“Moonstruck”: A Play as a Film?

Yesterday I was watching the old 80s wonderful classic “Moonstruck” with Cher and Nicholas Cage. I remember seeing it with friends when it first came out, and we were just mesmerized by the love story and how beautiful Cher looked at the opera. The warmth of the characters, the top rate acting, the specificity of the setting, and the ongoing reference to “La Bohème” all still make it such an appealing film decades later. While watching, I was curious as to who had written the script, as I found the dialogue to be quite strong and nuanced. I found that it was none other than John Patrick Shanley who had written the wonderful play (and directed and adapted it into the wonderful film) “Doubt.” As I watched “Moonstruck,” I read Shanley’s biography online, and there were some things that made it evident to me that Shanley has a background in playwriting. It is these playwriting hallmarks that detracted from an overall strong film.

First, the film spans just a couple of days. In a play, we might expect there to be a short time span, or just scenes that clearly demarcate a couple of time periods or that carefully show the passage of time. We are not going to see how little Kaitlyn ages from age 3 to 18 in five minutes onstage the way we would in a film. Therefore, we don’t get to see how Loretta and Johnny’s relationship developed (which is not the greatest sin, given that it was a short time.) However, we feel shortchanged to see Loretta and Ronny’s romance in such a short time; we want more, we want more dialogue with them, but their scenes are cut with scenes with Loretta’s father and her mother. Also, we want to know more of the backstory about Ronny, his broken engagement, and his issues around the loss of his left hand. A film allows us more time thanks to the highly visual elements that are integral to film. Such big conclusions, emotionally speaking, are reached but we need more time to get there. 

The direction feels a bit slow, almost in real time, the way it would be in a play. But I believe that the pacing needed to be a little bit faster, given that the characters were New Yorkers and had a sense of urgency about everything they were going through. Loretta’s mother is keen to find out if her husband is having an affair; Loretta is torn between her duty to her fiancé and her love for his brother; the community wants Loretta to plan her wedding, which is set to take place in one month. And most of all, everyone is expecting Johnny Cammareri’s mother to die at any moment back in Palermo.

Finally, like in a play, everyone is on stage at the end. This feels a bit forced in a film, as though it is staged rather than organic. There could have been different scenes to resolve the various crises in the film, but instead everyone is gathered around the kitchen table for a breakfast of oatmeal and makes their confessions or resolutions.

The scene at the opera works best, for it is something that could only happen through the magic of film, to see the grandeur of the setting and hear the gorgeous music from Puccini’s classic. We need to simultaneously be able to see Loretta and Ronny as well as her father and his mistress Mona. We need to see the Kandinsky murals, the sparkling Sputnik chandeliers, the expression on the singers’ faces, and Cher’s tears as she is moved by the beauty of the performance. Also done nicely through the film is the image of the moon, which is so crucial to the story. It is, after all, called “Moonstruck”!

It is important for those who are adapting stories or plays to make full use of what a film does. To make use of montages or visual scenes to show the passage of time and not just dialogue. To add a sense of out-of-the-ordinary to the plot by amping up the settings and effects. To use what the audience sees to fill in backstory. These are just a few things a screenwriter must consider.

Why We Don’t Have Structural Change

The last post was not in any way meant to negate the necessity of teaching about structural racism. Rather, I was trying to raise concerns about age-appropriateness and being aware of the context of whom one is teaching, as well as who is doing the teaching, and if the people that Critical Race Theory is trying to address–African-Americans–are getting to do the talking. Critical Race Theory aims to educate people about structural racism, which is a necessity. And structural racism is only one area in which we need to make structural change. The elephant in the room in the United States is class differences (something we have only been discussing more publicly since the advent of the pandemic), and then of course there is the structural change needed for women. Activists have been fervently trying to address these issues for decades, especially since the 60s, and a good deal of legislation has been enacted. But why is there still not structural change on the level we need it?

Institutions are slow to change in any context. But when we live in a culture that so adores individualism, structural change is even more difficult. People are very nice and supportive on an individual level, but may not support actions made in the law or by the government. Consider these examples.

My friend Kathy (her name and some details are changed) has lived in different parts of the world and is herself of multi-ethnic heritage. She loves traveling, meeting people of different cultures, adores children. She has a high level career in a field where she has to navigate dealing with many men. Kathy is one of the kindest and warmest people you could ever meet, always includes people in her gatherings and adored by everyone. And yet she has no faith in the government or governmental institutions, and when I expressed my horror at Trump separating children from their parents, and thank goodness we have a more compassionate administration, she mentioned that she had seen a documentary on how human traffickers dump children from Latin America, and that it is a big racket. Kathy is fed up with politics, and while I would not call her Republican, I would probably describe her as apolitical or libertarian. She dislikes both Democrats and Republicans, thinks all politicians are corrupt. I have struggled to understand how she lives with this dichotomy, how she can be so incredibly kind in her personal life and yet cannot support any sort of government actions that enact social change. I believe that this is because on an individual level, it is easier to get along with different people, but when it comes to looking at the larger scale, it involves money and politics, two things she and others does not want to involve herself in.

A gay man I met who is from the South said that everyone in his neighborhood is very kind to him and his husband, he is well respected as a teacher, and in his church. But he mentions that at the polls, people will vote differently. Again, a sign that people may be going on a personal level, but not on the societal change level. And also (according to Southerners) people will be very nice to your face, as is required socially, but think otherwise.

The Black Lives Matter movement and protests were very strong in California last summer, and people came out in droves to protest despite the pandemic. However, when it came time to vote, at the polls, voters did not approve measures for affirmative action that would’ve helped black people in education. One could argue that the number of people supporting Black Lives Matter is smaller than the number of people who don’t feel black people need any privilege (the sort of people who callously say “All Lives Matter”), and this very well may be true. But the point is, the action needed to help black people structurally did not pass. 

Think about the myriad donors to universities, educational institutions, arts organizations, etc. A symphony may not be able to survive without Mr. and Mrs. Generous Benefactor’s contribution of $5 million, and a cardiology wing of a hospital may not even be built without their money. But if you were to ask this millionaire couple if they would vote for a candidate who supports healthcare for all, it’s possible that they would not. 

Look, for example, at people who serve in the Armed Forces. While I respect these people individually, and many of them are incredibly nice and very admirable on a personal level, I do not necessarily support the institutions they serve, as I am a pacifist and feel that America spends too much money on defense rather than human welfare. 

As a final example, a woman can sleep around like a man, post nude selfies of herself online, and correct people on their sexist language. But can a woman get elected president over the most incompetent moron America has ever seen run for office? Does a woman get adequate maternity leave? Does she get affordable childcare?

It is this NIMBY-like mentality where people do not think structurally that is affecting our country deeply. Our excessive American individualism encourages us to feel that if we have done well on a personal level, if we are individually nice to others, then we have done enough. But I believe this doesn’t work. The CEO of an insurance company might’ve himself lay in a hospital bed after an injury, wondering how he was going to pay his bills, but when he’s making $20 million a year and millions still have inadequate healthcare, all his personal compassion makes no difference. Our puritanical work ethic and individualism with money are killing us; class disparity is increasing radically, and it is my belief that a class issues are a large part of what is driving problems with race as well as gender. 

No one is perfect, perhaps we are all hypocrites to some degree, and people can’t be forced to act on things they don’t believe in. My only hope is that with the current administration, America will learn to be less selfish with money and opportunities, and live up to the ideal of equality and justice for all. If true equality is not possible now, then at least we need to start working on ending discrimination, violence, and life-threatening inequality.

Thoughts on Critical Race Theory

I am not African-American/Black. I am not white. I am Indian-American, the daughter of Indian immigrants, so I feel this gives me a unique perspective on race in America. People like me owe a great debt to the civil rights movement, as it led to greater diversity in American society, and laws being created to treat people equally. My generation is the first generation to be equal by law in terms of race and gender. I am also an educator with a strong commitment to inclusivity, have taught in diverse settings and have deep roots in international education. I have tried, especially with international students, to show black people in a positive light, as endless stereotypes abound overseas, and have included texts by black authors such as James Baldwin. My MFA analytical thesis was on a novel each by Toni Morrison and Jane Austen. I have been mentored by black people at each stage of my education, in my different fields. I myself suffered discrimination by a white-majority, country town population.

So why do I have certain questions and concerns about teaching students Critical Race Theory? 

One of my concerns is that, pedagogically, race theory needs to be taught in an appropriate manner for each age. Teaching a kindergartener that they are privileged and discriminating simply because they are white (or any non-black race) could only lead to misunderstanding and self-hatred at a fragile age. What would be more useful would be to teach younger children the importance of loving one another and playing with one another regardless of one’s appearance. Naturally, young children are going to have questions as to why black people are being killed by policeman, or why some people hate black people for no reason. These should not be overlooked, and honest answers should be given about how America has a history of treating black people badly. The personalization should be left out of it for children.  A friend of mine who is a second-grade teacher in the South had her students write a letter to a well-known civil rights activist. Constructive activities and appealing to (most) children’s natural sense of injustice is key here. Nipping racist attitudes in the bud is best done sooner than later, because sometimes there is no turning back once these things are ingrained. Get kids to be actively anti-racist from the time they are little.

Questions are going to come up that can come across as racist, such as the physical appearance of others, questions of what is beautiful or ugly, skin color etc. Colorism is a sad fact in MANY communities, such as Indian, Filipino, Latino, black, etc. A sense of moral correctness is, I think, a better approach at a younger age than political correctness. This is not to say that children should not be instructed not to use certain words. Ultimately, the socioeconomic and demographic factors of the classroom will have to determine how race is taught. Telling Appalachian kids or Colombian refugees in Miami they have white privilege is not going to be the best approach. We must be honest with children, because they have the best BS detectors and are naturally empathetic.

As children get older, in later elementary and junior high school, naturally, there is more discussion and understanding of history, discussing certain milestones and civil rights, and talking about the institution of slavery becomes critical. As kids get older, they increasingly parrot what their parents say without thinking–if a child has a racist father, then it is important for the child to understand what the origins of racism are. Through the early teen and later teen years, then students are developmentally and intellectually capable of understanding a lot more about history, culture, class, and race. Through these tween and early teen years is when students need to understand about structural racism and what it means. Students may protest that they or their families individually are not racist at all and not discriminatory. While this is true, they need to understand history as well as what happens even today. This is a good place to introduce statistics. 

By the end of high school and into college is where discussions of privilege are very key. College admissions is fraught with inequality (our whole education system, frankly, but it is exacerbated in post-secondary education). I think we need to couch discussions of privilege not simply in terms of whiteness, but in terms of economics, which indeed intersects with race and privilege (with whites and Asians, most often.) People’s racial attitudes are becoming more solidified during this period; it often takes a huge shift in geography when a student goes to college to truly understand what race means. Seeing that everyone north of Columbia University was brown and a minority made a deep impression on me during my first graduate program and made me reevaluate my opinions on K-12 curriculum.

It is also important to provide social support for children who hold different opinions than their parents or community. The students may be supporting critical race theory, but the adults they know may not. Children need allies in teachers. They need safe spaces and safe people to talk to when they are being discriminated against, and when they are seeing people being bullied.

Throughout all of this, there is one key element that must not by any means be ignored: what black people themselves think. Often, well-meaning white liberals want to hit people over the head with a particular set of beliefs, ignoring what people feel and think. Showing all points of view on critical race theory is key, that there may be some black people who support or disagree with it, or certain elements of it. Also key is not allowing any sort of “my way or the highway” approach to teaching critical race theory, as this is what happens all too often. This is what creates a political correctness backlash. A student may disagree with one aspect of critical race theory, while supporting other aspects. All too often, multiculturalism and political correctness has been applied with a single brush, with educators who lack a complexity of thought repeating simplistic notions of what they have heard like a slogan.My long-held belief has been that we need more than one paradigm when talking about race or gender in this country. That may be what alienates a lot of otherwise well-meaning people who are appalled by any sort of discrimination and systemic or institutionalized injustice. There is always the danger that the lone black kid in a class, say, bears all the responsibility for speaking up for their entire community. This happens to anyone from a minority group.  Also, I have long asserted that white people are not all the same and that the white experience is not monolithic.  In one classroom experience, a very shy, awkward daughter of Russian immigrants (who possibly had a personality disorder) confessed to me that she felt that she was wrong by being straight and white. When I expressed this to the director of my institution, she said we needed to talk to this student about white privilege. I felt this was absolutely wrong. 

My (admittedly controversial) position is that if we take away the political correctness and cultural politics charge away from educating students, we could make much more progress than we have. I don’t want to be naïve and dismissive of the importance of these issues in education. We need to show young people that these are important issues, get them engaged in a fight for justice, and make them understand that discrimination has been entrenched in our social structures for centuries. Educators and school boards need to understand the complexity of race and culture as well. It is a shame that they are often being targeted by angry, narrow-minded parents, often afraid for their lives, by the right wing or conservatives who are afraid to discuss the ugly underbelly of America. Education has the obligation to get children and young people to learn and question their world around them. In the still-relevant, immortal words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Intelligence plus character–that is the goal of true education.”

Novels versus Stories: A Personal Reflection

Last July, I completed the first draft of my first novel ever. It was my third attempt at a novel, the first being when I was a senior in high school, writing 120 some handwritten pages. The second was a decade or so later, and that novel became unwieldy, at 400 some pages, and not even one third of the way through. It was at that point I realized that I needed to back up and understand how to write shorter forms to simply accomplish the goal of completion. I always knew I wanted to be a longform writer, I was always interested in novels rather than stories, but I had to be able to see the arc of a work of fiction and put it on paper. It was indeed a struggle. How does one create the architecture for a work of fiction? I had a lot of impulses, but what I lacked was technique. I had very little understanding of craft and how there were certain “tricks” to understand the underpinnings of fiction.

Certain things I grasped intuitively through writing; there are other things about stories that I still am trying to understand, years later. What a story needs is very different than what a novel needs: the structure and plot need to be tighter, everything has to be accomplished with an economy of words and space, there can be very little that is extraneous and we need to feel the arc very palpably, see the transformation of the character. It is interesting to study short stories and their writers (something which I have done quite a lot over the past decade, in my MFA program and in a short story discussion group), for the short story is not a monolithic entity. I, very oddly, I’m not a fan of the much-lauded Alice Munro, for I find her jumps in time to be rather jarring and disturbing. However, George Saunders’s omissions work, because they leave out information that is implied and that we can piece together. I feel that Jhumpa Lahiri’s shorter short stories are generally much stronger than her longer short stories, as the latter feel a bit meandering and padded. Anthony Doerr does wonderful work with showing the passage of time, writing clearly structured stories that still hold a lot of emotion. And finally, one of my absolute favorite stories is Sherman Alexie’s “What You Pawn, I Will Redeem” which practically uses standup comedy to address serious issues that Native Americans face.

And what of novels? Why do I prefer them to stories?

To me, a novel is something soothing and complete. It is its own entity in a book, something you hold in your hand, a complete oeuvre from cover to cover. We talk about the accomplishment of “writing a book,” meaning a novel. A novel has the legroom, so to speak, the extra space to develop all the themes and thoughts and ideas we have as writers. I liken it to a Boeing 767 or Airbus 380 that needs a long runway to take off: it is a large aircraft and it needs it space to launch and to carry the passengers to a far off destination, covering a wide swath of time and distance. A short story is like a small Embraer jet that can maneuver small runways and take you where you need to go quickly and efficiently. I like the expansive nature of a novel, the way it can take us on a character’s journey (or multiple characters’ journeys). We can savor the prose, follow the various threads introduced by the writer, study the plots and subplots. We might even marvel at a slightly atypical structure–perhaps the novel is not written in traditional chapters, or the chapters are irregular, or it is fashioned into different sections.

19th-century writers such as Dickens and Tolstoy wrote their novels in serial fashion, with regular “episodes” that accomplished weekly or periodic entertainment for the reader. Therefore, their novels tend to be more conventionally structured, chapters more even in length. As novels became more and more available as their own printed form, the form naturally expanded and took on new shapes. Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop was a novel in stories (see the earlier post https://thewomenofletters.com/2019/12/16/in-defense-of-the-novel-in-stories-cathers-death-comes-for-the-archbishop/). The nature of prose also expanded, and over the decades in the 20th century we got writers as diverse as Hemingway, Kerouac, and Morrison. The phenomenon of metafiction arose, although one could argue that Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey was proto-metafiction, and also magical realism.

Today, we have a multitude of forms, styles, writers, backgrounds, and this makes the entity of the novel all the richer and more fascinating. And still, the pleasure of sitting down with a book that takes us on a literary journey from start to finish is incomparable. We have a human need to connect with a character, a family, a story line. Satisfying this need is a great challenge as a writer, for figuring out the architecture, so to speak, the structure and plot and sustaining it over hundreds of pages, is quite a task. I had the great fortune to ask Joyce Carol Oates after a Zoom interview how she managed the challenge of structure over an 800-page novel, and her answer was simply that the story had to be told, the characters’ stories needed that much space. Easier said than done for mortals like me compared to a literary titan! 

There is also the question of when to pause and shift gears from one character to another, one plot line to another, etc. This affects where we put in breaks either in the form of chapters or sections. Another challenge while writing a novel is not being redundant. We need to fill space, we need to expand the histories and backstories and details, but how much is too much? Have we repeated ourselves? Are the details we are presenting the reader necessary, or boring? And what about the themes and the basic idea of the story: is it interesting enough to engage a reader over multiple pages? Agents will often tell writers that the key to a successful query is to make the agent want to read past the first page.

Have things been resolved by the end of the novel? Have the loose threads come together, or are there aspects that leave the reader hanging? Is the novel put together in a way that feels cohesive? I recently read a novel by a Nobel laureate that felt like a draft: it completely lacked backstory, skimmed the surface of the story by focusing heavily on dialogue, and felt too long, like it should have been a novella. The novel clearly needed to be edited. This is proof that even the best writers struggle with the challenge of the novel, and that their output will vary from book to book. In a back-of-the-magazine interview in Vanity Fair, the interviewer said to Roth that surely, he must know he can write a novel by now. Roth’s answer was an emphatic no, that he couldn’t write all novels, only this one, the current novel he was working on at the time. 

I am still learning much about technique and craft when it comes to the novel, and I hope it will inform me in my revisions and subsequent works. Despite all the challenges, I still feel like it is a worthy and absolutely gripping pursuit to be a novelist. There are few greater thrills!

The Philosophical Meaning of Law

America is very much a law-and-order society, as are the other Anglophone countries, Northern European nations, Singapore, and some others. We have laws on a large scale, federal law, those that govern us and form the structures of our societies. We also have international laws, use passports and visas to travel, and must conduct trade in particular ways. There are local laws that vary greatly from state to state, county to county, city to city. And of course, there are religious laws (some Islamic nations are governed by sharia law), and dietary laws which are often a subset of these. There are regions of the world which are described as “lawless,” and places where people “take the law into their own hands.” Mafias all over the world set their own laws and often abide by a particular personal code of honor or unwritten laws. Laws are what are used to determine how “right” or “wrong” someone is in a given situation, whether or not they have followed them, and lawyers are schooled for years on the intricacies of the law.

But what does this all really mean?

Anthropologically speaking, every culture or society has its own laws. The question is how formal or informal the law is, how institutionalized, and whether a personal code of conduct trumps an established form of rules. There are still societies in which there is retributive justice, individual honor codes where people react according to their perception of a wrongdoing.

Underneath all of this is the issue of regulating human behavior. Has an individual acted in accordance with the rules of the group? If not, how severe is the infraction? The idea is a consequence for breaking a law or rule. Regulating human behavior at a societal level also helps us choose our actions, gives us a way to be deliberate. This is something so fundamental to human life that we don’t even think about it on a daily basis. However, even stopping at a red light, or submitting a legal document by a deadline are so ingrained in our psyches, things we accept without question.

Naturally, there are individuals who are asocial and to violate the law, or who violate the mores we have set up in our societies. Sometimes it is mild and simply “being human”; at other times, it is the sign of a deep psychiatric disorder or pathology. We saw this with the last president, and I would even argue that we see it in the globally influential social media corporations such as Facebook. 

So, what is the philosophical meaning of law in the end? I argue that it is the social mechanism to do the best for the greater good and to minimize harm to individuals. Unfortunately, as we have seen all over the world and through history, the law is often twisted and corrupted. And if the outer is a reflection of the inner, we must learn to develop our own moral compasses from the time we are young.

A Necessary Dose of Magic in Our Lives?

I am rereading 100 Years of Solitude by the phenomenal Gabriel García Márquez, and what strikes me from a craft point of view is the delicious “intrusions,” for lack of a better word, of an element of fantasy or magic. Dubbed “magical realism” by the literary establishment decades ago, Marquez’s style (along with that of other well-known Latin American writers) seems like realistic prose at first, but then there are superhuman or unnatural elements introduced. I don’t need to elaborate here, for readers are certainly familiar with García Márquez’s works (Love in the Time of Cholera is another marvelous novel.) But this has led me to think about literature and art that takes us out of the ordinary realm–something that feels necessary when so much modern fiction is based in reality and personal experience. Have we lost our ability to think, to imagine, to go beyond the ordinary?

Outside of genre fiction and fantasy fiction, which are indeed thriving, we do have some noteworthy authors who do not write strictly realistic fiction: Salman Rushdie and Margaret Atwood immediately come to mind. I feel we need to encourage writers to do more of this, to create worlds, go beyond the pedagogical cliché of “write what you know.” Perhaps that tenant has done more disservice to fiction writing, and would be best rephrased as, “write what you understand.” There is a significant difference: knowing implies a familiarity with a situation, a body of knowledge, a certain mastery of the topic. Understand implies an innate knowing, what one grasps, and one may have acquired that knowledge in different ways or simply through intuition.

In music, think about the phenomena of glam rock as well as 80s new wave bands, who were the former’s successors. In both genres, there is an exaggeration of appearance, of form, of fashion. Though he was later the Thin White Duke, David Bowie’s 1970s Ziggy Stardust was a unique creation, an alien alter ego who was not clad in Doc Martens and jeans. Even Led Zeppelin, who were certainly much more real and not glam rockers, brought an element of the mystical and poetic to their performance–after all, they sang about Viking raids as though they were a common occurrence. We see this continue today, with artists like Janelle Monáe or Lady Gaga (whom I feel is derivative and unoriginal and does best when interpreting others’ works, such as in her excellent performance in “A Star Is Born.”) A lot of ambient music and electronica has an ethereal or unearthly quality to it. Some of it is easier and more enjoyable to listen to than others. We cannot conclude without mentioning Icelandic visionary Björk, who is a mistress of reinvention and truly beyond the ordinary. Each incarnation she becomes is more revolutionary than the last, and we never know what will come next. Her music is almost impossible to categorize, and that is wonderful.

Painter Salvador Dali challenged us with his revolutionary surreal artwork. Why should there be an eyeball in a random place? Who cares; it is what it is, perhaps what our subconscious understands. Francis Bacon’s grotesqueries are certainly unique and far from ordinary: distorted faces and gaping mouths. David Hockney might be painting ordinary scenes of men and swimming pools or fields with flowers, but his use of color takes us out of reality into a vivid, multi-hued world. In the world of fashion, we have the bizarre brilliance of the late Alexander McQueen, who clothes were really more like costumes rather than typical runway or off the rack wear. Issey Miyake also creates works of art with fabric that just happen to be things one can wear on one’s body.

To be able to imagine and create in fantastical ways brings us back in touch with a part of ourselves that we had so strongly in childhood. Why be prosaic all the time, realistic, ordinary? These artists and more have challenged us to see and feel in a different way and have all created an aesthetic of their own. The best artists always do this, and that’s why we love them so dearly.

The Minority Report

This post is a rare personal reflection, though I am not entirely drawing on my experience but on the experiences of others as well.

There is much necessary discussion about minority groups and rights, policies affecting those who are not part of the majority. But it is also important to simply discuss what the experience of being a minority is like, not in terms of a group, but in terms of being a minority individual and on a daily basis. “Minority” can take on a variety of different meanings, as one can be an ethnic, religious, etc. minority. Sometimes minorities may not even “look like a minority,” so we must understand what the experience means. 

I am not a fan of the phenomenon of “cultural politics” or the current paradigm in which we discuss race and culture, although I am a big supporter and practitioner of diversity and cross-cultural education. I am not always a fan, either, of pitting white against nonwhites, as this often leads to very simplistic understandings of race and culture, not to mention social policies. Here are some characteristics that people may not be aware of in what it means to be a minority.

-Looking different. For those of us who are not white, the simple truth is we will stand out and not appear like the mainstream. The darker the skin color, inevitably, the more likely we are to suffer discrimination. This can happen even within ethnic groups (such as Blacks, Filipinos, and Indians), a phenomenon known as “colorism,” where lighter-skinned people are admired more than darker-skinned people. But being nonwhite in a predominantly white society is a hard thing. I am extremely critical of a monolithic, blanket definition of “white privilege,” because I do not believe all white people are the same, but this is the one aspect in which I would say it is true–if you are white-skinned, you are at a visual advantage in America. Even when one does not face discrimination, sometimes it is frustrating to be the only “yellow/brown/nonwhite” person in the room, the one that people can remember that they saw even when you don’t remember them.

It is also important to mention that transgendered or queer-identifying people may also face this issue to a great degree. For people who are not born in the right body or to the right gender, how one feels and presents to the world maybe two different things that results in great dissonance within oneself.

-Different language. This is especially predominant in immigrant communities. Some of us come from cultures where our parents grew up speaking English or from Anglophone countries, or our parents were highly educated or did advanced degrees in the United States, and this puts us at an advantage. However, there are many minority individuals who do not speak English well and have trouble integrating into American society. Sometimes schooling does not provide adequate resources for these children, and they struggle throughout their lifetimes to “catch up” and to functionally communicate with the Anglophone mainstream. Or there is another experience that is also difficult: the children of immigrants learn how to speak English fluently as a native, but their parents do not speak it. Many people will say that their parents speak to them in their native language, but they respond back in English. Yet another scenario is when these American-born children do not even speak the native language, and therefore have great difficulty communicating- and interacting with their parents and relatives. 

            We also see the challenges of being a linguistic minority in indigenous communities where people still speak their native languages, and also with many African-Americans who use AAVE (African-American Vernacular English). Many African-Americans discuss how they are discriminated against and misunderstood in writing workshops, job interviews, and public transactions because of their speaking patterns and even because of “sounding black” (likely a reference to a particular timbre of voice.)

            In sum, when one speaks a different language, even when one is fluent in and/or a native speaker of the dominant mainstream language, one automatically feels different. Language is perhaps one of the greatest means of connecting or disconnecting people from society.

-Different religion. This is something that is personally very significant to me. For anyone who is not Christian or Judeo-Christian, there is a very different outlook on life and way of thinking. I do not include atheists or agnostics in this group, for they were inevitably raised in- or come from a specific background. Christian concepts of sin, guilt, etc. that influence mainstream life, even in non-religious settings, are sometimes puzzling to those of us of different religious backgrounds. We are expected to concur with many ideological and philosophical paradigms, or we are assumed to be of them, and this can make it difficult to speak our minds, lest we be misunderstood. We observe different holidays, even if we enjoy celebrating secular aspects of Christian ones. Even with being People of the Book, many Jews experience being a religious minority (and the statistics certainly prove it). They have faced centuries of discrimination, persecution, and genocide. Muslims, also People of the Book, have customs and traditions that are distinctly non-Western (even though there are Muslims in Balkan Europe), such as the very visible and often controversial issue of face-covering. Growing up as a non-Christian, Hindu minority, one could feel the threat and disrespect for our religion more strongly when missionaries came to our doors. What was wrong with our faith? Although it is easy to laugh about it as an adult, these things are very difficult for a child to navigate.

            It is of note that even within a minority group in the United States there are religious minorities. Albanian Catholics, for example, are a minority group, as are Indian Christians or Sikhs. And we cannot neglect the very traditional religious communities such as the Amish or Shakers who live outside of modern life in general.

-Dietary habits. This is self-explanatory, but one’s foods, meal habits, and even ways of shopping very greatly. Many people come from traditions where they do not buy food in a supermarket, but rather from individual vendors, much like a farmers’ market. Immigrants, depending on where they live, may find it very difficult to obtain foods and ingredients from their homelands. Many cultures do not eat the standard breakfast lunch and dinner at American times, perhaps having a light or negligible breakfast or conversely a hearty meal first thing in the morning. Many cultures take a late dinner. Notably absent in most traditional immigrant cultures in the United States is a lack of processed food, or at least a disdain for it. Many immigrant communities have a strong preference for fresh vegetables and fruits and use ones that are not typically found in mainstream American culture. One of the things that adds to the richness of American culture is ethnic supermarkets, where one can find a myriad foods, ingredients, and delicacies to try. 

-Cultural spaces that belong to your own group. This might be a community center for activities your culture engages in (such as folk dancing); a non-Christian religious space such as a synagogue, mosque, or temple; a beauty parlor that caters to your type of hair; or even sub- groups in larger organizations (such as the myriad student groups on a large college campus, in a conference, or even an alumni association–i.e., women engineers).

-For immigrants, not having deep roots in the United States. Therefore, some people may not feel entirely part of the culture. Some immigrants assimilate well, and are thrilled to be American–most Cubans, for example, given the dictatorship they escaped from. Others long for their homelands, never quite feel a part of American society, follow the news back home thoroughly, missing the beauty of a red-tiled roof city on the Mediterranean, the centuries-old history that can be seen daily, the heroes who have shaped their homeland. Therefore, it is worth mentioning that there a lot of media specific to immigrant communities. We often see the big name media institutions, such as Telemundo, but there is much that flies under the radar, so to speak, and only those in the know or in particular regions would be aware of it. There are both print and online newspapers both in English and in native tongues. There is a Bollywood radio station in the Bay Area. There are many ethnic programs on local/community access TV channels. And the Internet provides a treasure trove of non-English media. 

-Different values. Russians often sneer at American smiliness, seeing it as insincere and lacking in “Russian soul.” Asians may find that American child-rearing practices too lax, uninvolved, more into image than education–hence the “tiger mother” stereotype. More conservative immigrant groups believe American women’s clothing (and values) to be too vulgar and sexual. 

            Western Europeans who come from highly socialized societies where individuals are taken care of cradle-to-grave shake their head in disbelief at our dysfunctional healthcare system and the American obsession with guns. For many Americans, living with cognitive dissonance is a part of daily life.

-One thing that is common to ALL immigrants (and that forms a significant thread of American literature) is the story of their journey. Popular programs such as the wonderful “Finding Your Roots” on PBS trace the histories of celebrities who usually have deeper roots in the United States. But there are many people who have no idea about the journeys their ancestors took. Conversely, for many of us who are first-generation US citizens, our families’ stories are very fresh: our parents came over in the 60s/70s/80s and on. It is sometimes almost comic to compare our immigration stories with the lengthy ones of Americans who have been here for decades or centuries (I can tell you the months and years of my parents’ arrivals at JFK!) 

These are just some of the ways in which those in the American mainstream can understand what it is like to be a minority/immigrant. It is true that I have not commented extensively on African-Americans or Native Americans, whose minority experiences are radically different than those of immigrants. In those two populations, I would vouch to say that it is perhaps an even more difficult experience, as they were respectively brought over against their will and had their land taken over when they had lived here for millennia. To be “minoritized” against your own choosing is indeed a tragedy, and much is being discussed and done now to make reparations for these dark deeds of history. 

             It is also important to mention that even within minority communities, there are minorities within minorities.  If you speak a Dravidian language, you are outnumbered by Indo-European language speakers in the Indian-American community.  If you are an Albanian Catholic, you are considered a minority in the Albanian community in America.  Even politically, we can see Latinos and Muslims who supported Trump.

I still believe, however, that there are many people within the white mainstream who are incredibly liberal and genuinely caring, and that America is one of the most open-minded, diverse, and amazing cultures in the world, even when it takes a lot of work to understand each other.

Duran Duran: More Than Just Pretty Faces!

For girls of a certain age, Duran Duran was when we learned we had hormones. There was endless discussion over the phone or in carefully folded notes passed surreptitiously in class or at slumber parties about which one was the most gorgeous: most popular were Simon Lebon and John Taylor, with some in favor of Nick Rhodes, and the occasional Roger Taylor fan, but poor Andy Taylor was usually left out of the discussion. And who didn’t love them? Handsome men in videos shot in exotic locales with singable melodies and catchy refrains. But recently, while unpacking after a move, I began to watch not only old and new videos of their songs, but also listen to and watch interviews with three of the four original members (Andy Taylor departed long ago, and Roger is usually stumm.) And I was quite surprised to discover their true artistry, and how profoundly intelligent and talented the band members are. Perhaps this has been Duran Duran’s curse–their good looks and supermodel-filled videos have detracted from their musicianship and their powers as artists.

If you listen to interviews with Simon, he discusses listening to classical music in his childhood, being a choir boy, and how he had the lyrics to Patti Smith’s “Gloria” on his wall–these are not unsophisticated, vapid tastes of a pop singer. He was also trained in drama while university student in Birmingham, and one can see his complete commitment to performance in any video or concert footage. The ways in which he moves, emphasizes words, and sings his heart out are really quite remarkable. If you close your eyes and don’t think about how it looks, you really hear an expressive, powerful voice. Articulate, sociable, and charismatic, Simon Le Bon is the consummate lead singer. But his poetic side comes through in his lyrics, which are often mysterious and opaque. 

Nick is a living tribute to that most English of traditions: the dandy. Heavily inspired by glam rock and David Bowie, he was friends with Andy Warhol and is to this day quite the artist and art aficionado. Watch his personal tour of the V&A Museum–there is a level of sophistication in his knowledge of art that is quite astounding. While he no longer looks like his 80s androgynous colorful-haired persona, having morphed instead into a well-heeled handsome English gentleman who looks like a London gallery owner, there is something still so striking and intriguing about him. And let’s not forget that he is quite the genius musician. Think about all the sonic universes he creates in each of during Duran’s songs, which are very synth-heavy. Nicknamed “The Controller,” Rhodes has an incredible ear–listen to the complexities of any Duran Duran song and how the variety of parts and harmonies fit together.

John Taylor, underneath his hair and aging rock star good looks, is fundamentally an incredible bassist. If you listen to Duran Duran’s music, it is bass-heavy, and in my opinion, this is a sign of musical sophistication. Taylor is not simply playing 1-4-5-1 but playing interesting patterns with funky rhythms. Watch his videos on bass lines of the band’s songs: not only does he play beautifully, but he also communicates what he is doing very clearly. Not to mention, he spoke at a UCLA Engineering symposium on the 40th Anniversary of the Internet.

Roger Taylor is sadly getting the short shrift here, but this is not to say that he isn’t a formidable drummer (and one must notice that he has aged quite well, perhaps the best of any members.) Andy was also an equal contributor, though he is left the band, and he provided backing vocals in addition to guitar. Nile Rodgers has been not only a welcome addition as a sometimes-guitarist, but also a longtime supporter and producer of the band. Which brings me to another point: Duran Duran has always been influenced by black music. Not just with the presence of Rodgers, but with Black backup singers and bass-driven, music to dance to. They got their start in a Birmingham club, and so their first experiences as a band were to play live to audiences who could dance if they wanted to.

Duran Duran’s musical talents are sometimes outshined by their embracing of the visual. Fashion, videos, performance, theatrical concerts were all a huge part of their work. Think back to that oh-so-80s, cheerful graphic cover of Rio: an image that defines a generation. But we must understand that their love of the image was part of their style, and style is a part of artistry. (Check out the video for “Pressure Off” from a few years ago–it is nothing short of stunning and chic!) It is sad that many critics disparaged them and saw them as superficial pop stars who only held appeal to teenage girls. 40 years later, Duran Duran has proved them wrong. It is worth revisiting their body of work as an adult, and understanding what intelligent, lasting, and phenomenal artists they are. And of course, good-looking ones. 

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!