Archive for March, 2007|Monthly archive page

Souvenirs from the other side of the moon

On pure impulse, I accompanied a colleague who went to a 5th Avenue cosmetics store. She was going to get a make over and freebies were also available for a friend. Since the person she really wanted to invite was out of town, I ended up being R’s “+1”.

Stanley, the poor man who ended up with me, must’ve been scandalized. He asked me what I did usually, and I said nothing. Rapidly revising his standards, he asked if I at least used a moisturizer, and I said sure – he asked me to name names, and I couldn’t. Stanley was a good sport though, and proceeded to cover my face with 16 layers (I counted) of stuff. He patiently described what each product was supposed to do, what was the best way to apply it, and so on. One of the many layers of stuff (apologies to those who understand these things – to me, it’s just “stuff”, some smelt nice, others not) had vitamins A, C and E. I almost said out loud, “oh, just like the 14th street subway station!” – but was too scared to open my mouth, or my eyes…

He complemented me on my “healthy skin”, and once on the length of my eyelashes. It was obvious that Stanley was a trooper and could work with whatever horrors fate threw his way. At one point, he used some whitish stuff to cover what he politely called a “blemish”. Is that the PC term we’re using for pimples now? I wondered what the point was – unless you put on enough layers to raise the rest of your face to the same height as your, er, “blemish”, the damn thing’s still going to stick out, isn’t it?

Meanwhile R was also getting her own face done, and making what looked like great chit-chat with her er, person. I am terrible at making chit chat with hair dressers and well, anyone in the “beauty” industry really. I make great chit chat with the security guard who checks my back-pack at the Donnell Library, with the lady who gives me my free newspaper at the subway and so on. But put me in front of a professional beautician, and I freeze. My attitude veers between abject guilt (“I am so very sorry to present my sorry, shabby hair / face / self before you”) and a sense of determined entitlement (“Your whole industry depends on people like me who don’t exfoliate enough or at all, so I refuse to let myself be intimidated by you!”).

In the absence of chatter, Stanley was able to finish in about 20-25 minutes. I thought about this friend of a friend, who allegedly wakes up an hour early every morning to blow dry her hair. I only recently discovered that there’s more to “blow dry” than mere blowing and drying – so I realize what this friend of a friend does is quite elaborate. An hour earlier? If I had that kind of time, I’d automatically start staying up an hour later at nights to read or watch an extra movie. I mentally calculated how long it might take me to do what a professional like Stanley was able to in 25 minutes – probably an hour. Maybe after 10+ years of practice, I could get down to his time (he mentioned he’d been doing this for 13 years) – but by then, I’ll be older and will need to put in more time to conceal random wrinkles and other “blemishes”.

I realized why women who deeply care about their looks don’t care about books or many of the other things I care about – it’s not because they’re not interested. It’s because they don’t have the time. If I were to ever take up this ‘looking good’ thing, I would have to overhaul my entire way of life – when I wake up, when I go to bed, what sort of things I carry around with me, what sort of container I carry these things in (the powers that be in the fashion industry will never allow ‘water proof backpack’ to become the “it” accessory) – everything I have or do now will have to go, to be replaced with an entirely different set of things.

At any rate, Stanley was done. He asked me how I though I looked, and I felt obliged to tell him I thought I looked great! And I suppose I did. (It lasted less than half an hour, as I ended up eating most of my make up – no I didn’t lick my face, but did have to eat lunch.) He asked me if I had questions, and both of us knew that there was no way I was going to buy all of the stuff he showed me, let alone ask him for pointers about how to go back home and become a DIY-beauty. I did buy a couple of things – some soap with beads in it (“to exfoliate”), because soap is something even I can use. And some eye thingamajiggy, as an attempt to convince Stanley and myself that without being overambitious, I would at least give this beauty thing my best shot.

So much for an afternoon’s venture to the bright side of the moon. It is too scary to consider a permanent relocation, but I feel adventurous enough from having had the guts to make that brief visit. And I have souvenirs to prove I did go there.


It’s interesting that the term bibliophile is inextricably linked to the physical object. I wonder if there’s a term which only means ‘lover of reading’, something that denotes just the act of reading, independent of the medium. Perhaps when the term was coined, one didn’t conceive that reading might be possible on non-print media.

At least for people of my generation, a love for the physical objects themselves was a pre-requisite. I can’t remember my first ever visit to a library or book store. It must felt very close to how it felt like when I wandered into McLeod’s Books in Vancouver last month. The smell of pulp, that very distinctive smell of slightly musty pulp, made me feel heady. The sight of so many books at one spot added to that feeling of slight imbalance. I came down from that high pretty quickly, as I felt overwhelmed by the thought that I’d never be able to read all those books, or even read enough to understand what most of those books were about. That low was followed by a slow climb to another high (a more permanent high this time), where I decided that I’d somehow manage to read everything worth reading, regardless of the seeming impossibility of that goal.

These days, it’s difficult to recapture that sense of awe-struck wonder. For one thing, neither the Donnell Library nor Barnes & Noble are at all musty. Even the Strand doesn’t scare me anymore. Everything is too neatly labeled and categorized. I suppose the idea is to make it less overwhelming, but all it really does is to make it all seem more mundane, and therefore easier to ignore. My love for new books, with their slightly moist pages, and their smell of new binding is for another post. But in this one, I am going to say that as much as I like new books, with their shiny covers and untouched pages, I’d much rather take older books, used or not.

Even libraries don’t seem to carry very many old books these days. You might get lucky and get an old edition of something that no one reads any more, or something which the library hasn’t gotten around to replacing with a shinier version. But that’s extremely rare. All you get these days are new books trying very hard to look like old books – with their vain attempts at evoking the past, replete with references to old paintings and books and maps. These are the books whose pages are thick and their edges a tad rough, as though the paper’s been cut with a dull-edged knife. Who’re they kidding? They’re as close to “old” as Dan Brown is to Umberto Eco.

When I was a kid, if you claimed to ‘love to read’, you also had to love the musty-odor, and the silver-fish, and the cob-webs. Books were hard-bound in an intimidating sort of manner (intimidating because they reminded you that they really belonged in a fancy glass book case and that you were ruining them by stocking them in your modest non-glassy shelf). There were no capitalized or italicized blurbs shouting the book’s worth to the world, no quotations from Michiko Kakutani or Salman Rushdie, not even a summary. There was nothing. You either had to have read something else by the same author, or you’d heard of the book from a friend, or you went with the title and what little you could make out from skimming through a few random pages. These books were clearly not published in the 80s. These are books from my grandfather’s generation – but for some reason, these were the sorts of books one found at libraries – be it the British Council or the Shankar Lending Library at Cuddalore.

When I was a kid, reading was a solitary pursuit. I didn’t have friends who liked reading half as much as I did. I didn’t have siblings who might have steered me toward or away from books. I suppose I started with what my parents thought I might like, or rather, what looked like appropriate reading for a kid. Then I went through many authors they themselves liked – Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Robin Cook… I used to go “through” authors then – if I liked one book, I read anything and everything else from the same author. Most of the books I now swear by were read for utterly random reasons – an uncle who happened to spend a few months in Germany brought back an Asterix comic as a present; old Mr. Shankar from the lending library told my Mom that Perry Mason would be “appropriate” reading for a young girl; a couple of my Dad’s friends from his bachelor days were PGW nuts, and Dad remembered the name long after he’d stopped being a bachelor; a neighbor had hard bound copies of all of Jane Austen’s novels in a book case they inherited from their grandfather; a senior from high school thought that our system of education was irredeemably screwed up because they no longer taught Shakespeare in the original – R quoted from Othello, I think, and insisted that the language was alive and not scary at all – I had a crush on him after that fine speech (mostly for being revolutionary enough to question the merit of a thing I’d taken for granted, and for not being afraid to openly express a fondness for reading stuff even older than what I’d read till then), and decided to give Shakespeare a shot, even though I doubt that I spoke to R ever again… It’s funny that the very strong likes and dislikes I now claim to have were developed so haphazardly.

Only in the last five or so years have I finally managed to connect with other readers. It still feels odd to ask someone about their reading – I am too scared to ask the question of people I think I would like to be friends with. I am terrified that they or I will give the wrong answer and a possible friendship might forever be lost. Even if I didn’t have friends, there are a zillion reviews to read, hundreds of rankings and blogs and book clubs to tell me what I should be reading. Suddenly, reading is a social activity.

But I get distracted. This was supposed to be about the books themselves, not about reading. McLeod’s as you can see from the photographs, is an amazing store. It was a delightful spot to kill a few hours, as I waited for my visa. One of the books I bought there is an old edition of Robert Graves’s Claudius the God. I’d been reading a library copy in New York, which I had to return before I could finish it. I like the book well enough, but the only reason I bought this copy was because it was inscribed:

“January 19th 1959.

To successful years ahead – and contentment – B.H.”

How could I have not bought the book after seeing that?

I have the book on my bed as I type this. Every time I read this inscription, I think of McLeod’s, the way the store looked and smelt, and I remember some of the reasons I fell in love with reading for the first time.

Can we please put Darcy behind us?

I am huge fan of Jane Austen, but get over her already! Perhaps I’ve been spending a little too much time at Barnes & Noble lately, but it looks like old Ms. Austen can give Dan Brown a run for his money, in the category of “works related to one bestseller”. See this sample from Amazon to see what am talking about. I’d assumed that some enthu pattani must’ve attempted a sequel, but never imagined there’d be so many!

This series from Elizabeth Aston takes the cake – she’s written a series of books based on minor characters from Pride & Prejudice. One of the many books in her series is about the daughter of the the girl Darcy didn’t marry! If this weren’t bad enough, there is this one, which gives Pride & Prejudice a Da Vinci Code twist (egad!), with shades of Possession thrown in for good measure.

What I really want to know is why B&N stocks these silly books in the Literature / Fiction section. Can’t they stick ’em in the ‘Romance’ section, so that the audience that is presumably interested in these books will actually find them, and the rest of us can avoid these things altogether?

Of course, the fascination doesn’t stop with the one novel or the characters in it. It extends to the Austen herself. A new movie wonders if P&P was “inspired” by events in Austen’s life. You can see why the idea appeals to suits in media – forget speculating about what might have happened to Darcy after he got together with Elizabeth – he could be real! The day is not far off when some bloke from England will claim to be the descendant of the “real” Darcy, and will probably get to be the next Bachelor or at least be on Big Brother.

We are all either turning into 5 year olds who don’t want to stop eating ice-cream, or we’re a society of obsessive compulsives who cannot let things simply be. The question is will we get away with a belly ache, or will we need to check ourselves into a psychiatric facility?

Wishful thinking

On the eve of every week end, I find myself having a panic attack. There’s too much to do – over the next two days, over the next week, month, rest of my life. Some of my time is spent worrying that perhaps I don’t work hard enough. But most of it is spent worrying that as a single woman in New York, I don’t play hard enough. Too many books to read, movies to watch, concerts to attend…and any left over anxiety is allocated to worrying about not living healthy enough, not being organized enough, and not having a clean enough apartment.

At especially harrowing times – such as the eve of a long week end, I’m tempted to make a list. My problem with lists is that they make me feel optimistic, which is completely against my nature. Lists give me an illusion of control, when I’ve demonstrated almost none in the past. Am convinced that were I to make a list right now, I’d cut out a few hours of television, assign myself ‘movie nights’ and ‘reading nights’ and end up subscribing to the WSJ or The Economist or both. The act of ‘making’ a list leads me to believe that I’d be able to ‘make’ other things, like time for instance. 

In the past, I’ve foolishly wished for more time. If only there were 28 hours in a day, instead of 24, I’d be able to get an extra half-hour’s worth of sleep AND be able to go to the gym. What folly. If there were four extra hours in a day, there’d be at least one extra snack (if not an entire meal) to eat, and you know what that means – more TV and more dirty dishes.

No – the real solution is to have less time. If you only had 18 hours in a day, you wouldn’t stare at a mug do a merry-go-round inside the microwave for a minute and fifteen seconds. You’d use that time to get shit done. There would be no more channel-surfing, or skipping through songs-you-really-don’t-like-but-think-you-just-might-miss-if-you-deleted-them-and-so-still-have-on-your-iPod. You wouldn’t watch both the Capote movies or Infernal Affairs and The Departed – you’d pick one and run with it. And you would avoid Iñárritu and Kurasawa altogether – critics and friends and Gael Garcia Bernal be damned. You wouldn’t wonder, as you’re typing up something like this, if your post will get commented upon, let alone dare to hope for some link love. And let’s face it, you wouldn’t have the luxury to feel bad about skipping gym. For fewer hours a day must surely mean fewer hours to feel guilty in.