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Thursday, December 31, 2009

Time

...to break out the champagne and sparkling cider... and the snow shovels. We woke up this morning to what sounded like a low-flying jet but was only the friendly neighborhood snow-plow doing the rounds. ('Tis a great advantage to have a township councillor with a house in the neighborhood. All roads get plowed and salted with great alacrity.)
In my favored New Year's eve ritual, I'll be snuggled up in my comforter, soundly asleep as the ball drops down on Times Square and fireworks go off in synchrony.
Happy New Year 2010!

Friday, December 25, 2009

The Death of Santa

It's official. M declared a few days ago "I don't believe in Santa. It's just Amma and Appa getting us gifts."
It's a rite of passage whose time has come. Last year, M chose to postpone the sad event, even as doubts started setting in. Whispered comments from her elder brother. A secret hunt to locate gift-wrapped boxes. But she still wanted to believe that it was a jolly old man in red who dropped in and left the gifts by the tree.
This year, as she snuggled up to me, she asked "What did you get me this year?". I mumbled, "Nothing."
"But what did you get me?", she persisted.
"Go to sleep."
In the morning, she jumped into my bed, strangely mournful. It was bright outside, high time to rise and get my morning cup of coffee. I padded downstairs after brushing my teeth. M decided to go down and read a book while I got breakfast ready for her.
"Aren't you looking at the tree?", I asked with elaborate carelessness. She fairly flew to it.
"Hey, presents! Oh man...why is my present so much smaller than S's? What is it?"
She unravelled the long piece of giftwrap, impatient yet still careful. The box opened to show her a new point-and-shoot camera, something she had wanted for her own for a long while. She ran up to her room, while I put in the batteries and set it up, returning with a little trio of foam hearts, held together with cellotape. "For you, Amma! You're the best!", as she jumped on me with a bear hug.
Santa is dead. Long live Santa!

PS. She woke up S and took photos of him opening his present with her new camera: a cotton candy machine. Much fun was had by all.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Lights On (or Off) Please!

Ours is the only house in the neighborhood without the mandatory Christmas lights strung around the outer contours. We put out assorted tacky stuff for Halloween because the kids have amassed quite a collection. But our 'celebration' of the spirit of the season is restricted to the indoors for other festivals.
Of late, the local display of lights hasn't been quite the same. The culprits are the new LED lights, ranging in color from an ice-cold white to a pestilential deep blue that annoys the senses much more than the old-fangled bulbs and faint yellow undertones of incandescents. These home-owners concur, and are persistent in their attempts to purchase and hoard the old-fashioned types before they are driven off the market by Global Warming Cap-and-Trade emissions agreements.
Which begs the question, why don't we put any lights at all? I could claim a sort of nostalgia for the flickering lights of candles and oil lamps, so much more nuanced, mysterious and beautiful than the unwinking glow of even incandescent bulbs. (The latest innovations at the local temples don't impress, falling as they do into the latter category. Maybe they will look even less appetizing when they make the switch to LED light bulbs.)Never mind the fire hazard.
In India, we used to set out the lamps for Karthigai, not Deepavali in our house. Deepavali was a time for new clothes, crackers and fireworks, but nothing more than a couple of lamps lit. Karthigai was the time when we had rows and rows of lit candles lining the terrace, clay and bronze oil lamps lined up in the front, near the door. Remnant fireworks from Deepavali marked the celebrities, which normally puzzled most of the neighbors who didn't follow our calendar.
But best of all, in my opinion, is the shimmering glow of the moonlight, especially after a fresh snow, when the whole landscape lights up with the reflections. The simple darkness that allows the stars to blaze in all their brilliance, undimmed by the lights of a thousand urban streetlights.
Of late, I've become hypersensitive to the slightest glimmer of light as I fall asleep, surrounded as I am by a gazillion gadgets winking and blinking in red, green and blue. I would use an eye mask to block them out, but it can get claustrophobic under one. Oh, for the soft velvety darkness that cradles me to sleep, circadian rhythms unchanged from a million years of evolution!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Email Nag

Dear S,

This is why...

soda is bad for you.

: New study showing that HCFS or fructose causes problems in people's abilities to metabolize food properly, increasing fat formation and decreasing insulin sensitivity (diabetes precursor).

: List of foods containing HCFS, (see list of pop drinks)

Eat wisely, :-)

Love,
Amma

------------
S was mystified by it and demanded the Cliff's Notes version. I tried to condense it into understandable terms and said "Go back and read the email now."

Tomorrow's the quiz. Let's see how much he scores.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Cool Cat


Meet Rich Kitty (original design by M, handstitched by yours truly, just for the fun of it).
She is owned by the Queen of England and lives a luxurious life. Here, she is portrayed lounging on her favorite chair, with a photo of her playing ball on the wall behind. Note her special black gloves and the bows on her head and tail. They denote her special status as the Queen's kitty. According to M, she is rich, but not spoilt, since she knows that the Queen is vastly more important than her.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Great Hamster Conspiracy

This year's must-have toy is something by the unlikely name of Zhu-Zhu Pet. It's a little semi-robotic hamster with a few different modes, and comes with a host of accessories that involve assorted tubing, running tracks etc. The hamster itself is supposed to retail for about ten dollars, but is currently being 'scalped' for an average of 30 dollars or more from the lucky few early buyers who have managed to corner the market.
Today, being a slow news day, I suppose, the focus was on "Group contends popular Zhu Zhu Pets unsafe". A group called Goodguide.com, brainchild of a professor of environmental sciences, had tested assorted models of the fluffy ones and determined through hand-held X-Ray fluorescence machine readouts, that a couple of tested Zhu Zhu Pets exceeded the permissible safety standards for antimony and tin.
The science behind these XRF devices has been challenged by other manufacturers, and research conducted on XRF results vs. conventional lab results show that the results indeed are closer to the accurate values of the total heavy metal contents, as opposed to the tests used by the manufacturers in their labs, which result in lower detected values because of 'incomplete digestion' of the samples.
Take it from me: I've read through the complete document trail, so you don't have to.
The XRF results are probably reasonably accurate for metals such as lead, mercury, cadmium, total chromium. For antimony and tin, these were considered 'contaminants' in the samples used to establish the results, so there is no clear indicator of how accurate the antimony and tin readings are with respect to conventional lab examination of the same metals.
Should everyone wish to dispose of their hard-found Zhu Zhu pets, I will be happy to "take care" of them for you for a price. Please contact me at fnsatdummyemail.com. ;)

Update:
Alas for my promising plans to start a black market in peddling Mr.Squiggles, Zhu Zhu Pet extraordinaire- the fluffsters have been cleared as safe toys by the federal authorities. Apparently, the XRF method is merely OKed to be a screening test, not an actual accepted test to determine the 'soluble' amounts of heavy metals, which would be of greater concern to your kid who likes to lick and chew on toys than the 'total amounts' determined by the X ray fluorescence method.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Inside a Cult

It's been a while since I provided an investigative reports of any kind. So here it is - an incisive, close look at the inner workings of a demonic cult. The Cult of the Snuggie.
You might have seen the ads on the TV, in unguarded moments, when your defenses are down ( worse than the Steelers in the 2009-2010 season), when it shows smiling people clothed in blue or red strangely soft-looking robes that go on backwards, as they plunk themselves down in front of the TV with books in hand, or popcorn bowls or remotes. It's the blanket that has arms.
I fell prey to this siren song, and found myself gravitating strangely to the piles of blue boxes arranged neatly at the store. This was as I desperately cast about for a gift for my husband's birthday. A voice kept sounding in my head, and I, zombie-like, heeded it and carried the box of the Snuggie to the cash register.
The same voice later instructed me to purchase a Steelers' logoed polo shirt and pants. I suspect that may have been residual Snuggie conditioning in action, and surely has something to do with their so-far lousy and jinxed performance on the field this year.
My husband recoiled in horror at the evidence that I had fallen prey to the cult, and refuses to touch the robe, if he can. It sits gathering dust on a side table, except when S decides to borrow it.
M took one look at it and wanted to try it on, but it was too large for her. I promised to hunt around for the kid version of the robe, the Snuglet. Since I couldn't find one, I walked into the local fabric store, picked up a yard of remnant fleece and found a suitable pattern with which to construct one for her. It took a little bit of creative piecing for the sleeves, but looks and functions perfectly fine.
Yesterday, as I roamed the aisles of the Kmart, I chanced upon a display stand for the Snuggies. Completely empty. The cult of the Snuggie is spreading insidiously. (These were on sale for $9.99, and evidently borne away by the rampaging hordes who stood in line for hours before entering the store in the wee hours of the morning.)

---- (special undersnuggie report from the halls of Snuggiedom by Sujatha)--------

Thursday, November 26, 2009

A Very Turkey Thanksgiving

We had visitors today over for a feast.

A flock of wild turkeys investigated our backyard, munching on the remnants from the bird feeder, while the squirrel cowered on the oak, watching till they left.

Gobble, gobble. Happy Thanksgiving from F-n-S and a gaggle of gorgeous avians!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Food Fad

Actually, that should be Food Network Show fad. Now that the political scene has waned into typical bickering among media outlets over how deep Obama's bow was and should have been or how red Sarah Palin's lipstick is and ought to be, Click goes the remote.

I land and pause at the latest death match on the Food Network channel. It could be the "Challenge" show, three teams of ordinary American families making Thanksgiving meals from scratch, or "The Next Iron Chef", where culinary combatants wield their knives and food processors in an attempt to blitzkrieg their way into Iron Chef status. Or it could be the semi-professorial, semi-wacky mysteries of how to generate syrup, fudge, soft or hard candy or such in 'Good Eats'. The whole family is addicted to these shows now.

Of particular interest is the 'Iron Chef' shows, based on a Japanese original. The presiding person is someone called the Chairman, who barks out commands and waves his arms in windmilly-chop-choppy motions, presumably borrowed from the Japanese version. He is a source of much merriment and entertainment as he presents the chef to the panel of judges "Chef Cora" or "Chef Besh", with a sharp karate chop that barely stops short of the judge's jugular.

Sous-chefs frantically whisk and toss, challengers almost sweat into the sauces as they frantically mix and plate the dishes, barely finishing microseconds before the countdown runs out and they raise their hands in the air "Time's up".

The script is always the same, with excited commentary on the hustle about the 'Kitchen Stadium' :
A visiting chef 'challenges' one out of four or five Iron Chefs and is then presented with the 'secret ingredient' which could be eel, garlic, chives, swordfish, cranberries....the more exotic, the better. The chefs strive to incorporate this ingredient into just about every dish of the four or five course meal they prepare, sometimes resulting in hilarities such as eel ice-cream, steak flavored pudding, etc. And they get roundly basted by the judges for such inappropriate daring as well.

Will the Iron Chef win, or will the challenger? So far, it's been a good bet to assume that the Iron Chef does. Only occasionally does the show veer from script to award the prize to the challenger( which isn't even quite clear...do they get cash, or fame or more Food Network shows?)
That's my perfect idea of relaxing after a busy hour in the kitchen chopping and dicing for dinner- to watch others do the same in high definition TV to feed the viewers' needs for drama.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Conversations with a Bot

I had placed an order for some books at Betterworld.com, which resells old library books and recently asked about the order's delayed arrival. The books arrived yesterday, so I shot off a quick email to let them know.
First reply :

"Hi Sujatha,

This is an automated message to let you know that your message has been received. A Better World Books human will be replying to you shortly.
Thanks for your patience!
Sincerely,

Indaba, the Super-Cool Email Robot"


Next email:

"Hey Sujatha,

We're just checking in to see if you received your order

Miss Happiness Godden
) from Better World Books. If your order hasn't blessed your mailbox just yet, heads are gonna roll in the Mishawaka warehouse! Seriously though, if you haven't received your order or are less than 108.8% satisfied, please reply to this message. Let us know what we can do to flabbergast you with service.

Humbly Yours,

Indaba (our super-cool email robot)"


to which I replied:

"Hi Indaba,

Miss Happiness arrived in good shape and promptly within a few days of shipping. Now, the only thing we are missing is 'Little Peach' ( Just kidding, 'Little Peach' is a little doll that gets left out in the mailing in the story, not real life.)

Are you sure that you are an email robot? I thought robots aren't supposed to have a sense of humor.

--Sujatha


To which I again received:

"Hi Sujatha,

This is an automated message to let you know that your message has been received. A Better World Books human will be replying to you shortly.
Thanks for your patience!
Sincerely,

Indaba, the Super-Cool Email Robot"


-------------------------


I can tell this is going to be a fun correspondence ;)


---------------

From my comments:


Alas, it was a sweet but short relationship. To wit, the final correspondence came just now from Joe at customer service, suitably respectful and impersonal in tone:

"Hi Sujatha,
We appreciate you letting us know that you received your order. We hope that you'll visit BetterworldBooks.com the next time you need something good to read.
If you were happy with our service, please be sure to spread the word among your family and friends.
Happy Reading,

Joe,
Better World Books"
---------------------

Farewell, sweet Indaba!


---------------


Just now, I received another email from Joe, who appears to be an email robot as well. Here's what it said, in response to my email about Miss Happiness.

""Hi Sujatha,
We appreciate you letting us know that you received your order. We hope that you'll visit BetterworldBooks.com the next time you need something good to read.
If you were happy with our service, please be sure to spread the word among your family and friends.
Happy Reading,

Joe,
Better World Books"


I'm mad! I want my Indaba back. So I have now sent them this email in response:

"Where did Indaba vanish? I want Indaba!

--Sujatha"


Maybe Indaba will now reply....I'll keep you posted.

---

Sure enough, Indaba is back!

"Hi Sujatha,

This is an automated message to let you know that your message has been received. A Better World Books human will be replying to you shortly.
Thanks for your patience!
Sincerely,

Indaba, the Super-Cool Email Robot"


Ad...infinitum...


Or, not.

"Dear Sujatha,

Don't worry, Indaba hasn't vanished. He's just on vacation... to Bermuda, I think. He returns every time you order a book through Better World Books.
Sincerely,
Joe
Better World Books "

So Indaba must have been emailing me from Bermuda. Wow, talk about a work ethic!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Secret Ingredient

that will deter the squirrels and the chipmunks that had been monopolizing the new bird feeder.

Good old chili powder.

After much soul-searching, I mixed up a batch of mixed bird seed with chili powder and shook it around so most of them were well coated, poured it in the bird feeder, went back inside the house and watched the squirrel march right up expectantly to its much-anticipated feast. Two sniffs and one scratchy second later, the squirrel scampered down the railing and proceeded to bury its nose in the dewy grass, presumably in hopes of washing off the offending chili powder.

The chipmunk watched this from a distance and merely stayed away from the feeder, which had definitely offered it a very convenient perch a day before.

Today, the bird feeder is empty, after having hosted assorted cardinals, sparrows, chickadees, wrens, nuthatches, and titmouses. No sign of the squirrel.

M was upset:"Why did you put chili powder in the birdseed? Poor squirrel and chipmunks! They will go hungry."
"They had the seed in the feeder from the day before, the birds hardly got anything that day," I protested.
"Won't it hurt the birds, if the squirrel doesn't like it?"
"Don't be silly, it doesn't hurt our tummies, how will it hurt the birds? In fact, it wouldn't hurt the squirrels' tummies, either. The squirrels don't like it because the powder irritates their skin, and will keep away because of it."
M was dissatisfied, until I promised to alternate the chili-laced birdseed with normal birdseed, just to permit the squirrel and chipmunks treats on alternate days. That is, if they ever try to come back for more.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Return of the Prodigal Bird Feeder

The bird feeder that I bought earlier this year as a guaranteed squirrel-stumper has hung empty for several months. I had no interest in converting the deck into a squirrel spa. Every now and then, a sad sparrow or chickadee would stop by and frantically check the empty bird feeder, flying away in disappointment. The cardinals disdained this feeder, being unable to perch and eat in comfort on the wiry mesh surrounding the feeding port.The only regular attendees would stop by to drink some rain water from the bird bath and refresh themselves with the occasional ablution.
As I stopped by the Home Depot for yet another dozen leaf bags, I caught sight of a bird feeder with standard perches and a sort of small seed platform at the base. This was in metal, with a copper finish.Hmmm...my major problem with the earlier feeders of this type had been that the squirrel would lean on the perch, and eventually rip out the plastic perch, causing a large hole in the feeder that made it useless. Maybe this would do the trick. At about $20, it was four times the price of the ordinary plastic ones, but could possibly withstand the squirrel leaning on it with all her might.
The now-refilled feeder sat outside untouched for about 2 days, looking disappointingly full.
Yesterday, finally, I saw a chickadee perch on it for a few bites, then moving to a nearby branch and singing out 'Food's here, chick-a-dee-dee-dee-dee-dee!" for five minutes before flying away.
A little later, a female cardinal perched on the lower platform comfortably, picking away at the seeds. A couple of sparrows watched, sitting on the deck railing, as they waited for a turn.
The next day, the squirrel was back, leaning on the platform, carefully picking what she wanted off it, from the spilled out seeds. She paid no attention to the faces and noises I made behind the window, leisurely ate a few sunflower and cracked corn seeds, sipped some rainwater and took off into the yard.
Today is day 4, and the bird feeder still looks about 2/3 full. I'm hopeful that this one will survive the squirrels and get through more than a few winters, at this rate.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Another Contagious Virus

I got mine from Kochuthresiamma (Pareltank), who evidently caught hers from Lekhni, who caught hers from Shefaly... and so on down the line.
This is the 'Blogthemitis' virus. I remember looking at all those new themes and thinking my blues were too blue for comfort, my fluffy clouds too bright and decided to try out a new theme. This theme is the blogger theme 'Mr. Moto' ( and yes, I refuse to pick Mrs.Moto because it's all pink in a shade that I can't abide.)
I was tempted to mess around with other templates on blogcrowds.com, but succumbed to the easy way out of picking an existing Blogger template, just so that I didn't have to lose all my little lists and widgets.
That's a project for the winter months, and a new look to be unveiled in the spring, when the next bout of Blogthemitis strikes.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Costume Quandaries

M: "I want to be a mouse this year. I'll wear the grey sweatpant and sweatshirt from last year's 'animal concert'( She was an elephant, with a small paper mask). I'll make up a hairband with mouse ears and go around as a mouse."
She was a black cat with black turtleneck/pants/tail/purchased glittery cat-ear hairband, last year.
A butterfly with wings and matching antennae-like headbands the year before.
I still haven't been able to persuade her to go as a '50's girl, bright pink jacket, poodle skirt and all, a costume still sitting in the closet from one her first grade school dance shows.
So, I hightail it to the local JoAnn Fabrics store, hoping against hope that the 'mouse/rat mask with headband and tail' combo is still there and now on sale, discounted at least 50%. It is.
I gleefully hand over 5 dollars for the set (original price 12.99, though I fail to see if anyone might have been insane enough to buy it at that price.)
M tries on the headband. It consists of a pair of pink centred ears with grey plush backing, grey plush all over the band and a grey plush strip running down in front, with black felt nose and nylon whiskers.(See pic) But the positioning is wrong, covering up good part of her eyes and extending too far down for comfort.
"Never mind, you can wear it just at the school parade", I suggest.
M:"No, they don't allow masks at school."
Me: "But this isn't a mask that covers your face!"
M pouted. "I like the ears, not the funny thing in front."
Sighing, I give in, pulling out a pair of scissors and carefully trimming away the offending feature. It's now a plain headband with grey/pink plush ears.
This evening, I will walk her around the neighborhood, while her brother has finally tired of the Halloween hoopla and decided to play it cool this year.
He will be sprawling in front of the TV, all legs, with bowlfuls of chips scattered around strategically, watching "The Sixth Sense" DVD.
No more costumes and 'Trick or treat' for him. No more aluminium foil robots, no clowns, Grim Reapers, Darth Mauls, Harry Potters or Invisible Man. All the costumes of yesteryear have gone to the thrift store donation bags, except for the robot, which sits high up on a garage shelf.
S is too sentimental to get rid of that one.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Phyllophobia

Not a fear of phyllo pastry, but an excessive fear of leaves. I think my husband has it in severe form. It's the ailment of the month, when our maples and oaks start shedding copiously, even as they look spectacular in their orange pinks, golden yellows and brown orange tones.
" We need sponsors for the trees, to rake and bag their leaves, otherwise I'm going to look for a tree-service to come and cut them down", my husband announced in high dudgeon.
"Why, when we have been doing the leaves every year for the last ten years or more?", I ask, baffled by this sudden declaration.
"I'm just fed up with it this year!"
And so we are out bagging leaves like our lives depend upon it...or at least the trees' lives.
We have already gotten up to bag # 30, as we finish up under the yellow maple. And yet, with all this hyper-efficient timesharing arrangement that I've worked out this year with S, my husband still moans "There's still leaves under the oak. You have to get those out of the way!" Now, the oak in question is on the far end of our lot, and is scheduled for a major leaf drop only a week from now. I see no reason to expend my efforts on the grass near it just yet.
If it was me doing the complaining, one might have called it 'bitching', but since it isn't, I'll just call it 'emotional blackmail' of sorts, and complain about it in this post;)

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Another Personal Tag

To all desi readers : Happy Diwali!
---------------------------------------------
Via Remya:

1. When you looked at yourself in the mirror today, what was the first thing you thought?
Need to dye the front hairs again.

2. How much cash do you have in your wallet right now?

$100.

3. What’s a word that rhymes with DOOR?
Bore, core, fore, four, gore,hoar, lore, more, pore, roar,sore, snore,spore,store,tore,wore,yore...and how could I forget, as a Winnie the Pooh fan...Eeyore?!

4. Who is the 4th person on your missed call list on your cell phone?
Do I have a Missed call list? My cell phone is strictly for emergencies only, so nobody really uses it, even me.

5. What is your favorite ring tone on your phone?
The standard Tmobile ring. That makes me different from all those moms at dance class who have assorted tunes, and makes it that much easier for me to figure out that it's my phone ringing, if it rings at all.

(BTW, who started this tag, a Sprint or Tmobile PR person?-too many cellphone related queries!)

6. What are you wearing right now?
Pink fleece top and plaid pyjamas.

7. Do you label yourself?
All the time. But the labels change every few hours or so.

8. Name the brand of the shoes you’re currently own?
Dockers and Reeboks.

9. Bright or Dark Room?
Bright.

10. What do you think about the person who took this survey before you?
New Kid on the Block.

11. What does your watch look like?
gold and silver bracelet type. no-nonsense dial.

12. What were you doing at midnight last night?
Sleeping.

13.What did your last text message you received on your cell say?
"Your TMobile balance is about to expire. To refill, blah blah blah...."

14. What’s a word that you say a lot?
Hullo. ( My coworkers have learnt to dread hearing this. It means that I'm about to plague them again with questions which don't have easy answers.)

I'm trying to wean my 4th grader from constantly using 'like' all the time, but I fear I'm on the losing side of the battle.

15. Who told you he/she loved you last?(please exclude spouse , family, children)
Since we are excluding spouse, family and children, I would have to go with Timmy the cat (at my friend's house.) He purred and rubbed himself on my leg the last time I was there, and that's the feline "I Love You".

16. Last furry thing you touched?
See above.

17. Favorite age you have been so far?
40

18. What was the last thing you said to someone?
Go to sleep. To my daughter.

19. The last song you listened to?

"Varamonru thandarulvai"- raagam Shanmukhapriya, Aadi taalam, sung by Maharajapuram Santhanam.

20. Where did you live in 1987?
Kerala

21. Are you jealous of anyone?
Not any more.

22. Is anyone jealous of you?
Don't know, don't care, either.

23. Name three things that you have on you at all times?
spectacles, small hair band, earrings.


24. What’s your favorite town/city?
No particular favorites.

25. When was the last time you wrote a letter to someone on paper and mailed it?

It's been a while since I wrote anything other than checks...I might have last written a proper snail mail letter about 10 years ago.

26. Can you change the oil on a car?
No, why bother when that's what service stations exist for.

27. Your first love/big crush: what is the last thing you heard about him/her?
crush :- Never heard anything - was a stranger.

28. Does anything hurt on your body right now?
Incipient headache, likely sinus related. Must get up now and take medication to ward it off.

29. What is your current desktop picture?
Icebergs by a lakeshore (Windows 7 Nature backgrounds)

30. Have you been burnt by love?
No. I've had it easy.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Target Moon, Meteor Showers and Stardust

'We're bombing the moon!'
'Come attend the party', to paraphrase the Nasa blurb inviting the general public to the LCROSS Impact Night festivities. (Free admission, limited tent space, Please bring your own Blankets, Chairs, and Snacks.)
And so the crowds gathered to watch what was projected to be a spectacular 6 kilometer high array of plumes at the point of impact, as the NASA LCROSS mission crashed into the lunar crater, in a bid to search for water.
Wait, I thought India's Chandrayaan mission had already produced data indicating that there was ample water (not the H2O variety, but a similar chemical composition termed Hydroxyls, from which water as we know it could be generated for consumption by Lunonauts of the future.) But,but, what about all the money we have spent on the LCROSS? How can NASA let that money go waste. Bombs away!
Any way, we now have proof that there was indeed an impact, no magical vaporization of the incoming object by a hidden race of lunartics, who have lived hitherto undiscovered, peacefully, all these millenia:)
(The picture of the thermal image on impact is from the NASA website.- Seems like a wash in terms of actual difference in the 'before' and 'after' pictures. One almost needs to crunch the numbers on the pixel distribution before determining there was a significant increase in heating of the lunar surface after impact, rather than a clear visual indication of difference.)

It reminds me of a much-hyped 'spectacular shower of Leonids' that was mentioned in a large newspaper article, way back when I had first come to the US. My husband and I set out, along with another astronomically-inclined friend, to a large park to the north of Pittsburgh, hoping for the requisite dark skies to see the spectacle. We waited, scanning the patch of black sky just above, eager for a sight of multiple flashes of twinkling light.
"There's a shooting star!" I pointed out a single moving flash. About 5 minutes later, "There's another." About 10 minutes later "I saw two flashes!" And so it went on, for another half hour, till we realized that the 'spectacle' wasn't really forthcoming, just isolated flashes every 5-10 minutes or so.Plus, I was freezing. So we packed up and trudged back to the parking lot, determined to let no more hyping articles entice us into doing this again.
Every year, like clockwork, the obligatory article shows up in the newspaper (maybe they even recycle the article, with changed dates and such), trumpeting breathlessly that a 'grand spectacle awaits all those who dare to venture out after dark'. We smile at these and stay firmly indoors.

Work on the Stardust mission goes on,long after the main mission of collecting dust from comet Wild 2 is done . The NASA press release highlights that glycine, one of the building blocks of life, was discovered in the comet. But on a side, more 'dusting' of the results are still being done by a mini-army of avid 'stardust' hunters assembled over the internet. I'm one of them, and love to skim over the Virtual Microscope pictures, trying to identify candidate tracks of possible interstellar dust particles.
The ultimate reward would be to be the first to identify one such particle, in which you get to name the particle (Hmm....should I name it after my kids, a compounded Sanskrit version of Stardust, or maybe after a deity ...Talk about counting chickens before they are hatched!)
For now, I'm happy enough to make it to the top 500 of the 27,000-odd members of the 'dusting crew'. The interest has dropped off since the first phase got over last year, with candidates identified, extracted and examined. Unfortunately, none of them were of extraterrestrial origin, so the search still continues.
I use it as a sort of soothing activity, when I feel the need for a quiet break between the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Maybe, I'll even get into the top 100 list, which at least qualify for a mention on a webpage ;)

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

A Tag with a Mission




The above web video is an effort to raise public funding for Dr. Sudhir Paul's further research into a promising approach towards a true HIV vaccine. He is the husband of my friend and co-blogger Ruchira Paul ( Accidental Blogger).

-----Cut and paste below while passing the Tag ---------------

Mission Anti-HIV

As Dr. Paul says in this video, the 'abzyme' approach to attacking the virus at the special weak point could pave the way to developing a low-cost and highly effective approach to attacking the HIV virus, and in the long run, other deadly or debilitating viruses. (More information is available at the website for the Covalent Immunology Foundation.)

Rather than just rely on funds from mega-pharmaceutical companies, the foundation is making an appeal to the general public to contribute small amounts of money, believing that the power of the numbers on the internet can help finance this research and pave the way to a lower-cost vaccine than can be generated via corporate funding alone.

The results of the Thai AIDS vaccine trials have been much trumpeted in the news media, even if it helped only 23 less people get full-blown AIDS in the experimental group with the placebo group, with a grand total of 16000 people in the trial. However, doubts are beginning to set in on whether those results might be purely statistical in nature, rather than a real breakthrough.
Dr.Paul's approach could very well be one of the more promising current modes of attack against the HIV virus.

So, I'm tagging you, my friends in the blogosphere, if you are convinced, to please consider passing on the above information via your blog, and to tag five others in turn, so this can spread like...well, a virus.

Lekhni
Sujatha @ Blogpourri
Kochuthresiamma @ Pareltank
Usha @ AgelessBonding
Amit
Jenn@OfCabbages&Kings - I know your's is a humor blog, but some things are worth risking the occasional serious post, such as fighting HIV ;)

Note:
(Use the Youtube URL ::http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wBYn3gibgt0&NR=1), as an embedded object, if possible.)


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Update:

Another video that shows the precise mechanism behind the 'abzyme' approach in greater detail:


Monday, October 5, 2009

The Love of an Old Book

It was a small volume tossed carelessly in with the rest of the frayed spines on the Public Library bookshelf. "Love of Seven Dolls" by Paul Gallico.
He was one of my favorite authors as a teen, and this was one book that intrigued me, with a faded rendition of a full-skirted girl looking at what appeared to be a puppet show on the cover.
I borrowed it frequently, whenever I felt the urge, over the next several years. I must have been the only person in the city who took out that particular book, judging from my ability to always locate it on the shelf, whenever I wanted it.
The years passed, but it remained one of the books seared in my memory, even though the story, in retrospect, doesn't seem that remarkable now. On a rereading, some of the story seems rather dated, but the charm of the main plot still shines through.
After much deliberation, I decided to see if I could locate a new copy of it for my home library. It was out of print, only available through second-hand book sellers. So I turned to the likes of abebooks.com and alibris.com and placed an order for the least expensive hard-bound edition I could find.
The book arrived, among others that I had ordered at the same time. This had a faux leather cover, with the name of the book and the mysterious legend ALYCE PEKORS at the bottom right.
I couldn't resist checking for the name on Google. And, the history of this particular carefully-preserved copy fell in place.
The original owner of this book was Miss Alyce Pekors, the longest serving US civil servant in Singapore, who died in Michigan last November.
From a newsletter with a memorial article:
"Of course, much of the details of her “working” life prior to taking the administrative role with the Navy in Singapore were never discussed among her many friends. She brushed off enquiries with Lauren Bacall like aplomb. By her very nature, she was reminiscent of an interesting earlier era.
Whether it was her Isadora Duncan impersonation as she drove her vintage MG around town (of course, it wasn’t vintage when she first bought it), or her Givenchy and pearls Audrey Hepburn look when she entertained, Alyce was always one classy lady."
She must have loved the book very much to have taken pains to have the original paperback replaced by a custom hard-binding.
Now the book sits on my shelf, bringing with it a whiff of the chequered life of the one who owned it before me. We are strangely bound across space and time, through this slim black volume with gold lettering.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Past Meets Present - II

We entered the Metro station near Tati and headed towards line 10. No newfangled sleek trains here, unlike line 1. The trains were older, more rattley, without the completely automatic doors.You had to physically push the handles to trigger the opening. It made for a few anxious moments when the door wouldn't respond. Would we be swept away to the next station before we knew it?
But the names that flashed by as the train raced on looked more and more familiar : Issy-les-Moulineaux, Michel-Ange Auteuil, Passy, Michel-Ange Molitor, Porte d'Auteuil. That's where the line would have stopped, 30 years ago. It now had two more stations beyond, and the one at Jean-Jaurès was our stop.
We stepped out into the sunlight at the street corner. I was dazzled, and dazed. So many buildings, sharp corners, angled facades that couldn't possibly house apartments. I recalled none of this. Worse, we were lost in an area of Paris that I had convinced my family that I 'knew very well'. I probably knew it very well, but only if I could walk around on my knees to bring myself to kid-size again.
Taking a chance, I said "Let's go this way." as the kids and my husband grumpily tagged behind. A restaurant "Le Relais" sat on the corner. I crossed the road and entered to ask for directions to the only intersection I could recall from having the blessed foresight to check on the Google street view "Rue de Paris". The gentleman told me to walk straight ahead for about 5-10 minutes and make a right.
"Are you sure this is the way?" my husband asked, "Maybe you should check at that market too", about 5 minutes of walking later. I entered the crammed 'Alimentation' and tried to get the attention the cashier who ignored my hopeful expression and continued to chat with the beefy customer ahead of me. He went off to the back of the store in search of something. Now only the customer was left and I tried a hopeful query "Rue de Paris?"- met with a Gallic shrug and "Sorry, I don't know".
"Must not be a local", I muttered to myself as I walked back.
"He probably didn't understand you. You mumble too much, you should speak louder."
"Since when does yelling help them understand you better?", I shot back, exasperated. At this rate, we might spend the next couple of hours going round in circles. So much for my grand plan of seeing the old apartment complex I had lived in.
Then, I saw the sign "Rue de Paris" and yelped in delight. "Here it is, just like the restaurant owner said".
So we took the right turn and continued down for a little bit till we came to a most familiar board "Residence Arc-en-ciel" (The Rainbow Homes)
"This, I remember". It was the side entrance, so we continued to the front, and there it was, looking just the same as I remembered from 30 years ago.
We entered the gate and the kids jumped around in glee. "Is this where you used to live?"
"Yes, and those are the paths that I used to bike around too."
"Are you sure this building is 40 years old? It looks too modern."
"It's definitely the same building that I remember, with some new things- steel shutters on the sliding windows on the lower floors, I don't recall those. Let's walk behind. Our apartment was on that side, maybe the 3rd or 4th floor."
We followed the winding path that I had biked on practically everyday while we lived there. A solitary orange cat sunned itself in the lawn. M and S caught sight of a low circular wall around some gravel and jumped up on it, running around in a game of tag.
It seemed faintly surreal that they would repeat something that I recall doing occasionally, with the few other kids that were my playmates. But then, kids are kids no matter what their background and the innate ability to enjoy the moment far outweighs any sense of awe and solemnity that adults might try to impose on them.
"I don't recall that", I said, pointing at a huge apartment complex to the north. "That must have been built after we moved."
"But that looks older than your complex", my husband persisted in trying to prove my memory was more fallible than I thought.
"No, I'm pretty sure that wasn't there." It took checking with my mother later to confirm that I was indeed right. There had been no building on that side at the time. Perhaps it was the shadows cast by the building that had seem out of sync with my image of the garden. I remembered a brighter, much sunnier play area than what we saw that day in the Parisian suburbs.
A few photographs later, it was time to get back to the metro and the hotel. But before that we decided to stop for a very late lunch, heading for 'Le Relais' where I had stopped to ask for directions.
The owner was very friendly and patient, while we pored over the menu (Steak this and veal that, nobody felt like trying anything on the menu) We settled for the everlasting 'salade-vert and frites' ( salad of greens and French fries).
I decided to pay a visit to the toilet and headed through the door to find what looked like a broom closet with a tinier door just beyond. It looked as though I had jumped back in time by a couple of centuries, judging from the old-fashioned hinges on the door. I opened it to find:

A squat toilet!

A pink nose and couple of beady eyes peering up at me from the hole!!

A rat, that promptly dived back into the hole on seeing me!!!

I shut the door, took a deep breath to preempt any scream, and quickly marched back to the table.
"You'll never guess what I saw", I announced.
"What, what?" begged M and S.
"A rat in the toilet."
"Ewwww....."
"Maybe it was Ratatouille, coming to take a look", an impish suggestion from my husband.
We laughed rather hollowly in unison, hurriedly finished our repast and headed eagerly for the exit after paying our bill.
(A thing about restaurants in Paris is that they are never in a hurry to bring you your bill, unlike the American ones, where the bill is brought so promptly at times that you may still be only half-way through your meal. In Paris, asking for 'l'addition' appears to be akin to pulling the teeth of the waiter, something to be put off till the last painful minute.)
In this case, we stepped up to the counter near the bar to collect and pay our bill,. No doubt the extra alacrity had something to do with my encounter with 'Ratatouille'.
And with a click, the faint odor that I associated with Paris fell in place. It was 'Eau de Rat Mort', or 'dead-rat'. With the maze of metros and underground sewers more than a few centuries old, it was probably a fact of life in Paris that I had never quite registered before. Now I knew.
I also now knew how those ladies in the bouffant wigs and panniered skirts managed their privies without tripping over their skirts. No doubt, they had to contend with the be-whiskered intruders more often then not and didn't reach promptly for their smelling salts each time. Or maybe that's why they switched to chamber pots.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Past meets Present-I

It was the last day of our recent stay in Paris. We had climbed the steps to the Sacré-Coeur basilica and back down, started walking back to the metro station, when I spotted a man saunter by, dangling a pink and blue plastic bag in his hand, emblazoned 'Tati'.
"That's where Amma used to bring me sometimes for shopping!", I exclaimed. My husband stopped and looked at M and S. 'Shall we walk to Tati and see what it's like?'
"Yes, yes!" chimed S, who is normally quite allergic to shops. He must have been addled by the ice-cream to agree so soon to such an enterprise.
We walked down the road,past the store fronts overflowing with draperies,yards of poplin and muslin practically spilling over into the sidewalk ,turned the corner. et voila 'TATI'!
We entered the store with much anticipation, and I was mildly disappointed to see a huge banner saying everything was 50% off the marked price. The store didn't seem to be how I remembered it. My memory was of a narrow hall with a large counter down its length, salesmen pulling down items on one side and customers on the other, rummaging through the piles of clothing.
The store we walked into was organized in aisles and shelves, bearing all the hallmarks of the typical 'dollar store' and filled with cheap Chinese and Taiwanese goods. Tati must have changed their merchandise over the thirty years since I had last seen it.
For old times sake, I picked up a couple of knicknacks and stood in the queue for the cash register. The lady in line ahead of me asked me to hold her place for a moment while she dashed off for some forgotten essential, smiling cheerily as I let her back in place.
I took the opportunity to ask her whether Tati had always had been like this, since I didn't remember the dollar-store ambiance from 30 years back. She insisted 'This has always been there.' So much for 'infallible memories', I thought.
We stepped out and glanced at the bins overflowing with more merchandise and I suddenly saw why my memory had played tricks on me. Or not. There was a now-empty section of the store, bare to the walls, with a narrow hall that could have hosted a counter and with empty shelving on one side...
Tati was getting ready for a major makeover, promised to reopen 5 weeks later. They had completely cleared out the merchandise in the clothing section, which is the part I had seen as a child with my mother.
That's how I got the bag with the famed logo with a couple of photo display stands and power strips to carry home to my mother, as a souvenir of the future from the past, all for the truly tati-price of 5.15 euros.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Time for another Bookish Post

Inspired by punarjanman's list (Via Blogpourri):

I most definitely remember, not the Chalet School stories, but the Maids of La Rochelle books. There is something very appealing about leaving your hot, humid country, as I subconsciously imagined myself doing, and going off to live on a windswept craggy island with an exotic name like Guernsey, where people speak a variant of English that bears more resemblance to French than the language as we know it.

And then, I remembered a book about a horse. Not Black Beauty, though that must have started it all, but a story about a moonlight pale, silver horse, so silent that he slipped through the mists, evading all men who tried to capture him on the Australian highlands: The Silver Brumby series, by Elyne Mitchell (available only second-hand now, sometimes at exhorbitant prices. I ordered my copies, which will be M's, from alibris.com)
Eva Ibbotson's delightful "Which Witch", and her other 'The Secret of Platform 13', and 'The Beasts of Clawstone Castle'. The latter was inspired by real beasts, the Chillingham cattle, who are as gorgeous as they sound (see pic.). M adored these (books,not beasts!) and gobbled them up in short order.

Despite the fame accorded to his Paddington books, about the bear from the deepest darkest recesses of Peru, but a very English sensibility, my favorite Michael Bond book remains "Thursday in Paris", about an enterprising mouse family that is on a grand trip to a Mouse Cheese exposition at Les Halles, Paris, and run into trouble with an Irish-Chinese mafioso by the unlikely name of Shamus O'Wong- 'At your service', he says with a sweeping wave of the paw, Irish and Chinese brogue evident in his speech. There is a whole series about young Thursday and his family, but the one above is the only one that I've read, and loved.

The Narnia series is now much talked about, now that Hollywood has made it into a movie series, complete with glitzy computer effects and pitch-perfect casting. But the only book I enjoyed without reservation in the series was the curious little standalone "The Horse and His Boy". Never mind the faintly racist overtones of having an obviously light-skinned kid enslaved by a rather Mid-eastern sounding crowd ( echoing the Crusades, perhaps?)- I was oblivious to all those echoes of history that become obvious to the older reader, and thoroughly identified and enjoyed the antics of Shasta and his horse ( or rather the Horse and his Shasta.)

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Vignette

We sit idling in the traffic. The intersection is jammed, and it is definitely going to take more than 10 minutes to clear. The lurid mix of diesel and petrol fumes outside leaves us unaffected, no more than a faint dribble through the air-conditioned air of the car.
Outside, a woman in a black cotton veil picked over with tiny embroidered mirrors in red makes her way past the cars. She is dressed in a colorful patchwork blouse and skirt, balancing a tousle-haired toddler on her hip and waving a pair of crossed over miniature Indian flags at the stalled traffic. She glances hopefully at us and turns away in a split-second recognition of our disinterest.
On the other side, a man in a polyester shirt with buttons missing, unidentifiable colored pant is criss-crossing the road between vehicles, waving the same type of flag. Again, no takers.
Ten minutes later, the car slowly inches into the intersection, and it finally picks up speed, I catch a last glimpse of the black-veiled lady. She is seated comfortably on the median, her toddler flat on his back, legs waving in the air. She is doing what all mothers do with their babies, sharing a moment of glee and happy gurgles, oblivious to the speeding traffic on either side.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Golconda

The taxi winds around the narrow maze of roads leading up to the fort. It's a very democratic cross-section of the population that lines up to enter the grounds: at Rs.10 per ticket, this is a poor man's park, not just the haunt of the well-heeled. The lawns near the entrance are surprisingly green, well-watered even as an extended dry spell has been hovering over the city and suburbs. But further inside, the parterres look parched and dusty red.
(The photo above is by A.Gopalratnam)
As we climb the steps, we dip off to the side, under the erstwhile stables/bodyguard barracks. At the far end, a couple of cauldrons are cooking and a largish group of picnickers are seated in a row, partaking of the feast. (Is that the famed Hyderabadi biryani that I smell?)
We pass on, further up the steps to the main fort. A couple are marked with what I suspect to be red and yellow paint- it's too bright to be kumkum and turmeric. I wonder why, until a few steps later we are treated to the unexpected spectacle of a man cutting the head off a white rooster in front of a small make-shift altar at the step. Maybe a sacrifice to the goddess Jagadamba, who has a temple, even in this fort which was last controlled by the Muslim Qutb Shahi dynasty.
My kids and friends are shocked by the blood spilling out onto the step, and walk gingerly around the altar and rooster head, bemoaning the barbarianism. The man carefully washes the blood from the steps, and walks quickly away, clutching the rooster's body, that likely will be cooked as part of the Bonalu festival.
We stop the walk to the top of the hill, and retrace our steps towards another area where a Light and Sound show will be held. This is for the bonafide wealthier tourists, cost Rs.100 for an ordinary ticket and double that for the VIP Executive class ticket, which comes with free soft drinks. The path to the seats is fraught with the perils of Bat-smell and Bat-droppings, echoes from the cliff-swallows swooping around the cavernous ceilings, as we wait in line for the security queue. A uniformed policewoman diligently peeks into our handbags before nodding us in.
As we swelter in the last rays of the setting sun, batting mosquitoes and ticks away in vain, a couple of scrawny cats rush towards the nearby garbage can, disappearing almost entirely inside as they rummage for leftovers.
A squeal from the loudspeakers, and then a booming voice announces the start of the show. It is a well-written and re-enacted history of the occupants of the fort, starting with the Kakatiya kings who built it, to the Qutb Shahi rulers who maintained the longest control over it, tales of kings and singers and lovers and saints, all wiped away in the final blast of war for control of the fabled fort. The Golconda is impregnable to all onslaughts but that of treachery. The lighting is wonderfully synced with the stirring narration and dialogues.
The audience is alternately captivated by the narration, or nodding off when the too-long musical interludes commence.(I'm sure they must have paid the singers handsomely for their efforts, but that doesn't necessarily mean that the whole songs be played in their 6 -or-8-stanza entirety!)
We escape during the final soulful paean to the glories of the Telugu people, just minutes before the remaining mass of the audience tries to ooze through the narrow pathway back, through the Bat-zone.
Walking outside the fort towards the taxi, squeals of horror from the kids punctuate our path: We have just managed to step on masses of teeming cockroaches that are out for the evening's dinner, congregating in the manholes.
The verdict from the kids: Unmitigated disaster of an excursion, since they didn't like the sacrificial rooster, or the bat-smells or the cockroaches.
My verdict: A reminder that beyond all the tourist trappings, there is still an underlying India that is worth seeing in all its glory and squalor.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Racing through the Louvre

From the New York Times a few weeks ago:

"Spending an idle morning watching people look at art is hardly a scientific experiment, but it rekindles a perennial question: What exactly are we looking for when we roam as tourists around museums? As with so many things right in front of us, the answer may be no less useful for being familiar."

Why indeed do we wander around museums? Is it the age-old quest for finding ourselves in our past, the thirst for knowledge? Or the window-shopper and street-gawker's instinct? Is it less about stopping and staring and more about bragging rights as in "I visited the Louvre, when we were last in Paris." Or maybe a combination of 'All of the Above"?
As a kid in Paris, I had been taken to various sections of the Louvre for school field trips, spending a few hours once in the Egyptian section, and another visit in the Greek section, but remember very little of what are considered to be its main attractions. This recent visit was an all new-experience for me, only reminding me that it was perhaps at the Louvre that I acquired my taste for museum-hopping no matter where we went.

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Ah, the Louvre! The perfect place to loiter leisurely, gazing at John the Baptist's all-knowing smile, or perchance the mysterious magnificence of the Mona Lisa.That is, until the hordes of tourists and tour guides waving flags, assorted brochures and even umbrellas to keep their groups together, all trample over you in their eagerness to see the next item on the 'Da Vinci Code' tour.
The Monna Lisa was unreachable. A special line of the devoted faithful had to be stood in and endured, before you were able to partake of her timeless gaze at closer quarters. We settled for the 'distant darshan'. Even hoisting M onto her dad's shoulders and placing a camera in her tiny fingers elicited an indignant "Not allowed" from a museum security official doing due diligence.
Never mind, the huge painting of the Wedding Feast at Cana (Veronese) on the opposite side was quite a show-stopper, though precious few of the crowds milling around the Gioconda paid any attention to it.
With over 35,000 paintings and antiquities, we could have spent an entire month in the museum, but having only a day, we could only spent a paltry few minutes in each section, catching the 'highlighted items' suggested in the museum's brochure.
Then, we decided to linger in certain places, not quite the stuff of tourist lore, but quite fantastic nevertheless. The Persian section was eye-popping, with its huge capitals that took up so much room that one could barely imagine the size of the pillar that supported it.
A small crowd was milling around a rock edict which bore the Code of Hammurabi, with a prominently displayed French translation nearby- 'for X, off with the hand... for Y, off with the leg... for Z, off with the head..."- I mentioned it to S: "It's the Off-with-his-head school of justice", as an eavesdropping tourist nearby snickered in agreement.
The sculpture courtyard adjoining the Persian section was a relatively quiet place to recuperate from the milling crowds jostling to pose with the Winged Victory. I sat behind a statue of Hercules battling a gigantic snake , though not at a good vantage point (read, treated to a prominent view of the Derriere). I was reduced to sneaking peeks at the red charcoal drawing of the statue, which an art student was working on, right next to me. She had time to spare, tracing every contour with careful concentration, but tiring presently of her drawing, whipped out a cellphone and started a quiet conversation with a friend. So much for the slow version of museum enjoyment in the era of the cellphone.
M wanted a drink of water, and the quest for a water fountain began in earnest. But the Louvre, being a palace more than a few centuries old, didn't have the requisite plumbing to handle the thirst of the trampling hordes, unlike the new-fangled shiny restroomed and water-fountained American museums. We waited in line desperately at the entrance to a crowded café, and 15 minutes after we made it in, the bored-looking waiter finally brought a tiny cup of cappucino (10 Euros! Eeek!) and a bottle of Evian (3 Euros! Eeek-squared!). Next time we visited a Musée, we resolved to carry our own water, even if it was in a distinctly unfashionable recycled Fanta bottle.
The famed glass Pyramid was but a snatched glimpse through the windows of various wings, as we gaped our way through the luxurious apartments of Napoleon III. Then we redoubled our walk through the section of European painters, catching a few famous Rembrandt self-portraits in the process.
How did we manage to spend the better part of a day in a museum with M and S, notoriously allergic to museums? S didn't complain much, having succumbed quite happily to the touristy notion of 'catching all the highlights' in the brochures. M was anointed the official photographer and religiously clicking away at everything in sight. Unfortunately, we only have a handful of usable pictures from her collection, but the camera was worth its price in gold, for the peace of mind and busyness of M that it brought.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Back After a Long Trip

Apologies for the infrequent posting over the last few weeks. I just got back yesterday from a long trip to India, with a brief halt in Paris, as you may have noticed.

I will be back soon with little snippets and vignettes from the trip.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Shoes, Scarves, 'Spik Inglish?'

The first thought that struck me as I wheeled the cabin luggage off the escalator in the Paris airport, was : "They probably know we are Americans from our horrendous sneakers."
All the Parisiennes were mincing around delicately in shoes that would make Jimmy Choo green with envy. Up the stairs, down the escalators, triptrapping down the Champs-Elysées, clickclacking over the marbled floors of Versailles, even precariously teetering up the gazillion steps to the second stage of the Eiffel tower.
By day 2, I had got the hint. The comfy sneakers lay disconsolate under the coffee table for the room maid to shove out of the way while vacuuming, sniffing at the horrible taste in shoes of Les Americains, while I wore respectable black flats to the Louvre and the Tuileries (drat that white limestone dust!). Not chic, but not a huge fashion faux pas, either.

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On day 1, riding on the metro, apart from the shoes, I noticed the casual attitude towards cleavage display. Frenchwomen seem to be quite unbothered by any gratuitous attention to their appearance and proceed to serenely read their fat literary picks in the fast-moving train, even as they stand inches from the doorways.
I kept a death's-hand grasp on my handbag, determined to outwit the gangs of pickpockets said to swarm the trains looking for unwary suspects. So grim was my expression, that on bumping into my handbag from behind , the mild-mannered Vietnamese (?) gentleman seated behind threw up his empty hands in the air, as I glared at him.
'Desolé', he muttered.
My goodness, I thought at the end of the day. How do these ladies manage those shoes and clothes and catwalks day after day without switching to frumpy mode?
But as I soon discovered, the 'fashion show' was reserved for warm sunny days.
The next day, a heavy summer thunderstorm had cooled the city down considerably. All the ladies were dressed in the same deep-necked outfits, but now topped off with little black sweaters, cardigans or jackets. Scarves were evidently no longer a la mode.
Not for me, though. As we headed towards the Notre Dame, the chill wind on the Pont St.Michel made my teeth chatter. I spied a souvenir shop promising 3 scarves for 10 euros and promptly made a beeline for the racks placed artfully outside, determined to get a scarf both as a souvenir and a protection for my freezing neck. N helped knot it around with what she claimed was the Parisienne method of wearing a scarf, and I went around the whole day, feeling rather Audrey Hepburnish in my new scarf and my dark sunglasses. It mattered not a whit that I stood out like the proverbial sore thumb in a group of stylish jacketed Parisiennes, while I looked like a relic of the 1960's. I was no longer freezing, and could loosen or pack my scarf if the sun decided to make an appearance.

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'Spik Inglish?', asked a young girl in a scarf and long layered skirt along the Champs-Elysées, waving a piece of cardboard at us. She had no chance with tourists like us, inured as we were to the sad tales of beggars and panhandlers. We swept on by her, convinced that she was only a diversion for a couple of nimble-fingered pickpockets to work their magic on our wallets.
'Spik Inglish?'- I could swear it was the same girl again. This time we were near the Notre Dame, trying to decide between the extra-long queue to climb the bell tower or the non-existent queue to enter the main sanctorum. We turned past her and headed for the dark coolness of the church interior.

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The trains were full of polyglot strangers, French being but one of the mumbled utterances between chatting passengers. The other language heard constantly was 'Jazz-sax', more often than not playing 'Hava Nagila' at every other stop, with the busker whisking out his battered plastic tub for a handful of euros from the stone-faced crowd.
The poster on the train wall featured a battered British bobby imploring 'Don't massacre English', (translated), part of an ad for a language school promising to improve your English to 'Wall Street Journal levels' or your money back.
Meanwhile, I was massacring my French, woefully unprepared for the speed of regular French conversation, as well as the lack of inflections and stresses that I had gotten used to hearing in American English. The receptionist and the waiters were happy to grin at my mangled French and switched smoothly to fluent English at the first opportunity. That is, till I got mad at the hotel desk personnel on Day 3, and fluent French expostulations at the tardiness of the staff came pouring out from my unfrozen tongue.

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An out-of-breath trip up the 300 odd-steps of La Butte de Montmartre had me convinced that 'Steps' were the secret of the slim figures of the French. Never mind the pastries and the fat-dripping Cordon Bleu cuisine. If we climbed steps like the French, we could eat horses for lunch, whales for dinner and still not gain a single pound.
The only obese I saw all around Paris were among the tourists. Though the French TV does have a hilarious love affair with the latest and greatest in 'fitness technology'., with channels blaring the latest 'Abdo-fit' infomercials with voice-overs of the wonders of the latest from 'la Californie', they hardly need it, with their constant walking around and climbing steps.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Blast from the Past: Notorious

Kaavya stared dully at the laptop screen, her eyes bleary from the lack of sleep. “Don’t forget to finish your 50 pages of novel. It’s due tomorrow”, rang her mother’s admonition. The page had two lines on it, paused for the last 15 minutes on “…and Opal”. “I hate Opal, hate this novel writing gimmick, hate Amma, hate Appa…” She closed the laptop, dropped it unceremoniously on her table and grabbed her backpack, ready to clear her head with a short walk in the gated neighborhood. She paused at the door, turning for a last glance at her room, her eyes alighting on an untouched pile of shocking pink and purple books.

Her eyes narrowed as she remembered where she got them -- “Here you go, Kaavya. Some reading material to put you in the mood for producing the style of prose we need for this novel. I like your story, but it has too much angst to crack the NY Times top 100” the literary agent had said, handing over the bag of books to her mother, who had already stretched out her hand in anticipation of the action.

All thoughts of going for a walk fled. Kaavya dropped her backpack, picked a book at random out of the pile and fell back on her bed, thumbing through it rapidly.
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“My daughter’s a very gifted writer”, Mrs.V. had gushed to the IvyWise counselor. “You must see the samples of her writing that we’ve brought. She actually won an award for young writers last year, and her earliest writings appeared in Stone Soup.” Kaavya tried to keep a straight face as she remembered the initial outcry from her parents over the Stone Soup submission “You wrote a story in which you take out your anger at us for moving from Scotland to New Jersey!” They were persuaded by the teacher to grant permission to submit the story to the magazine only after repeated assurances from the teacher that the writing showed great promise and a maturity beyond her years.

“That sounds very interesting. Let’s review her work to see how we can use that in her Harvard application.” The counselor pursed her lips, radiating wrinkles faintly visible as the Botox was wearing off. She unpursed them as the words on the page started to take flight from a slow-taxi start, her eyes widening and taking on a curious glint. Kaavya could almost see the dollar signs flashing in them. “Mrs.V, her writing shows remarkable talent. You should really let me put you in touch with a literary agent that I know. She may be able to get a book deal for Kaavya, and that would be just the thing to boost her chances of getting into Harvard.”
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“I wanted to be a serious writer. Not stuck with rewriting my story to pander to hordes of teens. Ha… they want cutting and funny; I’ll give ‘em cutting and funny!” Kaavya flipped open her laptop, booted up and opened the document that she had been working on. She went into the online ‘search inside the book’ feature for the title she had chosen and tiled two windows side by side on the laptop screen. Cut/paste/change, cut/paste/change… Inspiration finally struck a couple of paragraphs later and her fingers started tapping rapidly as her own words took over.
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The weeks had rushed by, but no one had caught on to her little trick. “They made me do this…it’s their fault for pushing me to do what I didn’t want to!” Truth be told, she was starting to enjoy her little secret, borrowing odd lines and paragraphs from this book and that. Not the editor, not the proofreader, no one had noticed the little snippets ‘borrowed’ from over half a dozen novels in the pile. It was even making it easier for her to ‘get in the mood’ and complete her despised novel.
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The hype had become overwhelming. She had undergone more makeovers this last week than any beauty pageant contestant in a year. Interviews, photo-ops, flashing light bulbs, loads of congratulatory emails, letters, envious comments, the works! Kaavya was incredulous at the attention that she garnered as one of the youngest authors to receive a massive advance for her work. “They’re marketing me, not just that damned book! What would happen if they found out about the plagiarism? Hmmm…maybe nobody will. I think I was careful enough to change the passages somewhat. Amusing and scary at the same time!” The pressure was building up to unbearable levels, as her email inbox started overflowing with comments both gratifying and unwanted. Classes at Harvard were becoming an exercise in stress management - the scent of resentment and overweening expectations were driving her crazy.

“I know that you freshmen keep late hours, but this is ridiculous- falling asleep for the fifth time in a row in section! You need to rearrange your schedule and priorities!” The teaching fellow struggled to phrase it civilly. “And the quality of your work isn’t nearly what it ought to be. Are you having some kind of personal problem? All that fame going to your head?”
Kaavya bit back a rude retort and stared sullenly in response.

She overheard classmates speaking in the restroom. “She thinks she’s so hot because she got all that money for a silly chick-lit novel. It reminds me of just about everything I’ve read: Sloppy Firsts, Second Helpings, Princess Diaries… I could do better than that!” A cold sweat trickled down her spine. “What if somebody found out?” She felt as though her head was going to explode from the weight of contradictions burdening her. She ran out of the restroom, blindly searching for fresh air and found a quiet spot under a tree for a few blessed minutes of tranquility. By the time her friends had found her, she had repaired her make-up, smiling at them with calm resolution.

The next day, the story broke. “Young author accused of plagiarizing passages from another novelist” the headline trumpeted. “Based on a tip from an anonymous reader, investigating reporters at the ….” And the barrages of accusations, counter-accusations started.

Kaavya smiled grimly to herself that night as she hit the ‘Submit’ button on the online ‘tips and comments’ form to yet another newspaper. “And justice will be done…” She snapped the laptop shut and fell into a deep sleep for the first time in months, at peace with her self.


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Note & Disclaimer:
The above piece is a fictionalized version of events relating to the Kaavya Viswanathan plagiarism affair and is only loosely based on reality. I make no claims to veracity in this story.
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