Archive for March, 2009

31 March, 2009

Dancing with Rahm Emanuel

So, I knew this already, truly, I’m that much of a dorkish digger of obscure factoids. Today’s Daily Beast line up of the famous and their courses of undergraduate study featured the enigmatic Rahm Emanuel and the revelation that the White House Chief of Staff passed up the Joffrey Ballet to study dance at Sarah Lawrence College. I’m a movie nut as well, and The Company featured the breadth of talent and the depth of dedication exhibited by the company at the Joffrey, even though the movie was based on Neve Campbell’s experience with the National Ballet of Canada. In other words, you don’t get into Joffrey without exhibiting serious talent, both current and potential.

Anyway, the point is, Emanuel is a dancer in a nation that tends to produce very few of them among the general male populace. For reasons best known to themselves, American men tend to shun the art form. I read the following in an interesting article I found (out of Chicago), on the subject:

Dance writer Clive Barnes, in a Dance Magazine article on the shortage of male performers more than 10 years ago, wrote: “Most anthropologists would endorse the view that in tribal patterns the men fought, hunted and danced, and the women cooked, reared the children and governed the society. But it was the men who danced.

Now it’s come full circle. Men who dance are more likely to be considered wimps than warriors, no matter how many Mikhail Baryshnikovs or Patrick Swayzes put on tights.

“To stay in dance, a man needs a strong self-image, or he has to be very good. It’s probably much easier for men to be involved in social dance than ballet,” says Davis, who teaches at the No. 1 dance university in the US. An amazing 5,000 students enroll in BYU’s ballet, modern ballroom and folk dance classes every semester.

So what does that say about a guy who studied ballet? A guy who is not as tall as the Commander in Chief though, to be fair, the latter has the sort of stature that is evidenced by more than a measuring tape. Then again, so does Emanuel. To choose the path he did takes, in America, some significant cajones.

After Sarah Lawrence, Emanuel went on to get his Masters in communications at Northwestern University although whether his manner of speech was influenced by his graduate studies is in the process of being evaluated! Here is one of the more polite evaluations of the CoS’s style of communication:

Obama may speak beautifully and inspirationally about hope and change, about bipartisan cooperation and a better America. But he clearly understands that you can’t just sit around talking about all the good things you want to do when you get to the White House and then expect them to happen all by themselves. Which means you can’t hire a staff that’s going to gather at work every day, hold hands and sing “Kumbaya.”

Instead, you bring in a guy like Emanuel, the most hardheaded, no-nonsense, foul-mouthed, smart-as-hell, get-it-done-or-get-out-of-my-way Washington insider of his generation… “Rahm does not sing ‘Kumbaya,’ ” says an old friend and colleague with a laugh. “He barks orders.”

I would wager a guess that those who want to analyze the politics of the man should stop listening to the words, colorful though they may be, and keep an eye on those feet. There is an African proverb that says that those who dance are thought to be insane by those who cannot hear the music and whatever else can be said of him, Rahm Emanuel hears the music.

30 March, 2009

Facebook, Democracy & World Peace

So, on Saturday, Mark Zuckerberg and Chris Cox, who claim they are so not cool, but rather, nerdy and useful, were part of a NYT feature on the evolution and valuation of Facebook. One of the most interesting things mentioned in the article was about the recent changes that incited a near-mutiny aboard the good ship Facebook:

“The changes, Facebook executives say, are intended to make the act of sharing — not just information about themselves but what people are doing now — easier, faster and more urgent. Chris Cox, 26, Facebook’s director of products and a confidant of Mr. Zuckerberg, envisions users announcing where they are going to lunch as they leave their computers so friends can see the updates and join them.

“That is the kind of thing that is not meaningful when it is announced 40 minutes later,” he says.”

Which got me thinking about the whole “friending” thing again. Frankly, many of us don’t, really, want to wine, dine or even java with about 793 of our 817 friends. We also do not wish to be stalked by the fifty or so weirdos who friended us on Facebook. Do, say, Antonya Nelson, Cormac McCarthy, or Charles Baxter really want a mob of fledgling writers barging into their private lunch at Rouge in Philadelphia? Which is not to say they ever dined there together or apart. Or that I knew of it. Because I don’t.

The Sultans of Facebook also say that the conflict over the new design stems from the mad idea that we who helped build the site through our participation, imagine that we might have a say in its design. They respond thus:

“It’s not a democracy,” Mr. Cox says of his company’s relationship with users. “We are here to build an Internet medium for communicating and we think we have enough perspective to do that and be caretakers of that vision.”

Which is true. They do. But it is also true that true caretakers of a vision respond to the needs of its component parts. For the most part, Facebook has done a terrific job of enabling us to find our common threads and stitch ourselves cozy virtual social blankets. I have friends on Facebook who disagree strongly, to put it mildly, with my political opinions. I have friends who should be, if we went the usual route of only hanging around kindred spirits, enemies. But having found each other through our common interests or friends, we are still holding on because something probably tells us that the fuss and fury we exhibit about each others POV are really not as important as those other things that made us click “friend request” in the first place.

While they celebrate this fast and furious path to world peace through Facebook, though, Zuckerberg and Cox should keep in mind the fact that the desire for global human connections, which waits like a vast ocean at the end of our clicks and clacks, can find another river. The two and a half million souls who have joined the “Millions Against Facebook’s New Layout and Terms of Service” may not seem like much in the face of one hundred million users. But, as the saying goes, it only takes a small leak to sink a big ship.

And, for our part, those of us who wish to treat Facebook as the democracy it is, no matter what its founders would prefer it to be, should also have the intelligence to use its design – i.e. the reasonably creative privacy settings that can be fine-tuned to fit your fancy – to create a more perfect union.

28 March, 2009

Global Civilians

This is the news of the latest attack by proponents of terrorism, this time in Pakistan:

“A suicide bomber blew himself up during Friday prayers at a packed Pakistan mosque, leaving around 50 dead and scores wounded in one of the bloodiest recent attacks in the nation.”

The bomber set himself off at the precise climax of the service, leading the words spoken by the Imam, God Is Great to be the last heard by the living, the wounded and the dead.

On this side of the once closed ocean, something else was going on. In an address to a nation weary of sending its soldiers overseas, President Obama said, “I want the American people to understand that we have a clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan.” You can read that story here.

And while we all debate the precise details of a war on terror as it is carried out among the terrified against the terrorists (of one nation) by terrorists (of other nations), I am reminded of something my brother, Malinda, a senior Sri Lankan journalist wrote to me recently:

“Everyone loves a rebel as long as he is a foreigner, and terrorists are freedom fighters as long as they kill people in other countries.”

I put these thoughts out there in the context of the news mentioned above, as a point of departure for our private intellectual negotiations with these terms. The fact of the matter remains that everything is simple and clear until it happens to us, and I am just as guilty of this dance as anybody else.

Recently another friend asked the following on a discussion list pertaining to South Asia:

“I guess I am trying to understand what a Muslim invention is and how it differs from a Hindu or a Christian invention. I would hazard a guess the organizers have collected inventions made by Muslim inventors or that originated in Muslim countries. What links these inventions together ? Did the inventors’ religious belief or cultural practice in some way influence the invention ?

Islam is widely dispersed geographically. An advance in solid state electronics in Indonesia, the concept of micro-credit as developed in Bangladesh and some agricultural practices in Morocco could all be said to be Muslim inventions. But what synthesis is achieved by assembling these under one roof ?”

Indeed. And perhaps literature is where, in the end, we find our best answers. This week, Sana Krasikov, won the Sami Rohr Prize for emerging writers of Jewish literature for her collection, One More Year (Spiegel & Grau), which tells the stories of Russian and Georgian immigrants to America in the aftermath of the Cold War. It is an important contribution not simply to Jewish literature, but to the literature of movement of human beings between countries. The other winner announced this week, was Dalia Sofer, author of The Septembers of Shiraz (Ecco) for her novel about a Jewish family in Iran in the period after the Islamic Revolution. There is a great review of her book by Claire Messud, in the New York Times. And, once again, I am struck not so much by the particulars, but by the general appeal of this novel.

In Jewish Sofer’s Iran, there is a “Shirin.” In Tamil Preeta Samarasan‘s Malaysia there is a “Shamsudeen.” In my Sri Lanka, predominantly Buddhist but also Muslim, Hindu and Catholic, there were Shereens and Samsudeens. In all our three countries, there were dates, Kandos chocolates and burfi. There were Septembers and infidelity. In the literature that belongs to us all, in the stories we tell, are the same strangers who visit, and known angels who depart, the same untranslatable desires. Where, then, are the things that divide us, among countries and, within those countries, among people? Where are the words that persuade some among us – who, no matter how misguided are still products of the societies to which we contribute – to blow themselves up inside a place of worship?

I cast this thought out without confirmation, except that which I can attest to at the anecdotal and conjectural levels: the fault lies not in our religions but in a failure to instill a love of reading. For literature, no matter who her patrons might be, afford us a look into other lives, and a way to discovering that there are fewer particulars to our definitions of ourselves as belonging to a certain tribe or culture or country, but that the accurate classification for ourselves is that of global civilians.

26 March, 2009

Living to Write

A gray morning like this one, in Philly anyway, is a blessing for most writers. The world passes us by almost every day and when the weather is good, that world seems to pick up speed while we sit and write in our various, often gloomy, corners. Bad weather makes me feel productive as I write; not only is the world slow outside my window, those who are at work behind teak desks and at chalk boards are probably not performing at their peak either. That combination makes my world quieter, allowing the muse to linger.

The writer’s life, for most of us, is not quite full of glamorous brilliance as portrayed by actors-playing-writers in movies. If refulgence there be, it is usually cast by the light of our computer screens rather than any flashes of wit or insouciant prose spilling from our fingertips. The people mentioned in Garrison Keelor’s artful piece in Salon.com yesterday, on the “real” American dream, was therefore doubly amusing. Not simply because it is true: everybody wants to “be a writer,” but because it is a truism. The old Ben Franklin quote, “Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing about,” drives us all, postmen and hairdressers alike. And every aspiring writer, myself included, was once on the other side of the divide that separates the blessed from the still aspiring. The one thing that distinguishes one type of person from the other (and these people live in the intersection of a Venn diagram which holds some of both the blessed and the aspiring), is not simply the desire to write but the need to write. For this, the weather – temporal, ecclesiastical, physical, emotional – is always conducive for creating with words.

The more pertinent quote, then, comes from Dan Torday, who writes, in his reflection on Cheever for The Kenyon Review:

Maybe the hidden lesson of Cowley’s (Cheever’s editor at The New Republic) advice to write four short pieces in four days was the other side of that coin: Don’t just write short, but write often.

If that means finding a corner in your local library, even if it is not one, like the New York Public Library, which sets aside space for writers with book contracts to work in a salubrious, bookish environment, as reported in an article in The Village Voice recently, then that is where you should be heading. Or, as stated in stark black, sans-sarif lettering on a bright yellow postcard sent out by the Gotham Writers Workshop, the one I have pinned above my desk: Don’t Forget To Write.

25 March, 2009

This Blogging Business

I was most delighted to come across the beautiful Jason Schneiderman’s blog post on the Painted Bride Quarterly blog today. The post deals with the issue of what gives weight to our words, and whether anything in the blogosphere and, indeed, anything on the web, carries with it the same weight as the things we read in print.

I do believe that we still give more credence to what we purchase with “real” money, over what we access for “free.” And yet careers are made and broken online. While, as Jason says, card catalogs aren’t truly missed by anybody, we also don’t particularly want micro chips implanted in our brains that would enable us to simply plug ourselves into the nearest outlet and “update” the news. Okay, so we aren’t there yet. But I do feel we are hurtling, thoughtlessly, toward something that substitutes a feeding frenzy over speed for reasoning and quality and editorial oversight.

There was an earlier, more primal, national craze that lead to the current state of paralysis that grips most consumers in the supermarket; somewhere between having only one breakfast item called “Cornflakes” and having nine thousand breakfast cereals looming over us at the local store, was a happy medium we missed. And now, with regard to the online/print debate, we have another, swiftly closing window of opportunity to strike that happy medium. To get to that happy medium, we need a thinking human being. Could that person be me? Are we the ones we’ve been waiting for? Truly? I’m off to read something erudite. Probably online. And then, to purchase books at a book fair to be donated to a library where people still go to lurk, s.l.o.w.l.y, among words in surround-sound.

24 March, 2009

Foreign Media

After a late night talking to John Zuarino for a sweet interview he did with me about the book, a night pushed through with the ingestion of Emergen-C and Samahan to stave off whatever illness is in the air, and a morning spent volunteering at a book fair, I was feeling pretty wiped. What, oh what, could I blog about? As usual, Facebook gave me an easy answer. Scrolling through the links my friends had posted, I came across yet another account by a foreign journalist, in this case an Australian, ranting about restrictions on travel into the areas in which the Sri Lankan government is fighting the terrorist group, the LTTE. That there are restrictions on travel into the Vanni is true. That usually is the case when there is a war going on. The government did not, and will not, allow this journalist into the zones where the LTTE is holding Tamil civilians hostage. They did and will allow Sir John Holmes, the United Nations Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator to travel through those same areas freely. Those restrictions are in place for the safety of the reporters themselves. As a case in point, my own brother, a senior and well respected journalist and someone who works for Sri Lanka’s media unit is, himself, required to undergo the same process to request permission in order to travel to the North as well as the security to do so safely.

It is all too easy for these fly-in journalists to put their neat articles together based on whim and fancy, and our desire to “access the latest breaking news” from anywhere, be it through bloggers or twitterers, makes us complicit in the creation of untruths. A journalist who wishes to cover a current conflict can only do so with any credibility if they have taken the time and gone to the trouble of learning about the country about which they want to talk. In a hard-hitting and prescient article in the American Journalism Review, Sherry Ricchiardi wrote about the age of “parachute journalism,” i.e. those who drop by and write about conflicts they do not understand. She quoted Ted Koppel thus:

Nevertheless, it still amounts to parachute journalism. “Look, I don’t care how good you are, how experienced you are, if you’ve never been in a country before, and you are just parachuted in to cover a crisis, all you can do is skim the surface of what is going on…You don’t have sources, you don’t have the background, you don’t have the context.”

Among the journalists who are commended in her article is Roy Gutman, who reported from 1989 to 1994 as Europe bureau chief for Newsday, work for which he was honored with a Pulitzer in 1993 and the George Polk Award for foreign reporting. Gutman’s claims the work he put into building a solid base of knowledge and “becoming intimately acquainted with the territory” he covered as his strengths. “You have to have experienced people who can figure out the big pictures as well as the little picture. The worst thing that can happen in a crisis…is taking the word of one side or the other and running with it and not understanding the context,” he is quoted as saying at the time.

It is bad enough when journalists take the easy route of interviewing a few expatriates – without investigating their political and economic investment in giving a particular slant to a story – or quote “sources” they access via a long-distance phone call. But it is particularly egregious to do so when it involves a small country on the other side of the world that most people have never heard of and whose fate, too, is not of import to a given international readership. But they are no less human, no less complex, no less deserving of respect than the people who glance at these stories over their morning cups of cappuccino down a street in New York City, or in a bookstore outside Melbourne.

23 March, 2009

Facebook & the Poet David Morley

I confess that I lean heavily on Facebook to stay in touch with my friends in the world of words, politics (words), and births, deaths and marriages (words, words, words). I’m an old-timer who joined Facebook way back in the year of the Lord 2004 or thereabouts when a ruckus erupted on campus over racist statements being bandied about on the site. It is only in the last few years though that I have become a tender of the flame. I avoid the quizzes; I haven’t taken one yet. I think. Quite recently, a good friend blinked out of Facebook because she needed to get back to writing. Last month, I caught Farhard Manjoor defending his piece against Facebook-holdouts in Slate on NPR’s Talk of the Nation. I have to admit that I laughed long and hard at the cranky anti-Facebookers that crowded the show, reminding me that the desire to be anti-cult can be just as cultish as the original cult. And that is said as someone who prides herself on being the front-line of defense for The Lord of the Rings against the tinny clamor of the Harry Potter chorus.

But the reason for this post is to share my discovery of an amazing poet, artist and human being named David Morley. Not being a poet myself, except in times of deep anguish when I am known to order unnecessarily melodramatic words into lines, claim that it is poetry and even mail it hither and yon only to cringe a day later, I had been oblivious of his existence or amazing contribution to literature until I ran across him on Facebook. I don’t even remember how it was that I found him. Perhaps it was a “friend suggestion,” or just by browsing through my friends’ lists of friends. I clicked on his link for the simple reason that he looked interesting. Yes, Virginia, your profile picture is important. David’s biography tells of eighteen published works including nine collections of poetry and of his life as “a critic, anthologist, editor and scientist of partly Romani extraction.” He teaches at the University of Warwick and this is his blog.

One of the most fascinating things that came to me through discovering Morley on Facebook, was a slow art poetry trail that he had constructed at Bolton Abbey, North Yorkshire. The poems are written into the natural materials and are designed to remain there until they disappear. You can watch the introduction by Morley and follow the trail here.

The word-iteration of sand mandalas. The fact that my first novel contained an enormous amount of research into Romani rituals. David Morley out of the ether. Life is good. Facebook on, my friends, even with the new and not-improved version of the beast, it remains a beautiful thing.

22 March, 2009

Girls, Books, Conversations

The Rihanna & Chris Brown story has been dominating the media for some time now, and for good reason. Violence against women, particularly women within intimate relationships, still remains shrouded in contextualization and skepticism on the part of the greater society as well as legal authorities. But as I read the post on Salon’s Broadsheet regarding the PSA produced by dosomething.org, which depicts a female teenager being battered by her date (the video is shown below), I began to think about the fact that so many girls and women appear not to have the self-respect or skills or even desire to remove themselves from violent relationships.

Rihanna herself is reportedly back with the guy who, according to police reports, attempted to beat her head against the doors and strangle her. While PSAs such as this can highlight the ways in which violence is done to young women, although it also feeds into the macabre voyeurism which prompts us to click on links to everything from models-gone-wild to be-headings of captured human beings (I refuse to add the urls for those), I wonder how much good they can do in a pop culture – once American but now global – that does its best to discourage women from being strong, self-confident and self-respecting. Lyn Mikel Brown and Sharon Lamb wrote a book, Packaging Girlhood (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2007) about the pervasive nature of social-marketing for girls and their website gives a great overview on how to counter it. Better still, their new book on packaging boyhood will be out soon and I’ll be sure to blog about it when it does. The combination of stereotypes (submissive and psychologically self-immolating for girls and dominant and physically aggressive for boys) is a Molotov cocktail of doom for society as a whole.

There is evidence to show that what truly matters are the ways in which girls are raised combined with coming-of-age ceremonies – astonishingly rare for American girls – both of which are enormous influences on the degree of self-respect they come to have as women, for their bodies and minds. I came across an interesting discussion on the issue here, in a blog post about Julia Alvarez’ book Once Upon A Quinceanera (Viking Adult, 2007). With mothers having a particularly important role in ushering their daughters from girlhood to womanhood, I thought I should also mention Deborah Tannen’s book, You’re Wearing That? (Random House, 2006) which I found to be quite useful in describing the pitfalls of American mothers and daughters in conversation as well as upbeat with regard to creating meaningful coming of age traditions. Janet Lucy’s book Moon Mother, Moon Daughter (Libri, 2003), is another user-friendly guide to creating positive space between younger and older women.

So here’s my suggestion for the day for us women: turn off the cell phones and computers and strike up inter-generational, cross-cultural, multi-religious conversations. Hold the young girls in your life close. There is more to be said and gained from growing strong women from within than can be achieved by simply showing them how strong men can knock them down with their fists.

21 March, 2009

Who Is Responsible for the News Fit to Print/Stream?

A few days ago, when I facebooked about this website/blog and the book, a friend wrote back to say he had requested that it be made available on Kindle. That resulted in a discussion regarding the fate of books, newspapers and all things black, white, and made-from-trees. The upside of the Kindle and Kindle2 devices is, of course, the fact that it is good for the environment, convenient, quick and portable, and combines what we want to do but don’t – write on books, dog ear them, cross-reference pages – or can’t – increase font size for instance. The obvious immediate downside is cost. For more on the pitch for Kindle, you can hear Jeff Bazos, CEO of Amazon, talking with Charlie Rose in a February 26th, 2009 interview here.

But as we readers and writers absorb the news of the shutting down of Colorado’s Rocky Mountain News, and consider all the many print-publication related establishments that have been forced to rethink, restructure, rebrand or simply retire, I wonder how much our desire for “everything I want right here, this instant” has contributed to both of these eventualities. Here are the words written to their subscribers by the editorial staff of the Rocky Mountain News on February 27th of this year:

“It is with great sadness that we say goodbye to you today. Our time chronicling the life of Denver and Colorado, the nation and the world, is over. Thousands of men and women have worked at this newspaper since William Byers produced its first edition on the banks of Cherry Creek on April 23, 1859. We speak, we believe, for all of them, when we say that it has been an honor to serve you. To have reached this day, the final edition of the Rocky Mountain News, just 55 days shy of its 150th birthday is painful. We will scatter. And all that will be left are the stories we have told, captured on microfilm or in digital archives, devices unimaginable in those first days. But what was present in the paper then and has remained to this day is a belief in this community and the people who make it what it has become and what it will be. We part in sorrow because we know so much lies ahead that will be worth telling, and we will not be there to do so. We have celebrated life in Colorado, praising its ways, but we have warned, too, against steps we thought were mistaken. We have always been a part of this special place, striving to reflect it accurately and with compassion. We hope Coloradans will remember this newspaper fondly from generation to generation, a reminder of Denver’s history – the ambitions, foibles and virtues of its settlers and those who followed. We are confident that you will build on their dreams and find new ways to tell your story. Farewell – and thank you for so many memorable years together.”

As blogged by Jon Tantzillo here on IncBizNet, in a post that ties the ‘winner’ (Kindle) with the ‘loser’ (Rocky Mountain News), the goal now is to ensure that the quality of reporting that we have, albeit not with regard to every newspaper, come to associate with printed news, can be matched and sustained by what we download with our morning cups of coffee. As with most things, the pressure to make that happen must come from the reader – whether they are doing it sitting at a keyboard or gripping a newspaper is, in the end, beside the point.

20 March, 2009

It Takes A Woman

Today the front lawn of the White House will be planted with an organic vegetable garden, as reported in the New York Times. The 1,100 square foot garden is designed to include fifty-five vegetables including the slightly bitter frou-frou salad staple, arugula – a bit like the amunakola that is eaten in Sri Lanka – for whose presence in the then Senator’s diet, he was ridiculed as being “out of touch.” It will also be planted with berries and herbs, and two hives will be established for honey that will be tended by a White House carpenter who is also a beekeeper. The produce will be used to feed not only the Obamas but for state and official dinners and events.

In a country where people are judged by the quality of lawns maintained with the use of 80 million pounds of pesticides – ten times more chemical pesticides than farmers use on their crops according to the Environment & Human Health, Inc. – this is big news. The single, most important issue for kids and youth in this country, according to the pollsters, is the protection and care of the earth. I’m glad that we have a First Lady willing to get her own hands dirty to show that she has heard them, and the courage to lead the initiative. These are her words: “My hope is that (the children will) begin to educate their families and that will, in turn educate our communities.”

The Books:

The Books:

On Sal Mal Lane

In the tradition of In the Time of the Butterflies and The Kite Runner, a tender, evocative novel about the years leading up to the Sri Lankan civil war.

A Disobedient Girl

A Disobedient Girl is a compelling map of womanhood, its desires and loyalties, set against the backdrop of beautiful, politically turbulent, Sri Lanka.


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