webster:

disease, n. : 1 : a condition of the living animal or plant body or of one of its parts that impairs normal functioning : SICKNESS, MALADY
2 : a harmful development (as in a social institution)

To me, ‘dis-ease’ implies an absence of ease — something absolutely ubiquitous in our hyper-affluent society even under the most cursory scrutiny. Too much food and leisure results in large paunches, sluggish bodies and clogged arteries, antitheses of ease if they ever existed. Traffic, overcrowding, pollution, time pressure, and covetousness compromise mental ease. Affluence means distancing oneself from the ‘real’ preoccupations of sustenance (finding food, shelter, clothing) and instead getting embroiled in monitoring our body fat percentage, following fashion, and losing a month’s salary at the roulette table. It means affliction with diseases like depression, anxiety, bulimia, anorexia and fibromyalgia which did not exist for 99.8% of recorded human history.

Let me make clear that I am not advocating some kind of atavism (although in the old days, the physical requirements of daily sustenance had some stress-relieving effects that desk jobs don’t provide), and Hobbes’ point about ancient man’s life being ‘nasty, brutish and short’ is probably true. Nor am I a fan of austerity — the greatest act of worship is in acknowledging and celebrating the bounty of the earth. However, it would seem that too much of a good thing ceases being a good thing. Affluence can make you sick. Yet, perversely, that same affluence has managed to procure the salves against these maladies — bypass surgery and simvastatin, credit cards and equity loans, psychiatrists and Zoloft — such that we can mollify their symptoms for three quarters of a century before succumbing to the cumulus of decay.

But fret not, my dear readers, for there is a solution. It’s called yoga.

What is cool?

For some reason this popped into my head while dining on pansit, a filipino dish. Perhaps it was something in a Time magazine article on John Kerry, which made me wonder. Now normally these thoughts go unacknowledged and experience their own exponential decay, with no herald of their birth nor record of their demise. But now I have a blog, which is precisely for this kind of fleeting thought-form to have its moment of exposure to retinas not my own. Of course, dear reader, now you get impatient — ‘Which thought, for godssakes?’ Ah yes. I was thinking what constitutes ‘cool’ and ‘coolness’. Such a bandied-about term, and one that at best has a Justice Felix Frankfurter definition to it (“I know it when I see it”). In fact there was a good part of one Simpsons episode devoted to deftly defining ‘cool’ (or at least demonstrating its undefinability). So, in the fine tradition of the reductionist, I will say that coolness is a mix of several components. Tolerance is one of them — to ‘be cool about something’ means that you do not bludgeon it with your judgment. A corollary to that is imperturbability — if you are cool, you tend not to get too riled up, emotional, defensive about things. But the mix of imperturbable and tolerant merely makes for mellow; there must be other factors involved. Edginess and an independent spirit certainly qualify, as does a tendency to care for others (although I would argue altruism is not a requirement of cool, but an adjunct). Talent is good. Egolessness is good, although there are some industrial-strength braggarts out there who love themselves so much, we sometimes find ourselves swept into their world and find them undeniably cool (e.g. Muhammad Ali). I think if I were to pick one characteristic to round out what makes cool, it would be competence. Without manifestation, talent means little and fails to communicate itself. So, until the next revision, here are the x-y-z axes of cool, the Holy Trinity of Tolerance, Imperturbability, and Competence.
Question for follow-up: Which other countries and linguistic traditions have an equivalent word for ‘cool’? How many of them have appropriated it from America? Is ‘cool’ an American concept at its heart?

Masses rejoice: my first blog!

Hey there, boys and girls. I suppose you can now welcome me to the digital age, and to this populist phenomenon called the blog. I’m not quite sure what its purpose is, and I’m even less sure why I signed up for it. But I suppose the self-aggrandizement associated with having a law.harvard.edu blog is just too juicy to resist. I’ve just returned from a class at Yoga Works (led by the infamous Vinnie Marino), and I feel as if my whole body has been pulled through the eye of a needle. Now does that tentatively qualify me for admission to heaven, or do I have to do it all again when I’m rich while riding a camel? All you New Testament scholars out there kindly clarify.

So I would surmise that part of the function of this whole blog thing, besides self-indulgence (duh), is to provide a forum for all the heretofore voiceless individuals to express themselves publicly, sans censorship or fear of reprisal. That’s nice, but taken to its theoretical limit, reading other people’s blogs would require several lifetimes, and so if enough people blog, blogs simply become reduced to fancy electronic diaries that can vanish in the blink of a server that the world can peek into if it had time. It follows that some blogs are more equal than others, and some convergence has to occur as certain prominent blogs get more readership than others (the 80/20 rule again, manifesting itself once again in the context of a network). So, with any luck, my blog will be one of the ignored ones, and my miscellaneous incendiary ramblings will go unnoticed by the objects of my disaffection, and I will have an excuse to exercise the writing muscle, which shall soon become the source of my vast income and impending immortality, hallelujah and amen.

This is already more fun than I thought.
Cheers for now
AB

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