Monday, September 29, 2008

Inhalin’ Palin

For the last many weeks I’ve been trawling through the Internet’s vast sea of informational and speculative glop, in search of something that will throw light on the US presidential election. News reports, blogs, essays, cartoons, videos, photos—nothing has been too long or badly-written or biased or foul-mouthed or weird to look through, because I really, really want to know.

I’m looking, specifically, for something that might explain the whole Sarah Palin thing. It’s been the object of a media feeding frenzy for so long, and so much bile has been spent on it, that I should be enlightened, but really, nothing I’ve seen so far has given me anything to work with.

I know, I know. Who are we to ridicule other countries’ candidates for high office when we regularly tolerate criminals, murderers and the sons and daughters of the above just for being their sons and daughters, in our own political offices and institutions?

But like it or not, the whole world has gotten involved with this election, so we really do have to ask ourselves: What on earth do the long-suffering American people see in her?

It’s not her trenchant mind. Look up her three major television interviews (with Charlie Gibson of ABC, Sean Hannity of Fox and Katie Couric of CBS) for endless examples of an extraordinary capacity to spout sentences comprised almost exclusively of Palin-patented phrases, like “put the government back on the side of the people”, “ruffle some feathers”, “get in there and reform”, “I’m so proud of my son/the American people/this great country”, “I killed the bridge to nowhere”, “a maverick team”, and “look for efficiencies”. Also, if I hear the phrase “eighteen million cracks” one more time, I will throw up.

It’s not that she’s fantastically articulate, viz. this sentence from the Fox interview, in response to a question on the economic meltdown: “Well, you know, first Fannie and Freddie, different because quasi-government agencies there where government had to step in because the adverse impact all across our nation, especially with homeowners, is just too impacting”.

It’s not that she’s well-informed, as it appeared from her total inability to work out what in the world the Bush Doctrine is, until the interviewer took pity on her and told her, at which point she bounced straight back into cliché-land. In fact one of her key abilities is to completely ignore the substance of a question, using the fact that the other person spoke as a prompt to trot out the same old fatigued lines. (If you find yourself in need of a laugh, check out the spoof interviews, including Jay Leno’s Tonight Show parody.) What really stumps me is why, if McCain needs to protect her from public exposure and the press, he chose her in the first place.

Conventional wisdom says it was the whole ‘smokin’ hot babe’ thing, since that seems to be her greatest appeal: not just a woman who hunts and field-dresses moose, but an attractive woman who hunts and field-dresses moose. To my eyes Sarah Palin, what with the quasi-beehive balancing precariously atop her head, looks like something out of—which, if you haven’t been there to see yourself in a variety of nostalgia-drenched looks, I strongly recommend. Add to this that grating Mountain-Alaskan accent so excellently lampooned by Tina Fey of Saturday Night Live, and I’m totally at sea.

So, I like to think, is America. If there’s a silver lining to what looks like the worst political joke of the century, it is that the vice-presidential debates should be a real hoot.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Games people play

Two Mondays ago I had a mid-afternoon nap, which is very unusual. I never nap in the afternoon unless I’m sick; even as a little child, I thought of the household’s daily siesta as merely a good opportunity to eat sugar straight out of the sugar bowl for an hour without having to listen to a lot of annoying value judgements. The papers keep saying that naps are good for you, but they bore me, and leave me even groggier and crabbier than usual, which is no good for anyone else.

When I woke from my surprise nap two Mondays ago, therefore, I was at best puzzled, and at worst worried about coming down with the Bubonic plague. Little did I know how bad it really was. “Don’t fret, it’s perfectly normal for portly, middle-aged people to need naps,” said a certain person, whom I will identify only as someone who once gave birth to me.

This torpedo of a statement found its mark straight and true; and so, two Tuesdays ago, I started playing badminton with a friend who, like me, last played when Pluto was still a planet, and Angelina Jolie only had one kid, and Facebook was just a gleam in some college kid’s eye. We pledged to meet on the court at 7am, a time we judged would involve the fewest possible eyewitnesses, and sweat ourselves back into some other shape.

The first thing that happened, twenty minutes into play on day two, was that I twisted my portly, middle-aged ankle and suffered an ungainly collapse upon my portly, middle-aged bum in the middle of the court (though I’m proud to say that I returned the shot from a sitting position even though the shuttlecock was hard to see amid all the little dancing green spots before my eyes).

We naturally couldn’t play the next day, but I bought an ankle brace and learned my lesson. The rule is now that we have to arrive at 6.45am and warm up properly, which allows us to get in not half an hour, but forty-five minutes of play before the sun rises above the trees. (Of course, the sun is just a great big fiery ball-shaped peg upon which I hang my frequent inability to connect with the shuttlecock, which is the most evocatively and disturbingly named piece of sporting equipment in the world; but it works for us.)

Although we have discovered a constant presence in the shape of a guard atop a watchtower overlooking the outdoor court, he appears to be trying to shield his eyes with his hands from the sight of us, so we’ve stopped worrying about him. The court is in a lovely green setting so it is crawling with centipedes, ants, and other bugs; I blithely squash them under my heel, but my partner, who is an altogether nicer person, often pauses play to remove them to safer ground, which is truly wonderful because it gives me time to breathe.

For a few days both she and I suffered the most excruciating muscle pain, but now that we’ve played every day for ten days, interrupted only by ankle-healing and the sports club’s weekly off day, I can tell you things are much better. I’m far better tempered; I go to bed early so that I can feel human when the alarm goes off at 6.20; I don’t drink as much or as often as I would; and I can feel a tiny, tiny little give in my jeans again. I think I’ve finally eased back from the brink of portly and middle-aged to just fat and thirty-something. Phew, that was close.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Thank God it’s Friday—not

To everyone who prayed and fasted on Tuesday to prevent the world from being sucked into a black hole on Wednesday: thanks for nothing. The world didn’t end this week, even though I waited until the end of the day and all the next day too, and I had to write a column after all. Typical. Apparently the unexpectedly nerdy Horsemen of the Apocalypse plan to get into serious universe-ending gear only a year from now, after their Large Hadron Collider has practiced on enough hapless protons.

This irritating state of affairs did, however, mean that courier services continued. Courier delivery people are hired purely for their ability to show up at the precise moment when you’ve lathered up a storm of shampoo on your head, or entered the delta stage of your sleep cycle, or gotten your head and arms irretrievably mixed up in the shirt you were pulling on and are jerking about like a decapitated chicken. That’s what they’re waiting for. That’s when they ring the doorbell, sometimes twice, just to know that somewhere inside the house, inconvenient haste has turned to blind panic.

So I shot out of bed, rinsed my hair, busted out of my shirt, and snatched the door open to find the courier guy handing me Good Times for Everyone: Sexuality Questions, Feminist Answers by Radhika Chandiramani, (Women Unlimited 2008). It’s a compilation of the author’s fortnightly column on sexuality in the Asian Age newspaper, a sort of FAQ on anatomy, sexual preference, sexual health and safety, relationships, and emotional intelligence.

Having read it, I silently but fervently thanked Chandiramani for publishing it, because, besides providing some truly entertaining moments, the questions reflects an abysmal lack of information out there. I’d say that these are not ‘feminist’ as much as ‘enlightened humanist’ responses, and that’s a good thing.

In the foreword Chandiramani writes: “The questions would come in inland letter forms, postcards, heavily sealed envelopes. Most often they were handwritten. Sometimes the ink was smudged. Sometimes it would be a hastily written question on a single sheet of paper torn out of an office pad. Some were in impeccable English, some in faltering English, some had illustrations when the writers did not know how else to explain their predicament.”

This is unfairly poignant: it would be much more fun to laugh at the couple who said that the wife’s clitoris didn’t seem to be ejaculating properly, if they weren’t worried sick about it.

Chandiramani takes the no-nonsense, schoolmarmish-but-sensitive tone of someone who has answered not only those letters but 60,000 calls on the TARSHI sexuality helpline, about size, shape, technique, norm, and a range of mind-boggling misconceptions. “Just remember,” she writes briskly, “you must not rub the clitoris the way you Brasso buttons”, or, frequently, “Please stop listening to your friends, they seem terribly misinformed” or, even more frequently, “Stop worrying”. You can sometimes sense her weariness when she’s debunking, for the 60,000th time, myths about masturbation or some mysterious quantity called “sex power”.

She answers questions about G-spots, how to deal with children and sex, LBGT lifestyles, suicidal impulses consequent to loss of sex power, poor body image, and a host of other things ranging from the airily philosophical to the deeply technical. A list of resources follows, listed by topic and geography.

Those of you looking for a dirty book (not that any of you would ever dream of such a thing), this is not it. But read it anyway, and pass it on; because when nobody around you will address your sexual concerns except your idiot friends, you must have somewhere to turn. You’ll discover that whatever your problem seems to be, it’s not the end of the world.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

On a wing and a brayer

My mother has taken to calling me ‘donkey’. “Hello, donkey,” she says brightly when I pass by, or, “Donkey, could you pass the salt?” when we’re dining, or “My little donkey!” when she’s feeling fond. I asked hopefully if it might be short for Don Quixote, the great tragic dreamer, but she said no, she just meant the obstinate braying beast.

She conferred this name on me not long after a dinner conversation that segued into the realm of god and religion. I spoke in favour of the motion that ‘God is a Construct, a Powerful Psychological Sweetener/Opiate, and the Perfect Instrument for Mass Terrorisation and the Exercise of Power’, and she spoke in favour of the motion ‘Have Some Respect for the Things You Don’t Know’.

It was one of those chats that can easily replace your regular cardiovascular workout: it raises the heart rate, colours the cheek, pearls the brow, and makes you talk a little louder than strictly necessary. I remember a lot of mutual headshaking and eye-rolling and bitter regret that the other person could be so imprisoned in her own misguided views. (Some days later she read Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, and began to agree with me; but by then we’d both gotten used to ‘donkey’.)

It just goes to show that there’s nothing like religion to make asses of us all, as has recently been made clear by the events of the last few thousand years and again, if you weren’t paying attention, in Jammu and Kashmir and Orissa. Luckily, as a family we agree that we can scream and shout at each other and call each other the most vile and frightful names until we’re blue in the face, as long as we don’t get physically violent. That is the essence of democratic discourse, after all: protest and argue all you like, but non-violently.

The trouble is that this only works if everyone is on the same page. India would be well on its way to some stripe of democracy, were it not for our rich national surplus in ravening lunatics. We have them in a vast array of stripes and kinds, and since we’re a big place with lots of dissimilar people living cheek by jowl, they’re always very busy: there’s always one more house to burn, one more place of worship to demolish or desecrate, one more exhibition to vandalise, one more book to burn, one more bomb to set off, one more person to rape or maim or kill or all three.

Even that might not stop us from being a democracy, except that every night before going to bed these people must get on their knees and give thanks for the self-serving gutlessness of state and central governments, which put the ‘fun’ back into ‘fundamentalism’ by abandoning innocent citizens to their fate rather than hauling the offenders off to jail or the gallows, and risking a heist on their vote banks.

This is because government and law enforcement agencies are equally communal and undemocratic. Let’s face it: democracy simply isn’t native to humans, who are best known for their appetite for domination, destruction, and death. It has to be taught—at home and in schools, because it works better as an individual attitude than as a state regulation. Fundamental to this education is that a child should be free to choose his or own religion, having been exposed to many; or decide that there is no god, so it’s best to quit smoking and get on a monthly investment plan.

The world looks a whole lot better when it’s full of squabbling people calling each other ‘donkey’ than when one homogenous pack is left stamping on the smouldering corpses of their neighbours.