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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 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.