Saturday, November 29, 2008

Indira Mahajan, Soprano

C and I recently saw Indira Mahajan's solo performance at the Kennedy Center as she sang, among others, a few pieces from contralto Marian Anderson's repertoire. Mahajan is the 2008 recipient of the Kennedy Center's Marian Anderson Grant. I had bought tickets for the show soon after they went on sale and we ended up with seats right on the front row.

Mahajan is strikingly beautiful and has a commanding presence on stage. The songs spanned a range of emotions - from delight to nostalgia to love to rage to sadness. It was mesmerizing to watch Mahajan's visage express these emotions in succession as it was to listen to her voice rise and fall and stretch to accommodate the feeling in the songs. C was blown away by how powerful and delicate a voice could be and he loved watching the pianist who accompanied Mahajan. There was one song in particular, a negro spiritual titled Take My Mother Home, the song of a slave who does not mind remaining in slavery as long as everyone in her family gets to go home, that was heartrending and beautifully, tenderly sung.
Take my mother home; take my mother on home
I ain't free; never mind about me
Take my mother home.
Take my father home; let my father see his home
I ain't free; don't worry about me
Take my father home.


Take my baby home; take my baby home
I ain't free and I never will be
Take my pretty baby on home.
Home. Home.
I can stay here all alone if you
take my mother home.
The elderly lady next to me tried to massage away the goosebumps on her arms.

The next day I talked with Mahajan about her music and her background. A version of the essay below appears in The Hindu's Sunday Magazine today:

Indira Mahajan hangs on to the piano with her sinewy arm as if for dear life; as if, if she were to let go, the power of her voice emanating from deep within would carry her slight frame right off the stage and into ether. Her expressive face is, by turn, despondent, delighted, and filled with rage and agony as she sings of love and loss and wooden horses.

Mahajan, a soprano – and recipient of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts' 2008 Marian Anderson grant – is performing a few songs from the repertoire of humanitarian and American contralto, Marian Anderson, at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater.

By all accounts a rising star in the rarefied galaxy of accomplished opera singers, the award is just the latest in a long list of accolades coming Mahajan's way, starting with the Dallas Opera's Maria Callas Award for outstanding debut artist (for her role of Musetta in La Bohème) and the New York City Opera Debut Artist Award. With performances at Carnegie Hall and the Lincoln Center (with the New York Philharmonic under Bobby McFerrin) already behind her, Mahajan has drawn consistently high praise for her solo and operatic performances and has carved a popular niche for herself in the role of Bess in Gershwin's Porgy and Bess.

Mahajan's journey into the world of the arts began with violin lessons at the age of five. "I cannot remember not wanting to perform and not wanting to be an artist," Mahajan says, as she remembers the early days of piano and ballet lessons, and voice training under her mother's tutelage. But affinity for music and achieving success as an opera singer are two completely different beasts. A singer must keep up with her changing voice, which does not really come into its own until her 30s; be studious and be able to learn lengthy parts in foreign languages; overcome the self-doubt that comes with trying to live up to expectations born out of early triumphs; audition for work but learn to face the inevitable rejections.

At this juncture in her career, the Marian Anderson grant – awarded every other year to "American singers of great promise who have already achieved some success in opera…" – is a ringing endorsement of her tenacity and talent.

Indira Mahajan and her role model, Marian Anderson, are also connected, if you will, by a not-so-visible thread.

In 1957, as the U.S. State Department's goodwill ambassador to India and the Far East, Anderson, a foot soldier in the war against racism in America, made it a point to visit Mahatma Gandhi's memorial in New Delhi to pay her respects.

Fifty years later, Mahajan is on an India quest of her own, albeit on a very personal level - she is on a mission to find a piece of her heritage.

Born to Bhushan Kumar Mahajan of Dalhousie, an engineer, and Barbara Mahajan of North Carolina, a Juilliard-trained opera singer and performer, Indira grew up in New York under the diverse cultural influences of her mixed parentage. Her father died when she was very young, and Mahajan credits her mother – and her close relationship with her father's extended family in the U.S. – for ensuring that the Indian part of her identity equation was nurtured.

Western Classical music and jazz on the family's music system shared space with Ravi Shankar; trips to the opera alternated with countless viewings of Bollywood movies ("Indian movies were like musicals … and that's what drew me," she recounts with obvious delight). Her mother, an excellent cook, Mahajan says, taught her the intricacies of Indian cuisine.

Mahajan unequivocally attributes her success to her family's support – not only encouraging her passion for a career in the arts when the norm for children in Indian families was to choose engineering or medicine or marriage at a certain age, but also bolstering her confidence through the long, difficult years of study rendered harder by the uncertainty of finding work at the end of the training.

In spite of this happy interplay of cultures growing up, there is still one thing Mahajan has been unable to do – visit her father's birthplace and meet her extended family in India. As a child she was afraid of flying and lost the few, short-lived opportunities to go home with her father, but "the older you get the more important it is to have that kind of connection … now that I am an adult, I'm just craving it," she says, excitedly describing her impending plans to finally visit India with her aunts. A decidedly grown-up sentiment framed in childlike wistfulness.

On the stage, Mahajan concludes her performance with a spiritual, He's Got the Whole World in His Hand. Her back is ramrod straight; her entire body seems intent on pumping enough oxygen into her lungs and abdomen so they can energize her formidable vocal chords. Her daily yoga practice is clearly paying off.
Artist's photo by Steve J. Sherman

Mumbai Terror Attacks: The Photographer Who Took the Terrorist's Photograph

The Belfast Telegraph interviews Mumbai Mirror pictures editor, Sebastian D'Souza. He's the man that took the now ubiquitous photograph of a young terrorist striding - nonchalantly it seems - toward his victims, his gun drawn and his backpack strapped around his shoulders.

By Sebastian D'Souza, Mumbai Mirror

Sebastian D'Souza, a picture editor at the Mumbai Mirror, whose offices are just opposite the city's Chhatrapati Shivaji station, heard the gunfire erupt and ran towards the terminus. "I ran into the first carriage of one of the trains on the platform to try and get a shot but couldn't get a good angle, so I moved to the second carriage and waited for the gunmen to walk by," he said. "They were shooting from waist height and fired at anything that moved. I briefly had time to take a couple of frames using a telephoto lens. I think they saw me taking photographs but they didn't seem to care."


"Towards the station entrance, there are a number of bookshops and one of the bookstore owners was trying to close his shop," he recalled. "The gunmen opened fire and the shopkeeper fell down."

But what angered Mr D'Souza almost as much were the masses of armed police hiding in the area who simply refused to shoot back. "There were armed policemen hiding all around the station but none of them did anything," he said. "At one point, I ran up to them and told them to use their weapons. I said, 'Shoot them, they're sitting ducks!' but they just didn't shoot back."


I only wish I had a gun rather than a camera."

Updated to add a link to Desipundit which in turn links exhaustively to blogs on the Mumbai attacks.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Palin Back on the Stump

This time for incumbent Senator Saxby Chambliss who's in a run-off in Georgia.

It's Really Over, The Fat Lady Has Sung, etc.

It is well and truly over. Try as I might, there is no capturing the dizzying, mesmerizing, all-consuming last few weeks of the campaign. Camille Paglia might as well have been talking about me when she said:
A week after the election of Barack Obama, millions of American news junkies are in serious cold turkey, the big bump of withdrawal from two years of addiction to the dizzying ups and downs of a campaign that threatened never to end.
It's been days since I read every politics article on the front page of the NY Times. Days since I've had a permanent parking spot on The Atlantic Blogs and hopped obsessively from Andrew Sullivan to Ta-Nehisi Coates to Ross Douthat to Marc Armbinder to Jim Fallows to Salon to Slate to Politico to The Huffington Post to CNN to FoxNews, refreshed each page multiple times and followed the myriad links on each page (which took me to The National Review, Vanity Fair, The Guardian) before circling back to start all over again. Here's a shout out to whoever invented the refresh button.

I knew things I did not want to know. I could not get enough of the things I wanted to know about. It was surreal.

I've been witness to five US Presidential elections so far and I cannot remember one other that riveted my attention so (and by all accounts, the attention of a sizable chunk of the earth).

Back in 1992, I called my parents from my second-floor apartment on Federal Street in Philadelphia with the news that Bill Clinton had just defeated the incumbent president. It was a short call. I was a student (read: poor) and international rates to India were not as cheap as they are now. I don't remember much from the campaign, except for that interview of the Clinton couple on 60 Minutes when one of the spotlights behind their sofa keeled over and almost hit Hillary Clinton on the head; Clinton's appearance on Arsenio Hall where he played the trumpet; and James Baker's face, pinched and drawn, as he realized his boss was about to lose.

The '96 elections seemed like a formality. It was obvious from the get-to that Clinton wasn't going anywhere and Dole and Kemp seemed woefully inadequate. Even the debates were boring.

Four years later, in 2000, there was not much drama during the campaign. Of course, everyone was probably saving all the energy they had for what came after the election. That was the first election I was eligible to vote in. In a reliably red state, my vote did not count and I knew my vote did not count, but I went any way. I was not going to miss out on the experience. Thinking back about that year now, I have no memory of the primaries. I most definitely did not go vote in the primaries. Perhaps it was a foregone conclusion that Gore would win the Democratic nomination. Did anyone even challenge him? I do remember the debates though - Gore's sighing, Bush's snickering - Naomi's Wood's recommendation that Gore dress in "earth tones" and the ensuing obsessive media coverage. And Gore trying to distance himself from Clinton throughout the general election campaign. Not in the wholesale way that McCain tried to do eight years later from his own party's sitting president, but in a more selective manner - trying to attach himself to the economic successes of the Clinton years but trying to untangle himself from Clinton's personal failings. The result was that Clinton did not stump for him much at all. Would history have been different if he had?

Election day 2000 was memorable. Voting usually takes place at the numerous government buildings in the neighborhood - schools, county recreation centers, etc. I drove to the wrong polling location, to the middle school attached to our neighborhood instead of the elementary school. The officials there could not find me on the voting rolls. They set me straight and sent me packing. Slightly rattled, what with it being my first time voting 'n all, I headed out hoping I was riding to the correct location this time.

I was in line by 7 am at the elementary school. The line was not very long. When it was my turn, I walked up to a long table manned by two women. They asked for my driver's license, went down a long list of names in the printout and checked off my name. Phew! Then an elderly gentleman took me to a booth and showed me how the voting machine worked. I touched the screen a few times - there were a couple of ballot measures to vote on too, something about parks and bonds - and then touched the big red button that said VOTE. Feeling like I'd accomplished something, I walked out. Someone handed me a "I Voted" sticker which I proceeded to wear for the rest of the day. Then it was back to the mad scramble, taking C to his daycare, heading off to work and then back home much later in the day to a democratic process all gone haywire.

The TV hummed in the background the entire evening and well into the night. The pundits droned on and on and Tim Russert kept harping about Florida and how the election was going to turn on that state. Then came the decisive moment - if I remember right, NBC called Florida for Bush, followed by a concession speech. Well, almost. As the Gore motorcade was driving to his party gathering, he heard that Bush had not won after all. So he called Bush right back and retracted his concession.

Much of the next month is a blur. The circus played on, parallel to our lives. There must have been deep angst and frustration in many quarters but towards the end of it there was the feeling of just wanting a result, for the hanging chads and the pregnant chads and the beady-eyed vote counters to go off the TV screens.

Almost a year later, in 2001, Gore resurfaced in DC. The story goes that following the ban on air traffic over the US and the cancellation of all US-bound flights in the aftermath of 9/11 he was stuck in Austria. He somehow managed to get to NY on an army transport plane and flew into DC on Clinton's plane for a service at the National Cathedral that President Bush had organized. It was a shock to see the normally fit Gore with a large beard and not trim anymore. But what a difference a few years makes. In 2007 he made a visit to the White House. A deeply unpopular President occupied the Oval Office. Ten different presidential candidates vying for the same office were tearing him down in ten different ways. Shortly before a reception at the White House for Nobel winners, Gore walked into that office as the winner of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for a private audience with President.

In 2004, we were heading out to India right around election time, so we voted early. The voting room at the government center was way more crowded than we expected, but it felt good to have taken the time to vote. Again, our state was not in play at all, but with the spectre of Florida hanging over our heads, it was easy to drive out and spend whatever time it took. "Swiftboating" and "I voted no before I voted yes" entered our already vast political lexicon. And four hundred dollar haircuts entered our understanding of the realm of the possible, courtesy John Edwards. John Kerry's struggles during the campaign is a cautionary tale of why presidential candidates entrenched in the ways of the Senate make such poor campaigners. When juxtaposed against Bush's simple, declarative sentences, Kerry's thoughtful pronouncements managed to appear plodding and indecisive.

Come 2008 and it was a totally different story. I was voting in the primaries! I walked towards the school and there was an hour-long wait. It was unbelievable! Throughout the primary season and the general campaign, there were more events in our neighborhood and the ones close by that I can remember from the two previous elections put together. Obama seriously believed the state could be won and that had both parties scrambling to shake hands and hold babies and give shout outs to incarnations of Joe the Plumber (VA's version was Tito the Something, I forget) at rallies. Campaign signs went up early and stayed put. Some lawns had campaign signs every few feet. Signs showing up on common property were promptly taken down. Volunteers came a-knocking on our doors, early and often. There were young kids with tattoos and piercings, there was an old couple who had supported Clinton in the primaries but had moved on to Obama, there was a young Asian couple the weekend before the election.

The things that riveted voters and gawkers were as many and as varied as people with opinions - there was race, gender, age, experience, SNL, Palin, moose chili, abortion rights, right to life, pregnant teenagers, special-needs children, run-on sentences (one of Salon's writers actually diagrammed one of Palin's sentences), the Bush Doctrine, Katie Couric, McCain dissing Letterman (and regretting it, I'm sure), Maureen Dowd and Judith Warner's columns in the NYT, Chris Buckley and Kathleen Parker (two conservatives) both endorsing Obama and both being ostracized by the party faithful for it, Bill Kristol's wild suggestions for the McCain campaign, Campbell Brown's rantings on CNN...

I'm glad the election is over and, the biggest surprise of all, that the decision came quickly and painlessly and that McCain made a wonderful, graceful concession speech. But I'm not sure I'm glad the campaign is over.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Terry Gross II

Following up on my Terry Gross post below.

I found this post on James Fallows' blog today (via Coates) about Terry Gross' recent interview with Bill Ayers.

At the most obvious level, Terry Gross succeeds in this interview simply by avoiding the two most common, and laziest, styles of today's broadcast interviewers: surplus aggressiveness, long ago made familiar by Mike Wallace and now lampooned by Stephen Colbert; and lapdogism, most recently on display in Greta Van Susteren's sessions with Sarah Palin and the default mode of Larry King Live.


What she does instead, and what she shows brilliantly in this interview, is: she listens, and she thinks.


If you have this standard in mind -- is the interviewer really listening? and thinking? -- you will be shocked to see how rarely broadcast and on-stage figures do very much of either. But listen to this session by Gross to see how the thing should be done.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Quantum of Solace

By Karen Ballard/Sony Pictures

Alert: Before you continue any further, this post contains spoilers!

A few days ago the Washington Post ran a photograph of Daniel Craig as James Bond with a caption that ran something like this - "We have no good reason to run this photograph on this page, but jeez, just look at the guy!"

And look at him a lot of people did. The movie raked in $70 million in its first weekend in the US.
I'm not a James Bond connoisseur, so I don't know all the nit-picky things I'm supposed to be missing (I do know that the vodka line, the "Bond, James Bond" line and Q have gone AWOL, but that's about it) that die hard Bond fans keep a track of, but I can say that I enjoy the Daniel Craig versions far better. Better than even the Pierce Brosnan ones.

Quantum of Solace (QoS) begins where Casino Royale left off, with the capture of the man Bond thinks has the answers to the question of why Vesper, his love interest in Casino Royale, betrayed him. The car chase along a coastal road leading up to a dungeon in Siena, Italy is thrilling, yes, but more bruising than usual Bond fare, as are the multiple fights that dot the movie. The energy in this movie is barely contained within the movie screen. The camera, the music and the actors vie with each other to stay ahead of the other two. Bond gets more than just the shoulder pads of his suit dusty - by the end of the movie he's had a bloodied nose, myriad nicks and cuts on his face, biceps and chest (this Bond shows a lot more skin than his women), and at least three men have died at his hands.

Bond engages in relentless pursuit of violence frequently channeling Terminator and Bourne, which is why it is all the more breathtaking when he pauses to show some heart (as when his ex-colleague, Mathis, lies dying in his arms). The moment passes in a flash, however, once Mathis actually dies. Bonds dumps the body in a trash collector nearby and appropriates the cash in Mathis' wallet.

There are a couple of funny lines in the movie, but not the usual, erudite, smart-alecky ones that you might expect from say Roger Moore.

What was jarring, though, was the role of the CIA. It took at few minutes to digest the fact that the CIA was with the bad guys and to realign the alliances in my head. And there was no indication that the CIA characters sincerely believed in the larger good of their actions, as is a common justification for American excesses (A Few Good Men, Body of Lies (another excellent movie)). Out and out cynicism seemed to be the flavor of the day.

Early last week, a couple of days after I watched this movie, the Daily Dish had linked to Juan Cole's review of QoS. Cole give us context and sets up the politics of the movie beautifully.

But this Bond film is explicit that the United States under Bush has become the bad guy, that US intelligence is in league with rogue mercenaries and brutal, rapist-generals who plot coups against elected governments.


Craig's Bond is an intimation of the sort of Britain that could have been, if Tony Blair had stood up to Bush and refused to be dragged into an illegal war of choice, and into other actions and policies that profoundly contradicted the principles on which the Labour Party had been founded...
The politics of the movie aside (although it is very intriguing) QoS is and out-and-out thriller and the movie does not suffer from the brooding presence of two very beautiful, very angry people bent on payback. In short, go see it.
to add a link to the official Bond site and to say that the Alicia Keys/Jack White theme song is awesome!

Jazz in DC and a Chandamama Story

Last night we were at the Kennedy Center to catch a performance at the Millennium Stage. As part of the Jazz in DC series, Scott Joplin and Jelly Roll Morton were on tap, with pianist Aaron Diehl performing.

Friday evening rush hour traffic was worse than we planned for and we got there mid way into the program. The ushers showed us to a small space on this side of the rope cordoning off the seats where we could sit on the floor (all the seats were taken and there was an overflow crowd of at least 50 standing to watch the performance).

We got to hear five pieces. The music was infectious, completely enjoyable to listen to. A number of people in the audience were bopping to the music. It was hard not to. The woman next to us had a chicken strut thing going with her head. A couple of rows ahead in the seats foot-tapping was the choice of body twitch. And there was one woman who could barely stay in her seat. From foot to head she had a great dance going while seated.

It reminded me of a Chandamama story (I just found its website and it has stories on it! Yay!) I read a very long time ago.

Once upon a time, a king wanted to find out who among his subjects was the best connoisseur of music. So he organized a series of concerts that was open to the public. At the first concert every single person in the audience was shaking his or her head to the music. The king was annoyed. Not only could he not identify the winner, he became suspicious that a majority of the audience was faking it. So he put out an edict - no more shaking of the head, he decreed.

So at the next concert no one swayed to the music for fear of displeasing the king. They looked around, stared straight ahead at the performers, looked down. All but one man. With eyes closed, his head followed the tune and moved up and down to the rhythm. At the end of the concert, the king called him over and pulled him up for disobeying his rule.

Another day, another concert. Same scene as at the second performance. The one man continued to ignore the king's edict. So the king called him out again, but this time asked him why he continued to sway to the music when he had specifically forbidden it. The man explained that he forgot where he was or what he was supposed to do when he heard music. The music moved him and made it impossible for him to sit still.

The king was pleased. He had found his winner.


If you like jazz and want to indulge in some swaying and bopping yourself, the Jazz in DC series is ongoing at the Millennium Stage. The performances are free and they usually go for an hour from 6 pm. If you can't make it, the performances are available by live webcast.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

150 Things To Do Before You Turn 30

Saw this post on Mumbaigirl's blog. Am closer in age to the next big O, but here goes anyway. The things that I've already done are in bold. Can't tell which came before 30 and which after. Must be growing old.

01. Bought everyone in the bar a drink
02. Swam with dolphins
03. Climbed a mountain
04. Taken a Ferrari for a test drive
05. Been inside the Great Pyramid
06. Held a tarantula
07. Taken a candlelit bath with someone
08. Said “I love you” and meant it
09. Hugged a tree
10. Bungee jumped
11. Visited Paris
12. Watched a lightning storm at sea
13. Stayed up all night long and saw the sun rise

14. Seen the Northern Lights
15. Gone to a huge sports game
16. Walked the stairs to the top of the leaning Tower of Pisa
17. Grown and eaten your own vegetables
18. Touched an iceberg
19. Slept under the stars
20. Changed a baby’s diaper

21. Taken a trip in a hot air balloon
22. Watched a meteor shower
23. Gotten drunk on champagne
24. Given more than you can afford to charity
25. Looked up at the night sky through a telescope
26. Had an uncontrollable giggling fit at the worst possible moment

27. Had a food fight
28. Bet on a winning horse
29. Asked out a stranger
30. Had a snowball fight
31. Screamed as loudly as you possibly can
32. Held a lamb
33. Seen a total eclipse
34. Ridden a roller coaster
35. Hit a home run
36. Danced like a fool and didn’t care who was looking (this is pretty much what happens every time I dance)
37. Adopted an accent for an entire day
38. Actually felt happy about your life, even for just a moment
39. Had two hard drives for your computer
40. Visited all 50 states
41. Taken care of someone who was drunk
42. Had amazing friends
43. Danced with a stranger in a foreign country - to technopop in Edinburgh!
44. Watched whales
45. Stolen a sign
46. Backpacked in Europe
47. Taken a road-trip
48. Gone rock climbing
49. Taken a midnight walk on the beach
50. Gone sky diving
51. Visited Ireland
52. Been heartbroken longer than you were actually in love
53. In a restaurant, sat at a stranger’s table and had a meal with them
54. Visited Japan
55. Milked a cow
56. Alphabetized your CDs
57. Pretended to be a superhero
58. Sung karaoke - love the Cameron Diaz scene in "My Best Friend's Wedding"
59. Lounged around in bed all day
60. Played touch football
61. Gone scuba diving
62. Kissed in the rain
63. Played in the mud
64. Played in the rain
65. Gone to a drive-in theatre
66. Visited the Great Wall of China
67. Started a business
68. Fallen in love and not had your heart broken
69. Toured ancient sites
70. Taken a martial arts class
71. Played D&D for more than 6 hours straight - what D&D?72. Gotten married
73. Been in a movie
74. Crashed a party
75. Gotten divorced
76. Gone without food for 5 days
77. Made cookies from scratch
78. Won first prize in a costume contest
79. Ridden a gondola in Venice
80. Gotten a tattoo
81. Rafted the Snake River
82. Been on a television news program as an “expert”
83. Gotten flowers for no reason
84. Performed on stage
85. Been to Las Vegas
86. Recorded music
87. Eaten shark
88. Kissed on the first date
89. Gone to Thailand
90. Bought a house
91. Been in a combat zone
92. Buried one/both of your parents - this is morbid!
93. Been on a cruise ship
94. Spoken more than one language fluently
95. Performed in Rocky Horror
96. Raised children
97. Followed your favorite band/singer on tour
98. Passed out cold
99. Taken an exotic bicycle tour in a foreign country
100. Picked up and moved to another city to just start over - done that, but not to start over
101. Walked the Golden Gate Bridge
102. Sang loudly in the car, and didn’t stop when you knew someone was looking with the windows open
103. Had plastic surgery
104. Survived an accident that you shouldn’t have survived
105. Wrote articles for a large publication
106. Lost over 100 pounds
107. Held someone while they were having a flashback
108. Piloted an airplane
109. Touched a stingray
110. Broken someone’s heart
111. Helped an animal give birth
112. Won money on a TV game show
113. Broken a bone
114. Gone on an African photo safari
115. Had a facial part pierced other than your ears
116. Fired a rifle, shotgun, or pistol
117. Eaten mushrooms that were gathered in the wild
118. Ridden a horse
119. Had major surgery
120. Had a snake as a pet
121. Hiked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon - we were such idiots. We started down the path and then realized we could not possibly do it. C was 8 months old then and we had him in a stroller!
122. Slept for 30 hours in a 48 hour period - have been UP for more than 30 hours in a 48 hour period.
123. Visited more foreign countries than U.S. States
124. Visited all 7 continents
125. Taken a canoe trip that lasted more than 2 days
126. Eaten kangaroo meat
127. Eaten sushi
128. Had your picture in the newspaper

129. Changed someone’s mind about something you care deeply about - of late seem to be trying very hard, did not care much before
130. Gone back to school
131. Parasailed
132. Touched a cockroach
133. Eaten fried green tomatoes
134. Read The Iliad and The Odyssey
135. Selected one “important” author who you missed in school, and read
136. Killed and prepared an animal for eating
137. Skipped all your school reunions
138. Communicated with someone without sharing a common spoken language
139. Been elected to public office
140. Written your own computer language
141. Thought to yourself that you’re living your dream
142. Had to put someone you love into hospice care
143. Built your own PC from parts
144. Sold your own artwork to someone who didn’t know you
145. Had a booth at a street fair
146. Dyed your hair
147. Been a DJ
148. Shaved your head

149. Caused a car accident - the husband would probably say I did!
150. Saved someone’s life

Am not tagging anyone. But if you'd like to do this list, please do and leave a comment!

Updated to bold "148. Shaved your head", though probably not in the manner the list thinks of it. I was 2 or 3 and our family followed the tradition of sacrificing hair to the family deity. There's a black and white photograph of the man shaving my hair off with a long razor blade and me screaming my head off.

Auto Industry Bailout - This Takes the Cake

"There's a delicious irony in seeing private luxury jets flying into Washington, D.C., and people coming off of them with tin cups in their hands," Rep. Gary L. Ackerman (D-N.Y.) advised the pampered executives at a hearing yesterday. "It's almost like seeing a guy show up at the soup kitchen in high-hat and tuxedo. . . . I mean, couldn't you all have downgraded to first class or jet-pooled or something to get here?"

The Big Three said nothing, which prompted Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) to rub it in. "I'm going to ask the three executives here to raise their hand if they flew here commercial," he said. All still at the witness table. "Second," he continued, "I'm going ask you to raise your hand if you're planning to sell your jet . . . and fly back commercial." More stillness. "Let the record show no hands went up," Sherman grandstanded.
Dana Milbank in the Washington Post today. Seems to me that not being able to figure out which way the wind is blowing is precisely what got the big three into hot water in the first place.

Beach Buggy Boogie

C loves ragtime music and his teacher's been obliging his interest. Here's C with Martha Mier's Beach Buggy Boogie.

Travel: Amalfi Coast

An Amalfi Coast essay appeared a while ago in Mint. I love their spiffy new design of the travel planners.

Amalfi Church

When we are not eating (or plotting when and where to eat next), we ditch the guidebooks, abandon the itineraries, stash the street maps in the backpack and head out.

The Amalfi coast, stretching eastwards from Naples along the Tyrrhenian Sea, lends itself easily to our whimsical agenda. One day, we head to the Neapolitan port of Beverello and catch a ferry to hop along the coast and the nearby islands.

Perched precipitously on the cliffs rising from the sea, narrow, winding roads lead up to towns with impossibly romantic names — Sorrento, Capri, Amalfi, Positano. Colourful markets selling fresh fruits, melon-sized lemons, garlic pods and ripe, fiery red chillies and tomatoes (“Viagra naturale,” claims a shopkeeper) are a staple, as are shops stocked with all manner of tempting trinkets; narrow lanes lined with gorgeous homes that suddenly pop open into airy squares; and, of course, restaurants with the most mouth-watering menus on display. But it’s hard to miss the coast’s natural beauty. Lush greenery swamps the hills, the sea looks forbidding and calm all at once from way high up.

A coastal town

Our drive along the precariously winding coastal roads from Naples to the ancient maritime commerce town of Amalfi confirms our suspicions — your senses come alive to the thought of shelving your current existence and staying put at one of these towns for ever and ever. Imagine Somerset Maugham’s The Lotus Eater with a slightly different ending.

The shadow of Vesuvius looms over the ruins of Pompeii


A few must-see destinations manage to sneak their way into the itinerary. Pompeii, in the shadows of a brooding Vesuvius, is our last stop on our Naples leg. The lushness of the coast gives way to arid plumes of dust swirling from the dead streets and homes to the pockmarked walls, statues and pillars that have managed to survive the ravages of the fire and ash that rained down nearly 2,000 years ago.

The entire essay is here.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A Radio Interview I'd Love to Hear

Terry Gross interviewing Sarah Palin.

I love radio interviews. They have the effect of distilling the interaction down to thoughts and how they are expressed. It doesn't matter what the participants are wearing, how they look, what they are doing, or how the lighting is placed.

I especially appreciate any opportunity to listen to Gross' interviews. She appears to be someone who has no agenda other than to let her genuinely curious mind plumb the depths of the issue at hand. These days I end up catching a portion of her program, Fresh Air, as I drive to and from C's school to pick him up.

William Ayers was on her show today. It was enlightening, to say the least. A far cry from the "palling around with terrorists" caricature he had been reduced to during the campaign.

Thanks to all the hoopla surrounding his connection to Obama, his 2001 book, Fugitive Days: Memoirs of an Anti-War Activist, is being reissued and Ayers has been on TV, in the newspapers and now on Fresh Air. He's underground no more.

Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin

Amanda Fortini articulates how the problem of plenty was not actually what it seemed at all.
[...] it is disappointing to watch what some have called the “year of the woman” come to such an embarrassing conclusion. This was an election cycle in which candidates pandered to female voters, newsweeklies tried to figure out “what women want,” and Hillary Clinton garnered 18 million votes toward winning the Democratic nomination. The assumption was that these “18 million cracks in the highest glass ceiling,” as Clinton put it, would advance the prospects of female achievement and gender equality. It hasn’t exactly worked out that way.

In the grand Passion play that was this election, both Clinton and Palin came to represent—and, at times, reinforce—two of the most pernicious stereotypes that are applied to women: the bitch and the ditz.
Via Andrew Sullivan.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Joe the Plumber attempts a mutation ... into Joe the Magnate

Joe the Plumber’s latest small business? Apparently: himself. JTP’s deeply researched, carefully edited, thoughtful, and not at all hastily-put-together-to-capitalize-on-his-media-celebrity-before-it-expires treatise on The American Dream—written “with” spiritual novelist Thomas N. Tabback—is slated to be released December 1. Yes, of this year. Oh, and it will be titled, humbly and rather delightfully, Joe the Plumber: Fighting for the American Dream.

To celebrate—and to ensure that copies of the book are sold!—YOU THE PEOPLE can now obtain a Freedom Membership from Joe’s hastily-put-together-to-capitalize-on-his-media-celebrity-before-it-expires Web site, The Membership, like Freedom itself, ain’t free…but the $14.95 yearly fee practically pays for itself!

More. If not anything else, you gotta love the entrepreneurial spirit.

While you are it, please to check out this Shep Smith interview from those heady days when whatever Joe said or did or did not do merited reams of paper and miles of tape.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Mortgages, money laundering and Bollywood - the story of one local Indian businessman

He was an icon in the local Indian community, a flashy movie producer who invested millions in Bollywood films and brought Indian musical acts to the Washington area.

Vijay K. Taneja had an aura about him, a celebrity image that made people trust him, according to people who know the Fairfax County businessman. Problem was, Taneja admitted in federal court yesterday, his entertainment ventures were financed with money obtained through an extensive mortgage fraud scheme.


Prosecutors told the judge that Taneja invested millions of his mortgage proceeds in Indian films and theatrical productions through one of his companies, Elite Entertainment, and that they are still trying to untangle the financial web. "He has millions of dollars unaccounted for," Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Learned said as he asked Hilton to order Taneja to be electronically monitored to ensure that he doesn't flee before sentencing. "There's so much money, and it's difficult to figure out where it all went."

The entire story is here. It was hard to miss his presence - his Elite Entertainment posters advertising performances by major Bollywood stars (I remember one Asha Bhonsle concert at Constitution Hall) in the DC metro area and his flyers advertising his mortgage business occupied valuable real estate on the walls and windows of our local Indian grocery stores.

Helen Thomas is back...

... among the White House press corps. Will be interesting to witness the verbal jousting between a young, cerebral president and the relentlessly inquisitive reporter who has lived a not insignificant number of years, years that Obama will only have read about in history books.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Echoes of Bobby Kennedy's 1968 Campaign

In its June 2008 issue, Vanity Fair magazine excerpted Thurston Clarke's book, The Last Campaign: Robert F. Kennedy and the 82 Days That Inspired America, about Bobby Kennedy's short-lived - but enlivening - campaign. I started reading the article many times, but could never find the time to finish it until a few days ago.

The excerpt chronicles Bobby Kennedy's internal dilemmas and his struggle to articulate why he should run for president and challenge his own party's sitting president. It brings into sharp relief the various private agonies stymying the potential candidate, his wife, his sister-in-law (Jackie Kennedy), his brother and the sundry friends close to the family. JFK's assassination is preying on their minds. They wonder aloud and privately if the same fate will befall Bobby Kennedy.

The part that resonated with me the most was the description of a nervous Kennedy starting his speech in front of a mixed crowd at KSU (some adoring, some hostile):

As Kennedy began, his voice cracked, and those near the stage noticed his hands trembling and his right leg shaking.


He told the K.S.U. students that their country was “deep in a malaise of the spirit” and suffering from “a deep crisis of confidence”—the kinds of phrases that no politician has dared utter since President Carter was pilloried for speaking of a national “crisis of confidence” during his notorious “malaise speech,” in which he never used the word “malaise.”

Kennedy opened his attack on President Johnson’s Vietnam policy with a confession and an apology. “Let me begin this discussion with a note both personal and public,” he said. “I was involved in many of the early decisions on Vietnam, decisions which helped set us on our present path.”


I am willing to bear my share of the responsibility, before history and before my fellow citizens. But past error is no excuse for its own perpetration.

Kennedy’s apology elicited the loudest cheers of the morning so far, perhaps because these students appreciated hearing an adult admit to a mistake, or because they too had once supported the war and Kennedy’s mea culpa made it easier for them to admit that they too had been wrong.

As I was reading about this campaign from 40 years ago while being fully obsessessed about the campaign this year, it was hard to escape the parallels - issues of race (much more raw in Kennedy's time, of course); the pall of a war gone bad hanging over the electorate; the inspirational campaigns run by two young, appealing senators; the reluctance of the party establishment to embrace their candidacies; the undercurrent of fear for their lives; the yearning for change that had gripped a tired population.

The photographs accompanying the article (from Bill Eppridge's A Time It Was: Bobby Kennedy in the Sixties) are a wonderful bonus. A web-only slideshow of 17 photographs is here.

Scenes of Philadelphia

National Treasure (the movie, the first one, which was shot in Philadelphia and DC) and the John Adams miniseries on HBO, based on the book by David McCullough, both turned out to be pretty popular in our house. If you have the time and inclination, the John Adams series is worth watching, not least for the acting. Paul Giamatti (as John Adams), Laura Linney (as Abigail Adams, the wife and mother of American Presidents), Stephen Dillane (as Thomas Jefferson) and Tom Wilkinson (as Ben Franklin) are brilliant.

We drove up to Philadelphia, where the idea of America took root, a couple of weekends ago. It's a pleasant enough drive up from DC. Philadelphia is a great city to live in, visit or even just drive through. It's lovely on many levels - the people are nice and friendly, the streets are made for walking, the buildings are history unto themselves, the food is great.

The city was buzzing. Both Obama and Palin happened to be campaigning or doing events during that time.

It was fun to go back, more than 16 years after I first lived there briefly, to see things I had not had the time (or the awareness of) to see and to see familiar places through C's eyes. We mostly spent the two days hanging out in the city center, walked up to the waterfront (where I'd been to a Max Roach concert many years ago with some friends; on the walk back to the apartment, they had sung the theme song from Married With Children at the top of their lungs while I looked on bemusedly - back then I had no idea what it was), saw Liberty Bell and took a tour of Independence Hall.

Liberty Bell

Independence Hall

Inside the courtyard of Independence Hall

The room in which the Continental Congress met and deliberated.

The chair is the only original item remaining from the days of the Revolutionary War

For a bit of flashback, here's a part of an essay about my first days in Philadelphia:

This past 13th marked 13 years since the day I arrived in the US - with two huge suitcases, one handbag and one really thick jacket my mom and I bought from a pavement seller in the Jayanagar 4th block shopping complex.

The suitcases contained everything I would need and all that I could call my own during my first few months in the US - rasam powder, sambar powder, molaga pudi, and assorted snacks and pickles, all of my favorite clothes plus a few new ones purchased in bouts of frenzied shopping as the d-day arrived, money orders for school, passport, I-20, and all the collective hopes, aspirations and fears of a family sending their girl off to a foreign land thousands of miles away.

My parents and brother traveled with me from Bangalore to Bombay to see me off on the Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt. It was an ungodly hour but the airport was bathed in undying light, alive, busy, buzzing with people trying to manage farewells and immigration forms and carts and unwieldy suitcases and sleepy children and bubbling emotions all at once. As I turned to wave a final goodbye, I saw the pinched, drawn faces of my parents and brother through suddenly hot, stinging eyes. The fact that I was going and going alone did not sink in until I passed immigration and faced the long, nearly-empty passage to the Lufthansa gate.


I hated Philadelphia those first few weeks.

Everything seemed starker, darker. I was alone most of the time - on the way to school, at school, while figuring out what classes to take, at the bank. The days were getting shorter and colder and all my classes were at night.

The friends I was staying with were very nice and always made sure I ate when I was home, but they had their own lives, their own personal crises and their own inside jokes (one of the girls was a big Oprah fan and the other girls used to tease her about it. The first time I heard them teasing her, I thought, wow! she must really love the opera to want to watch it on TV everyday!).

The entire post is here.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Drama and Cost of One Amateur Sport

In the heat of the presidential campaign, what with all the anecdotes and gaffes about hockey moms with lipstick, pitbulls and lipstick on pigs (it all seems so far away now), the Post ran an article about local hockey moms. It did a nice job of profiling the hockey family life - lots of practice and games in frigid temperatures accompanied by lots of travel to out-of-town games, a lifestyle not unfamiliar to any family whose children are involved in any sport. But what was surprising and somewhat shocking to me was the cost. It costs upwards of $10,000 per child per year to play amateur ice hockey. You can just imagine how easily costs can get out of control if you have more than one child in the sport (one family profiled in the article had three children on four travel teams costing $40,000).

I read that article and thanked our stars that our son was into swimming. The most expensive component of his nine-month winter swim-team program costs was his coaching fees. His team swim suit, cap, goggles, flippers and travel costs added up to less than a couple of hundred dollars. Summer league swim team, which operates for about 10 weeks, costs even less.

Or so I thought.

Late this past summer with the league competitions in full swing, as each week passed and as the Divisional Championships and the All-Star races loomed closer and closer, pool decks rumbled with murmurs of team records, league records, All-Star cuts and Aquablades. Aquablade? That was the first I'd heard of it and I heard it from an eight year-old. So I checked with the experts - the team's three 19 year-old coaches. No one can tell if it really helps, they said, but it might do something for C's confidence, especially if everyone else in his event is wearing one.

We did not promise C, who was lobbying for it hard by then, anything, but we said we'd go take a look at it. We did. It was shiny and smooth, with tiny, vertical ribs formed into the material that one would imagine would help the water glide off more easily. It was also close to a hundred dollars. We decided it was time for some carrot and stick therapy. With the Divisionals just a week or so away we came to the understanding that we would get the Aquablade if he made it to the All-Stars.

The entire swim-team experience is fun, but nothing compares to the drama of Divisionals. Divisionals is make-or-break time as far as making it to the All-Star team is concerned. No matter how well or how badly the swimmers perform during the rest of the summer league season, the time achieved at Divisionals is all that counts. During that one Saturday at the end of July, 104 teams across 17 divisions swim their hearts out. Even the youngest ones know where they stand and whether they have a shot at making All-Stars.

During the 2007 season, C and the other kids his age had no clue, but this year, it was night from day. They knew who they had to beat to win their races, they knew to figure out their seedings from the lane positions assigned to them, and the time they needed to get, down to the hundredth of a second, in order to make the cut.

They dipped into the meet sheet frequently, pestered the coach for their swim times, exchanged notes about their races and hung on the fence separating the viewing area from the pool, cheering their team-mates on in the hot sun.

Many Aquablades came out during the Divisionals. One swimmer (still in her early teens but with a better than excellent chance of making it to the US team for the 2012 Olympics) was so careful not to stretch out her Aquablade too much that she changed into it just before her race and promptly changed out of it between the two races each competitor is allowed at Divisionals.

The races across the league end around noon and it takes the rest of the day to rank the swimmers in each age group and event. The swimmers may have won their races but they have no idea how they ranked when compared to the kids in the 103 other teams that also swam that morning. The teams go back to their respective communities and prepare for the banquet later that evening. The noisy, festive evening is for recognizing volunteers, coaches, team reps, most improved swimmers and most valuable swimmers. But the most anticipated highlight of the evening is a phone call towards the end of the banquet. A league official calls each team rep with the list of swimmers in that team that made it to All-Stars.

It's pandemonium after that. A brief silence before each name is announced is followed by whistles and hoots and chants. The kids (and the coaches and parents) revel in the success of hour-long daily practices and drills over the previous 10 weeks, and the weekly races.

It was was particularly exhilarating this year because C made the cut in his favorite event - the butterfly. The next day we kept our promise and hot-footed it to the sports store and got the Aquablade. The next weekend, after another week of daily practices, he swam in his new suit and improved on his previous best time by about 1.4 seconds, which is a huge improvement no doubt, but at Divisionals he had cut down his time by about 0.9 seconds, without the Aquablade.

We lost no time in making sure he did not attribute his improved performance solely to the swim suit. We pointed to the better swimmers in the lanes next to him (he knew he did well when he had a fast swimmer in the lane next to him), we pointed to this steady improvement over the course of the previous winter and the summer, we pointed to his intense preparation in the week leading up to the All-Stars.

Later that summer, we had help from a very credible quarter. Michael Phelps, in one of his TV interviews after the Olympics, credited his success to his training and discipline rather than his new LZR racers.

Last week, however, the issue was brought a tad closer to home from the rarefied world of Olympic-level swimming. The Post carried an article about the new class warfare about to erupt in amateur swimming at the high school and college level:
The futuristic swimsuits worn last summer by nearly every competitor at the Beijing Olympics, most notably Michael Phelps, are generating an aquatic version of class warfare as college and high school swim seasons get underway.

The sleek, long-length suits, which are widely believed to enhance performance although no testing has proven it, can cost more than $500 each and have to be replaced after a few meets. Many collegiate coaches and parents of promising young swimmers don't have the budgets for the suits. But they fear their kids will be hindered without them.
The debate is whether to ban the suits at amateur competitions. The article talks about college and high school sports departments feeling the pressure to buy the $500 suits (which last only for about three races before they have to be replaced because of loss of elasticity) for their swimmers. For us, happily, it is an issue we will not have to deal with for the near future - USA Swimming (the organization that governs the sport nationally) has banned the suit at all of its events for swimmers 12 years old and younger.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Newsweek Behind the Scences of the Presidential Campaigns

Newsweek is running a seven-part report on the workings of the McCain and Obama campaigns. Reporters followed the campaigns for a year and undertook not to report on any of their findings until after the election.

Makes for compelling reading.

Accompanying videos showcase certain anecdotes and stories. The one below discusses the Palin wardrobe flap.

Eugene Allen's Story

Eugene Allen started his career at the White House working in the pantry. He witnessed eight administrations, eventually working his way up to Maitre d'. Days before the presidential election this past week, the Washington Post interviewed him and his wife for a story.

He was in the White House kitchen the day JFK was slain. He got a personal invitation to the funeral. But he volunteered for other duty: "Somebody had to be at the White House to serve everyone after they came from the funeral."


First lady Nancy Reagan came looking for him in the kitchen one day. She wanted to remind him about the upcoming dinner for West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. He told her he was well ahead in the planning and had already picked out the china. But she told him he would not be working that night.

"She said, 'You and Helene are coming to the state dinner as guests of President Reagan and myself.' I'm telling you! I believe I'm the only butler to get invited to a state dinner." Husbands and wives don't sit together at these events, and Helene was nervous about trying to make small talk with world leaders. "And my son says, 'Mama, just talk about your high school. They won't know the difference.'

Lovely story, albeit with a sad ending.

Skyline Drive, Fall 2008

Three weekends ago we drove to the Blue Ridge Mountains. The Shenandoah Valley is beautiful any time of the year, but especially breathtaking in the Fall, with the trees turning brilliant shades of yellow, red and orange. Although the colors had started turning, given what we've seen closer to home over the last couple of weekends, they had not peaked yet.

Monday, November 03, 2008

It's Midnight and It's Election Day 2008

November 4th has arrived in the East Coast and the first results have already come in!

Dixville Notch, a village in New Hampshire, has all of 21 registered voters. Around midnight they all congregate in one room in a local office and each one goes off into his booth and puts his vote down on a piece of paper, which then goes into a wooden ballot box. A few minutes later, the first official results roll in.

The village is staunchly Republican and has voted so in every presidential election but the one in 1968. Well, this year, it bucked the trend again. The votes went down this way - Obama, 15; McCain, 6; Nader, 0.

Plus, the Redskins lost their Monday night game on their home turf today. Electoral wisdom has it that if the Redskins lose their last home game before the elections, then the incumbent party is headed for a loss as well.

Will this maxim hold true in 2008 as well?