Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The tunes, they are changing...

I'm currently listening to Jay Z's 2001 masterpiece of an album The Blueprint. I don't actually own the full album- I'm streaming it from a website called lala which allows me to listen to almost anything I want, for free. No wonder the record industry, like the newspaper one, is dying. Yet, it has never been easier to listen to a variety of music and discover new artists and sounds than today, just with a google search. If I wanted to listen to yemeni folk music (like my roommate sometimes does) I could do it in a second and if I wanted to listen to amateur covers of John Mayer (shoot me now) I could watch the fools on youtube do that too.

Consider the following:
10 years ago we didn't have Itunes, the ipod (or at least not everyone had one), streaming music, downloads of singles. When you wanted to hear a song you had to wait for it to come on the radio or TV or get a friend to burn it for you- now we just google it on youtube and its always there to send and share via a quick link copy-pasted. We still had music videos on MTV and when you wanted to buy an album- you got to go to a store and buy the whole thing. We didn't have the ability to carry around thousands of songs in a device the size of a cigarette pack.

It's incredible when you think about it, isn't it? Well, i'm not the only person doing this kind of pondering. As the decade draws to a close (less than 20 days people), a lot of this collective reflection is bound to happen and is already coming out. I've been listening to and reading some really interesting pieces on the transformation of music in the 'aughts' (what are we going to call the next decade? I plump for the 20-somethings). When you reflect on it the 'aughts' completely revolutionized how we listen to, buy, share and experience music (I'm talking mostly about pop music here).

NPR's All songs considered (a show that I like to make fun of for its pretentiousness and predictably obscure indie sensibility but that I neverthless respect for its erudition) did a great show on just this topic called the Decade in Music. Their focus was primarily on the impact of technology and the way our relationship to music has changed thanks to the internet and the ipod. Slate's Cultural Gabfest also did a segment on how music has changed- but their focus was more on the kind of musician that exemplifies the aughts. For them this is the era of women pop stars (Beyonce and Britney being the queens but also others such as Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift etc exemplify this trend). interestingly they say that even male stars like JT or Kanye fit with this feminization of music. These men are not making macho and MALE music - gone are big rock anthems or grungy sensibilities. JM of course typifies this, as fans and detractors alike would note.

The main themes that came out of it were as follows:

Technology - basically the ipod and itunes- (and with it the isolation of listening to music)- its true, I look forward to walking to school alone so I can listen to my ipod and sometimes when I run into someone I know a part of me feels a twinge of irritation at having to switch my ipod off. Sad but true. (I don't mean you of course, I mean other people.)

The revival of the single/the death of the album- Again holds true for me. The last album I bought was Battle Studies but before that I can't think of a full album that I actually bought. But then, I've always been into picking and choosing songs.

Downloading music versus buying it physically or even paying for it- I tend to pay for my music because I like supporting artists but hey, I'll cop to the occasional dicey download. This also has resulted in a dramatic change in what a best selling album means- Michael Jackson sold 40 million copies of Thriller whereas a No. 1 Album today would sell a couple of million cd's.

Fragmented taste
s - it's never been easier to find music you like and share with a select group of people but this means there are fewer truly widely shared artists- hence the nostalgia for MJ earlier this year.

I would add to this one more thing- the instant availability of music and the expectation of instant access. No longer do you have to wait for an album to come out or make the trip to a store to buy it. It leaks even before you can avert your eyes (or ears if they can be averted). Songs are instantly available and what's more you can tell the artist- via twitter or something - just what you thought about it. What are we losing in the process of such instant access? Perhaps a sense of appreciation of what goes into the creation of music? The wonder of it all?

Also, as one of the discussion points said, and this fascinated me- you can indulge every nostalgic moment you have immediately. No songs are ever just lost or gone- they're on youtube. Hell, you can even use your phone to identify a snatch of a tune that's stuck in your head or playing in a grocery store. Kind of great, but also sort of sad...

Of course it's not inevitable - Heather was telling me that she still listens to albums, doesn't use her ipod in public etc. But I have a feeling she's a rarity. It is interesting to see how much of what I take utterly for granted now is really quite new and to think that even someone as comparatively low-tech as me does all these things in a blink of an eye. And it feels like I've always done it this way.


What changes have you experienced when it comes to music? Do tell...

p.s. Later this month I will discuss and set up my best of the decade contest- so more musical musings are coming and there are sure to be embarrassing revelations like just how many times I have listened to that n'sync song!

Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Diplomat's Daughter- the blog, not moi

Before there was lightlight, there was the diplomat's daughter. That's right- my sister has decided to revive her blog three years (THREE years!!!) after she stopped writing it. When we last saw our heroine she was a culture-vulture type at JNU, remarking on the many oddities around her and wondering if she would ever get her transcripts. In the 3 years since she moved continents twice, got married (yup, married) and has that elusive thing I call a JOB (these awesome things that I want one day when I grow up). She spends her days educating and growing the bright young minds of tomorrow. So basically there's going to be a lot for her to write about...

This makes me happy for three reasons:

First, she's back. She always has thoughtful, if mildly intimidating, things to say.

Second, it gives me hope that someone can revive a blog 3 years after it died. 3 years!!! So fret not wandering through readers- there is hope yet.

Three, now there is more of us to read- if one of us is slacking, the other can pick up it up.

So wander over, won't you? But remember, always, where you came from.

p.s. inspired by my sister- I shall also work more on this blog. And there is plenty of exciting stuff to come in the next few weeks- for instance a trip to BRAZIL! woo hoo!! And the second attempt at baking and JM heart stealing glory...And of course copious entries and notes on the tremendous progress on my dissertation chapters. (what's that laughter I hear?)

Stay tuned friends- the party is just getting started....

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Discreet Charms of Indian Terrorism Redux

Lets imagine you arrive late for a flight and it is too late to check in. What should your friends do?
Maybe pick you up from the airport?
Offer you a place to stay?
Help you catch the next flight?

This friend went a step further...

Wow- talk about a committed friend...please note my friends- I do not expect this kind of support from any of you. Ever.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


So this is the time of year that all my American (and some Canadian) friends gather around lots of delicious food with family and friends to rest, relax and perhaps give thanks. I've been fortunate enough to be invited to people's houses every year- it's one example of one of the nicest things about America and Americans- their generosity towards (relative) strangers.

Last year was a bad thanksgiving- I stayed home and watched a live stream of the terrorist attacks that were happening in Bombay. It was hard to be thankful for anything when confronted with such terrible images and thoughts. This year, I shall go to a couple of events and partake of all the great food that thanksgiving brings and hang out with various friends. But it struck me that in all these years I've been here, I've never actually said thanks at any of these gatherings. Do people still actually do that?

So this evening, on the eve of thanksgiving, I say to myself- why not? Why not give a thanks or a semi-public shout out to all the things I'm grateful for this thanksgiving? Because things that you are thankful for can disappear, as is the case with the sandwich I blogged about so lovingly last year. Gone. Just like that. So in memory of that sublime sandwich, here- in no particular order are the things I'm thankful for this thanksgiving season.

First, before I get to the fun stuff, there's some serious thanking. I could skip it but it wouldn't be right...

1. I'm thankful for my family- my parents, my sister and her husband. First and foremost. No need to elaborate here but not a day goes by that I'm not thankful for them at some level.

2. I'm grateful for my friends and the people in my life (who are not my friends, haha). One of the nicest things about Syracuse, as chanbong and I were talking about yesterday, is the people here. I am surrounded by kind, intelligent, committed, thoughtful and surprisingly funny people- all engaged in an enterprise that is truly collective, when it so easily couldn't be. It is unusual, specially in notoriously competitive and isolated grad school, to have bonds and friendships like we do and it shouldn't be taken for granted. Special shout out to my room mates: they're awesome- as room mates of course but also as great friends. They do things like make stellar pesto and coffee and patiently teach me about music theory and football :)

3. I'm thankful for being reasonably well off (yes, I said that) and having the support system I do. Yes, I'm a poor grad student who's going to look for a job during a recession hit job market etc etc but I recognize my many privileges and rich experiences. Ok, so I can't make an impulse buy impulsively (Kindle anyone?) or take vacations abroad but is that really such a bad thing? Not at all!

4. Finally, this is weird... but I'm thankful for being able to see the funny side of things. In my head there resides a sarcastic person who's constantly coming up with dark little one liners that I chuckle at- whether I'm gushy or happy or miserably sad. (The voice is currently mocking and smirking at the mawkishness of this post but I'm ignoring it/her.)

ok, now on to the fun stuff...I'd like to publicly declare my thanks for:

my computer, cell-phone and ipod supposedly we lived simpler lives before these but really, I can't remember what I did before that...

Netflix/Jet Blue/Wegmans- the holy triumvirate of companies. All the others- learn from these 3 companies.

( this is commercial but hey, it's America- thanksgiving is after all followed by Black Friday)

This American Life- every week I am moved, enriched or emotionally touched in some deep way by this radio show. A radio show! In 2009! Who would have thought?
(This is a good time to just say thanks to whoever came up with the notion of a podcast. Thanks, have a slice of pumpkin pie on me.)

City Walks- I walked a 100+ blocks in New York last Tuesday. Why? Because I don't get to roam, really wander in Syracuse. Sure you can walk in a park ...but there's nothing compared to walking in a great, really alive city with the rush of people and experiences coming at you. So when I get an opportunity to do it, I do it. Thankfully.

John Mayer - if you're surprised by this, then I say "Welcome to my blog stranger!"

Blogs- I know how hard it is to find the motivation and inspiration to write a blog- it's a bit of a struggle, as you may have gathered if you've taken an interest in mine. Granted that most of the blogs I read have a readership of thousands of people but still, the ability to come up with interesting things to say every day or week is not to be underestimated. A blog, a really good blog, is a thing of beauty. It has the personal impact of reading someone's diary but then directs you to learn about things you would not have found on your own. It is snarky but also deep- it gives you an entertaining, informative and sometimes moving window into someone's life without the commitment to have to deal with them. Basically, the ideal meaningful relationship.

Days I don't brood/worry These are RARE but lovely.

Freedom- of course, freedom by itself is a good thing. I am thankful for being able to (to a large extent) travel, aspire for opportunities and live and learn with people regardless of my national, racial or gender characteristics. This is not so for everyone of course so it is something to be profoundly grateful for.I'm also happy to be free in other ways today. But right now I'm referring, more shallowly, to the application.

There's a lot more that comes to mind (like that sandwich) but that'll just make this a 'things I like' post and that's not what this is. This strange mix of the deep and the shallow are the things that I'm most thankful for tonight, as I am now.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

When you're not in the mood to write, just show. After all actions speak louder than words right?

So- funniest thing I've seen for a while and I don't even know why

ah that Conan!

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Free Hugs

I spent part of yesterday at our annual neighborhood cultural fair. I've been a couple of times- the offerings are typically somewhat uneven but the palpable good will and warmth overcomes that easily. You always run into friends, buy a trinket or two and wander home in a pleasant state of mind.

I was wandering around (there's a lot of wandering on this blog) with my friends and taking in the fair- checking out small stalls selling identical looking beaded necklaces and African inspired bags etc., when I saw something heart warming. There in the midst of cliche-confirming sad looking clowns, bustling food vendors and an assortment of vaguely left leaning booths and kiosks (holistic healing! vegan soap! peace councils etc.) was a young guy - probably in his late teens- holding a sign that said 'free hugs'.

At first this struck me as the kind of typically well meaning but slightly hokey thing that just would happen at this festival. But as I watched the small vestige of my cynicism faded away. As the guy stood there in the middle of the street, with his cardboard sign aloft, people of all ages, shapes, colors approached him smiling. Some impulsively rushed into his arms, while others debated it in their heads before shyly going forward. Some looked smilingly self conscious or had to be goaded by friends, while others were hugging him almost the second they saw him. Some did a short half hug, joking about it even as they made contact and others held on for a tight long while. Older people were most forthcoming, while younger people- specially teenagers that were closest to the guys age were the most self conscious. Groups of teenage girls giggled and watched but were too shy (refreshingly shy) to approach.

Through it all the guy stood smiling- saying little. He looked peaceful and somehow wise despite his boyish face and unremarkable clothes.

People broke away and hurried or strolled along their way, laughing at the experience. Everyone looked uplifted in some sense - even the ones that had started ironically.

There was something transformative about the scene playing out- for all its hokeyness, or how contrived it could have been- the simple act of hugging someone, without any expectations, looked utterly warm.

I was transfixed by the sight- for reasons I can't fully understand and that my friends were also bewildered, or at least bemused, by. I don't even know why I'm writing about it now but I know I could have watched those small human interactions for hours. Suddenly these gestures that one only reads about in hipster stories made sense to me. It got me thinking about how these small gestures matter in our ever more isolated and compartmentalized existence. What would it be like to magnify that effect somehow- how could one translate the idea of 'free hugs' in some larger, meaningful sense? Sounds ridiculous even as I write it...

Anyway, that's neither here nor there.

All I'll say is that it was charming.

So, did I hug him?

No I didn't - (though I did commend him on his willingness to take on such an enterprise in swine flu season).

I'm not sure why I didn't go up for my free hug ...but he touched me all the same.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The coolest video clip you will see all year.

Why you ask?

Because it has my dad in it. Simple.

I've already posted this (to much positive feedback) on facebook but then I thought it is only right that I also put it on my now much neglected and gasping for air blog...

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Live Blogging Health Speech

Believe it or not this was the main Obama speech of the week. Notwithstanding all the asinine nonsense about the school speech where, horror, President Obama told students to study hard and stay in school...this speech tonight is going to be the really critical one, perhaps one of his most critical speeches so far as President.

So what better thing to do than to resurrect the health of this blog, celebrate the somewhat returned health of my computer (though I'm keeping a close watch) and to renew a noble 'wandering through' tradition- live blogging!

A few caveats are in order:
1. I know very little about the health care debate. I know it is important and long over due and that I support Obama's plan (but the details of the plan itself are a little fuzzy in my head- and apparently in the heads of millions of others).
2. But I do know the American health care system is abysmal, inefficient, unbelievably misconceived and morally and fiscally bankrupt.
3. I'm not terribly interested in the debate itself- again, it's important but I don't get too excited about watching it
4. So this may be short, uninformed and poor in analysis and insight. In other words - lots of value added. Excited?

And away we go:

8:11 The pomp and ceremony that preceeds these speeches is a lot of fun to watch- I like the mingling beforehand and I wonder 'how aware are they of people watching? Is this why the smiles are extra large?"
And we have George Stephanopolous on too- what's not to like?

Random thought: Everything in America is ultimately a spectator sport- they could be cheering at the superbowl for all we know.

8: 15 Obama always looks very presidential. Great starting note- goes straight into it and reminds us of how far we've come even though there is still lots to go

8:19 First great line- "I am determined to be the last". I like the idea of talking about the length of this whole effort. This is not Obama's hobby horse- its an idea way past its time.

8: 21 Absolutely smart to appeal to America's pride "We are the only advanced democacy" to have such a shitty system. This is a such a winning discourse in America.

8: 28 I'm usually skeptical of the narrative style of telling disconnected persoanl stories - it seems to be a favored tactic in American speech making but when it comes to health care it really works- because these stories are really horrific. Shameful.

8: 29 So far he is hitting all the right notes- balanced but sharply pointing out the destructiveness and vindictiveness of the partisan nature of this debate. And now to the meat of it- the plan...

8: 30 Clear outlining of the plan- of course the usual nay sayers (read the fanatical right) will say that he was vague, no matter what he does- even if he had a power point behind him combined with interpretive dancers . But, unequivocally- he is not vague- he is clearly outlining the plan. Even I get it.

8: 34 Smart nod to McCain. And we see the old thumbs up (Wow McCain thumbs up, me live blogging = total election deja vu)

8: 36 Notes of dissoannce- people opening laughing at the line 'some details need to be ironed out'. To them I ask 'what's so funny?' Plans like these do need details ironed out. And has anyone else had a clearer plan so far? I think not.

And what was that shouting, I hear? Indian parliament flashback - warms the cockles of my heart :)

8: 41 Ummm Barack, you're asking for open mindedness and balance from extreme ideologues. That's harder than getting this plan passed.

8: 44 YES! 'Won't back down'- those are the words and that is the tone that needs to be struck. Finally some combativeness- I'm glad he's reminding us of why this deficit happened in the first place.

8: 46 I will not sign a plan that adds one dime to the deficit- that was needed to be said. Realistic? No but it needs to be said.

8: 50 So far I'm impressed by four themes and tactics:
1. Reminding us how long and overdue this struggle has been and how he is one in a long line of people who have tried to tackle this.
2. Appealing to what I see as classical tropes in American political discourse- individual choice and interest (we don't want to pay for other irresponsible people, you keep your choice etc.) and also the idea that this is unacceptable in America
3. A continual effort at making the plan and its various dimensions clear- he's explaining it to us like we're 5 year olds and it works.
4. He's meshing vintage Obama (balance, open mind, listening to views etc. ) with a new, determined, no-nonsense tough Obama...much needed. I liked his style- clear, succint, blunt and utterly balanced.

9:00 Perfect note to end on- Ted Kennedy, the ultimate way to get over the partisanship. You would have to be utterly churlish to boo that and he ends with the moral high ground firmly in his grasp.
Great move. Great speech.

9: 03 "I still believe that acrimony can be replaced by civility" hmmm...I don't but I'd like to.

Never knew a speech on health care reform could be this riveting and passionate- that's Obama for you. Too bad it's hardly going to shut the ideologues up at all- they'll carry on like the speech never happened.

Now back to the circus...

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Excuse no. 56 for not blogging

This one is valid.

My laptop is in the store (a store that goes by the name of a fruit that if you eat every day is supposed to keep the doctor away) and has been there for more than a week. I was supposed to get it back yesterday but of course, this being me, it is still in the queue for repair and has not even been looked at yet.

I'm most disappointed, disgruntled and dismayed (add any other 'dis' word you can think of).

How am I typing this you ask? Well of course I have a school computer but it would be most unprofessional of me to be blogging from school, wouldn't it?

So herewith a poem for my missing mac:

Oh my lovely white, shiny mac
you allow me my problems to grapple.
I desperately want you back
But you're still in the clutches of apple.

I promise I'll treat you so well,
let you rest when you're whiny and tired
take good care of your delicate shell
and never send you to get needlessly rewired.

Monday, August 10, 2009

N. Korea and Aretha Franklin

Many of the IR/ foreign policy blogs have commented on Henry Kissinger's criticisms of Bill Clinton's visit to N. Korea last week which resulted in the release of two American journalists who had strayed into N. Korean territory. Kissinger argues that by sending a high profile (and Bill Clinton is definitely as high profile as it gets, even out of power) figure who just happens to be the husband of the Secretary of State - the US gave Pyongyang just what it wanted- a photo op and some much desired legitimacy.

Two reactions to this:

First, what's interesting to me here is precisely the question of what N. Korea, or more specifically Kim Jong Il wants in the first place. It's too easy and too rote to view N. Korea's behavior within two lenses- either within the deterrence/proliferation lens or the 'mad man' lens. Sure, there are elements of both but what this episode, just the latest in a series of otherwide baffling provocations by N. Korea, signifies is ultimately legitimacy and respect that a state like N. Korea desires. I doubt that N. Korea seriously sees itself as a challenger to the US geo-strategically, what it does want is the perception of being a powerful player that the US has to take seriously and contend with - more for domestic consumption than anything else. Kissinger is right that the photo op with Clinton is perhaps the biggest thing Kim Jong Il got out of the visit but if it hadn't been this one - it would have been some other piece of propoganda showing the US journalists kow towing to N. Korea.

As someone personally fascinated by the fantastic oddness of the N. Korean regime, I have read the few rare accounts of what it is like to visit and travel in the country. The most dominant image that emerges is just how concerned the N. Korean government is with image itself. The cult of Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung is reinforced on a constant, larger than life level. And it appears to be targeted mostly for domestic consumption to a people already battered and indoctrinated into the cult.

The quest for respect as Aretha Franklin knows, is powerful. It's up the US to use this realization wisely and harness it to get N. Korea to behave reasonably and minimally with regard to non-proliferation.

Second, the episode underlines one quite simple thing- Bill Clinton's still potent and effective charisma. I know that this is likely to be an unpopular opinion but I think it would be a serious waste of sheer talent and built up political capital if Bill Clinton were to be wasted by the White House. It's a pity that the domestic discourse about 'too many heads' in the White House or the personal rivalry between the Clintons or between Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were to minimize his potential role as a special envoy. Already, the Kissinger piece as well as other commentary in the US is focusing on whether this overshadows the Secretary of State or even the President, which is ridiculous and more a function of US media preoccupations than anything else. Clinton has demonstrated his ability to be restrained, follow guidelines and has not actively tried to hog the limelight in the aftermath of this success. And as far as I'm concerned, this is just the tip of the iceberg as far as his appeal and popularity in the rest of the world goes. Again, using him wisely can only be a positive thing...

Update: Although as this video shows- Hilary might not agree.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

(the return of the) D-List

The only way to get out of a slump (lets just go ahead and admit it) is to try to snap out of it. So here's the easiest kind of post for me to do. Since the last D-list (back in May)- books have been read, movies watched and meals eaten so there should be plenty of fodder for this post. So lets plunge right into it, shall we?

Best Book : A slump also means that I haven't done a lot of reading for pleasure- despite it being summer. I did however do some re-reading and some reading of work related books. In never-read-before books, I finally read Upamanyu Chatterjee's English, August. English, August was one of the first of the wave of Indian writing in English that sprang up in the 1990's and I've always intended to read it but never got around to it. The book follows the lethargic, pot-filled and utterly sluggish life of Agastya Sen, in his first posting as an IAS officer. Madna, the town he gets posted to, is the stuff of modern Indian nightmares- a crumbling, unberably hot, dusty, dilapitated and provincial dump. For a Delhi-boy like Agastya, it's like being on another planet. Agastya is eminently unlikeable- superior, snobbish, lazy, cynical and a pathaological liar. Despite that and the somewhat overdone scatological references, I liked the authenticity of the book. The repetition of mindless interactions with prominent locals, the pitch perfect Indian officialese and Agastya's hours staring at the ceiling of his hot room all rang comically and regrettably true. And I think the book is still frighteningly relevant, two decades after it was first published.

Best Academic Article: This one is easy. Timothy Pachirat's “The Political in Political Ethnography: Reflections from an Industrialized Slaughterhouse on Perspective, Power, and sight." It's the kind of article, and the kind of work that can change how you view the world. Pachirat has written the kind of dissertation that us, mere mortals can only aspire to- a clever take on important questions, theoretically rich and with deep insights. It also made me give up meat.

Best Song: My best song is actually more a best 'Musical moment': Loyal readers of my blog might recall a certain fondness I have for the musician John Mayer. What? You don't remember? ...Oh well, just take my word on it. Imagine the unbridled joy of the following scenario: it's late at night and you log into twitter briefly just to see what your friends/celebs are up to. And you see a tweet from the above mentioned favorite musician alerting you to an impromptu radio show he's doing- from his apartment! Just sitting in his apartment and playing music from his laptop to thousand of fans interspersed with commentary and stories and trademark witticisms. And the music- demos, forgotten gems, oldies I never would have known or heard, rough cuts of unreleased songs from all sorts of interesting artists. All this was incredibly organic and live and unmediated- a great twitter moment!

Best Blog: In view of the entry above, let me say that finally after a few months of being on twitter and hardly using it- I'm slooowly warming to the concept of micro-blogging. I still think it can be very banal but there is something cool about having access to unique perspectives, ideas, experiences and thoughts from people who have important things to say in their domains - in a manageable and often, witty form.

Best Movie: I finally watched Oye Lucky Lucky Oye and was really impressed by the talent of Abhay Deol. He actually can act and he picks movies that are intelligent, with strong scripts and meaningful plot. No mean feat in Bollywood.

Best Podcast: My roommate (name yet to be decided but lets use Beck-man as a placeholder) Captain Picard, who is quite well versed with podcasts, introduced me to 3 really cool different podcasts this summer: First his former professor's podcast on IR and methods (what I've heard so far is really riveting and dynamically presented- rare), the big ideas podcast - lectures on a wide variety of subjects by leaders in the field and Dan Savage's Savage love- 'enlightening' to say the least.

Best Discovery: 1. Mystery theatre night at the Spaghetti Warehouse. Food was totally but I LOVE interactive theatre 2. My new neighborhood. There's a park. And a co-op. And squirrels in the roof. 3. This American Life- it takes a special show to take almost any subject and make it moving, interesting and profound.

Worst Discovery: Squirrels in the roof. Squirrels rattling in the roof. Squirrels on the porch. They are no longer cute- they are the enemy.

Best Meal: An excellent, authentic Korean feast a couple of days ago at Chorong house, a small and simple place run out of a house right near campus. Nothing like fresh kimbap and hae mul pahjong...

Best Moments: Surviving the institute, surviving the move, surviving the fourth of july, watching the epic wimbledon mens final, hanging out with my very cool and fun friends, two of whom happen to be my new roommates (they're great :) ), the cool, rainy summer, watching my goddaughter turn one and change so quickly from week to week!

Worst moments: Dealing with my summer rash and then relatedly, getting ripped off by a quack who poses as a homeopath- suffice it to say there will be extremely bad word of mouth about this particular doctor whose name is very similar to a salad named after a famous NYC hotel.

Challenges of the Month: Four S's sum it up- Sun and Skin, Squirrels and sadly, the slump.

As I write this, I realize this summer has been about catching up- catching my breath after the institute ended and the move, catching up with friends back for the summer,catching up with news and culture that had slipped me by and catching up with what I'm supposed to do. Now I just have to catch up with the summer and all will be set. At least now you're all caught up with the D-list.

Sunday, July 26, 2009


It has been a year since I started blogging and yes, I've recently wondered if this blog would live only one year and then die an inglorious death. But I have some ideas in the pipeline and finally- after having not much inclination (but plenty of time)- its time to slowly sputter back to life.

There's lots to report - a new house, a new year, the summer in the 'cuse, new books, movies and happenings to ponder aloud etc.

Until those ideas get fleshed out though here is something I had to share- its rapidly doing the rounds on youtube but there's no harm in sharing again...

It's so utterly joyous and charming - for all you cynics there (me being the first amongst you), I defy you not to smile...

More soon...

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Remember the Time? Michael Jackson (1958- 2009)

As my roommate Machete and I settle down to listen together tonight to the Michael Jackson greatest hits CD, I think it's only fitting to document my devotion (there's no other word for it really) for the departed king of pop when I was a kid.

For before there was JM, for me there was only MJ. Indeed, from the ages of 12 to 14 (ok, 15) , nobody rocked my world more than Michael Jackson (well there was Steffi Graf but that's another post some time). Confession time: my room used to be dominated by two huge MJ posters ( both of which looking back were undeniably creepy but which were among my most prized possessions in the world). I know exactly who J. Randy Tarraborelli is every time he is quoted in any MJ related article because I owned that book, I recorded every video on VHS tapes that later mysteriously disappeared...In short I was somewhat of a fan. In subsequent years of course I grew disillusioned and it was no longer socially or musically cool to listen to Michael Jackson. The 'hand holding' and what not with kids didn't help, MJ steadily became more wacko than jacko and that was that- apart from the occasional listen to early MJ. But tonight it's time to remember the glory days of MJ ...

Thus, here in no particular order are my top MJ related memories.

1. Getting up at an ungodly hour to watch MJ's interview with Oprah in 1992 or 3 - I remember my dad woke up and watched the whole thing with me even though he didn't like MJ which I think is the sweetest part of the story. :)
2. Excitedly running home from the video store with the Remember the Time (Making of) video and calling my best friend at the time to come over and watch- we watched it for hours on repeat
3. Being blown away with the face morphing end sequence in Black or White and terrified of the werewolf changing scene in thriller.
4. Really, truly believing in the lyrics to 'Man in the Mirror' - with an earnestness I can't believe I possessed.
ETA: Still a great song, btw
5. Really truly refusing to believe Michael would ever hurt a child because he 'loves children'. Hmmmm...
6. My mom's horrified face when she saw some video of girls fainting during a concert. Her exact words "It's a cult!"
7. Listening to the dangerous album on my walkman every night in the dark for a few months
8. Indoctrinating my sister into the ways of MJ
9. MTV awards- "And they thought it wouldn't last"

I'll end with two snippets that capture MJ the performer who at his peak could be electrifying on stage- first, the Motown 25 performance of Billie Jean that catapulted MJ from the Jackson 5 to becoming the king of pop.

And the moonwalk, in all it's glory and courtesy slate, a lovely video of its influence on all of us

MJ, hope that you're finally at peace. Thanks for the music and for taking me back to my childhood!

Sunday, June 21, 2009


Yesterday I, along with thousands of other people, watched a young girl die before my very eyes. I'm talking about the footage of a young girl in Iran, shot by a Basij as she watched the protests on the streets. We don't know much about her - she has been given the name 'Neda' or 'the voice'. The footage is very graphic- you can find it very easily on the internet and there are hundreds of links to it on facebook and twitter so I'm not going to embed it here.

Within seconds you see people trying to revive her, while she is dimly aware of the camera and then just like that- life goes from her eyes and blood starts seeping from her eyes, mouth and ears, joining the pool of blood she is lying in. It is very disturbing - not least because of the surreal realization that you are watching the life snuffed out of someone. This is probably the first person I have seen die and as I thought about it, it began to trouble me for a host of reasons other than the obvious ones.

On one hand this video has galvanized people and has given a real, concrete image to the brutality of what the Iranian government is doing to its own people. Despite it's best efforts, the government cannot stem the steady flow of words and images coming from the people in Iran. And through our various global connections, these words now can spread faster than any government can anticipate. This has its value and is no doubt important- many Iranians are exhorting people to publicize and spread such stories and images.

But at the same time, I'm deeply disturbed by the whole phenomenon of connectedness that the Neda video symbolizes. This connectedness is a double edged sword. Why should it be so easy for us to watch someone die before our eyes? Will Neda be forever reduced to a 'trending topic', as she currently is on twitter? Will we watch these images of inhuman brutality, express our anguish for a few minutes, maybe even a day and then go on with making lunch or doing the laundry? Like I did and perhaps had to. There is something wrong about that to me and yet what is the alternative?

I'm struck with the parallels to the Tiananmmen Square massacre which we recently observed the 20th anniversary for. The Neda of that uprising was a young man, called the 'Tank man' who we all remember bravely standing up to the force of Chinese tanks. The immediate ending to that story was much more hopeful though many believe that tank man was executed shortly after- but I think the reason that image stays with us is that it was so rare and so difficult to get that kind of insight into an event like that. Now insight, commentary and images are ubiquitous. And I'm not sure how I feel about that.

I think this connectedness both immunizes us and lulls us into thinking that we are participating and 'making a difference' in this uprising. Are we? I'm at a loss for words as to what the alternative is. Would I prefer for us not to be able to see and share these images? am I advocating no action at all? I think those alternatives are surely worse but there is something about the celebration of our new global 'connectedness' as a force for social good that leaves me ambivalent at best and frightened at worst.

The image of Neda's last moments on earth is haunting but also troubling for all the ethical questions it raises. I've seen over the last hours many promises on twitter, facebooks and blogs not to forget her- I can only hope this is true and that not only Neda's murder but also the indignity of it being broadcast all over the world is not in vain.

RIP Neda.

*#Neda refers to the key word that people on twitter are using to keep her death a twitter 'trending topic'.

Monday, May 4, 2009

'Inspired': The Anu Malik-ization of Election Ads

Back in November after the U.S. elections were over, I was leafing through an India Today with Barack Obama on the cover when one of our department's staff remarked wonderingly "Wow...look at that- Obama on the cover of India Today." Mixed with the optimism and relief we all felt in early November (remember that?) there was bemusement in her voice: indeed, the persona of the US President went almost overnight from being the object of derision and ridicule to one that people around the world celebrate and even emulate...suddenly American politics is glamorous again. Move over Carla Bruni, Michelle is here.

Of course, the election of the US President is a pretty big deal in general and not just because of the (admittedly rare) Obama factor. US politics is so damned entertaining. Think about the last elections-the drama of Hilary vs. Obama, the Palin spectacle, the showmanship of the conventions, the side characters like Ron Paul or Joe the plumber. There were holograms on election night. I rest my case!

So maybe it's only natural that some of this glitz transfers to the ongoing elections in India (insert obligatory line about worlds largest democracy and world's most powerful one). While, there are no Obama's on the horizon- I've been interested and amused to see the message of 'get the vote out' lifted almost directly from the US election discourse. In a country where 'chalta hai' (a combination of 'whatever' and 'let it be'- what do you think of that translation, fellow Hindi speakers?) is a way of life, there's a new, discernibly pious sense of duty evident amongst the 'glitterati' and upper classes (who tend to be less electorally active than poor, rural citizens). Getting 'inked' on election day is cool in a way that I don't recall it being before. I can't help thinking that the language of 'rock the vote' and 'make a difference' is familiar but somehow inorganic. My nagging intuition got confirmed when I saw this:

Lets see...

Full of hot stars? check
Slickly shot? check
well meaning? check
earnest? check

slightly holier than thou and annoying? check.

WHERE have I seen this before? Hmmm...

I KNEW it!!! There's less swearing in the Indian one, which is also mercifully shorter but there it is...continuing a fine tradition of bollywood copying stuff it likes with its own je ne sais qoui. Ah, the triumph of American packaging- they make even Indian elections sexy.

Now lets just find our Obama...

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Mega Make Up D-List

It's been a while since I did a good D-List. I have 3 months to catch up on actually which is a tall order. Instead of trying to cram in 3 months worth of favs, I'm just going to pretend that I never stopped blogging and that that little writers block never happened at all...which I think is also good advice for the stuck dissertator (something we know about all too well) is the mega make-up D List:

Best Book: Three books vie for top honours here (this is fair because it's 3 months worth of posting I'm doing here, right?) The first is the intelligent and bitterly funny 'A case of Exploding Mangoes' by Hanif Mohammed. The second is 'A supposedly fun thing I'll never do again' by David Foster Wallace. And the third is 'Sacred Games',
Vikram Chandra's epic book about Bombay. This is roughly the order I read the books in. I read the books straight through (no mean feat for 'Sacred Games' which is a 1000 pages long) and each time, felt transported to different worlds. A case of exploding mangoes gave me an insight into the ultimate 'other' for many Indians- Pakistan- at once so familiar and so different, so close and yet so far. There's something about Pakistan's politics and leaders that fascinates me- they're so charismatic and colorful (whether the Bhutto's or Musharraf)- devious but dashingly so. General Zia was in power before my time so it was hilarious and educative to read this fictional portrait of the man- what could be more compelling than the story of his mysterious death and why it might have happened in the larger context of the mysteries of Pakistani politics? Mohammed has a really unpretentious style and authentic voice- actually all of them do- they're unapologetic about their styles and do not dumb it down for lazy readers. Sacred Games is about the parallel and intertwined lives of Bombay Cops and the dons they deal with. Like 'A case of..' it also is based on real life figures - Arun Gawli (the Bombay don) amongst others. Before reading this book, I had no idea how much the 'underworld' actively runs Bombay. Reading about the symbiotic lives of these people (and so many other characters - like the rising Bollywood star (modeled on Aishwarya?), slum dwellers, prostitutes, businessmen, random criminals etc.) took me into another, incredibly tough, gritty yet ALIVE world. I love that Chandra does not make he obvious allowances for foreign readers- he writes the way he wants to write, following it is up to the reader. Finally, the middle book is a selection of essays by the late, great David Foster Wallace, who I really got into really after his death last year. I liked Infinite Jest well enough but it's his non-fiction that really moves me. His essay on being on a cruise liner is just brilliant in its observation of social manners, the language and culture of American tourism and the class hierarchies and insecurities therein. I only wish I could read him without constantly thinking of how much despair lay behind someone so talented, funny, keenly observant, full of empathy for human beings (and animals) and truly intelligent. I'm sad that I'm constantly reading with his suicide in mind and interpreting his words with that knowledge in mind, much like when I listen to Nirvana. Again, he owns his style (the extensive footnotes, the digressions into literary theory, the details) and does not reward lazy readers.

Whew....This turned into a bit of a review, huh? In a nut shell, if you're interested in any of these themes- I heartily recommend these three books. ok, moving on...

Best Article: I want to say David Foster Wallace (especially "Consider the Lobster and of course the Cruise ship article "A Supposedly fun...") but it's a bit of a cop out. So I'll say I really enjoyed two articles on Iceland: the first in a book about happiness that looked at why Icelanders (?) are so happy despite the odds nature has dealt them which made an interesting and ironic foil to the article in Vanity Fair about how and why they bankrupted themselves so spectacularly last year. Both articles chalk it up to something peculiar about the Icelandic people and their isolated geographical space. Very interesting.

Best Academic article: For this category I will look to the past and to the future- to the past because I had the distinct pleasure of meeting and talking to a scholar whose work deeply informs my research: Jennifer Mitzen is not only whip smart but also very nice. So I enjoyed revisiting her excellent, thought provoking 2006 article on 'Ontological Security' (a fact that should please my dad since he liked the word 'ontology'!) - I really should revisit that work every few weeks...As for the future, part of my job allows me to look at the work of a lot of doctoral students around the country (and outside). Most of this work is not really up my alley but some projects really make me think 'wow, wish I'd thought of that.' Won't give those away but it's cool to be able to get a sense of the larger themes in the field right now. Biggest themes: post-conflict reconstruction, counter-insurgency, NGO's and women and lots of IPE. Also lots of Latin America related studies, perhaps natural?

Best Blog: Seth's Blog (which I link to on here)- and I'm not just saying that because he's my friend. Only complaint - he doesn't post nearly as much as he should. (Yes: Pot. Kettle. Black)

Best New Discovery: 1. Mail merge- I can never believe when the whole thing just comes together 2. Kamikazes (the drink not the pilots) 3. 20 bucks hidden away in one of my purses.

Best Meal: God sooo many...from ribs at Dinosaur BBQ, to the banana pudding (a meal in itself), to Turkish everythings- breakfasts, Bluebelle's Borek and Hunkar Begendi (my fav Turkish dish)- this is hard to pick. If I HAD to pick one I would say the Saravana Bhawan meal in NYC (which was also one of my top 5 NYC highlights (a blogging idea that fizzled out, in case you didn't notice)). There's nothing like a good dosa! And this was a good dosa- it immediately made me think of Bangalore and Neelgiris and many happy memories- like a good meal should.

Here is a very large Bhatura...

But apart from the wonderful dosas..the best meal should go to the Iron Chef competition that I had with Dolly. It was great fun- Dolly is a fierce competitor and we both took the fight very seriously, as did our great panel of judges (including blog favs chanbong and machete). They engineered it so that neither of us lost (very sweetly) but it was a win-win situation because of the delicious food and great laughs...Here is the eggplant part of the challenge - mine on top, Dolly's on the bottom (by the time cheese rolled around we were too stuffed to even take a picture)

Best Song: March was all about Just Dance by Lady Gaga. I'm sure I will hate everything else this person (what kind of name is lady gaga?) does but this song is hopelessly addictive and catchy. This month (as a reaction to Gaga I'm sure) I've been cleansing my palate with some classic melodies and classical music... Finally, John Mayer gave us fans a sneak peek at a couple of songs that he's working on for the new album- it's been cool to tag along for the process of making an album (via the tweets, videos and pics etc.) but songs are a different and generous matter- I liked 'Heartbreak Warfare' - it's going to be killer when it's done...

Best Moments: New York, Opening a package to find my dad's (very witty and erudite) book in it, getting a summer grant, spending a lazy afternoon eating ice cream, arguing heatedly and then giggling helplessly with con-verse and kultur vulture: truly, there is nothing as special as a lovely afternoon with good friends. The great eggplant/cheese iron chef challenge and Kultur Vulture's birthday with special friends- a night to remember and finally, watching spring unfold in all its glory. The cherry blossoms are lovely all over campus- that white tree is currently my fav tree...

Best Movie: I haven't seen too many movies but I have an (unlikely) pick. I saw an old Hindi movie (a few years old) called 'Mixed Doubles'. On the face of it this had all the ingredients for a disaster - Hindi comedy (read slapstick, over-acted hamming), about 'wife swapping' (potentially crude beyond belief), low budget (not always good in the bollywood scenario) and a lead actor who was a VJ of all things! But the actors intrigued me (Konkona Sen, Naseeruddin Shah and Rajat Kapoor?) and so I gave it a go...and whaddya know? It wasn't half bad!! Konkona can ACT and Rajat Kapoor is becoming my ISI mark (what's the US equivalent?) of a decent movie- he doesn't seem to do bad ones, as far as I know.

Lessons Learned: 1. Academic snobbery is rampant. And academic snobs are really kind of pathetic. 2. Money is not funny, even in a rich man's world. 3. sometimes if you fry onions and garlic together -it turns a bright, metallic, toxic looking green (this freaked me out when it happened on the day of the iron chef challenge).

Challenges of the Months: Time change, Time itself and, as of the last few days- feeling alarmed every time I sneeze.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

It must be spring..

This is a pretty time of year- you can see the signs and colors of spring in little things...

A few weeks ago pine tree and I wandered into Boom Babies on Westcott street - normally it has a ton of overpriced clothes (sort of hippy like, some vintage and some stuff from India) but on this day there was a buzz of something frenetic and distinctly eostregen-y about it. Indeed, prom is just around the corner and the store was crammed with sulky teenagers and harried/pushy moms looking over shimmery gowns. There was even a sign outside that warned 'boyfriends and men' (because boyfriends are boys, not men?) to stay away from the store- which was probably wise.

Pine tree and I wandered around enjoying the bling and the conversations...

This is from the farmers market which will soon move outside...tulips are now sprouting all over the ground..

And finally, this beautiful magnolia tree outside tulips house in full bloom...

The scent was heavenly...

I don't have a picture unfortunately of the wild, outdoor block parties that also accompany the onset of Spring (which leave the air redolent with other types of scents - equally natural, more potent if you *ahem* catch my drift) or the new fashion statements that seem to appear around this time of the year but I suppose that's just as well.

What signals the arrival of spring to you?

Monday, April 20, 2009

Worth Words

One of the first poems I ever knew was 'Daffodils' by William Wordsworth. If I concentrate hard, I'm sure I could still recite most of it. I probably learned it when I was 11 or 12 years old as it is a standard favorite in Indian schools. I even remember taking part in a poetry recitation/elocution contest in the 5th grade where I recited it. I came in second or third and got my first ever certificate for anything.

The funny thing is I had never actually seen a darned daffodil. In the tradition of many British references I grew up with (thanks to Enid Blyton and Wodehouse), there was no context to this poem in my real life.

So imagine my delight when a couple of days ago I was wandering around school reveling in the onset of Spring and suddenly came upon these beautiful yellow flowers.

Finally, almost two decades later-daffodils!

Here's the thing- I immediately knew that these were daffodils- solely from the description in the poem. Well done Wordsworth.

I wonder how many kids in India and around the world still learn this poem and wonder what the hell a daffodil looks like. Thanks to the internet, they may no longer have to wait!

Now, if only I could find out what kippers are...

Status update: feeling like a twit

Earlier today I deactivated my facebook account. In the cyberworld, this is a phenomenon called 'facebook suicide'. I committed it once before and then came back from the dead. Deactivating facebook (you cannot ever delete your account, creepily enough) is a strange ritual- first facebook aalyzes you- it asks you why you're doing it and depending on your reply, tries to offer suggestions for how you can stay. (For the record- I have no deep reason for doing it- I'm just sick of checking it but more on that later). So if for instance you pick 'I'm spending too much time on facebook', it offers you the option not to receive emails from it. Then it tries to go for your heart strings- I was told I'd be missed by Tulip, my sister, Machete and other close friends, with pictures from my albums of them. When I continued to do it steely eyed, facebook sadly told me that it hoped I would come back soon. And then I clicked the window and sat back and instantly felt a strange combination of weird and free. Weirdly Free.

It's not going to be easy - this little break. From my previous experience I know that I will feel like there is a whole world out there that is going on without me, even though the friends I'm most concerned about are the ones I see or speak too everyday. People will slowly notice I'm not on it and will ask if I'm ok, with genuine concern. And what's more, I'll understand why they're asking. I will feel a compulsion to share bits of my life like "read an amazing book" or "had a lazy saturday" and will have no avenue in which to do it (my break also entails no twitter, which will not be hard at all). I will feel like there are happenings, events and news that I'm missing out other words, it will be like quitting anything addictive- not easy but potentially good.

When did it get like this? And what does it have to do with my resuming blogging (is this a nicotine patch to the facebook cigarette)?

Well, I've been thinking about how I use technology lately and much of it has centered around my poor, abandoned blog. When I wrote my little preemptive ditty last month, I scarcely anticipated this complete silence. I thought the frequency of my posts would go down a little but no blogging at all? Sadly a month later, my blog lies in cyberspace- sad, neglected, gathering dust...I look at it fleetingly and think about it guiltily before glancing away. I promise myself 'I'll blog about it' whenever something interesting comes up and yet, never get around to doing anything about it. Like old friendships and correspondence with distant relatives- intentions never translate into anything concrete.

But there's another reason for my prolonged silence apart from the busy-ness and laziness: A couple of weeks ago Margaret Atwood (whom I admire from what little I've read of her) said in the context of blogging and the advent of twitter ""It's like everyone's blogging about how they brushed their teeth this morning." I'd like to think my posts have been slightly deeper than that but the comment got me thinking. Maybe one reason I've been so unmotivated to write anything is because there is nothing truly compelling that I have to say? And so, isn't silence better?

That sounds depressing but I'm not. I just wonder if in this compulsion to constantly 'broadcast ourselves' (to borrow from youtube), what we have to say is becoming less and less meaningful? There is just so much of it, all the time and all written in pretty much the same blogese. You know what I mean-'snark', lists, open letter format, wtf stories, mock confessions that are designed to make you look cool even as you're professing to be a nerd... it's all quite formulaic and you've seen it all on this blog too. We are constantly inundated with people telling us about themselves- through you tube videos, blogs, status updates, profiles, tweets and it's slowly become part of the rhythm of our daily lives.

I've been pondering and questioning this constant need to communicate. Who are we all communicating to? For what purpose? What kind of narcissism is this? And is it really making us stupider, less sensitive and giving us the attention spans of goldfish? The answers to these questions, from my experience and what I've been reading, are not comforting.

And it all happened so quickly and subtly. A couple of years ago I had no idea where my casual acquaintances were once they left my immediate context. People faded out of my life -as they should in the normal course of events- one heard about them once in a while and that was that. Then came facebook - initially just an innocuous, fun way to stay in touch with people from school, check people out anonymously etc. Gradually it became part of my everyday routine- check email, read news, check facebook. And I'm not even a heavy user of it. It's own evolution meant that it became more and more difficult to escape what was happening in people's lives who you don't care about but are now just permanently there I find myself wondering 'what's X doing lately?' and look him/her up only to find that they went to a party, or watched a movie and hated it or bought groceries. I might not have seen X in 3 years and have no idea about how they're really, truly doing but I know when they buy groceries. It's relentless-the constant status updates, the newsfeeds, the emails with updates, the casual way that deep, life changing things get broadcast to the world 'X is no longer listed as in a relationship' or 'Y just had a baby'. A quick smiley face on their page and you're done. Now we have twitter, which takes the vacuousness to another level altogether-and ofcourse everyone, (including yours truly) is on it.

Am I making too big a deal of it? I'm sure I am but all I know is that I've felt a need to step back from the inanity of 'broadcasting myself'.

The good news (to me at least) is that while the rest of it I deem pretty dispensable, I realized the genuine, aesthetic pleasure I find in writing. Even a small, blog that 8 people read. Even when it's shoddy. Even when it's inane. Because it's 8 people I know and who know me and whose opinions I value. And it's really the only medium in all of this that has brought me pleasure. And so here I am, blogging away at 12 in the night- and it feels good!

And to facebook? I'm sure I'll come back to your seductive ways one day but not without a fight. Don't call me, I'll call you.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

A song for you...

P.S. It is the middle of March and I have only posted thrice this month, the lowest since I began blogging. Normally you could safely chalk this down to my inherent laziness but this time I really have a reason.

Ahem...I am busy, my friends, and will only get busier from here on out...

(Sing this with me to the tune of 'raindrops on roses' from my fair lady Sound of Music (thanks Tulip) ):

There are things to be written,
And stuff for submission
Workshops to plan
Filing taxes to the 'man'
Workshops that scare every fiber of my being....
These are a few of my busiest things...

There are methods to master
Readings come faster and faster
Packing and moving
and much home-improving,
Coping with what the end of semester will bring...
These are a few of my busiest things!

When I'm laaaazy, feeling craaaazy or just a little relaxed...
Please simply remind me of my busiest things.... and then I won't feel sooo glad....

In other words I will finally live up to my identity as a graduate student and work like a dog!

So from now until mid June, I fear blogging will be infrequent, sporadic, of poor quality and frequently of a whiny nature. Bear with me my readers (yes all 8 of you) and I will make it up to you...

That song (I was singing it as I wrote) made me feel a lot better so I'm going to go to bed now- I'll keep the lights on but at least I will try to go to sleep...good night all!

Left out

On not quite so heavy a note, I've had this ironic (I think this is irony) thought over the last few days:

Who knew the death of capitalism would be such a bummer, man?

And in some epic twist of irony- guess who gets massively hit by it's demise? That's right, us idealistic, lefty grad students and academics who railed against it all along...

Some dark comedy there.

Ghost Buster: Ruminations on academics, the recession and other scary things

Why am I blogging at 1:00 am? Let me tell you why.

Just came back from a late night coffee with Chanbong and K aka Kultur-Vulture (a very appropriate name, I think). Given that we are three grad students who were drinking nothing stronger than black tea (on St. Patricks day no less)- I think it is highly commendable that we a) managed to stay out significantly late b) got drunk undergrad boys to spontaneously and only half-ironically dance/gyrate for us on the street (attesting to the the power of blasting Britney Spears' Circus) and c) combined the above activities with a meandering chat about literature, East Asian pop culture and Milan Kundera.

As we were heading back and I was innocently seat-dancing to Rihanna (yes it was an unabashedly pop kind of night) K happened to bring up the fact that he has seen two ghosts in his life- one while driving with his brother and the second in his apartment complex. Actually, be brought this up because we saw a white plastic bag drifting along the street in the darkness (in a decidedly non-American Beautyish way) and I remarked how freaky it looked. This prompted K to tell the story, backed up by some impressively visible goose bumps. Anyone that knows me knows that I do not react well to ghost stories while simultaneously being fascinated by them - particularly in the night. As usual, I was terrified and curious and now here I am unable to sleep, starting at every passing noise with all the lights in the house blazing.

So what turns out to be my distinct loss (sleep), turns into the blog's gain (posting at long last)...

In the spirit (no pun intended) of the night, I shall reflect on some truly scary things - like the recession, academia and how the link between the two is really, truly frightening.

Is it just me or was this spring break not like other spring breaks? Granted that in Syracuse the term 'Spring Break' always seems cruelly inappropriate when you're wading through inches of snow and fighting arctic winds. But this time a combination of factors made this the least spring breaky-spring break yet.

It was not meant to be this way. At the start of the week I had visions of multiple long and rambling posts on the blog, slow cooked meals which I could savor and put away for later, catching up on a few good films and reading at least a few great books. Hanging out with friends and sleeping in also ranked high on the agenda. As my previous post said it was all wonderful to start with but now that it's all over, I'm confronted with the realization that I cooked one dish only, hung out with friends only on the first day of the break, watched one bad movie and read one good book. I spent 4 days in school in my usual bay, staring at the computer screen.

But there was a particular sense of blah that pervaded this break. And I'm pretty sure a lot of it had to do with the recession.

Yes it has been around for a while (and the signs are all around us) but it's only in the last few weeks that I've realized how utterly and completely screwed we are. From conversations with faculty who grimace at the words 'job market' and shrug apologetically as they admit they will NEVER retire, to the nyt article that had us all reaching for a stiff drink/xanax - it's clear that not only are things going to be miserable generally, they're going to be particularly bad for those in the early stages of academic careers and fabulously horrible for those in the final years of our PhDs. Guess where I am?

My friends, it is time to worry when the advice of faculty that previously told you to 'get out of grad school fast' becomes 'stall as long as you can' and when they won't even cheer you up with such platitudes as 'you'll be fine'. Another sign of the times is the particular new inflections and tropes in the perennial 'why did I choose this' conversation that most grad students have had (with each other or with themselves). Previously the conversation went something like this:

Grad Student 1: " I'm stressed and poor and mildly sick... and I'm never going to finish this dissertation and my friends all have jobs and houses and kids. Why did I choose this again?"

Grad Student 2: "I know! It's so hard to get a good academic job- I don't want to be stuck teaching at some crappy college. I should have just stayed in (insert much better paying, private sector job that was deemed unsatisfying and soul killing). If only I had (insert road not taken)"

Grad Student 3: "Yeah, I totally understand. What was I thinking? But now it's too late to do anything else. I'm not even sure I can do anything else. But god, I'm poor and stressed and I'll never finish this dissertation...."

(and so it goes....until)

Grad Student 4: "Yes, it's really hard and maybe we're crazy but think about it- would you really be happy doing something else? Isn't this what you wanted to do?"

Grad Student 1: "Sigh...yes, you're right. I would go crazy sitting in meetings all day."

Grad Student 2: "Yes, that's true. And I do love teaching sometimes"

Grad Student 3: "No, I really do hate this. I'm leaving/ I want out. Bye"

You get the picture. We've all had this conversation at one time or the other- and if you're lucky, you're student no. 4 and you really love teaching or you love your work and despite all the uncertainty and stresses of academia- you really never feel as alive and happy as when you're in it.

But now the conversation has changed- sure, there's no longer too many friends to compare ourselves to. Everyone is vulnerable or constrained in this atmosphere. But now there is little room for debate and ambiguity,now the conversation goes:

Grad Student 1: "God this is so BAD. We're soo screwed - no one is going to retire, no one is hiring, no one has money, there are no postdocs, no jobs....just no no no"

Grad Student 2" " Of all the rotten luck in the world! I'll do anything - heck i'd be happy to teach 4 courses in some crappy college in the middle of no where. What's going to happen to us? "

Grad Student 3: "No idea. We've got to stall"

Grad Student 2: "For how long? And on what? And for what, in the end?"

Grad Student 4: "Yes, it's really hard and maybe we're crazy but think about it- would you really be happy doing something else? Isn't this what you wanted to do?" (Voice weakly peters out...)

Deafening silence and sighs...

But it's not all bad. Let me say how much I enjoyed chatting with Chanbong and K (up until the ghost stories). There was a moment when we were sitting in the little bubble tea place and K was talking animatedly about why the Chinese are so enamored with Foucault that I thought... 'This is why I love my friends.' I'm heartened by such chats and such friends in a world and a mileu where reading and being literate in the broad sense of the term is seen as a waste of time.

So it got me thinking yet again- can one be truly literate without a vast canvas and array of interests? Or am I being naive and unfocused, to my detriment? So many successful people in academia are remarkably disciplined about how they use not just their time but also their brain space- they hardly extend themselves outside their area of research and their work. And this is the model prescribed to grad students too. On the other hand, so many of the people I admire in public life are conversant and engaged with things beyond what they do. They're interested in the human condition as it is manifested in different things- art, music, books, people, activism. I wonder often if this is a luxury you have to 'earn'- maybe after tenure or when you've done the hard slog. If so, are people like me just fundamentally misfits in the structure and rewards system of (American) academia? It's a question I've thought about often and one that I am beginning to hear more and more in the way my friends question the norms of graduate school and academic life. In the past few weeks I've heard more and more the following types of questions : Is it worth it to constantly feel stressed and competitive? Why is that the normative reasons that drive many of us to come to graduate school get taken over so quickly with the drive to succeed, compete and 'produce'? Why are those things defined the way they are? Is it worth it to not do the things you love- whether it is yoga or spending time with family or writing- in order to achieve some abstract and increasingly more uncertain reward in the future? How can we meaningfully live within these dominant norms and still be fulfilled in some deeper sense? Is asking these questions itself pointless?

I'm not sure I know how I feel about these questions. I think the balance between who you are with who you want to be is a tough one to reconcile and manage but I'm trying to internalize the value in trying not to be someone I can't be. Confused? So am I.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Day Off

I watched this.
Verdict - Luscious, visually stunning but ultimately just ok. Netflix it.

I read this
Verdict- excellent, read it.

I contemplated this and this
Verdict- Gloomy. #*@! it.

I ate this and this
Verdict- delicious, cook and eat it.

I cheered this
Verdict- Brilliant. Sachin is IT.

I blogged this.
Verdict- lazy but efficient. Skip it?

So, spring break is here so copious blogging is coming your way but today, this about sums it up. All in all:

Work done = 0
Pleasure Had = Immense (except for that little recession, never-getting- a-job thing.)

Saturday, February 28, 2009

New York Highlight 2: art edition

I'm sitting here in a our fav. bookstore/cafe (yes the one with the sandwich) with Bluebelle and we're just catching up on things, grading (or attempting to grade) and reflecting on my presentation yesterday...which is over, and thus good.

One of the other experiences bluebelle and I shared was our first time at MOMA, in New York. I've wanted to go to MOMA for a while now and it was a must-see for me on this trip. We went (along with our dear friend Heather) on a day (that was a public holiday here in the US).

First of all, it was so heartening to see how many people make a day of it by going to a museum. The state of the arts, if our experience at the MOMA is any indication, is healthy- even in tough times such as these. It was really wonderful to see so many people taking hours out to appreciate art, telling their little children about famous paintings and to watch people of all ages, types and nationalities wandering around the museum.

I couldn't help but think back to some of the beautiful pieces of art that lie dustily neglected in museums in India because of archaic rules, bad management and an unfriendly user-experience (I'm not picking just on India but that is the context I know best). The MOMA does things right- one of the marvels for me was something as simple as the coat check system which managed to place and retrieve thousands of bags and coats in an an extremely timely, efficient and friendly manner. These small things make a big difference.

There was plenty of art I really liked- including Picasso who I always try to appreciate but never really GET. My favorites were Matisse's 'red studio', Jasper John's 'Map' and some beautiful new finds (for me) like Balla's 'Street light' But my favorite was Klimt's 'The Park'.

Very different from the quintessential Klimt in my mind, but yet very Klimt. The picture does not do it justice - but I imagine the beauty of the varied specks of green is difficult to render on film anyway.

Bluebelle and I wandered for several hours until we came across the following pieces of art that we immediately categorized into 'WTF art'. A bunch of wool and lint on the floor with mirrors in between? A string in the shape of trapeziod? A pink plastic ledge propped up against a wall? I don't get it, dude. I know that there is probably some deep explanation for it but our first reaction was "really?". So there, I've outed myself and bluebelle as philistines.

The bs explanations for each of these pieces just added to our incredulity. Here is the description of the pink ledge called (for some reason) "The Absolutely Naked Fragrance" (John McCracken). This is what the pink plastic plank ( a far better, alliterative to boot title in my opinion) represents:

"The polished resin surface recalls the aesthetic of 1960's southern California surfboard and Kustom Kar cultures, the title was drawn from advertising slogans in fashion magazines. "
(ok so we have somewhat of a reason for that title)


"The plank's interaction with both the floor and the wall is meant to call attention to the space being occupied by both viewer and object. I see the plank as existing between both worlds, McCracken says, the floor representing the physical world of standing objects, trees, cars, buildings, human bodies and everything, and the wall representing the world of the imagination, illusionistic painting space, human mental space and all that.'


Do you see all that in this below?

Anyway, the WTF art (as bluebelle and I will forever call it), the stunning design section and the magnificent works of art in the giant, cool spaces of the MOMA building all came together to make a great experience and definitely a highlight of the New York trip.

I didn't get to copy down the explanation for the next WTF piece but following from an idea from my sister (who attempted -with her art-history chops- to come up with some sort of understanding of this), I challenge/ invite you to write a suitably arty explanation of what I will call 'Stretchy purple string':

What would the little plaque next to this say, if you were the curator at MOMA? Do weigh in below.

Monday, February 23, 2009

New York City Highlight No. 1: Banana Pudding at Magnolia's

So I went to NYC last week (for a conference (ahem) more about that later). I could do a whole NYC diary but I'm not sure I have the time and you have the inclination so instead, I'll pick my top 5 best experiences from this trip. So here goes:

While I definitely left my heart in San Francisco, New York makes it beat just a little faster. There is nothing as cool as emerging from your train/plane/bus in New York and immediately melding into the crowd, amongst crisp fall or winter air and twinkling buildings. There's something about it that just makes me feel ALIVE.

But this post is not about my heart, or perhaps only indirectly in vague health-related ways that we should not dwell on right now. This post is about my stomach. It's a post about a very happy food discovery that I made this trip. And to make up for my silence, I shall start my New York posts in the most delectable way possible.

Without further ado I present to you: The Banana Pudding at Magnolia Bakery

The picture could never convey to you the greatness of this humble looking pudding- custard, vanilla wafers, ripe bananas and whipped cream!

This is all of us digging into the banana pudding for breakfast- this is after we ate it for dinner. The next day we ate it after lunch, and the day after that, FOR lunch.

If you're a sex and the city fan (I'm not) you know that this is where Carrie got her cupcakes. But an excellent tipster told us to steer clear of the cupcakes and go for the pudding and now it is only my duty to pass the wisdom along (although pretty much all my readers were actually with me in NYC eating this very same pudding, so who am I kidding).

The inside of the store is 'cute' in a very chick-lit, girly, pastel sort of way.It really looks like it could be the cover picture for a chick-lit book with curly hand writing and a giant pink shoe on a tiered cake...that sort of thing. It's set on Bleeker street (401) in a pretty neighborhood- very NYC. But really forget the ambiance, the cuteness or the pop-culture relevance. Just follow the sign and eat the banana pudding...

The adoring masses....lined up for the cupcakes no doubt, poor things- tsk tsk!