Sunday, July 27, 2008

You're not fully clean unless...

I was reading Dr. Sanjay Gupta's blog post memorializing Michael DeBakey, a surgeon Dr. Gupta called a "medical legend." One of the comments from a medical student says that Dr. DeBakey said in a Q&A session many years ago that his biggest regret was wasting too much time. How anyone considered a pioneer in their field can think they have wasted too much time speaks of either tremendous arrogance or almost saintly humility. In Dr. DeBakey's case, who credits his mother's sewing instructions as the key to his success as a surgeon, I'm willing to bet it was the latter.

In my career, I doubt I'll be saving any lives, but I am highly likely to be wasting quite a bit of time. There's the 10 minutes I waste every day listening to Ann Curry gush uncontrollably every morning while I wait for my local news and weather; the hour I spend tooling around on the Interwebs every evening, looking for nothing in particular; and the untold weekend days where I can't seem to get up before 11, then lay in bed for two hours reading trashy books, only to finally get washed, quaffed, dressed and ready to meet the world by 4pm.

Did I do the laundry? Nope..but I still have some clean undergarments so I guess it can wait until next week. Did I go through the mail? Nope, but the stack on the kitchen table hasn't fallen over yet, so it can wait another few days. Did I exercise? Nope. Woke up too late and then ate too late, and who wants to go to the gym on a Saturday night??

Of course, the amount of wasted time in my life is nothing compared to the useless junk taking up space in my brain. There is a scene in Jim Henson's iconic film Labyrinth where Sarah is dreaming about searching for her brother and finds herself in a junkyard. An old woman tries to distract Sarah by offering the girl all of her favorite toys from childhood. Eventually, Sarah remembers what she has come for and yells something to the effect of "I want my baby brother!" (Sorry guys, no youtube luck, though I tried).

This scene haunted me as a child, and even still gives me the heebie jeebies as an adult. In a way, I wonder if my mind isn't a big junkyard, filled more with advertising slogans than literary passages, juicy celebrity gossip instead of complex philosophical concepts.

For example, the other day, I noticed a frozen food lunch my boss was eating. It was Thai peanut chicken or something, in a "zesty" sauce. I thought to myself, "Zesty--that's a word for green things like, cilantro, pesto.... and Zest soap."

I actually spent a few minutes wondering why "zest" the name for the soap means something like enjoying or relishing an experience; but the simple addition of a "y" to the end of the word evokes images of Latin food. Certainly "zesty" wasn't the right world for things with peanuts in it, and although the mango flavored Zest was a tremendous failure, I still stand by my belief that it would have worked if they had kept the soap green.

All this, and I could have been contemplating a solution to our country's current economic difficulties, or learning a new word like "piquant."

Maybe, I simply don't have the mental stamina for such intense intellectual musings. Or perhaps I can blame it all on Corporate America.

DeBakey didn't grow up with television and failblog. He didn't grow up in a world where every waking moment was a bombardment of marketing strategies aimed at convincing you consciously or subliminally to become another lemming.

I can't help it if I grab the Sunny D from the fridge and think to myself, "It's not OJ or the purple stuff." The jingle just eeks out of me, perhaps like a maestro finds himself humming the Moonlight Sonata when driving at night.

What I'm really arguing is that the consumerist culture that pushes Prada and iPhones on my generation and American Girl Bistros and Guitar Hero on the one after me is making us dumber. Certainly, others have wondered the same thing.

So, my brain, which has infinitely less capacity than the late Dr. DeBakey's has no chance against all the catchy slogans and sitcom theme songs that have been engineered, focus-grouped, and triple-tested to stick in the deep nether regions of my consciousness--and the equation for finding the area of a circle and the definition of a gerund are not. And that urban legend that we use only 10 percent of our brains during the day? Untrue. So much for the possibility of finding an alien technology that could help me remember my shopping list.

And this blog? Has it been a waste of intellectual energy and time? You tell me.

Monday, July 14, 2008

In between the dark and the light: memory before time

While listening to Pandora radio recently, a lovely Heart song called “There’s the Girl” came up. It’s not on the greatest hits compilation I own; however, I subsequently recalled hearing it occasionally on the radio as a little girl. All of this brought to mind something I’m calling musical memory. Not memory of playing a piano piece learned per se (I guess, which is muscle memory too), but more one’s unconscious memory of a song – or set of songs.

Almost always, I can trace back the time or era of my life in which I was first aware of a musical artist I like. I remember listening to Michael Jackson when I was 3 or 4 years old (this, the Challenger disaster, and the time I saw through my bedroom window, a flock of hundreds of birds carpeting our lawn in Yonkers, New York in a migratory pit stop, make up some of my very first, if not truly first memories).

I remember first paying attention to The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, and the Velvet Underground – all mostly off my radar until I was in my teens and going through my enjoyment of all classic rock. Those were the days when I wouldn’t turn off the radio when Led Zeppelin came on (sorry, I like them, I do- they just give me a headache a lot of the time.)

I never had this moment with the Eagles. It’s not that I especially love them. I don’t adore them unconditionally the way I do Fleetwood Mac, whose songs sometimes rip out of my heart, throw it on the floor, and then proceed to step on it. I don’t appreciate them the way I do the tunes of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers – romantic and gritty at the same time. Nothing to hold par with the brilliance of the “oh, my my/oh hell, yes” refrain in “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.” I don’t connect with their lyrics or orchestration the way I do with the raw, elemental power of Kate Bush which makes me want to spin and spin until I collapse. I even like hip Japanese pop artist Namie Amuro much more.

Yet, every time I listen to an Eagles song, it’s like coming home. There’s never a conscious “Oh, I heard this first when I was 5 years old” or “I started liking them when I was 10.” It’s like there was never a time when these songs weren’t in my memory. I always knew of them. No, no, I do not go into a trance like Elaine’s date does in Seinfeld when listening to “Desperado.” It’s just a simple, yes I know this song and have always known this song – there is no time I was not familiar with the ritualistic, drum intro of “Witchy Woman,” the waltz beat of the country-laden “Take it to the Limit,” or the depressed bass-line underpinning the bluesy “One of These Nights.” These songs need no explanation – they are just there, part of my unconscious.

For many years, I vaguely wondered about this effect and suffered my dad playing their Greatest Hits compilation all the time and attempting to sing. Until one day, my mother said very blithely in Tamil, “Oh, not this again. Your dad played this record all the time in the house when I first came to the country.” It is to be noted in 1980, when my mother moved to New York, the Eagles had already split up. And suddenly, it made sense to me.

Though I know that the fetus can listen to music while in the womb, I don’t know if it’s even possible to have a memory of something experienced before you were born – but if that is possible, then this it. Sartre would say that essence does not precede existence, but for whatever it is worth, this is my memory before time.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Bringing Up Baby

I have noticed that just as heroes, cowards, and religious zealots are made in a foxhole, every man's mettle and faith is tested when he is asked to hold a baby. Perhaps it is good that none of us remember being crowd-surfed for kisses. After all, I am sure we have all been exposed to our fair share of danger at the hands of smelly or frightening relatives who have no children and referred to us as "it"--largely in the context of: "it needs to be changed," "it spit up on me," or "it started crying, you'd better take it back."

Perhaps older generations have more excuses. Propriety demanded our grandfathers and great-grandfathers shun any and all knowledge on pregnancy and childbirth--an ignorance that would put today's six-year-olds to shame.

While American men are not nearly as blissfully unaware as their forefathers, thanks, in part, to tasteful and educational movies like "Junior" and "Knocked Up", the single, sub-30, male relative of a new arrival may have no better idea how to hold a baby than how to make a quiche.

Baby-holding pre-dates the wheel and fire--but single guys still haven't gotten it right. Was it a deeply rooted fear of a tiny wailing thing that sent the men off to hunt wolly mammoths instead of indulging in berry picking? I mean, what man doesn't relish every opportunity to sit near a food source and eat?

Truly, little has changed since the homo sapiens walked the earth. Men from pre-history to the apocalypse still try to smash something that doesn't work and they fall into three main categories when they are asked to hold a child for the first time:

The 007: This man is too suave. He's never picked up a child in his life but he's suddenly asking burping and feeding like a pro--showing his mad skillz off to any hot chick who will watch. You hate this man. He would never be unruffled at 3am with the third feeding of the night or ever get his shirt stained with applesauce reflux.

The Hail Mary: This guy thinks it's fun to throw a baby up in the air 12 feet and catch him/her one-handed. If you voice any concern, you're likely to be told he's "got 'em" and to "quit being so'll never raise an first-round pick Falcon that way!"

The Wuss: He won't buy tampons at the store or even want to be in the same room as a breast pump. If you give him a baby, he'll hold it at arms' length and be quick to pawn it off on someone else. For him, babies are a contaminant, oozing out "commitment" germs wherever they touch or grab.

While 007 has his game on, you may be doing your cousin Sandy a favor by giving the baby something that smells particularly bad when it comes out the other way.

As for Hail Mary, you can rescue your child by asking him to explain the Falcons third-quarter play the other night (assuming this is football season, feel free to use basketball, or baseball alternatives as necessary). Put an appopriately innocent expression on your face and take the baby from him once he starts talking. Hail Mary won't notice the baby's gone becaus he'll be too busy gesturing with his hands about how so-and-so rushed center and Joe Bob fumbled at the 10 yard line...or whatever.

Finally for Wuss, the easiest option is to go out for the night and leave the baby in his care. Pretend like you had understood he'd agreed to babysit, not just come visit. He'll call around 9:30 and beg you to come home, during which time you are free to request any favor you actually need.

Product Differentiation

In the world of retail and commerce, originality, quality, and appeal of merchandise must be carefully formulated and executed so that potential customers and patrons do not feel alienated, confused, belittled, discriminated against or unimpressed. Depending on the product or service offered, price can influence the degree of the public's enthusiasm.

Thriving in clothing or restaurant businesses, for instance, requires an adherence to already established standards and products on the content level, but to exceed everyone else in content quality and presentation (using better materials and ingredients, maintaining a healthy relationship with employees, hiring quick-thinking staff). A white blouse might be a white blouse no matter how you cut it, but it must look good and fit properly. Similarly, a hamburger may be two buns and a beef patty no matter how you bite into it, but it needs to taste a certain way. Business persons who want to re-invent the wheel are certainly free to do so, but unless quality and appeal outweigh potential confusion, the only response they'll get is "don't fix what isn't broken."

A hamburger with baguette bread? Hmmm....I know it's served this way in a few dining establishments, but if you re-think the bun but don't re-think the beef, you're probably going to get fewer repeat customers.

It dawned on me today that as much as human beings yearn for acceptance and a sense of belonging in a larger group, the desire to be unique is strong enough to alienate the audience. The thought actually originated with thinking about goals and dreams I've tossed to the wayside due to the sheer impracticality of retaining them. Specifically, to seek and acquire the kinds of emotional bonds I've craved for a long time.

America was founded on principles of self-agency and individuality, among others. Reclining beneath the "life liberty, and pursuit of happiness" tenet is the notion that being better than everyone else (or sometimes just different in a rewarding way) is preferable to being just like everyone else. Dance to the bass line of your own groove; snack to the percentage of your own sodium needs; read to the themes and plotlines of your own preferences. In terms of self-expression, being different (unique) is commendable and frequently refreshing. With respect to human interaction, however, being unique has a tendency to get lost in transmission.*


I pride myself on being different--to the extent that I must risk coming across as disarming or plain weird. While I wouldn't necessarily alter my behavior or favorite conversational topics just to increase the chances I can reclaim those discarded dreams, I understand now that the reason I've failed on every mission is that I am unique rather than above average. Someone who is unique might be the best in the time zone, but this person is also unpredictable intellectually, emotionally, and behaviorally.** Someone who is above average will be the best in the room (and even zip code) and is much more predictable. By no means is this kind of predictability steeped in convention or monotony. Someone who is above average can be every bit as original and new as the unique. The difference is that the unique person functions along a separate source of motive and intent as well as modus operandi. The above average person exhibits the same motive and intent as the average, but his/her modus operandi can differ.

For people trying to make connections, originality, quality, and appeal are less daunting when you know what is likely to be behind the curtain. How many people are willing to venture towards the unknown?

*Excepting cases where your deviations from societal norms are shared by enough (analog or digital) people such that you don't feel completely alone.

**I realize that a unique person can become predictable given enough time. If you spend enough energy and time with such an individual, you can better comprehend them and anticipate how they will react to a number of situations.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Rio Reiterated

It opens like a steel knife slicing and segues into an entrancing cacophony of sounds that is disorienting and provoking. I think I’ve got it figured it out, but listening to Duran Duran’s “Rio” is always like I’ve never heard it before. In fact, I’ve heard it many times, but I’m forever amazed at how it sounds *different* every time I hear it.

Sometimes I choose to pay attention to the bass line that underpins the song. Other times, I concentrate on the pulsing drum beat. In some instances, I focus on the waterfall-like, flittering melody of synthesizer. A lot of the time, it is Simon Le Bon's beautiful voice with its almost piano-flat, oblique intonations, that captures my attention. And other times, it’s the grating, electric guitar, which grounds the song into a tangible reality. Interspersed with all this are bird-like sounds in the background, a saxophone interlude bridging the song, and the sound of a woman’s laughter, sharp and ringing, almost mocking.

The tone of the song begins with a cool indifference, “cherry ice cream/I suppose it’s very nice.” It builds a driving energy and then cascades. By the time you’ve reached the end, you feel a little more reckless, ready to dive in, to take a risk, because “luck is on your side or something.”

“Rio” proves to be as simultaneously satisfying and as frustrating as the elusive, titular woman of the song. You think you’ve found it, only to have it escape from your grasp . . .

“Who is Rio anyways?” asked a male friend of mine once. “That’s what I want to know.”

I just shrugged & smiled.