Sunday, July 31, 2016

A Time to Rally-2

Much like 8 years ago, the email arrived in my inbox: campaign event in Pittsburgh on July 30, with Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine. Should I RSVP or not? I remembered M, she might like to go. So I asked her and she was excited about the chance. I sent in the RSVP and received a simple confirmation email with the time and location.

Would we get good seats, how long might we have to wait in the queue, should we take food and water? How close to the speakers would we be? All questions running through my head yesterday.
We reached the venue, the David Lawrence Convention center, to find a long line that snaked all around the block. It looked like it was going to be at least an hour or more of waiting. M and I joined the line. We had not gotten too far when the 'entertainment' started. A large limo with waving flags and a sticker 'Women for Trump' circled past us. The plumpish older lady and her young son ahead of us yelled at the car "Show the taxes!". Shortly later, the lady in front started off on a Trump diatribe, listing his manifold sins, while I nodded sagely and smiled/laughed at appropriate intervals. Another protester walked by with a bizarre 'Hillary killed Harambe' sign, and a couple of people handed out some anti-LGBT end times style tracts. The Trump car circled twice and duty done, vanished.
And of course there were the badge peddlers and shirt-salespeople. A family group ahead of us got Marijuana leaf buttons for all the kids, which had me puzzled. Maybe it was their family's big 'issue', though I couldn't make out any connection the young age of the kids ( 1 preschooler and couple of grade schoolers).

Another group of Trump supporters closer to the entrance started shouting slogans as we reached that part of the line. Lady and son ahead of us "Show the taxes!" shut them up quite quickly. Did they not have a suitable rebuttal to that? 

 One and half hours later, we made it to the entrance and rode up the escalators to the ballroom where the rally was being held. "Sign up to volunteer", "Sign up for campaign updates", or even "Sorry, no umbrellas- Place your umbrellas there, and hopefully you be able to find them after the event." Next was security, with people examining the contents of purses, and a metal detector that uttered not a beep as M and I passed through it.

We entered the ballroom and were immediately horrified at the crush of bodies, more bodies and particularly annoying, very tall bodies who blocked any reasonable view of the stage, even if we stood on tippy toes. The event was supposed to start in an hour and M started griping immediately. I tried shifting this way and that, but it was obvious that this wasn't going to work. Over what seemed like a near eternity of 5 minutes, I asked M to snake forward, finding little gaps in the wall of people. We stood next to a couple with young kids and got lucky. A blue-shirted volunteer came forward to lead the family to the Promised Land of Less Crowd, and we followed in their wake and reached an uncrowded section of the hall, where, 'Hallelujah!',  we could see the podium from where Hillary would speak, and there was space, precious space, to sit down on the carpet if we needed.

One and half hours later, alternating sitting and waiting, and watching the cute little 3 year old (very well-behaved, and playing with his Ninja turtle figurines), the speeches finally started. From the organizers, from assorted city and union council people. The celebrity level started ramping up slowly. Senate candidate Katie McGinty gave a rousing speech, Braddock mayor Fetterman, who had been a strong Bernie supporter earlier, made the case for electing Hillary to the Bernie fans in the crowd. Congressman Doyle spoke, bashing Trump aplenty. Mark Cuban of Shark Tank fame...
M was thrilled, since she loves to watch Shark Tank. Cuban spoke of his childhood/school days and early career/failures in Pittsburgh. The crowd loved it and clapped prodigiously every time he inserted yet another Pittsburgh reference in his speech.Then he too started off on the enemy and awarded him the ultimate Pittsburgh insult of  'jagoff" (And no the term doesn't mean what you think it does. Check the link, I promise, it's safe and gives a good explanation.)

M spent her time fiddling with some game of her phone, texting a friend, watching kid play with Ninja turtles and handing them back to him when he dropped one, darting complaining looks at me and wondering out loud when a 'good speaker' would come. 'It's so boring, all these speeches!', until Mark Cuban made his appearance.

He finally segued into an announcement of the entry of the Clinton-Kaine duo, along with their spouses. Bill Clinton garnered an extra loud applause. Tim Kaine spoke briefly, a rehash of his introduction, a few folksy gut punches to the opponent and some likeable but not particularly memorable anecdote. He reminds you of the friendly next-door neighbor who can be relied upon to help out in times of need, general good guy vibes.

Hillary spoke next, veering from policy wonkish lines, to implicit condemnation of Trump's lack of temperament and qualifications for the job of president, to a couple of cute anecdotes. She's not a natural yet, and comfortingly that is the very thing that makes me want to trust what she is saying. It seems to show someone who is more concerned with results than the ability to convey inspiration to the public, of which we have had plenty these last  8 years. Not to say that Obama didn't have results, it is amazing what he has managed to get done, even amidst the push and tug of highly partisan politics.

Finally, speech over, the far end of the crowd started to melt away, while people closer to the candidates moved for a handshakes with Hillary. M wanted to see if she could get in for a closer look, but the crowd was too much to weave through, and Hillary was moving too quickly down the line for us to be able to reach there.

We stepped out, I located my umbrella with amazingly little difficulty among several thousand others, it being in exactly the spot where I had placed it. As we headed down the escalators, a trio of Cosplay characters from Star Wars posed for our photos, waving at M as she took a last photo of the day.

Quite a contrasting experience from the previous campaign experience with Hillary eight years ago, or tthe Obama rally in the Mellon Arena!

And now for the photos ( final photo credit : M)

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Scentsational Summer

I know, it's an oft-overused pun. But this year I have been noticing it all the more. Now, reminded by this article written by my friend and erstwhile co-blogger Ruchira Paul at 3QuarksDaily, I venture to write of my own olfactory experiences this year, with a few photos to go with them.

Summer is the time of the scent of fresh cut grass, usually on those dry hot days when the lawnmowers will not get clogged up with wet intake. It's a dry green smell, if scents could have a color.
Then there is the wild honeysuckle that lines the paths of the walking trail near my house. I walked along it on weekends, with a group of friends who inhaled its fragrance and tried to identify the flowers. 'Lilac' suggested one, 'No, no, it's called something else.' said another. "Why don't you take a photo and do a reverse image search?" I suggested. "Good idea, I'll try that."
The next week, I asked her whether she was able to find it, but she said it was a fruitless search, as she had photographed it at the wrong angle. I pulled out my phone and took a wild guess- 'Honeysuckle." and there it was, the exact flower that I had photographed.

As the early summer warmth gives way to mid-summer heat and thunderstorms, there's a new odor along with that of dried grass and mulch baking. It's a sweet smell which I identified only around specific patches of grass, home to no more than a few hundred clover plants, humming with bees and the preferred haunt of wild jackrabbits. These are the small unspectacular white clovers, not as pretty as their pink larger cousins, but infinitely more fragrant in groupings.

And of course the pretty-in-pink one, which is spectacular, but doesn't grow in groupings large enough to generate quite the same fragrance.

At one point during the walk, I detected a slightly different fragrance than the clover, near the house which is haven to a group of turkeys in the backyard. There was a small shrub by the mailbox with white flowers that seemed to be the source of the scent. I bent down and sniffed, and there it was. I have no idea what shrub this is, so I took a photo of the flowers, naturally. But Google failed me on this one, the reverse image search just turning up a gazillion white flowers that bore no resemblance to the flowers. So here is the photo. If you are able to identify, dear reader, please leave a comment below with the name of the plant. The flowers were approximately an inch in diameter, for a sense of the scale in the photo.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention my Home Depot-purchased jasmine plant from several years ago. It never fails to put out a multitude of fragrant white blooms in the heat of the summer, and this year is no exception. Nothing like the whiff of jasmine to bring back memories of India!

And finally, just for fun, and a splash of color after all that white, here are unfragrant but lovely denizens of my yard, including a delicate but beautiful mushroom which may very well have served as parasol design inspiration, and a Behren's silverspot butterfly feeding on the coneflower (endangered visitor, from what I gathered).

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Stars, Earth, Sky

No, not that kind of star : not the big ball of burning gases, billions of miles away in space.

When I was a little girl, I loved to watch costume drama movies in the cinema theaters. Any old theater, with its rickety wooden seats, peeling screen and crumbling plaster walls and ceiling would do. The moving images on those screens mesmerized me, as did the stories of  kings and queens of yore, the smiling-faced benevolent gods and goddesses.

One favorite was the Tamil classic film "Veerapandiya Kattabomman", a story of an insurgent king who dared to challenge the British East India company interlopers in his native land. It was hard enough to see a movie once in the theater, but this was one movie that I managed to catch at least three times before my watching spree ended. It resulted in my firm conviction that the king Veerapandiya Kattabomman looked exactly like the lead actor Sivaji Ganesan. Ergo, Sivaji Ganesan himself was Veerapandiya Kattabomman in all his glory.

A few years later, while visiting my aunt in Madurai, I spent a day in great excitement, having been informed of Sivaji Ganesan's pending visit to a Medical College exhibition, and  obtained a promise from my aunt to be taken to meet the great man himself. I walked through the various stalls and exhibits, laughing at the silly plastic skeletons, grimacing at the real ones, the eerie jars of formaldehyde with misshapen body parts, miscarried foetus or two... But my mind was counting down to when we would go to the reception tent and see the king, of course.

I was ushered to the reception seats and as I sat there, a bald gentleman of benevolent aspect and stout frame sat right next to me. He wore a white kurta and dhoti. I glanced at him and turned away, indifferent, my eyes still on the sharp lookout for Veerapandiyan in full court regalia. The function started and droned on interminably as boring speaker after boring speaker took the stage. Finally the call came for Sivaji Ganesan, and to my horror, it was the bald gentleman sitting next to me who stood up to speak.

My aunts and uncles still go into gales of laughter as they remember my reaction to the discovery that stars are down-to-earth people, who do not go about in full 'filmi' style when they are off-screen.

Now years later, I just smile and wonder, who was the real character? Is it the role inhabited by the actor playing a role or are we all just actors playing roles in a 3-D cinema space somewhere.


My mother had just recovered from a serious illness and was now flying to Netherlands to visit my sister. She boarded the flight from Abu Dhabi to Amsterdam, nursing a growing migraine that gets triggered by long hours in the confined space of an air cabin. As she sat, increasingly in pain, in her row, she decided to get the medication bottle from her bag and turned to her seat mate to help her with it. He was a short man wearing a black t-shirt and jeans, with abundant dark straight hair, a striking resemblance to some famous martial arts star in Hollywood. Could it be....No, no, it can't be. A Hollywood superstar would never travel coach on a commercial flight.
The gentleman was very kind and solicitous, helping my mother whenever she needed assistance, first with getting her bag down, then with offering his 'air sickness' bag, pouring out some ginger ale and generally being as unobtrusive as possible while she tried to sleep away the headache.
Half an hour before the flight was due to land, a flight stewardess rushed back "Mr.Chan, hope that you had a comfortable flight....Yadda, yadda, yadda..." My mother did a double take. Could it indeed be....
The flight landed. Mr.Chan helped get the bag down for my mother. As he handed it to her, she asked"May I know your name please?" He replied curtly "Jackie", as they filed out of the cabin.

Later, my sister joked,"You should have taken a selfie with Jackie Chan, to prove that you had indeed been sitting next to him on the flight!"

A star in the sky, indeed.

Friday, January 22, 2016

A Fine Bondage

"Did you hear about the children's book that was pulled from the shelves because it depicted happy smiling slaves?", my husband asked me the other day. I admitted that I had seen some headlines in passing, but not read any of the reports in depth.
Well, I read them today, particularly this report . The article raises a pertinent question: "Should we whitewash (pardon the expression) history in order to make it less scary for young children to read about it?"
By some accounts, Hercules, the 'chef' of the Washingtons' residence at Mt.Vernon, was accorded many privileges (we shall see more about this strange word further) that were unthinkable at the time. A couple of pages from G.W.P.Custis's memoirs (Martha Washington's son from her earlier marriage) refer to him as a sort of King of the Kitchen, as tyrannical with the kitchen help as he was a celebrated cook, a true 'artiste', as culinary masters were called in those days. Custis refers to Hercules as a sort of well-heeled dandy, meticulous about his clothes, and being allowed to walk around fashionably in the street, able to buy all that his permitted selling of 'slops from the kitchen'  to the tune of $100-200 annually, a considerable amount of money for anyone in those times.

The Wikipedia link of Hercules' story tells a starker tale, rather than the cheerful episode portrayed in the book of Hercules baking a cake with the assistance of his daughter Delia. The story by Ramin Ganeshram is a fictional episode, filled with the cutesy voice of a young child to appeal to the young reader, and colorful illustrations to boot.  Ganeshram has done her best to inject the little troubling details about the realities of Hercules' slavery in author's notes and such, but the small print  is not likely to get the reader's attention. The review of the book in couldn't have put it better:
"Gr 1–3—A troubling depiction of American slavery. In a famous Philadelphia kitchen, chef Hercules prepares to make the perfect birthday cake for his master, President George Washington. When he discovers that there is no more sugar in the pantry, Hercules scrambles to find a suitable substitute, enlisting the help of the other slaves and servants. Based on the real figure of Hercules, who was owned by the first president and served as his chef, the story is told through the eyes of Hercules's young daughter, Delia, who describes her papa as a "general in the kitchen." The text explains that Hercules was one of Washington's most trusted slaves and was given more freedom than most; he could be seen in fine clothes walking the streets of Philadelphia or enjoying tickets to the theater. The story revolves around Hercules, Delia, and the other slaves finding a replacement for the sugar and carefully baking the cake. Brantley-Newton's colorful, cartoon-style double-page illustrations, combined with the light tone of the text, convey a feeling of joyfulness that contrasts starkly with the reality of slave life. One spread depicts dancing feet and the hems of fancy dresses and shoes of the white revelers at the very top of the page. Hercules, Delia, and the other slaves are seen in the kitchen below, smiling with glee as they work on the cake, evoking a strangely cheerful and exuberant scene reminiscent of a Disney film. Later, when Washington congratulates Hercules on a job well done, Hercules responds, "An honor and a privilege, sir." Young readers without sufficient background knowledge about the larger context of American slavery may come away with a dangerously rosy impression of the relationship between slaves and slave owners, and those with a deeper understanding are likely to find this depiction offensive. An appended note explains that Hercules was a real person, now thought of by some culinary historians as "the first celebrity chef in America." Ganeshram states that Hercules eventually escaped but that his children, including narrator Delia, were owned by Martha Washington and remained enslaved their entire lives. The somber facts recounted in small print at the end of the author's note are unfortunately not reflected in either the text or the illustrations of the story that precedes them. Adding insult to injury, the back matter concludes with a recipe for "Martha Washington's Great Cake," courtesy of the Mount Vernon Ladies Association. VERDICT A highly problematic work; not recommended.—Kiera Parrott, School Library Journal"
I was first inclined to think that the whole episode of 'banning the book' was much ado about nothing, but after looking through the images of the book and comparing it in my mind with the story drawn by the historical record on the Wikipedia page, I'm inclined to agree with the reviewer above.It is dangerously saccharine and simplistic in the way the characters are portrayed.
Real life for the slaves (or 'enslaved workers' as the tour guides prefer to use as description in the current house tours of Mt.Vernon, for some reason) was hard and/or worse. The constant reminders of the fact that they were owned body and soul by another human would not have made for genuine smiles of happiness. Occasional small joys and satisfactions of the daily grind could not have alleviated the very real lifelong unhappiness of 'being owned'. So the point being made by the story is pure fiction, even if it has a few historical characters and fine print detailing the historical realities.

Hercules lived a life of bondage, from start till the point when he ran away from the Washington estate in early 1797. A 'house slave' of some high status, when he was in his chef's heyday, but descending to the field labor in the winter of 1796, after his son Richmond was accused of stealing money from a white man and suspected by Washington of attempting to plot an escape. They were demoted, in a manner of speaking, to pounding stones, clearing weeds etc. (From Wiki link : "Historian Anna Coxe Toogood found Hercules and Richmond listed in the Mount Vernon farm records during the winter of 1796-97. They and other domestic servants were assigned as laborers, to pulverize stone, dig brick clay, and grub out honeysuckle.") 

From an article in the New York Times, the real story of George Washington's slaves was not romantic, and was immeasurably harder than all soft-brushed pseudo-historical attempts to reconstruct the period. Delia continued through her life as a slave owned by Martha Washington and her descendants. Hercules himself succeeded in running away on Washington's 65th birthday, and that was truly a day that Hercules would have celebrated becoming a free man in his mind and body, no longer bound to utter silly platitudes similar to the one in the story book about being 'honored and privileged' to bake a birthday cake for the president.

The author Ramin Ganeshram complaining about her book being 'banned'