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Monday, December 27, 2010

School Concert Sideshow

If you haven't been to one, this is the kind where there are about 300 kids on the stage, all anxiously blowing their trumpets or clutching their violins, wailing or screeching with the desperate teacher at the piano in front as he valiantly tries to cover the lack of tune and synchrony. The parking lot is always an ocean of cars with all the relatives come to see their favorite nieces or grandsons perform. My daughter's school had one a few weeks ago, and I dutifully chauffeured her to and fro rehearsals, trips to the mall to acquire 'concert attire', cookie drop-offs,etc. etc.
The concert went off fine, not as untuneful as I had expected, but the sideshows were more entertaining. I had plonked myself in the middle of a row to the mid-left facing the stage, while another desi mom appeared to have done the same in the row before mine. As others walked up, staking claims to more and more seats with jackets, purses, and scarves to mark their territory, she thought the better of her seat and got up to ask me if the one next to mine was available, and sat down.
Barely five minutes later, another desi lady moved into the row behind and started up a loud conversation with my neighbor in what sounded largely like Hindi to me, until the generous references to 'Mian' cued me in to the fact that they were speaking in Urdu. At some point, another friend of mine stopped by "Eppo vandel?" ( 'When did you arrive?', in Tamil, to which I naturally responded in Tamil), moving back to her seat on the other side of the theater after a brief exchange.
My neighbor didn't bat an eyelash, continuing with softer responses to her loud friend behind us. They made free with all and sundry in their conversation, ranging over after-school activities for their kids to flaws real or perceived in what their Mians did or didn't do.The decibel level was getting so high, that the people in front turned to look at us, me sitting there silently, trying hard not to laugh, my neighbor and Mrs.Loudvoice. From the expression in their eyes, I wonder if they were annoyed at the loudness or the fact that it was in a language unintelligible to them. Maybe they were considering alerting Homeland Security, for all I know.
It was getting harder not to laugh out loud, and I did chuckle audibly while continuing to eavesdrop (not my fault, of course, it is impossible not to overhear when the dialogue is right next to your ear.). At which point, my neighbor and her friend suddenly realized that I could understand what they had been saying. The lady behind looked miffed, my neighbor a little less so. I suspect that she may have been having a hard time with generating enthusiastic responses to her friend's comments. "You can understand Urdu?", she asked, as it dawned upon her that just because I spoke a different language didn't preclude the possibility that I might know their language.
"Yes, Hindi actually, but I can probably follow 90% of your Urdu."
The conversation continued, a little more muted in tone and tenor, now that they knew that I could understand, and it stopped entirely as the school band and orchestra took to the stage for their first item.
The concert proceeded with very little ado, ended on dot, and everybody heaved a sigh of relief as they collected their budding geniuses from the stage and headed back home.
My entertainment for the evening was gone with the crowd.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Two Bachelors

(Just one of those snippets of memory that popped up, after reading Kochuthresiamma's ruminations on Mallus and Bongs...)

We lived in a tiny complex of 4 flats, on a side road branching off one of the main thoroughfares.  Ours was on the second floor (or first floor, take your pick, if you prefer to call the lower floor the ground floor.) We were one of two families initially, the flat below ours already housed another family, whose daughter was also a Sujatha, just like me.
They had a Pomeranian mix puppy, named Tarquin for the Roman emperor,even though she was female. By the time they realized their mistake, it was a little late to correct everyone's impression of her name, so Tarquin she remained. She was a friendly little thing and would trot up every morning for a lick of sugar from my palm, nudging at our door, which would shudder every morning promptly at seven. I would open the door, dispense her treat and she would trot back down, contented. All was right with the world.

Soon enough, the flat opposite had some new occupants, a pair of Bengali bachelors. Both had the same name (Ashok) but one was Banerjee, the other Chaterjee. One was tall and thin, the other short and chubby-faced.They largely kept to themselves, their presence made evident by occasional whiffs of fish frying wafting from their kitchen, or occasional snatches of flute melodies that Banerjee liked to play.

Some months down the road, trouble started. We would hear Tarquin banging on our doors at odd hours of the night. We tried complaining to the neighbors downstairs, but they swore that Tarquin had been chained and asleep at those times. It took one night of staying awake and whipping open the door at top speed to catch the culprit.That was when we found out that it was the bachelors acting up, having indulged in a 'little tipple', confusing our door with theirs and generally being nuisances. There was little we could do, since we hardly talked to them anyway.

We did come up with a sneaky solution, based on a suggestion from our maidservant. The flat doors had an external latch, so we took to latching their door from outside after they had retired to their tippling, and unlatching it in the morning. After we tried this a few times, they got the point and stopped indulging in banging the doors.

A few months later, Banerjee fractured his leg in a major accident and he spent months moping lonely in the flat, hobbling around on crutches. There was literally non-stop flute music during the day, of we heard very little, being busy and out of the house. The weekends were another story. We would make every effort to go out, just escape the mournful flute.

At some point, the leg healed, and Banerjee made his way back to work, walking with the slight limp that would last him all his life. Chaterjee had moved out, repelled, I suspect, by too much melancholic flute melodies. Or it may have been that he got married and needed to move out.

(Time has a way of blurring some details of the story, while the main focus remains sharp and clear, in full color.)

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Involuntary Volunteer

A few days ago, I received an anxious call from a close acquaintance. "Are you going to be helping out at the special lunch at the high school on Wednesday?". Her son is my son's classmate.
We had all received  a printed letter on the school letterhead (??? whatever happened to emails and preserving the trees?) requesting assistance with supplying food items ('preferably reflecting your culture and ethnicity') for some student event. I pondered it briefly before deciding that no, I did not want to send food to be wasted or just eaten by the teachers in charge (as had happened some years back when I had meticulously made idlis and sambar for some similar event in the middle school.) Or horror of horrors, had to remake items for some bake sale because what I had dropped off originally was nowhere to be found.
So I told her, "No, I have no plans to be there." She launched into a long story about how she had been co-opted into helping out, only to realize belatedly that she had other commitments that day. She was hoping that I could take her place at the 1:00pm event.
Oh bliss and schadenfreude, as I uttered the words "Sorry, I work outside of home and don't get back till late afternoon. Plus, I do have an important meeting that day, so can't take the day off or work from home."
Our conversation didn't last long after that.
Today, as though reading my mind, this article highlighted similar decisions by numerous 'involuntary volunteers' who are now backing off from their school volunteering commitments and restoring a semblance of balance to their harried lives.
I still volunteer, but on my terms and my choice of time. I have it relatively easy, having chosen the internet communications task, which can be done from the comfort of my home. I may not be able to schmooze with the bigwigs at the PTA since it is a  low profile task, but I have the consolation of knowing that while other committee officials come and go, my committee lives on ....well, not forever, but at least till my younger kid leaves for college.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

How not to raise Baby

At least, that's what came to mind when reading this compendium of latest i-Baby products for the avid geek. If you  have ever taken guilty pleasure in skimming the largely useless and pricey wonder products featured in the Skymall catalog, this article may come as an eye-opener to those among you who are expecting parents or already have little bundles of joy at home.
iPhone App for White Noise, to soothe the crying baby to sleep: Whatever happened to running the vacuum cleaner in the next room? (Bonus, some cleaning just got done)
Cry Translator, to tell you why your baby cries: I'll take 1 millions years of evolution of the mammalian brain over electronics and software that will make you rend your hair as you try to figure out why it insists that your baby is hungry when what she really has is a wet diaper.
Advanced Space-Agey bouncing chair: Nothing to beat the warmth of Mommy's lap. Call me when it has a heated pad. (Oops, I think I may have just given away another patentable idea there!)
Baby Monitors and sensors galore: Forget the separate room and just keep baby in the same room where you sleep. Then you  won't be paranoid wondering about missing the sound of baby breathing/burping/sneezing next to you.  Or inadvertently broadcasting the bedroom activities to any other baby monitors in adjacent apartments or houses.
Baby care timer thingy: How lovely, to feed a baby by the clock, change diapers by the clock, put the baby down for a nap by the clock. Babies don't have clocks, ergo we must get them accustomed to strict time schedules ASAP, the sooner for them to get ready for the rat race of Life in the Big Bad World.
Word to the wise: throw out the clock and watch the baby for cues for all of the above. You will have a much easier baby to deal with, without needing a dozen gizmos to pay attention to more than your precious little one.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Thanksgiving coming up, and a bunch of recipes to try.

(I had been quite determined not to make this blog a food blog, popular as that genre is. But having had nothing to post about for the last week, I thought, what better than to post my sambar recipe per Amit's request, and a couple of extras with the seasonal vegetables and fruits in the grocery aisle.)

Sambar recipe:

Ingredients:

Extract of tamarind (large marble sized piece, soaked in warm water for 15-20 mins.)
1 large Onion  coarsely chopped
1 cup toor dal cooked.
any combination/single of the following vegetables : okra, carrots, beetroot, turnip, chowchow (chayote squash), drumstick (moringa), green pepper(capsicum).  (Note, carrots, chayote, beetroot (fresh), turnip are best cooked under pressure with the dal. Tomatoes may be used, with a slight reduction in the quantity of tamarind soaked.)
1 1/2-2 teaspoons of sambar powder
Salt to taste
2-3 cups of water.

Seasoning:
1 tbsp oil (sesame oil tastes best, but other types may be used.)
pinch asafetida
1/4 tsp mustard seeds
1/2 tsp urad dal

Garnish:
Curry leaves/Chopped cilantro leaves.

Method:
Heat oil in a deep pan. Wait till the oil is almost, but not quite smoking hot. Add mustard seeds, when they start to splutter, add urad dal and asafetida. When the dal turns golden brown, add the onion and stir till it starts to turn translucent. Add the vegetables with enough water to cover them. Cover pan and cook for 5 minutes or till vegetables are soft but not mushy. Add extract of tamarind mixed with sambar powder and boil. When the tamarind loses the raw smell, add the salt and cooked toor dal, simmer for an additional 5 minutes. Remove from heat and serve hot, garnished with either curry leaves or cilantro.


Spicy Cranberry Chutney:

Ingredients:

12 oz bag of fresh cranberries
1/2 cup brown sugar
1" piece fresh ginger
zest of 1 lemon
3-4 green chilies
1 tsp salt
2 tbsp olive oil
1/2 tsp mustard seeds
1/4 tsp fenugreek seeds
1/2 tsp urad dal
2 large red chilies

Method

Pulse cranberries, sugar, ginger, salt, green chilies into a coarse mixture (do not puree or add water)
Heat oil in pan, add all other seasonings when oil is sufficiently heated. Add cranberry mixture, reduce heat to low-medium, cover and let it simmer for 15 minutes. Stir in between. Remove from stove when lighter pink darkens uniformly to a burgundy color.


Baked yam fries:

2 large yams
1/2 tsp chili powder
1/4 tsp ground black pepper
1 tsp kosher salt
1/4 tsp dried basil
1/4 tsp dried rosemary.
2 tbsp olive oil

Method:
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
Wash, peel, slice yams into large chunky pieces ( 1/2" inch thickness.) Toss with the olive oil, add in seasonings, toss to coat thoroughly. Place in single layer on baking tray, bake for about 15 minutes. Remove and flip the pieces and bake for another 15 minutes to ensure even browning.

Friday, November 5, 2010

A Deepavali Post

Happy Deepavali to you (if you celebrate it, that is.)
Pittsburgh is celebrating the weekend as Light-Up night, quite in keeping with the Festival of Lights that precedes it. Strictly speaking, if we were to go by the phase of the moon, Deepavali would be tomorrow night, which is the actual day of the New Moon here, but we just slavishly follow the Indian calendar, despite it being 10 hours ahead.
I've given up trying to make sense of that disconnect, and just scrambled, as did my friends, all busy moms,  to make a sweet (Gulab Jamuns, yum) and savory item (pakoras, pinched off into the hot oil, sizzlingly), along with a usual dinner.
We still have a holiday potluck or two coming up, belated parties when I shall slave over the stove. There are times when I wish that we desis weren't so cost-conscious and just got the whole event catered, instead of filling out lists with various items to be made in quantities to feed 20 people. But it wouldn't be a desi event then, I guess. The very desiness of the whole thing is predicated on the amount of time spent concocting the dishes, and sloshing them around in humongous trays as we drive around in circles trying to locate the party hall.
The weather is anticipated to be cold enough for snow tomorrow, but we'll get by with just a couple of flurries, nothing on the ground yet. The local temple has scheduled its Deepavali celebrations for tomorrow. It's going to be fun with the little ones all bundled up against the cold, happily waving the sparklers that are given out to mark the occasion. Puja, sparklers, dinner, dance/concert - the usual agenda for such evenings.

Happy Diwali (if you prefer that to the more sonorous Deepavali)!

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Mandatory Halloween Costume Discussion

with M, of course. S has long since outgrown trick or treating.
"What are you going to be this year?"

"Dunno. Maybe something scary this year, not a mouse like last time."

M rummaged in a box filled with old books that I hadn't dropped off as a donation yet and let out a yell of triumph. A Darth Maul mask, and black cape rewarded her efforts. She dropped the mask and pranced around in the cape, a good 6 inches too long for her.
"I'm going to be a Dementor, this Halloween."

"How about carrying around your little rake with that costume? Then you could be the Grim Raker. I could even glue a few leaves on, for effect."
"No, that would be funny, not scary."
Oh my, you have no idea how scary a pile of leaves can be to us phyllophobics during the fall. I would have a heart attack, for one, if a Grim Raker were to greet me when I opened the door.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Hear, Hear!

It's that time of the year again when our yard sits carpeted in brown, red and yellow. Our deck too. I decided to try a little bit of raking at lunchtime and headed out, rake and bags in hand. And iPod and earbuds. Nothing like listening to mellifluous Carnatic music while I filled the bags with the oak leaves.
At least, that's what I thought till I bent down to scoop the leaves into the bag, and the right earbud promptly fell out, leaving just a tiny tinny sound from the left earbud. I spent half an hour juggling garden gloves, leaves, rake and earbuds, and ended up with only one bag filled where I normally would have managed two or three.
How do all those ads show smiling sportspeople and breakdancers twirling around with impunity, while their earbuds appear glued to their ear and don't fall out as easily as mine? Am I special, or deficient in some way?
Then I chanced upon this article, and learned that there is even a name for this affliction: Earbud Cartilage Deficiency Syndrome. Yay, at last someone has investigated it and possible solutions.
David Pogue, I salute you!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

All Pinked Out

This month has everything in sight turning Pink, fountains, cabs, billboards, junk mail, you name it,  as a reminder of the fight against Breast Cancer. But I have a case of Pink Fatigue, much like this NYTimes blogger.
(In fact, I suspect she stole (a la Inception) into my pink-addled dreams and pilfered my initially planned blog post title.)
Case in point: At a recent PTA meeting, we were exhorted to wear pink, and if we didn't, we were kindly supplied with pink frosted cupcakes, pink lemonade and handmade pink ribbon pins by some crafty mom who filled her evening with creating such delights, till we screamed Uncle and submitted pinkfully to the pink. All Hail the Pink Ribbon!
Even the superintendent turned up in a pale pink shirt with his regulation black suit, claiming it was the only thing that he owned in pink. The initiator of the 'Think Pink' trend was much gratified, but cast a slightly jaundiced eye at my non-regulation trending to magenta pink top, largely camouflaged by a pale blue hoodie.
Of course, it's all about symbolism, marketing, tons of money flowing in to the corporations that choose to participate (with miniscule donations to the American Cancer Society or Susan Komen Foundation.) A backlash has long since begun, even against the excessive commercialism that seems to permeate the issues behind seeking a cure for a very serious disease.
Seriously speaking, I would rather see more reasoned discussion of the environment, the social trends and other well-supported known causes for the increases in incidence of breast cancer, rather than cutesy exhortations to 'Think Pink' and pour money into the coffers of big 'corporate sponsors', some of whom hawk or even contribute to the increase in incidence, either through their products or the means by which they operate.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Wheels

Does anyone recall these seriously cheesy ads for a motorized wheelchair called the Hoveround?
Now, it's been replaced by a newer untuned voice-over, but the original 'Go go go in my Hoveround' remains as haunting as ever. It echoes in my brain every time I see the ad.
What do those Hovering Seniors do for entertainment? Well, there's always adventures like this one, I guess.
"Jerome and Darlene Kilian began arguing inside the restaurant and were asked to leave. Once in the parking lot, Jerome refused to give his wife the car keys, so she began chasing him around the parking lot in her wheelchair.

Restaurant employees said it took her just seconds to make her way across the parking lot.

At one point, the husband hid behind a neighboring Dunkin' Donuts, which is under construction, while his wife "zipped" around looking for him.

Restaurant employees said this went on for about 15 minutes before Pennsylvania State Police arrived and charged the couple with disorderly conduct."
Maybe Mr. Tom Kruse (no, unfortunately not the Tom Cruise), CEO of Hoveround should audition these two for a Mission Impossible style ad for his Hoveround chairs. That would be an instant cult classic!

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Fundraising Fairytales

The school year has started. What it means that is that any day, your grade-schooler is going to walk in the door, eagerly waving a large envelope "We are going to sell this to our neighbors....And make pots of money for the ABC field trip (or Boy Scouts, or Girl Scouts, or the MS Society...)
Earlier years brought in a large red and white envelope, filled to the brim with instruction sheets, grinning models posing with their precious Level 10 Thank you gift (Fantastic SuperSoaker, with a 'retail value of $50', yours for having achieved sales at the $1000 mark).
Sigh, been there, done that before, with ballet, with swimming club, with the Boy Scouts. Only, this year there was a new twist to the traditional fundraiser. While in earlier years, any fundraiser meant all kids would walk around the neighborhood with alluring catalogs and actual samples of the gift-wrap paper that were the staple of middle school sales, this year was different.
I've taken pity on the charming gap-toothed tots (more often than not at the same time my husband decided that some co-worker's kid in the office should get some orders from him), and purchased enough gift wrap to last me all the way till 2012, or whenever it is that we are not supposed to need anymore. Or fallen to the wiles of our neighbor's lisping kindergartner who was savvy enough to recommend that I buy the 'big tin of popcorn' and hurriedly took my check, shoving it into his pocket and running so fast that it fell out onto the grass before he could make it home across the lawn.
This year, I thought that I was going to walk around the neighborhood with M, hat in hand, hoping the neighbors would take pity on us. I tried to talk M into not being enthusiastic about it, but was unsuccessful at 'unpepping' her after the pep talk she had received at school .
I opened the dreaded brochure packet. No sign of any colorful catalog this year. Instead, there was a small insert with a couple of dozen punch out 'Gift Cards'. The fundraiser sales company had decided to go all "internet" on us and expected us to go around hawking these cards, instead of showing the merchandise in catalogs with samples. The buyers were to enter our kids 'seller ID' (to be obtained after registering on their site) for sales credit.
Pouf! Way to take the fun out of door-to-door selling. Or maybe they just expect the kids to post it on their Myspace or Facebook pages and expect the orders to pour in.
Despite the novel-length explanatory email that several infuriated parents received from the fundraising committee, I suspect that we have largely returned the sales material.
How in the world is this going to promote a new world of entrepreneurship in the next generation, if it takes away the fun of face-to-face communications and tangible views of merchandise? I may be a fuddy-duddy at such sales and gripe about Boo Radleyish neighbors who will not answer the doorbell, but even  dealing with those are a lesson to learn for the kids as in "Do not disturb Boo Radley with fundraisers. Try the nice old lady three houses down. Stay away from the other house that has their dog out most of the time. Yes, you may go to P's house. But not to F's".
You never appreciate it till it goes away.
And so, now you will hear me say the one thing that I never thought I would say:
I miss the old-fashioned door-to-door kiddy salespeople!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Coffee Klatch

Sorry, no gossip, really, even if it was implied in the title.
But this is a discourse on coffee, and my adventures with coffee making over the years.
I grew up in a household where coffee of the South Indian style reigned king. When I was old enough to drive into town, I would stand in the long line at Sankar's Coffee House, a tiny shopfront that still barely survives, as they widen M.G. Road beyond recognition. The fragrance of roasted coffee emanated from the machine jostling with the counter. We all stood inhaling for our caffeine kick of the trip.
My mother would state "500 Arabica, 400  Robusta and 100 chicory" (all in grams), while my father stood ready to whip out his wallet and pay. The beans would be measured and poured in, along with the requisite quantity of chicory, the roasted and ground coffee pour out from the dispenser, directly into a recycled newspaper bag.
Of course, I learned the traditional way of preparing drip coffee, using the stainless steel coffee filter, in due time. My mother had introduced me to the art of savoring coffee once I reached the 11th standard and was starting to need the caffeine boost as I got through my day.
For a short halcyon period, we had vegetable vans and coffee vans coming to our little neighborhood, before the grocers decided it was no longer economical. I would line up near the coffee van and proudly echo the same order of "500 Arabica, 400 Robusta and 100 chicory".
A few years later, moving to the U.S., I struggled to find a suitable replacement for the filter coffee that I had so loved. The brews that I tried creating with supermarket staples such as Maxwell House and Folgers were far too weak, because of the coarser grind that was designed for the standard coffee machines and their watery thin bitter brews. I packed away my filters and switched to the heresy of granulated coffee, mixed in with a scalding hot cup of milk and sugar.
Occasionally, a visitor from India would beg for 'filter coffee', but I would improvise, even going to the extent of pouring the coffee I served them to make it froth, and not divulging the fact that it wasn't using a proper coffee decoction.
Of late, I finally gave the stovetop Espresso maker a try. In this, the water goes in the base pot, and as it evaporates, the steam is forced through a packed layer of standard 'filter coffee' (Bru, from the Indian grocery store), and generates a passably thick decoction that now seems rather heavy on the chicory content and light on the coffee. At last, a potential good substitute for the 'filter coffee' that has been out of my life for so long.
(UPDATE: After a few rounds with the Bru, I realize that the old proportions which I was used to still have no match in taste. Bru is 53% Arabica and 47 % Chicory! Eek. So much for the vaunted 'Madras coffee' flavor. It's too mild for my taste now.)
Maybe some day, I can even march up to one of the specialty coffee places in the mall and place my order for a custom '500 Arabica, 400 Robusta and 100 chicory, filter grind'.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

A Show in Jeopardy?

We're back from a short vacation, one of the highlights of which was attending a taping of the Jeopardy! quiz show in the Sony Studios in Los Angeles, CA.

(Sorry, no spoilers on who was on, and who won. It wouldn't be fair to the avid followers of the show. The episodes will air three months from now.)

We scrambled for the online tickets once our travel dates were confirmed. I thought it would be harder than merely filling in a name, contact phone and clicking on Submit, but they made it extremely easy at www.tvtix.com.
 The big day came, and in our anxiety to reach early, we actually headed to the wrong building.All for the good though, we were able to see movie memorabilia from favorites like Ghostbusters, Jumanji, Stuart Little and many more encased in display cases in the Sony Studios main lobby. Fun, fun!
The waiting in the right location started. A large sign warned us that no cameras or cell-phones or video recording devices of any kind would be allowed. An additional warning from the 'gatekeeper' had a dozen people scrambling back to their cars to drop off everything from e-books to bluetooth headsets to...I nearly had a heart attack when I realized that my MP3 player was buried deep in the bowels of my handbag, and timidly asked the cheery cheerleader guy who came to 'pump' up the studio audience's enthusiasm. "Hmmm... so long as you keep it powered off. Can't record anything on that, I guess."
A long line formed outside Sound Stage 10, as we waited impatiently in the sun for entry into the studio. After an interminable 15 minutes, we finally filed inside to take our seats. Nice plush red velvet ones. Wow. Maybe they would actually show the audience, to not waste the money spent on those lovely seats. Not that we had much hope of more than a millisecond's worth of screen time. Jeopardy is not the show to be on, if you were looking for audience shots.
We were told that we would supply applause on cue, and that Alex Trebek loved to speak to the audience and answer questions from them during the commercial breaks. Except that we weren't supposed to ask too personal questions that cross the boundaries of good taste. I was dying to ask the name of his plastic surgeon, but politely refrained. M asked him for his favorite movie ( How Green Was My Valley), S asked him about his hobbies (he's huge on Crossword puzzles, and rambled on about them for a good 1 minute). S was lording it over M because of the longer answer.
One snarky question from an audience member got a pitch-perfect impression of the Mad Flight Attendant from Alex Trebek, leaving the audience howling with laughter, before we returned to the taping.
We also got to quiz Johnny Gilbert, the director of the show and the voice behind the opening lines. He had some interesting show trivia for the audience, including a fairly illuminating one on studio audience clothes and camera angles, in answer to a question from Yours Truly.
The taping went off well. No untoward screaming of answers from the audience. Or fainting contestants. Or impolite questions. Peace and goodwill and perfect poise prevailed, as we filed out of the studio.
However, it did cause some mild alarm to see that the audience seating area could hold maybe 60-70 people. From statistics stated by Alex Trebek, the audience used to be as large as 300, for some shows held years ago. That must have been before the 'dumbing down' of America, I guess. Now the audiences for live TV have ballooned only for the no-brainers like 'American Idol' and 'Dancing with the Stars', and the like, while more 'cerebral' pursuits languish. How long, I wonder, will Jeopardy hold its claim to the top-watched quiz show on TV? Will the love of learning and trivia outlast the diminishing attention spans of this wired generation?
I wish I knew the answer.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Hooked on Jeeves

I was determined to get my share of the Netflix videos. The kids had been hogging all the spots on the queue for the last couple of months. After casting around rather desperately through an unappetizing listing of "DVDs you'll love", the Netflix algorithm finally got me with a suggestion of  "Jeeves and Wooster", based on the P.G.Wodehouse novels. I had read maybe one book of that series, I didn't read the rest (I was a huge Blandings Castle fan, and also loved the Psmith stories). The DVD would fit the bill for something that I might like to watch, instead of kiddy stuff and war movies.
The opening episode started off with a very catchy swing tune and slightly old-fashioned but cute animation to match. Then the laughs started. Mine, M's and S too. We happily munched on snacks and watched Bertie Wooster careen from one misadventure to the next, always saved by his man Jeeves in good time from an awful fate, be it matrimony or the throes of attempting to learn the trombone ( a stand-in for the banjolele, must have been hard to get one, or something.)
This was supposed to be my selection for Me-time. Instead, I have a whole group rushing from the most remote nooks and crannies of the house, the moment they hear the Jeeves and Wooster theme music.
Next, I've ordered the omnibus edition with the stories that the TV series is based on. Let's see if I can get the kids hooked on reading it.
Here's a little taste of why they love it so much.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Mistress of Spices

Yes, I know. It's the name of a rather Chocolat-esque novel and invariable movie that flopped severely at the box office, despite the big star cast and big name direction. What else to expect for a movie based on a book whose blurb reads:
"Magical, tantalizing, and sensual, The Mistress of Spices is the story of Tilo, a young woman born in another time, in a faraway place, who is trained in the ancient art of spices and ordained as a mistress charged with special powers....Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah...Spellbinding and hypnotizing, The Mistress of Spices is a tale of joy and sorrow and one special woman's magical powers." (Yawn....)
But my tale is a different one, a not so magical one. No tantalizing, spellbinding, mesmerism, stuff. Just the spices that have been sitting around in my pantry for years, maybe eons.


Saturday, July 31, 2010

Scarves and Knives

Today's HuffingtonPost had a fluff piece on a gushing writer's Paris visit and her adventures trying to buy a 150 Euro scarf(!!!). The knives were out in the comments on her badly spelled French, while others turned equally gushy at the Frenchness of the story, which excused any 'dramatic license' claimed by the author.
"It is considerably unfortunate that your editor lets you publish an article so full of spelling mistakes. I know it’s French but someone, somewhere should be able to verify it. You’ve managed to make at least one mistake per sentence. Whatever Internet translation tool you’ve used was not suited for professional work.
Sloppy, sloppy work."
 The author's response:
"I beg to differ with you, Mademoiselle. It would have been ever so easy for me to use an Internet translation. I make a point in the piece that I can get by speaking French, but barely...and that my French grammar stinks. The piece would not be an honest representation of my experience if I appeared to be fluent when writing in French. I chose to write it as I speak it. Consider it dramatic license. And thank you for taking the time to read my post."


Only, Madame (or Mlle. as the case may be) isn't aware that the French ladies don't seem to wear scarves any more. It's the foreign tourists who go gaga over the gorgeous scarves and shell out insane amounts of money for a silly piece of fabric.
Unless, of course, like me (The Queen of Miserlia), they purchase the 3 scarves for 10 Euros deal at the souvenir hunter's paradise near Pont St.Michel.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The BPA Drumbeat goes on....

BPA 101 for those who haven't heard of it : Bisphenol-A is a known endocrine disruptor that can behave in a manner resembling natural estrogen, and is already rife in the bodies of most people in the developed world. Main routes of exposure so far are the ubiquitous plastics that we use, canned food (linings of the can).

Now, the Environmental Working Group has identified a new source of more BPA exposure: the humble cash receipt that we receive at every store and gas station, or at least 40% of them. 

"The plastic component bisphenol A (BPA) has been in the headlines nonstop as scientists, health experts and consumers press for a federal ban on food packaging made with this synthetic estrogen, shown to leach readily into infant formula, beverages and canned food. But most Americans are probably unaware that they are regularly exposed to the same endocrine-disrupting chemical in cash register receipts.
Two-fifths of the paper receipts tested by a major laboratory commissioned by Environmental Working Group were on heat-activated paper that was between 0.8 to nearly 3 percent pure BPA by weight. Wipe tests conducted with a damp laboratory paper easily picked up a portion of the receipts' BPA coating, indicating that the chemical would likely stick to the skin of anyone who handled them. The receipts came from major retailers, grocery stores, convenience stores, gas stations, fast-food restaurants, post offices and automatic teller machines (ATMs)."

I did a mini-test on all the receipts piling up on my desk (Oh the joys of unfettered consumerism!). All of them discolored on rubbing the paper with a coin. Ergo, all of them contained fair amounts of BPA.

Luckily, skin does provide a decent barrier for BPA. Or maybe not, if you are fond of using alcohol based cleaners/lotions, since that enhances the absorption of the BPA into the skin layers.
A more likely route may be hand to mouth, as in eating immediately after having contacted a receipt, or handled stuff jumbled together in with receipts in your handbag, or receipts thrown in with the merchandise you just bought.

The average consumer's exposure may not be that high, but for the workers who man the cash registers (Ka-ching) day in and day out, one can only hope that the employers will do the right thing and stop using those kinds of papers for the cash registers.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Butterfly and Bunny

I walked out to take pictures of the roses the other day, and who should I spy, but a lovely butterfly perching on the coneflowers. Here it is, the tiger swallowtail, posing gracefully while I clicked as close to it as I could, without scaring it away.
A day later, I saw he/she had brought a friend, they danced a short ballet over the coneflowers, before flying away into the neighbor's bushes.


Another time, as I stepped out to get the mail, I saw this bunny, peering intently at my roses. Maybe it had come to evaluate the edibility factor of the bright flowers. It decided to run away when I tried moving closer to get a better shot.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Purple(not) Coneflowers

It's mid-summer, and the coneflowers are finally in bloom. Or should I say, in varying stages of bloom. A few mornings ago, I went out to take my usual macro shots of the beauties, and this time achieved a paint-like effect in photographing all of them, without much trouble or effort at all. Enjoy!

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Summer's for Movies

A few weeks ago, M, S, a friend and I headed out to see the last Toy Story on the big screen. We dutifully bought our large bucket of popcorn, over-priced sodas, put on our 3D glasses and sat back to enjoy an engaging tale with the much-loved protagonists now moving into a final and fitting end to their days as Andy's toys, as Andy leaves his home and childhood behind for the challenges of college.
There are fewer large screens with 'stadium seating' and more smaller boxy theatres which can pack twice as many theaters in less space. Luckily, the cinema we went to had one of the larger screens, well worth the price of admission. Nothing like chillin' in the air-conditioned darkness, while the sun blazes in a relentless heat wave outside.
The next (non-popcorn, this was directly after lunch) movie we attempted was the much-maligned "The Last Airbender". My kids and I loved the TV series, which runs in endless loops on Nickelodeon, admiring the spunk and humor of the Americanized pseudo-Asian anime-inspired characters Aang, Katara and Sokka. We opted for the 2D version, since most critics had lambasted the 3-D as detracting majorly from their experience. This ended up being a mother-daughter outing- M sitting with me, while S chose to walk in later with a friend of his, sitting one row and several seats to our right.
My verdict: The movie wasn't great, but it wasn't as terrible as the critics made it out to be.
It had already garnered tons of bad press for its choice of casting (non-Asian to play the lead roles, actors of Indian extraction in a 'villainous' role, not enough Asians, too many Caucasians, not enough Inuits, too many Indians, too few African Americans, too many African Americans, including one playing a monk.... the head spins over the different permutations and combinations.)
The next line of attack was that the moviemakers mangled the series into an incomprehensible collage of expository set pieces. (Ouch, it hurt my head to write that line. This is supposed to be a popcorn movie after all, not a Seven Samurai style cinematic masterpiece. Or was it?) In this case, I suppose, the filmmaker is guilty as charged.
But isn't the book always better than the movie (or the extended series running over several hours on TV)? I hated the shortened movie version of Pride and Prejudice compared with the several-hour long BBC epic. Naturally, one captures all the dialog while the other is reduced to soundbites and precious minutes of staging scenery.  Airbender suffers from the same approach.
The scenery is gorgeous, the  production values were quite fantastic. If only the scripting and acting had been better.

M's verdict :" I give it a C- or 3 out of 5 stars. Because they left out the Kiyoshi warriors. How could they do such a stupid thing!"

S's verdict: "It was Terrible! Only the effects made it tolerable."

Next up, may be Despicable Me. We've been seeing the previews for that for the last six months, every time we visited the theater.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Garden Ruminations

It feels as though it has been summer for a long time now, even though summer officially started only a couple of weeks ago. The garden is behaving as though it is mid-summer, except for the vegetables, which are surprisingly small this year.
I've been going on a flower/perennial binge, installing pink and blue salvia, gaillardia, tickweed and roses, in the hopes that they will take root and flourish in the clayey topsoil that surrounds the house. The flowers are still very pretty, as you can see from the photos. The roses are yet to bloom, since I purchased the ones with lots of buds, in hopes of having them bloom soon after. That is, if the deer don't get them.
Yesterday as we sat watching the TV, S pointed outdoors in great excitement. I ran to the window to see a startled young buck with barely-there antlers come to investigate the newly planted tea roses. I promptly opened the sliding door, to see the buck gallop off to join a doe and a fawn near the cherry tree, munching sedately on the shoots at its base. They watched me for a few minutes before deciding to stalk off to the neighbor's backyard.
The lavender and the sweet pea have taken off like the thistles, blooming crazily since about the end of May. The bumblebees hover around them all day, even sleeping on the underside of the occasional bud. I swear I saw one, motionless under a coneflower bud, as I went out to get the newspaper. I was tempted to shake the flower and give it 'rude awakening', but thought the better of it. By midmorning, the bumblebee was gone, probably buzzing off to the profusion of clover that lines the curb in our wild, unpesticided lawn.
The astilbe put out a single pale pink flower, beautiful, but brief-lived. It looks like a dried out mini-pine tree now, and I will have to wait till next year to catch it in its glory days.
The vegetables are pitiful caricatures of the lush growth that I've usually seen by this time in earlier years. Is the soil poorer, or is the combination of heat and intermittent thunderstorms doing something to them, could it be the dreaded 'early blight' which routed last year's garden tomatoes?
Maybe, I will just have to be patient and wait for another month. The tomatoes are sickly, but the beans seem to be healthy, albeit small. It's probably too much to ask of old seeds from 2 seasons ago to perform like the latest crop of 'Grown for 2010 season' that I was too miserly to purchase.
The Battle of Terminator Thistlenation is on again, this season. I've been keeping up with the occasional weeding, but there are still a few determined ones which have exceeded the 4 foot mark and cannot be easily pulled out. I will have to resort to heavy duty cutters to take those out. There is still an astounding large patch of thistles that have taken up residence around my coreopsis, red yarrow and Russian sage, quite overpowering them.
Now, another new scourge to deal with. Poison oak seems to have made its home under one of our pine trees. The plants are still quite small, but I'm sure the 'poison' packs a powerful punch, after seeing the rashes on M who came in unfortunate contact 3 weeks ago at her school playground on Field Day.  Her skin still gets itchy at nights,even as the rash fades, despite the regular applications of cortisone cream.These things always take a while to heal. All the more reason for me to don surgical glove, long sleeved tops and pull the baby poison oak plants out for disposal.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Ants

All of a sudden, they're all over the news.
Ever since House Minority Leader John Boehner opined in an interview:

"Boehner criticized the financial regulatory overhaul compromise reached last week between House and Senate negotiators as an overreaction to the financial crisis that triggered the recession. The bill would tighten restrictions on lending, create a consumer protection agency with broad oversight power and give the government an orderly way to dissolve the largest financial institutions if they run out of money.
"This is killing an ant with a nuclear weapon," Boehner said. What's most needed is more transparency and better enforcement by regulators, he said.

And was promptly pounced on by no less than President Obama:
"Obama struck out at Boehner (R-Ohio) during a town hall meeting in Racine, Wis., for saying the Wall Street reform bill was akin to using a nuclear weapon to kill an ant.

"That’s right. He compared the financial crisis to an ant," Obama said, according to prepared remarks. "The same financial crisis that led to the loss of nearly eight million jobs. The same crisis that cost people their homes and their lives' savings."


Coincidentally, or maybe not, S had made a claymation film three days ago. It was titled "The Ants", about a tiny man character who sees mini-soldiers tinier than him rolling a ball with great diligence and thoughtlessly crushes them underfoot. A short moment later, as he plays with a large boulder, he is crushed in turn by a large foot. (No ants were involved or injured during this filming.)

The next day was when the Anthology of Ant references started.

But S is definitely proving to be a psychic of sorts predicting the next keyword of the day. I can't wait to see what the next film and news cycle bring.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Dancing Impressions

Another school year's end, another 'debut' dance recital, another rite of passage.
The dancer danced wonderfully, the costumes were gorgeous, the stage settings were fabulous, the footwork was fantastic, the choreography was superlative, the arrangements and food were excellent...
But...the music was blah and a tad too loud, the air-conditioning inefficient, the speeches tedious, the makeup/abhinaya inadequate, the gentleman in front blocked the view...
Why do we in the Indian diaspora subject ourselves to the rigors of  organizing and viewing Arangetrams (of dance, and more recently, of music, as well)? Is it our answer to the  bat mitzvahs and quincenearas and graduation parties? Raama Bharadvaj has a fairly comprehensive article on the phenomenon.
There's a tremendous amount of hard work,effort and planning that goes into these events, which are now conducted on par with weddings, in many ways. Maybe some treat it as a sort of dry run to the wedding that they will have to conduct years in future. But for some, it may be an acknowledgement of the fact that in living outside India, there is only a miniscule chance that a purely traditional wedding  with their daughter as the premier element will be possible in future.
Cost is a prime factor, as is the parents' ability to pay. The numbers I cited in an earlier post on "The Bharatanatyam Blues" have now ballooned from a few thousand to at least few 10s of thousand dollars, on average. Inflation strikes, as it always does. It has gotten so expensive that parents now weigh the prospect of spending the equivalent of a year's college tuition on a single event to highlight their daughter's achievement.
But is it the start of a true dance career? Maybe in the case of 2 out of 10 arangetrams performed. The remaining treat it as a culmination of their dancing career and promptly march off to college to major in biology, physics, math, etc. and move in on their eventual career goals of becoming doctors, lawyers,investment bankers, scientists, engineers...
Life goes on, another check mark is in the book of achievements, another paragraph in the resume.
For the few, dance is truly a way of life, an end in itself.

Links:
Arangetram planning and resources
A History of the cultural and social implications of Arangetrams.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

A Beary Cautionary Tale (by M)

Once there was a bear who was very rich and lived in a mansion in a beautiful forest.








He spent all his money on going to a tanning salon and went to an A.T.M.
When he got to his account he noticed something shocking. He was bankrupt.
Since he was poor he could not pay house taxes. He ended up having to live and sleep in a garbage can for the rest of his life.

--------The End--------


(Pretty hilarious how she managed to weave in lots of current event references!)

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Royal Quandary

A week ago, I attended a concert by a scion of the Travancore royal family at our local temple. To me, it was a double anticipation, not only of letting the music wash over me, but of maybe hearing echoes of my guru, who had also taught the vocalist during the same years that I was learning from him.
With my usual penchant for rushing around with near-misses, I almost crashed into the gentleman and his accompanists as I made a bee-line for the auditorium, angling for a good seat before the crowds came in.
He had just taken off his sandals to enter the temple.  I slowed down, trying not to trip on the piles of footwear in my path.Would we start on time, or was it to be Indian Standard Time (aka 1/2 -1 hour late)?
I entered a dark auditorium, along with another couple. No one else was there, just a lit stage and dimmed lights. We sat there, patiently waiting for more audience to materialize. It was, after all, a long weekend, with a heavy out-of-town crowd and overflowing parking lots to match.
Slowly a few more people started creeping in. One lady sat near me. "This isn't enough crowd. Let me go and ask my husband to make an announcement." After multiple announcements, about  fifteen minutes later, the crowd reached a respectable level.  It was almost time for the 6 pm concert to start.
The accompanists (violin and percussion) entered, quite regal in their stride and attitude. A little further behind, very unassuming in dress and demeanour, came the star of the show. As he walked down the aisle towards the stage, the cultural events committee chair (or whatever his official title is) came rushing up and conferred with him in whispers. The chairman took to the mike for an announcement.
"We are sorry to be unable to start on time. The temple event is getting delayed and we can't start till it is completed. The concert will likely be able to start around 7 pm."
Everyone in the audience looked a bit blue in the face. Asking an audience to sit for an extra hour waiting for a concert that they had taken pains to be on time for isn't the happiest of situations.
"Of course, we have to wait for the Lord's events to be complete. What is a concert delay in the face of that?", the chairman attempted some philosophizing levity, which fell flat.
The vocalist and accompanists were fussed over and pampered, in exchange for the delay. "Coffee, tea...". A few new arrivals elicited a buzz of excitement. Some of them had driven very far for the concert and photo ops and happily posed away for the photographer clicking away studiously.
"All clear, the event at the temple is over, you can start the concert now." This was after 45 minutes of watching the schmoozing. Big sigh of relief all around, as the artistes took to the stage.
The concert started off briskly, with a composition by his illustrious ancestor from a couple of hundred years ago, until it started going awry. What should have been a short succinct exposition went on and on and on, endlessly, as he descended into technical dissections of the notes delineating the raga. It was an extraordinary mimicking of the technique of his most recent guru. This guru wasn't the same as our common teache; he is a musician and composer of immense fame and equally immense ego, whose instruction seems to have completely taken over the style in which his pupil sings. Unfortunately, it is not a style that is easy on the listeners, demanding that they accept the contortions and twistings of the basic notes of the raga, technical excellence in exchange for the soul of the raga. Many years ago,I have once walked out on a concert of this last guru, uncomfortable with the turn taken by the music, which was hard on my relatively-inexperienced ears. I suppose it is to the credit of the disciple that I could survive staying through his whole concert.
Echoes of my own guru came faintly in the ever-popular 'Endaro mahanubhavulu', but it is too well-known a song for clear identifications of the style of singing as proceeding from one teacher. That was perhaps the only composition sung that adhered to classical norms. Almost all the rest took on strange forms, familiar yet unfamiliar, as the comfort zone of those of us in the audience who were steeped in multiple renditions of the old favorites was totally washed away.
The only respite we had were the interludes of stricter classicism practiced by the violinist and mridangam player. The singer had us as a semi-captive audience, not daring to walk out (except, I did sneak out briefly to eat in the cafeteria, something which I don't normally do, but deemed wise in this case, not wanting to risk a headache on the long drive back home).
The front-seaters sat nodding and tapping with every appearance of enjoyment, while I closed my eyes and wondered when the gimmickry would end. It did, around 9 pm, when the 'cultural committee chair' once again took to the stage briefly as a burly gentleman in utility clothes showed up with a slip of paper.
It was  a warning that 'license plate XYZ from Michigan was being towed and if the owner was in the audience, would they please come out'. Nobody rushed out. The concert would continue, as the singer took special requests from the audience, who were apparently very well-versed in some more obscure songs that I had never heard before.
The vocalist wondered aloud: "Shall I end it now, I thought that the other person was a bouncer that was sent to clear me off the stage", as the audience laughed. And so it was time to end, even over the raucous protests of a few who wanted to hear their (and the singer's ) favorite raga.
"Another time", promised the prince."The next time may be 15 years from now, considering that the last time I sang here was 15 years ago."
CCChair (during the Vote of Thanks) :" We have been regaled by a prince, where in an earlier time, it would have been roles reversed."
On looking back, that was very true of this concert. The singer was less of a professional who had an audience to please and more of a connoisseur of his own and the accompanist's performance on stage. He had fun, the audience perhaps less so.  The upshot, I think, is that he conveyed an inimitable sense of enjoying what he did, without the airs of more practiced musicians.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

My Bad Bro

A few weeks ago, my cell phone rang with the special tone reserved for text messages. I scrambled for the phone and looked at the message. It said plainly : "Hi".  I couldn't identify who it came from, except that it appeared to be a local cell phone number.
Next, when it rang again shortly, it was a message from my mother, signed by her. I looked at the number and it appeared to be the same as the earlier one, so marked that up in my cell phone directory as 'Amma'.
Some days later, I received a couple of puzzling text messages from 'Amma', something about "Whassup bro", with some added commentary that seems too prurient for a family blog. I deleted the messages, wondering whether I had wrongly tagged some strange phone number with 'Amma'. I  just hoped this troll would vanish, without giving further trouble.
But there was more to come. I lent the phone to S for use while he went to the local Science Center. He returned it to me after the trip, asking "Amma, did you send me a text message while I was there? I didn't read it. though. Or maybe, was it from Aachi (grandma)?"
I examined the phone. It was a 'rooster and cat' joke. (I will not print it here, but the curious can google it, if they choose.) Did S read it? Why was he insistent he didn't read it? Or maybe he read it but chose to keep silent about the contents. It hardly matters.
I was getting nervous. Who is this mysterious personage tagged 'Amma' who sends adult jokes and random incomprehensible ramblings to my cell phone?
Yesterday, the phone went off again, with sure enough, another text from 'Amma'. Only, this time it was "Yo bro have a good time at the prom, From: Amma".
Ah, mystery solved at last. Some gentleman who had entered the wrong phone number to a friend and was texting me thinking I was him. Not a phone-stalker as I had feared.
I promptly sent a text message back this time. "Sorry wrong number"
He sent back a puzzled "Huh?"
I sent "I keep getting messages but am not the right person. Check your telephone number before sending."
A few minutes later, " Oh my bad bro"
Hopefully, that's the last message I receive from 'My Bad Bro' who masquerades (or was forced to masquerade as) 'Amma'.

Update:
On comparing notes with my husband, he has the exact same number listing the same messages. This is one heck of a spammer. Unfortunately, our cell phone carriers don't provide any way to block particular numbers, so we're stuck with this 'Bad Bro', unless we turn off all text message service, I guess.

Update 2:
This NY Times article suggests a way out of spammer hell. I'm going to try it.
-------------


In the meantime, as I wouldn't wish to leave you without a little entertainment after ploughing through all this mess, here's a real rooster and cat video for your edification.

Monday, May 10, 2010

"Mozart Effect-Shmozart Effect"

Believe it (or in it) or not. That's the name of a scientific paper published in a journal on the validity of the famed 'Mozart Effect'. I love the name, more so that a scientist dared to use it in the actual title of his paper.
"The transient enhancement of performance on spatial tasks in standardized tests after exposure to the first movement “allegro con spirito” of the Mozart sonata for two pianos in D major (KV 448) is referred to as the Mozart effect since its first observation by Rauscher, Shaw, and Ky (1993). These findings turned out to be amazingly hard to replicate, thus leading to an abundance of conflicting results. Sixteen years after initial publication we conduct the so far largest, most comprehensive, and up-to-date meta-analysis (nearly 40 studies, over 3000 subjects), including a diversity of unpublished research papers to finally clarify the scientific record about whether or not a specific Mozart effect exists...."
The clincher:
" On the whole, there is little evidence left for a specific, performance-enhancing Mozart effect."
So much for the tinkling sounds of Mozart's lullaby that played whenever I turned the key of  S's musical mobile, and then when the keys of M's play gym were pressed, playing the opening strains of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. Or the ubiquitous Baby Einstein videos playing variants of Mozart in millions of homes where anxious parents rushed to enhance their babies' spatial skill abilities.
Regarding the role of music in general to enhance learning, this recent study indicates it makes very little difference:
"Verbal learning during the exposure to different background music varying in tempo and consonance did not influence learning of verbal material. There was neither an enhancing nor a detrimental effect on verbal learning performance. The EEG data suggest that the different acoustic background conditions evoke different cortical activations. The reason for these different cortical activations is unclear. The most plausible reason is that when background music draws more attention verbal learning performance is kept constant by the recruitment of compensatory mechanisms."
This might account for the effects of my listening to old Bollywood tunes on the late night radio show. For a while, it contributed to lack of attention to my studies and more to the music, as I tried to figure out the lyrics. I took to noting them down in a blue diary. Once I was done, it was relegated to the background the next time I heard it. I don't know if it helped me in my exam preparations, but I was one of the "Most Wanted" members of the class Antakshari team.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Mother's Day...mumble, mumble...

"Happy Mother's Day", announces the email inbox. "Mother's day sale at B&N (or Amazon or wherever)" shouts another exuberant email header.
Thankfully, no more after today. At least, not for another year. Next week will start the onslaught of "Have you planned for Father's day and the wonderful gift/card you are going to buy?"

Yay for all the hand-drawn cards and heartfelt scribbles, the bouquets, the restaurant dinners and over-the-top gifts! We children do it dutifully, because to not do so, would be to not conform to social expectations of using this day to appreciate our moms. We think that it maybe absolves us from all the times we just brushed off Mom's tired nagging with "There she goes again."
But what goes around comes around.It just takes the passage of time to realize that  for all the 'attitudes' you came up with in your time with your mom, you are now repeating the pattern with your own kids.
What does Mom truly want? And not just only on Mother's Day.
Happy Kids. Healthy Kids. Successful Kids.Happy Me.
In that order.
If we can't have it all, as happens so often, we'll take 'Happy Kids' over everything else.
Thank you very much.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Tulip Time is almost over

So here are some of the tulips from my front yard. My sister had these shipped over direct from Netherlands last autumn, as a birthday gift. I wasn't sure that they would survive the rapacious squirrels and voracious deer, but survive, and thrive, they have.



Monday, April 26, 2010

Alien Nation

Just as Arizona passes a law that permits its law enforcement officials to stop any likely looking suspect and demand "Your papers, please", we have this strange possibility posited by Stephen Hawking, of all people, regarding how Aliens from other planets may regard humans on Earth- No more than ants to be crushed under feet, if human history and the treatment of conquered peoples is any indication.
S recently made a stop-motion animation cartoon which portrays a couple of robotic 'aliens' who approach a manned barricade, which they proceed to barrel through with ease, despite the increasing sophistication of the arms used to guard it. At the end, one of the aliens keels over, and the other scoots away in a hurry. All this, at the sight of a sign demanding "Immigration: Passports please". This was from a few weeks ago, before the Arizona law was passed in the legislature.
I knew it, S is psychic!

Monday, April 19, 2010

Conversations with an Auto Mechanic

"Is that a picture of your grandson?", I asked, trying to make small talk as I waited for the mechanic to finish printing out my bill for the car inspection. He gave me a strange look. "That's my son."
Oops. Time to recalibrate. "Looks very cute and quite a handful. How old is he?", I attempted to save my lame guessing from further glares. "Three. He's quite a ham in front of the camera."
 This does it, I guess. I shouldn't remind a guy that he looks older than his years. Who knows whether he will even give me the time of the day the next time I call for an appointment.

-----

My car has been making strange vrooming sounds for a couple of days now. Driving 60 miles daily, I have no choice but to get it looked at sooner rather than later. I go online, find the mechanic has an online appointment making form. Alleluia! I don't have to try catching him on the phone. I can schedule it online.

I show up there the next morning at the appointed time. He had just finished printing out the fax informing him of my appointment.
"This your appointment?" he asked, waving the sheet.
"Yes", and I launched into an explanation of the problem I was having. "How's your kid now? Almost ready for kindergarten yet?", I point to the photos behind him.
His face lights up. He starts off on a long tale of how his son will start kindergarten next year and is looking forward to a friend's birthday, except for the fact that he can't attend, since he is going to Philly with his mom. "I don't care that much for my sis-in-law", he guffaws." You know how these things are. I go there once in 2 years."
"Where do you work?"
On hearing that I work for a medical device company, he launches into an expansive description of his and his friend's medical issues. I probably know more about his health than is now polite to discuss, HIPAA laws prevent me from divulging that.
(Note: I am a google-doctor and do not possess any medical degree.)
"Now let's check the problem in your car. Do you want to ride along?" He is quite affable as he starts up the car, listens attentively to the vroom and brings it back to the garage. "We'll put it up on the lift and check. Sounds like an exhaust leak somewhere."
I check my watch surreptitiously. Magically, despite the leisurely pace of conversation, only half an hour has elapsed since I reached the place.
 He says he'll order the parts and I'm to bring in the car to have it fixed the next morning, since he is aware I must be needing to get to work. He waves me off cheerfully.

----

The next morning, I take the car in and plunk myself on the old leather sofa in his dark little office room. He is buried behind the huge desk and counter, cloistered with a gentleman in a cap. Much muttering over taxes and my ears perk up when he mentions the township where I live. Could he live there too? I revert to my book and mp3 player. The tax guy leaves after getting the required signatures. About half an hour later, the assistant mechanic drops my keys back at the desk. The repair is done. It's time for me to pay and leave. I stand up at the counter and then the inquisition starts.
"What do you think of all this big government and the way they use our tax money? Squandering it away on extensions of unemployment and such. It makes me sick to think how hard I work, and some just take it easy and get unemployment instead of good paying job."
I hedge, answering that while people taking unemployment just as the easy way out, there are many other good things our taxes pay for, such as schools, roads, police forces, etc. The conversation shifts to schools, and as I guessed, he does live in the same township as me. The earlier school district he lived in has now become filled with all sorts of 'riff raff', as he calls them. I take a chance, pointing out that 'riff raff' are people too, just poorer. "Takes all kinds to make a world."
And it proceeds into friendly inquiries about where I come from, naming conventions in India, why it is that all the best IT people are from India. I point out that it's just the pattern of immigration being encouraged in the current era, just as East Europeans and Italians came in droves to work in the newly industrialized US in the late 19th century and early 20th century. "Greeks are very good painters", he muses over my assertion.
"That's what they may have started off as. But after a generation or two and decent college educations, they'll be the doctors and engineers and business owners of tomorrow."
I glance at my watch. I have precisely half an hour in which to reach work in time for a meeting. "I must be going now, have a meeting." He prints out my bill with alacrity, I don't glance at the amount as I sign. "$53", he announces as he runs the credit card through. I'm surprised. I had figured with parts and stuff that the bill would have run to around $80. But I have no time to ask about that.
I suppose now that conversations with a mechanic do count for quite a bit of goodwill, despite my earlier doubts about how he might take some of my opinions.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Anne Frank Uncensored

I had no idea. The version of Anne Frank's diary that I had read many years ago was but 60% of her original diary. The remaining 30% had been excised by her father Otto Frank before its original publication in the 1950's. I had read a reprint of that edition from the 1980's.
A few days ago, my children and I sat down to watch a darker Anne Frank than I remembered from the book, no longer quite as saccharine, and definitely much more in conflict with her mother than I had ever thought.
M tentatively suggested at the end, "Can I read this when I'm older?" to which I readily agreed. Maybe, when she is around 13.
S was silent on whether he would like to read the book. But then he's read more of the horrors of the Holocaust from Elie Wiesel's "Night". The diary of Anne Frank pales in comparison as far as chronicling those, her view is limited to the claustrophobic confines of the Secret Annexe where she lived with her family during the two long years before discovery and the final terrible months in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
It was only today that I realized that an 'uncensored' version of the diary had been published in 1997. This contains Anne's unflattering adolescent assessments of her mother and investigations of her own sexuality that Otto Frank had chosen to keep out of the earlier edition. He died in 1980, and the successors to his estate are evidently less circumspect about full disclosure.
I don't know how those who might have seen the earlier edition of the book as too saintly and cloying have reacted to the newer edition. Does it take some of the shine off their vision of Anne? Perhaps it does.
To me, it tells us that human frailties transcend the urge to idealize, and ultimately burnish rather than tarnish the humanity of Anne Frank's story and diary.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Too much of a good thing

There is such a thing as too much chocolate.

We just got back from a two day trip to Hershey, PA,  the 'Sweetest Place on Earth'.
I've always had an affinity for chocolate, lovingly lingering on those tiny bars of Cadbury's milk chocolate that were a rare treat in childhood. We had to study how Theobroma Cacao was cultivated and cocoa harvested and processed in the Ivory Coast and Ghana for a whole unit in our 10th grade geography class. I still remember marvelling over the size of the pods in the photos. No words in the textbook of the Mayans or Aztecs, a missing part of the story deftly dismissed in a single line about South American origins of the tree.
After several years in the U.S., I've been able to indulge at will in that sweet pastime of buying and eating Hershey's bars or Kisses when the mood strikes, or when the Halloween candy is in, or the Easter sales and Christmas sales are round the corner.
This year, we actually paid a visit to that shrine to Chocolate: Hershey, Pennsylvania. It was a model town back in the 19th century, the brainchild of Milton S. Hershey, built around the chocolate factory. Sort of like Willie Wonka, but with human workers instead of Oompa-Loompas. And of course, human workers need much more than just cacao beans to stay alive. So they were recipients of the well-planned munificence of Milton Hershey, who left much of his fortune to establishing charitable trusts that ensured the well-being of future generations of Hersheyites. The town and the charity school he founded bear his imprimatur, to this day.
The air there smells of chocolate, the streetlights are shaped like Hershey's Kisses, the main buildings on the main avenue are museums to Hershey's life and times. The crowds come pouring in, every spring, as the theme park with its roller coasters and rides opens, and the Disneyesque entertainments of the Chocolate World keep the tourists entertained, with everything from '3-D' shows to 'Chocolate tasting tours' to simulated 'Factory Tours'. The real business of Hershey's goes on quietly, away from the tourist paradise, a large antiseptic factory in white and blue, tucked away on the far end of the main avenue as it peters out into the countryside.
It's a place well worth visiting, and will work wonders for those who are in the mode to either indulge or rid themselves of an addiction to chocolate.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Nun the less...

With all this news about nuns backing the health care reform, over the objections of their superiors in the church (men, of course), it brought back memories of the women of steel who taught me and other generations of infidels, toiling away in relative obscurity.

I went to a convent school, at the time the only option for a decent 'English medium' education in India. The nuns were all of the Carmelite order, and we called them all Sister so-and-so, whether they were fully-professed or still novices. There was a Mother-superior and a couple of ancient fragile Mothers, who were ceremoniously brought out on their feast days, to wave weakly at the rows of girls in uniform lined up under the blazing sun at mid-day, no shadows cast by the trees lining the ground.

Sister B was the headmistress of the school I went to. To hear my mother tell it, she took me to be interviewed by Sister B, who was instantly charmed by the outlandish American accent with which I spoke and instantly promised admission.  She would stop by every now and then to check on my progress in class in the early years, but I never really got to know her as well as when I reached the last two years in school.
Sister B would stop occasionally by at my piano practice, a daily ritual that I completed after school without fail, and inquire about the latest books that I was reading. I once pointed her in the direction of Rumer Godden's "In This House of Brede", saying she might like it, since it was about Benedictine nuns. She went ahead and ordered the whole set of Godden's nun series, including "Black Narcissus" about a nun who runs away from her Carmelite nunnery with the gardener or such. I think she stopped asking for book recommendations after that.

Sister Y was the replacement as headmistress when Sister B was called back to the main convent headquarters. Her tortoiseshell glasses gave her a more forbidding aspect than the bland moon-shaped ones of Sister B. I remember clashing with her early on.
"Sujatha,", she said, as I argued about missed points in a Mathematics test for an answer given correctly, despite small errors in the work-sheet. " I cannot give you full marks for that answer."
"But Mary did the same thing with her answer, and you have given her full marks!"
"Let me explain something to you. If there are two pupils and I expect more of one because she is of privileged background, I may not award her the points without the proper work-steps, while I may award the points as an encouragement to some other student who could do with it."
"But....it isn't fair. In Maths, if you give the correct answer, you should get the marks!"
My argument went unheeded. It was my first exposure to the concept of 'differential marking', even for subjects like Maths, where a wrong answer is wrong and a right answer is right.

Sister F was rumored to be of a fisherman family, and had gained her family immense prestige when she was accepted into the convent. But she had a bee in her bonnet, and would berate all students at every possible opportunity. "Scrape off the nail polish!", "Remove the bindi"...This last was met by my 'puzzled' query "I thought we learned in Civics that we have freedom of religion in India'. That earned me a sharp admonishment. I went home to my mother, who suggested that I ask her for a written note stating that 'No bindis were allowed'.
That was the last I heard of it. No further comments when I sported a bindi to school. But no compliments on my school work either.

I put the behavior down to incipient fanaticism about religion, and was puzzled when she casually quoted stories from the Mahabharata when discussing a lesson. Why, she knew of the Mahabharata well enough to use it as a lesson pointer! Who would have thought?

Sister H was the beloved of all the students. A novice, she was freckled faintly, with tiny red curls peeping out surreptitiously from under her nun's cap. The rumors flew thick and fast. She had been headed for a stellar career as an air-hostess, when she heeded the call of the Lord and joined the convent. We wondered at her dedication, and the more religious among the class practically anointed her their patron saint, wishing that they could follow in her footsteps when they grew up.
Some years later, talking to another student who had been in her class, I was shocked but not quite surprised to hear that she had left the convent before taking final vows. The religious life had not been as much to her liking. I hope she is happy somewhere with  a family of her own.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Friday, March 19, 2010

Memory vs. Memory

(Cross-posted from Accidental Blogger)
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One Holocaust survivor, Berthe Meijer, says she remembers stories told by Anne Frank to her when she was about  6 years old, not too long before Anne died in the camp at Bergen-Belsen. Meijer's memoir (in Dutch) is due out soon.
But others have cast doubts on her story, tagging it as 'too good to be true'. Hannah Pick-Goslar, a friend of Anne Frank who 'saw' Anne at Bergen-Belsen, apparently criticized Meijer's account, saying that Anne was in no shape to be 'telling stories'.
Meijer defends herself  by stating:
"How do they think they can look into my memory?" Meijer said in a telephone interview.
...
"I make it clear in my book, some things are vague, some things are crystal clear," she said. "For me, the memories are paired with the emotions that went with them."
She said Frank was very ill, but still mustered the strength to tell short fairy tales while lying in the camp barracks. Meijer said she remembers it because the stories gave her a feeling of escape from the horror that surrounded her."
From Hannah Pick-Goslar's account:

"It wasn’t the same Anne"

"Anne came to the barbed wire. I couldn't see her because the barbed wire was stuffed with straw. The lamps weren't very good. I may have seen a glimpse of a shadow. It wasn't the same Anne that I had known. She was a broken girl. I probably was, too, yet is was terrible. She began to cry right away and told me, 'I don't have any parents any more. My mother is dead.'" That was true, but she couldn't have known it. Edith Frank died of exhaustion in Auschwitz in early January 1945. "Anne thought that her father had been gassed, too. But Mr Frank still looked very young and healthy and the Germans didn't pay any attention to the age of those they wanted to gas. They made their selection based on appearance. I always say that if Anne had known that her father was still alive she would have had the strength to survive, because she died right before the end. It was just a matter of days."
...

A package for Anne

"Then she said, 'We have nothing to eat here, almost nothing, and we're all cold. We have no clothes and I'm very thin and my head has been shaved.' Then we took up a collection – we we really saved everything, a crust of bread or a sock or a glove, anything that gave a little warmth. My friends also gave me something for Anne. And I succeeded in throwing the package over the barbed wire barricade. But I heard screaming and I called out, 'What happened?' And Anne answered, 'Oh, the woman next to me caught it and and she won't give it back.' So she started screaming, of course. I calmed her a bit and said, 'I'll try once again, but I don't know if it will work.' We talked together once more, two or three days later. And I really did throw another package over, and that time she caught it, that's the main thing."
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We all know that memory can be a tricky thing. And the younger you are when the memories formed, the harder it can be to remember some specifics. Even memories of older people take on haziness around the edges of the main events.
Who's to say that Meijer was lying, when by Pick-Goslar's own words, Anne was still moving around, able to speak and catch packages imperfectly, before the final bout of illness that likely took her life?
Or is Pick-Goslar herself a victim of imperfect memory, just as she casts doubts on the imperfect nature of Meijer's memories?