What will your next body be like?

Ian Pearson in Timeguide:

BodyMany engineers, including me, think that some time around 2050, we will be able to make very high quality links between the brains and machines. To such an extent that it will thereafter be possible (albeit expensive for some years) to arrange that most of your mind – your thinking, memories, even sensations and emotions, could reside mainly in the machine world. Some (perhaps some memories that are rarely remembered for example) may not be suited to such external accessibility, but the majority should be. The main aim of this research area is to design electronic solutions to immortality. But actually, that is only one application, and I have discussed electronic immortality a few times now :



What I want to focus on this time is that you don’t have to die to benefit. If your mind is so well connected, you could inhabit a new body, without having to vacate your existing one. Furthermore, there really isn’t much to stop you getting a new body, using that, and dumping your old one in a life support system. You won’t do that, but you could. Either way, you could get a new body or an extra one, and as I asked in passing in my last blog, what will your new body look like?

Firstly, why would you want to do this? Well, you might be old, suffering the drawbacks of ageing, not as mobile and agile as you want to be, you might be young, but not as pretty or fit as you want to be, or maybe you would prefer to be someone else, like your favourite celebrity, a top sports hero, or maybe you’d prefer to be a different gender perhaps? Or maybe you just generally feel you’d like to have the chance to start over, do it differently. Maybe you want to explore a different lifestyle, or maybe it is a way of expressing your artistic streak. So, with all these reasons and more, there will be plenty of demand for wanting a new body and a potentially new life.

More here.

Thursday Poem

You Are Not

You are not in the tulips,
not in their flailing stems
or shrivelled yellow petals
that alive you’d have painted;
not in the pearly wintry sky
or the scarred slopes of the hill
that before your legs failed
you’d have climbed;
not in the spiky firs
or eddies and swirls of the river
or in its still sandy pools
where in your youth
you’d have swum;
not in the beginning drizzle of snow,
or in the deer that hangs
in the larder with black hooves
and long delicate legs,
not in its heart or liver
that we ate last night for supper
and you would have relished.

I don’t know where you are
who loved all the things
I love; who I remember
hauling out of the bath –
tugging on arms I was afraid
of pulling from their sockets;
then drying and helping to dress
and guiding down slippery stone steps
to watch flycatcher chicks
leaving the nest, hearing
the peep peep peep
of their mother’s warning call.

Vicki Feaver
from Like a Fiend Hid in a Cloud
publisher: Jonathan Cape, London, 2013

The Next Left


Jake Blumgart interviews Bhaskar Sunkara, in Boston Review:

Jake Blumgart: Who is Jacobin’s intended audience? You don’t really seem to be trying to engage with conservatives.

Bhaskar Sunkara: The intended audience is connected to the two distinct goals ofJacobin. The first is an intra-left goal to reassert the importance of class and Marxist analysis in the context of an increasingly anarchist-inflected left. We aren’t dogmatic and orthodox, we don’t think the old ways of organizing and thinking are the way forward, but we’re committed to adapting those ways of thinking to new material realities.

But there is another goal, which is more directed to the general public and—I don’t think I’ve put it this crassly before—to liberals: articulating radical left ideas and doing so in a way that is clear and accessible. The pieces are meant to be uncompromising in content but informed, accessible, and in good faith. Over the course of the project, this attempt has been wildly successful. We may get furious cries from the left for getting attention from people such as Christopher Hayes, Reihan Salam, Andrew Sullivan, and whatnot. But that’s part of our intended purpose. We don’t want a world where Hayes and Katrina vanden Heuvel are the de facto left in this country. That’s not saying anything against them; they are principled social democrats. That’s a lot for the American context. But by existing and getting the amount of mass media attention we get — fromRolling Stone to the New York Times —we’re visible reminders of a long-forgotten, and uncompromisingly socialist, political tradition. We are also trying to bring a radical perspective on politics and economics to our predominately young audience, while other publications from our generation are focused more on culture. It’s very much in the tradition of the Second International radicals—Kautsky, Lenin, Luxemburg, and their contemporaries weren’t academics.

That’s not saying that those frameworks don’t have their place, and I love publications like n+1 and the like, but I’m talking about poverty critiques that feel like they have to start with a hook from The Wire. I think that’s bullshit. I think we can just write the essay on poverty and include a few line graphs in it. I think the left can do with a dose of empiricism and that our ideas can stand-up next to others by virtue of their seriousness.

Just Deserts: An Interview with Danielle S. Allen


Justin E. H. Smith interviews Danielle S. Allen in Cabinet magazine:

Your book The World of Prometheus offers a perfect way of giving historical depth to this issue on punishment, but it may also be interesting to reflect on how punishment in ancient Athens is relevant to our understanding of punishment in the contemporary world and, in particular, in the US. I’ve read both Prometheus andTalking to Strangers, your more recent book on Brown v. Board of Education, and one thing that struck me is how many of the same themes run through both books. You observe in Prometheus that the value of approaching punishment through the Greeks is that we’re able to “sharpen our thinking about punishment on the stone of the unfamiliar ancient world.” Does this remain for you the ultimate reason for studying ancient conceptions of punishment: that it gives us a point of access for understanding the problem of punishment itself by looking at an unfamiliar conception of it?

I can tell you the origin story of the book, which is simply that, as an undergraduate, I took a class on Athenian politics in which we read a lot of the speeches that were given in Athenian law courts. I was really taken aback by the fact that there was very little mention of imprisonment in those speeches, and I suddenly realized that I couldn’t imagine a world where prisons weren’t a major part of how we think about punishment. That captivated me, and I wanted to understand a world where imprisonment was not the dominant mode of understanding punishment. In that regard, the origin of the book was absolutely the shock of discovering, by looking at the ancient world, that our world is contingent, and that one particular contingency is the degree to which we use incarceration. It bears some thinking as to how we got there and what a world without extensive incarceration looks like.

Well, that might be right about our contemporary context; the ancient story is somewhat different.

Robert Pinsky reads Thomas Hardy’s “The Oxen”

In Slate:

Irving Berlin dealt with Christmas expectations by writing a song about being in California: The little-known verse to “White Christmas” makes it clear that the dream of snow and sleighbells is set in “Beverly Hills, L.A.” where “the orange and palm trees sway.”

In an entirely different way, Thomas Hardy attains surprise as well as nostalgia by basing his Christmas poem on a country legend. Hardy shows respect for rural customs and the kind of unorthodox beliefs that some might call “superstition.” The respect, along with his wry, gentle detachment, both gain a kind of authority from the regional terms “barton” (a farmyard) and “coomb” (a valley).

Here again, in a Slate tradition, is Hardy's “The Oxen.”

Click the arrow on the audio player to hear Robert Pinsky read this poem. You can alsodownload the recording or subscribe to Slate's Poetry Podcast on iTunes.

‘Django Unchained’: A Postracial Epic?


Hillary Crosley in The Root:

As all of the Django Unchained reviews hit the Internet, I'm sure plenty of African Americans will list why they hate Quentin Tarantino's new film about a slave's journey for revenge — but not me. A friend and I recently attended a screening for the film, which opens on Christmas Day, followed by an awkward question-and-answer session with the director. We were two of perhaps 10 black people in the theater — that's what makes what happened next so awkward.

In the film, Django (Jamie Foxx) is purchased by Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a German dentist-turned-bounty hunter, and the two pair up to collect the bodies and ransoms of outlaws across the South. Because Django is such a natural, Schultz asks him to work with him through the winter in exchange for his help finding the former slave's wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), who was sold to a different plantation. The search for Hildy leads the duo to the plantation of Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) — which he shares with his head house slave, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) — and bloody drama ensues.

After the film ended, Tarantino began the interview with Peter Bogdanovich, the elderly director best known for 1971's The Last Picture Show, when a black woman interrupted their conversation, saying, “A lot of black people are not going to like this movie. I'm about to have a heart attack.” Then a few audience members began to heckle Tarantino from the balcony, shouting: “This is bulls–t.” (The director invited his detractors to offer their comments during the open session after the interview while admitting that Django dealt with heavy subject matter.)

“That's the thing about this film — we're dealing with virgin territory with this kind of story and this history,” Tarantino said. “It's a rough movie. As bad as some of the s–t is in this film, a lot worse s–t was going on. This is the nice version.”

Can the Indian Journalist and Media Proprietor Survive this Gilded Age?


Vinod Jose in Caravan:

A FEW WEEKS AGO, I went to a public function at the India International Centre in New Delhi. The audience included several prominent cabinet ministers, the heads of some of India’s foremost business families, and the usual retinue of senior journalists and former diplomats. Almost all of them were a generation or two older than me, and before the function formally began, the room buzzed with gestures of bonding and comradeship—like an alumni reunion or a gathering of long-lost friends. Men in their 50s, 60s and 70s hugged and exchanged good wishes; a few even pinched at each other’s potbellies.

After the event had got under way, a slim older man with a recognisable face hurried into the auditorium. Almost all the chairs were filled, except one or two stray seats next to outsiders like me. As this gentleman parked himself in the seat adjacent to mine, his identity clicked in my mind: he’s a lobbyist, I thought, but he calls himself a public-relations man. I had often spotted him hurrying past in the hallways of North and South blocks, and at the offices of other ministries in Shastri, Krishi and Rail Bhavans. But he’s also a regular face on television screens, where I had paid closer attention to his ruby-studded eyeglass cords and seductive hand movements, and the way his brow furrowed while stating an unconventional argument or making a difficult defence of some policy or person.

On the stage, a cabinet minister was making a rather dull speech, and like me, the lobbyist became distracted. He punched out messages on his Blackberry Curve and began scrolling through SMSes on a worn-out Nokia. The minister was boring, but my neighbour was far more entertaining. Much to my shame, I let my eyes drift toward to his phones, and for a second I invaded his privacy. He had just sent a BBM on his BlackBerry, which read:

“yes, yes. Met the min in the morning. He says he’s with you on this. But a moment later, he says the difficulties that he faces. Totally a chameleon. Yes, chameleon. Can’t trust him. I missed you being there!”

“Wow,” I thought. Which minister was he talking about? To whom was he sending this message? And what was the issue under discussion? I struggled against my journalistic curiosity-—wisdom prevailed, and I fixed my eyes straight ahead once again.

Why Must the Nation Grieve with God?


Lawrence M. Krauss over at CNN:

All of us who have had children in primary school at one time or another stopped in our tracks when we heard the news, just as President Barack Obama did, as we tried to imagine how we would have coped had something so horrendous happened in our own child's school.

But why must the nation grieve with God? After Newtown, a memorial service was held in which 10 clergy and Obama offered Hebrew, Christian and Muslim prayers, with the president stating: ” 'Let the little children come to me,' Jesus said, 'and do not hinder them. For such belongs to the kingdom of Heaven.' God has called them all home. For those of us who remain, let us find the strength to carry on.”

Why must it be a natural expectation that any such national tragedy will be accompanied by prayers, including from the president, to at least one version of the very God, who apparently in his infinite wisdom, decided to call 20 children between the age of 6 and 7 home by having them slaughtered by a deranged gunman in a school that one hopes should have been a place or nourishment, warmth and growth?

We are told the Lord works in mysterious ways but, for many people, to suggest there might be an intelligent deity who could rationally act in such a fashion and that that deity is worth praying to and thanking for “calling them home” seems beyond the pale.

Let me be clear that there may be many grieving families in Newtown and around the country who have turned to their faith for solace in this difficult time. No caring person would begrudge them this right to ease their pain. But the question that needs to be asked is why, as a nation, do we have to institutionalize the notion that religion must play a central role at such times, with the president as the clergyman-in-chief?

Why We Should Criticize Mo Yan


Perry Link weighs in over at the NYRB blog:

[T]here is another problem with the arguments made by Mo Yan’s defenders, and that is what the Chinese call xifangzhongxinzhuyi. This phrase does not translate easily, so please pardon my awkward rendering as “West-centrism.” The late Chinese physicist and human rights advocate Fang Lizhi was good at pointing out double standards in Western attitudes. When Communist dictatorships fell in Europe, the Cold War was declared “over.” But what about China, North Korea, and Vietnam? If the reverse had happened—if dictatorships had fallen in Asia but persisted in Europe—would Washington and London still have hailed the end of the Cold War? What if Solzhenitsyn, instead of exposing the gulag, had cracked jokes about it? Would we have credited him with “art” on grounds that his intended audience knew all about the gulag and appreciates the black humor? Or might it be, sadly, that only non-whites can win Nobel Prizes writing in this mode?

Pankaj Mishra, in an essay in The Guardian called “Why Salman Rushdie Should Pause before Condemning Mo Yan on Censorship,” acknowledges that Mo Yan has offered deplorable support to China’s rulers. But the main point of Mishra’s essay is that Western writers have also been the handmaidens of powers that oppress people in distant places. He asks, therefore, that people like Rushdie (and me, whom he also mentions) “pause.” I admire some of Mishra’s penetrating observations, for example that “Jane Austen’s elegantly self-enclosed world” depended on unseen “hellish slavery plantations” in the Caribbean. But why does any of this mean that I should “pause” before criticizing Beijing or its acolytes?

Must Salman Rushdie hold his tongue about Beijing until London is squeaky clean? My guess is that Pankaj Mishra, if you could shake him by the shoulders, would say (as I would) that any citizen of any country should be free to criticize any government anywhere that oppresses anyone. But his article does not leave that impression.

Authoritarians in China and elsewhere regularly take the position that foreigners should keep criticisms to themselves; the reasons for their position are obvious. The reasons that Western liberals often take the same position are far less obvious but well worth probing.

How the Mullahs Won: Salman Rushdie’s artistic decline

Isaac Chotiner in The Atlantic:

Mag-article-largeBefore the fatwa, Salman Rushdie wrote two great books, Midnight’s Children (1980) and Shame (1983). Since the fatwa, he has not written any. Before the fatwa, Rushdie brilliantly exposed the corrupt dynasties and pathologies of two sundered societies (India and Pakistan). Since the fatwa, Rushdie has allowed flamboyant language and narrative trickery to overshadow biting political satire and acute characterization. Before the fatwa, Rushdie lived a relatively modest life in London. Now, as Joseph Anton drearily attests, Rushdie has become a New York socialite obsessed with name-dropping every celebrity he meets, lauding his own work with shameless abandon, and pointlessly denigrating his ex-wives. Joseph Anton shows both the resolve with which Rushdie confronted the threats to his life, and the sad degree to which the unhinged words of a demented ayatollah helped ruin a superb writer.

In this time of protests at American embassies and consulates around the Muslim world, it is helpful to be reminded of the things one dimly remembers—namely, the utter gutlessness and disgrace that characterized so many of the initial responses to the fatwa. Rushdie recounts the reaction of Margaret Thatcher’s British government and much of Fleet Street, with high-ranking officials and columnists complaining about the cost to taxpayers of Rushdie’s security, as well as the reaction of religious leaders (and not only Muslim ones) who seemed more sympathetic to book-burning mobs than to the oh-so-quaint idea of free expression. Many brave independent bookstores, as well as a number of writers, did rally to Rushdie’s cause. But those who didn’t—from Hugh Trevor-Roper (“I would not shed a tear if some British Muslims, deploring his manners, should waylay him in a dark street and seek to improve them”) to John le Carré—come in for well-earned drubbings.

More here.

A New Focus on the ‘Post’ in Post-Traumatic Stress

David Dobbs in The New York Times:

BrainIn 1980, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders defined trauma as “a recognizable stressor that would evoke significant symptoms of distress in almost everyone” — universally toxic, like a poison. But it turns out that most trauma victims — even survivors of combat, torture or concentration camps — rebound to live full, normal lives. That has given rise to a more nuanced view of trauma — less a poison than an infectious agent, a challenge that most people overcome but that may defeat those weakened by past traumas, genetics or other factors. Now, a significant body of work suggests that even this view is too narrow — that the environment just after the event, particularly other people’s responses, may be just as crucial as the event itself. The idea was demonstrated vividly in two presentations this fall at the Interdisciplinary Conference on Culture, Mind and Brain at the University of California, Los Angeles. Each described reframing a classic model of traumatic experience — one in lab rats, the other in child soldiers.

In the first case, Paul Plotsky, a neurobiologist at Emory University, described what happened when he tweaked one of the most widely used models of how maternal separation affects young rats. The model was created in the early 1990s by Dr. Plotsky himself to bring consistency to the way maternal separation is studied. Earlier experiments kept mother and pups apart anywhere from 1 to 24 hours; Dr. Plotsky reset those periods to 15 minutes (the amount of time rat mothers in the wild routinely leave their litters to get food) and 180 minutes (a traumatic separation, he says, because in the wild it would mean that “the mother became a meal or roadkill”). After a 15-minute separation, a mother would typically sniff and lick each pup, then gather and feed them, all the while conversing with them in gentle, ultrasonic warbles. After a 180-minute separation, however, most mothers would dash about emitting panicky squeaks, often stomping on the pups or ignoring them. The pups too would squeak loudly. And for the rest of their lives, they had outsize physiological and behavioral reactions to stress and challenge.

More here.

In and Out of Fashion

Viviane Sassen in Lensculture:

Sassen_9In the Netherlands and abroad, Viviane Sassen is known foremost as an artist, whose somewhat surreal, colourful photographs of Africa won her the Prix de Rome in 2007. Alongside her independent work, however, she has long worked as a fashion photographer. Her fashion work is held in high regard, and she has carved out her own unmistakable style. Huis Marseille is exhibiting a retrospective of her fashion oeuvre over the last 17 years.

The retrospective shows images built up like paintings or collages, and which arise in free association and creativity. These are not generally prominent aspects in the cautious climate of today’s largely commercially-driven fashion photography, but they are typical of Viviane Sassen’s fashion photography.

More here.

Greetings, Friends!

Ian Frazier in The New Yorker:

ChrThe power’s back on! Let’s dry our socks,

And turn the volume down on Fox,

Mix up a vat of eggnog, brandied,

And fling a last Bronx cheer at Sandy.

Kick out the jams! Swing wide the gates!

… Dear friends, you have indulged our screed.

Please take the spirit for the deed.

Frost wrote of “poetry and power”—

We’re grateful just to shave and shower,

And sleep without four blankets on,

And read by Con Ed light till dawn.

Are we declining? We don’t think so.

Just teetering normally on the brink, so

Let’s link arms and raise a chorus

For all that we’ve got going for us.

The future, true, is trending hot.

We’re headed into who-knows-what.

But we’ll take heart this holy night

That work and love will make it right.

And now doze off with a soft “Hurrah!”

For the world, the Obamas, and the health-care law.

More here.

Nietzschean perspectivism again, with a skeptical twist

by Dave Maier

An earlier post of mine in this space divides readings of Nietzsche's views on truth and knowledge into three kinds: a) relativist rejection of truth and knowledge; b) empiricist/naturalist restriction of Nietzsche's criticism to specifically transcendent truth and knowledge of same, leaving empirical knowledge untouched, if tentative; and c) my preferred option, a more forceful criticism of the Platonic picture of metaphysical objectivity, applicable as well to the Cartesian aspects of modernity, including those still present in naturalism.

I recently read about a most interesting variation on the naturalist view – a turn to ancient skepticism. Jessica Berry is the author of Nietzsche and the Ancient Skeptical Tradition, which I have not read, as it costs sixty-five dollars. However, Richard Marshall of 3AM magazine has kindly interviewed her for us, and she gives there an admirably clear and forceful summary of her main points. If I misrepresent her views here due to my ignorance, then I humbly apologize in advance.

Berry bookAccording to Berry, the “central preoccupation” of Nietzsche’s philosophy is the problem of nihilism. Values Nietzsche calls “ascetic” are self-denying and will result in nihilism if unchecked. The particular problem with ascetic value systems is the pernicious interaction of a) their self-denying content, and b) the view that “the values to which they subscribe are universal, necessary, categorical.” I emphasize the interaction of these elements, of which more below, because at first it might seem that the problem with the latter aspect of these systems is simply that if they are thought to be universal and necessary, then we can never come up with any alternative to them. And if it's their way or the highway, then nihilism is inevitable: their way squeezes all life from our valuations, eventually resulting in nihilism; and the “highway” is pure nihilism itself. This is what gives Nietzsche's writing its characteristic urgency: the death of God is like an anchor thrown overboard with a rapidly uncoiling rope tied to our feet. If we don't remove it, it will drag us under; but we are afraid to remove it, as we have been conditioned to believe that to do so is to sin against our very essence as rational creatures.

Read more »

A Universal History of Online Iniquity

by James McGirk

“BREAKING: Confirmed flooding on NYSE. The trading floor is flooded under more than 3 feet of water.” It was a horrid thought, but Shashank Tripathi’s (i.e. Comfortablysmug’s) infamous Hurricane Sandy tweet had panache.

Tripathi mimicked the style of a breaking news tweet perfectly. The image of water sluicing into the New York Stock Exchange was too good to be true. An irresistible nugget of news distilling the potent emotions stirred by the storm: Sorrow for afflicted New Yorkers, fear for the future, the thrill of seeing history unspool in real time, and a dose of snickering glee at the idea of cuff-linked financiers wading through filthy water.

The cruelty and incendiary media appeal of Tripathi’s tweet was reminiscent of another notorious prank: the attack on the Epilepsy Foundation. On March 22, 2008, a horde of eBaum’s World users (a community devoted to online humor) logged onto the Epilepsy Foundation’s online forums, and plastered its pages with blinking graphics.

As despicable as deliberately triggering thousands of epileptic fits or enflaming a vulnerable community during a catastrophe may be, consider how hard it is to shock a contemporary audience with a piece of art or literature. As subversive texts go, these are arguably genuine artistic achievements, thrilling to witness in real time or read about afterwards.

It’s an aesthetic experience Sherrod DeGrippo, an information security expert who founded two of the world’s preeminent repositories of Internet drama, Encyclopedia Dramatica and OhInternet.com, compares to watching reality television. “I think that a lot of what is attractive about Internet drama is the combination of schadenfreude and superiority people feel when looking at it,” says DeGrippo. “Reality TV inspires a lot of the same feelings. The viewer thinks of himself as superior, but when examined, the viewer is obsessively voyeuristic.”

Read more »

Morning: At Sixes and Sevens

by Maniza Naqvi

Paintingchildren1A soft thud, outside, beyond the door, followed by a steady chiir-chiir. Then, commotion: the sound of running feet—children shrieked, a woman calling out to them—wait—stop! A few minutes later the sound of a whistle–a siren—shoon-shoon. An orange fire, the shape of a disk, rising beyond, the window. Green parrots, arrived with little red beaks, gleaming, alighting on the electric wiring, between the apartment buildings. Then: another and more, two—three-four. She counted at least eight—the excited debate—-tain-tain. She picked up a green chili pepper from the stainless steel bowl–and with the small cutting knife, now too blunt and in need of sharpening, she chopped up the green treat. She opened the kitchen window and set it out in pieces strewn on the window pane for the parrots. That done, she undid the lid on the Tapal tea plastic jar, her fingers fished out the plastic spoon from within to measure a single heaped spoon of tea leaves into the two cup chipped teapot. She poured the scalding water from the whistling kettle into the tea pot—she noted the line of tiny red ants streaming from the sugar jar to a tiny hole in the wall. She covered the teapot with the velvet and mirror worked tea cozy. Looking out she mused, if not a ball of fire, an egg perfectly, served up—yes that’s how she always thought of it—each day break there it was a giant orange blazing egg yolk in the whitish haze in the distance. She watched the orderly line of thousands of geese in a drowsy winter sky making their way to the islands to lay their eggs. She thought about the Cheel, she hardly saw them anymore—the first ones to grab the bread—hardly any left. She had heard, God only knew from where,–that in Bombay, the Parsies had started cremating their dead—because the Cheel had all disappeared, poisoned by the chemical additives in the offal thrown out in the open by butchers which the birds fed on. She worried: was it the same here? Where would life go if not to the birds? There they were—the orderly Vee formation of thousands of geese in a drowsy winter sky making their way to the mangroves just nearby to lay their eggs. Here to escape, the cold, when earth froze over there, to renew life here, then returning to warmer weather and huntsmen. She saw them at ponds when she visited her daughter: Her daughter has a good job there with a company making helicopters for the miitary. She thought she heard popping sounds in the distance. She pried open the Cadbury Chocolates tin box—from it she took out one rusk and place it on a small plate. She poured a tea jug’s worth of milk from the Haleeb cardboard pack from the fridge into the pan and set it on the stove burner on a low fire. Then she headed for the front door. By the time she got back it would be just getting ready to boil over. She made her way slowly to the entrance of the apartment, DAWN lay at her threshold: Another headline of children killed by a drone attack. The arthritis in her knee –made its unwelcome appearance as it always did at this time of the year. But she didn’t want to move away from being so close to the sea. On the balcony where she had placed the torn up pieces of dried roti, the sounds of contentment grew now, the katr-patr, katr patr—of the Myna—yellow beaked. Then came the caw-caw, yes the bullying crows had spotted the roti; the Myna, naturally, had taken flight. As she closed in to the door, she heard, the sound of the jahrtoo as the sweeper moved dust around on the landing, while keeping up a steady chatter with the ayah who squatted in the doorway of the apartment next door fixing herself a paan laced with tambakoo, as she took a breather after having just dispatched her young charges with the usual shouting in their chaotic wake—You forgot your water bottle—Come back you forgot your pencil box–Arey homework—homework!!! Come back! She listened to this calling out, the woman at sixes and sevens with the children. Hers too would be home soon, with her grandchildren, like the geese that came back, only at this time, every year from colder climes.

More writings by Maniza Naqvi

A Solstice Tale

by Kevin S. Baldwin

Shopping in general and shopping at malls in particular, especially during the holidays is one of my least favorite activities. Despite this predilection, a few a years ago, I found myself at the Circle Centre Mall in Indianapolis on the Winter Solstice. CircleCentreMall

The mall's name is descriptive. At its center there is a circular atrium that is several stories high. As I surveyed the structure from the top level, I could see it was crowded and loud, with thousands of people moving about on the various levels. There was not a smile to be seen anywhere. So much for the joy of the season (and one of the reasons I tend to avoid malls between Halloween and New Year's). My Christian friends are quick to remind me that I would be more likely to experience joy in other places (like their congregation). I don't doubt them, but when I look at the time and energy devoted to shopping during the holiday season and the accompanying misery at the individual and planetary levels, I can't help but think we as a culture need to rethink our priorities.

Lordsgym2The space got a little busier and noisier. Several school buses full of what looked like junior high and high school students had disgorged themselves into the mall. A church youth group, judging by the number of Christian-themed T-shirts. “Lord's Gym: Bench Press This!”, “this” being the sins of the world in the form of a cross, with Jesus struggling to lift it, was especially popular. Wrong holiday, I thought: Easter isn't for a few months yet (technically, I suppose the shirts actually represented Good Friday). Another popular one showed a bloody hand nailed to a cross emblazoned with “His pain, your gain.” Why the obsession with how Jesus died rather than how he lived and taught us to live? Again, priorities,…

Suddenly, this scene seemed oddly familiar: Throngs of unhappy people milling about in concentric multi-tiered circles. I had unwittingly stumbled into the 21st century version of Dante's Inferno! I began imagining who was on what level and what stores would be where in this mall. Should “Victoria's Secret” be on the upper or lower level? Should food courts that supersize meals be near the bottom? What did you have to do to move between levels, and so on. You get the idea.


Situations like this play out every year and I struggle to keep my inner Grinch at bay especially when I'm out with my kids. For me the holidays are about being at home with good food, family, friends and despite my atheism, good holiday music. The chorale at my college recently rendered an astonishingly transcendent “Oh Come All Ye Faithful.” Who cannot be moved by Handel's “Messiah?” My latest discovery/ear-worm is Haydn's “The Creation,” another fabulous Biblically-inspired oratorio. What better way to relax on this, the shortest day of the year, listening to these glorious sounds while pondering the triumphs and travails of the past year and hopes for the one that lies ahead? I marvel that we are improbably careening around the universe on a wet rock and that the sun's rays, which are now streaming in practically horizontally through south-facing windows, will once again begin to tilt towards vertical in the days and months ahead.