Friday, January 30, 2009

Blogger Templates, Blog Design and Blog Makeover

As you can tell, a shuffling of this blog's format is still on my mind. I'm looking to get some of the content on my left bar over to the right so there's some balance to the page. I got a bunch of great tips for the 3-column pages I was looking for. Not being a techie, it'll take me a while to figure out how to fiddle with the template and get what I want without ruining what I already have, but am in no rush.

In the meantime, I suddenly remembered Mahjabeen (aka MayG), a wonderfully smart and creative artist who had designed a baby shower blog early last year for a bunch of blogger friends who had babies on the way. That blog design was out of the world - the thought that went into the making of each individual feature was something I could only sit back and marvel at. I hadn't visited her blog in a while. Today when I went over, there she was, with her own blog design and blog makeover business, with a website all spiffy and beautiful, as you'd expect (and there's a picture of that baby shower blog on her site). So if you need to revamp your website or are in desperate need of a makeover for your blog, you know where to go!

It's obvious that it's a labor of love for her. And she's good at it to boot. That's a deadly combination, if you ask me. Here's wishing you the very best MayG!


Updated to add a screen shot of the baby shower blog:

Eddie Izzard: Footloose Friday - I

Fridays are those kinds of days, footloose and fancy free, deserving of total timepass posts. If you have favorites of your own or ideas for this feature, please do post links or send me an e-mail and I will put them up.

For starters, here's one of my favorite comedians - the super smart, super funny Eddy Izzard. In this clip he seizes on the way we are taught French in school, how sometimes it seems so divorced from reality. Doesn't matter if you don't know a lick of French. The clip is still funny! Izzard is known for his stand-up acts, but he's also appeared in quite a few movies. I've been trying to dig up a GQ interview from way back when, but can't find it. Oh, well!

(Be forewarned: the language is not office or child-friendly. And why is it "forewarned"? Don't all warnings come fore?)

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Three-Column Blogger Template, Anyone?

All the templates Blogger offers are 2-column (as far as I know about these things, which is not too far). Does anyone know of good 3-column blogger templates? If you do, please could you leave a comment pointing me to it? Pretty please?

~~~~~~~~~~

Related Posts:

Blog Templates, Blog Design and Blog Makeover

Three Columns and a Sense of Order

Hisham Melhem on Obama: "A new wind is blowing"

No matter where you stand on the political spectrum vis-a-vis Obama, one thing is clear - he is doing things differently. It's been about a month since he has moved into the city and hardly 10 days since he's taken the oath of office, but every so often you read or see something and you do a double take.

There was that dinner at the home of conservative columnist George Will, at which other notable attendees were David Brooks (one of my addictions during the campaign), Bill Kristol (who had to go and thumb his nose at the liberal columnists after this dinner - this man is such a buzz kill); then there was the pow wow with the liberal commentators, including, among others, Maureen Dowd (NYT), E.J. Dionne and Eugene Robinson (WP) and Rachel Maddow (MSNBC); then he went off to tour the Lincoln Memorial with his family days before the inauguration (I had never heard of a President at a memorial unless it was for a formal event); then there was that line in the inaugural speech about America being a country of Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus and non-believers (don't think anyone has ever mentioned Muslims and Hindus in this way ever - what a world of difference from the Palin rallies); then he appointed George Mitchell and Richard Holbrooke* as envoys to the Mid-East and Afghanistan/Pakistan, respectively, and showed up at the State Department to announce their appointments on Hillary's first day of work as Secretary of State.

The icing on the cake - his first sit-down interview as a President goes to Hisham Melhem at al-Arabiya (in this clip he almost sounds like he's running for President of the Middle-East or something). Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic has a Q&A with Melhem up on his blog in which Melhem echoes the prevailing sentiment of hope and anticipation on this side of the pond:

There's a subtle shift here on how he looks at the war on al-Qaeda and the groups that collaborate with it. He doesn't put Hamas and Hezbollah in the same category as al-Qaeda. Is there going to be disappointment later? We're bound to have disappointments, but the main message is that a new wind is blowing. He's closing down Guantanamo, sending Mitchell, pulling out of Iraq, and maybe I'm dreaming but I hope he would show Palestinians and Israelis tough love, both of them. Do you want to tell me that Bin Laden and all these nuts are not going to be nervous about him?

Meanwhile, you'd wish some things would change, but no dice - Sarah Palin has a PAC of her own now, which commentators think is a clear indication of her desire to seek the Presidency in 2012.

*Earlier version misnamed Holbrooke.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

What do women want?

A simple question, quite straightforward. Demands a simple, straightforward answer. Turns out women don't know what women want, according to Meredith Chivers a psychologist and research scientist in Ontario. They think and assert they want something, but their bodies tell a different story. In some graphic detail, this International Herald Tribune article explains just why Chivers has arrived at that conclusion.

The men, on average, responded genitally in what Chivers terms "category specific" ways. Males who identified themselves as straight ... were mostly unmoved when the screen displayed only men. Gay males were aroused in the opposite categorical pattern. ....And for the male participants, the subjective ratings on the keypad matched the readings of the plethysmograph [sensors measuring physical reactions, the objective measure in the test].

[...]

All was different with the women.... [W]ith the women, especially the straight women, mind and genitals seemed scarcely to belong to the same person. The readings from the plethysmograph [objective measure] and the keypad [subjective measure] weren't in much accord.

This sort of physical response to varied sexual stimuli notwithstanding that the women's brains may not be along for the ride may have its origins in evolutionary theory.

Ancestral women who did not show an automatic vaginal response to sexual cues may have been more likely to experience injuries during unwanted vaginal penetration that resulted in illness, infertility or even death, and thus would be less likely to have passed on this trait to their offspring."

[...]

Chivers has scrutinized, in a paper soon to be published in Archives of Sexual Behavior, the split between women's bodies and minds in 130 studies by other scientists demonstrating, in one way or another, the same enigmatic discord. One manifestation of this split has come in experimental attempts to use Viagra-like drugs to treat women who complain of deficient desire.
[...]

The pills...don't, for the most part, manufacture wanting. And for men, they don't need to. Desire, it seems, is usually in steady supply. In women, though, the main difficulty appears to be in the mind, not the body, so the physiological effects of the drugs have proved irrelevant. The pills can promote blood flow and lubrication, but this doesn't do much to create a conscious sense of desire.
Quite by accident, though, one pharmaceutical company seems to have stumbled on a possible remedy.

The medication was originally meant to treat depression ... [y]et in early trials, while it showed little promise for relieving depression, it left female — but not male — subjects feeling increased lust....[T]he chemical ... may catalyze sources of desire in the female brain.

The reason I mention this drug trial is that it's just so fascinating how serendipitous drug discoveries are. The birth control pill had a similar story of birth (heh heh). The drug was initially fashioned as a pill to regulate menstrual cycles in women who complained of irregular periods. Researchers found later that the pill also served to suppress pregnancies. And so came into being the birth-control pill. (Amrita's post "Pill of Shame" and Ra's post "A Brief History of Pain" are good indications of how culture trumps medical necessity when it comes to women's bodies.)

The 10-page article goes on to discuss the role of intimacy and culture in female sexuality. If you are interested in that sort of thing, the article, written by Daniel Bergner whose book The Other Side of Desire: Four Journeys Into the Far Realms of Lust and Longing is set to be released this month, is definitely worth a read.

~~~~~~~~

Updated to add a link to Ra's post.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

John Updike passes away

From the New York Times obit:

John Updike, the kaleidoscopically gifted writer whose quartet of Rabbit Angstrom novels highlighted so vast and protean a body of fiction, verse, essays and criticism as to place him in the first rank of among American men of letters, died on Tuesday. He was 76 and lived in Beverly Farms, Mass.

From the Atlantic Monthly, part of one of his poems entitled Madurai:
From our terrace at the Taj Garden Retreat,
the city below belies its snarl of commerce—
men pushing postcards on the teeming street,
and doe-eyed children begging with their words
so soft the language can’t be understood
even were we to try and were not fleeing
the nudge of stirred pity. Can life be good,
awakening us to hunger? What point has being?

Neighborliness Comes Full Circle

Falling snow is infinitely soothing. Like a stream bouncing over rocks or wind rustling through leaves, it has its own sound - a serene, gentle swishing. As the snowflakes float sedately down and nestle in their chosen spot they bring calm to a hitherto lawless landscape. Dry leaves, dead twigs, bare bushes and empty beds find themselves sheathed in a pristine white.

That is until all the water drains out of moist, fluffy snow leaving behind crystals of ice that crunch under your feet, and are just waiting for that one wrong footstep from you. One misstep that will send you flying - leaving your feet in the air; your behind on the hard, cold ground; your ears a flaming red; your dignity shot to a million pieces.

So the idea is to get to the snow and get it off the ground before it gets you.

One dark night many years ago, when it had snowed all day and the temperature was down to freezing, I heard scraping noises outside our garage. Wondering who it could be at this hour, I slid C off my lap, got up from my desk and took a peek outside. It was two of my neighbors shoveling the snow off my driveway. They knew my husband was out of town, C was a baby, and they figured I had my hands full without needing to add shoveling to my to-do list. So they took it upon themselves to do it for me.

I have a feeling I've probably mentioned this story a couple of times already, but it's one of those things that stays with you a long time. You store it in your treasure chest of memories, take it out once in a while to marvel at and put it back in carefully for when you need it again.

Today, that simple but angelic deed took wing, reached across the years and landed on the suddenly very capable shoulders of one eight-year-old. He took out the shovel, nearly as tall as himself, cleared half the driveway, then played with D and kept her occupied (and bossed her around for good measure) while I cleared the rest and the sidewalks. Two hours later, we were all ready to come back in but the neighbor across the street had just started on her driveway and she was alone. C checked if it was all right to go help her, picked up our shovel and went off. Half-an-hour later I went out to check on them and could still hear them chatting away and working.

During these years, every time we had been the recipient of a neighbor's generosity and I had pictured us helping them in return, it had always been me or my husband in the images in my head. I had never factored our children into the equation. As I watched C, on someone else's front yard, his body bending and lifting, my treasure chest of memories acquired itself a new jewel today.

Piano: Mazurka

video

C playing Mazurka. It's a mellow song, one that never fails to bring tears to my mom-in-law's eyes (granted she tears easily, but still).

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Review: Slumdog Millionaire

There are very few movies we've seen at the end of which the entire audience remained silent and rooted to their seats - Schindler's List, Life is Beautiful, Sixth Sense ... and now Slumdog Millionaire. An audience that had been vocal throughout the movie, with gasps, groans and giggles, found neither its voice nor its feet at the end.

Slumdog is the story of two young boys, Jamal and Salim, growing up in the slums of Mumbai. They adore their movie stars, would rather be playing cricket than going to school, and when they know they've done something wrong they'd rather get caught by the police than find themselves within arm's reach of their mother. What little semblance of order they have in their lives is lost in the instant she is killed in a communal riot. They find themselves homeless and, along with an equally rudderless young girl, Latika, try to scrape together a life on the streets.

Until, that is, their lives are torn asunder at the hands of greed and human depravity of such unimaginable magnitude that they are hard to countenance even on a movie screen. The two boys manage to escape the horror but, in one of the many excruciating scenes in the movie, are forced to leave Latika behind. The rest of the plot revolves around Jamal's (who, by then, has developed an affection for Latika) relentless attempts to reunite with Latika.

Vikas Swarup's plot line is admirable for its ingenuity. The story is told in a series of flashbacks, each flashback corresponding to a question on the Indian version of the TV game show, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?. Jamal is in the hot seat when the movie begins. As each question comes up, we are transported to that part of Jamal's life that shows us how he came to know the correct answer.

A few seemingly innocuous questions. Answers to which many of us may have acquired in the most pedestrian fashion, through moments whose bearing on our lives, if any at all, is long forgotten. But in Swarup's hands, they morph into engines of exploration into the human condition. At its heart - a rather enormous, pulsating, mesmerizing vortex of intense feeling and emotion - the story charts the halting advance of grit and determination over bone-crushing poverty and soul-crushing cruelty; the triumph of love and sacrifice over betrayal; the defeat of despair at the hands of hope.

Even as the movie builds to a crescendo of almost unbearable proportions, the audience becomes privy to the way of life on the streets and in the slums of Mumbai. The camera takes an unflinching look at the margins (in some places around the world, rather large margins) of society, at the less than penurious existence just beyond that imaginary border that separates luxury, refinement and culture from deprivation, squalor and filth.

But the camera doesn't look for the sake of looking, merely to document a way of life, just to titillate the senses. Nor does it merely skim the surface, letting us feel a twinge of pity as most of us are wont to do, safely ensconced behind darkened and raised car windows. It delves deep into the underbelly, into a microcosm with its own complement of needs, wants, desires, joys, disappointments, rules, consequences, and secret passageways to getting out.

And in this, the movie triumphs. Because shorn of its surroundings and the particular circumstances of this plot line, the story still has legs to stand on. This is not merely the story of two boys and a girl from the bowels of Mumbai. This is the story of the heart and soul of Everyboy and Everygirl who live Everywhere determined to face whatever life throws at them. For this reason, I am thrilled that it turned out to be a story set in India. Because, reflected in the shiny glass facades of the new India is this soul-stirring ode to the supremacy of spirit over circumstance - both mirror and reflection, in equal measure, going on to make up the swirling, whirling brew of myriad contradicting ideas, philosophies and ways of life; both equally India, but neither having sole rights to the whole.

As for the cast, the three sets of kids do a wonderful job of portraying Jamal, Salim and Latika at various stages. Irrfan Khan is wasted in the role of the inspector interrogating Jamal on charges of cheating on the quiz show. Anil Kapoor as the sleazy game show host made me want to wring his hairy neck, so he must have done a good job. A.R. Rahman's music is poignant and evokes a foot-tapping fervor in all the right places.

Finally, I'm not sure if Swarup or the movie makers were aware of this, but the song, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, which was the inspiration for the title of the original game show series, goes like this:
Who wants to be a millionaire?
[...]
I don't. 'Cause all I want is you.
Fitting lyrics for Jamal, who only goes on the show as a way to reach Latika, who doesn't know the answer to the last question and doesn't really care as long as he can find her.

This movie, like the book Shantaram, just by being searingly honest in its telling of its story is one that will stick with me for a long time.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Slumdog, 120 minutes, is rated 'R' in the US. It is not appropriate for children. One family found out the hard way after they got to the theater with two young children - they got up and left about less than a third into the movie.

IndiaHelps is looking for volunteers

From their website:
To be our point of contact, to raise awareness about the cases we are handling, to put potential philanthropists in touch with those who need help. Would you like to be our contact point, and part of the India Helps team? We need team members in the major Indian metros and mini metros and representatives in UK, Europe, Middle East, Far East, Australia. Anywhere where people might be willing to help. Write in to us at indiahelps@gmail.com.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Is this as good as it's going to get?

A weekday morning, around 10. A shuttle bus from one of the retirement homes nearby stops in front of the grocery store. The driver turns off the engine and walks over to the side with the steps. He stands there, with a smile on his face and a ready joke on his lips, as his charges walk down the steps, one by one. He reaches out his hands to help them. Some of them lean on canes, some are completely bound to their walkers. They're mostly old ladies, but there are a few men too.

They shuffle in through the doors, two by two. Who's leaning on who? It's hard to tell. There's something forlorn in that sight. It reminds me of the time C was in pre-school, as he and his friends walked into class in twos, his tiny hand seeking comfort in an equally tiny hand.

They bypass many aisles - most of them have no use for fresh vegetables or meat or uncooked pasta - but still it takes them a while to go around the grocery store. As I rush through the store with D perched in her seat on the cart, having to hit most of the aisles but also having to attend to ten other things on my to-do list for the day, I can't help but slow down as I near one of the old ladies. They can hear D's high-pitched voice and eagerly turn to look. I shuffle right along with them for a couple of minutes as they coo to D and try to get a smile out of her.

By the time I get to the check out counter, there's already a couple of them laying out their purchases on the belt.

Two ripe bananas, one apple, one can of beans or corn or peas (pick your canned veggie), one bag of chips, one package of crackers, one package of deli meat. And then they carefully remove the coupons from their wallets, checking the monitor to make sure they're receiving the price they're supposed to.

There are a few variations here and there, but the sparseness of the items and the smallness of the quantities never fail to get me. I too have lived alone, when all I bought was enough stuff to sustain me. But I was young, my whole life was ahead of me and I knew it was temporary.

Here I am now, with the two of us and two growing kids in my family, my grocery cart chockful of the good things in life - cartons of milk, variety of fruits, fresh veggies, boxes of pasta, packages of tortillas, a dozen eggs, ingredients to bake goodies with, etc., etc., and I can't help but imagine the lonely meals those items on the checkout counter will go on to make.

~~~~~~~~~
Related Post: NRI Parents: Empty Nesters, But Lonely No More

Upanayanam Invitation

A while ago I'd written about C's* Upanayanam ceremony. Not sure if it's the words in the comments section, but quite a few people come to the blog looking for Upanayanam invitation samples. I dug up the one we had used. Here's a photograph of it.

I fell in love with the image on the cover the minute I saw it. I thought it looked especially good in gold layered over an off-white background. We used the same motif on small red bags for the "thindis" (snacks) that you give guests before they leave and on large bags for gifts of saris, dhotis, etc. for the elders.

On the inside, there's text on both sides. The left side has logistical information: Date, the time for the "Akshata" (or muhurtham), Lagna, Venue and RSVP information. The right side has an image of the family deity and the text of the formal invitation: the names of both sets of grandparents "seek your presence at and blessings for the Upanayanam of their grandson [name] (son of [parents' names]). At the bottom, it says "With the best compliments of" and we listed the name of every single one of our siblings, sibling spouse and child.

* Then called N. See here for reason for name change.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Oscar Nominations Are Out!

Complete list here.

Four acting awards nominations for Doubt. I wrote about it earlier, but will say here that I'm so glad Amy Adams and Viola Davis are nominated. The Streep and Hoffman nominations were a given. Their roles were difficult to play. So much of this movie is about feelings and thoughts. You expect them to pull it off, however, no matter how difficult. Amy Adams and Viola Davis, on the other hand, had reactive roles. They were not setting the agenda, they were responding to what two other stronger personalities were doing to them. As the naive and impressionable Sister James, Amy Adams made you want to hug her and console her, and as the mother caught in the cross-fire between a domineering husband, a son who's trying to find his way and a church that seems to giving with one hand and taking away with the other, Viola Davis' performance was heart-rending and evocative. How did she manage to pull off a runny nose along with the teary eyes? When the camera lingered on her for so long?

Slumdog (two noms for best song, one for best music, cinematography, best picture, editing best director, adapted screenplay, sound mixing and sound editing) and The Wrestler (Rourke already won the Golden Globe) are on our list for this weekend. Don't know which we'll make it to. We saw the trailer for The Wrestler and it seemed like an out-and-out tear-jerker, which the husband wants to see too. Expecting to be red-eyed no matter which one we pick.

Any thoughts on the other movies in the various lists?

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Clinton Confirmed, Kennedy Withdraws

Clinton is confirmed as Secretary of State. She's brilliant, works hard (an understatement), has ideas, has guts. I hope she kicks ass.

Good time to recall the exhortation Maya Angelou wrote for her a year ago, when she was still in the thick of the primaries:

State Package for Hillary Clinton

You may write me down in history

With your bitter, twisted lies,

You may tread me in the very dirt

But still, like dust, I'll rise.

This is not the first time you have seen Hillary Clinton seemingly at her wits' end, but she has always risen, always risen, don't forget she has always risen, much to the dismay of her adversaries and the delight of her friends.

Hillary Clinton will not give up on you and all she asks of you is that you do not give up on her.

There is a world of difference between being a woman and being an old female. If you're born a girl, grow up, and live long enough, you can become an old female. But to become a woman is a serious matter. A woman takes responsibility for the time she takes up and the space she occupies. Hillary Clinton is a woman. She has been there and done that and has still risen. She is in this race for the long haul. She intends to make a difference in our country. Hillary Clinton intends to help our country to be what it can become.

She declares she wants to see more smiles in the family, more courtesies between men and women, more honesty in the marketplace. She is the prayer of every woman and man who longs for fair play, healthy families, good schools, and a balanced economy.

She means to rise.

Don't give up on Hillary. In fact, if you help her to rise, you will rise with her and help her make this country the wonderful, wonderful place where every man and every woman can live freely without sanctimonious piety and without crippling fear.

Rise, Hillary.

Rise.


Source: The Guardian

In other news, Caroline Kennedy withdraws her bid to replace Clinton in the Senate.

The oath, still reverberating a day after

Justice Roberts administers the oath of office to Obama again following the fumble at the inauguration. It apparently took place last night*.

Then VP Biden takes a dig at Justice Roberts at a ceremony for White House staff this morning.

Obama is clearly annoyed at having the issue raked up again. He reaches out to Biden as if to stop him and shakes his head at his staff, signalling them not to laugh. This on the heels of Mrs. Biden's faux pas on Oprah.

Are Presidents and Vice-Presidents doomed to dysfunctional relationships?

* Earlier this evening.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Jan 20th 2009 - The Inauguration As It Happens

As much as I can keep up with it! Please forgive typos. :)

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Temperature in the low twenties
Wind chill in the teens
A flurry or two maybe

Millions of hats and twice the number of boots
Scarves and gloves
Fists wrapped around hand-warmers
Toe-warmers jammed into shoes

The wind is whipping up hair and scarves
Noses are red and cold, eyes are tearing
From the chill or from emotion
It's hard to tell

The Mall, usually empty
Grass as far as the eye can see
Not so today
Just people and flags
Jammed into every inch of space

Michelle delicious in a lemon-colored suit
Barack in a red tie
Have a gift for the Bushes
Wonder what it is
Red ribbon around a square white box

A journal and pen for Mrs. Bush
According to Charlie Gibson
So she can write her memoir
And what a memoir it will be!

Spike Lee in his white NY Yankees ear-muffed hat
Ted Kennedy in his blue scarf and and a black hat
Dustin Hoffman with a crown of grey hair
Magic Johnson, black cap over a shaved head
Annie Leibowitz clicking away

Jill Biden in a smashing red coat and knee-high boots
Dick Cheney in a wheel chair, walking stick in hand

Motorcade going down Pennsylvania Avenue
What a thrilling sight!
Car after car, black, foreboding, impenetrable
Down the street I've walked on a hundred times

The crowd is screaming their heads off
Diane Sawyer talking about a taxi that got itself into the motorcade one year
What a thing to happen!
Not this year though, not a chance
Security is tight, tight, tight

The motorcade arrives at the Capitol
The main players walking in
A shot of Arnold Schwazzenegger, gloved but not hatted
Rahm Emmanuel, John Kerry
The Justices walking down

John Roberts, Rick Warren, Colin Powell
Scalia, Sandra Day O'Connor
The MC's voice booming over the microphone
All eyes on the red-draped arch through which Obama will walk in

The cabinet and agency designees walking in

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The older Bushes all color-coordinated in purple
Joe Biden's mom striding purposefully on the arms of a younger man
Jimmy and Rosalind Carter
Hillary and Bill Clinton

Clinton and the elder Bush in a warm hug (rivals earlier but pals now)
16 years have taken a toll over Bush 41

Rahn Emmanuel just thumbed his nose at someone!
Who, oh who??

Hillary walks out as Former First Lady
Not as Secretary of State designee

Bill Clinton looks grumpy
Perhaps he's mulling over what might have been

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The kids warm in pjs and housecoat
Sprawled on pillows on the carpet
Moving to the band music

Charlie Gibson, George Stephanapoulous and Diane Sawyer on the TV
Keeping it low, keeping it alive
I'm content to listen to their banter
Always appreciate George's POV

The Clintons and the Bushes (43) are catching up
The Obama kids come out with their grandma
Aretha Franklin! Oh My God!
Two shocking red hats and scarves in the crowd

Obama's family - a melting pot of its own
Black, white, Asian
A chanting, "Obama, Obama"
No time for a decorous silence waiting for the President and President-Elect

Michelle Obama and Jill Biden walking out
Michelle holding the bible that her husband will take the oath on
Encased in a red box, water-proof, fire-proof
A stray piece of ribbon hanging on Obama's lemon suit
Now finds its purpose - it's supposed to be tied just above her waist

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Times Square, NY, overflowing with people

The President and Vice-President
The band strikes up Hail to the Chief!

Joe Biden and Barack Obama up next
Can't get over the sea of people on the Mall
Nancy Pelosi can't stop grinning
C is counting down the last few minutes of Bush's Presidency
Last 20 minutes!

The bare trees look like dust bunnies
The chanting begins again
Shots of the crowd
Their bodies may be freezing
Perhaps they're warm from the inside

Obama's view, never before afforded any other President
Two miles down the Mall, clear to the Lincoln Memorial
Two million people, two million flags
Barack H. Obama, says the MC
He's using the H!
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Diane Feinstein does the welcoming address
Peaceful transfer of power is her theme
Rick Warren doing the invocation
A lot of controversy when he was picked
But no booing now
Everyone is silent

Aretha Franklin and My Country 'Tis of Thee
What a treat!
A great big sparkly bow on her head rising from a cap
The woman knows how to make a fashion statement out of necessity!
People are crying - who can blame them!

OMG, it's happening
It's the beginning of a new beginning
Justice Stevens swears in Biden
D is within two feet of the TV and has her hand up too! :)

The country has a new VP! Whoo hooo!
Lots of hugs going around

Yitzak Perlman and Yo Yo Ma and two others I can't recognize
Playing a John Williams composition
Yo Yo Ma left his regular Cello at home
(The 200-year old one he left behind in a NY taxicab once
and the good driver returned to him)
That cello can't stand the cold, apparently
Has a carbon cello for the occassion

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The violin and celllo are hard to bear
Emotions are already running high
Surely we did not need this heart-rending music too!

Everyone please stand!
John Roberts administers the oath
The man Obama voted against to confirm for the Supreme Court
The clock has struck noon
Gibson says the White House website has changed already

Obama has his hand on Lincoln's bible
He fumbles briefly, Michelle smiles

Congratulations Mr. President
And with those words,
Barack Hussein Obama is President of the United States!!!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Obama's speech
Will need to go read it later
For now, content to let a Presidential address wash over
Gathering storms, real challenges, lost jobs, shuttered businesses
But they will be met

Will really need to read
Not paying attention at all
The images are gripping
"We are ready to lead once more," he says
What must the Bushes be thinking?
What a way to leave the White House!

To those in the Muslim world
"People will judge you by what you build
Not what you destroy."

Challenges, instruments with which to face the challenges are new
But the values with which to fight them are the old and true

Great line tying George Washington's invocation
to a nation being just born
Wow!
The expectations were high
Don't think anyone will say he did not meet them
Except may be Ann Coulter?

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Elizabeth Alexander delivers the inaugural poem
Obama's colleague at U of Chicago
Praise for the Day, the title
Robert Frost for Kennedy
Maya Angelou for Clinton

Oprah and Steadman looking serious
Rev. Joseph Lowery delivers a prayer
Diane Feinstein does a great job shepherding the inaugural committee
And with the national anthem
Smiles and cheers all around

http://www.whitehouse.gov/
The change has come!

Let the party begin!
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Oh, this is so nostalgic!
The Bushes prepare to leave the city
No longer their home
The helicopter is standing ready
The Bidens are saying goodbye to the Cheneys
Who'll drive to their home in McLean (?)
The Obamas are walking the Bushes to the helicopter
They wave goodbye
The paegentry is amazing - sad and exciting at the same time
The new guard seeing off the old guard



Image source: Washington Post (Getty Images)

The blades are whirring
That Pink Floyd song, from The Wall
The old guard now a speck in the sky.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Here's the text of Obama's Presidential inaugural address. Thanks Altoid!

Here's the part invoking George Washington's speech:

"Let it be told to the future world…that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive…that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [it]."

America. In the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words. With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~
OK, Obama and John Roberts made nice just now at the luncheon. During the swearing in, Obama fumbled, asked Roberts to repeat the words, then it seemed like Roberts threw him off by switching the words around.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Washington, D.C. travel essay published last year, when the primaries were in full swing.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Obama speaking at the luncheon referring to Senator Ted Kennedy taking ill. There's an ambulance outside the Capitol and a stretcher at the ready.

Monday, January 19, 2009

A moment

D has been out of sorts today. A sudden fever came on this morning and she's been sleeping on and off, too tired to run around and be her boisterous self. She hadn't eaten anything all morning. By afternoon, she was hungry and asked for dosa.

I held her close as I made the dosa, feeling cozy as she held on tight to my neck. She watched the dosa take shape, her eyes eagerly following the swirl of my hand.

She must have felt good.

She said, "You make me happy Mom."

Me: "Thank you, D."

D (in the slightly louder tone of someone who thinks Thank you is the wrong response): "You make me happy Mom."

Me: "I know D. I'm saying thank you for telling me. I want to make you happy."

D (now clearly exasperated): "But you already did!"

Trying to Fix Backlinking

I've removed the blogroll in an attempt to fix the arbitrary backlinks to my posts from posts on the blogs on my blogroll. Phew! That was a mouthful! Hope that made sense.

The backlinking was getting a little out of hand. It's one thing if I actually agreed or disagreed with the posts on the blogs I read and linked backed and had something relevant to say on my blog, but quite something else if the backlinks just show up for no reason on completely unrelated posts (on IndiaHelps, for example). Sort of like an uninvited guest. Sorry.

I'm thinking I'll just put up a list of the blogs rather than going through Blogger's Blogrolling gadget. Until then, please bear with me.

Update:

Yay! There are no backlinks to my latest post, the one above this one. Such a relief!

Writing Prompt #3...

... is up on Altoid's blog here! Go on over and let your creative juices flow!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Blogger Linking Query

A link to the post right under this (Guilty Pleasure) has been showing up on the latest posts on the Blogger blogs on my blogroll (at Winnowed, BongMom's Cookbook, and Winkie's Way, for instance). I did not create those links. So if anyone knows how they're showing up on those blogs, please will you let me know?

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Friday, January 16, 2009

The Presidential Inauguration: So Near, Yet So Far

In just over three days' time, Barack Obama, with his family beside him, will take the oath of office that will formally designate him the President of the United States. The Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court will administer the oath of office. As Obama recites the oath, his wife will hold, and Obama will place his left hand on, the bible that Abraham Lincoln is said to have used at his inauguration.

Although he has already taken residence in the city he will call home for at least the next four years, Obama will have arrived into Washington, D.C., again, just in time for the inauguration, on a train journey that echoes Abraham Lincoln's own journey into the city nearly a century and a half ago. And when Obama is sworn in, he will be the third President from the state of Illinois - the other two were Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses Grant, formerly Lincoln's general in the Civil War, both men instrumental to the prolonged effort to abolish slavery.

Whatever symbolism all these little tid-bits might hold for anybody, the one that takes my breath away is this one: on January 20, 2009*, Obama, the son of an immigrant African father and a white American mother, and the husband of a woman who is the descendant of slaves, will become the first African-American President of a country with a long and gruesome history of enslavement, on the steps of the United States Capitol, a building that took shape in the hands of slaves.





A video tracing the history of the construction of the Capitol

And it's not just the Capitol. The entire city was built from scratch on land bordering the Potomac river that alternated between marshy bogs, heavily wooded wilderness and farmland, with a few hilly patches thrown in. Pierre's L'Enfant's blueprints would not have been transformed into the neatly organized city with broad, tree-lined avenues, parks and grand buildings and monuments befitting the ideals of a new nation he envisioned if not for the toil of these slave laborers. (Click here for an amazing slide show, with narration, on how the city came to be built.)

So far, I have had the opportunity to attend three presidential inaugurations. I did not have to do much - just get in the car or on the metro, ride into the city and find a comfortable place. But I never had the inclination to. Washington in January is not the best of places to be loitering in for hours on end. Inauguration days are, by law it almost seems, bitingly cold and more likely than not, wet - it's either raining or snowing. Even if I wanted to brave the weather, I was just not that interested.


But the sight of Obama and his family on those steps, with the dome of the US Capitol in the background, will be one for the ages. His writings are already among the best for US Presidents and no matter how high the expectations, his speech is bound to be stupendous (it had better be). Oratorical or writing skills apart, something about being anointed President tends to cloak a person's words with wisdom and give it rhetorical flair (links to past inaugural speeches are here). Of course, about 10 million other people had the same idea as me.

Three months ago, before the Presidential elections, I put in a request with our senator's office for three tickets to the inauguration. I wanted to be there at the swearing-in (insanely, with my son at my side), to see either Hillary Clinton or Obama being sworn in. I promptly received an e-mail acknowledging my request and telling me that I would have to go on a waiting list. It's now three days to the inauguration and I still haven't heard from them. The swearing-in was the only event I really wanted to go to, so I guess we're not going.

But if you are one of the millions of people who are (you're in good company), the Washington Post's Inauguration Central is a great place to start. It has insider tips on D.C. etiquette (helpful if you're new to D.C.), a calendar of events, where to eat, what to bring (more importantly what not to bring), etc. The weather is going to be a bracing 30 degrees (F) by mid-afternoon under cloudy skies, according to the weather service, so whatever else you bring or don't bring, warm clothing and plenty of wrap-arounds are a must. A healthy dose of humor wouldn't hurt either.

Meanwhile, I'll be home, in front of the television, wrapped in a blanket, with perhaps a drink in hand, toasting Ms. Beyonce as she belts out At Last for the Obamas' inaugural dance.



P.S. If I'm ever at a live performance of this song, it'll make my entire year.

* Earlier version said 2008. Sheesh!

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Longing ...


... for color outside my window.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Obama: A Letter from a Father to his Daughters

The part that resonated with me the most was this:
When I was a young man, I thought life was all about me—about how I'd make my way in the world, become successful, and get the things I want. But then the two of you came into my world with all your curiosity and mischief and those smiles that never fail to fill my heart and light up my day. And suddenly, all my big plans for myself didn't seem so important anymore. I soon found that the greatest joy in my life was the joy I saw in yours. And I realized that my own life wouldn't count for much unless I was able to ensure that you had every opportunity for happiness and fulfillment in yours.
But then the paragraph ends with this:
In the end, girls, that's why I ran for President: because of what I want for you and for every child in this nation.
Of course, it doesn't occur to everyone to run for President to make their own children's lives better. The rest of the letter is a wee bit more impersonal than it would have been, perhaps, had he written a private one.

And I do hope he has written and will continue to write private letters to his daughters. What a treasure they would be to open up when the girls are parents themselves, to peep into their father's thoughts and to relive these times through his eyes.

The text of the entire letter is here.

Art and the Masses

As a fresh-behind-the-ears college student, I had my fingers in myriad pies at the same time. There was quizzing, theater, freelancing at the radio station, debates (at which I sucked), intra-mural competitions, that club, this club ... anything, basically, to get away from classes and have a legitimate reason.

One of those causes happened to be this guy whose movement of the moment was, he said, "to bring art down to the masses." His "office" was miles away from our end of town and it had taken my friend and I a good few hours to get there and back by auto in the Bangalore of old.

Thrilled at the concept (Wow! Bringing art down to the masses! So cool!), we went back home and I reported to my mother the details of this new mission of mine. If she was worried about how far I had gone and how often I had to go there, she did not show it.

She patiently listened to my excited chatter and asked, "Why bring art down to the masses? Why not bring the masses up to art?"

As a practical matter, perhaps the same program might have accomplished both, but to me, my mother's simple query laid bare the snootiness contained in the idea of "bringing art down to the masses". As if art could not remain where it was, but had to be dumbed down so the masses could appreciate it.

She never told me not to get involved, but rather prodded me to think about the issues I was putting my energies into. Something she said today reminded me of this episode from long ago. The more I think about it, the more I realize that she is the exponent of smart parenting (and now grandparenting), while I subscribe to the tenets of stubborn, bone-headed parenting.

Sankraanthiya Shubhaashayagalu (Happy Sankraanthi)!

Pictures from one Pongal/Sankraanthi past.


We were driving to my mom's home for Sankraanthi celebrations. My car window was rolled down as I tried to get pics of the marketplace brimming with sugarcane and avarekaayi. These two boys saw me with a camera in my hand and promptly grabbed the sugarcane and hammed.



Avarekaayi, sweet potato, peanuts and sugarcane.


Pongal, just about done cooking. Yum, yum.



The vessel in which my mom makes pongal every year.


Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Famous Five for a new generation

A recent article mentioned a new Famous Five animated series in which the original five are older and George is married to an Indian character named Ravi.

Too many fond memories of curling up with Enid Blyton books during summer holidays, so had to go find out.



Here's the low down:
Producers say the animated tales remain faithful to the themes of storytelling, mystery and adventure central to the original books but add a contemporary twist.

They feature 12-year-old Anglo-Indian Jo, short for Jyoti - a Hindi word meaning light - who, like her mother George, is a tomboy and the group's team leader.

Other characters include Allie, a 12-year-old Californian "shopaholic" who enjoys going out and getting "glammed up" but is packed off to the British countryside to live with her cousins.

Her mother was Anne in the Famous Five, a reluctant adventurer who has now become a successful art dealer. The team is completed by adventure junkie Max, who is 13-year-old Julian's son; Dylan, the 11-year-old son of Dick, and dog Timmy.
The entire article is here, more coverage here, and here's a video clip from the animated series. There's also a plan afoot for bringing back the original characters in a new series of novels.

About a year ago, I went looking here for these and other Enid Blyton novels for C, but I had no luck. Our local library had one title and I found some obscure Enid Blyton book on Amazon for the ridiculously expensive price of $90. Now his grandparents and aunt just send them over from India.

Illustration from telegraph.co.uk.

Bangalore: Seminar on Modern British Theater Practice

Via e-mail, this announcement:

British Library 10.00 A.M. to 1.00 P.M. on Saturday, 24 January

A life on the stage is many a life's dream. A show on London's WestEnd is many a tourist's dream destination. But what is the real substance of these dreams? What are the possibilities, the entry requirements? The career prospects? The working conditions? Ask these and any other questions and get the answers from professionals in British theatre on Saturday, 24 January, 10.00 to 1.00 at the BritishLibrary, 23 Kasturba Road Cross.

All are welcome but there is room for only 30 of you, so rush your registrations to art@jagrititheatre.com with MODERN BRITISH THEATRE in the subject line. Be there!

Monday, January 12, 2009

Response to Writing Prompt #2 - Embarrassing Moment

I drained the last drop of tea as I looked out of the sliding glass doors onto the grassy expanse that ran along the back of the apartment buildings. Only it was grassy no longer. White, fluffy snow caked everything in sight, the cars on the parking lot to the left, the steps leading down from the street onto the open space behind our apartment, the wooden fence on the other side of the evergreens, the evergreens. Icicles hung from the branches, from the bottoms of the cars and they held on for dear life to the balcony railing. From my cozy family room, all was right with the world. It was January of 1993 and my first winter in the US and my very first winter of any consequence.

I just wanted to touch the snow. Was it as I imagined it to be? Smooth, soft, squishy? Would it stay in my hand or would it crumble? Could I make a snowball? Would it make my hands cold and wet?

I grabbed a jacket from the coat closet and ran out to the front steps. Delight! Snow, within reach! Except for one set of footsteps on one side of the steps and in the middle of the footpath, the snow was unblemished. I decided to make my way to the bush to the side of the steps. The snow formed a mound over the bush. It seemed a good place to start as any, a good place to begin my acquaintance with snow. Without thinking or not wanting to disturb the snow, I can't remember now, I put my feet, one after the other, in the exact same spaces as the previous set of feet. I made my down the steps and reached a bit longer to fit my foot into the foot on the sidewalk.

In a flash I found myself on my butt, acquiring a whole new perspective of the underside of a very dirty car. Too embarrassed to even look around to see who might have been witness, I got up hurriedly and went right back in.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

It's 10 pm on a cold, dark night

C finishes all his work, has dinner, wrangles a Wii game out of his grandfather, reads, and, finally, straggles into bed.

C: Mom, what am I having for breakfast tomorrow? Let's discuss it right now.

Me: I don't know. What do you want to eat?

C: Well, I can't eat pancakes. The syrup we have is not good. It's too sweet.

Me: I bought new syrup today.

C: Which one? Aunt enema?

Me: ROTFL

Did you ever wonder if...

George from Enid Blyton's Famous Five series was gay? If you did, here's some insight:
Tricky. As one of the two girls in the Famous Five stories, George wore boy's
clothes, had boy's hair and wandered around saying “I want to be a boy”. Still,
any sort of subsequent homosexual or transgender adulthood seems unlikely. For
one thing, in the 2008 television series Famous 5: On the Case the adult George
is happily married to a car mechanic called Ravi. For another, this is Enid
Blyton we are talking about, and she was about as socially progressive as
Bernard Manning.
A car mechanic called Ravi? Does anyone know anything about this series?

Via The Daily Dish, which points to the main article titled "Of course Tintin's gay. Ask Snowy."

Digging dirt in politics

The Washington Post deploys its investigative reporting resources to delving into the etymology of a hyphenated word that is creeping into Obama's statements - shovel-ready.
The phrase doesn't appear in Merriam-Webster's online dictionary. Dictionary.com is stumped, but suggests an alternative spelling: "shovelhead." The Oxford English Dictionary, final arbiter of all word arguments that it is, offers no shovel-ready listing, either.

Could this be a made-up word? If so, who made it up, and how did it end up in the mouth of the next leader of the free world?

Deeper digging is required.
Read more and dig deeper yourself.

Speaking of made-up words, blogpourri is one too!

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Rome

We ride into Rome on one of Treinitalia's high-speed lines from Naples. Rome's Termini station is large, swanky and user-friendly. It's drizzling outside but our hotel is only a short distance away, so we walk. By the time we get settled, the sun is peeking through the clouds and we head out.

We are warned to stay away from Rome's bus route no. 64. That route hits all the popular tourist destinations and is therefore a favorite among pickpockets. We dutifully follow the suggestion and decide to take the train instead.

The Colosseum is the first destination on our list.


Even in its dilapidated state, even with resplendent visions of Gladiator floating in our minds, even with Russell Crowe nowhere in sight, the Colosseum does not disappoint. Running our hands down the pock-marked walls and feeling history at our finger tips is a sensation we indulge in time and again on this trip, first in Pompeii and now in Rome.

We take a slow walk around as much of the inside perimeter as we can, before we are stopped by barricades set up for maintenance work. Even from two stories high, the dungeons seem foreboding.



From the dungeons to the top of the Palatine Hill that showcases a Rome whose ancient splendors can now only be imagined, the ruins of the hubris of an empire lie bare.


A view of the Temple of Vesta and The House of the Vestals
from Palatine Hill (two photos above)

A stadium on the grounds of the ancient palace on Palatine Hill

I must confess we have never heard of Palatine Hill until we purchase tickets for its guided tour along with that of the Colosseum. Our guides are young students from the U.S., spending semesters in Rome, one of them pursuing a PhD in Roman History. They are smart, articulate and funny. We follow them mesmerized, as the point to the archway through which Caesar's body was brought into the Forum and talk about vestal virgins and high priests and prefectures, their vocabulary straight out of some ancient history textbook.
By the time we come to the end of the tour, we have been walking or climbing (with our one-year-old in a stroller) for a good 30 minutes. We've been on the go since the morning and decide to return to our hotel for the night.

The subway is convenient and quick so we head right back to the underground.

It's a mostly professional crowd headed home in the evening rush hour, but four women stand out in the packed compartment. Grubby jeans and tee shirts, rotten teeth, greasy hair slicked back into buns and large cloth bags slung over shoulders in a sea of business suits, sharp ties, cell phones plugged to ears and smart briefcases. They are hard to miss, particularly because one of the four is pregnant, her belly spilling out from underneath her tight-fitting tee.

But, I would have completely missed the dirty fingernails had I not caught five of them at the end of a slender hand slithering - ever so gingerly - into my husband's pant pocket. "That woman's hand is in your pocket," I say to my husband surprising myself with my matter-of-factness. His hands fly to the sides of his legs. Startled, the woman recoils. Then, to my utter amazement, she turns to one of her accomplices and shakes her sad face, as if to say she did not succeed and she was sorry. She receives a comforting nod and wave of the hand in return.

Needless to say, our senses are on hyper-alert the rest of the journey back to the hotel and for the duration of our stay in Rome.

The next morning (after a change of hotel - we moved closer to the center of the city when we realized that our first choice near the train station was not as spiffy as an agent had made it appear) and the day after, we explore Rome on foot, by metro and by bus. We discover Rome's multiple personalities – the Rome of Hollywood, of history, politics, religion and blockbuster novels.

Spanish Steps (if you actually see any of the steps, good for you!)

The dome of St. Peter's Cathedral

A religious procession headed to St. Peter's Cathedral

A guard at the entrance to the Vatican

Artwork on the facade of a building depicts the legend of the wolf raising Romulus and Remus


A beautifully constructed spiral staircase at the Vatican Museum

At the entrance to the Vatican Museum (visiting which was one of the best decisions we made during our stay in Rome), our hearts sink at the long, winding lines. We make our way to the main doorway, wondering whether to try again the next day or strike it off of our itinerary. A guard spies us, with a young son and a toddler in a stroller and he waves us in along with other families with members in wheelchairs. We flash him a grateful smile and head in.

The next two hours are spent gaping - at the walls, at the ceilings, at the statues, at the paintings, at the treasures encased in glass cases. Room after room after room, the splendour of color, form and design is a treat for the eyes.

A couple of scenes from the Vatican Museum (above and below)

Nowhere is the ancient splendor of Rome better preserved than at the Pantheon.



A standing testament to the triumph of geometry over gravity, the temple to the gods of ancient Rome has found use one way or the other ever since it was built early in second century A.D. We make our way through the crowds teeming in the Piazza della Rotonda and walk in through a porch lined with massive pillars to find a Catholic service in progress.

Our heads immediately look upward, following the large dome as it soars toward the sky, its vast circular sweep unblemished by supporting pillars or beams. Daylight streams in from a circular opening above, the oculus.

Even in the midst of the crowds, the hall feels intimate yet open to the universe. Wiser minds than mine have wondered the "how" of it all. We're just content to stand and gawk at its beauty.

In the three days we spend in Rome, we're never disappointed with the food, no matter whether we eat in a tiny pizzeria or in a deli. But the restaurant our concierge recommends to us on our last night in Rome (Taverna Flavia on Via Flavia) turns out to be a fine way to top off our Italy trip. The staff is welcoming, the food is great, the atmosphere is relaxed. The walls are lined with photographs of famous actors who frequent the restaurant. After a couple of days of imagining Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck on the Spanish Steps, Russell Crowe in the pits of the Collosseum, Charlton Heston at the Circus Maximus, Rex Harrison and Elizabeth Taylor on Palatine Hill, and now with celebrities beaming at us from the walls, you will forgive me for what transpires next.

A few minutes after we settle in, an elderly lady and a younger woman are seated at a two-seat table across from us. Both of them sound British. They are engrossed in an animated conversation, but the mother (we assume) looks over at our kids once in a while, an indulgent expression on her face. She has a longish face and grey hair combed neatly in a bob. Emboldened by her pleasant expression and with the thought that I was probably never going to see these people ever again, I venture, "Hello, are you Vanessa Redgrave by any chance?" Her smile widens for a brief second before she shakes her head, "Oh no, dear. I'm not."

OK, a year and a half later I can still feel my face going hot at the memory. Maybe I'll laugh at it in a couple more years.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Response to Writing Prompt #1

Write about a sleepover, a slumber party or the time you stayed somewhere overnight.

It is 6 o' clock. The driver hasn't shown up yet. The grown-ups don't seem to care. They are laughing, having fun. We are all gathered at my uncle's house. We've been here since the morning. We've had breakfast and lunch here. We're getting ready to have dinner here too.

After dinner, I really want to go home. I want my own bed, the smells of my own home. It's looking like it might not happen. I'm desperate. "Dad, where is he?" I ask, poking him in the shoulder. "Be patient, he'll show up," Dad says.

An hour later, I imagine what it's like to sleep on a hard, prickly, old mattress with sheets that are not my own, on a pillow that doesn't know the shape and weight of my head.

Don't get me wrong. It's not that I don't like strange beds. It's just that the beds in my uncle's house are not strange enough. They are just that little bit familiar. Enough for any excitement to drain away at the thought of having to spend any time on them.

------------------------------------
Updated to add the prompt on top of the post a link to the previous post that provides background.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Writing Prompt #1

Before you read the prompt, make sure you will have 10 minutes of uninterrupted time to write and please do time yourself. Once you've written it, please leave a link here so we can come over and read it. Here goes:

Write about a sleepover, a slumber party or the time you stayed somewhere overnight.

I will post my take on this prompt tomorrow.

If you have no idea what any of this means, this post from a couple of days ago will give you background and context. If you'd like to join in, hop on aboard, but please leave link here so we can read your take on the prompt.

Is it worth...

writing a book review or a movie review if it contains spoilers?

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Movie Review: Doubt

Note: Contains spoilers!

Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) utters the first real line in the movie. While delivering his sermon at Sunday mass he asks, channelling Oprah, "What are you sure about?". That Sunday, his sermon is about 'doubt'; how, like 'despair' which brings people together in their moments of loss, 'doubt' could also be a unifying force.

The rest of the nearly two-hour movie is a lesson in how doubt does no such thing; how it more thoroughly accomplishes the exact opposite; how it roils emotions, tears people apart and disintegrates relationships.

The movie begins on a dreary Autumn day in New York. Dry, dead leaves blanket the streets, the trees are bare, the sky is overcast, a persistent wind whips up stray pieces of litter - an apt metaphor for what is about to transpire within the walls of the church and the parochial school attached to it.

In the inner recesses of the church, Donald Miller, an 8th-grader at the school and an altar boy, is trying to hold together his life, strewn asunder by many factors - he's the only black student in a school serving a predominantly Irish and Italian parish in 1964; he thinks he might be fat; he's clearly looking for acceptance and affection. That much we know. As the story unfolds, the plot peels back a few more layers, laying bare the insecurities of a boy with more stuff on his plate than the your typical troubled teen.

In Father Flynn he finds a smiling face, a generous heart, a fun disposition and a willing ear. Precisely all the things that are seemingly revolting to Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), head nun and Principal of the school.

Epitome of discipline, guardian of all things virtuous, firm in her convictions and strict follower of dictum and decorum, she rules over her school with an iron hand and a steely glare. She has an intimate understanding of the limitations of her position within the church's hierarchy and so is well aware that Father Flynn orbits outside the sphere of her control. It is also this knowledge of the church's rules that informs her about the myriad ways in which to bend them to achieve her objectives, to make things right in her eyes.

In this quest, she employs her underlings to do her bidding. Sister James (Amy Adams), fresh-faced, naive, trusting, gentle and - most importantly from Sister Aloysius' point of view - eager to please, finds herself in the vortex created by the opposing forces of Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn.

Bidden to keep an eye out for anything suspicious involving Father Flynn, Sister James comes into what she clearly feels is disturbing information. First, Father Flynn interrupts class to call Donald Miller into his office for a private meeting. Then there is alcohol breath, there's a misplaced undershirt. Finally, a seemingly disturbed Donald Miller returns to class. They each have seemingly innocuous reasons and explanations, but put together with Sister Aloysius' admonishment, the implications are ominous.

Sister James heads straight to Sister Aloysius and sets in motion a juggernaut that, try as she might, she is powerless to stop.

What motivates Sister James to go to Sister Aloysius? Is it her concern for Donald Miller or is it her desire to please Sister Aloysius? What motivates Sister Aloysius to try to tear down Father Flynn? Is she being protective of Donald Miller or does she resent how easily Father Flynn seems to relate to the students? What motivates Father Flynn? Does he want to be the father-figure that Donald Miller seems to need or is he seeking something more from the lonely boy?

Into this swirling pot of questions, the movie drops Donald Miller's mother (Viola Davis) and her own incentives. Does she know what is going on with her son at school? She's obviously heard a lot from him about Father Flynn and seems to have a rosy picture about the Father's intentions. Is she right? Even when confronted with Sister Aloysius' suspicions, she brushes them away. Her focus is on her son graduating and getting into a good high school and then on to college. Anything that might stand in the way - anything - is just a distraction.

Four or five scenes where nothing happens other than people talking to each other, lobbying for their point of view, make the film. It's a testament to the excellent portrayals of each of these parts that my own views rocked back and forth between Father Flynn's innocence and guilt, while making me increasingly frustrated with both Sister James' naivete and Sister Aloysius' certitude.

There a some awkward moments when the camera lingers a tad longer than it should have or when the actors seem to be waiting for some cue before starting their scenes. The final scene involving Sister James and Sister Aloysius seems contrived to tie it to Father Flynn's first sermon. I wish that loose end had remained loose for a selfish reason, I admit. In the moments before that final scene, I was convinced I knew what had happened.

Doubt (trailer) is 104 minutes long and is rated PG-13 in the US for "thematic material".

Saturday, January 03, 2009

20 Minutes

I made it to my first meeting of the writer's group I signed up with three months ago. Finally! I got to meet some cool women, listened to their work as they read it out to the group, and got a sense for some of the issues they were dealing with as they tried to shepherd their writing towards publishing.

I also got 20 minutes. Of pure silence. On a weekend. In the middle of the day. To write.

That alone made my scrambling to get to the meeting, and dragging myself in late, worthwhile. Each one of us wrote to one writing prompt for 10 minutes and passed the prompt on to the person to our left and wrote another 10 minutes on the second prompt.

This was the first time I'd done anything like that. It was fun as it was revealing. I was surprised at the little nuggets of memories that popped into my head in that short duration. It was fun to read how differently we'd all reacted to the same prompts. And it was amazing to see how much work can get done in 20 minutes with no distractions.

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