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Vidya’s blog

Senior Centers – A home away from home?

Update: This post was originally published on September 2010. There’s been a lively interest in the comments all these years so I have reposted to the front page to keep it current.
By Geeta Padmanabhan
In a society where one of the first lessons a youngster learns is to respect and obey the elderly in the family, touch their feet as often as possible or at least when he/she takes leave and returns from a trip, where every young girl moving to her husband’s home is told to take care of the in-laws and treat her husband’s family as her own, the growing phenomenon of retirement centres must come as a bit of a surprise.

On Faith

The producer at the radio station where I host a kid’s quiz show was unusually complimentary. “Your show is so interesting and fun..it deserves its popularity,” he gushed while I blushed. As I arranged my quiz paraphernalia in the small booth where we work, he went on. “What I don’t get is the appeal of the panditjis and psychics,” he grumbled. As the person fielding the incoming calls, he had had his fill of mothers and fathers and uncles and grandpas who begged for divine help from these distinctly mortal messengers, some of whom he had known when they were neophytes looking for an angle to work.

Tune in any weekday at the station and its easy to understand his frustration. “Panditji,” comes the plaintive cry through the air, “my daughter is just not getting a suitable boy. Help!” After a twenty-second exchange of a few birthplace and time details, the eminent host has a solution. “Tell her to wear an emerald of nine carats, and donate a kilo of rice on a Tuesday.” Then comes the kicker. “If you have any further questions, you can contact me on the private line at….”

The psychics are even more awe-inspiring. They need only your name to tell you your past, present, and future. And because the volume of calls has not decreased an iota since they set up their shingle, either they have an in into the workings of the universe or, as famous showman P.T. Barnum was once criticized, “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

“Why is belief in psychics or on-air astrologers so mystifying when people believe in God?” I asked my producer back in the studio. He looked miffed, so I hurriedly changed topics. “Desperation?” I ventured as a guess to the callers’ motivations. “Or the desire for a quick, free, fix?” After all, the man who needs a job has to put in the hard work of perhaps getting trained in a new field, updating his resume, and networking intensively to get the job of his dreams. How much easier it would be if those problems went away with a ring or a ritual.

But faith is not so simple or shallow. In all probability the job-seeker is wearing his ring and doing his rituals while networking and taking evening classes. The contestant who wears his tilak to my quiz show and loses is not going to stop doing so because his faith let him down, he might just prepare better next time. The parents of a child prematurely lost to cancer or war will continue to conduct services in church and pray for understanding and reunion in the afterlife.

And that is the true mystery of faith, how it survives and endures against all Shivaodds. Watching the carnage wrought by the flash floods and landslides in Uttarakhand brings this mystery into sharp focus. Thousands of pilgrims have been obliterated by the viscous mud, but the “miracle” of the preservation of the holy shrines is proof to them that God is omnipotent. Geeta Padmanabhan, columnist for The Hindu newspaper, writes, “In about two/three years when Kedarnath opens, the pilgrims will be back – the old, the young, women with infants in arms, children, the infirm using walkers. ‘Is it done in love, is it done in fear?’ asked  Mark Twain about this extra-ordinary journey through dangerous terrain.”

Is it love or is it fear? What makes us continue to venerate a God who, at least to the objective viewpoint, seems to have been extremely selfish to have protected his territory while nature wreaked havoc all around? How does the quarterback or basketball star reconcile God’s hand in his victory with the same God who leaves thousands starving a continent away? Is our idea of God that of a fairy godfather or a personal guardian who has to be propitiated, pacified, and praised to deliver magic powers on our behalf? If God is love, as most religions claim, boy he has a strange way of showing it.

The randomness of life, the unfairness of fate, and the plight of the suffering faithful have long made me a skeptic, but if I am to be truthful, I envy those whose faith is strong. It is not an emotion that is swayed by logic, evidence, or personal experience. It may wobble, but it never topples over. And when it is not clouded by intolerance and bigotry, it acts as an anchor to chaotic lives and arbitrary fates in the best possible way. It fulfills the human desire for fairness, a need to believe that a life lived in piety and morality will reap its just rewards. And if events don’t bear that belief out, one can always console oneself with the promise of a heaven or a better reincarnation. Its almost like a child’s belief in Santa Claus, except there is no North Pole to go to and disprove the existence of elves.

Still, the line between stupidity and wisdom is very thin, and I am not qualified to judge. For the majority of the human race, faith seems to be a primeval urge that doesn’t need godmen or psychics to exist; they are just remoras who latch on to this whale. So if chanting prayers or wearing corals or trekking to the Himalayas is what someone needs to make sense of the irrationality of their existence, I cannot criticize; I can only wish I could feel that way.

 

 

Hatsune Miku – The Perfection of Virtuality

Hatsune MikuI was introduced to this band (?) by my teenager, who is into J-Pop and K-Pop (that’s Japanese and Korean pop for all you ignoramuses out there). After I complained that the voice sounded just like those on some of the other bands he enjoys, he enlightened me that there was no actual person behind the song (or the others). Hatsune Miku is an artificial singing voice created by a company called Crypton Fusion Media, using a voice synthesizer technology called Vocaloid created by Yamaha. Anyone can buy the “voice” and use it to sing their music.

To help sell the artificial voice, the creators gave Hatsune Miku a persona, and later even introduced versions of Miku like “Sweet,” “Soft,” and “Light.”

“How do they play concerts then?” I asked. He pointed me to this video.

Hatsune Miku, as you can see from this video of one of the most popular songs in this genre, is a vision of Japanese fantasy beauty, with very manga-like teal pigtails, projected as a hologram or a projection on screen.

Many other composers use this Vocaloid and others to showcase their compositions, and these songs have a very legitimate place in the world of music. But they beg the question – what about the connection between the audience and the singer?

I guess that’s a pretty naive question these days. Increasingly, our communication with others is over the internet or the phone. Sometimes a photo next to someone’s FB status helps me form that connection, especially for people who I am very fond of and have never met. So it is obvious that we can achieve a fair degree of interpersonal connection without having had any face-to-face contact. The story of Manti Te’o, the Notre Dame linebacker who carried on a deeply emotional relationship with a woman who only existed online (and was discovered later to have been created by a disturbed young man name Ronaiah Tuiasosopo) perhaps illustrates this best.

Do we enjoy these artificial, infinite-distance relationships so much because they are perfect in a way real relationships can never be? Lennay Kekua, Te’o’s virtual girlfriend, never complained about not spending enough time with him, or that he forgot Valnetine’s Day, or that he was flirting with another girl. Even on her deathbed, she spoke words of encouragement and hope where a real girl hurting from chemo and radiation would have been bitchy and mean.

Hatsune Miku will never have an off day, never cancel a show because of laryngitis, and will never embarrass her fans by exiting a car without underwear. She will never go old and saggy. Her voice will always be sweet perfection. And in her perfectly endowed persona, she will go on entertaining even as her aging fans are replaced by their next generation. She is an idealized version of a real voice is a way we are idealized versions of ourselves online, having perfect weekends and vacations with smiling teens and loving spouses.

That promise of perfection is seductive, but give me the real thing any day. Perhaps I write this from the perspective of a cellulite-ridden, graying, over the hill middle-aged woman, but when Asha Bhosle’s voice cracked on a particularly high note singing “Piya Tu Ab Toh Aaja” during a concert at Cow Palace in San Francisco, and she sweetly apologized to her adoring fans, she established a connection far more powerful than singing those notes perfectly would have.

And yesterday I shelled out a small fortune to watch Steffi Graf play an exhibition match at the SAP Open in San Jose. The musculature was gone, the wicked cross-court drives blunted, and most of the serves hit the net. But it was such a thrill to be breathing the same air as this amazing lady who gave me so much joy for so many years with her talent and style.

There is a place for the Hatsune Mikus of the world – her success and the success of similar Vocaloid creations is testimony to that. And there will be CGI Gollums and hologram Tupacs and more and more virtual heroes and idols. But it would be wise to remember that Miku’s artificial voice has been built from samples of voice actress Saki Fujita. Gollum was voiced and performed by the very talented actor Andy Serkis. And Tupac’s hologram needed a real Tupac to exist to have the impact it did. It is painless to interact with perfection, but it is also ephemeral. Our imperfections need the friction of other imperfections to cling to – warts, farts, and all.

 

 

Transitions Seminar – For Parents of Kids on the Spectrum

“My son thinks lunch just shows up at the dinner table,” says Richa Gupta (name changed for privacy reasons). “He has no idea of the process it takes to get there, that there are such things as grocery stores and menu planning.” Richa’s son Raj, who is a junior at the Orion Academy in Lafayette, CA, also frequently loses his Bart ticket, his jacket, his water bottle..the list goes on.

While this may sound like most teenagers at some point or the other, Raj is on the autistic spectrum, diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome, and what are minor organizational issues for neurotypical kids are magnified several times for him. Richa wonders how he will cope in a year and a half from now, when kids his age typically graduate high school and begin a life of independence at college.

The Orion Academy, where Raj studies, is specifically geared to children with Aspergers, and is very focused on helping them transition to life in the mainstream. As part of that process, the Academy hosts an annual Transitions Seminar where eminent speakers are invited to speak on the theme of the seminar, which varies from year to year. Vendors providing services geared to the theme are also invited, and the day-long seminar becomes a gathering place for the community of caregivers for children on the spectrum.

This year’s theme is “Spectrum Teens as Adults: IQ vs. EQ” where specialists will present on the finding that kids on the spectrum, while often gifted with special talents, have a considerable challenge in managing the details of everyday life and making and sustaining social relationships. As a parent of a child on the spectrum, I can vouch for the lag in emotional maturity that these kids have, where a social understanding that is evident to my neurotypical 10-year-old is missing from the 17-year-old Aspie.

“Parents get burnt out dealing with the social deficits of their spectrum kids,” adds Richa, who is one of the organizers of the seminar. “It helps to meet other people in the same situation and learn from the experts. You may not get all the answers you want in just that one day, but it will be a good start for planning for the future.”

Check out the Orion Academy’s Transition Seminar if you are a caregiver or a service provider to teens on the spectrum. Details are in the flyer below.

transitions seminar

 

Writing a Novel – Day 18

Back after a long hiatus. An assignment from India Currents magazine kept me busy nearly all of January. To be honest, it’s not that I didn’t have time to work on my novel; after all, there’s only so much writing you can do on any one topic. But I just didn’t have the “mental space,” as I am fond of telling everyone these days.

I used to think of myself as a very capable multi-tasker. Anyone who is a mom can understand. But when it comes to creative endeavors, I find that I only have room for one, maybe two, tasks in my brain. Preparation for the radio quiz show that I’m hosting beginning February 2 has kept me occupied. That and the IC article was all I could handle. In the hours that were not occupied with quiz, article, and housework, (and there were quite a few of those) I would play Lexulous, watch TV, and read. Even though a part of me was appalled at the waste of productive time, I couldn’t bring myself to work on the novel. I understand a little bit of what my autistic teen is going through in terms of being demotivated. I salute authors who churn out a book a year.

Well, all my excuses have dried up for now, so I’m back to work on my kid’s book. When I left it last, I had broken up my little book into chapters of 500 words each (that should give you a sense of how young I am writing for) and had reached Chapter 6 and a good place to continue. So back to work.

Writing a Novel – Day 17

The chapter book for middle graders is chugging along. I am not too unhappy with what I’ve written so far. Is it a masterpiece? No. But it is good enough for me to keep at it. I’m at chapter 4 (remember, these chapters are really small) and have enough ideas for the next chapter as well.It’s reading a little younger than 12, but that’s okay.

The best part of writing a book for younger kids is that it is eminently illustratable, though it is not a picture book. I can’t draw, but since I don’t know any artists, I am going to try my hand at sketching some rudimentary stuff and also asking my 10-year old to try her hand at it. She likes cartooning, and the pictures I am thinking about so far are simple enough for her to attempt them. I am excited about this development..should be interesting to see how the art turns out.

Writing a Novel – Day 16

Back from a break that was both good and bad for my writing aspirations. Good, because I had time to reflect on where my story was going and flesh it out a bit more in my head before I put it down on paper. Bad, because I read so many great examples of what I am hoping to achieve that the project has taken on even more daunting overtones. My friend Jeanne’s useful material on kidlit turned out to be inspiring and paralyzing in equal parts; there are so many people who are so much further ahead in the process who are still struggling with very basic issues like structure and theme development. It is so easy to give up when you see what challenges lie ahead.

While I was reflecting on where to take my YA story, another idea, this one geared for the 8-12 age group, popped up and I began writing it yesterday. I found my voice is much better suited for this age at this point in my writing career; the words just flow, and the dialogues seem much less forced. New, interesting ideas and characters keep popping up effortlessly, and the knowledge that this will be a much smaller book seems so appealing to someone who wants so much to get a book under her belt. Coincidentally, (or is there no such thing as coincidence? Da-da-da!) I came across this interview with Maurice Sendak yesterday where he talks about being stuck writing for children because that’s where he felt he belonged. It is part of a series of interviews with the beloved children’s author where he ruminates on the point of living, being ready to die, and how it makes him happy to write. ” (Writing.)… is the only true happiness I’ve ever enjoyed.” I challenge anyone to listen to this wise man without tearing up.

So my New Year’s resolution is that I will write this smaller book as it comes ( I seem to be able to write this is short bursts in between the daily routine) and keep developing the other one in my head till it makes sense.

Reading a Novel – End of Winter Break

You know you’ve taken a self-imposed deadline seriously when you start cramming the night before it ends! Caught myself trying to finish A Murderous Procession, one of the books I had committed to read during the winter break. Fell asleep before I finished but with only 20 pages to go I am going to indulge in some creative accounting.

So here’s the tally –

Books Finished:

Gorky Park: Brilliant book, but I don’t think I will be seeking out the further adventures of Arkady Renko any time soon, mostly because they are really long and I am afraid my attention span has permanently shortened. However, a good choice for the next vacation when there’s plenty of time on my hands.

The Boy in the Suitcase: This Danish thriller turned out to be quite engrossing, with a heroine who gets involved with domestic violence and child custody cases as a social worker. Lena Kaaberbol and Agnette Friis co-wrote this book, the beginning of a series, and it is a page turner. Nina Borg, the heroine, is a very flawed character, (of course!) prone to panic and flight, but she is also very tenacious and appealing.

Shanghai Girls: This is the least favorite Lisa See novel for me. I loved Snowflower and the Secret Fan and Peony in Love, but I just could not connect with the two Shanghai sisters whose upper middle class lives in China get uprooted violently and make way for a future in San Francisco’s Chinatown. For those who enjoy historical fiction based in the orient, I recommend Laura Joh Rowland’s samurai thrillers.

Matched: I can see now why Ally Condie’s novel got such rave reviews and fan devotion; there’s teen romance, dystopian intrigue, and well-developed characters. Condi is quite a gifted writer, so the similarity of Matched’s central premise of teen-heroine-battling-adults-who-think-they-know-best to other trilogies like The Hunger Games doesn’t grate. Still, I don’t think I will pick up the sequel Crossed..there’s only so much teen angst I can deal with. Condi’s book reads a little overwrought to me, but maybe that’s just professional jealousy talking!

Beta: Another dystopian YA novel, also primed for a sequel! I sense a formula here  – teen girl lives a blissful life in futuristic utopia till she discovers all is not as it seems. She then leads a band of rebels to win a precarious freedom. The tragedy is that my own proposed novel had a pretty similar trope, so now I have the unpleasant choice of continuing with a theme that has been and continues to be used ad nauseum, or ditch the whole project and begin afresh. Sheesh. Still, I thoroughly enjoyed Beta, and thought it a better written novel than Matched, possibly for older teens, since there are themes of sexual harassment, rape and pregnancy for our 16/17-year old protagonist. Great dialogue, just great.

Death in August: Now this was the sorbet to cleanse the palate between all those misery-laden teen novels. Inspector Bordelli leads a police station of misfits in 1960s Florence as they bumble and stumble their way to solving a local crime. Refreshing and light.

A Murderous Procession: I know I was planning to save this delectable treat for a rainy day, but there were plenty of those in the last couple of weeks. Plus I discovered a book I had forgotten I bought called The Midwife of Venice, so I have another truffle tucked away. Of the three Ariana Franklin books I have read, this one is my least favorite, because of a serial killer character who is uncomfortably reminiscent of psychos in modern thrillers that authors like John Sanford and Jonathan Kellerman churn out every year.

Blackberry Winter: This novel by Sarah Jio was probably my least favorite.  A decent premise of congruent events that take place across two unseasonal snowstorms in May several years apart, but the plot is just too neat and tidy. Again, slightly overwrought writing; I guess I like my philosophizing on the acerbic side.

Books Unfinished:

Oil on Water: Helon Habila’s book is really interesting and well written but I just couldn’t bring myself to finish it for an odd reason – the dialogues are not enclosed in quotation marks. Instead they are marked by a dash at the beginning, and this method just puts me off. I’m growing old, groan!

The Search for Wondla: Only read the first chapter so far, but this is a book I plan to complete. I think this is a must read for authors planning to write kidlit.

Books I Never Got to and Never Will:

Steve Jobs: The moment has passed.

813: This book will stay on my Kindle forever as a reminder that there are plenty of classics available for free online, but just as I don’t think I will ever get to Tess of the D’Urbervilles, this is another book doomed to remain unread.

Garlic Ballads: Sorry Mr. Mo Yan, but Nobel Prize or not, this book is just too depressing for me. Who knows, there may be a moment in the future when I come across this book in a nice large type and in a nicer frame of mind, but for the moment, life is short and there are too many other books ahead in the queue.

I never did get to my friend’s Dropbox of goodies about good kid lit, but it is the very next thing I am going to read.

Hope everyone had a great winter break and lots of lovely books to read around the fire on snowy days. Here’s to another year of happy reading.

Reading a Novel – Winter Break!

Dec 24 2012

Now that the kids are home for the winter break, not much writing is going to get done, so I’ve decided to use the time to read, read, read. After all, unlike writing, reading can be done in 10 minute snatches, and that’s the kind of leisure time I anticipate during the holidays if I’m to be a good mom and not let the kids veg out on TV the whole day. Plus, I figure it will be good for my plot to sit for a couple of weeks and see if any good bacteria grow.

Here is my reading list for the vacation –

On my Kindle: Discovering the Overdrive website where I can borrow ebooks from my local library has been one of the biggest thrills recently. The most recent titles are, of course, not available, but even a voracious reader like I have found several treasures.

Gorky Park: I can’t believe I haven’t read this wickedly satirical police procedural by Martin Cruz Smith before. Set in post World War communist Soviet Union, the book’s take on corruption and petty power plays still feels fresh and relevant.

Steve Jobs: The biography by Walter Isaacs has been lying unread for a while, but I think I will get to it while relaxing in Puerto Rico, where the family is going for a week next week.

Oil on Water: This novel by Helon Habila is another literary murder mystery set in the Nigerian Delta (you can tell what my favorite genre is by now, can’t you?) Reading about an environment devastated by oil production is very sad and depressing, but the book is beautifully written. We know so little about the impact of modern colonization in Africa, a corporate colonization that is taking place with the complicity of native rulers, and this book is a real eye-opener.

The Snowman: Jo Nesbo books ( thrillers again!) are surprisingly easily available on Overdrive. Harry Hole, his detective, is a recovering alcohlic with the kind of damaged life favored by Nordic writers.

The Boy in the Suitcase: Another example of Nordic noir by Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnette Friis… a new author for me, so I’m excited to find out how she compares to her peers.

Shanghai Girls: Even though Lisa See’s books are all set in the Orient, the stories are amazingly different. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a charming story of friendship between two girls in nineteenth-century China; Peony in Love is a weird and weirdly entertaining ghost story set in the 17th century, and Shanghai Girls is about two sisters who come to America in the early years of the Depression. Of the three, I think I enjoyed Shanghai Girls the least, perhaps because some of the mystical and lyrical elements of See’s previous novels were missing here.

813: A tale of Arsene Lupin, gentleman thief, this classic my Maurice LeBlanc is one of the many free Kindle books available.

In my library bag: Despite having so many books on my Kindle, my greed always gets the better of me when I go to my local library. This time I decided to check out a couple of kidlit novels as well; jopefully, I’ll get some inspiration towards my own novel.

Matched: This sci-fi YA novel by Ally Condie is the first of a trilogy that is sweeping the imagination of teen girls right now. I thought I would see what the fuss is all about.

The Search for Wondla: Another sci-fi novel for middle graders, Tony DiTerlizzi’s creation is attention grabbing from the first paragraph – what a wonderful imagination. It is almost enough to give prospective writers the heebie-jeebies about the quality of their work.

Beta: Random pick from the fantasy/sci-fi shelf at the library. This novel by Rachel Cohn is prompting me to consider setting my own fantasy novel in an alternate planet, so as not to get bogged down by reality.

Death in August: A police procedural set in Florence by Marco Vichhi that I picked up because the font was nice and I liked the style of what I read while browsing

On my nightstand –

A Murderous Procession: This book by Ariana Franklin is the little piece of gourmet chocolate that you save for a special day; I just love, love, love the Mistress of the Art of Death series about a female physician from Salerno who is forced to pretend to be the assistant of her servant to practice her skills during the reign of King Henry II.

The Garlic Ballads: This depressing story about grinding poverty in the Chinese countryside is, perhaps, one of Nobel Laureate Mo Yan’s most readable books, but I cannot seem to get past the first few pages – it is so grim and unredemptive.

Well, there you have it. Hopefully, these books will inspire me rather than deter, and embolden, not discourage. Share your favorite reads of the holidays in the commenst and see you all in the New Year. Happy Holidays!

UPDATE: My friend and writer Jeanne Fredrisen has given me a (Drop)box of tips and pointers on writing kidlit. Also part of my reading list for the break. Thanks Jeanne!

 

Writing a Novel – Day 15

Dec 21, 2012

Since the world didn’t end today, I guess I have no choice but to continue with the book.

The good news is that yesterday was an incredibly productive day; wrote the synopsis for the new project, which included background, setting, characters and a chapter by chapter breakdown. Also, I think this is a story I can share with my daughter at an early stage so she can tell me if it catches her fancy.

The bad news is manifold, and almost all of it has to do with uncertainty and inexperience. First, I ended up with eight chapters before the book took a natural break. It seems there’s at least a Part 2, if not a Part 3, waiting in the wings. So are eight chapters enough? I need to look over a few pre-teen books to see what kind of template is appropriate for this age.

Second, now that I have a plan, I feel the crushing need for someone experienced to look over the project and tell me if it is worth continuing. Here’s where I wish I was good friends with another kid-lit writer or publisher who could advise me. I consider myself a good judge and editor for other writers out there, but I cannot be objective about my own work. Anyone out there want to swap stories?

I think I will proceed with the story, but look seriously for writers’ workshops, classes and groups in the area.