Monthly Archives: November 2011

Two thoughts forward, one step back

A sunny Friday afternoon in Wellington.

I thought there was nobody at home at first but then I heard voices from the other end of the house. They carried me to 4’s room where she was on her mother Rach’s lap, recovering from a tantrum. 4 searched my face for a reason to restart her yelling. I smiled.

“I’m going to do some exercise,” I announced cheerfully.

“Okay,” said Rach, who was kind enough to not laugh at me. 4 continued her deep breathing, staring straight ahead.

I went downstairs and changed into my running gear. My shoes and shorts still bore the clean chemical odour of the stores I bought them from. I realised I’d become another one of those people with new exercise clothes – the guy you see run past your house once or twice, huffing and puffing and looking out of place, then never again.

Back upstairs I went. 4 was in the living room now, setting up a megasketcher write-and-wipe pad, toy cash register and a bag of plastic food. I heard Rach in the kitchen, preparing real food for dinner later.

“Barns can you play café?”

I hesitated.

“You only have to play two games!”

“Well, [4], I was actually going to go for a run…”

Enormous pout. Bottom lip protruding at least two centimetres out from face. On the cusp of tears.

“…but why don’t you tell me how you play café?”

Bottom lip put away. She launched immediately into an explanation of the rules. No smile or indication of relief. It was just a ruse, a tactic to force me into staying! But it was too late: now I was stuck playing café. Might as well enjoy it.

I thought of 8, who might not want to miss out. “Where’s your sister?” I asked as 4 finished setting things up.

“She doesn’t want to play,” she said. I wondered whether 8 had even been asked. Ah well. Forget it and move on.

I played customer first, and I made myself the most difficult customer possible. I demanded things that weren’t on the menu. I condescended to the waitress. I sent food back and asked to see the manager. 4 loved all of this, of course – and, being 4, she gave plenty of my condescension right back to me, often with a raucous laugh.

Then it was my turn to go behind the counter. 4 was a much easier customer than I had been. I inserted into the transaction a ‘telephone call’ to the ‘kitchen’, who I thought had messed up the order but had in fact gotten everything just right. 4 giggled as I flinched at the abuse supposedly coming down the phone at me.

“Did you get in trouble?” she asked, still grinning.

“No, no,” I said. “Just a misunderstanding.”

At this point, 8 came into the room and saw that we were playing café. Being 8, she immediately saw ten potential rearrangements that would make everything much better and, as she went to move things around, suggested a handful of new rules. It seems there can never be too many rules; indeed, coming up with more rules often appears to be more entertaining than playing the game itself.

I broke character for a moment. “Hang on, [8]. Let us finish our business. Then I’m going to go for a run, and you two can play.”

“OK,” she said. She hovered impatiently around us as 4 paid the bill with my credit card. I said, “Thank you, come again.”

I left them to their ever-increasing list of rules and headed out for my run.

The park near our new house is small, an oval of about 200 metres’ circumference with a playground alongside it at one end. I planned to run around it until I got tired; having seen people running before, including my previously quite unfit brother, I didn’t see how difficult it could be.

The first lap was fine, bringing a welcome raised heartbeat. By halfway through the second, I was gasping loudly. I retreated into a corner to stretch and catch my breath.

As I tested my muscle flexibility and endured the exquisite pain of a good stretch, I understood that this was not going to be easy. Four years of sedentary lifestyle and two years of smoking meant that I couldn’t get fit again just like that.

Surely I could do a few more laps though. Come, let’s try again.

Round I went. My legs felt less like jelly but my lungs heaved with strain. After twice more round the park, I had to stop again and stretch – though stretching was just an excuse to stop running and rest (for God’s sake).

I thought back to how those regular futsal games when I was 22 were no big deal. I hadn’t exercised properly for four years before taking that up, either. But the difference between 18 –> 22 and 22 –> 26 is tangible. Ed and Rach pointed this out later: I’d hit that mysterious mid-twenties slump when things just don’t work quite the way they used to anymore. Every effort is more of an effort.

So, one last effort. One more lap and then run home. I did so, loudly gasping the whole way. After I got back home, I remembered Mr Cunningham’s words in third form PE – if you stay on your feet, you recover much faster – and so resisted the urge to collapse onto the bed. Instead, I showered and grabbed a beer, still a little breathless.

I went upstairs. No distant voices this time; the living room was transformed and filled with the activity of two young girls.

“The café’s still open,” said 8 cheerfully. 4 looked at me and smiled widely. I smiled back.

“Am I allowed to bring in beer from outside?” I asked.

“Yup,” replied 8.

“Excellent,” I said, and sat down on the sofa (aka Table 7).

I don’t know if I would’ve done this a few years ago. I was far too wrapped up in myself to give much to others. (I still have a long way to go, of course.)

As my calf muscles ached through a long and joyous café experience, now with two excitable wait staff rather than one, it seemed that my body had become less patient over the years; my temperament, meanwhile, had gone the opposite way. Perhaps this is a result of paying close attention to becoming more patient with other people, animals and objects, and paying little heed to the slow atrophy of my body.

The benefits of mindfulness seem obvious. Now, to continue the never-ending process of restoring balance. Right after another beer.

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A tribute to Peter Roebuck

Peter Roebuck © Cricinfo

Former Somerset cricket captain and respected cricket writer Peter Roebuck has died aged 55 in Cape Town. He was covering Australia’s tour of South Africa. Ian Fuge, managing editor for sport at the Sydney Morning Herald, a paper for which Roebuck was a regular columnist, said “Peter was a wonderful writer who was the bard of summer for cricket-loving Australians. He was also an extraordinary bloke who will be sorely missed.” [source]

For me personally, Roebuck’s death signifies the passing of a writing hero. I grew up reading the sports section every morning before school, hoping that if I wouldn’t some day realise my dream of being an All Black or a Black Cap, I could at least write about them for a living. Of all the sports writers I’ve discovered through those years and into adulthood, Roebuck’s byline is the one that will ensure I read the piece. He seemed such a naturally gifted writer, one who could’ve written about any subject he chose but found himself most entranced by cricket. He wrote honestly, never afraid to confront the darker aspects of ‘the gentleman’s game’, One could be certain that nothing less than the highest quality would be attached to his name.

Now that he’s gone, I am of course discovering that his exceptionally high standards were a hallmark of his career with Somerset, as well. From this citation for his being recognised as one of Wisden’s Cricketers of the Year in 1988:

Roebuck in action for Somerset © Getty Images

His current vice-captain, Victor Marks, a friend of many years, said, He seems to thrive on contest, competition and conflict. He rises to the occasion, is very much alive and always reacts in a positive way. He has improved dramatically over the past few years, with the security of his position and the captaincy. He puts a great deal more energy into his job than most people could. Somerset’s coach, Peter Robinson, recalled many hours spent with the bowling machine, ironing out technical faults which he, Roebuck, had found.

Roebuck also contributed routinely insightful columns to Cricinfo. Fellow cricket writer Suresh Menon wrote of his work:

Roebuck’s short commentaries distill a lifetime of experience through history and anecdote. There is a purity in the form that is at once attractive and challenging. Of all cricket writers, Roebuck is the least imitated because he is the most difficult to imitate.

I suspect millions of cricket fans over the coming days will be scouring Cricinfo and the web for information about Roebuck and, like me, discovering things they might never have looked up had he not died so devastatingly young. As much as anything else, this could be a commentary on the incredible value offered by his columns: I never sought to know more of the man to whom such a distinctive, essential voice belonged. His ever-articulate words were enough to form a deep impression – of decent character, of high quality and of deep understanding.

May Peter Roebuck rest in peace, and all his fans continued to inspired by his words for decades after he’s gone.

*

Here’s an excerpt from what turned out to be his final column, about the Australians’ performance in an utterly bizarre first test. It is a technically minded piece, not the best representative of his work, which tends to be wide in scope and lofty in ambition. But notice the economy of language with which he makes his points:

Apart from technical flaws, the collapses raised even more fundamental issues. How long can Shane Watson continue as a front-line bowler and opening batsman? History provides few instances of a cricketer able to sustain both workloads. The time is ripe to put him in the middle order.

[…]

Brad Haddin also needs to rethink his batting. His reckless shot was a droppable offence and confirmed his confidence is in his boots. He, too, has a single match to turn around his fortunes. A new broom sweeps clean.

Ironically Johnson, a bowler, is the most likely player to be dropped. However the team for the first Test against New Zealand has become harder to predict. Mind you, a lot can happen in a week. It just did.

*

UPDATE: I’ve been reading a lot of Roebuck today. Here’s an excerpt from one of his 116 columns for Cricinfo entitled ‘Stuck in the middle’:

As a breed, batsmen are haunted by the prospect of failure. It hardens them, tightens them, sometimes exhausts them. A centre-forward unable to score can still chase and create. A tryless winger can tackle and support. A batsman must score runs: it is as simple and stark as that. No words can protect the player from this truth. His existence depends on his productivity. Arthur Miller could have written a play about it. Every time he goes to the crease, a batsman confronts doom.

[more]

Also, the cause of Roebuck’s death has not yet been announced, so conspiracy theories will surely follow – especially in light of reports that he seen talking with police and ‘in an agitated state’ on the same night. Whatever is written in the coming days, and regardless of what actually happened, I hope everyone can remember that we would do better to mourn a fine writer than play pseudo-detective. I’m sure Roebuck would agree. After all, he wrote in 2007 of his disgust at the hackery that followed Bob Woolmer’s death:

But let us not allow one man to carry the can. Although it was reasonable to accept the experts’ initial verdict that Woolmer had been strangled, too many of us were too easily prepared to believe that Pakistani players or at any rate supporters were the culprits. In our own way we were as guilty as those involved in the burning of the witches in Salem or the rounding up of supposed American communists in the 1950’s.

[…] At such times we must be thankful for due process, that a man may be condemned only by fact and not prejudice.

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‘Drive’: Machine Versus Horse

IMDb / Ebert
Rating: Recommended
Alternate JW Title: ‘Hero Story

The opening sequence of ‘Drive’ had me thinking all my expectations about the film were correct. The Chromatics’ ‘Tick Of The Clock’ kicked things off, setting the tone with its confident, sinister, minimalist rhythm, with a telephone conversation laying out the terms of the agreement and a splendid pan across a barren room out onto the street lights below. A helicopter shot showed Los Angeles at night from above, sources of yellow light illuminating the city like controlled balls of flame, establishing LA as a character like Michael Mann’s ‘Collateral’ did. The initial getaway job played out like a scene from ‘Driver’, a ten-year-old PlayStation game: all rough atmosphere, near collisions and police radio sounds. The whole film was going to follow in the same vein: a dimly lit, pulsating thrill ride through city streets and bad deals.

What I hadn’t picked was that ‘Drive’, and the nameless hero played by Ryan Gosling, would instead be cut from the same poncho cloth as the great Westerns. Throughout this opening sequence, and for much of the film, he is as silent and imposing as Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name; he even chews on a toothpick with the same brooding intensity. In the film’s bare-bones plot (which is little more than an accessory on which to hang a combination of allegories, images and music), Gosling’s driver appears from nowhere, changes everybody’s lives forever and then rides off into the sunset. There are good guys and bad guys, in that the bad guys must do bad and the good guys must try to do good.

Refn’s camera is almost fetishistic in its appraisal of Gosling. He is allowed to leave his chiselled features virtually motionless in many scenes, simply present and immaculate for our appreciation. He’s shot from low angles when driving or doing violence, the skills he has honed well enough to be his vocation, and from high angles when sharing scenes with Carey Mulligan, the woman who steals his heart. In place of a poncho, he has a distinctive jacket that he continues wearing even when it is covered with blood. These stylistic choices establish the driver as a hero, which is the chief purpose of the film (which, again, reminds me of Westerns more than any other genre).

This is what makes the central element of an extremely effective soundtrack – indeed, the film would not be nearly as interesting without it – so interesting. College’s ‘A Real Hero’ plays twice during the film, once during the sweet ‘getting to know you’ scenes between Gosling, Mulligan and Mulligan’s son, and then again at the film’s conclusion. The lyrics, over an unforgettable synth motif, repeat over and over:

A real human being
And a real hero

Gosling is certainly a clear hero, a classic Good Guy of few words driven to do the right thing to the right people and the wrong thing to the wrong people. Virtually the moment he sets eyes on Mulligan, one gets a sense he will protect her to the death – which he does, to all intents and purposes. Though a getaway driver, aiding criminals on a regular basis, his rule of only giving them five minutes of his time gives him a moral footing above that of his employers; he simply drives, until confronted with circumstances that force him to either flee or kill the ones who wish to kill him and the other Good Guys first. Being a hero, he faces his responsibility. He kills.

But Gosling’s driver is not a real human being. He’s a character in a film, as starkly as any character I can remember in recent memory. It’s because he is such an obvious, perfectly troubled, archetypal hero that he is not a real human being. A trick of a film called ‘Drive’ is that it leaves you wanting to believe its central character’s purpose was to drive, that cars gave him meaning and purpose, but they are merely a tool he uses on his heroic path. As are a hammer, the heel of his boot and a very sharp knife. The most human moments he has are those shared with Mulligan and her son, but these exist only to deepen his mythical status as a hero.

Indeed, Mulligan is the only truly human figure in the film. The mobsters, chiefly those played by Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman, are also archetypal Bad Guys or antagonists; they serve their own evil ends, gaining from others’ misfortune and eliminating anyone who gets in their way. Mulligan’s son, too, is unrealistic, a child with little purpose of his own other than to be offered a father figure in Gosling. Mulligan, however, lives and breathes every second of her performance as if it were true. She flirts awkwardly with Gosling and feels shame when he finds she’s kind of been leading him on. Her face demonstrates all the emotion of a young, conflicted woman.

One scene makes the contrast between the two characters and their respective world absolutely clear. As Gosling apologises for his involvement in an act that has changed Mulligan’s life, she slaps him – and immediately shrinks, looking down at the ground, scarcely able to contain her anger but dreadfully ashamed to have expressed it with violence. A stranger intrudes, and after Mulligan and Gosling reconnect with a time-stopping kiss – a bridge between their two worlds – Gosling brutally murders the stranger in front of her. She recoils in horror. As far as I can remember, they do not see each other again; Mulligan’s path leads to a continued life in the real world, while Gosling’s leads to heroic duty and death.

But he doesn’t die – at least, not that we get to see. Like Eastwood’s The Man With No Name, or – even more so – like Charles Bronson’s Harmonica in ‘Once Upon A Time In The West’, he ensures the heroine’s survival and then disappears. His function is almost machine-like, reminiscent also of the T-1000 in ‘Terminator 2: Judgment Day’. (You get the point. Film hero. Not human being.)

I guess this makes Nicolas Winding Refn’s ‘Drive’ a strange kind of character study – not of a believable person, but of a film archetype most notable in Westerns. It certainly isn’t the all-driving, slow-moving actioner I was expecting – and it is much better for it. It’s growing in my estimations with each passing hour since I left the cinema, when I usually tend to revise down my opinion after getting past the initial adrenaline rush of seeing a film on the big screen.

Two things to note before you go in:

1) With a film so caught up in genre concerns as this, the suspension of disbelief is essential, as is a willingness to forget whatever importance you place on plotting. The plot of ‘Drive’ is a framework for the exploration of genre ideas; in fact, there’s enough in there that I wouldn’t be surprised if other viewers read the film along different genre lines than I did.

2) The few scenes of violence in this film are completely visceral and brutal, mostly carried out with analogue implements to make it that much more tactile. You will likely flinch. Just remember: it’s only a movie.

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“It’s the most confusing, energetic, and hilarious place I’ve ever been”

Hilary and Indian child (image © Girish Menon)

Hilary FG is the author of hilary in mumbai, a blog about her life as an American expat in India’s so-called Maximum City. Her posts cover the gamut of Mumbai activities – from the perils of buying food, to coping with humidity, to the cast of characters at a regular expat party – and while her blogging is occasionally infrequent, this is largely in an effort to ensure quality.

I first discovered Hilary’s blog when she commented on one of my posts for The NRI about dealing with the dreaded local FRRO on the quest to obtain tiny-but-vital residency stamps. My immediate reaction upon looking through a couple of her posts was to laugh, loudly and repeatedly, but consistent reading showed that her humorous take was not merely frivolous. Many are lengthy and detailed, and the humour acts as a vehicle for quite genuine insight into what it’s like to be young, white and female in such a seething foreign metropolis.

Hilary has been known to undertake long flights somewhat regularly, and works full time for a living in a place where working full-time can easily occupy all of your surviving brain cells, but she was happy to answer my questions and let us a little further inside her world.

(NB: You will notice that Hilary is American and therefore spells ‘humour’ without a ‘u’. Please forgive her for this.)

***

Why did you start blogging, and why do you keep blogging? (Is this your first blog?)

For about one week my sister and I had a blog called “Sisters Make the Best of Friends” on which we posted pictures of the cake we made on the 4th of July, items of clothing that prove that money can’t buy class, and video clips we think everyone should see. We didn’t really share it with anyone and took it down the next week.

I started blogging because my fellowship encouraged us to, and because I thought it would be a good way to keep my family informed without sending monster emails to everyone. My blog ended up not being about my day-to-day activities, so I still sent out those emails anyway, but the blog definitely helps me put events into context and reflect.

I keep blogging because it’s fun and other people seem to enjoy it. People tell me I say things they’ve wanted to talk about but couldn’t express. Expats here have sent my blog to their families and said, “Now they can picture just what I’ve been going through.” I love that. I also want a testament to all the things I go through here that I might forget later in life.

Have you ever kept a personal journal? If so, do you see ‘hilary in mumbai’ as an extension of that journal (or vice versa)?

I tried to keep a number of journals at a young age and failed pretty miserably. I usually liked journaling because I loved buying pretty notebooks, and physical paper is one thing ‘hilary in mumbai’ doesn’t have. I think there are a lot of “stream of consciousness” blogs out there, that are very journal-esque, and I’m usually not a very big fan. I like to give events the proper time to ruminate before I try to put words to them. If I had a journal it might have even more swears in it.

There are also a lot of things I go through that I will never put in the blog. Some things might be interesting, but violate some general privacy considerations, like my personal relationships or my job. Other things, like travel logistics, are just boring, and I don’t think anyone should put them anywhere.

What is your first memory of writing creatively?

My first experiment with writing creatively was a journal I kept of our family trip to Italy. I was around 5 years old and the whole thing is barely comprehensible and phonetic. I think it makes for a really wonderful read of life through the eyes of a weirdo 5-year-old.

"This is sugar packet from a very fancy restaurant."

I was told I was a horrible writer for 20 years of my life and it never came easily to me. I’m actually a published author now, and there’s the ole blog, so people have been eating their words.

Describe something that is beautiful to you.

I really like gradients in nature, like sunsets and horizons. I think the beach my family and I go to in Wellfleet, Cape Cod, is probably the thing that I dream about the most. Thinking about the transition of the dunes to the water to the sky makes me very homesick. There is something particularly magical about the light on Cape Cod.

Have you always been interested in India, or was there a moment in your life that pushed you to go there?

I have a pretty nerdy backstory. I took Latin and Greek in high school, and I started taking Sanskrit so I could get all three Indo-European root languages. I’ve forgotten almost every word I learned, but I loved the material I was reading. The difference in worldview and philosophies that I came upon studying Sanskrit spurred an interest in India, although I really knew nothing about it when I first started. I visited India for the first time in 2004. I was on a high school trip in which we visited the Mumbai slums. My world was definitely blown open by what I experienced. I had no idea how to categorize or contextualize everything that I saw, and I knew I was never going to stop studying India. I remember picking my major in college and knowing that if I picked South Asian Studies I would never get bored. Since then I’ve been back on a study abroad program and now “for good” in September 2010.

How would you describe Mumbai to someone who had never been there? What advice would you give someone visiting for the first time?

I have two pieces of advice, once of which you’ve probably read on my Twitter. “Take the shits with the giggles” and “It’s worth it” are my main words of wisdom, but I would also tell people to try to suspend judgment for as long as possible. It’s difficult to describe Mumbai to people, especially if they have never been to a developing country. It’s the most confusing, energetic, and hilarious place I’ve ever been. If you can take the shits, you get a lot of giggles. Literally. I think visiting India can be really fun and worthwhile, but moving here might not be right for everyone…

People who come with preconceived notions of spirituality and romanticism can be disappointed, and people who come expecting to see the functioning and developed financial hub of a major world power may also be disappointed. It’s better just to show up. Oh, and use a lot of talcum powder and unscented baby wipes. Eat the street food but don’t wear valuable shoes. And come say hi!

Pretty much every post of yours cracks me up one way or another. I sense such an appreciation of the absurd in the way you view the world around you and your own endeavours. Is this something you’ve had to work at? Who has influenced your sense of humour?

Thank you! Humor is a family specialty. I grew up surrounded by the funniest people I’ve ever met. We have a very verbal family and sitting around making fun of things is probably what we do best. When my last visit with my mom and sister ended we joked that we weren’t going to laugh again until we got to reunite. My father passed away from cancer a year and a half ago, and he kept his sense of humor until the very end. It was impressive.

When I started the blog, I wasn’t sure what audience I should try to write it for. My sister told me to write it like I’m talking to her, and that set the informal tone. What I have to work at is balancing how much to let events speak for themselves, or try to explain the humor in them. I find myself in a lot of situations here that are objectively funny, and I always have to remind myself not to add, “It was soooo funny,” at the end.

It might also be worth mentioning that I have a degree in South Asian Studies and I’ve been studying India for almost a decade now. I try not to make the blog too academic, but I know that my experience with the subject matter means I can spend less time trying to figure out what the hell’s going on, and more time laughing about it. I try to put in My Mind Numbing Fact of the Day to acknowledge that even though I’m laughing, there are a lot of fascinating and devastating things happening all around me.

Even before I moved here, people have complimented me on my ability to convey my worldview in an entertaining and interesting way. People generally like talking to me unless I’m making fun of them. I think if people aren’t naturally observant or critical, a blog by them won’t be fun no matter where they are.

How much of an effect has living abroad had on your belief system(s)?

I’ve changed a lot since moving here, but I’m not sure if it’s had an effect on my belief system. I was an atheist when I moved here and I’m definitely still one. My family has always been the most important thing in the world to me, and that’s still true, maybe more so. Living abroad has definitely made the world seem really small to me. If it’s near an airport it feels nearby to me now. I also think I have been more determined to convince everyone that all people deserve the same standards. The inequity here is really difficult for me to live with and I think that it does not get adequately portrayed in the media. You can’t help but see firsthand here how GDP can correspond so little to people’s lives. Don’t believe the hype.

Is there a post on your blog that you are most proud of?

I like ‘approowalls’. I think most foreigners have a lot more help with relocation than I did, and so not a lot of people have to deal with all the Indian approvals at the same time right when they land, with no maid, driver, phone, internet, etc. That whole experience made me feel invincible.

Has your blog made a difference in other areas of your life?

I’m a more confident writer, and I definitely have more pictures because I force myself to take them. People have recognized me at parties and introduced themselves. Professionally, I try to keep things pretty separate, at least for now, but I like knowing that if I ever need to produce conversational material at a later date for my job, it shouldn’t be a problem. I like to judge new friends by how they respond to the fact that I have a blog and then check in later to see if they’ve read it. I’ve come across some great people that I would probably never have encountered if I didn’t put myself out there, including my interviewer.

***

This interview is part of Inside the Bloggers Studio, an ongoing project of short interviews with bloggers I read and admire. (Apologies to James Lipton.) To view the archive, click the category tag in the ‘By Category’ section at the top right of this page.

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