Thursday, August 30, 2012

Feeling Scarcity

I have not been inside a Barnes & Noble store in a long time. There used to be a Borders close to where I live and I usually went there - mainly for the experience and nostalgic reasons - it was the first bookstore  I visited when I first came to America. I had acted like a kid in a candy store back then and some of the wonderment never quite faded. Borders was like my sugar fix without the guilt or the calories.

This is not a critique of B&N - they are doing what they have to do so they don't go the Borders way. There were some four of five titles I was interested in checking out (all related to the same subject) so I could decide which book best met my needs. My area of interest was represented in the store by one row of books in a small shelf - a dozen volumes at best. It took me a while to register the scarcity. Back when Borders was still around, I could easily get close to a hundred books on a topic, there was so much to choose from and discover - I frequently lost track of the hours I spent there. This was back when they had a local jazz band play on Friday evenings -it was a very different time. I have bought a lot of coffees at that store but usually ended up buying the books I wanted from Amazon.

It is because of shoppers like me that stores that want to be more than showrooms for books are dying out. B&N now carries a sampling platter in their store. Maybe they will be forced to reduce their brick and mortar footprint even more when most of their customers buy online and have the material delivered electronically via the Nook. The actual store is a relic from the past that  brings some traffic in and possibly creates a connection between the physical book and the reader. But it is no longer able to be the bookstore  of the past because that would be its death sentence.

Spending the hour at B&N reminded me of how I do all of my reading online - via my RSS feed.  Both online and in real life, we are being enabled to consume information in an endless stream on unrelated chunks. It offers the convenience of a fast food drive through and about as much nutritive value. The organization of the books on the shelves mimicked that choppy randomness of media online - there is no room for a languid pace, to explore and discover one thing at a great depth. B&N had covered over a hundred topics in a collection of a few hundred books stacked on those shelves. I could not tell what the criteria was for the books that made it to the shelf and what worked against those that got left behind - which was all of the titles I was looking for.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Satre's Nausea

Found a copy of Jean Paul Satre's Nausea on sale at the local library and had to pick it up. I find myself reading every word on a page. Rather than passively browsing or grazing (as I do more and more these days) - I am returning to a sentence from a later point like it would reveal new meaning this time. This 178 page volume will take a while to read.
I had completely forgotten what the "real" reading experience had been like and the quality of escape it afforded from the here and now. When younger, immersion into a book, the plot and the the lives of the characters came very easy - with age this became harder and harder to the point, I almost never found escape in fiction. 
There is passage on the narrator Antoine Roquentin, describes looking at his face in the mirror :
"Often in these lost days, I study it. I can understand nothing of this face. The faces of others have some sense, some direction. Not mine. I cannot even decide whether it is ugly or handsome. I think it is ugly because I have been told so. But it doesn't strike me. At heart, I am even shocked that anyone can attribute qualities of this kind to it, as if you could call a clod of earth or block of stone beautiful or ugly."
Can't remember the last time when I read something of that intensity.

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Real Truth

The article about Lance Armstrong and drug testing brought to mind the story of Sita's Agnipariskha in the Ramayan. The truth about a person and process of establishing it beyond reasonable has not changed that much in several thousand years. The irony of the Armstrong situation is that the "punishment" will neither condemn nor vindicate him "beyond reasonable doubt". 

The denouement leaves things in suspended animation just as they had been before. New questions will come to fill the void of the ones so dis-satisfactorily answered - experts don't agree on what Sita's Agnipariksha established or implied. The narratives on the Armstrong story are not uniform either.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Meal Planning

For months J has been asking that I vary our dinner (and lunch) menus. Both she and DB love it when I go off the beaten track and ask that I do it more often . They are enthusiastic in their praise but do not resort to flattery - so cutting corners, random substitutions are other forms of laziness in the kitchen that I am notorious for don't out work so well. 
Like all customers, they really don't know what they want and are not able to help me plan the meals. Their criteria for variation is vague at best - "you are good with mixing stuff up - just use your imagination" is the most I can get out of DB. J will ask for food from around the world that is not "blah" and "boring". Being that the specifications are clear as mud,  I am left with both meal planning and grocery list making. To that end, I have been in the market for a tool that can:
1. Pull recipes from my favorite websites (with a single click) - Epicurious and SeriousEats would be enough but being able to go elsewhere would be nice
2. Let me select the meals I want to prepare for a family of three and create a weekly grocery list
3. Allow me choose where can I buy what I need - based on a combined criteria of proximity and price
4. Tag recipes by criteria I define as important
8. Email me the shopping list and all relevant coupons
Food on the Table is a definitely step in the right direction but not entirely what I am looking for. It would be interesting to see how they improve and enhance the product. Plan to Eat is more feature rich but not something I would pay for.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Living and Failing

“It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all - in which case, you fail by default.”  ― J.K. Rowling
I was living and failing at it deeply in the days when I read J.K Rowling's first Harry Potter book.  J was with my parents in India and had at the point not seen me in months. My life was consumed in trying to settle into a stable situation so she could come live with me. Every day of uncertainty was another day that I had failed J as a mother - and yet when I picked up The Sorcerer's Stone during my daily commute, my escape from reality was complete. 
At that point, seeing a mother and child seated across from me would not cause a wrenching pain my heart. I would have been transported to the world Rowling had created. I read every book in the series that had been published at the time mainly because the escape was so profound. Until then my closest brush with fantasy genre had been Yargo and The Lost Horizon - it was not a genre I fully understood but maybe there had not been such a need to escape the here and now till then.
In the years that followed, I failed in many other ways but was always able to rebound. I learned to throw caution to the winds because my survival depended upon being able to do that.Once failure became inevitable, it was easier to breathe and live.
Recently, I asked J if she remembered about the time when she and I lived by ourselves and she was able to recall some snippets from memory - a tiny fraction of the eight years of her life. The years that I worried may leave inedible scars because I was never fully present for her. She talked about mundane and happy events for the most part - some that spoke of boredom  but none of any real sadness. Maybe it is a testament to having lived well inspite of and because of many failures.

And here are J's thoughts on the same quote

Saturday, August 11, 2012

On Color

Today J has assigned us this quote by artist Jim Hodges : Color is an intense experience on its own to write about.
Having always reacted to color quite intensely, I can attest to this even without knowing the exact context of the quote. Some colors dampen my spirits; in the most difficult phases of my life, the very colors I disliked crowded my wardrobe. I must have gravitated to things that caused me pain and sought comfort in the familiar place of sadness. In time, I got rid of those clothes and became more vigilant about keeping those colors out and bringing back more happy colors. Entering a room where white is the predominant color will almost immediately calm me down, warm earth tones make me feel at home and dark shades turn me gloomy. 
My reaction to art has almost nothing to do with color. The form, texture and what it suggests to me means a lot more. The element of cleverness or surprise acts as the hook with the colors being the background in which the story is told. It will be interesting to consider art from Hodge's perspective - color first.

And here is J's post on the same quote.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Real Age

Earlier today, I was watching Steven Colbert interview Pete Seeger. When asked about his age, Seeger said that best he knew, he was 93. That would be like my grandparents - they knew some information about the year and month they were born in. The year there was a huge tropical storm and about three months after the neighbor's oldest daughter got married. Based on those reference points, you could derive their age. I am guessing they suffered less from things like mid life crisis - it was not a specific date that triggered a rush of angst. 
It turns out that J has chosen this quote by Satchel Paige for us to write about today:  How old would you be if you didn't know how old you are?
I imagine I would be at least ten years younger in my mind. The number could recede instead of moving forward over time because my assumed year of birth could be wrong. It could be the tropical storm from a few years later was being referenced. It would be so immensely liberating to be able to say, I don't know how old I am exactly - the pressure to achieve age based milestones would all but disappear. My life would be measured relative to the age of my progeny and how well I had lived it. I may be set free from quantitative measures of success, each pegged to a certain age.
And when it was useful for me to be older than I really was, I would have the option to err in the other direction. Instead of being pinned down to my age, I would always be able to dance around it, choosing a number that I felt most comfortable with given the situation. Age would be in my imagination so I would never be out of time to reach my goals.
And here is J's take on the topic

Monday, August 06, 2012

Home Untruths

I am reading this piece by Chetan Bhagat and wondering how many ways a desi dude can come across as chauvinistic and condescending towards the very women he aims to make his case for. I have to ask myself if this a case of the road to hell being paved with good intentions or one of a man who simply lacks the ability to understand and communicate with women. He argues in favor of the non-phulka making, career woman as the better choice of life partner. To that end he proceeds to list the "enormous benefits" of having a wife with a career.
In the process he manages to be an equal opportunity offender of phulka and non-phulka brides alike. I am willing to bet it never crossed Bhagat's mind that such a classification of bride-types is a caricature of the demographic. Women are complex, nuanced creatures and how they fare in a marriage is rarely related to whether or not they have a job. What Bhagat is describing is a marriage of convenience that involves a second income. In a time when the institution of marriage is struggling so hard to remain relevant, it would be well served not to have immature and inarticulate spokesmen like Bhagat. It is encouraging to see that the readership was not too impressed.

Off topic, this also reminds me why I have not read Times of India in years.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Art and Pearl

The smell of brine
gets in my skin
The wind remembers
us driving by the
curve of water,
to where happiness
implodes into
saline foam.
The night's net is
cast into rainy moonlight.
Inspired in part by a Federico Fellini quote : 
All art is autobiographical. The pearl is the oyster's autobiography.

Saturday, August 04, 2012

That Shirt

The worst mistakes in life are those you regret in leisure. I made one of these when J was about eight. There was this cute black and white patterned shirt with an oversize hot pink bow that we both liked equally. Now, clothes shopping with J has never been a walk in the park. Her list of "cannot stands" is long enough to land  almost all clothes her size in the "reject" pile. But on rare occasions like that day with the pink bow shirt -the decision was swift and life was good.
We realized it was a little big for her but just too cute to pass so the purchase was made. She wore it next morning to go to school and I said "J, we agreed that was too big to wear right away. You need to grow into it". That morning, I had no idea how large a place that shirt would come occupy in our lives.
J has always been the master opportunist and she put her talents to work in the matter of the shirt under dispute. Anytime I was in a rush and asked her to get ready in  under five minutes, she would show up wearing that shirt - happy as a clam. She knew we would not have the time for her to change. I would express frustration, she wait for the moment to pass and we would carry on as usual.
Then in time, she started to fit into that shirt - many other clothes had been added to her wardrobe in the interim but none had been able to displace the go-to shirt which this thing had now become. I tried to hide it under a pile of other clothes so she would not find it, but it always turns up in every season paired with pants, skirts and shorts that it just did not belong with. J takes her right to wear this shirt very seriously - after all we had once agreed it was cute and she could grow into it. In J's version of the facts- this is just a very versatile shirt that works with everything and she never has to search for it - it just appears out of nowhere when she is looking for clothes.
I may win the occasional battle and get her to change into something else but J will likely prevail in the war of attrition that this is.
And here is J on the one thing that I cannot stand to lose.

Thursday, August 02, 2012


On my flight back home today, I was seated behind a young couple with a nine month old baby. She would pop her head over the seat, look at me and when I smiled at her, she would break into a magical toothless smile. We played this little game until she feel asleep. 
When she woke up, the plane had landed.  I smiled and waved at her as I walked out the door and she looked back at me without any sign of recognition. I thought to myself what a wonderful gift that was to be able forget so completely and so quickly. That baby reminded me of a quote by Sholem Asch
“Not the power to remember, but its very opposite, the power to forget, is a necessary condition for our existence.” 

And this is J's take on the value of memory.