Monday, June 29, 2009

Death of a Pitchman

The world mourns Michael Jackson, but in our household, we mourn the passing of Billy Mays. We were the unofficial Billy Mays fan club, rushing to the TV whenever we heard his stentorian voice booming over the speakers.
No more of that, sadly. Who will sell us the next must-have thingamabob, persuade us to try the amazing Fix-it (not bad for minor scratches on a car's finish- I know, I tried it.), or the Oxiclean bucket which still sits unused except for a spoonful or two since I last purchased it 5 years ago? Can Anthony Sullivan or the Shamwow guy fill his shoes? I fear not.
RIP, Billy Mays.

(Billy Mays and Anthony Sullivan appear on the Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien to pitch their new series, 'The Pitchmen' in this clip.)

Friday, June 26, 2009

In Search of a Guru

It was another of those evenings when I was bored with the blogs, that I typed in the name of the guru who taught me Carnatic music when I was in high school and college. The initial word search pulled up miscellaneous references to the Vechoor cow, apparently the world's smallest, and highly efficient at yielding copious amounts of milk, even on a smaller diet than the more common breeds. Amazing what trivia pops up on these searches!

Next, I tried the full name 'Vechoor Harihara subramania Iyer' and struck gold with this affectionate remembrance of Vechoor sir by a descendant of the Travancore kings, prince Rama Varma, an upcoming musician in his own right.

"Then the Maharani set about checking out matters for herself. She invited dozens of musicians of all sorts to the palace and made them sing in front of her, followed by rapid fire question sessions on the various aspects and intricacies of classical music. Finally it turned out that the very Harihara Subramani whom Semmangudi had recommended proved to be satisfactory in all respects. And thus Vechoor Harihara Subramania Iyer – popularly known as "Vechoor Saar" – was fixed up to teach music to the Maharani's great grandson. The two silent visitors in the Maharani's bedroom on February 3, 1982, were Kumara Kerala Varma (then Principal, Music Academy, Thiruvananthapuram) and Vechoor Saar himself. And the terrified 14-year-old great grandson was me."

So that explained Vechoor sir's regular trips to the Kowdiar palace. Vechoor sir had always been kind enough to offer me a lift in the palace car which came for him, for he knew that it would save me the trouble of switching buses for one part of my journey.

We did have a rather funny experience later when I got my own moped and remembering the car rides, offered to take Vechoor sir riding pillion behind me to a nearby store. He was about double my weight and we narrowly escaped falling when I attempted to balance the moped with him behind me. Vechoor sir got off in a hurry and said he would walk to the store, instead.

Funny, how the little details come back to memory about my first lesson with Vechoor sir. My mother had heard our neighbor Bhama maami sing and inquired about her guru, since my lessons had been left dangling with my earlier guru having gone through a bout of ill-health. Bhama maami had given her the information and the first lesson was duly set up.
He listened to my singing a varnam and a favorite keerthanam and nodded.' We will start lessons next week.'

The next week, my father dropped me off and went to run some errands while I was at the lesson. Things were progressing well enough, singingly, except for an excruciating bout of cramps that struck, without warning. I continued to sing, determined to make it through the session, but in the middle of the song, my brain blacked out to shut out the pain and I slumped to the side like a sack of potatoes.

I came to within seconds, with Vechoor sir standing by in great concern, Maami sprinkling water on my face. They had me lie down for a while till my father returned. I went back home in good shape, though wondering if the incident was a harbinger of how things would work out in future with the new guru.

Luckily, that wasn't the case. I proceeded to learn more under Vechoor sir, continuing under his tutelage for about 3 years, till college classes and exam schedule uncertainties made the relationship taper off. The parting was not without angst. Amma declared "I'm sure it started from when he chose to teach you that song in Varali. It has the effect of leading to a termination of the guru-shishya relationship, in short order."

I didn't think so. It seemed more that I had been floundering long enough with the last few songs that I learned that Vechoor sir might have sensed a loss of interest and decided to gently hint that it might be time for me to stop.

No matter, we parted on good terms. The last time I saw him was at my wedding, where I duly paid my obeisance and received his and Maami's blessings. He had heard that I was going to America and reminded me to always keep in touch with music and continue practicing.

Now, I have a couple of young students of my own, whom I'm trying to shepherd through the basics. I haven't had the opportunity to start on any of what Vechoor sir taught me, since they haven't advanced far enough yet for that. But I do remember my Gurus, all of them- first my mother, then Venkatramanan sir, Vechoor sir, Prof. S.R.J., and Bhaama maami, and silently dedicate my lessons to what they have done for me. After all, that's the best Guru dakshina that I can offer them- to pass on what they have taught me to another generation.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Squirrel vs. Bird Feeder

The other day, a largish squirrel with a black nose stopped by my brand new bird feeder. The old one had a hole that you could drive a truck through, courtesy of said squirrel, who had managed to pry off one of the perching-post assemblies.

This one didn't last 2 hours. Blacknose stopped by, took in a few whiffs, put out her front paws and leaned all her weight on the nearest perch-post.

I opened the sliding door to the deck and charged at her, waving my arms about madly "Scoot! Shoo!". Blacknose scurried away, peering cautiously from behind the oak trunk.

I moved the shepherd's hanging post a little further out, to make it harder for the squirrel to bridge the gap between the deck railing and the feeder.

She waited till I had gone back inside to attack the feeder again. This time, she couldn't reach the feeder easily. Still she determinedly shimmied up the post and attacked from the top, dangling precariously. I decided to come out at that point. She made a mad scramble for a thin branch of the nearest bush and raced away to safety.

I went back inside and about my work. When I next looked at the feeder, it was empty. Blacknose had managed to rip off the perch-post again. It wouldn't do to try and refill it, as all the seed was going to pour out if she so much as tilted it slightly.

My options now are
(1) Try a 'squirrel-proof feeder', for which there is no guarantee that Blacknose won't figure out a way to raid it. Not to mention, the shepherd's hook, while sturdy, cannot hold the weight of the armor that such a contraption would need.
(2) Mix cayennne/chili powder with the seed. This shouldn't harm the birds, I gather, but is unpleasant for the squirrels. In addition, it could be unpleasant for the mixer, according to some bloggers, but there are cultural advantages to my growing up in a home where mixing chili powder for pickles is a routine affair.
(3) If (2) fails, "Try providing squirrels with their own feeding station if all else fails, and give them whole dried corn and seeds that they like."

(Squirrel photo from

Monday, June 8, 2009

Dress Codes

Today, I saw a brand new poster and notice on the lab door. "Dress Code -No muscle T's and sleeveless shirts, no tanktops, no halter necks, no revealing clothes, no holes in clothing or frayed hems, business casual Mon-Thurs, jeans permitted Fridays, etc. etc."
"Are hijabs and abayas permitted or not? You only mention a prohibition against 'revealing clothing', didn't you?", I asked the lab manager, only half in jest. He seemed a bit non-plussed. I'm not sure if I won't see a new sign prohibiting those for being not revealing enough, unlike the halter necks and tank tops.
"Why does that lady look like an elephant?" queried a four-year old S in all innocence, when we shared an elevator ride with a lady in her abaya and laundry basket, several years ago. I shushed him "Don't be rude, S", while I heard the distinct gurgle of laughter from the elephant with her laundry basket nearby.
A few days later, I got to see what she had been hiding with her abaya: I had to knock on her door when a fire alarm went off in the building. She came to the door and opened it for a few minutes as I explained the situation. She was dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, which she promptly covered up with her abaya, as she left the building along with us till the 'all-clear' was given to allow us back inside.
So much for the all-concealing abaya and encouraging of modesty- though it might be very convenient for concealing tatty old clothes and uncooperative hair. My sister-in-law, who has lived in Saudi, swore that she could go to any grocery store even in her old nightgown, under the benevolent cover of the abaya.
I remember my school days, when any hint of nail polish would bring down the wrath of God and of Sister F on all unfortunates, who were ordered to scrape it off. I partly blame my habit of biting nails on that tyranny, and was able to get out of the habit only by assiduously cultivating my fingernails when I reached the 11th grade and moved to a school where there was no such prohibition. There's nothing like a couple of coats of acetone-smelling varnish to keep one from chewing the nails off.
College dress codes were more liberal, at least for engineering students, compared with the medical students, where all girls had to wear saris compulsorily, to convey the required air of professionalism, when combined with the white coats. For us, the only mandatory requirement was that of wearing pants and tucked in shirts on Mech or Electrical lab days, to ensure we didn't get our dupattas or pallus caught in rotating motors and such.
The first office I worked in was still full of old-fashioned fuddy-duddies who looked askance at ladies who showed up in salwar kameez, rather than saris, but I was of a new 'daring' generation and paid no attention to any raised eyebrows on that account. It's now no longer eye-brow raising to wear those. I'm sure halter necks and tank tops wouldn't be acceptable there, even now.
Which brings me back to the current office dress code. With the current Penguins mania and Stanley cup playoffs, I'm sure that an exception will be shortly made for those who wish to dress like penguins, at least until the next game, just as Steelers jerseys were de rigueur every Friday before Super Bowl. We haven't gotten around to dress like a Pirate day ( with fake patches, golden rings in the ears and all), but I'm sure that will come some day, when the Pittsburgh Pirates make it out of the doldrums that they are currently stuck in.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Blogging Doldrums

"Doldrums" has a listless sound. My first acquaintance with the term came as a preteen, as I eagerly gobbled my way through Charles Berlitz's book on Bermuda Triangle and the mysterious graveyard of ships.

It was later that I found out that it meant 'a state of stagnation', as well. I've hit the blogging doldrums over the past week or two. Life can get too busy for spending time trying to think up suitable topics to post on.

What happens to blogs started with such fanfare? Do they go to a graveyard of ghostly ships marooned on a still sea? Not quite, according to this New York Times article.

Or maybe they are just like an Unfinished Craft Object, set aside for another time, while a new baby blog takes up much of the blogger's attentions. (I must admit to having a ton of those in my closet- fodder for a recycled blog post from yesteryear, perhaps.)

Wait, is that a hint of breeze that I feel? A new topic to post on?

Watch this space...