Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Molesting Nature

I used to live near a muddy creek. It was called a "resaca", but since that was not a word I was accustomed to, I thought of it as a creek. A very muddy, dirty one. I would never swim there. I would sometimes imagine trying to, could feel the mud slipping between my toes as I fought to grip hold, the dirty water entering my mouth, my nose, as I lost footing, and scrambled ungainly to shore.

No, I would never try to swim there. No humans ever did. But turtles visited this place, and swam happily amid the murk and grime, in between forays to the shore. Nature unmolested.

During the already parched months of June, the grass would turn brown and the water would seem even muddier than usual. So brown indeed that the blue sky above remained unreflected, dulled.

I never even sat near this water. I didn't want to. And even if one day I thought of considering it - say, to get a closer look at the turtles - I would have quickly changed my mind. Huge mosquitoes lurked nearby, the water's gentle ripple not enough to frighten them away.

Despite this, I loved living near this resaca.

Maybe I was just happy to be near water. Maybe the gentle ripples reminded me of other waters on far-off shores with sweet sweet memories.

Besides, nostalgia has a way of prettying a place up, making it look better than it actually is, filling that human need to see things sometimes as we want them to be, not as they actually are. And since when is using one's imagination a terrible thing? I don't think it is at all. In fact, I used to say that, all the time.

Until the day a neighbor decided to pour a natural dye into the water and turn it a bluish green.

This occurred in August of that same year. That summer it had rained and rained. The pundits on TV said that it was the effects of global warming, that places that normally stayed dry dry were suddenly wet wet, and places that were normally cold cold were suddenly hot hot. They said that humans' carbon footprints were too large and that we were upsetting the natural order of things. As proof, the resaca swelled and threatened to overflow it's banks. And the grass and trees around it grew lush and full. But the water remained a murky brown. As brown as a cup of weak coffee or stale tea, without cream.

Until my neighbor decided to go out and purchase this special dye. He did not ask our permission. He didn't think he needed to. None of us owned the resaca. Maybe the turtles did but asking their consent was not an option. And he tossed the cylinder of dye into the water. Within minutes, ripple after ripple of bluish green starting spreading across the surface of the water. I was surprised by how quickly it spread. I ran inside for my camera but by the time I got back, the entire resaca was already a bluish green.

I ran into my neighbors' yards, snapping away, trying in vain to capture the moment when the water turned from muddy brown to bluish green. But it did not take long at all, at all. I watched, mute, as the dye spread quickly through the water, coloring it, enhancing it, making the whole place pretty pretty.

I asked my neighbor about the turtles. Would they survive, did he know? He assured me that they would, that the dye was harmless. But I did not see a turtle for the rest of that summer. Perhaps they were still there, buried deep beneath the pretty surface, hiding in their safe places. I hope so.

Since then, I have committed to reducing the size of my personal carbon footprint on the earth. I don't call it going green because I now have negative associations to that phrase. It conjures up images of frightened turtles confused about the strange taste in their mouths, gulping stupidly as they choked on pretty.

No, I call it what it is. I'm reducing my addiction to pretty.

Monday, January 28, 2008

2008 Aussie Open Wrap-Up

The Australian Open is over. Despite the best efforts of his mother, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga did not win. Really, there were moments when it looked as if Evelyn Tsonga was going to jump over the seats, scale the fence, grab the racket from her son's hands, and put a beat down on his opponent. There is no doubting where the fierce competitiveness in that family comes from, and I ain't referring to the former handball playing dad.

I am disappointed that Federer did not defend his crown. A German newspaper claims that he was actually very sick. I wonder if we would have found this out had he won the tournament? I suspect not.

At the very least I can console myself with the fact that the guy who ultimately shoved Federer aside ended up winning the tournament altogether. Up 'til this point, Djokovic has been more well-known for his comic impersonations of other players than for his tennis. Today he proudly announced that he is the first Serbian to win the Australian Open. I can't remember any other time when a player grabbed the microphone after the ceremony was over, just to make sure that everyone knew what country he came from. And his fans responded as raucously as if they were at a soccer or cricket match.

Speaking of Serbia, a woman from that country - Ana Ivanovic - also made it to the Australian finals. And despite her incessant fist-pumping, she lost. I don't get why women players pump their fists so continually. Some do it after every single point won, even when they did nothing to earn the point. It's quite annoying. Maria Sharapova beat Ivanovic quite convincingly to win the women's title. And she too kept pumping her fists. If you didn't know how to score, you would have no idea which woman was winning from all the fist-pumping going down on court.

The Women's Doubles was as disappointing (or as hilarious, take your pick) as women's doubles tend to be. Picture it. Four women on a tennis court. At any given moment, any of these four women can intercept the ball to try to win the point. But is this what occurs? Almost never. What happens instead is that the server and her diagonal opposite get into a lengthy back-and-forth rally, while the other two players dance around as if they have a hot pee and must get to the bathroom ASAP. Women's doubles really pisses me off.

In Australia, Shahar Peer became the first Israeli woman to make it to the finals of a tennis Grand Slam. She and her partner, Victoria Azarenka of Belarus, did not win. They lost to the Bondarenko sisters mainly because the sisters were slightly less allergic to poaching.
Shahar could learn a thing or three from her Israeli compatriots, Andy Ram and Yoni Erlich, who convincingly won the men's doubles against the French team of Llodra and Clement. It was a terrific match. It was doubles the way doubles should be played, with lightening quick exchanges at the net and sweet sweet overhead lobs if you dared. None of that baseline rally foolishness that the women call doubles and for which they demand and receive equal pay. But let's not even go there.

Yet another Serbian, Nenad Zimonjic, also made it to the finals of the mixed doubles. (What's in the water in that country?) He and his partner, Sun Tian Tian of China, beat the Indians Sania Mirza and Mahesh Bhupati. I remember reading somewhere that Bhupati is actually Mirza's manager. I wonder how the heck that works, emotionally as well as financially?

I have my first tournament match this evening. After sitting on my butt for two weeks watching tennis instead of practicing, I'm going to need a bottle of that Serbian water. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Clowns -- funny or scary?

My daughter has never liked clowns. Since childhood, she has shunned them. I respected her feelings, so we never had a clown at any of her birthday parties. To this day she says that they wig her out.

It never occurred to me that this might be a typical childhood response. Like most people, I too bought into the image of the clown as an endearing aspect of childhood. And even though I respected my daughter's wishes, I did so not out of any sense that there might be something sinister about the image of the clown but simply out of deference to her feelings.

Well it turns out that her reaction to clowns was quite normal.

The new issue of "Scientific American" quotes findings of a British study that concluded that hospitalized children cannot stand the images of clowns often used to decorate their hospital walls. And how did the researchers find this out? They used a novel approach - they asked the children themselves. In all they spoke to 255 children between the ages of 4 and 16. Not a single one of them liked clowns. The described them as "frightening", "scary" and "creepy".

Coulrophobia is the official term used to describe an abnormal and exaggerated fear of clowns. Not all children suffer this extreme condition. But most children don't like clowns. How is it then that so many parents are not in touch with their children's feelings? How is it that clowns continue to be linked to positive childhood celebrations when this is not what most children want at all? How are we brainwashed into forgetting how we felt about clowns as children?

Heath Ledger's sudden and unexpected death has raised a host of questions, among them the fate of the movie in which he plays the title character - an evil clown. While others ponder his relationship with the Olsen troll and whether or not he may or may not have been putting illegal substances up his nose, I have found myself wondering about the effect on his psyche of having played such a disturbing role.

How had immersing himself in the part of an evil clown affected the child within him, that part of himself that he may have been more acutely in touch with since the birth of his own child? Why did he need so many prescription drugs to help him sleep? What psychological trauma might his psyche have suffered from playing this role?
We may never know.

When Jack Nicholson played the role of the Joker, I found it funny. Sure he was an evil wicked character, but in Jack's mature hands and possibly less vulnerable mind, the role took on a humorous edge that blunted its horror. Will there ever be a more manic movie line than, "Gentlemen, let's broaden our minds! Lawrence!" And with Prince jamming in the background, heck it was almost like 1999.

I'm not sure that I want to see Heath Ledger's movie. I will forever wonder what part it may have played in hastening his death. And whether he should have listened to the instinctive wisdom of his inner child and not played this role at all.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Is it something in the water?

The Australian Open has got to be the strangest Slam. Wimbledon gracefully endures, white against green, genteel and manicured. The US Open is raucous and rowdy, especially at night when New Yorkers come out to party, and on Arthur Ashe day when they celebrate their inner child. And each year Roland Garros shows us the best of Argentina, Spain, and Brazil as we wonder why we Americans continue to have embarrassing feet of clay.

And then there is Australia, where very strange things have been know to happen. I suspect it's the water in Melbourne, its source the massive Yarra river flowing through the city, carrying with it the memories of ancient dreaming as old as time itself.

Take Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, the 22 year old with the French mother and Congolese father. This time last year he was playing Challengers. Today he has made it to the semi-finals in Melbourne, against all odds.

In France, Jo-Wilfried (pictured below) is literally the dark horse. The golden boy was supposed to be Richard Gasquet. When last I checked, most bloggers remain more interested in Gasquet's sexual orientation than in his tennis. Tsonga has become the breath of fresh air. He's the Marcos Bhagdatis of 2008, the unknown outsider who has stolen our hearts and whose tennis takes our collective breath away.

And what to make of Janko Tipsarevic, the glasses-wearing oddball with body art and sundry tattoos including a Dostoevsky quote ["Beauty will save the world"] inked in Japanese on his left arm? Tipsy took Roger Federer to five agonizing sets and lost 10-12 in the 5th. I hear Federer is still having nightmares of that match.

Or Kohlschreiber the giant-slayer, who had Andy Roddick cussing a blue streak even as he bundled him unceremoniously out of the tournament.

And then there's James Blake, the tremendous overachiever whose brain has got be water-logged. Nothing else explains his proud [and bizarre!] announcement - on Martin Luther King Day no less - that he had just found out that he has the same name as the guy who asked Rosa Parks to give up her seat on the bus. Talk about a pathetic attempt to insert himself into history. And failing abysmally. His deceased African-American father probably turned over in his grave in shame. Federer has my permission to drink as much Melbourne water as he needs to crush the idiot in straight sets.

But it's not only the men who seem affected by the water. Has Maria Sharapova ever seemed more ferocious, more wily, her mouth wide-open, screaming, like a hungry crocodile? Has Henin - with her massive club of a right arm and muscled tree trunk legs - ever seemed more delicate, more frail? Have the William Sisters ever both lost to Serbian women in the same round of the same tournament? What does the inside of Venus' mouth look like after all that nervous chewing? Where do those swallowed emotions go? And what happened to Serena's spunk, her brashness, that confident attitude that allowed her declare herself the winner of the Serena Slam? It was a whisper of that woman who showed up on court against Jankovic, a shadow hiding beneath the murky purple brine of fear.

I am reminded of the aborigine legend of Koobor the koala who had a thirst so strong, so unquenchable, that when his relatives left him alone to go forage for food, Koobor drank up all the water in the village. Try as he did to escape punishment, Koobor was eventually caught and beaten within an inch of his life. He placed a curse on the villagers. And this is why koalas don't need water to live and why aborigines still follow Koobor's law when cooking a dead koala.

Never mind the 130 degree weather. I think the message of the legend is to drink just enough of the water in Melbourne to be satisfied. Too much and you end up bloated, foolish, full of yourself. Not enough and your thirst goes unslaked, you crave but cannot achieve. Just enough and you might have a chance of holding that trophy aloft.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Fashion by Numbers

I am a size Large. My closet is chock-full of size L clothing. My butt prefers size L pants and my boobs rest most comfortably in size L tops. Yes my New Year Resolution is to travel downwards slowly to a size M. But in the meantime -- and before my neighborhood Goodwill store wonders how it died and went to heaven -- I continue to purchase size L clothing.

So you can imagine my recent surprise when I went to my neighborhood Target and found myself unable to fit into a size L top. It was a top by one of those fancy designers who slum at Tar-jay when not appearing in Vogue. My first thought was that maybe all the roti and curry I had eaten during my daughter's recent visit had finally caught up with me. So I tried on an XL in the same line. It got past my head but the girls refused to let it go lower. In the end I purchased an XXL.

But to my surprise, when I got it home, it turned out to be no bigger than the other size L clothing in my wardrobe. On the contrary, it was actually a shade smaller. In other words, this Manhattan designer's size XXL was the regular world's size L. No doubt his L may actually be an S in the real world!

All of which made me flash immediately to Jennifer Love Hewitt who recently caused a stir on the internet when she was photographed wearing a black bikini while on vacation with her fiance. Where I come from, with a body like that, Ms. Love would have attracted compliments like "banging". Instead she found herself ridiculed as "fat". That was bad enough. What to me was ten times worse was when she defended herself by claiming to be a size 2.

I am not saying that Ms. Love might not be in possession of a collection of size 2 clothing. Like most women I know, she probably owns clothing ranging from size 2 to __ [insert upper limit here]. I felt that she should simply have said something along the lines of "I am a normal woman with a normal woman's dimensions". Instead she claimed to be a size 2.

Which all brings to mind the host of criticisms that have been repeatedly leveled against the fashion industry for its continued use of size zero models, and its implicit endorsement of size zero as the ideal weight. Recently  the British Fashion Council faced criticism for not having implemented adequate measures against the toxic ideals created by this industry. No doubt next month's fashion show will continue to feature size zero models stalking [and sometimes falling off] the catwalk. And perhaps the token plus-sized model on each season of Tyra Bank's ANTM will continue to shrink before our very eyes. I wonder if this past season's token left the show a size 2?

Please don't misunderstand me. I am as fond of finding past season marked-down fashion bargains as the next person. And, come December, I look forward to donating all of my size L's to Goodwill and replacing them with size M's from Macys. 

But we as consumers need to not buy into the more deleterious aspects of this industry -- you know, like the bingeing and purging that often accompany the relentless pursuit of a size zero. Or claiming to be a size 2 when our butts publicly declare otherwise. 

Friday, January 18, 2008

Neglect is Neglect...Regardless

In any developed country, this would be considered elder abuse.

A white-haired man, in a wheelchair, strapped down with rope, being hauled in the tray of a truck. Think of the many risks involved. Think of all the things that could possibly go wrong. Would you do this to your grandfather? The answer is clearly, "No".

I don't know this man. I don't know the circumstances that led to him being strapped down with a rope in a wheelchair and being hauled like cargo in the tray of a truck. I don't know if his relatives perhaps considered their limited options and decided that this was the only way to get grandpa home. After all, it's a fair day in Trinidad, and apart from having to swallow a few flies and gnats, and get a suntan that he probably did not need, it's quite possible that grandpa made it safely home.

It's easy to denounce the people hauling grandpa and exposing him to a myriad of risks. But are they any different from Britney Spears - one of the wealthiest women in the world - who last year placed her baby, then a few months old, on her lap in front of the steering wheel of her car as she drove blithely down a California roadway?

Both of these situations involve taking a helpless and dependent individual and exposing them to untold risk. Both define a form of neglect.

But in one, I assume that individuals lacking the appropriate resources, decided to strap grandpa firmly into his wheelchair in the tray of a truck and haul him home. In the other, a young woman with all of the resources in the world decides to endanger the life of her child just so that she could get a fix of her dual addictions to Starbucks coffee and paparazzo attention.

I'm not saying that the risk is any less to the helpless person in either of these situations. I'm also not intending to imply that the consequences for the perpetrators should be any less stern. What I am saying is that I see a huge difference between an attempt to develop a makeshift solution to a human dilemma on a small Caribbean island, and the mindless narcissism of a young woman who has been given so much and to whom it would never occur to make the gift of an ambulance or three for use by the elderly and poor in a developing country.

Poor judgment is poor judgment regardless of race, wealth, or circumstances. But if I had to choose which one of those helpless individuals I'd rather be -- go ahead, strap me down in a wheelchair on a bright sunny day and drive me home. But next time, please at least remember to put a hat on my head. And put some sunscreen on my exposed parts. And use a chain instead of rope. And ask for a police escort so they can haul your ass off to jail after I am safely home.


movement difficult
strapped into his chair he feels
the wind rushing by

hoping to get there
in one piece, safe and sound
praying please, no rain

long gone are the days
when he felt like the master
of all he surveyed

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Does James Blake Wear Spanx??

The guy has a huge ass. And I mean HUGE. I've always wondered if he contains it with Spanx. I won't be surprised.

Women always assume that we are the only ones with body image issues and that the whole business of girdle-wearing is limited to us. What is the cummerbund but a male version of the girdle? Men too want to suck it in and prevent the jiggle. Evan McGregor, Daniel Craig [James Bond], and David Beckham are all supposed to be aficionados of the aussieBum brand of underwear which boasts of its ability to lift and enhance the family jewel area.

But what about men with huge asses that they have to tote around while playing sports? Like James Blake? I mean it's not like he's a golfer where the heft of the ass might not interfere with his movement as such. But in sports like tennis and cricket where swiftness of feet truly matters, surely it makes sense to contain that heft with some male version of Spanx?

I almost understood when James cut off his dread locks and went bald. OK so he lost half of his cuteness, but I assumed that it was worth the advantage of lessened wind resistance and improved aerodynamic flow.

So surely it must also have occurred to him to find a way to contain that ass? I look at him while he is playing and I have to admit that the boy is swift of feet. In fact he's gotten speedier and speedier. I don't think he can credit that with losing dreadlocks alone. I suspect Spanx. Maybe ones redesigned to look like jockey shorts. Or maybe skin-colored Spanx with a pair of visibly white jockey-shorts over them, so that we are none the wiser. Feminine tricks.

Anyone has a locker room pass to lend me? I'd really like to check this out myself.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Greatest Tennis Player in the World

The 2008 Australian Open just started. I hope Federer wins a fourth. I understand why some people resent his dominance because I felt the same way about Sampras whose game I found as fascinating as watching paint dry. But Roger is capable of such artistry, such creativity, such venom. He is like a beautiful cobra, capable of deadly strikes, but how can you not admire the beauty of his cunning and calculation? I do believe that he is the greatest tennis player in the world and I feel lucky to be alive to watch his evolution over the years. Check out the Australian Open website at www.australianopen.com and catch Federer as he makes his run for history. Fingers crossed!

Last night I watched the match between Jelena Jankovic (seeded 3) and Tamira Paszek (ranked #96). I lost count of the number of times Paszek had match point on her racket. In the end she lost 10-12 in the third. Paszek had no business losing that match. But winning in tennis is as much a mental act as it takes physical strength and tactical knowledge. Paszek had the strength and the tactics. I know she did because time after time she made it to match point. Like I said, I lost count. And did I say that Jankovic is nursing a hamstring injury? And yet after all that Jankovic won the match. She did so on the mental strength alone. Or it might be more accurate to say that Paszek lost because of mental weakness. Tennis as a metaphor for life. I do believe that life throws opportunity after opportunity at us. It takes mental strength to recognize the moment and to step up and seize it.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Can People Really Change?

It's time for those New Year resolutions. Once a year, many people honorably decide to give up smoking, drinking, overeating, gambling, drugging, and a host of other unhealthy compulsions.

Some couch their resolutions in more positive terms, electing to exercise more, pay more attention to their spiritual health, be kinder to family and friends, and more loving to lovers. Such commendable intentions, often made with the utmost sincerity.

The problem with New Year resolutions is that they give the impression that change is simple.

The fact is that most people do not stick to their resolutions. indeed, they forget them before the year is even half over. And this includes those who are otherwise well-intentioned and disciplined individuals.

Perhaps we'd have a better chance at sticking to our resolutions if we understood how change really occurs.

Some psychologists believe that the path to real change occurs only as a result of understanding the historical (childhood) origins of one's problems. Others believe that there is no need to dig up childhood memories -- one must focus instead on changing those symptoms which are explicitly observable behaviors. Others argue that people must first become aware of their negative, self-critical thinking before they can effect behavior change. And so on.

What does research tell us? That initiating change is easy. Maintaining it is far more difficult.

A crucial factor for maintaining change involves learning how to incorporate the changed person into our existing self-schema (or our ongoing definition of self). For example, a man who abuses his wife because his internal self-image allows him to see abuse as merely an expression of his masculinity, will not be able to sustain lasting behavior change unless he can substitute other behaviors (other than wife-beating) to allow him to retain the self-schema of a masculine man.

Similarly, the woman who has become very invested in the image of herself as victim, may find herself transferring these reactions from her husband to her boss, in order unconsciously to maintain the self-schema of victim.

In other words, a significant source of resistance to change is our human inability to give up our definitions of who we are at core.

Yes people can and do make lasting changes. But it is not enough to just list what you will give up or do more of. It is also necessary to outline the steps by which proposed changes will be implemented and maintained. And how the existing self-image will be protected or altered.