The Importance of Holidays

Yesterday was the Fourth of July, my favorite holiday. There is something so egalitarian about this holiday, one that embraces everybody, has no religious basis, is informal, and simply about the joy of getting together and celebrating. I was quite crushed when I learned that there would be no fireworks displays, given the risk of crowds during the pandemic and the rise in cases where I live. Fortunately, much to my surreptitious delight, a number of individuals took it upon themselves to launch spectacular professional-caliber firework displays, and dozens of people were able to watch from the comfort of their cars. My training as an anthropologist always leads me to reflect on the particular rituals and institutions we have as human beings. What is a holiday?

A holiday is a day unlike the others, not an ordinary day. It has a special significance, a weighted meaning. It can commemorate, signify, or mark no particular event at all, other than to remind us that we need to take the day off. Some holidays are religious in nature–think Christmas or Eid al-Fitr. Some are political, such as Cinco de Mayo or even days like July 4th (which is officially Independence Day, marking our independence from the British). There are bank holidays in Britain, summer holidays in France that extend multiple weeks, or name days days in Orthodox countries where a person’s saint after whom they were named is celebrated. A holiday might commemorate a historical event, and might be local, regional, or national.

There are special foods we associate with particular holidays. Once a year, you might make a particular dumpling, a bread, or sweet. These foods may have a significance, representing something or someone, like the sugar skulls or bones on the pan de muerto on the Dia de los Muertos in Mexico.

Particular activities are associated with holidays, such as carrying a deity in a procession around the town or into the sea, throwing tomatoes, wearing costumes and begging for candy. We look forward to these things for weeks or months.

Also, think about particular decorations used for holidays. Living in the West, it is inevitable that Christmas comes to mind; not only do people decorate their houses, but also communities put up decorations as well. On the birth of Lord Krishna on Janmashtami, women in South India make little footprints from rice flour which show the baby’s arrival in the house. There is something exciting to people about particular objects and embellishments that we use and ways in which we adorn our dwellings for a holiday.

There might also be special songs, special prayers, special things to say on a holiday, special clothing, and special ways of behaving. In a sense, one might argue that the Jewish Sabbath, celebrated from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, is a sort of weekly holiday commemorate the week and take a day of rest and spiritual reflection, prayers are sung, bread is broken, and work is not to be done.

Some people refuse to celebrate holidays. They dislike them, find them pointless, think they are just like any old day. But I argue that we need special days that are not like other days, to mark the passage of time and transitions in our lives. What would life be but monotony if we did not have holidays? We need days that remind us of our humanity, of our deep-rooted need to celebrate why we are alive.

The Family Saga: A Universal Theme

In my younger, greener, salad days, I used to be less enthused about books, shows, or movies that were a long family saga, with the complications that come with long drawn-out relationships. I was an only child who grew up far away from relatives, and so it wasn’t as interesting to me. Wasn’t it more fascinating to have different characters who were unrelated? And yet, like so many book-loving girls, I had adored Little Women and the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, and earlier, children’s books like the Frances series about a little badger with quite an attitude. Now, my current writing project is a retelling of a classic novel which is–though usually considered to be a romance–truly a family saga. What makes family dramas universal?

A large ensemble of characters that we follow overtime is key to this format. While the author or camera might focus primarily on one or two of them, having a variety of characters to choose from helps keep things interesting. “Everybody Loves Raymond” was a show, as the title suggests, about Ray Barone, but we also followed the ups and downs of the other characters, such as his brother Robert and his love life. Once married to Amy, we got another family added into the mix that made things even more funny–the combination of Fred Willard and Georgia Engel as Amy’s parents was a stroke of genius on the part of the casting director. In literature, I don’t think anyone could neglect mentioning Tolstoy, who juggled an encyclopedic cast of characters so skillfully in his epics War and Peace and Anna Karenina. Take that to another level with the current global favorite, My Brilliant Friend (which I’m currently enjoying): it is a saga of multiple families whose lives intertwined in postwar Naples. It is not, however, just one novel–it is the first in a tetralogy, which goes to show how much richness can be mined from this theme. In opera, we have The Marriage of Figaro with its high-low social class reversals and romantic intrigue in the members of the Count’s household. And this is all before we find out who Figaro’s mother is!

Family sagas also give us a longitudinal study, so to speak, of a character or characters over time. How do their relationships change and grow or dissolve? What kinds of sibling alliances form? Or do they not get along at all? Is there an uncle who usurps the family power, much to the chagrin of the nephew (hint: Shakespeare)? Is there a missing parent whose absence is equally an important piece of the equation? The brilliant, understated Evan S. Connell’s Mrs. Bridge (and its slightly-weaker sequel, Mr. Bridge) captures the trajectory of a suburban woman in St. Louis between the wars and her relationships with her children. For those of us who grew up with “The Cosby Show,” we got to see Sondra marry Elvin and have twins, Denise go off to college and then to Africa, and even little Rudy grow up. “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” is not only about Midge Maisel’s standup career, but also her highly educated Jewish family and fractured relationship with her ex-husband and his family.

Family sagas also give us a degree of relatability. We can identify with one or more of the characters, see that we are being treated unjustly or how we are treating someone who is irritating us. The power of literature always helps us understand our world and other people, giving us a bird’s-eye view that we cannot see ourselves.

That I should have neglected this genre is especially foolish in light of the fact that the most holy Hindu book is a family saga: The Mahabharata. Tolstoyan in its scope, it is the story in the form of an epic poem of two families of cousins who are fighting over the throne. Naturally, this has been filmed in different versions for television as well as the cinema; all of Hindu India was engrossed in it in the late 80s, and it has been shown again during the lockdown. British director and playwright Peter Brook co-authored a play on The Mahabharata that was itself made into a movie. But Hinduism is not the only religion to feature family stories as part of its mythology or teachings: it is almost needless to say the Old Testament is full of them. Great mythologies of the world often feature families and nobility. Even today, we are intrigued by these types of stories–consider the success of “Downton Abbey” and our obsession with the British royal family.

The word family is fraught with so much emotion that it cannot help but be an ideal subject for literature. We all have family stories we tell, be they funny, frustrated, or infuriating. Family stories can be comic or tragic, or anything in between. Perhaps the late Erma Bombeck said it best in the title of a book: Family–The Ties that Bind…and Gag!

The Physicality of Language

There is an emphasis–dare I say overemphasis?–on the intellectual, cerebral, and cognitive aspects of language today, especially in academia. Camille Paglia has written countless essays on the dominance of postmodern deconstructionism, how we are in a Foucauldian and Derridean era, so to speak. We are unfortunately in a paradigm of a very heady way of approaching ideas and language, and it is important to think beyond this. What of other aspects of language? We have explored the importance of rhyme in my post “Time for Rhyme” on this blog which also appeared in the Macedonian online magazine Blesok. But it is important to go further than rhyme and to think about how language can be physical, auditory, something that invokes movement.

French stage actor and pedagogue Jacques Lecoq did quite a lot with physical movement and mime in his teaching. I was fortunate enough to have the rare opportunity to watch a video of one of his classes, given to me by someone who had studied at his school (from what I understand students are discouraged from revealing too much on video about it). There was one exercise where students from different countries were asked to make a hand gesture related to a certain word. It was interesting to see the diversity of responses as to how language is physicalized, and how different cultures perceive the same words.

The Italian language is so enjoyable because it is so kinesthetic. I’m not only referring to the stereotypical hand gestures that most people imagine when they think of an Italian talking, but also the way in which the inflections and the double consonants and the way vowels are drawn out for emphasis resulting in a very rollicking, physical way of speaking. There is a reason why opera was born in Italy: opera requires the physicalization of language in one’s body. There are a number of physical gestures in Italian that express a certain emotion or thought. It is also important to mention that from region to region, the language varies greatly. Italy is a country full of not only mutually unintelligible accents but dialects. The singsong calls of the Neapolitan vendors at the market (in dialect, or with a Neapolitan accent) are not something that would ever be heard in, for example, Milan, nor would they easily be understood by people of different regions, if even understood at all. This gives a richness to the linguistic culture of “the boot” (as some people lovingly refer to Italy, due to its shape), which is unified through a “standard Italian” accent even though many people still speak dialects at home or within their communities.

I am bilingual in both English (my dominant language by far) and Tamil. The latter is a Dravidian language, completely unrelated to the Indo-European family. Tamil speakers, in my observation, do not always use their hands when they talk, though there are some common gestures and it is certainly a more gesture-heavy language than English. What is noteworthy is that Tamil has quite a lot of onomatopoeia in it. To me, this is a different sense of physicality in language: the actions and motions and sounds of things as well as objects themselves are represented well by the language. For example, the word for firecracker, “pattoss,” is an actual noun that is onomatopoeic. Of course, there is always the much-mocked head nod on the Subcontinent (which I do find hysterically funny). A cousin once told a story of a four head-nod conversation at a train station between him and a vendor on the platform in which both parties completely understood what the other was saying!

We cannot ignore the tonal languages in which meaning is conveyed by tones. This is a very simplistic way of describing the complexity of how pitching one’s voice, the inflections used, and the subtleties of sounds are equally as important to a language as its orthographic and cognitive features. We think of, immediately, Chinese, and there are numerous others such as Thai or Vietnamese and even Swedish. And to go beyond tones, there are families of languages with clicks, such as the Khoisan languages of southern Africa. The language of Xhosa, which is a Bantu language spoken in South Africa, features a high degree of click consonants that can be quite challenging to non-natives. Comedian Russell Peters even has a routine about this that many readers might find funny.

In our digital era where everything is two-dimensional and on a screen, highly physicalized languages are a welcome relief. English is a rich and complex language, but American English in particular can be so literal, efficient, and to-the-point that we need to think about different ways of expressing ourselves, both verbal and nonverbal. Americans need to know more about different types of languages around the world, because when you understand a language, you get to know the people who speak it.

Black Artists Matter

In a sense, it seems foolish to single out black artists, solely for the reason that a great artist is a great artist, no matter what her/his/their race is. However, given the recent tragic, violent events (that are still continuing), it is fitting to pay tribute to them. I think everyone in the arts has to have a personal canon, an individual pantheon of greats, follow a particular “lineage” (that will be the subject of a post in the future). Here’s a list of some of my favorite artists/works of art that made an impression on me, by artists who just happen to be black.

The characters on “Sesame Street.” Who didn’t have feel-good vibes from Gordon and Susan? (And then, as a corollary, Morgan Freeman as Easy Reader on “The Electric Company?”) This is so crucial, as from a young age, if we expose children to diversity, it becomes something very ordinary. Children don’t discriminate in the way adults do. A child will look with loving eyes at a black character simply because they feel love for that character, because that character puts them at ease. Sesame Street was groundbreaking in the way it featured a diverse cast, yet it was not something we children were conscious of. Gordon was Gordon, Mr. Hooper was Mr. Hooper, Maria was Maria. Decades later, it was an incredible thrill to see “Maria” on the street or on the bus when I lived in New York City!

“The Cosby Show.” Before we knew what a disgusting, perverse, frightening monster Bill Cosby was, there was his fabulous, entertaining, family-friendly show that we adored as kids and teens. My generation grew up with Bill Cosby, seeing him on commercials, hearing his voice on “Fat Albert,” watching him with the goofily-named marker Ichabod Mortimer on “Picture Pages” on the children’s show “Captain Kangaroo,” movies, TV shows, and then his own eponymous show. His gift for comic timing, clean humor, onomatopoeic gags, and physical comedy were nothing short of genius. The revelation that he was a drugging rapist feels, to many of us, like we were personally violated and betrayed. We grew up with The Cos, he was our dad, America’s Dad.

Reading Lena Horne’s autobiography in the seventh grade left quite an impression on me. It was quite long, and I was fascinated by her challenges and how she overcame them. She was also incredibly beautiful and talented.

Richard Wright’s Native Son. The sheer power of the novel, when I read it in the 10th grade, was beyond belief. It is a disturbing novel, and not without controversy (James Baldwin famously disliked it). As a writer, I strive for emotional complexity and like writing about emotional dilemmas. This book is rife with them, for there is no clear-cut good or bad. James Baldwin I only came to very late, but he is a stunning prose stylist and one of America’s top intellectuals.

Reading Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon for my AP English class was mind-blowing. It was not merely a book; it was literature. It was the first time I understood what literature was, something beyond two covers, something that was complex, full of symbols, unique prose, and transcendent.

John Coltrane. Hearing “Giant Steps” for the first time my sophomore year in college in a jazz theory class was nothing short of a revelation. We had been given the score, but the pace at which the saxophone line moved was like lightning and nearly impossible to follow. How did anyone have the genius to do that? How could anyone create those rapid chord changes and put a melody on top of it that still made sense, musically? When ‘Trane plays the sax, it sings. That is the ultimate compliment to give any instrumental musician. Coltrane also went on a spiritual journey through his life, one that was continued by his widow, Alice, a gifted musician in her own right. We lost him too soon. Thankfully, generations can enjoy his genius on recordings. As a lifelong jazz fan, there are too many favorites for me to name, but let it suffice to say that jazz is America’s contribution to the world, thanks to all the brilliant black musicians who have created an art form that has been inclusive and inspiring to non-black musicians of all genres.

Oprah. What can we say that hasn’t been said already? Oprah doesn’t do junk. Anything she puts in front of us is uplifting, of good quality. Consider her own journey–from unwed teenage mother to news reporter to talk show host, media mogul, America’s Mother Confessor to whom even the most difficult people will open up, and spiritual seeker who encourages everyone to look deep within, examine their issues, and operate from a place of healthiness and joy. There is no one in the world like her. And of course, we have to give a shout out to her longtime partner, Stedman Graham, who must be the most emotionally secure male on the planet!

The great opera singers. Highest admiration for my last voice teacher, legendary tenor George Shirley, who won the National Medal of the Arts from Obama a few years ago. Truly a great artist, and (literally everyone will affirm) a great human being. And of course, the other legends like Leontyne Price, Jessye Norman, Kathleen Battle, Denyce Graves, and even current stars like Lawrence Brownlee and Nicole Cabell (who is part black, white, and Korean and a truly beautiful person inside and out.) Black singers have made a huge contribution to the world of opera, no one can deny that.

Aretha Franklin. That voice from the pit of her soul–anytime I listen to “Respect,” I get goosebumps. I was fortunate to see Aretha perform in Detroit a few years before she died. She could’ve made a living as a piano player just as well. A voice like that was nothing short of a divine gift.

James Brown. I was also fortunate to see him perform shortly before he died, and as I watched him dance, I realized he had been given a gift of rhythm. This is not to discount his fierce work ethic (something that often frustrated his band), but even with all the hard work in the world, an artist of that caliber was clearly gifted with something.

Arthur Ashe. Not quite an artist, but an icon in the world of tennis. Tennis is one of the few sports I have followed since I was very little, and though I was probably too young to really understand much of what was going on, I remember Ashe being quite the star and a calm, well-spoken man who had to overcome many barriers. He died much too young from AIDS due to a blood transfusion. Watch any interview with him and it will move you to tears–it is heartbreaking to think of his early loss.

These are my canon of my favorite artists who are black; who are yours?

The Right to be Free? Or the Right to be Safe?

Twice when I’ve gone to the grocery store, there is someone in front of me in line–a man–who refuses to wear his mask until he enters the store. I live in a region of the country that is a hotbed of Covid-19, and in my county now, the curve is still rising slightly and not yet flattened. My county requires by law that people wear a mask when they are anywhere in public, with the exception of when they are walking outdoors if there is adequate social distancing. I cannot comprehend why these individuals refuse to do that, even when I politely remind them that it is the law, and why Trader Joe’s takes a cavalier attitude to enforcing it outside. Even inside the store, I have seen women wearing a mask covering only their mouths, not their noses. Needless to say, it makes me livid.

The American ethos is all about freedom, a misguided notion of freedom at all costs. Conservatives and lawless right wing renegades react violently to any discussion of regulation of social behavior. Most of them probably have no idea that in most other parts of the world, people are more highly regulated and in the industrialized West, they are no less free than we are. These foolish, emotion-driven people jump to conclusions with their black-and-white thinking, assuming America will become a Stalinist regime if anyone does anything to curb their liberty. Just look at some of the incidents in the past couple of months: protesters storming the Capitol in Lansing, Michigan and other capitals, kids flocking to Florida beaches for spring break, people flaunting authority and holding parties.

But how about the right to be safe? Why do we never discuss this in America? I would argue that it is due to two things: the lack of a collective mentality/extreme individualism, and because less “aggressive” human rights or more “feminine” and well-being values are not supported in our country. Consider the following:

-During our Covid-19 pandemic/crisis, many governments have not taken strict enough measures for fear of retaliation by their constituents. Yes, there are economic concerns which are very grave. But the longer term dangers to our economy will be a pandemic that continues and/or surges. Also, many politicians have no scientific knowledge whatsoever or are poorly informed. Granted, a number of restrictions could indeed slowly be lifted if people were very diligent and responsible, good about obeying the laws. But I would even go so far as to argue that even during shelter in place, many people have not observed the rules. This kind of arrogant, short-sighted flaunting of the laws can be seen on both right and the left. Some of the educated wealthy people on the left law think does not apply to them, that they are educated and they know better. This is sheer arrogance and entitlement and a disservice to society as a whole.
-Our lack of gun control. Go ahead, cite the Second Amendment about the right to bear arms. Cite the fact that there is violence and we need to defend ourselves, our families, our spouses, our children. Tell me that you are a responsible gun owner, and that you only use your guns for hunting, in which case I would accept your argument as legitimate, though I personally condemn hunting as an animal-loving vegetarian.
But look at the statistics about gun violence in America, And consider the fact that we actually have MORE GUNS THAN PEOPLE in America. Our gun ownership far surpasses that of any other country, including countries that are three times larger than us: India and China. Why should I be concerned for my life just because you are an individual who lives in foolish fear and feels the need to bear arms? How do I know that, if I honk at you when you cut me off on the freeway, you aren’t going to shoot me? Why should I and millions of other educators and students have to read a plaque on the wall of our institutions that give us instructions on what to do if there is an active shooter, along with taking shelter for tornadoes? How many more innocent lives–many of them children–need to be taken by an angry, mentally unstable individual who has gotten a hold of assault weapons? As long as we have the NRA, and our shamelessly unethical politicians who are supported by them, we have no hope for gun control. and our daily lives continue to be potentially harmful instead of safe. And the recent protests have shown how a particular group of people has sadly borne the brunt of gun violence.
-Our lack of universal healthcare. Will we become North Korea if we provide some sort of government-sponsored healthcare for everyone? Does anyone enjoy paying thousands of dollars for procedures that are sometimes inflated due to high malpractice insurance? Or like being in debt for years? Or perhaps you prefer not seeing a doctor, though you are suffering from a serious ailment, and perhaps would rather die? As long as we have this mentality in America (that makes us the laughingstock of the industrialized world) that we need to have the freedom to choose who provides us healthcare, or whether or not we even must have healthcare, no one can live in safe health and freedom from worry about the exorbitant costs. and this impacts people of low socioeconomic status even harder.
-Our disparate educational system. I find it extremely perverse that the quality of a Public school is contingent upon on the wealth of the neighborhood. The fact that people can even vote on whether or not to give money to schools is beyond my comprehension. I understand their criticisms, that school boards may mismanage or mis-spend funds. that it is the efficacy of the funding, not the amount. These are important points, and I don’t deny that there is systemic mismanagement. But to leave education in the hands of people who have no consensus as to what is important, who hold a very Republican perspective on education that claims that other social institutions are more important is completely foolish. And it costs more us in the end.
Children have a right to quality, safe school environments where they are educated, fed properly, and assessed fairly. Teachers have a right to strong resources, supportive administrations and governments, and a classroom free from violence and misbehavior. The burden on our educators is too overwhelming–they must play the role of teacher, social worker, babysitter, psychologist, behavioral expert, parental figure, and more.

Our society favors individualism and freedom to a degree that is near-pathological. Look at countries where there is a high degree of social welfare and government assistance and regulation such as Iceland, Germany, France, South Korea, New Zealand. Even our culturally-similar neighbor, Canada. In none of those countries would you say people lack freedom, that they don’t have the right to protest, that they don’t have free speech, religion–any basic human rights we expect in the developed world. And they all have prosperous economies. We have got to put an end to our fear-based mentality in our culture that says, “If I can’t have everything be 100% free and how I want it, then we are all trapped in a totalitarian regime.” And then we must create social policies and laws with common sense. People overseas often regard Americans as “the teenagers of the world,” people who can’t bear to have any rules and will act out if any are imposed. And just like a parent might tell a teenager, I would conclude by saying, “Let’s leave a good impression of ourselves on other people and learn how to behave properly.”

Black Bookstores Matter

If there is something that’s been on your reading list for a while you’ve been excited to read, won’t you consider purchasing it from a small local African-American bookshop in Ypsilanti, MI, a city that is already vulnerable? Black Stone Bookstore & Cultural Center:

https://www.blackstonebookstore.com

They also have a Go Fund Me page:

https://www.gofundme.com/f/SupportBlackStone

 There are so few Black bookstores in the country,  let’s make sure they stay alive!

 Thank you so much!

Sonja

Black Lives Don’t Matter Enough

There was supposed to be a different post today, but I feel compelled to write on recent events. I do not in any way consider myself an authority on the current situation; I can only bring an awareness to what I see and perceive as a writer.

Like so many of you, I feel absolutely horrified and saddened beyond belief with the killing of George Floyd. We don’t need *yet another* incident of police brutality. Imagine, for those of us who are not black, if we hear a rattle at the door and suspect a thief, we call the police, feeling safe and trusting enough to do so. Imagine if you are a black person, especially a man, and you did the same thing–you might get arrested for being in your own home, or even killed.

Look at the intersection of trust and race. I belong to a minority group that is considered the “most successful” group in the United States: we have CEOs, Pulitzer Prize winners, Ivy League professors, and a handful of nationally-known entertainers–not to mention your garden variety of doctors, scientists, and IT professionals! Though I have indeed experienced racism and discrimination (in one case so badly that I had to leave a graduate program, but then eventually so did three other white students in my cohort), I can generally trust that the institutions in American society are going to work to help me. While people may have trouble pronouncing my name, my name and my type of American accent are likely not going to prevent me from being able to rent an apartment. If I go up to a police officer and say that I saw an abandoned, full backpack or suitcase next to a building, they will take me seriously and investigate it.

But imagine if this is not the case. Imagine you cannot trust the institutions in your society to support you. Imagine that there are people who still hold subtle prejudices against your ethnic group, or, more innocently, who may be a bit dismissive of your concerns. Sure, they might not use the N-word, nor would they condone the KKK or white supremacist protesters holding a noose. Yet they might say that “you’re complaining too much,” or “all lives matter.” But just because someone is tired of hearing something, or finds certain things repetitive does not mean the problem is over. Just because you as an individual have absolutely no discrimination against black people and treat them as equals–which is an admirable and necessary thing–does not mean that discrimination against black people does not exist. Just because individuals do not discriminate does not mean that institutions do not.

I do empathize and understand where these people are coming from. I also agree that they often see too much violence and a need for more personal responsibility in the communities they criticize. I do not, personally, agree with the horrifying violence that has been going on in response. Violence only escalates negative situations and accomplishes very little other than destruction. I read a Detroit Free Press article about protests in Detroit that turned violent, and many of the violent individuals were actually white protesters from the suburbs. These are not helpful allies.

From a Buddhist point of view, one could say that the policemen who commit these horrific acts of violence against black people are not at peace with themselves. They lack empathy, they have serious issues with anger, and they have likely not been exposed to positive figures in the black community. They are often repeatedly thrown in situations where their own lives feel threatened, and the people who are threatening them are of an entirely different race and cultural background they are not comfortable with. They overreact to situations which require law enforcement, but not violence (George Floyd was using a counterfeit $20 bill, which was indeed an illegal act, but minor). I am aware that there have been programs with mindfulness training on police forces, but when the fire of anger is stoked, when there are biochemical forces at work, when racist feelings are hardwired into the reptilian brain, and lethal weapons are involved, this seems like a recipe for disaster.

We hear so frequently about black criminals, and yet we laud people like Julian Assange (who is no honorable freedom fighter but really an asocial criminal mastermind), law-dismissing Mark Zuckerberg (always in glossy magazine articles entitled something like “Thirty Billionaires Under 30”), and asshole-in-chief Jeff Bezos who doesn’t pay his corporate taxes. Why aren’t these people equally condemned? Why is white-collar so soft and under the radar? Why is being a sociopath in a suit or a hoodie acceptable?

We need to teach people, from the time they are very young, about differences. We need to expose children to others of all backgrounds. This is a huge challenge in the United States where we have such demographic variety and enormous distances. We need to hold our media accountable to the images and stories they feature, especially when it relates to certain ethnic groups. We need to socialize men–and women–so that they learn how to deal with anger in constructive ways (domestic violence cuts across all classes and backgrounds). Gun control is an urgent necessity, though the majority of us are powerless next to the gun lobby. We also need to study philosophy and understand why we have laws, study sociology and understand why and how we need to regulate human behavior.

Most of all, we really need to encourage everyone to develop empathy, to see beyond our own little narrow selves, and to really listen to what other people have to say, even when it’s uncomfortable.

We Love Lucy: The Enduring Comic Genius of Lucille Ball

Lucille Ball is the best female comedian America has ever known–or rather, one of the best comedians America has ever known. Why so? Why do we love that crazy redhead even half a century later?

-She was willing to make a fool of herself. Any true performer knows it’s not about ego, that one has to let go of the self in order to completely inhabit the character and to serve the text and the spirit of what is being performed. Lucy was willing to go there, be it saying things she wasn’t supposed to say (think the episode where she had to tell the truth for 24 hours), physical comedy, or making a complete mess of things. Carol Burnett also has this gift, as do Jim Carrey and Alex Borstein, among others.

-Related to the point above, pushing the limits. “I Love Lucy” featured an intercultural marriage, and one with a husband with a strong accent from a country that later became America’s number one enemy. It featured outrageous situations, such as international travel, drunkenness from a health tonic, or faking the ability to speak Spanish. The show was also set in New York City and then later Los Angeles, not in suburbia. Ricky lived the showbiz lifestyle and their beloved neighbors and friends, Fred and Ethel, had been vaudeville performers. The show makes good use of the medium, and was also the first show to be recorded live in front of a studio audience. That speaks to the talents of the cast, who were essentially performing a play in each episode.

-Excellent writers. The script for each episode is nothing short of brilliant. In less than half an hour (22 minutes), an entire microcosm of a story with rising action, climax, and dénouement is created. A start-to-finish story, perfect dialogue, and even cross-cultural humor are included. Note the occasional lapses into Spanish by Ricky Ricardo that heighten the comedy. Couple this with sharp timing all the actors involved, and you have a recipe for success. It is important to note that one of the key writers for the show was a woman, Madelyn Pugh, a rarity at that time.

-The battle of the sexes. Political correctness can fail to simply acknowledge that this is a human situation as old as mankind, and that relations between men and women are sometimes downright hilarious. Whether it’s Lucy forgetting to relay a message to her husband, buying something she shouldn’t have, Ricky excluding her from an event, Fred and Ethel’s eternal squabbles over his cheapskate nature, this is something that men and women can relate to not only in America, but all over the world.

-Glamour. No one can deny that the crisp black-and-white cinematography, elegant Dior-esque dresses, or romantic songs at the club are just a little more chic than what the rest of America had. Ricky Ricardo is certainly handsome, New York is the epicenter of style, so who wouldn’t want a little panache on the screen? The cast travel cross country, move to Hollywood, and travel in Europe. These were things that were still out of the reach for most Americans in the 50’s. Good TV over the years and even today fulfills this purpose, giving us a little bit of glamour and something just beyond our reach. Think “The Cosby Show” and their upper-middle-class Brooklyn life, “Sex and the City” with the women’s endless designer clothes and nights out at chic lounges, or “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” with stunning art direction and costume design. There’s something to be said for visual escapism.

The show has mass appeal as it its themes are universal and simple. Even my grandmother in India had enjoyed it! Everyone has a favorite “Lucy” episode. Mine is when Lucy’s mother-in-law arrives from Cuba and Lucy is not able to speak with her in Spanish. She enlists the help of a Spanish-speaking magician she saw in the club and wears an earphone into which magician dictates what she should say to her mother-in-law. Naturally, it backfires with hilarious results.

What’s yours?

For the Love of Globe

Though I feel that I should be writing on some sort of Covid-related issue, such as what to read or how to be introspective, I choose to write on the complete opposite: travel.

In a world that is alarmingly leaning toward the right, starting with our leaders like Donald Trump, and where there is extreme xenophobia, arising from different circumstances such as mass migration by refugees from parts of the world that are experiencing danger, it helps to think of the joys we have in our differences, and to be grateful for the privileges many of us have had in getting to see different parts of the world.

My childhood was marked by somewhat-quadrennial trips to India that, in the earlier years before super-long-haul flights, involved multiple stops. This, perhaps, planted the seed for my curiosity about different peoples and cultures that eventually led to a degree in anthropology and a number of global homestays. My young self wondered, “Will I ever get to see those places on the ground some day?” Even the sites of different tarmacs with different airports with different landscapes was fascinating to my little eyes. I recall laundry swaying in the wind behind a house next to the airport in Manchester. Being given two little sample bottles of Courrèges cologne–glass with a round golden orb on top–at Frankfurt airport that I kept for many years. The palm trees and concrete at Kuwait Airport where we stopped to refuel. The orange sunrise over the unbelievably flat horizon at Dubai airport, and inside, the gleaming red marble interior (even in the bathroom!) and men wearing a long thobe with a red-checkered ghutra on their head. How in Delhi, passengers got off on the tarmac and were bussed to the gate. And the relief when, at 9 AM, after traveling over 20 hours, we boarded the last flight on our journey from Bombay to Madras on Indian Airlines.

When I was 15, my dream finally came true, for we stopped in London en route to- and Rome en route from India as part of our journey. And both cities did not disappoint: if anything, they were exciting beyond belief, as it was my first time in a country other than India or the border countries of Mexico and Canada. For those of us who are Indian-Americans, our sense of place and the world is shaped by these trips, for we not only lived with two cultures in the United States, but came from two cultures that spanned the globe, on vastly opposite sides of the earth. 

I am fortunate to have traveled to places where many Americans don’t usually go, and to have been able to stay with friends or in ways that forced me to “go native.” I have given a talk to high school students in rural Denmark, shopped for groceries in Austria, visited Sibelius’s house Finland (where I was allowed to tinker on his piano!), bargained with shopkeepers in India, ridden a commuter boat with locals in Bangkok.

There are still so many places I want to see. Recently, I have enjoyed watching a wonderful BBC series with journalist Sadeq Saba called “A Taste of Iran” with the result being that the bug is now in me to visit that glorious country full of a variety of stunning landscapes, ancient history, and marvelous food. Perhaps because of the trips to India that were routed via Europe and over Central Asia, I have an interest in Middle Eastern and Central Asian cultures. It is interesting to see the progression of various cultural traits and histories and rituals from Europe through the Subcontinent, how certain elements have been carried through the regions. For example, some of the architecture I saw in Bulgaria is similar to that I saw in Bhutan.

It is quite heartbreaking to think that international travel may be curtailed and may not be safe for a number of years. The pandemic has, oddly, brought us together in teaching us about our shared humanity, just as travel does. The silver lining is that it has given the earth a chance to heal, reminding us that we are not the only creatures who live on this planet. But for those of us who love to see different people and places, right now we can only have empathy for our fellow human beings who are sick everywhere: in a worn hospital in Manhattan, in a dusty flat near Tehran, in a village in Lombardia, a crowded street in Wuhan. And then we can imagine we are there visiting in better times.