Thank God for Good Friday

Today is a Friday, and it is a very good Friday indeed.

It has gone ten in the morning, and I’m lying lazily on the floor, playing with our new puppy. There’s no morning rush, no teeming trains, no pleading with cabbies and swallowing lungfuls of dust and grime.

I approve of this Friday. The other Fridays of the year should follow its example.

Tiger on the Blackboard

I’m rather envious of the fact that my husband has an entire blackboard to himself at work, and a replenishable box of coloured chalk. He tries to spin me the tale that these are his work accessories, but of course I drop in every now and then to check on his truth, and I find all he does with his lovely coloured chalks is draw squiggles, curves, and designs with numbers. In an effort to inspire him – and do justice to all the lovely chalks – I have begun to hide little secret marvellousnesses all over his scribbly blackboard.

In one corner, I have drawn a little flower in blue chalk, and carefully labelled it “bloo fwowurr”. In another corner, I have drawn a green leaf, and hidden beneath it is yellow letters, I have written “haloom!” (that’s “woaaarrrr!” in Bengali.)

I thought I’d cleverly slipped my scratchings by him, but last night when I went to pick him up, I saw that while the formulae and graphs on the board had changed, my little gems have been carefully preserved.

Sleeping-Tiger

Mummy, Quoth She Firmly

After some gentle cajoling, I lent pieces of my cherished young adult fiction collection to a young person in his early twenties. I like this person well enough, but he has the unfortunate desire to appear all-knowing, without the discipline of fact-checking. So often, he ends up correcting people with unverified, second-hand knowledge, and gets into egotistical fights when someone disputes him. Mostly this is amusing, but sometimes – especially when he uses his habit to denigrate people – it becomes very irksome.

Anyway, I lent him these books – most of which are by British authors – and when he stopped by to return them, I happened to be speaking to my mother on the phone. After I finished the conversation, I saw Young Person smirking at me.

“You still call your mother Mumma!” he mocked. “Don’t you know only little children do that? Once you grow up, you’re supposed to call you mother *mum*. ‘Mummy’ sounds so babyish”.

This was, of course, not an opinion he’d ever trotted out before – indeed, he refers to his own mother as “mummy”, with an emphasis on the middle “m” – but Jacqueline Wilson appeared to have changed his opinion overnight.

“Darling,” I responded gently, “she is my mother, and I shall call her whatever I bloody well please. Buh-buy now”.

There is a moral to this story, and it is this: a little learning is a dangerous thing… and don’t lend your books to snotty young people who think they’re too smart for their little-boy pants.

That Dumbass Friend

I’ve recently been reading the memoire of a woman who was kicked off her very high management position two days after being promoted, and then schemed out of a renewed offer by a former-boss who wanted to hire a relative instead, and spent two years unemployed and re-learning life’s priorities in an immigrant-rich neighbourhood.

It sounds sort of preachy when I put it like that, but Bitter is the New Black is actually quite a fun book, without actually ascending to snooty “literature”.

What I loved particularly is the very real central character Jen, who is successful, assertive, speaks her mind (unlike a LOT of white American women I know), is deeply and reciprocally in love with her boyfriend, loyal, smart; and yet nutty, occasionally silly, a bit self-confessedly selfish, condescending towards her Latino neighbours, and ridiculously consumerist in the beginning of the story. In other words, a real person! Woohoo! One doesn’t always meet such a well-rounded character even in “literature”, because our minds are too riddled with stereotypes, and living real life does very little to dispel them.

Quite pleased with Jen’s first tale – in which she, unusually and bravely, uses real names and real events from her life, sparing no one (and certainly not herself) as she charts her journey from financially immature upper-middle-class fashion-slave to unemployed, “ghettoised” and poverty-struck partner of depressed, laid-off husband – I picked up another of her books, called My Fair Lazy. And I was irritated before the first chapter was out.

Sure, Jen’s still very honest, and the book feels like a conversation over tea or drinks with a friend rather than, you know, a book (so well done, Jen!), but by switching tracks from corporate employee-turned-job hunter to stay-at-home writer, Jen has allowed reality TV to blur her edge, and turned her into the sort of attention-hijacking air-head with verbal diarrhoea that most right-thinking people would despise. Take, for example, her ridiculous grilling of her friend Angie:

…we were taking our friend Angie to see the ocean for the first time.
“I just don’t understand how someone can be our age and have never seen the ocean,” I say. I mean, I know it’s possible—the kids on Amish in the City—my second-favorite reality show ever—had never seen the ocean before, but they’d also never ridden on escalators or tasted coffee or had zippers on their pants. Plus, Angie’s not Amish.
“I grew up on a Great Lake. Ask anyone in Michigan, and they’ll tell you it’s the same thing,” Angie replies.
I can’t wrap my mind around this. “You haven’t even been to the Caribbean? Or, like, Florida? I bet you’ve been and you just don’t remember. You’ve seen it. You must have seen it.”
Angie frowns at me. “I’ve repressed my memory of the ocean?”
“Yeah.” I bob my head enthusiastically, agreeing with my own conspiracy theory.
“No.”
I persist. “But you just flew into New York yesterday. Did you not notice that big band of blue surrounding LaGuardia?”
Blackbird glances back from the driver’s seat. “Jen, that’s the Long Island Sound.”
“No,” I insist. “I’m talking about the other water around the airport.”
Blackbird raises one elegant eyebrow in the rearview mirror. “The East River? Flushing Bay?”
I deliberately switch tracks. “Angie, did you or did you not see the Statue of Liberty on your flight in?”
“I did! How cool was that? I can’t wait to tell the boys!”
“Aha! Then you saw the ocean that surrounds her!”
Poppy chimes in, “That would be the New York Bay.”
Wendy leans around Angie, who’s sitting between us in the backseat. “Jen, I thought you lived here. Shouldn’t you know this?”
“Pfft, that was thirty years ago. I’m allowed to forget. Anyway, Ange, you never felt like just packing up the family and taking everyone to the beach for a few days?” I ask [...] “it’s kind of weird to be an ocean virgin at almost forty”.

It’s almost harassment! The woman hasn’t seen an ocean. Maybe she hadn’t enough money for a trip. Maybe she’s scared of the water. Maybe she was bitten by a mermaid once. If you’re allowed to forget your basic geography, she’s allowed to choose her relaxations. Let the damn thing go!

I actually know people like this, and they’re intolerable to converse with precisely because of their obsessive grilling of things different from their own lives or preferences. Jen at least understands that there is a problem with her. “I just don’t want to give strangers the impression that I’m a dumb ass,” she says, “I don’t want to make them feel all uncomfortable when I spout a bunch of thoughtless commentary”. The friend who harassed me for two successive days about an off-hand comment praising pickled bamboo-shoots hasn’t reached this level of self-awareness yet. She thinks she’s entitled to a detailed explanation of why people might like things she despises or considers odd. Such explanations, she once told me, “has to be” riddled with logical fallacies – because one’s preference for pickled bamboo shoots totally depends on rationality – and if the grilling’s long, hard and persistent enough, the person will retract their preference, and her point of view will reign supreme.

Can you say “Issues”? Yes, I think you can.

So, in conclusion, the point of this post is that Jen Lancaster writes some very life-like female characters. Being life-like, they’re not always sympathetic and awesome, and there’s a good chance you know the sort of people she describes, but life usually being a bitch, there’s also a fair chance that they won’t be as self-aware or open to change as she is. Too bad, so sad.

The Best Our Service Industry Has to Offer?

This is my review of the Best Buy at Park Drive, Boston, where I had the most amusing (in retrospect) corporate shopping experience. This was posted as a review on Yelp, where I rated the shop ONE STAR.

*****

What an absolute bloody waste of space.

If you must shop at a Best Buy and are averse to ordering online, drive a little and go to the one in Kendall Square (I haven’t been to the one down Newbury St., so can’t vouch for it).

Usually, I always do my research online and call ahead for a store pick-up, because who has the time these days to actually *shop* around in a store, especially at a place that charges you for parking more than 10 minutes? But sometimes not all questions are answered by online research, and isn’t that what shop assistants are for? Apparently not.

Today, I called ahead to make sure they kept a monitor of a specific make aside for me to pick up in thirty minutes. It took me 22 minutes on the phone to do that, of which 2 minutes were spent talking to a human voice, and the remaining 20 to a recorded message.

When I showed up at the store, it took three people – including the cashier – about fifteen minutes to locate the box, which turned out to have been kept right under the cashier’s computer-desk.

While the search for my monitor was on, I stepped into the computer section to check out netbooks, which against my better judgement I’m considering buying. I had a question, but there was no one around to ask it to. After lounging about for nearly ten minutes, I see a chap wearing a name-tag. He, however, says he knows nothing about computers and goes to get another chap in a name-tag.

On being approached by his colleague, the second fellow loudly demands, “What the hell is HER problem, man?” When the first fellow shrugs and points at me, Name Tag 2 saunters over, still talking into his bluetooth phonepiece. Talking and chewing gum, he waves his hand in front of my face, as if to ask what my ‘problem’ is.

“Is there an alternative way to reinstall the OS on this one, since it doesn’t come with a disc drive and I don’t want an external one?” I ask, pointing at an Asus netbook. I was trying to see if the store provided an XP equivalent of Windows 7 USB installer.

The dude stares blankly at my face. Then, he says, “Yeah, I TOLD you I’ll be over for dinner, I’ll just be late, okay? We have like ten thousand people just walking in and we have to deal with them, all right? I have a fucking job here!” Then he looks at me and says, “Sorry, what did you say?” Before I can open my mouth he says, presumably to the person on the phone, “Not you. I’m talking to someone here at work, okay? Just give me a minute here!”

At which point I grit my teeth and ask if he would mind being with just one conversation at a time, preferably mine. He says, “I’m fine with both conversations at the same time. If you have a problem with that, get someone else”. And walks off.

What an unprofessional little bitch. And the store is teeming with them. One word: avoid. Unless of course you want to delude yourself into thinking, like Yelper Zack B. on this thread, that Best Buy is the electronic equivalent of Family Dollar Store, and that somehow, a customer who is guilty of actually taking opportunities retail outlets are throwing at him/her deserves to be treated like rubbish for this grave sin. “Goodness, buying at a sale? I fart in your general direction!”

Obviously, if we don’t respect ourselves, sloppy out-of-high school shop assistants aren’t going to bother.

Miss Miffed

When I was in school and college, I looked older than I was, and this served me well, because it perfectly complemented the sternness that lurks just beneath my dimples. Now, however, in my Bombay coastal outfit of shorts and floral skirts with tees, shorter hair and sandals, I find I’m taken for practically a child, and irritatingly often. Just last night, a couple of campus security-men told me off for trying to scale a low building, and told me to be off to my dorm or they’d talk to my department. I tried to quell them with a stern detached glare, but they just shooed me on with windmill arms. Most miffed.

This Language Bug

Written during my initial months in the USA. Things have only worsened since.

I have recently encountered the thesis – from a very well-read and socially-aware person – that language is an apolitical thing that has no connotations beyond communications. “Language is just something people use to get ideas across, and I really don’t understand people can politicse something like language”, he complained. I’m always charmed by such naïveté, so I paid for his latte.

I realise I’m obsessed with local forms of languages – in particular of English – and quite frankly I didn’t spare it a thought earlier, but I’m beginning to think this obsession is becoming a superobsession and slowly taking over my life. First of all, I notice differences between American and Rest-of-the-world English that international students living here for ages didn’t notice, and on occasion that they did, ceased to notice them almost immediately. Example: laying (US) and lying (r-o-t-w). Second, given that I can’t forget one system and adapt to another completely, these days I feel slightly queasy when I look at a sentence about healthful foods on colorful plates, and ALSO a sentence about healthy food on colourful plates. When I look at “outside of” and “visited with” and so on, I’m definitely bothered by the unnecessary (to me) prepositions. But then, when I read a book with a marked absence of the superfluous prepositions, there’s this nagging feeling that there’s something important missing. And the worst are the new spellings that haven’t been concretised yet, or older people (professors and old American texts) which use some r-o-t-w spellings. ‘Glamour’ persisted for a while, and Margaret Meade used ‘labour’, while members of faculty email us saying they’ll be ‘travelling’ and are therefore ‘cancelling’ a meeting. Students, on the other hand, write in to say they are affraid they cannot make a deadline because they have a young proffessionals’ meeting off campus.

It’s all rather confusing. And the automatic comparison feature inside my head is driving me a little insane, I think.

And all this came upon me as an epiphany while I was reading Steig Larsson’s Millenium trilogy (in succession). The translation was done in the UK, or so it appeared anyway, from the verbs spelt [another verb-form absent in the US. They have no truck--mostly--with the 't' ending] with an ‘s’ to ‘programmes’, ‘labour’, ‘colour’, the usual deal. And then, suddenly, amongst the many hundred pages, one word jumps out at me. Math. Yeah, that’s right. Math, not maths. And I knew in an instant, in a bleeding instant, that the chap translating was American. In a few decades American English will become the lingua-franca and we shall be the tiny minority that giggles at mentions of ‘fanny pack‘ while the majority adjusts them to their belts, but mathematics is still shortened with an ‘s’ in most parts of the world that hasn’t made the star spangled switch yet (ninety percent of Indian internet users, I’m obviously not talking about you). And while I’d been putting off getting a bite to eat and going to the loo for the past hour because the book was riveting and my bed warm and cuddly, I immediately hopped off it and went to look up the translator online. The link above was the result. He was American. Elementary, my dear reader.

At the end of the day, though, I have to admit: there’s an interest in languages, and then there’s unhealthy scab-picking obsessive behaviour. Clearly I lack the wisdom to know the difference. Or the tantric arts to reprogramme my brain.

Girly Power in Book Week Scotland 2013 Quiz

This quiz has been doing the rounds on my social media circles the last few days – a book personality test released for Book Week Scotland, 2013 (take it here). The root may or may not be true – I’ve learnt not to trust much of what circulates via a quick “like” or “share” – but hell, it’s a booklovers’ quiz, so I thought I’d take it anyway. And hey! Look! A bot with simple checkbox algorithm thinks I am Aragorn! Whoopee-dee!

With your decisive and fast-paced approach, you are an asset to any team or rabble of hobbits. Your personality is quite unique with your rare blend of self-drive, assertiveness, confidence and competitiveness.

Like Aragorn, your ability to see the big picture and strategise while directing and motivating others make you a natural leader even if you don’t feel ready for it. At your worst you may judge others harshly and not consider the emotional impact of your decisions, but your slighted followers will soon feel inspired again by your actions.

Queue up to the left, buddy. I’m recruiting an army! And then we’ll go on an adventure!

Here’s the interesting thing though. I only got Aragon because I am a canny little liar, and chose “male” as my gender at the beginning of the quiz. Because I knew, just knew, that a personality matching quiz which asks for your gender (and limits it to two choices) is going to sort your results by it. Which is to say, you’re not going to get the fictional character you’re superficially closest to, but the one you’re superficially closest to that matches your gender. And that which exists in their Anglo-centric archive, of course. And I was right, for when I took the test as a female person, my result was Batgirl. No just a lot less sword-swinging cool than Aragorn, but also less definitive, as is the fate of many side-kicks (and some heroes, like the Green Lantern) in the comicverse.

I mean, look at her arc. First, she’s Betty Kane, aspiring to be all wannabe crime-fighter, the better to snare herself Robin while Aunty Kathy ensnares Batman with the “similar interests” hook. In her next avatar, Batgirl is Miss Gordon, Commissioner Gordon’s daughter Barbara. This is a more “empowered” version of the character – she stands up to an authoritarian Batman when he tells her to quit ’cause she’s a girl – but is still essentially his female version. In real life, she has a PhD in library science – the lords pinch me awake – and after a successful stint at an enormous and prestigious library, moves onto the House of Reps. Quite the achievement, but declined decidedly male, especially in the US. And then in Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, she’s shot in the spine and becomes wheelchair-bound. Good work that, Alan, Mr. Anti-establishmentMoore. The token powerful chick gets it first. How very revolutionary and anti status quo.

Also, look at the language that the Scotland Book Week people, who doubtless love Batgirl and mean well, use to describe her. In contrast to Aragorn, who may have leadership thrust upon him even if he feels unready, because he is such a charismatic visionary, Batgirl is a natural leader because of her “competitive nature and fast-paced, decisive approach” which “programmed [her] to excel and succeed”. Somehow, that’s a lot less endearing – and humane – than a charismatic team-player who becomes leader by popular choice. He is solid stuff, while her words have the feel of a pushy, ruthless automaton. And they’re both fine things to be, except it’s sort or irksome to be made to feel so different about the exact same qualities with a tiny switch of gender. And that’s not even counting the cincher, which goes: “Friends and colleagues may find you over-bearing and aggressive. You’re programmed to excel and succeed and may ignore the emotional impact of your decisions. However, you’re Batgirl – enough said”. No fluff about slighted followers being re-inspired by her actions. It’s all take it or leave it, her way or the highway, cry in your own time you little wimp, bang bang!.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that this narrative of a successful female person – be she a politician or a librarian with a doctorate – is really a patriarchal appropriation of female empowerment simply because it feels like a man has simply been taken out of the story and a woman inserted in it… a slightly dehumanised and unlikable woman, because the people putting her in the story were not quite sure how to depict power and success in a female. Well, I suppose I am suggesting that. But what I’m suggesting more than that is that canon being as patriarchal as it is, and our current paradigms of behaviour being a little less gendered than that, perhaps a forward-thinking school of bibliophiles shouldn’t predicate their fun little personality tests on gender, and if they absolutely must, include a little footnote that says “Sorry the female characters are generally a lot less bitchin’ than the male. History made it that way… but we’re working on changing it!”

As Arthur Dent discovered all those years back, or forward, it does a body good to be said sorry to, even when said body has been dipped in a sodding mess, and left marinating there.

Plus, and this one’s for readers and writers both – folks who each hold up half the bookworld sky – it would be nice if awesomeness in fiction came packaged female too, and queer and trans and in some way disabled, instead of almost uniformly heterosexual majority-male. It might help people decide who they are like, or more importantly, who they’d like to be, based on the actual personalities, and not a little gender matchy-matchy. Of course, a girl might wish to emulate her fictional make hero’s distance-pissing skills and fail miserably for lack of appropriate appendage, but the point is that she at least try, and not be discouraged from such attempts by the idea of a lack. It shouldn’t be hard. After all, people like me abound – female and minority and abuse-survivor and mentally a little dented. I’ve met tonnes of them, and plenty other sorts besides. But alas, we seem to have passed most published authors completely by, for books about us are still the sub-genres, never the canonised mainstream.

Which is not to say boy-books are bad. Boy-books are great! I grew up on boy tales, although mostly because there were very few girl tales, or all-of-us-in-it-together tales, and it was wonderful to read about the exploits of interesting and quirky male central characters, weak and strong. Partly because I people like that in real life. I could totally relate. But all around me I also saw interesting women and girls, and occasionally the “different” boys and “different” girls, and yet they were nowhere to be seen in the books and comics and shows I had my head perpetually in.

And this was a problem, because it sort of warped my sense of reality for a bit. Never seeing these people acknowledged in books and television, or hearing their “oddities” talked about, I began to believe that they must be a little bit made up. Especially those bits that didn’t fit. This was ignorant and sad, but also sort of inevitable. After all, I encountered television and my books every day. I didn’t encounter difference all that often. Indeed, while I thought of my temporary lack of curiosity unfortunate, I realise now that there was a much more dangerous undercurrent to most of social encounters with difference. For those clearly at a disadvantage, such as the physically challenged, there was merely some malicious teasing, and some casual pity. For others, though, especially the gender queer and “uppity women”, there was a sentiment that the desire to be deliberately different shows disruptive intent, and disruptive intent must be quelled. For the greater good.

Let us take a minute to reflect upon where such sentiments might lead.

So, in conclusion, and returning to the matter of an otherwise inconsequential little quiz at hand, let us quickly summarise why the most ordinary and harmless things get my goat every now and then. One, because they’re indexes for a society so resistant to change that in its production of culture, it remains stubbornly, hysterically stereotypical, and blind to a diverse reality. That sort of thing gives people ideas, you know, because versions of reality in productions of culture are so much more attractive than the messy, non-conformist, discomfiting really-real world. And those sorts of ideas running about unchecked can produce the kind of ideas-blitz that leave ALL of us knee-deep in things a lot less abstract. It’s not pleasant. And two: as sensible (and rare) as a desire to have universally clean knees is, inclusionary cultural production shouldn’t stem from just that. It should stem from a genuine desire to be nice to people. I’m quite the snarling hell-hound sometimes you know, when I’m provoked and such, but generally, I absolutely thrive in being lovely and helpful, because it makes people relax and be sweet and helpful back, and where’d we be without self-affirmation and sunny good cheer in these days of poverty, drudgery and being tossed to the wolves? Dosed-up and gritty-teeth and road-ragey, that’s where. So the next time you see a person you want to instinctively smile politely and move on from, perhaps try a social contact? A little warmth and friendship? And then when you’ve known hir well enough, write a book about their special view of the world. It’s very likely you’ll make dozens of people clasp it to their chest and say, “Damn, that person’s just like me… finally!”

A Snapshot of Being Drunk

It’s as dull as dull can be. This was my Facebook post one night, when I thought I was in sparkly pink pussycat land.

.

“The easiest way to getting a buzz, when life seems funnier, and food seems more awesome, and jokes just bleeding out of this world, is to mix whatever drops of you have at home. For instance, right now, my insides are pickled in whiskey, vodka, and a some lager. And man, do I feel like I have balcony seats to you poor sods living your life. Hahahaha. Living your life. So funny. (Forgive my drunkenness.)”
My good friends of Facebook marshalled their wits and commented thus (set yourself up for disappointment):
.
SG – Drink plenty of water.
Me – SG, never patronise a drunk person. <Golumn voice> Be verrrry carefullll of themmm.
SG – …mixed with more whiskey and vodka.
RS – You only live once in this lifetime. Life’s short. Souls live on but forget drunkenness. So treat this particular part of the journey of your soul.
PM – Apparently cupcakes and beer like each other.
SK – ‘Sorry my life is so much more bitchin’ than yours. I planned it this way.’
Well, so far so woozy. Till the next morning hit.

.

“Aaaaand this morning, I’m sort of disappointed that my “drunk status” last night was so very coherent. In other news, I am throwing up even water, delicately caressing my poor scratchy throat, and the partner is regaling me with stories of what I did just before passing out (it is a favour we do each other).”
.
LCS: Always have paracetamol before drinking.
DG: I wrote a drunk status last night, too; very coherent. Fortunately, it didn’t get posted because of my choppy mobile connection.
AP: can you get hold of something called Alka Seltzer? It’s the miracle cure.
HG: Or, you know, we can avoid mixing vodka and whiskey?!
.
Thus endeth my little frolicks with a litre of whiskey and friends. I think it’s time I returned to the good-girl land of four drinks and no more. If even that much alcohol can’t make me do cartwheels in a tutu, why kill my liver trying?

A Return to Art

First, there was a man.

Then, there was love.

Then there was a deep craving for Calvin and Hobbes posters.

Then there was a besotted and resourceful beloved, who took out her ancient brushes and paint, unused for fifteen years, and made him the posters.

And now, she finds she dreams of compositions and colours, and her fingers twitch to put pain to paper.

Never do anyone a good turn, is my advice to you. It will always return to bite you in your generous derrière ;-) ;-) ;-)

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