Karma

As a Hindu and as a younger person, I did not quite believe in (or understand) karma. Perhaps this was because of the simplistic way in which people discussed it–similar to the way many religious concepts are discussed in one-dimensional, black-and-white ways–and because of my belief in the goodness of human nature. Karma did not make sense to me. Interestingly, though, all religions seem to have a sense of consciousness that is structural, be it karma, sin, Judgment Day, the afterlife, etcetera: all psychological mechanisms that encourage individuals to think beyond one’s daily actions and individual desires. With Hindu karma, naturally, there is the idea of reincarnation and rebirth into higher forms or castes until one attains moksha, or divine liberation. As someone who has really struggled with the idea of caste and who follows a branch of Hinduism that is against this and welcoming to all castes, I felt deeply upset and frightened by this aspect of my religion.

However, through my mid-adult years and the recent past, I began to think more deeply about this, and start to see how life had a way of evening out circumstances and situations for people. I came to realize that karma was not something silly and tit-for-tat, such as you will have bad karma if you skip mass and watch the Super Bowl, are working on a paper on the Sabbath, or are a Hindu who eats beef once in a while (as some of my friends do, though I’m a vegetarian.) Karma was something more about life balancing things out, and a couple years ago I came upon a quote by leading North American teacher and nun Pema Chödrön (formerly of the Shambala tradition) that made everything so clear, was a major insight:

            People get into a heavy-duty sin and guilt trip, feeling that if things are going wrong, that means that they did something bad and they are being punished. That’s not the idea at all. The idea of karma is that you continually get the teachings that you need to open your heart. To the degree that you didn’t understand in the past how to stop protecting your soft spot, how to stop armoring your heart, you’re given this gift of teachings in the form of your life, to give you everything you need to open further.

And suddenly, it all made sense, it was so beautifully put. I began to reflect on my own life and that of people I knew, to see how the trajectories of their lives played out in a spiritual sense, what lessons they had been given. This was something that one could only see in middle age, after people have gone through life’s ups and downs. Just as in all religions there are simplistic ways of interpreting complex concepts, karma was no exception. 

The girl for whom everything came easily in school and in life ended up in a profession where she has had to seek out all her opportunities. The young woman who faced a lot of financial struggle with her boyfriend (who became husband) in their early years together ended up getting a nice home in an expensive area of America when her mother inherited money back in her home country. The man who grew up moving very often due to his father’s career became a very open-minded global citizen with a career around the world and developed tremendous resilience, something unusual for people in his country, who tend to stay close to home. The couple who did not nurture friendships and social connections when younger have ended up isolated in old age, and have been forced to learn how to connect during the pandemic. The young woman who suffered many unexpected setbacks and traumas in her 20s, 30s, and early 40s is enjoying calm and prosperity in her late 40s. The man who died at age 42 had fortunately lived a very full life, having grown up in a stable family, studied at Ivy League schools, traveled around the world, and had a successful career. The woman who has jumped from job to job to find the “next best thing,” relationship to relationship, place to place, and wants everything easy has found herself alone and unfulfilled. The struggling single mom who moved alone cross country for an academic job ended up becoming a professor at a top university who is nationally renowned in her field and getting acclaim even in her advanced years. 

Without knowing the stories behind these individuals, this could all potentially read as simplistic. However, in knowing these people, and their life stories, one can see a sense of balancing out, be it challenging lessons they have had to learn, or unexpectedly wonderful turns in their lives. Karma, as per Pema Chödrön’s definition, has been a great teacher for all of these people; perhaps they could not have seen or predicted what would happen. Many of them may not be aware of the karmic lessons they have undergone, or still need to undergo. It is still an evolving process for the above people and for everyone. Some may have a heavier spiritual load than others, and this is not an easy thing to bear. If we see karma as a teacher and a practice of opening and of love, this makes dealing with life easier. We are indeed spiritual beings, and life is our greatest teacher if we let it be so. 

Ballet: A Brief Reflection

In the past few days, I have found myself watching documentaries on famous dancers: Twyla Tharp, Rudolph Nuriyev, George Balanchine, and reading about them as well. In these documentaries, other great dancers have been featured, such as the stunning Suzanne Farrell and the fantastically athletic trailblazer Misty Copeland. What is it that makes ballet have such appeal, centuries later after its roots in Italy, then France and Russia?

With ballet, we have beautiful lines in two ways. We have those classical lines with the body, and then the lines in which dancers are stood and arranged. Everything is elongated: fingertips are extended, the wrist line is never broken, and for those dancers talented enough to go on pointe, their legs are lengthened in a beautiful but very painful and unnatural way. Compared to modern dance, there is always a fluidity of movement in the limbs, as though one is moving through water, supported by some unknown force.

And then there is the legwork. The best dancers jump and seem to be floating through air, even extending their jumps with an extra beat that seems unhumanly possible. The power that it takes to launch a movement and the set up are quite amazing: watch how Nuriyev pauses for a moment before launching into a cycle of pirouettes. The legs can move the dancer slowly, or quickly, or alternate several times in the air depending on the demands of the choreography. All of this is based on years, decades, of devoted practice with pliés, ronds de jambes, and turnouts (I remember as a child watching an interview with Gelsey Kirkland and how she was able to turn her feet out at a more than 90° angle!)

Great choreography unites movement and music, and Balanchine was a master of this. For those of us who are very auditory and kinesthetic, there is something deeply fulfilling when we are spectators of ballet, for it feels like a very natural reflex to move in a certain way with a certain sound. The floating, sensual music by Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, and other classical composers is often what we expect, but even ballets set to modern music, such as by John Adams or Copeland–or even rock–are no less enjoyable.

The arrangement of dancers on a stage also creates very moving effects for the viewers. Whether it’s a solo, a pas de deux, or the whole corps de ballet, it is sheer fun to watch many people move in a particular way with repeated motions and shapes. This cascade of dancers and how they use their space is a delight that requires many resources, not the least of which is a sizable stage and sets that create an atmosphere in which these ballerinas dance.

And of course, one cannot neglect mentioning the costumes. The fabric is for movement–something that is unique to dance clothing. It is not enough for a costume to look nice when the individual is still; it has to create a certain effect when one dances and is in motion, when one leaps, turns, jumps, etc. (I admire fashion designers who create clothes that do this even for non-dancers, when one can put on a skirt or dress and see how the fabric is not still but takes on a life of its own.) Naturally, dance clothing has more stage appeal than ordinary wear, with glitter, satin, sparkles, and anything that catches the viewer’s eye from hundreds of feet away. The torso is usually slim-fitted, the arms bare or covered snugly, with the lower half of the body draped or fitted with a skirt that gives an illusion of floating or the tutu that is puffed out. With men, the costumes are usually completely fitted, even when there are pants.

Notice the different adjectives I have used throughout this post: beautiful, classical, elongated, sensual, etc. This is the illusion of ballet, which in reality is a very physically torturous, unnatural artform that makes many demands on the dancers’ bodies and psyches. There is often a very heavy price to pay. Misty Copeland has raised huge questions about race in the ballet world, and other non-white dancers have led the debate about what “flesh tone” means in terms of leotards and shoes. One cannot neglect these issues. However, there is something still so magnificently appealing about this ages-old art form which continues to captivate us. And if you’ve never been to the ballet, start with some videos of the legendary Mikhail Baryshnikov or (when things are safer with the pandemic) a trip to your local ballet company to watch the annual Nutcracker production. The combination of Tchaikovsky and the parade of dances by different characters cannot fail to entertain you!

Beyond the Ivory Tower: The Need for Public Intellectuals in American Society

It is a well-established fact that American academia is a much-renowned and much sought-after institution, that millions of people around the world respect the colleges and universities in the United States. This is not to disregard all the prestigious institutions of higher learning elsewhere in the world, who have much longer histories and traditions and sometimes more scholarly resources than we do here in the United States. To name a few: Oxford, Cambridge, Salamanca, Bologna, etc., not to mention ancient universities or centers of higher learning such as Nalanda in India. Numerous cultures and countries have customs of fostering scholars that are linked to their religions, or artistic and scholarly traditions that are embedded in the culture–think of poetry and song in Ireland, or the intricately woven cloths of Western Africa that bear great social significance. America has, fortunately, been able to draw upon the best scholars and scholarship from around the world, either by sending her own citizens overseas, or by providing a refuge/safe haven/chance for international scholars to pursue their work here. Consider a classics scholar from Korea who studies Greco-Roman religions but who has so little resources at her disposal in her home country. Or figures like Russian poet Joseph Brodsky or writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who were exiles living in the U.S.

This is all fine and well, and remarkable. But it does leave us with one problem–how do we get a transmission of brilliant minds OUTSIDE of academia? Naturally, this is not just pertinent to America, for the same dilemma between town and gown exists everywhere. Here, however, it is extremely pronounced, given our short history as a country and our excessive dependence on media and pop culture. Who are the people who can bridge the yawning gap? Where are they?

The institution of the personage of the Public Intellectual was something I only encountered in my new 20s while in graduate school. I read an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education about this that sparked my curiosity deeply. I began to wonder why I felt frustrated with the highly research- and citation-oriented writing I had to do, and yet I knew I wanted to write at a high level. The opinion papers I did during my master’s program in Higher Education Administration at Columbia were the beginning of my practice of writing on social issues, something which eventually led to the creation of this blog. I discovered writers like Camille Paglia who were academics, but able to appeal to the public and discuss things in an appealing, intelligent way. Before I knew about all of his horrible transgressions, I was a huge fan of Charlie Rose, and how he brought the best minds in all fields, be it politics or rock music, to his program. Living in New York showed me that a conversation between Noam Chomsky and Edward Said could elicit crowds usually seen at giant venues for pop singers, and that intelligent dialogue in public was highly valued.

This is hard to find through much of the US, though it does exist, in some cities more than others, and in other pockets. Usually this can be found in college towns, unsurprisingly, and many public libraries have excellent programming. There are cultural centers of all sorts, for all ethnicities. But sadly, we still have a dichotomy between popular media that tends to be more entertainment-oriented in a very lowest common denominator manner, or academia, which tends to be very arcane and esoteric (a lecture on ancient burial sites in South India, anyone?) One can only ask why we have an aversion to intelligent discussion in public.

Part of it is our highly-partisan culture, where anything intelligent automatically is associated with anyone or anything liberal. Though I am very much a liberal, I do feel that the right wing has devolved and needs to show itself in its best light with intelligent proponents, and therefore we can hold discussions between the right and the left. By ethos, we are a middle-class culture; there is nothing wrong with that, and a majority of the Americans fall within the socioeconomic bracket. However, sadly, this translates to a lack of intellectualism or appreciation for culture. Anything middlebrow is the norm. Also, Hollywood and the entertainment media focus on what has mass appeal, and an intelligent film is not going to bring in the dollars in the same way a franchise superhero movie would. We are also monolingual, so we cannot appreciate film and literature from other countries, or even from the non-English linguistic groups within our own. And one cannot help ignore the huge impact social media has had on our society: I would argue this has largely dumbed down our culture, when it could potentially have had a positive effect on making the arts more prominent. It’s easier to click on a website then it is to pick up a book and spend time with it.

There are still many more factors than what I have listed here, and this is not to knock pop-culture or enjoying a dumb sitcom or a rom-com when we need it. Rather, it is to ask why intellectualism has to be limited to the sphere of academia and New York City, and why this is not more appreciated in American society.

Thoughts on Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend/Neapolitan Novels

(WARNING: SPOILER ALERT!)

I am currently reading the second novel in Italian author Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Tetralogy, called The Story of a New Name. Last summer I finally read My Brilliant Friend, and after reading it I immediately purchased the subsequent three volumes. Being a writer and an Italophile, it’s natural that I would be interested in these books and the epic journey it takes us on. I have always longed to see Naples ever since I was a little girl, so the setting is part of the appeal. The Bildungsroman journey of the narrator who is not from a well-to-do family but intelligent and self-made also resonated with me. It is always refreshing to read things about friendship, for sometimes in our formulaically-oversexed arts culture, this theme is neglected. In an earlier post I had discussed my qualms with the Bechdel test and why it had to be either-or with women only talking about men or subjects other than men. My Brilliant Friend (this name is often used to refer to the entire series) is fascinating in that a wide variety of topics are explored by the narrator Elena/Lenù and with her best friend Lina/Lila: boys, of course, money, image, power, sexism, philosophers, neighborhood dynamics, the Mafia (largely indirectly and through a child’s eyes), sex, infidelity, and so much more. It is a compelling story, and that is what keeps me reading, though I have some criticisms as to the craft, as below.

The time span is also noteworthy, for the storyline begins in childhood and progresses through adulthood, when Lina has disappeared. There is an intelligence behind the novels that is refreshing: it’s not only about girls and their friendships and boys in school, but about larger themes of class, education, gender roles, history and politics, and social issues. Yet these never hit the reader over the head; rather, they are present and implied, and wise readers can pick up on these things. Also, there is a very subtle but profound theme running through the novels about the co-protagonist Lina–she is always associated with darkness, things that are bad, evil, deathly, even diabolical. Observe the scenes were something very bad happens: they always have to do with Lina. She and Elena are counterparts, the former providing the darkness and shadow to the light of the latter, even in terms of their physical appearances.

Ferrante (whoever she is, as the mystery still shrouds her, though the favored hypotheses seem to be translator Anita Raja or her husband Domenico Starnone) also gives us interesting surprises with the plot. The most recent one I read was in The Story of a New Name, where the buildup has the reader expecting to see or hear about the much-forbidden sex scene between the married Lina and Nino Sarratore, but instead, she pulls the ultimate switch on us and instead we see Elena having sex with Nino’s father Donato! Notice the themes of family members and infidelity: the married Lina is having an affair with Nino, while the teenaged Elena has spontaneous sex with the married Donato, the father of Nino. This crossed pairing is really quite ingenious from a literary point of view, and shows how much they are intertwined, yet counterparts and opposites.

Earlier in the novel, when there is much pressure for Lina to approve of her photographs being used in the shoe store, she finally agrees, but then “destroys” the image by covering it with shreds of dark paper. She is horribly beaten on her honeymoon, and yet she chooses not to leave her husband. Readers might argue that this is the convention of the era and she has no choice, but Lina is so strong-willed that she would do anything, societal conventions be damned, as she does when she begins an affair with Nino and becomes pregnant by him. In the first novel, she chooses not to study but to become the rich, well-dressed wife of a grocer whom she doesn’t particularly seem to love, marrying at just 16. Ferrante raises the question of agency that these teenage girls/young women have during this era, and how they are finding the freedoms they can have within their society, and then also creating their freedoms as well.

In writing this, I see the strengths of the novels that I haven’t always seen when I am reading them. This brings me to my criticisms of the tetralogy. The books should have been probably edited down to at least two-thirds if not half of their lengths. There is simply too much detail, unnecessary detail, and not necessarily the details we want. Some sections and passages are too long–what happens at the grocery store, each little minute, blow-by-blow report of the characters–whereas others are too short: Elena’s experiences in tutoring wealthy students, what really happens at school, the tensions with her own family as she goes on for further education, and her first year at university. Ferrante sometimes rushes through these important periods by summing up everything in a paragraph or two of exposition; her choices for scene versus exposition are not always in balance.

Another major criticism I have is that, especially in the second novel, the narration is so heavily focused on the narrator in the first person that the narrative distance is almost always to close. We are not able to step back and see the bigger picture, everything is filtered through Elena’s eyes, and there is not much dialogue, so we have to put a lot of trust in her that she is a reliable narrator. Therefore, there is too much tell and not enough show; everything is reported through Elena’s eyes and this does not allow us to decide things for ourselves. As a result, sometimes the novel becomes very plodding in its tone–yet another round of someone did something to someone and Elena watched it and is telling us. Yes, it is true that the novel is primarily about the friendship between Elena and Lina, but it is like putting a camera on two characters on close up during an entire film and rarely zooming out or giving us a long shot.

We don’t get so much of the setting, which is a shame in such a vibrant, noisy, and colorful city as Naples. Even the gorgeous paradise of Ischia is given the short shrift. The sensuality of the atmosphere is neglected, there are minimal descriptions of the food, the colors, the faces. There are too many minor characters with similar names, and though there is a guide at the beginning of each novel, it is still quite a task to keep up with who is whom. The sad byproduct of this is that some of the characters become two-dimensional, they are filler and don’t really serve a greater purpose. This is not particular only to Elena Ferrante: we can see this in Tolstoy’s epic novels and the works of other writers as well.

This is not to say that Ferrante’s novels are not enjoyable; they are! However, the execution is sometimes flawed and for those of us reading them first in English, there is always a layer of translation which inevitably makes for a different work than the Urtext. One must commend Ann Goldstein for her incredible work on such a large task, for translation is a literary art in and of itself. My goal is to read the novels in Italian once I am finished with the English (or to listen to them on Italian audiobooks, as a friend suggested), to see how the nuances of the words play out and also to see where the differences are highlighted between Italian and Neapolitan dialect. This issue is something that Anglophones may not be aware of, the significance of dialects in Italy and how they are regarded in terms of class and education (not unlike how in America there is an implicit condescension toward Southern accents.) In sum, I have tremendous respect for what Ferrante has accomplished with these works, I have enjoyed reading them and will continue to read them, even as I evaluate the craft with a writer’s eye. And I indeed recommend them for interested readers.

“Bimbo” Feminism? In Praise of the Smart, Sensual Woman

There was a woman in my town who was a neighbor of a friend and the aunt of a classmate. She was extremely beautiful, with platinum blonde hair and always elegantly turned out. To people’s surprise, she would be reading the Wall Street Journal at the library. Well, it turned out that this small town “blondie” ended up becoming a millionaire and they moved to a house that actually had a tennis court. This is how I remember it; perhaps some of the details have faded over time and my child’s mind may have processed the story incorrectly. I thought of this woman today while I was watching an interview and a documentary on the legendary Mae West and it made me think about contemporary notions of feminism (that really derive from the 70s). In some ways, my generation has been inculcated with ideas that feminism is incompatibility with femininity, sensuality, and knowing one’s appeal as a woman.

I have mixed feelings about the Bechdel test, which measures how many times women are speaking about something other than men in a movie. On the one hand, it is refreshing to see women talk about mathematics (“Hidden Figures”), the church (“Doubt”), or career (“Legally Blonde”) in a film. Women have minds as fantastic as men’s. On the other hand, what is wrong about talking about men and showing women talking about men, as long as people don’t think women are incapable of talking about anything else? I believe that feminism needs to be couched in an understanding of how men and women interact with each other; all men need to know how to interact with women, just as all women need to know how to interact with men, regardless of sexual orientation. The dismissal of this in the 70s has led to a lot of trouble. Could the answer lie in film stars and performers of earlier generations?

Mae West was not only an accomplished actress, but also singer, performer, and writer. She loved men; she exuded a confidence and sex appeal that was uniquely her own. Good-humored, comfortable in herself, her on-screen and offscreen persona showed that she could get any man she wanted, say whatever she liked, and speak her mind. Of course she paid a price, getting arrested for her play “Sex” before she became a Hollywood star, but she was unapologetically who she was. She never let men get the upper hand of her and yet she always enjoyed men. Gay men loved her and she loved them; they were her allies. Mae was also a champion of black people at a time when segregation was deeply entrenched and rampant.

Zsa Zsa Gabor is another example of the “bimbo feminist,” a Hollywood star who was more famous for being famous and who married nine times (!) and her numerous quips like, “I’m a good housekeeper. When I leave a man, I keep his house.” A Hungarian immigrant who acted, sang, and wrote, she was dripping in diamonds and glamour while always staying true to herself and never giving in. Wealthy and well aware of her feminine wiles, Gabor was always clever and outspoken–one only need to see her interview on Phil Donahue where she berates an audience member to know that she could be absolutely vicious. The public got a glimpse of her vicious side when she was arrested for slapping a cop, an act that eventually got her sent to jail for three days! Granted, she was in some ways a gold digger and social climber and quite different from Mae West, who seems to have been more about being herself and enjoying herself without making a scene. But we cannot help but admire Zsa Zsa Gabor’s drive, uncompromising femininity, and stop-at-nothing attitude.

Dolly Parton is a living example of “bimbo feminism.” She has long played to the crowd with her ultra-blonde wigs and enhanced bosom and spangled clothes and makeup. But underneath all that, she’s a supremely talented artist who is also very shrewd. She would not have lasted as long in the business if she were not incredibly talented and savvy about her audiences, marketing, and staying out of politics. And yet, Parton unites the gay and straight, Southern and Northern, young and old. She has acted, sung, and composed music. All of this by a hardscrabble girl from a one-room cabin in Tennessee with 11 siblings! She overtly acknowledges her femininity, her plastic surgery, her body. But Parton is laughing all the way to the bank, being one of the most successful country singers of all time with countless honors like the Kennedy Center Awards. Dolly understands the importance of image and how to use it; her homespun, aw-shucks persona can mask the fact that she is worth over half $1 billion, and that she contributed $1 million to Vanderbilt toward Covid vaccine research, creating a video just this week of herself getting vaccinated while singing a parody of “Jolene” called “Vaccine.” With a wink and a smile and her southern accent, Dolly Parton gets the work done and does she ever know what she’s doing!

None of this devalues the work of women who are not so interested in appearances or their image and who focus more on their work and their substance. That is equally important too. But I think it is worthwhile to look at women who are very feminine and enjoy using their femininity to get ahead; that part of the narrative is often left out in discussions of feminism, where the notion of femininity is eradicated. Perhaps this stems from decades of women having to act like a man, having to prove themselves in a man’s world. Enjoying being a woman should not be incompatible with achievement, talent, or intellect. And maybe it’s men who really need to get used to that idea.

Lucia Berlin: Posthumous Praise

A book group I belong to just finished reading and discussing the late Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women, a book I heard of when one professor briefly discussed a passage of hers in my MFA program. Author Lydia Davis has helped bring Berlin to the public eye, as Berlin had sort of fallen out of favor or become obscure or perhaps never even been as renowned as she should have been. However, it seems that she is starting to have her day, over a decade after her death. Berlin (a seemingly attractive woman who bore a resemblance to Liz Taylor) struggled with alcohol throughout her life, finally getting sober toward the later part of it and teaching at different universities.

What strikes me about Berlin’s stories is that they are so vivid. Part of this comes from her extremely descriptive language, adjectives, carefully chosen details, as well as fascinating settings like Mexico, and also her (usual) first-person or close third narration. There is a sense of intimacy in her work, that you really feel the immediacy of what she’s feeling, are close to the other characters as well as the narrator. With a minimum of words (her stories are generally fairly short), she builds a world and gives you the portrait of a character. However, it would be fair to criticize her work as being more of character sketches rather than conventional stories with a strong narrative arc. One does not read Lucia Berlin for craft, necessarily, if one is studying to be a writer, or rather, not for plot and story structure the way one might study Carver (to whom she is compared). But so unlike Carver, her brevity does not feel like gravity; rather, it feels rich, evocative, where each word holds an explosion of meaning and feeling. Her stories are also accessible. Part of this may be due to the fact that in her collection, she features many working-class characters. Also, though she uses a lot of description and evocative language, her sentence structure is not difficult to follow. Berlin’s worlds are vast, just as her own life was, full of experiences from living in many different places and countries. One senses tremendous cultural literacy and a worldliness, which distinguishes her from many American writers who can tend to be a bit provincial and focusing only on relationship dynamics. The only other general criticism I would make of her work, as seen in this collection, is that since it is autofiction, there are many themes that are frequently repeated: alcoholism, broken marriages, menial labor, etc. and this can get a little bit tedious. To be fair, one can make this criticism of any story collection, that the themes get repetitive after a while and that there is not enough variation among the stories. Perhaps this collection should have been only half or two thirds the length it is. Some readers might find her style a little bit too “stream of consciousness,” perhaps a little too rambling, too close of a narrative distance almost all the time.

Berlin is truly unique; I cannot think of any other writer who is quite like her. She is modern and yet the same time she feels relaxed. Her prose is very detailed but it flows smoothly and never stops the reader. She writes about working-class people and yet the reader senses a tremendous intelligence and sophistication about the author. She writes a lot about Latin culture and peoples, yet she is American. There is much to enjoy about A Manual for Cleaning Women, and I encourage readers unfamiliar with her work to discover the pleasure of her writing. Finding a new writer that one is intrigued by is one of the great joys of life.

Great Performances: What Makes a Good Performer

Yesterday, I had to submit audition material for an opera opportunity. In looking at my different takes of the same aria, what sold me on one particular take over another was my commitment to character, and how I looked more urgent to convey the message in the aria (“Ah, fuggi il traditor” from Don Giovanni by Mozart). That was the take I submitted on video. And speaking of video–I have a friend who sends me videos of her two-year-old who is immensely entertaining. She loves to sing songs and perform for the camera, even dubbing herself “Good Singer” at her tender young age in a display of extraordinary self-confidence! This has led me to reflect on the performers and performances we love. What is it about them that really grabs us? Rather than list general characteristics, I will comment on some performers or performances, ones who are generally regarded as great and others that I particularly like. This is by no means a comprehensive list, only some thoughts off the top of my head.

-Freddie Mercury. Why do we love him? This shy, buck-toothed British-Parsi man who captivated the world before his untimely death? Perhaps because he gave it all went on stage, in great contrast to his offstage personality. He was fierce, unbounded with his emotion. His voice was beyond that of most rock singers, sustaining long, lyrical lines with a range that went quite high for a man. Needless to say, his flamboyant costumes were part of the appeal. He could soar with great passion, croon as though singing a lullaby, or belt out a rock anthem, and we would always believe it.
-The Carol Burnett Show. This classic chestnut of TV not only featured comic geniuses in Carol Burnett, Vicki Lawrence, Harvey Korman, and Tim Conway, but it had skits that mocked popular culture, day-to-day life, and even well-known films or performances. “Went with the Wind” was probably its most infamous spoof on “Gone with the Wind,” and truly one of the best parodies in television. It never took itself too seriously, well-aware that the mockery was part of the process (Korman could not contain himself in the “Old Man” skits with Conway and always laughed). The sets were lavish, and Burnett’s tacky costumes by Bob Mackie were part of the over-the-top 70s appeal.
-Gil Shaham. One of my absolute favorite violinists (who is a wonderfully nice guy when you meet him offstage), he has the extraordinary ability to communicate with the audience when he plays. He almost seems to angle his violin more toward the audience, as if the violin is speaking with them in a dialogue. This is a quality rarely seen in any other violinist.
-Queen Latifah. The woman has presence. For anyone who has seen the film “Chicago,” her role as Mama Morton steals the scene every time. There is something so grounded and confident about her.
-Oprah Winfrey. True, she has done some acting in her time, but I think of her more as a journalist/TV host. Frank, funny, honest, and inquisitive, her curiosity and rapport with her guests was always personal and unique. When she moved on to later projects, such as “Super Soul Sunday,” she revealed her deeply spiritual side. In being herself, she has revealed that she is a natural performer, someone who is able to convey her appeal and engage the audience.
-Adele. I am not a great fan of Lady Gaga, whom I find an attention-getter and whose musical career and performances strike me as being highly derivative (though I find her quite good when interpreting others’ work, such as in “A Star is Born” and in her album with Tony Bennett.) But Adele is the truly talented one of her generation; by avoiding fuss and feathers, she performs by singing from deep in her soul. Not to mention her natural beauty, which I think was almost more stunning before her weight loss. She has tremendous integrity as an artist, and Grace Jones commented that she would not work with Lady Gaga but with someone like Adele instead.
-Figure skaters–too many to name. Scott Hamilton, Meryl Davis and Charlie White, Johnny Weir, and more. We love watching them glide on the ice, fly through the air, and (in the case of Davis and White) dancing together. The combination of spangly outfits and superhuman movements is captivating.
-Bollywood stars–too many to name. Is it their good looks? Their carefully choreographed dance sequences? The songs (which are, inevitably, dubbed by playback singers)? The beauty of Sridevi, Aishwarya Rai, the charisma of Shah Rukh Khan (who played against type in the poignant, meaningful “My Name is Khan”) and Amitabh Bachchan are all something otherworldly.
-Joao Gilberto. This introverted Brazilian man who often sang in almost a whisper, as though strumming a guitar while sitting by a bedroom window, drew us in to his power by his heartfelt sincerity. Nothing could be simpler than his lyrical melodies sung to a percussive guitar, but they are the most touching songs one could hear. One of his albums would inevitably be a desert island disc, so to speak.

These performers are so varied in their genres and styles. And yet they all hold one thing in common: they touch our feelings and emotions. Who are some of your favorite performers?

Is French Food Overrated?

I am a total foodie, a gourmet, experienced cook, and someone who was fortunate enough to grow up eating good food not only of South Indian origin, but of different cultures. By nature, I’m someone who appreciates artisan work, be it a physical item or an edible. France has set the standard for good cooking all over the world, with sophisticated techniques, careful methods, cookware and cooking utensils that each serve a very specific function. There are proper ways to crack an egg, peel a carrot, melt chocolate, and so on. When I was 16, I had the great fortune to spend 10 days with a family outside Paris, and it was one of the best experiences of my life. The food was indeed fantastic–I had my first artichokes, the croissants were marvelous, the minuscule scoops of ice cream were high-quality, and I desperately wanted to pack a half-dozen baguettes in my suitcase for the journey home to my hicktown in the Midwest (where eating out essentially meant fast food, pizza, Big Boy or a local meat-and-potatoes establishment). We can thank Julia Child for introducing America to French cooking, along with other chefs like Jacques Pepin who immigrated here. 

Even today, in the houses of well-to-do people who eat in or order takeout from very high-quality restaurants, one can still find sub-par foods and meals that even the most humble French peasant would not deign to eat. So is French food the absolute pinnacle of cooking and eating, without flaw, a point from which to look at other cuisines and evaluate them? After all, the Michelin guide is still the world standard for restaurants, and even receiving one star is a momentous accomplishment. But can we turn an insightfully critical eye toward French cuisine and analyze it in, well, a very French fashion?

Being a vegetarian, there are great limitations on what one can eat in France (especially if one does not like eggs, as has become the case now as an adult.) The French simply do not understand non-animal protein. The selections of cheeses are indeed incredible, with each region producing its own specialties made of local milk which is hormone-free and not processed or factory farmed in the way much American milk tends to be. But protein in France is heavily meat-oriented, with seafood featuring heavily in other regions. A proper full meal will have more than one course featuring meat. This is not a problem in and of itself if one enjoys meat and seafood, but even health-conscious, non-keto carnivores these days might question the need for a fish appetizer, a meat soup, and a poultry main course. Legume and grain protein is not at all common, though not unheard of and certainly not in favor. Being vegan is even more of a challenge in France, although the country’s bountiful produce and ethnic cuisines certainly make things easier for vegans and vegetarians, and there is a trend where these latter styles of eating are in fashion in the big cities. Even Nobel Peace Prize-nominee chef José Andres who comes from a meat-loving culture (Spain) has sung the virtues of plant-oriented cuisine, saying that there is something more sexy about vegetables and the tastes you can get from them.

Dietary preferences aside, one can also critique French cuisine’s lack of flavor. For those of us who come from highly-flavorful cultures such as India, Mexico, Sicily, or the Szechuan province in China, French food is admittedly bland. True, there is the use of many herbs, shallots, and Provençal cuisine is known for its use of garlic. But while French cuisine in general evaluates the goodness of food by high quality ingredients and preparation, one might say that this represents a lack of knowledge of how to combine herbs and spices and create flavors. There is a true art to creating a complexity of tastes even within one dish, the knowledge of how to balance the spicy with the sour, the salty with the bitter, the ratio of turmeric to cumin that will taste best, etc. Perhaps one can say that cuisines like the French are a bit of a copout in that their cooks only rely on the ingredients for flavor and cannot create good flavors themselves. An alternate test of a good cook could be how well they know their way around herbs and spices and condiments. America has largely embraced this ethos in the last 20 years, and even a gastropub in Indianapolis might feature housemade kimchi on a burger.

The ethos of good food in France is based on courtly traditions and the Escoffier school. Therefore, sophistication is equated with good food. Pastries, special cuts of meat prepared over a long period of time, fruits and vegetables sliced just-so, carefully ladling and spreading out the batter for crêpes and the particular presentation of a dish all represent a high level of culinary expertise. It is not expected of the common man, though the French are very attentive to how they prepare their meals even without serious training. Consider a fruit tart, and the way in which the fruits are laid out in concentric circles, each slice overlapping and everything coated with a clear glaze. It is very visually appealing, but one might argue there is a certain fussiness to it. Contrast this with Italian cooking: the best meals are always considered to be what nonna (grandma) prepares at home. The diminutive little nonna may hand-roll and stuff hundreds of tortellini in an apartment kitchen–not a quick or easy task–for a family meal, but it might be the best pasta you’ve ever had in your life. A working-class North Indian will know how to hand grind the dozen spices and slow-simmer them in a sauce cooked over a single gas burner in a dilapidated kitchen. A street vendor in the Middle East might fry up the best falafel you’ve ever had. The late Anthony Bourdain was clear to emphasize this fact, that home-cooking or street food might render exquisite meals without all the pomp and circumstance.

Not that this is meant to denigrate French food in any way; there is something tremendously admirable about deep-rooted tradition and methods that are the equivalent of classical music training. Some of the best chefs around the globe have their techniques rooted in French tradition, regardless of where they went to cooking school, and have been able to integrate them with their own ethnic culinary traditions. This post is not an exercise in political correctness; rather, it is to point out the limitations of something that is greatly adored and perhaps sometimes exalted to the point of overlooking other cuisines. There is a wonderful film, “The Hundred-Foot Journey,” that addresses this gastronomic dilemma in which a young Indian man (the son of an immigrant Indian-restaurant owning father) wants to break with tradition. Even great modern French chefs such as (I believe) Daniel Boulud in an interview have greatly admired American artisanal cheeses. I personally have come to appreciate the sophistication of South Indian cooking techniques as an adult, and wonder how this would translate into French cooking and if there are similarities. The Michelin star reviewers have indeed expanded their praise and star ratings to a wide variety of cuisines, including food stalls. It is healthy to have a broad palette, just as it is healthy to have a broad mind about ideas. But fear not: no one can deny the eternal pleasure of a fresh, crisp French baguette with cheese and a robust glass of French wine.

The Ways of Being an Artist

This afternoon, I was having a discussion with another fellow writer friend. I had recently edited an autobiographical essay for her, and she asked me how my novel was going. I mentioned that I was having writers’ revision block, that I either had to kill my darlings, or change my darlings, so to speak. She asked how my other artistic pursuit, opera singing, was going and I said on that front there had been quite a lot of progress, quite a lot of development, and how I felt that with my arts I am always like a pendulum swinging between two poles.

For me, opera singing is much more visceral, auditory, right-brained. Though there is a high degree of verbal and cerebral work due to the languages, it is a much more physical and aural and oral art. I liken it more to being an athlete: you understand the concept and you are trying to get your body to do what you want it to do. Your body is your instrument; you are constantly figuring out ways to create a sound. There are different areas of the body you are aware of–lower abdomen, mouth, and what is called the “mask,” an area of the face where one might wear a decorative mask that produces resonance. Your sound is based on feeling, and always has to be, given that the spaces in which you will sing will constantly vary, from practice room to bedroom to concert hall. Opera is always communal. One must always be thinking about the other characters, even when singing a solo aria, have an awareness of the audience, how one is conveying emotion. Certainly the words are important. The words are in a number of different languages, seldom English, and not only is the pronunciation important but also the meaning, the clarity of one’s diction. How an opera singer pronounces words while song in a foreign language will differ from how the words will be spoken in a foreign language. There are often sounds that do not exist in one’s native tongue(s). Ultimately, there is really nothing quite so powerful as the feeling of making music with one’s body, and it always feels happy, even when there are numerous challenges.

Writing is very introverted, more intellectual, but also visual for me. I always feel as though I am painting a picture with words, I am describing what I’m seeing in my head in words. There are some writers who are extremely language-oriented, master prose stylists or very literal, cerebral types. But I am seeing things in my head, and most all of the time, dictating the words via a dictation software program. Therefore, I am also hearing and speaking my text in addition to seeing it on the page. I do love writing by hand, but I have by and large stopped this when writing fiction or this blog, given the necessity for efficient revisions. My first drafts are most always right brained: I am telling the story I want to tell, upon my first impulse, how I feel it without analyzing it–what I jokingly called the “vomit draft,” whatever spills out on the page. I attended a workshop where the writer-teacher (I believe Sarah Gerkensmeyer) encouraged us to do this, and then to go back and revise draft in a more analytical manner. Revision takes quite a long time, yet it can often be “easier” than generating completely new material. At other times, it is harder because one must kill one’s darlings (= tear up what one holds dear on the page, sometimes deleting it completely), one must re-see the ideas in a completely different way, rethink so many things. Writing is endlessly complex, for there are so many elements to think about: the architecture and structure, the plot, the characters, variation of sentences, and so much more. It is a very solitary pursuit in the end, even though it is imperative one have trusted readers for feedback and eventually an audience. One must always remember that there will be an audience, and different people will interpret one’s work in radically different ways. But ultimately, no matter how much feedback one receives, it is up to the writer to digest it and employ it how she chooses. Revision can take quite a while, for the writer has to figure out how to revise it and amend the flaws that she sees, and also the flaws that others see. It is funny, however, because sometimes one will have a tremendous flash of insight at the most random times about how to rework something–in the shower, at the grocery store, while talking with a friend who may or may not be a writer, or while sitting and journaling.

The these are my two poles, my two hands, my two halves. I could not choose one over the other, for it would be like choosing one’s favorite child. I could not exist without either of these, though sometimes one drives me crazy and I must swing to the other pole. But then I will feel such a void for not having the other art in my life, and naturally the pendulum will swing back. Sometimes, the pendulum is in the middle, where both arts are being pursued equally. At other times, the pendulum is at rest, with no motion at all.

And I now realize that this is going to be the case for the rest of my life.

Not Your Average Joe—Lessons from President Biden

We might more immediately associate the word “learning” with the new First Lady. The amazing Dr. Jill Biden is a community college professor by profession who will, admirably, continue to teach during her tenure as First Lady. She has taught many students English in her classroom. This is something she did even while Second Lady, and it shows her commitment to education and having a life outside her public role. Dr. Biden worked hard for her career, raising a daughter and two stepchildren (who are really her own children, as their mother tragically died in a car accident), getting two master’s degrees, and then finally her doctorate in education. However, there are a number of lessons we can learn from Joseph R. Biden, the newly-inaugurated 46th President of the United States, who is thankfully working fiercely to amend all the damage done by Donald Trump.

Initially, the thought of Joe Biden as the Democratic candidate seemed groan-worthy, unappealing, lacking in charisma, and too moderate a Democrat for my taste. President Biden is not as whip-smart as Rhodes Scholar President Clinton. He is not as eloquent as law professor President Barack Obama. Nor does he have the movie-star charisma of demagogue President Reagan. He is not an artist like President George W. Bush, a right-brained, charming man who was put up as an incompetent puppet for his family’s legacy in politics and for Dick Cheney. However, Biden has many qualities of his own, traits that are extremely necessary given the socio-political situation America is in.

First, in his personal life, he is a man of extraordinary character. He has experienced the losses of his young wife and baby daughter, was a single father who commuted between Delaware and Washington every day in order to have dinner with his sons. He has experienced the death of a child who was only early-middle-aged. he had to overcome a stutter and did it so well that he was able to develop a successful career in politics – a field in which public speaking is obligatory and fundamental. He chose an intelligent, maternal, yet career-minded woman as his second wife, and he has respected her decision to work through his vice presidency and through his presidency. Biden has suffered numerous political defeats, and yet he persevered, becoming the oldest President of the United States.

Second, he is a man who has made many mistakes, but he has learned from them. Whether not supporting Anita Hill or school integration, Biden has repeatedly shown that he is human enough to err; however, one must be willing to move ahead and adopt new actions and mindsets that concur with the current political situation. So the lesson is that we are going to flub up, but what matters more is that we get back on the horse and learn how to ride better. This is an especially difficult thing to do in politics, where one is under the scrutiny of the public eye, now more so than ever due to the Internet and social media 24/7. Yes, one can take a skeptical point of view and say that Biden has only choose to correct himself in order to advance his career. That could very well be true. But given Biden’s decades-long career and good reputation in Washington, there suggests a sincerity to his willingness to change. For a man of his generation, a proverbial “old white male from Washington,” to choose a minority woman as his running mate shows that he does not want to remain stale. Again, skeptics could say that it was only a strategic political decision, to choose a woman to appeal to all the Hillary-supporters, women, people of color, etc. etc. Those things are true and necessary to winning an election. Fundamentally, though, if Biden did not think he could work well with Harris, he could not have chosen her.

Third, Biden is a team player. He gets along so well with people on the other side of the aisle that even Republicans like Cindy McCain publicly came out in support of him. Kamala Harris rightly attacked him during the Democratic Party presidential debates, but he was still able to tap her for a running mate. Biden is able to see the big picture, and knows who to call on for Cabinet positions. It is a welcome relief to hear the accomplished biographies of his candidates, qualified people in different fields and a very diverse group of individuals. He is wise enough to know it is not all about him: it is about creating an efficient administration of which he happens to be the head. He is aware of the grave danger of the pandemic, the economy, and America’s tarnished reputation in the world. Naturally, we don’t know the end results of his presidency, and how the next four years will turn out. We could be riding on many false expectations, and the far-right-wing threat could still continue to be a menace that impedes progress. Biden may not deliver, he may make more mistakes in the future.

Yet it doesn’t hurt to have hope, and learning how to get along with the enemy, so to speak, is perhaps one of the most important skills we all need to develop or strengthen now.