Friday, July 31, 2015

A world of entertained fools

Do we really put our money where our mouth is?

The writer of a letter to the Statesman Journal notes that we are "a nation of fools":
We, the American people voluntarily pay professional athletes more than we pay the president. We pay entertainers more than we pay doctors and nurses and school teachers. We are a nation of fools. We are getting exactly what we deserve.
He is terribly wrong.  We are not a nation of fools.  We are a world full of fools.  People all over the world seem to want to be entertained 24x7, and are willing to pay gazillions to entertainers of all kinds.  What the hell is wrong with us?

This global pattern is one that Forbes wisely recognized in its latest listing of the world's highest paid entertainers:

Who the hell is Channing Tatum and why is he/she earning that much?  Now, that question by itself says a lot about how much I am willing to pay to be entertained!

A quick detour on this Channing Tatum.  Turns out it is a he!

The need to be entertained is so pervasive that ... hey, hey, don't go away.  Come back and read the rest of this post! ;)

Like I was saying, the need to be entertained is so pervasive that educators have for a long time complained that education has been degraded to edutainment.  Even church pastors have found the need to make their sermons entertaining so that the few who do come continue to do so.

It is almost as if serious inquiries, whether it is secular or religious approaches to understanding the human condition, have to compete against entertainment of various kinds: from traditional ball games, to video games, to movies and television, to ... Heck, apparently people will rather be so entertained by the freaky weirdness of a couple having nineteen kids that they would willingly support the "characters" now that the multi-million dollar contract has been canceled!

Perhaps entertainment is all about escapism.  To try to run and hide from that one thing that awaits us all: death.  The fear of mortality.  Instead of dealing with it, maybe people prefer to be entertained.  If only they knew how rewarding it is to read and think about death itself that there is no time for "entertainment"!

Thursday, July 30, 2015

On the death of two Muslims in India

The tweets were the first.  When I peeked into Facebook, there were posts.  Later that evening, when I called to check in with my parents, father said "the big news here is that Abdul Kalam died."

"Yes, I got the news here."


Father has not gotten used to news traveling at the speed of light.  For that matter, neither have I; but, that's a discussion for another day.

In the follow-up call, he talked more about the passing away of Kalam, a former president of the old country.  "Not since the death of Gandhi and Nehru have I seen such emotions from the people" he said.  And he clarified: "I don't mean government organized responses.  This is by individuals. And by private corporations."

I have only a news-junkie understanding of Kalam, having left the old country almost three decades ago, well before Kalam became famous.  My father's take was, therefore, interesting to me.

"Maybe it is because after Nehru, Abdul Kalam was the only one who was really interested in children and young people."

I recalled a friend posting in Facebook a photo from a few years ago--her son receiving an award from Kalam.

Abdul Kalam, a scientist-turned president, died while delivering a lecture to students:
Dr. Kalam, a Muslim Tamil who died at 83, was one of the few Indian leaders able to bridge the country’s political, religious and linguistic divides, and his death provoked an outpouring of grief across the political spectrum at a time when positions have hardened.
I wish Fox News had covered the death of this Muslim for hours on and demonstrated to its rabid viewers that there is no "Muslim problem" and that Muslims are adored by non-Muslims too as any outstanding person of any other faith would be.

Kalam led an exemplary life.  People, wherever they are, love the real ones like Kalam, even when they know well he would have had his own flaws just as any mortal would.  The ones who fake it might win the battle, but the genuine win the long game.  Kalam was a role model to the youth:
As a professor, he was known to dine and debate with his students, and he made sure that 100 children from each state in the country attended his presidential inauguration in 2002, despite concerns about space.
It is now the young, primarily, who keep his quintessentially earnest inspirational quotes alive in social media posts.
The youth aspect, a spontaneous outpouring at that, was what father was also talking about.  

Meanwhile, India carried out the execution of a Muslim who was found to be integral to the bombings in Mumbai in 1993, after the mercy petition was rejected by India's president and after its top court upheld the capital punishment sentence:
It is ironic that our media will be split between two funerals taking place at two corners of the country today. Former president APJ Abdul Kalam will be interred in Rameswaram and executed convict Yakub Memon in Mumbai. It’s not ironic because it throws into sharp relief some simplistic narrative of the Good Muslim versus the Bad Muslim. The irony is that had Memon’s fate rested in the hands of a President Kalam who knows what the outcome might have been. That has nothing to do with their shared faith but everything to do with his opposition to capital punishment on principle.
Kalam had supported the abolition of capital punishment saying confirming a death sentence was one of his “most difficult tasks” and noting “almost all cases which were pending had a social and economic bias.”
As that excerpt notes, "Muslims" in India or anywhere else on this wonderful planet are not by any means a simplistic narrative, unlike what Fox News and its ilk would like to believe.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

I love to laugh ... so should you

"Have you seen 'Inside out?'" asked the young fellow, when our paths crossed on the trail.

The eight-year old kid's smiling face easily revealed that he was surely up to mischief.  But, what could be the mischief about a Pixar movie?

"The movie, right?  No, haven't seen it."

I will spare you his reply--in case you have not watched the movie yet.  Yes, a major spoiler for me.  But, I was happy for the kid.  A kid was being a kid, like how kids are supposed to be.

I was reminded of another kid, who was about nine when he loved asking anybody--even strangers--a prank-question that he could never ask with a straight face.  With mischief written in big, bold letters in his expressions, he often sweetly asked the person next to him, "where you born during an earthquake?"

Of course, we elders like to engage with kids.  We want to humor them.  And this is a puzzling question as well; I mean, how often do you expect a nine-year old to ask you whether you were born during an earthquake.  And, with a rare exception, we would all reply that we were not born during an earthquake, right?

Upon hearing that reply, the nine-year old's eyes danced around with glee.  With a magnitude of excitement and delight that we old folks have forgotten, the kid would blurt out, unable to control himself any longer, "then, how come you have a crack?"

And then he would laugh as if that was the first time ever he was cracking that awful joke.

We, too--yes, I am including you also, dear reader--were once kids.  We delighted with the silliest of jokes, did we not?  We laughed, sometimes to the point of our eyes tearing up.  And then something happens.  We grow up.  And, for the most part, we stop laughing.  We think it is not adult-like to engage in silly humor.  We even tend to tell those adults who enjoy themselves with such humor to "grow up."  We want them to read depressing Russian writers and understand the human condition.  We force feed Kafka to the happy ones.  Killjoys we are! ;)

A mural along the bike-path that I frequent

I know, I know, there is a place for everything.  There is a limit to everything.  But, my point is this: shouldn't there be a place for that kind of silly and simply delight even in the everyday lives of the middle-aged and older?

A few years ago, I attended the son-in-law's graduation from medical school.  Their dean advised them to always have in their proverbial back-pockets a bunch of silly jokes that we might consider to be at a third-grade level.  Appropriately used, it can work well for any age group, he said.  The joke he used as an example was this:
Q: What did a fish say when it swam into a wall of concrete?
A: Dam(n)!
Get it? ;)

You read till here?  Good.  Here is the piece that I left out about the kid on the trail who delighted in that mischief about Inside Out.  One of his legs seemed to have a natural deformity--it appeared about six inches shorter than the other leg.  It was not a case of any amputation--the leg ended in a foot and toes.  I am guessing it was a birth defect.  He was wearing a shoe that seemed connected, via a brace, to the back of leg, and his foot and toes were kind of suspended in between.  Aren't you now all the more delighted that he was a fun-filled kid who was grinning from ear to ear that he had pranked strangers?

Laugh away.  Life is short.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Lolita is not for wusses. I am a wuss. Ergo, ...

I read.
I fought.
I quit.

I parted ways with Lolita.
Call me a wimp.
But I don't care.

Death I can handle, and I engage in a whole lot of reading and thinking about it.  Because death happens. It is only a matter of time.  We are mortals who can't figure out our expiration dates.

The complex and tragic story of H.H. and Lolita, on the other hand ...

Of course, those are characters that Nabokov imagined.  But, keep in mind that great literature is nothing but a mirror of who we are.  As I was reading Lolita, I read the following the other day in the "Dear Prudence" column in Slate, which I have been regularly reading for years:
Dear Prudence, I live in a close-knit community, and my husband and I are, or were, close friends with a couple who live in our apartment building. We are all in our late 50s. In our community there is a single mother with an 11-year-old daughter, and many of us are friends with the mother. The husband of the couple who lives in our building offered to be a father figure for the 11-year-old because her father is not in the girl’s life. He tutored the girl in school subjects with which she was having trouble. One day the girl came to me and told me that while she was being tutored in “Mark’s” apartment, his wife had to go out. He then offered to read a book to her. He chose a book about teenagers’ changing bodies. He told her to sit on his lap, which she did, and they leafed through the book until they came to the parts about boys’ changing bodies, and there were drawings of boys’ erect penises and “Mark” asked her if she had ever seen an erect penis. After she told me this, I arranged for her to talk with an experienced social worker. The social worker is convinced that Mark did not molest her, and while what he did was clearly inappropriate, it is not reportable or prosecutable. I can’t get this scenario out of my head.
Even if you have not read Lolita, you know enough about it to immediately see the parallel here with Nabokov's imaginary H.H. scheming to get his nymphet.  When literature portrays a Raskolnikov or a H.H., the characters and the situations that the authors create are not different from the real world people and happenings.  As we often find out to be the case, the real world is stranger than fiction.

Meanwhile, the local newspaper reported this:
A Thurston High School English teacher is under investigation for allegedly sending nude photographs of herself to a male student.
Sgt. Rich Charboneau confirmed that police are investigating an alleged incident involving a Thurston High School teacher but would not confirm her name.
However, Springfield School District spokeswoman Deb Jolda confirmed that the high school teacher under investigation is Stephanie Rodakowski, and said that Rodakowski is no longer employed by the school district.
The real world has more male and female H.H. than we would ever find out.  I suspect that only a few of the real H.H. ever get reported and prosecuted.

When Nabokov writes in his marvelous ways words and sentences about H.H. and Lolita, it is almost as if things are happening right in the next room in the hotel with flimsy walls, and I want to yell at H.H. and punch him in his face.  Like how the Bradley Cooper character in Silver Linings Playbook threw out of the window his copy of Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms, I too want to toss the damn book away.  The difference is that Cooper's character finished the book before he did.  I too read A Farewell to Arms all the way to the end and felt what he felt, which is all the more why I enjoyed watching that scene in the movie.  But, my spirit is too weak to continue on with Lolita.  Especially when I know fully well that it gets worse after where I have stopped, with the end of Part I.

I need a break after all these heavy stuff.  I deserve a break.  From blogging itself.  Maybe I will spend some time with the friend to marvel at the cloud shapes while having a few Fudgsicles ;)

Soon I shall return, and start with the third and final book of this summer's deep-reads, which I hope will be infinitely lighter than what Tolstoy and Nabokov gave me; as Boney M, a favorite during my high school years, wrapped up in one of their hits, "oh, those Russians ...!" ;)

Friday, July 24, 2015

Why am I thankful that my dream job did not happen?

When I was a kid, as it happens to most kids, I too was asked every once in a while "what do you want to do when you are older?"

One of my earliest aspirations was to become "an engine driver," which I have to translate for my American readers as a "locomotive engineer."  I loved trains; which kid doesn't!  Upon noticing that most engine drivers had on their heads handkerchiefs or small towels knotted in a way that held it in place, I tried to emulate that too.

I suppose my parents and the grandmothers and the aunts humored me with their comments, but I don't ever recall them telling me,  "what a great idea.  Yes, you can do it. Make that dream come true."

I am now older. I sometimes ask students what they want to do.  Or, those rare moments when a student comes to talk with me about career plans.  I encourage them and their ideas, however bizarre and strange they sometimes sound to my ears.  But, I add a whole bunch more that makes them aware of many aspects that they might have overlooked.  Because, I don't believe it is productive to merely tell young adults "you can be whatever you want to be."  It does not work that way.  I then might even provide them with evidence--from studies and news articles.  Of course, most students do not visit with me again after that and I wonder why!

It was, therefore, encouraging to read this essay with which I have nothing to disagree.  The author quotes Richard Bolles, who authored What color is your parachute?
Bolles bristles at the suggestion that he’s telling people to be ‘anything’ they want to be. ‘I hate the phrase,’ he says. ‘We need to say to people: Go for your dreams. Figure out what it is you most like to do, and then let’s talk about how realistically you can find some of that, or most of that, but maybe not all of that.’
Which is no different from what I tell youngsters.
The dangers are legion. Unrealistic plans lead to a waste of time and money. When a C‑student spins her wheels planning on medical school, other, more lucrative and realistic careers – say in business or education – fall by the wayside. And the ambition gap has led to increased dissatisfaction across working life.
Boy have I encountered students with expectations that simply did not match their abilities nor their work ethic.  It frustrates and worries me when faculty and staff continue to feed those false expectations instead of giving them a reality check.
At what point do we abandon possible for probable, and encourage our children to do the same?
When do you tell a kid, "son, you are not going to make it to the NFL. So, figure out something else."  Or "princess, I don't think you are the next Taylor Swift."

As parents, teachers, elders, we will be doing our children and youth a great disservice if we fail to provide them with such honest feedback.  Mere positive and wishful thinking won't do it.  I know it all too well; I am in the twilight of a mediocre career! ;)

So, any bottom-line?
‘[Adults] should say: be what you’re capable of,’ says Gwenyth, ‘not you could be anything. I’m not very good in dance. That’s like telling me I could be a professional dancer. No. No, I couldn’t be.’
Come to think of it, I am not at all capable of being an engine driver.  I am so thankful that I didn't try to become one!

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Angry woman. Angry dog. Angry bird.

"Robby is a fuckin' prick."

That jolted me from my daydreams as I was walking by the river on a sunny and pleasant summer day.

The yell belonged to a tattooed White woman, about thirty years old, who was walking towards me along the other edge of the path.  "At least she is following the rules of walking on the right side" I thought to myself.

As I drew even to her, she let out another yell: "That's why I told you he is a fuckin' prick."

Her face was redder than the reddest and juiciest tomatoes I have seen this summer.  She needed a few anger management classes, it seemed.

I was happy that I was past her, which then allowed me to continue to think about nothing.

"Help. Can somebody help me" crashed my daydreams.  What the hell was going on today?

It was a White guy, about thirty years old, with a bicycle that was flat on the riverbank.  A sign on his cycle read "save water, eat vegetables."  No wonder the guy looked lean and fit like me!

I stopped.  He yelled out what sounded like a name.  He saw me and said, "that's the last time the dog is ever going into the river."

The dog was far away downstream, in the middle of the river, with its head barely above the water.  The dog was trying to paddle its way, but was having some difficulty swimming against the current.

"What do you want me to do?" I asked him.  I had no clue.  I am useless in most situations.  I can think and philosophize, but it doesn't translate to any useful action in the real world.

"Keep calling your dog's name and walk towards him along the shore" I yelled at him.  He continued to call out the dog's name.  The dog continued to swim against the current.  I continued to be useless.

And then I had a brainwave.  What if I ran down the path and then caught the dog's attention from further down so that I can make the dog paddle towards the riverbank but not against the current as much.  Which is what I did.

As I climbed down to the bank, the dog was already safely on a boulder by the edge of the river.  The dog was safe. Phew!

I was about fifty feet downstream from the dog, and the owner was about fifty feet upstream from his pet.  I yelled out to the vegetarian, "hey, is everything ok now?"

The dog turned towards me.  Crouched a tad.  And let out a mean old growl.  The dog needed a few anger management classes, it seemed.  I walked away fast, looking behind every few seconds to make sure the canine wasn't after me.

I heard a flutter.  I was sure it was the dog.  I paused.  And turned.  It was a bird.  It had the whitish/greyish plumage like that of an owl, but had a face that was sharper and not flat.  If only I knew something about birds.  An useless thinker I am!

The bird glared at me.  It spread its wings.  I was sure it was getting ready to attack me.  And then it thought otherwise.  Wings down it scurried into the huge hole in the tree trunk.  The bird needed a few anger management classes, it seemed.

I resumed the walk and and the day dreaming about nothing.

I was a couple of minutes away from home when I saw three women in scrubs power-walking.  I came up with a wonderful line to tell them.  "You look like Charlie's Angels on a medical mission."  I couldn't control my grin.  It never takes much to amuse myself.

As I neared them, I was all set to deliver my line.  But then I thought, what if they also have some anger management issues and beat the crap out of me?

I walked in silence and entered the sanctuary of the hermitage.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

This hermit hates pain and suffering ... yet, he reads Lolita?

It is a fictional world that Nabokov has created, yes.  But, what a tragedy it is.

I am so tempted to ditch the book and watch a Disney movie in which people live happily ever after.  But then, real life is not fairy tales!  While we don't encounter and experience the likes of Humbert Humbert--thankfully-- every day we fight monsters, small and big, weak and strong, and bad to worse to malicious  Such is life!  Humbert Humbert is a metaphor, representing all things evil and representing us humans too.

It is not easy to read how H.H. is slowly laying out his plan, his trap.  I suppose this is also why in real life people choose to turn away from any discussion that is about all things unpleasant. Not all among us are wired to deal with the messiness that we know exists.  I  am such a wuss that I can't even visit with a sick person--my legs weaken and I worry that I will faint.  My stomach practically revolts when I watch or read the horrors that Nicholas Kristof presents, because the suffering there is way beyond my thresholds.  But, just as I am pushing myself to read Lolita, I force myself to visit with the sick friend or relative, and follow Kristof's journeys.  I understand that life is not only about me, and as much as a hermit I am, life includes humanity.

I wondered what the New York Times review said about the book soon after its publication.  Google helped out, as always; in this review from August 17, 1958, I find the following paragraph:
 The author, that is, is writing about all lust. He has afflicted poor Humbert with a special and taboo variety for a couple of contradictory reasons. In the first place, its illicit nature will both shock the reader into paying attention and prevent sentimentally false sympathy from distorting his judgment. Contrariwise, I believe, Mr. Nabokov is slyly exploiting the American emphasis on the attraction of youth and the importance devoted to the “teen-ager” in order to promote an unconscious identification with Humbert’s agonies. Both techniques are entirely valid. But neither, I hope, will obscure the purpose of the device: namely, to underline the essential, inefficient, painstaking and pain-giving selfishness of all passion, all greed—of all urges, whatever they may be, that insist on being satisfied without regard to the effect their satisfaction has upon the outside world. Humbert is all of us.
Nabokov made it clear that he didn't write the novel with any moral in mind.  But, we readers use literature to make sense of the world, and to articulate an understanding of the good and the bad.  We do make use of them to develop our own moral guides.  The paragraph that I quoted sums it up really well.

Caption at the source:
Vladimir Nabokov dictating from notecards as his wife, Véra, transcribed his words in Ithaca, N.Y., in 1958

I shudder when I think about what Nabokov's H.H. will do in the pages to come!  And who knows what horror Kristof will narrate next!  We will press on, right?

Heat doesn’t kill people ... poverty does

The following is an op-ed essay that I emailed the newspaper editor a while ago as the old country was getting set for the monsoon after yet another intense summer.  But, the essay hasn't made it to print, for whatever reason.  So, hey, as the editor/publisher of this blog, I can always "publish" that here ;)

If there were a weather lobby that is the equivalent of the National Rifle Association, then the argument might be “heat doesn’t kill people, but poverty does.”

The monsoon season has set in the Indian Subcontinent and, as always, the summer that preceded it was intense, hot, and deadly. In India, where large areas of the country experienced triple-digit temperatures, with a high of 117 degrees in a couple of places, more than 2,000 died during the nasty heat wave. Pakistan, which has a much smaller population than India’s, registered nearly 1,300 deaths, most of them in the city of Karachi.

For those of us here in the gorgeous and temperate Pacific Northwest, even 90-plus degree days are insufferable. But, we are well aware that in the United States too there are a number of regions and cities that routinely experience triple-digit summer temperatures for weeks. In Las Vegas, for instance, it is a rare day in July that the daytime high stays below 100 and nighttime lows seldom fall below 85. Summers in Texas and Oklahoma are legendary.

We don’t always pause to wonder why people don’t die in huge numbers when Vegas broils, while people seem to drop dead in Karachi’s heat.

One might also wonder why India’s neighbor, Bangladesh, did not suffer comparable deaths during the summer. For one, the high temperature on a typical summer day in Bangladesh might only be in the high 90s. But, more importantly, Bangladesh has invested a lot more into human development than even India. This is evident in one of the most important measures of human existence: life expectancy at birth in Bangladesh is 71 years, compared to 66 in India.

India, with 1.25 billion people is a lot bigger than Bangladesh that has only 156 million. Aggregating the billion-plus into one huge country masks the differences that exist within, and hides away the acute poverty that is sometimes even worse than the conditions in Sub-Saharan Africa. Even within India, there are plenty of places where the summer heat seems like a killer but doesn’t really kill—because those places have remarkably lower poverty rates. In the city of Chennai, where my parents live, my father complains that the hot days of summer that began in mid-April do not seem to be ending anytime soon. But, the city and the state in which it is located—Tamil Nadu—have much better Human Development Indicators than most of the rest of India and, thus, the heat doesn’t kill people.

The poorest of the poor in countries like India or Pakistan do not find it easy to escape from the heat, especially if they are sidewalk dwellers. Access to potable water can be a challenge, particularly in rural areas where water supplies might be limited and which only the monsoon will replenish. It was a double-whammy this summer in Karachi—Ramadan coincided with the heatwave. Even if a thirsty urban poor was ready to pay top rupees for a glass of water, commercial food and drink establishments were closed in order to comply with the religious and government rules on respecting the Ramadan fasting during the day. It is, after all, the poor who are out and about in the heat, which is why we do not read about the business and political leaders of Pakistan succumbing to the heat.

Fasting during Ramadan is, of course, the practice in Saudi Arabia or Iran. Summers in those countries are brutal as well. Yet, reports of heat-wave deaths from those countries do not make the news, not because of any censorship but because there are no such happenings in large numbers. The acute poverty that one finds in some parts of India or Pakistan is not to be found in Iran. Simply put, it is poverty that kills!

The worst of the heat and dust of the Subcontinent has yielded to the monsoons. Again, it is typically the poorest whose lives will be severely affected when the rains come down in a hurry. To complicate things, experts predict that extreme heat and flooding will be even more worrisome with global climate change.

If there is any good news here, it is that the poverty rate has been significantly reduced over the past couple of decades. Along with that, with governments investing in people—via schools, health programs, water supply and sanitation, for instance—the human condition has been improving as well. The more such positive changes happen, the lower are the chances of thousands dying from the heat-waves. Now, if only those changes can happen as rapidly as ice cubes melting in the Karachi summer!

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Time is not money. I value time. Ergo, ...

"Are you home these days? No school?" asked a neighbor the other day.

In a nanosecond, I went through the possibilities the conversation could lead to: a friendly humor about not working to a little tongue-in-cheek remark about how teachers have their summers off.  Unless I wanted to pick a fight, there was no point dealing with any snide remark.  I don't like to fight.  I am like Bugs Bunny, as a video recently pointed out, who always shied away from fights; but then he is always poked! ;)

"Yes, this is the first summer that I am not teaching any class" I replied as I continued to walk.  I worried that if I stopped, then the friendliness might be at grave danger.

"Oh like a real vacation then."

I smiled and continued to walk.  How do I explain the concept of a life in furlough?

Over my years here in the US, I have come to understand that Americans have an innate distrust of anyone who seems like is not working long days.  Working late into one's life is a badge of honor to many.  And working long hours--"I am so busy"--is another badge of honor.  Pretty soon, people all around me walk with many badges while, to them, I am doing nothing to earn badges.  It is almost as if I am, ahem, un-American!:
The United States is famously a nation of people who think they should be on the job—and be on the job and be on the job. We work more hours than the Japanese. We work more than the Germans. We’re the only first-world nation that does not mandate vacation time or sick days. And let’s not even discuss our maternity leave policies.
Yet we don’t seem to be aware of how second-tier our standards are compared to other nations.
The Protestant work ethic has seeped into the Catholics, the Mormons, the Hindus, the atheists, ... Wait, it gets worse, writes that author at Slate:
If you don’t take part in this orgy of work and more work? Something must be wrong with you— and that’s you, specifically.
How do I begin to explain that I intentionally chose this profession even though it pays less than other professions that I could have easily signed up for?  And that the nature of this profession is that we have only nine-month contracts, which results in an appearance of leisure time, even though I am working every day?

At least, they don't beat up on me.  But, the political rhetoric in this country beats up on the poor and the low-income households.  As if they are all poor only because they are lazy bums who don't work long hours--even though the data clearly show otherwise.  What gives?
Here’s a thought: In an era in which decent, high-paying jobs are hard to find, and in which the workforce-participation rate is at lows not seen since the late 1970s, gainful employment turns into something of a status item. That allows us to rationalize the increasing hours we put in on the job—often done because we fear the consequences of saying no—as choice. Then we turn around and demean others who don’t work.
It is a strange life that we lead.

Did the Lepcha believe in Dante's nine circles of hell?

A long time ago, in the old country, I loved going to the local "Park club" every weekend, not only to chance upon that girl but also because that's where I could get to watch movies that otherwise was not possible in that small little industrial township. The first ever Malayalam movie that I watched was in that open-air setting.  I never forgot the movie or this song because of how much I was compelled to seriously think for the first time about love and sex and age.  In that Malayalam movie, it was an old man marrying a young woman, whose love was another young man.  To borrow from a recent movie title, "it's complicated."

Of course, in our daily lives back then, people did not talk about love and sex.  Those were essentially taboo. Via metaphors, the elders reminded us youth to control our impulses, even as we were being transported to the fictional print and film worlds where love and sex ruled supreme.  And love and sex and marriage in the old ways was anything but the practices of today.  Children got married.  Sometimes it was fully grown adults who married the children.

The Humbert Humbert character in Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita explains his fixation in nymphets and draws comparisons with societies elsewhere:
Marriage and cohabitation before the age of puberty are still not uncommon in certain East Indian provinces.  Lepcha old men of eighty copulate with girls of eight, and nobody minds.  After all, Dante fell madly in love with his Beatrice when she was nine, a sparkling girleen, painted and lovely, and bejeweled, in a crimson frock, and this was in 1274, in Florence, at a private feast in the merry month of May.  And when Petrarch fell madly in love with his Laureen, she was a fair-haired nymphet of twelve running in the wind, in the pollen and dust, a flower in flight, in the beautiful plain as descried from the hills of Vaucluse.
My idiocy means that I am stumped about: (a) Lepcha: who are they and did they really practice this?; (b) was this Dante thing for real?; (c) the name Petrarch rings a bell, but I can't' place it; and (d) what the heck does "descried" mean?

I knew I would run into such situations even when I chose Lolita as one of my summer deep reads.  And that is exactly why I chose that--it was not because of the plot of the older man's relationship with a young girl.  That story-line is merely the vehicle for me to to understand a little bit more about the human condition, and it is working out well thus far.

The annotations in the book answers a whole bunch of questions that arise as I read the book, and Google fills in with the rest.  But, I got really, really curious about the Lepcha.  In India?  Wikipedia helps out!

What amazes me is this: Nabokov did not have any Wikipedia. No Google. No nothing.  Yet, he easily strings together a paragraph in which he mentions the Lepcha, Dante, and Petrarch, and the fine details about them?  WTF!  At this rate, when a new academic year begins, I will be really, really convinced that I am a fake who doesn't know any damn thing and I will hope that students never ever find that out ;)

Monday, July 20, 2015

Do I deserve this face? Really!

One of the many wonderful things about reading the Economist is this: the correspondents bring in quotes that are just charming.

The trigger for such a post is this: the latest issue of the Economist has a special on Singapore, to mark the city-state's fiftieth birthday.  The lead essay begins with:
At 50, according to George Orwell, everyone has the face he deserves. Singapore, which on August 9th marks its 50th anniversary as an independent country, can be proud of its youthful vigour.
It took me a while to get past the opening sentences.  After all, it was not too long ago that I crossed the five-oh.  "everyone has the face he deserves"?  I don't deserve to look better than this?  I don't deserve to look like George Clooney or a Bradley Cooper? ;)

Here's the unfortunate aspect of it all--Orwell himself did not live to look at himself in the mirror and decide whether he deserved that face.  He was only 47 years old when he lost the battle against tuberculosis.

I wonder whether Nabokov thought he deserved the face that he had when he wrote Lolita; he was a little over fifty at that time.  He was in Oregon when he finished writing that novel.  In Ashland.  And he apparently wrote a poem, titled "Lines written in Oregon."  Guess where it was published?  Yep, the New Yorker!  This is all way too fascinating how the different things are inter-connected ;)
Esmeralda! now we rest
Here, in the bewitched and blest
Mountain forests of the West.
Here the very air is stranger.
Damzel, anchoret, and ranger
Share the woodland’s dream and danger.
And to think I deemed you dead!
(In a dungeon, it was said;
Tortured, strangled); but instead –
Blue birds from the bluest fable,
Bear and hare in coats of sable,
Peacock moth on picnic table.
Huddled roadsigns softly speak
Of Lake Merlin, Castle Creek,
And (obliterated) Peak.
Do you recognize that clover?
Dandelions, l’or du pauvre?
(Europe, nonetheless, is over).
Up the turk, along the burn
Latin lilies climb and turn
Into Gothic fir and fern.
Cornfields have befouled the prairies
But these canyons laugh! And there is
Still the forest with its fairies.
And I rest where I awoke
In the sea shade – l’ombre glauque
Of a legendary oak;
Where the woods get ever dimmer,
Where the Phantom Orchids glimmer –
Esmeralda, immer, immer.
But this means that I have to now struggle to figure out what the poem is really about!  No wonder Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew didn't care about poems and feelings;  in that same essay in which it quoted Orwell, the Economist notes that Lee's maxim was "poetry is a luxury we cannot afford,”

I wonder whether Lee deserved his face when he was fifty! ;)

I suppose I do have an alias: Poseur!

I did something which is not that much unusual for me: I started reading Lolita by first reading Vladimir Nabokov's afterword.  And am all the wiser as a result.

In writing about the American publishers who turned down the book--this was in 1954, more than sixty years ago!--Nabokov notes:
Their refusal to buy the book was based not on my treatment of the theme but on the theme itself, for there are at least three themes which are utterly taboo as far as most American publishers are concerned.  The two others are: a Negro-White marriage which is a complete and glorious success resulting in lots of children and grandchildren; and the total atheist who lives a happy and useful life, and dies in his sleep at the age of 106.
It was only in 1967 that the US Supreme Court invalidated laws that prohibited interracial marriage.   As far as atheists, Nabokov was not exaggerating by any means; this country might even be ready to elect as president a bisexual Black woman who is a Muslim before the electorate ever warms up to an atheist!

Nabokov wraps up the afterword with autobiographic notes related to the country from where his parents fled--Russia--and the language--Russian:
My private tragedy, which cannot, and indeed should not, be anybody's concern, is that I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammeled, rich, and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English, devoid of any of those apparatuses--the baffling mirror, the velvet backdrop, the implied associations and traditions--which the native illusionist, frac-tails flying, can magically use to transcend the heritage in his own way.
If not for the revolution in 1917, Nabokov's parents might not have left Russia in 1919, when the author was young man of twenty.  An undergraduate program--with honors, of course--at Trinity College came next.  Then back to Berlin and then on to Paris.  And then to the US as a forty-year old man where he lived as a writer and as a faculty at the best institutions: Stanford, Harvard, Wellesley,and Cornell.  And then to move back to Europe--to Switzerland--in 1961 where he lived until his death in 1977.  I wonder if he would have ever imagined that the Soviet Union would disintegrate a mere decade later.

The copy that I am reading includes extensive notes by an acclaimed scholar, Alfred Appel, who--and I know this only because I did a Google search--died six years ago.  The intellectual accomplishments of Nabokov and Appel immediately expose me for who I am--an academic fraud.  My job title ought not to have a word like "professor"--a word that the world used in addressing the likes of Appel and Feynman and so many others.

Appel writes about Nabokov's intellect:
[A] scientist, linguist, and author of fifteen novels, who has written and published in three languages, and whose vast erudition is most clearly evidenced by the four-volume translation of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, with its two volumes of annotations and one-hundred page "Note on Prosody"
Those were some giants!

And then there were the butterflies.  Nabokov's expertise on butterflies is not any secret, of course.  I remembered reading an essay about that in the New Yorker not too long ago.  Again, thanks to Google, I tracked it down.  That essay's beginning says it all about Nabokov the intellectual:
Vladimir Nabokov once said, “A writer should have the precision of a poet and the imagination of a scientist.” The famed author exhibited both equally in his writing and in his non-literary pursuits, which included lepidopterology, the study of butterflies and moths. Although he is of course best known for his intricate novels and essays, the past decade has seen a rediscovery of Nabokov’s entomological ventures. On Tuesday, the Times revealed that a team a scientists had vindicated a nearly seventy-year-old theory of his about the development of the Polyommatus blue butterflies
That New Yorker essay quotes the following from an interview that Nabokov gave in 1967:
The pleasures and rewards of literary inspiration are nothing beside the rapture of discovering a new organ under the microscope or an undescribed species on a mountainside in Iran or Peru. It is not improbable that had there been no revolution in Russia, I would have devoted myself entirely to lepidopterology and never written any novels at all.
The unexpected twists and turns in life!

All these thoughts even before I have gotten to the first page of chapter 1 of Lolita.  It doesn't surprise me though.  And I look forward to more. A lot more.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

The handwriting on the wall is digital

The rare work-related meetings that I attend--remember, I am átopos--I go with a notebook and a pen.  I write down the key points, even if I don't have to follow-up on anything.  I don't take my laptop or any electronic gadget.  I write things down. You know, that old-fashioned handwritten notes?  The original "digital" form!  I find that jotting things down helps me remember the important things.  I suspect that the act helps my brain separate the wheat from the chaff, as they say.

In my classes, I rarely ever write anything anymore on the board.  Some terms it is never.  Increasingly it is never ever that I use the white-board (I can't even recall the last time I had a blackboard in the classroom!)

My office has a couple of shelves of handwritten notes from students.  One of my favorites is a two-page letter from a student thanking me for the teacher/guide that I apparently was to her.  Two pages of handwritten text; imagine that!

A handwritten piece is a reminder to me that we are humans.  In fact, handwriting is so artisanal. We might--and do--use machines, but a handwritten letter or a thank-you card is wonderfully human even in how the lettering towards the end does not look the same as in the beginning.  In the digital font world, like even here in this blog-post the letter "e" at the beginning is the same as here.    
Unlike digital’s precision, writing is blurry individuality under a general system. But in addition to this, we all have our own personalized understanding of arrows, squiggles, double-underlines and so on—little personal codes we develop over time to “talk to ourselves.” To write by hand is to always foreground an inevitable uniqueness, visually marking out an identity in opposition to, say, this font you’re reading right now.
In a world where people seem to communicate via the hieroglyphics of emojis, and vowel-free txt msgs, the chicken-scrawl handwriting that most of us have is well on its way out, it seems.
what pens do offer is both practical and symbolic resistance to the pre-programmed nature of the modern web—its tendency to ask you to express yourself, however creatively and generatively, within the literal and figurative constraints of a small, pre-defined box. There is a charming potential in the pen for activity that works against the grain of those things: to mark out in one’s own hand the absurdities of some top ten list, or underlining some particularly poignant paragraph in a way that a highlight or newly popular screenshotting tool doesn’t quite capture. Perhaps it’s the visual nature of the transgression—the mark of a hand slashed across a page—that produces emblematically the desire for self-expression: not the witty tweet or status update, nor just the handwritten annotation, but the doubled, layered version of both, the very overlap put to one’s own, subjective ends. And then there is more simple pleasure: that you are, in both an actual and metaphorical sense, drawing outside the lines. If one can draw over and annotate a web page and then send it to a friend, for example, the web at least feels less hegemonic, recalling the kind of interactivity and freedom of expression once found in the now-broken dream of blog comment sections.
It will be awesome, indeed, if the comments at this blog were handwritten.  What a joy it will be to scribble on a Facebook page wall ;)


Saturday, July 18, 2015

A not so sorry sari story

Attending a wedding in India, which I did this past December, was awesome for many reasons one of which was this: not only older women but most of the younger women too were wrapped in saris.
Silk saris.
In a mind-blowing array of colors of designs.
No two saris looked the same.
And every woman seemed to delight in the sari that she was wearing.

Right from a young age, I was impressed with the beauty of the sari.  I had no idea about the differences that the elders talked about: Kanchipuram silk versus Benares silk, for instance.  All I knew was that saris were gorgeous and that I liked some more than others.  It was exciting when I was asked for my opinions on the saris and I was always willing to jump in with my comments on the color scheme, the pattern, the "border," and whether it will look good for that particular woman.  I think it is a surprise that I never had even the faintest interest in wrapping myself in one! Thankfully ;)

Of course, there was no equivalent for the males, whose traditional outfits at weddings was nothing but a white veshti and an angavastram.

No Angavastram though! ;)
Thus, it is no surprise that I could sympathize with Sashi Tharoor's lament that women were ditching the traditional saris.   Of course, the intellectual me also felt right away that it was atrocious for Tharoor to complain about the loss of traditions after his own life far, far away from the traditions.  But, I suppose people like us will always talk and write about the rapid changes that lead to the tossing overboard of traditional practices--even saris.  Why, even the half-saris! ;)

As women ditch the traditional saris, the industry that once employed hundreds of thousands has been rapidly changing as well.  In the place of human hands weaving those silk threads into colorful patterns that the silk saris become, machines have taken over.  The artisan and artistic craft is dying.  While Kanchipuram silk continues to flourish for various reasons, Benares silk is long past its glory days.  It is now being sustained in ways that makes this sari-fan jump with joy:
The jobs of the Varanasi weavers, once estimated at a half million men, may have been fading out back then, but on a trip in late 2013 I discovered that efforts were underway by two companies — the socially conscious New York fashion label Maiyet and the Mumbai chain Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces — to reinvigorate the ancient skill by employing the weavers and inviting tourists to visit them as they work. About 700 people have taken Maiyet’s tour; more than 650 have gone on Taj’s.
Hurrah for capitalism and the profit motive!
The fashion line’s work in Varanasi got the attention of David Adjaye, a star British architect whose international works include the design of the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington. Mr. Adjaye is now designing Maiyet’s building for the weavers, which is to be completed in 2016.
Meanwhile, Taj had started resurrecting the desolate village of Sarai Mohana, five miles from Varanasi, which has a large concentration of weavers. Taj’s plan was to have the weavers make saris for its employees and guests. Since then, the village has been turned into something of a tourist attraction.
How awesome!  
For centuries Varanasi was a hub for the silk trade. The gossamer fabric, woven by hand on long wooden looms, is recognizable to aficionados by its refined feel, substantial weight and audible rustle. ...
Weaving in India dates to 500 B.C. and flourished during the Mughal period from the early 16th to mid-18th centuries. Since Islam traditionally forbids the images of people and animals, weavers created floral brocades for saris and scarves, much like the gold flower pattern on mine.
Weavers, nearly all men, pass down their skills to their sons or male relatives. But their trade has been shaken over the last few decades as power looms offer a cheaper and faster way to produce the same goods, six to 12 meters of material a day, depending on the design; it can take a weaver weeks to create the same amount. This technology left many of the artisans facing starvation and selling the wood from their looms for firewood.
Yes, it is that old tale of technology condemning artisans to starvation. The Luddites found out years ago as the Industrial Revolution unfolded in England that fighting the change is hopeless. Adapt or die.  It was literally the death of one weaver that, ironically, led the hotel chain to employ some:
It was this plight that in 2005 caught the attention of Ratna Krishnakumar, the wife of R.K. Krishnakumar, who was at the time the vice chairman of Indian Hotels Company Limited, of which Taj is a part.
“I had heard about how bad the situation was for these weavers, but the final clinching point came when I was watching the evening news and heard about a weaver in his 30s who had died from overselling his blood to feed his family,” she said in a telephone interview from her Mumbai home.
Mrs. Krishnakumar, 66, came up with the idea of tapping the men to make the saris for Taj’s female front-office staff. The weavers now make saris for 550 women who work at 11 of Taj’s 114 hotels in India.
Mrs. Krishnakumar deserves high praise,don't you think so too?
The project started in 2008 with a dozen weavers but now has more than 40. Mr. Ramrakhiani said that they have woven more than 1,000 saris for the hotel employees. Another group of 12 to 15 master weavers creates saris that are sold at 15 of the hotel’s gift boutiques, including at its properties in New Delhi and London.
Like Mrs. Krishnakumar of Taj, Maiyet’s co-founder and chief executive, Paul van Zyl, was aware of weavers’ problems.
“We naturally hit on Varanasi when we were looking for skilled weavers,” said Mr. van Zyl, 44, the former executive secretary of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa, which was set up to deal with aftereffects of apartheid. The high-end line that he started is now available at 50 retailers worldwide, including Barneys New York.
If only the business world can always look a little beyond it's narrow and short-term interests--we will all then be collectively much better off.

Friday, July 17, 2015

"curiosity is insubordination in its purest form."

A decade ago, I went to an academic conference that featured in the program a Azar Nafisi as a plenary keynote speaker. "Azar who?" was my thought; hey, I am not a village idiot for nothing!

But, after that meeting, I have often quoted her comments on academics:
[In] conveying knowledge, the academy has a far more important and subversive way of dealing with political issues. Knowledge provides us with a way to perceive the world. Imaginative knowledge provides us with a way to see ourselves in the world, to relate to the world, and thereby, to act in the world. The way we perceive ourselves is reflected in the way we interact, the way we take our positions, and the way we interpret politics.
Curiosity, the desire to know what one does not know, is essential to genuine knowledge. Especially in terms of literature, it is a sensual longing to know through experiencing others—not only the others in the world, but also the others within oneself. That is why, in almost every talk I give, I repeat what Vladimir Nabokov used to tell his students: curiosity is insubordination in its purest form. If we manage to teach our students to be curious—not to take up our political positions, but just to be curious—we will have managed to do a great deal.
"curiosity is insubordination in its purest form."  We don't usually associate curiosity and insubordination.  But, Nafisi, by providing that Nabokov quote in a context that is familiar to me, made that so clear.  Insubordination via curiosity often comes with a price, of course.  But, that is a price--small or big--that we pay if we value the knowledge that results.

Re-reading her essay, I now find more gems, further validating yet another Nabokov observation on re-reading; Nafisi writes:
No amount of political correctness can make us empathize with a woman who is taken to a football stadium in Kabul, has a gun put to her head, and is executed because she does not look the way the state wants her to look. No amount of political correctness can make us empathize with a child who is starving in Darfur. Unless we evoke the ability to imagine, unless we can find the connection between that woman or that child and ourselves, we cannot empathize with either of them.
Nafisi continues:
When a Nabokov or a Flaubert writes of the worst tragedies, we read on even as we cry. We celebrate the triumph of that imagination over the shabby reality that kills people like Lolita or Emma Bovary. That is the triumph of art.
I remember all too well my feelings as I read A Farewell to Arms.  Great works in literature have that phenomenal power to take us into the author's imagined world and we feel the emotions that the characters experience.  I don't read them in order to analyze the sentence structure or the word play or anything else.  I read them because I want to understand the human condition, which those great works easily and powerfully convey.

Nabokov's Lolita is on the coffee table.  But, maybe I need to check on the real world before I return to the imagined one.

Why put myself through all these, right?  You forget that a life of curiosity is what I signed up for.  A curiosity that, I hope, will lead to knowledge and wisdom.  After all, to quote Marcel Proust:
We are not provided with wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness which no one else can take for us, and effort which no one can spare us

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Figure it out for yourself!

Tolstoy does not have any firm bottom-line on the meaning of life.  As I raced towards the final pagess, the nebulous ending  to the essay was just as I had always suspected; recall that I wrote this in the post where it began:
Of course I don't expect Tolstoy to give me a one sentence answer to that question. It is something for me to figure out.
So, there!

You are perhaps thinking (but are too polite to say it): "if you knew you would not find a cut and dried answer to the question, then why spend time reading it?" And why torture the few readers who are sticking with this blog, right?

I have been convinced for a long time now that it will be a lifelong quest to understand the meaning of my existence.  All I know for certain is that the scientific route keeps uncovering more questions as it tries to explain the different pieces, and the other route will force upon me questions that will be way complicated for my tiny intellect.  Yet, not to examine my life does not appeal to me.  Not to examine the meaning of my existence seems like a wasted life. Reading Tolstoy and others adds that much more to understanding my own existence.

That examination includes, of course, running into situations like what Tolstoy describes:
At that time as a consequence of my interest in faith I became close to believers of various denominations: to Catholics, Protestants, Old Believers, Molokans, etc. And among them I met many people of high morality who were truly believers.  I wanted to be a brother to these people.  And what happened?  The teaching that had promised me to unite all in a single faith and love, this very teaching in the person of its best representatives told me that these people were all dwelling in falsehood, that what gave them life was a temptation of the devil and that we alone were in possession of the one possible truth.  And I saw that the Orthodox consider all those who do not profess a faith identical to theirs to be heretics, exactly as the Catholics and others consider Orthodoxy to be heresy.
If a religion, or a denomination within one, claims it has the truth, then people who live following other religions and denominations are living in falsehood, right?

Tolstoy continues:
And I, who supposed truth lay in the unity of love, was involuntarily struck by the fact that this very Christian teaching was destroying what it should be producing.  
You say to yourself, "It can't be that it is so simple and that still people do not see that if two affirmations contradict each other, then neither one nor the other can hold the unified truth that faith must be.  There is something here.  There is some explanation."
He puts it bluntly with:
Why is the truth held not by Lutheranism, not by Catholicism, but by Orthodoxy?
Of course, we can add a whole bunch to that: why is the truth held not by the Wahhabi, not by Mahayana Buddhism, not by Shaivism, ... To any believer, the other is an infidel.  We are all infidels then!

As much as an infidel, atheist, that I am, I understand that religions have comforted and assured the believers with meanings to their existence.  I am an atheist in the camp of the likes of Camille Paglia, who respect the value that religions have added to the human condition, and not in the militant camp from where the intellectual atheists wage their crusades as if atheism is a religion of its own.  I have always believed that that it is such an approach to atheism that has allowed me to be friends with believers and them with me, and to even be invited to weddings by believing students.

I am at peace with knowing that I do not know the meaning of my life, and I will continue to examine it.  It is up to me to figure out the meaning of my own life.  Merely chanting Om and "अहं ब्रह्मास्मि" (Aham Brahmasmi) won't do it!

Visit with me as I am dying and I will let you know if I figured it out by then--about twenty-four years from now ;)

Going round and round and round and ...

I noted tongue-in-cheek that maybe I should not call my parents because of updates from them about yet another death in the extended family.  Sure enough, there was another.  She was eighty years old.  Some of you regular readers might recall this note from six months ago, where the rambling thoughts were triggered by my visit with her.

"Those who come have to go sometime" my mother said.

The fact that we all have to die sometime is well known to every one of us.  Which was the point of departure for the series of posts that has apparently driven quite a few readers away from this blog! ;)  Isn't it amazing that you and I and the billions of humans continue on despite this definitive ending?  Tolstoy writes:
"But I have lived, I still live, and all mankind is living and has lived.  How can this be?  Why does mankind live when it is able not to live?
Maybe someday science might tell us that even cows are aware of their mortality.  For now, it is safe to assume that only we humans are conscious of our existence and our own death.  Fully knowing that it could all be futile, we continue to live what we think is a "full life."  How can that be?  In such a living, what meaning do we make of our lives?

Of course, asking such questions is not anything new; humans "went on living, giving life some kind of meaning":
Ever since some kind of human life began, people already had that meaning for life and they led that life, and it has come down to me.  Everything that is in me and around me, all of that is the fruit of their knowledge of life.  Those very tools of thought with which I discuss this life and judge it, all those have been made not by me but by them.  I myself was born, educated, grew up, thanks to them.  They mined iron; taught us to fell trees; tamed cattle, horses; taught us to live together, brought order into our life; they taught me to think, to speak. And I, their creation, fed by them; nursed, taught by them; thinking their thoughts and their words, have proved to them that these have no meaning!  "Something is wrong here." I told myself.  "Somewhere I have made a mistake."  But I could not find out where the mistake lay.
My grandmothers lived lives that made meaning to them.  And I question their meaning.  The meanings that people constructed in the past do not often make sense to us now, even though we, our lives, and our thinking, will not be possible without their meanings.

Tolstoy is playing with me by tossing out such ideas.  And he has enough material for me to blog one more post--readers be warned!  Tolstoy has set me up for what is coming with these:
I began to understand that the answers given to faith enshrine the most profound wisdom of mankind, and that I didn't have the right to deny them on the grounds of reason, and that, most importantly, these answers do answer the question of life.
What a strange coincidence that the translator was himself terminally ill when he worked through all these.  In her introduction, Mary Beard writes:
It is a poignant irony that Tolstoy's translator, Peter Carson, was much closer to death and dying when he was working on The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Confession than Tolstoy himself was at the time he was first writing them.
Beard adds later:
The final manuscript was delivered to the publisher by his wife on the day before he died in January 2013.
Such is life.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

What the heck is this life all about?

Having been conditioned in recent years by online reading, and that too reading pieces that are not too long, and where we skip around saying "tl; dr," I was worried that I might have lost whatever ability that I had to read lengthy and deep essays.  Online, I am always tempted to click on a hyperlink, which takes me elsewhere, from where some other hyperlink leads me to something completely different from where I began.

Worry no more for me.  I am doing just fine reading Tolstoy.  But then, it is perhaps a credit to Tolstoy's writings--he has drawn me to a subject that has always been a fascination.  To questions that have always dogged me, for which I am explicitly and implicitly always seeking the answer. Tolstoy writes:
The question is this: What will come from what I do and from what I will do tomorrow--what will come from my whole life?
Expressed differently, the question would be this: Why should I live, why should I wish for anything, why should I do anything?  One can put the question differently again: Is there any meaning in my life that wouldn't be destroyed by the death that inevitably awaits me?
It took me only a little bit of exposure to the world of math and science to sense that those subjects would not give me the answers.  On the other hand, there is no definitive answer via the humanities and the social sciences--at least science gives precise answers for precisely defined narrow questions.  Thus, over the years, I have come to conclude that it will be a lifelong struggle to figure out the meaning of my existence.

I suppose I am really, really enjoying Tolstoy because he is delivering sentences full of ideas that only validate my own jumbled views and writes as if I am undergoing the very experiences that he went through!  Consider this, for instance, that he notes about the sciences:
[They] are precise and clear in inverse proportion to their application to the questions of life, the more precise and clear they are; the more they attempt to give solutions to the questions of life, the more and unclear and unattractive they become. ... These sciences directly ignore the questions of life.  They say, "We have no answers to 'What are you?' and 'Why do you live?' and are not concerned with this; but if you need to know the laws of light, of chemical compounds, the laws of the development of organisms, if you need to know the laws of bodies and their forms and the relation of numbers and quantities, if you need to know the laws of your own mind, to all that we have clear, precise, and unquestionable answers."
Yep. I quit engineering!  I could not figure out the big and fundamental questions via electrical engineering.

What about something like philosophy?
And if it keeps firmly to its subject, then to the question, "What am I and what is the whole world?" it can give no other answer but "Everything and nothing"; and to the question, "Why does the world exist and why do I exist?" just the answer "I don't know." ...
[Although] all the theoretical work is directed precisely toward my question, there is no answer, and instead of an answer one gets the same question, only in a more complicated form.
Yep, only more complicated questions.

This is all exhilarating.  There is so much "life" in trying to understand my existence.  I will end this post with Tolstoy quoting Socrates:
"We will come near truth only inasmuch as we depart from life" said Socrates, preparing for death.
Looks like it will an interesting quest over the remaining third of my life ;)

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Age of Aquarius is ... hairless?

It has been warming up--this time, it is the "normal" warming up of the summer, in contrast to the unusual and unseasonal Chennai summer in Eugene ;)

As a neighbor once commented, "the legs come out."
Skinny legs.
Muscular legs.
Fat legs.
Short legs.
Long legs.
Dark legs.
Tanned legs.
Never-seen-the-sun legs.
It is legs, legs, legs.

But, here is the strangest thing: increasingly, it seems like legs alone do not reveal the gender!  I could show you a bunch of photographs of legs and I bet you will fail more often than not when it comes to correctly identifying whether it is a man or a woman whose legs you just saw.


It comes down to hair.

Yes, hair.

Lemme explain.

You perhaps have forgotten this post from two years ago in which I scared you with a photograph of my hairy legs and the untanned feet; I haven't! ;)

Are you back after puking?  Good! ;)

I used to think that I didn't have enough hair on my legs and arms and chest and face.  I had a couple of collegemates who could have braided their leg hair; boy was I jealous of them!

But, now when I walk and observe people on the path and by the river, there seem to be as many hairless male legs as there are female ones.  The few hairy legs, it turns out, could be of men or they could belong to women--after all, this is Eugene!

Because this is America and not Europe, women don't go topless.  But men do.  And most of the men do not seem to have any chest hair either.  What's going on?  Did I delete without reading the memo that I should shave the hair off my legs and chest?

This is the age of Aquarius that we have been waiting for?! ;)

No wonder Tolstoy became a vegetarian! Will Pope Francis become one?

Last night, I started reading Tolstoy's Confession.  He writes in this highly praised translated version:
My loss of faith happened in me as it happened then and does now among people with our kind of upbringing.  In the majority of cases I think it happens like this: people live as all other people do, and they all live on the basis of principles which not only have nothing in common with Christian teaching but also for the most part are in opposition to it; Christian teaching plays no part in life; one never comes across it in one's relations with others and one never has to deal with it in one's own life; Christian teaching is professed somewhere out there, far from life and independently of it.
I was like, damn that is so right!  My loss of faith began that way, the difference being that it was "Hindu" in place of Christian and "Hinduism" in place of Christianity.

Tolstoy then goes for the jugular:
Then as now the open declaration and profession of Orthodoxy were found for the most part in stupid, cruel, and immoral people who think themselves very important.  Intelligence, honesty, uprightness, goodness of heart, and morality were found for the most part in people declaring themselves to be unbelievers.
Ouch!  It does not surprise me anymore that Tolstoy was excommunicated from the church.
I began to read a great deal and to think very early on, so my rejection of Christian teaching became a conscious one very early on.  From the age of sixteen I stopped saying my prayers and of my own volition stopped going to church and fasting. 
Right from a young age, I had a very difficult time reconciling the wonderful ideals that the religion advocated with the reality of every day life lived by the believers.  I am immensely happy to find that I am walking along the trails that Tolstoy (and others) have cleared for me:

Religions and religious leaders have always had profound ideals for all of us.  But, we humans seem to intentionally choose to ignore them.  Thus, Christians have plundered and killed as much as Buddhists have plundered and killed, even though the founders of both the faiths championed peace and love.

In his latest op-ed, the philosopher Peter Singer tackles one of those aspects of Christian--specifically Roman Catholic--teachings: "man's dominion."  Singer writes:
Mainstream Christian thinking about animals is rooted in the Book of Genesis,where God is said to have granted man dominion over all the animals. St. Thomas Aquinas interpreted that verse as implying that it simply does not matter how man behaves toward animals; the only reason why we should not inflict whatever cruelties we like on animals is that doing so may lead to cruelty to humans.
A few Christian thinkers have sought to reinterpret “dominion” as “stewardship,” suggesting that God entrusted humanity to care for his creation. But it remained a minority view, favored by environmentalists and animal protectionists, and Aquinas’s interpretation remained the prevailing Catholic doctrine until the late twentieth century.
Tolstoy wrote that "Christian teaching is professed somewhere out there, far from life and independently of it."  Singer points out that what that teaching is has been interpreted in many ways.  The latest interpretation is from the current Pope:
Francis has now come down decisively against the mainstream view, saying that Christians “have at times incorrectly interpreted the Scriptures,” and insisting that “we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures.” Our “dominion” over the universe, he declares, should be understood “in the sense of responsible stewardship.”
Against the background of nearly 2,000 years of Catholic thinking about “man’s dominion,” this is a revolutionary change.
How did Tolstoy deal with his own views?  Were they always the same?  Did they change?
I continued to live only professing my belief in progress.  "Everything is evolving and I am evolving, and why I am evolving together with everyone else will be made clear."  That was how I then had to formulate my faith.
In this evolving faith, Francis has gone one more step, Singer writes:
Now, in Laudatio Si, Francis quotes the passage in the Gospel of Luke, in which Jesus says of the birds that “not one of them is forgotten before God.” Francis then asks: “How then can we possibly mistreat them or cause them harm?” It is a good question, because we do mistreat them, and on a massive scale.
Most Roman Catholics participate in this mistreatment, a few by raising chickens, ducks, and turkeys in ways that maximize profit by reducing animal welfare, and the majority by buying the products of factory farms. If Pope Francis can change that, he will, in my view, have done more good than any other pope in recent history.
This summer of deep reading is turning out to be wonderfully rewarding.  Life is beautiful, indeed!

Monday, July 13, 2015

Ivan Ilyich has his Rosebud moment

Ivan Ilyich died last night.

As death nears, Ivan Ilyich goes through various thoughts and emotions.  Tolstoy is phenomenal in being able to imagine the plight of a dying man and this thoughts.  But then, hey, that is why we value Tolstoy's writings, and will continue to treasure them, whereas everything in this blog will be mere ones and zeros of the cyberworld.
"Maybe I have lived not as I should have"--the thought suddenly came into his head.  "But how so when I did everything in the proper way?" he said to himself, and immediately rejected this solution of the whole riddle of life as something wholly impossible.
After the number of posts in which I have tried to convince myself (and this guy too!) about the urgency to figure out the priorities and to then accordingly shape our lives, I, of course, agreed with those thoughts that Ivan Ilyich had.  I would rather be mindful about my life's priorities when I am able than to regret about them later when I am dying.

Ivan Ilyich asks himself through his mental sufferings:
But what if in fact all my life, my conscious life, has been "wrong"?
I want to make sure I am able to echo in my own way Non, je ne regrette rien.

As Ivan Ilyich recalls his life, he feels that there was more "real" life of happiness the further back he went, to his childhood:

The more he moves through the memories from his childhood to the present day misery, the more the experiences are darker and darker.  As I read the sentences, I remembered many of my own blog posts, including this one in which I critiqued the fad of the "bucket list" of places to go to before one dies, in which I wrote:
 Imagine this: there you are lying on your deathbed.  You think not having been to the Grand Canyon or the Great Wall will be your greatest regret ever?  That your life was incomplete because you didn't visit that one place?  Given that the final thoughts can be incoherent, like theRosebud moment, let us advance that a tad to when we are not quite there, yet (though, there is always that probability of death striking us any second, like when I am blogging!)  The question still remains: life feeling incomplete because of not having been to the Taj Mahal?
 Even in that post, I had mentioned the Citizen Kane Rosebud moment.because I have been convinced for a while, and reinforced by talking with many older people, that some of the most enjoyed and precious memories are from our childhood.  Perhaps that connection is a reason why dementia leads people only to recall their oldest memories--it is nature's way of easing us into the end.  A couple of years ago, I wrote in an email to an old school friend that perhaps my own Rosebud moment will be me whispering the word "Neyveli" and nobody around would understand what that meant!

Dying is the last solo journey that we will take.  Nobody will come with us.  Ivan Ilyich finds that he is all alone on his deathbed:

In that lonely state, whatever he tries, his mind keeps going back to this childhood days.  Perhaps that is also why Tolstoy has Ivan Ilyich interact with his son, who is a schoolboy, before death arrives.
Now he felt someone was kissing his hand.  He opened his eyes and looked at his son.
And when death arrives, Ivan Ilyich thinks, "Such joy!"
"Death is finished," he said to himself. "It is no more."
He breathed in, stopped halfway, stretched himself, and died.

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