Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Black Swan

Natalie Portman does a brilliant job. Unfortunately, the director doesn’t, which is a pity because the concept of Black Swan is a good one. Professional ballet dancers work very, very hard. They deal with immense physical pain and have to develop the complementary mental endurance from early childhood. When the mind is trained to put in this level of commitment, it could easily start responding to everything with the same intensity, with all the attendant danger of going into overload. Natalie Portman’s character, Nina, is a rabidly committed ballerina who gets the prima ballerina slot she wants so badly, but at a very high cost - her mind crumbles under the pressure. The movie follows her into her breakdown.

At least, that’s what it wants to do, except that said breakdown is illustrated with a parade of horror-film gimmicks, making for many cheap thrills (I very quickly took to hiding behind my hair when she stopped in front of a reflective surface), but paradoxically lessening the real horror of her decline. A lighter sprinkling of those moments, a subtler build-up to the finale, and it would have been a classic. As it is, it’s just Scream in tutus. Add an obsessive mother treated to appear borderline psychotic, a boss who preys on his prima ballerinas and a mostly one-dimensional supporting cast, and Nina is reduced to an out-of-the-ordinary psycho in the manner of those strange kids in Blair Witch 2. Instead of taking you down with her, it makes you a mere spectator.

Maybe the movie is meant to be a spectacle rather than a tragedy, but there’s nothing in the posters or the write-ups to suggest a simple horror flick. My sister-in-law and I jumped quite a bit at the first manifestation, rather dismayed that we'd picked this kind of movie for a night show. The preview of Scream 4 that preceded it should have been our first clue, but we were too busy eating popcorn and agreeing that we should have smuggled in chicken wings.

The bits with actual ballet in it were very good.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Yoga School Dropout by Lucy Edge

In a nutshell: Go ahead and read it, but without expectations. I had lots and was disappointed, but was also intermittently entertained.

It could have been called Bridget Jones Goes to India – that’s obvious from the blurb and is mostly why I bought it – except it’s not nearly as well-written. And the author has the most irritating habit of asking questions and not listening to the answers. Much of Yoga School Dropout is like being stuck on a long holiday with a tiresome companion.

Her reading covers a narrow field, leading to the yoga bits being two parts hokum. She didn’t seem to look around her much, either. One example is the fact that she spent two weeks in Kerala and never seemed to make the connection between yoga and Ayurveda. Her overriding need for calm and “flow” might have been met very early in the book if she’d stopped off at any of the Ayurvedic spas there. But if she had, I wouldn’t have got all the details about the visit to Kerala’s favourite Hugging Mother, so I should be grateful to her short attention span.

This last and others like it are the most interesting parts of the book. It goes to several unsuspected places in India, and some famous ones shrouded in suspicion (Osho’s ashram in Pune, for instance), all of which is deeply absorbing for an Indian. It also provides a fascinating inside view of the motivations and journey of the spiritual seekers who are such a regular and mysterious feature of the country. We used to notice them as teenagers, huddled on railway platforms around piles of backpacks, or flapping along pavements in dusty Indian flip-flops. They were invariably white, mostly pilgrims from the West. In the manner of teenagers, we referred to them dispassionately by a very politically incorrect term. Based on the cast and characters of this book, the kid who coined it showed a penetrating insight into the phenomenon.

Two important questions remain unanswered though:

1. Why do they brave the considerable inconvenience of India just to shut themselves into ashrams with fellow “Westerners”? (That’s the term she uses. It includes Australians. You would fetch up in Australia if you went far enough West, but then you’d also eventually reach India. Perhaps it denotes the yogic circularity of all things.) Someone she meets actually asks her this and her answer is that perhaps the Indian yoga schools don’t offer familiarity, which continues to beg the question, really.

2. Why do they seem to leave common sense behind when they enter upon this transformational quest? The “real Indian” is not a simple, yogic soul, full of enriching goodness. He or she is generally looking for a chance to jump the queue and pick your pocket on the way.

She’s wasted good material on formulae – she does herself and her friends in a Bridget-Jones-by-numbers style, and India in imitation-Paul-Scott, though I don’t think the latter is consciously done. The research is sloppy and the dialect rather painfully stereotypical (Indians have wondrous subject-verb-object combinations, the French in Auroville speak as if they’re on the sets of Allo Allo, and so on). The fact that sambar is referred to as “samba” throughout, I’m inclined to attribute to an accident with an automated spell-checker, but you never know.

The book started out very promisingly and deteriorated only mid-way, so the problem might well lie in the advice she got from her writing mentors. Judging by the acknowledgements, there seem to have been a lot of these; we all know what committee decisions lead to. There are frustrating glimpses of the real book – here-and-gone characters, and almost-there insights cropped out of the cutesy frame – which make my inner editor rage a bit.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

“Eat healthy, exercise and socialize” – Part 1

You’ve been hauling yourself to the gym every day for two weeks and are feeling good. Then someone says on Facebook that you’re looking “prosperous”. Deflation, discouragement, drop out. The main moral of this story is that if you weren’t friends with them in school, ignore the friend request, but also consider this: how engaging is the gym that it can be influenced so easily by a random opinion?

I’ve met very few people my age who don’t want to start exercising. They join gyms, sign up for classes, and drop out almost immediately. I’ve had four gym memberships. I’ve started aerobics, Pilates, kick-boxing, body sculpt, circuit training, holistic weight loss and boot camps of many varieties, including one called Bollywood Booty Kamp. I’ve bought a stability ball, two sets of free weights, several kinds of resistance bands, skipping ropes beyond counting, and books on everything. They were none of them used very much, not even the books. We defaulters put it down to lack of will power and self-discipline, and try, try, try again, never thinking that the problem might also lie with the activity we’ve been conditioned to choose. The gym is a chore, not fun.

Some other problems I have with gyms:
• They have no point: You walk on a treadmill for hours with no change of scenery, lift weights for no reason other than to get better at lifting weights, sweat away at the complicated steps of some group class only so you can lose weight.
• They’re indoors: I went through a stress-related breakdown some years ago and the counsellor wanted me to get out of the gym and walk outside, since that is healthier for the mind.
• They are joyless and inward-focused: Sign in, locker, warm up, machines, warm down, shower, locker, sign out. It’s like the caricature of a communist factory.
• They’re hotbeds of bad advice: Unrealistic goals. Foolish applause when you overreach yourself (it’s bad enough that half your Facebook friend-list will show up to tell you they’re “proud of you”, without it being reinforced by awe-inspiring strangers). Encouragement to start a crash diet, so you can be tired and enervated all the time. Fitness myths of all kinds.
• They’re mindlessly competitive: You compare your lonely statistics against someone else’s equally solitary achievement and win no prizes.

Against this, there is the fact that most of the friends who took up a sport, or an outdoor activity such as running, walking or cycling have had no trouble keeping it up.

I should mention here that I’m not talking about people who are in serious training. I’m addressing those like me who just want to feel fit and look good. We are the ones who line the roads to clap for marathon runners, triathletes and people who cycle 100km a day, but have no desire to do it ourselves. For people like us, gyms are not the best choice for what they purport to do, but – like Microsoft Office, big-brand breakfast cereals and Starbucks – have somehow managed to become not just the default option, but the popular one. They seem to have changed the very world they exist in to make themselves the most acceptable choice.

If a store made you uncomfortable, a restaurant gave you a hard time, a nightclub was boring, a dry cleaner ruined your clothes or a mechanic cheated you, you wouldn’t go back to them. And yet, you return to the gym over and over again, in spite of its repeated failure to work for you.

CONTINUED BELOW (Yes the title of the post is explained eventually)

“Eat healthy, exercise and socialize” – Part 2

Now that I’ve established that gyms are evil, I will give my sisters and brothers in fattitude the benefit of my own experience.

Eat healthy
Balance your meals, eat a proper breakfast, drink enough water, watch the sugar and be mature about your portions most of the time. That’s all it is, really. Enjoy your food, your way. If you don’t like raw vegetables, don’t make resolutions to eat salad. Just learn the right ways to cook them. Forget the fanatics and remember that your grandparents ate cooked vegetables and lived healthily ever after. When reading fitness magazines and articles, take away only as much as you can usefully carry. Their five carefully calibrated meals are impractical when 11 am and 4 pm are prime meeting slots. But while you can’t be slicing pears at the conference table, you can drink green tea instead of coffee.

Find an activity you like doing – walking the dog, walking around the mall, cleaning the house, DIY, tossing a ball, playing with your child, badminton, dancing, whatever – and then do it often. As you go along, you’ll find yourself ramping it up, since energy begets energy, and you will get the recommended amount of exercise. Stop obsessing over weight-loss (unless you’re dangerously obese, the world doesn’t magically change when you’re thinner) and just enjoy feeling fitter. Be active, be patient and never mind what that super-driven, skinny colleague thinks of you; you never liked her anyway.

You can’t make sustainable changes when you’re feeling bad about yourself; it’s feeling good that motivates you. In the long-term, happiness is a much better goal than weight-loss, and one really does lead to the other. Go to the movies, read, Watch TV, browse, converse, keep your mind active too. A flabby mind is as bad for you as an obese body. Go out to dinner with friends. Have large Sunday meals with family. Eat dessert. Keep in touch. Do things that open your mind and laugh yourself thin without knowing it. Really.

“Eat healthy, exercise and socialize” is the motto of a friend’s dad. His daughters treat it with the mirthful irreverence with which all right-thinking children greet the tenets of their fond fathers. (“Even if you’re bleeding all over the floor, he’ll ask you “Have you been eating healthy? Did you exercise? Have you networked today?””). But it is an excellent formula for a good life.

I’ve only recently distilled all this in my own mind, so the systematic application of it hasn't been going on very long. I’ll keep you posted.

Friday, February 04, 2011

Fairy godmothers for our times

Most trashy romances have at least one episode involving dress-up, where the heroine has found a magical dress, her hair is right, she doesn’t feel fat and is the belle of the ball. In fact, this part is often more passionately expressed than the hero’s entrance. (Helena Rubenstein demonstrated consumer insight decades before the term was coined when she said: “In the factory we make cosmetics, but in the drug store we sell dreams”.)

It’s the fairy godmother that makes Cinderella’s story, not the faceless prince. The subsequent fitting of the slipper and happily-ever-after was just the knock-on effect of the real turning point when Cinderella discovered her “look”. These were some of mine:

A hairdresser named Beatrice: I spent years fighting my curls, hating them, aided and abetted by hairdressers who tried to teach me impossible acrobatics with hair dryers and brushes. Then I accidentally found the best salon I’ve ever been in (for the record, Cut and Shape in Dubai). The hairdresser assigned to me went into raptures over my hair, others came by to wonder and exclaim. One of them told me that people “spend fortunes to get that look”. It was news to me that I had one at all. I was dissuaded from having the elaborate procedure I’d come in for and shown instead the basics of looking after curly hair, celebrating it, even. I walked out a different person. Both Bea and I have long since left Dubai, but my good hair days go on and on.

A shop called Be: Having spent the formative years worrying about my hair, I had no time left to develop any clothes-sense. So I just wore what my friends were wearing. Except that they were all either statuesque or waiflike, and their choices sat awkwardly on my decidedly Dravidian body type. I resigned myself to the fact that my clothes were always wrong, until I checked out a new boutique in the neighbourhood and there it was, that look thing again. The sudden access of freedom that came from finding my style was like the first time I had the courage to take my feet off the ground in a swimming pool – it was more like learning to fly than swim. They shut down long ago (perhaps I was their only customer – I’ve certainly never seen anyone else wear my clothes), but their work was done.

A girl called Jerusha: I was preserved in cotton wool till I was about sixteen, which didn’t prepare me much for teenage social life. I didn’t know about dancing and dating, the rhythms of a party or cross-gender repartee, to name a few. Pat Boone, Abba or the Beatles were fine, but Madonna, Wham and Top of the Pops were closed books. And talking of books, academic excellence and having read almost everything by Jane Austen and Wodehouse were hardly conducive to party conversation. Then, in walked my neighbour who not only knew all the important things but didn’t seem scared of them. Non-judgmental and intrepid, she passed on her knowledge and approach to life, changing mine. She’s still around, family now in fact, so her good work continues. And years later, another girl called Smita took up the job of updating and supplementing her work.

A man named Nicolas: Entering my life some twelve years later and definitely not non-judgmental, my differently oriented cabin mate combined high standards on the look front with a designer’s respect for individualism. His frank opinions and equally unreserved praise gave me the final ingredient – confidence in my own judgment.

Once the fairy godparents had finished with me, I was reluctant to waste it mucking about with glass slippers and now prefer going on happy single holidays instead. But here’s the thing – I look good doing it.

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