Friday, June 26, 2009

Michael Jackson and The Yearning for Normal

When I was in middle school and high school back in India, Sundays were welcomed with great anticipation for a couple of different reasons. It was the one day of the week there was no school (Saturdays were half-days); Sundays meant family get-togethers; Sundays meant free-wheeling, no-destination-in-mind trips with my dad; Sundays also meant half an hour of 'Western Music' programs on TV. Other than the annual Grammy telecasts - days late and always in the dead of the night on a Saturday - Sunday mornings were our only window into what was happening in the music world in the US and the UK.

And so we saw and heard ABBA, BoneyM, Michael Jackson, the Bee Gees, the Beatles. We had cassette tapes of these artists that we listened to on a single-speaker 'Two-in-One,' but being able to watch them on our small television screen was quite something else. When the Grammys rolled around, we were familiar with a mere one or two of the nominated artists, but who cared?

Of all the Michael Jackson songs, I only knew three of them back then - Billie Jean, Beat It!, and Thriller. I could not for the life of me figure out Thriller. I did not know why they were in a graveyard, I did not know why the man laughed that maniacal laugh in the end. I did not know all of the words to Beat It! or Billie Jean. I don't think I know them even now. But I loved the beat, the energy, the confidence, and the absolute certainty of Jackson's dance steps and actions. He knew what he was doing and it was thrilling to watch him do it so well. When I finished listening to the songs, I felt pumped up, inspired, I was amazed that someone not too much older than me was so successful.

Little did I know that the success came at a price so huge as to be incalculable. I had no clue about the backstory.

It was only when I moved to the US that I realized he had siblings, that there was something called the Jackson 5. I pieced together the story from TV specials and magazine articles. Over and over, one concept popped up repeatedly in the media coverage of Neverland, the child molestation charges, the dangling of the child through the window - his yearning for a normal childhood. Although I noticed it at the time, it did not resonate with me at all. Why would anyone want a normal childhood if he was so obviously talented and could be so successful? A normal childhood was boring. It was infinitely more exciting to be able to travel the world, to have millions of fans hanging on to your every step, to be so rich.

That was many years ago. Now, with children of my own, I have an understanding of normal and not-normal childhoods. Being a wife and mother, having lived away from my parents for a number of years and having had the opportunity to see a lot of lives up close has put my own childhood in perspective.

And yesterday, when my husband first told me that Michael Jackson was in a coma and moments later I saw on the news that he was dead, and this morning as I've been reading website after website covering his life and death and music, my mind raced back - longingly - to those days so far away in my past when my brother and I danced our crazy steps to his music, when we wondered who Billie Jean was, when we would race to lower the volume on the TV or on the music player when we heard our dad clearing his throat disapprovingly and tried to explain but failed hopelessly when our parents asked what this kind of music was all about.

As one of the commenters to this Coates essay put it, I, and a lot of others, are homesick.

Do you see the irony in this? On hearing of the death of a music icon who did not have the sort of upbringing that would have inspired feelings of homesickness in him - whose lack of a normal childhood gave millions of us the music that colored our growing years - my first thoughts were of my own childhood homes, of the various living rooms and bedrooms in which we played his music, of my parents and of my brother, of my cousins and uncles who indulged us by buying us music.

Thank you for the music and the memories, Michael. R.I.P.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Complications during VBAC and a terrible tragedy

The Mad Momma has posted Rashmi and Vivek's horrifying story of the birth and death of their second child. Attempting a vaginal birth after caeserean (VBAC), the delivery ran into complications resulting in the baby's death. It is an excruciatingly painful story, their grief amplified by what they say was the hospital's negligence and uncaring attitude.
I felt no urge whatsoever to push, yet was asked to do so. The stirrup on the delivery table kept breaking off – I was told that this is a recurring problem that “needed attention”. At 1.50 pm, the fetal heart rate dropped to 80 beats per minute. Dr. Prabha was called again. She checked the fetal heart rate on the CTG, explained that this was normal when the baby was passing through the birth canal, and asked me to hold my breath and push hard. I felt no sensation in my cervical area, but felt intense pain tearing my stomach apart. I felt like my baby had rolled into my stomach and could see its body pushing up against my ribcage. I was screaming, pointing at my stomach, and telling them that my stomach was hurting, and there was no urge to push. But she told me to “push, push harder”. I then heard Dr. Prabha saying “Get the OT ready”. She told my husband that she was going to attempt to deliver by forceps – if that was unsuccessful, she’d have to do a Caesarian.

The OT wasn’t on standby, wasn’t ready. I was numb with pain. They wanted me to get up and move to the operation table. I couldn’t move. They eventually slid something under my back and I pushed myself on to the OT table, as there was no transfer stretcher available. I complained of severe shoulder and chest pain. No one paid me any attention; everyone was busy preparing the OT, and the anesthetist was attempting to top up my epidural. The fetal heart rate was never monitored in the OT. Dr. Prabha unsuccessfully attempted a forceps delivery at 2.20 p.m., and then cut me open. I heard a deafening sucking sound, after which I must have passed out.

Later, I learnt that my uterus had ruptured along the scar of my previous Caeserian section. My baby was found floating in my abdomen. He had no heartbeat and he wasn’t breathing. He had been deprived of oxygen for a long time – 43 minutes. They “resuscitated” my son and put him on a ventilator.

When I opened my eyes I saw Dr. Latha leave, followed by Dr. Prabha. Dr. Shirley was suturing me while laughing and talking with another nurse. I felt reassured that my baby was okay, even though I had neither seen nor heard him.
After months of working with the hospital to find out exactly what when wrong, Rashmi and Vivek were met with stonewalling and assertions by the attending doctor that she would do the same thing over again in a similar case in the future. And that is exactly what Rashmi says she is looking to prevent.

Please do click the link above and read the entire post.

Wockhardt Bangalore, the hospital where Rashmi attempted to have her baby, is responding in the comments section to The Mad Momma's post. Girl on the Bridge linked to the post on her blog:
As someone who will be (hopefully) a mother soon, this story is my worst nightmare. Of course, my situation is not the same. This is my first child. What annoys me most is the hospital’s claim (Wockhardt has a long rebuttal in MM’s comments) that Rashmi chose Dr. Latha because she wanted a VBAC. This is conjecture and probably not useful to any lawyer fighting on facts but I know, I just KNOW that no matter how certain a woman is about how she wants her birth to be, no matter how much she is set on a certain type of experience she would not, would not put her child at risk.
I have said many times before on this blog that we need to be involved in the medical procedures that we go through, we need to ask questions, read on our own about the conditions and the procedures. Rashmi's story does not take away from any of that. If anything, it emphasizes the need to not only be aware of what's being done to us but also the need to be careful in choosing medical institutions and doctors.

Many times, in emergencies especially, we don't have a choice regarding what hospital we end up in or which doctor attends to us, but for the times we do, I wish there were some service that would rate the doctors on their competency and bedside manner and success in their field. I'm not saying that the tragedy that befell Rashmi and her family will never ever happen again, but it will arm people with the kind of information that I didn't have when I was getting ready to have my baby in Bangalore, the kind of information that parents-to-be come searching for to my blog (and I'm sure many others) on the backs of a google search.

I deeply admire Rashmi for what she is doing. She has lived through an experience so devastating that we would not wish it on our worst enemies and she is using her story to educate mothers-to-be. A story that, I'm sure, calls up her pain every time she recounts it, that reopens wounds that would heal faster if only they were allowed to stay closed. I do hope that her efforts result in a better experience with hospitals for anyone considering having a baby.

P.S. Thanks, Aaman, for alerting me to this story.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

In the Wake of the Iranian Elections

From .faramarz's Flikr photostream

Amazing coverage at the Daily Dish. More at Global Voices. Gripping photos on Flikr. History is happening.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Footloose Friday - VIII

When I dabbled as a disc jockey for a radio station in India, the quest to make the shows interesting was never-ending. For two hours each week I anchored shows that played an hour of English songs and an hour of Hindi songs. The third hour was devoted to listener requests, so the radio jockeys had no control over what songs would be played. I would try to mold the English and Hindi play lists around a theme - Rafi songs, or songs of the 60s, Oscar-nominated songs; or compile trivia about the songs that went on air; or make up quizzes about the songs that the audience would call in or message the answers to.

One evening as I was trying to arrive at a play list for the next day, I came across a CD in the radio station's library. Almost lost in the tightly-packed rows on the shelves was a compilation of the title songs from the James Bond movies. I had played some of those songs from the CDs of the artists that had sung them (Golden Eye from a Tina Turner CD, for example) and I had wondered why no one had ever thought of collecting all the James Bond movie songs in one place. Phew! That one CD made my prep work easy that day.

Golden Eye is hands down my favorite Bond song, followed closely by McCartney's Live and Let Die.

And then there is Carly Simon's Nobody Does It Better from The Spy Who Loved Me.

I've always enjoyed this song whenever I've listened to it and the other Carly Simon song I am familiar with, You're So Vain.

These days I just listen to her with a new ear, a new understanding and a new respect for her art.

In this heartbreaking but beautifully written personal essay in The Daily Beast titled How I Found My Voice, Simon traces the history of her struggle with stuttering. Who knew!

Here Simon describes the frist time the words got stuck in her throat:
As I tried to speak this line, a snake that had been hibernating near my oesophagus, grabbed at and strangled the beginning of each word. As the word “fair” struggled to live, the serpent constricted its passage and as if deprived of air, I balked two or three times at the ‘F’ before the word emerged ravaged and in need of oxygen.

This was the unhappy and astonishing birth of my stammer or at least my first gripping self-conscious awareness of it. My sisters and cousins, if they noticed this—and I can’t imagine they didn’t—must have been puzzled by the strange new guttural utterances. They likely imagined they were temporary and didn’t even consider to do or say anything about it. This would fade and disappear—like scratches, bruises, and babysitters.

For at least the grammar school and high-school years, there was merciless teasing, graduating by about eighth grade to a less beastly imitation and “behind the back of me” fun. In the early years, I was beaten into states of self-hatred and begging to go “home.” Home plate. Please let me go home. To my mother. I was assaulted, bruised, battered, and broken. I knew the answers in class and couldn’t raise my hand. I had to learn that the first devastating lesson was to learn to have the courage to face life.

My mother and I had the closest of times a child and mother can have. I would sit on her lap and we would practise the words. Any word. She would rock me and relax me. Sometimes a word would roll off my tongue, perfectly, passing the throat guards undetected and my mother would say: “See darling, you can do it!”
It's an amazing and humbling story of how she still struggles with speaking, but found along the way that she could sing. And so beautifully at that!

If you'd like to read the article, please do (click on the 'How I Found My Voice' link above), but come back and tell me which of the Bond songs you like best.

Related Post: My Day as a Radio Jockey.

This is the eighth post in the Footloose Friday series. The rest are here.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

One Family, Three (or Four) Languages, One Fine Legacy

Summer holidays back when we were growing up meant family get-togethers. The four of us - my parents, my brother and I - would drive down to Tamil Nadu from wherever we happened to be living to visit my father's side of the family or we would drive to Mysore where my mother's parents lived. Alternatively, family came to visit us. We moved every two years to a new town or city and visiting us was, therefore, always an adventure. And then there were the weddings and upanayanams* that had seasons of their own. Auspicious days occurring during a few months of the year meant wedding dates and dates for other rituals were crammed into those few months.

While the summer holidays, weddings and other occasions had a charm all their own and were eagerly anticipated, they were by no means the only times the families converged. Whenever we lived in the same town as my mother's or father's siblings, Sunday afternoons meant everyone would gather in one house for a massive lunch. I could never figure out how it happened, who planned it or who called everyone else, but there we were in the midst of a gaggle of aunts, uncles and cousins, chowing down food until we could eat no more, my father's deep laughter resonating around the house, my uncles backing him up with cackles of their own, my aunts picking an argument with my father just because, and whoever the host was packing dinner for the guests in steel tiffin boxes to be hauled away at the end of the visit in buttis (plastic baskets with handles).

Amidst the laughter and fake arguments and the heady aromas and family rituals and gossip that enveloped us children like a warm blanket, one curious fact at these gatherings was (and is) a great source of delight to me. At any point in time we were liable to hear any one of four languages** - English, Kannada, Telugu or Tamil - floating in the air. It was, as far as I knew, unique to our family.

Since the pieces of this puzzle were in place way before I was born, I have never known anything other than my parents speaking to each other and with us children in one language (Telugu) and with their siblings and in-laws in two separate languages (Kannada and Tamil), all generously interspersed with English. It was only when I got older and visited my friends' homes that I realized that it was not normal at all.

The explanation for how this came about is innocuous enough - my father grew up in Tamil Nadu, my mother in Karnataka. One day my mother's aunt came with a marriage proposal for my mother. That aunt and one of my father's sisters were somehow related through an earlier marriage. It has been explained to me a hundred times, but I still don't get it (the next time around, I'm sitting down with a pencil and paper when I talk to my parents about this). But because they grew up in different states speaking different languages - Kannada in my mother's case and Tamil in my father's - how would my parents speak to each other? The elders talked about it a little and came up with a solution, a lingua franca - a third different language, Telugu - one that my maternal grandmother and mother knew how to speak and one that my dad spoke with his sisters-in-law and his sisters. Although each of their versions of the language was corrupted from being secondary to their main tongues, they could manage. And so they got married.

In time, my father became fluent in Kannada and my mother learned to speak and read Tamil, but they stuck to the original plan of speaking in Telugu to each other. So family events in which both sides of the family were present looked somewhat like this:

My parents spoke to each other and to us in Telugu; my father spoke to his brothers and brothers-in-law in Tamil, to his sisters-in-law and sisters in Telugu, to my mother's siblings in Kannada, to my maternal grandmother in Telugu and to my maternal grandfather in Kannada; my mother spoke to her parents, brothers and sisters and associated in-laws in Kannada, to all of my father's family in Telugu; my maternal grandmother spoke to my mother in Telugu (but my mother unfailingly responded in Kannada), and she spoke in Kannada to the rest of her children; my maternal uncles and aunts spoke to each other in Kannada; my paternal uncles and aunts spoke to each other in Tamil, but they spoke to the sisters-in-law in Telugu; my mother's nieces and nephews spoke to her in Kannada and the ones on my father's side spoke to her in Telugu; my brother and I spoke to cousins from my father's side in Telugu and to the ones from my mother's side in Kannada.

Depending on the participants, the same conversation would be had in all three languages, with everyone following and not missing a beat, and any exclamatory statements and pronouncements would be made in English. As in, "But that is preposterous!" to sum up someone's less than desirable stance on an issue. And sermons about bad behavior or life lessons were almost always in English.

As I tried to lay out and trace this bowl-of-spaghetti lingual connections to someone I worked for years ago when I moved to the US, he wondered if all this meant my brain was wired differently from his. It is quite possible that it is, but the one abiding lesson my parents tried to drill into us was respect for languages, and by extension, cultures. My father does not hesitate to express immediate and visceral disgust for anyone who puts down a language or culture. He maintains a small pocket dairy in which he notes down unfamiliar turns of phrases or new words he comes across in magazines or newspapers (he finds a boatload of them in The Atlantic Monthly magazine every time he comes here) and takes great pleasure in using them.

And if you thought I'd had my fill of languages to last me a lifetime, my husband speaks an entirely different dialect of Kannada than I do - the North Karnataka dialect. So when I first got to know his family, I, who had grown up speaking the language and studying it in school, stared at them a few times with a blank face trying to piece together what they said and trying to make sense of it in the context.

Over the years, our different languages and dialects have been a source of fun, too. My mother-in-law or my husband try to say something in Telugu with rather hilarious results, and they look at my face in anticipation when they use a particularly obscure word in the North Karnataka dialect.

Now all I need to figure out is how we're going to pass on this treasure to our children. My son picked up Kannada during our three-year stay in Bangalore and my daughter, who thought anything that did not sound like English was, by default, Spanish (courtesy Dora), now can identify Kannada words when she hears them. I have a strong feeling that the iron is hot and this summer is the time to strike it. The kids and I have planned to set aside an hour a day to speak exclusively in Kannada during the summer. I want them to be able to converse in the languages of our families without inhibitions, and am not really particular about them being able to write or read in those languages. Although if that does happen, no one will be more delighted than me.

* I wrote about my son's Upanayanam, a thread ceremony marking the passage from boyhood to the life of a student, here.

** The Government of India recognizes 22 official Indian languages. There are hundreds of dialects of each of these languages.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Pico Iyer's Journey to Happiness

Pico Iyer, a travel writer (among other things) is someone whose writings I make it a point to read whenever I come across them. The topics he writes about are not raging controversies nor the latest hot-button issues of the day, but they do offer a unique view of the world and offer food for thought. In yesterday's New York Times, he wrote about living with less and getting wants to match with needs.
I’m not sure I knew the details of all these lives [Etty Hillesum, a Dutchwoman on the way to a Nazi death camp, Ralph Waldo Emerson and a Japanese poet Issa] when I was 29, but I did begin to guess that happiness lies less in our circumstances than in what we make of them, in every sense. “There is nothing either good or bad,” I had heard in high school, from Hamlet, “but thinking makes it so.”
Towards the end of the essay he says,
The constitution of Japan, refreshingly, says nothing about the pursuit of happiness, as if to suggest that happiness, like peace or passion, comes most when it isn’t pursued.
There is something vaguely discordant about that idea, am not sure what it is. His giving up his life in New York and seeking a life in Japan seems like the pursuit of something. And anyone giving a thought to whether they are happy or not (which is the only way you'll know you're happy) must be seeking it. And if they don't give a thought to whether they are happy or not, then more power to them and their detachment, but it is not the same as being happy. I guess what I'm trying to ask is, Can you be happy without seeking happiness?

I know this must seem like a nit picky point, but it was, perhaps, unnecessary on the author's part to ding all things American, including the Constitution, in order to make his point. I'm sure there are a lot of genuinely happy people in the Western World working and living within its value system.

Related post: What Makes You Happy?

[Update June 9, 2009: The New York Times carries reader reactions to the original Pico Iyer article, some in agreement and some in disagreement (such as, It takes a boat load of money to go off and live a simple life). Worth reading. Thanks, BPSK, for pointing me to the revision of the original article.]

[Update #2, June 9, 2009: The revision to the original article was to remove the reference to the Japanese Constitution. Thought I'd put it here in case you don't make it back to the original article or to BPSK's comment to this post. At some point during the day yesterday I got to wondering whether Japan even had a constitution given that they had emperors 'n all. NYT's note just says that the reference to the Japanese Constitution was 'incorrect' without elaborating.]

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Obama's Cairo University Speech

Andrew Sullivan carries the entire text of Obama's speech at Cairo University. Many goose-bump inducing parts, including this one:
So long as our relationship is defined by our differences, we will empower those who sow hatred rather than peace, and who promote conflict rather than the cooperation that can help all of our people achieve justice and prosperity. This cycle of suspicion and discord must end.

I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect; and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles – principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.

I do so recognizing that change cannot happen overnight. No single speech can eradicate years of mistrust, nor can I answer in the time that I have all the complex questions that brought us to this point. But I am convinced that in order to move forward, we must say openly the things we hold in our hearts, and that too often are said only behind closed doors. There must be a sustained effort to listen to each other; to learn from each other; to respect one another; and to seek common ground.
The speech is most definitely worth a read and worth sharing with our children.

Video below from YouTube:

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

The Newsweek Oprah Story: What Do Celebrities Owe Us?

Newsweek carries a scathing article in its latest edition, about Oprah and the 'bad', 'wrong', 'risky' health advice she dishes on her daily TV show:
Her viewers follow her guidance because they like and admire her, sure. But also because they believe that Oprah, with her billions and her Rolodex of experts, doesn't have to settle for second best. If she says something is good, it must be.

This is where things get tricky. Because the truth is, some of what Oprah promotes isn't good, and a lot of the advice her guests dispense on the show is just bad. The Suzanne Somers episode wasn't an oddball occurrence. This kind of thing happens again and again on Oprah. Some of the many experts who cross her stage offer interesting and useful information (props to you, Dr. Oz). Others gush nonsense. Oprah, who holds up her guests as prophets, can't seem to tell the difference. She has the power to summon the most learned authorities on any subject; who would refuse her? Instead, all too often Oprah winds up putting herself and her trusting audience in the hands of celebrity authors and pop-science artists pitching wonder cures and miracle treatments that are questionable or flat-out wrong, and sometimes dangerous.
Yes, Oprah is popular. Wildly so. Yes, she has a broad-based, ardent following for her TV show. Yes, the things she recommends on her show have the habit of flying off the shelves (or whatever the equivalent is on Amazon). But does any of this mean that she owes anything to her audience other than being honest when she says she tried such and such product or when she says she loved the book she picked for her book club?

I am not an expert on Oprah. I watch clips from her shows off and on and read her and about her in magazines and on websites. From what I've seen and read, she comes across as the person who is enthusiastic about certain things (some ideas, some products, some services) and uses her show - a vehicle and brand she created from scratch and built to dish on her view of life and its struggles - to talk about them. That a million people rush off buy the thing she mentions on the show - what exactly does it require her to do? Worry that her audience might use the information blindly without investigating it further for themselves? Should she be responsible for the actions of her audience?

This is a question I've asked before in relation to the Phelps marijuana fiasco. Just because a celebrity is good at something and they make money off of it or are popular because of it, does it mean that they should be on their best behaviour, do the right things and say the right things?

The Newsweek article places a litany of demands on Oprah's show. A sampling:
""Because of the power and influence that Oprah's show has, she should make an extra effort to be clear."" (Comment on a show about the HPV vaccine.)

"Oprah said almost nothing about possible risks." (Comment on a show about 'thread-lifting'.)

"Fanning believes Oprah should have made it clear that Thermage isn't for everyone."
Which leads me to believe that the audience has no responsibility for its own actions, that her viewers are gullible and unquestioning, that they will swallow every piece of advice that tumbles out of her mouth without assessing the pros and cons for their specific circumstances and health conditions. Is this really so? If that is the case, then Oprah and other celebrities like her are standing at the top of a very long, slippery slope. Which one of her audience members should she worry about? The ones that do not understand that medical or cosmetic procedures involve risks? The ones that do not get that medicines may have side effects? The ones that do not know enough to ask if such and such procedure is right for them? The ones that will refuse vaccinations for their children because Jenny McCarthy said so and she was on Oprah's show? Where do you start and where do you stop?

The article gives off a whiff of wanting to take the contrarian view just because. The complaints against the show appear lame and the authors and the experts they consult indulge in some heavy patronizing. The recommendations for alterations to Oprah's show (listing a procedure's side effects, introducing experts who take the opposite view on the medication being discussed, among other things) are great - if you are a C-SPAN show or a medicine ad that must follow the Federal Trade Commission rules or one of those public TV channels that no one watches. Not if you are Oprah and all you are selling is escapism in doses of an hour a day and the idea that we are all in the same boat (so what if she is super rich and super connected and super famous while most of her audience is thoroughly entrenched in the middle class?), and believe strongly in stories about wanting to be the best you can be.

So let's hang back and take Oprah's health advice with a pinch of salt. As we should. And as I'm sure she would want her audience to.

Updated June 2: Changed 'author' to 'authors' in the penultimate paragraph. The Newsweek article is credited to two writers.