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Alzheimer’s, a Daughter’s Memory.

In Uncategorized on October 10, 2012 at 2:31 pm

I hold my father’s hands down while I administer the nebulizer. 

He tries to slap my hand away when I put the mask over his mouth and nose—it doesn’t hurt, and I would appreciate how absurd it is if I could muster it, but I can’t right now.

I’m doing my daughterly duty with compassion, and even though it’s exhausting, I don’t care. My dad’s comfort is worth it. I just don’t know how my mother does all of this 24/7; I really don’t. Thankfully she has angels in her life.

After I put the mask on him, I hold his hands down and rub them for reassurance while he breathes in the warm, medicated steam. Later, I place two pieces of gum into his hands. He says, “thank you.” It is such an earnest sentiment, disproportionate to the act, as if I have done some great service, way beyond gum sharing.

I watch resignedly as he pets our dog, who is always by his side. I try to intercept a napkin that goes swiftly into his mouth. He slaps my hand away again. Maybe he thinks it’s his beloved vettila I’m taking away, and that’s why I’m getting the beat down. I don’t know. This sucks. Not just that I have to take care of him, but that I can’t talk to him about anything. No philosophy, no politics, no space, no poetry, nothing. I kiss his hands. The same hands that once expertly clipped aneurysms, now gently yet nervously fidget with no stimulation. These are the same hands that corrected mine on the steering wheel. And the hands that used to pick me up when I was a child.

This surgeon’s hands were once patient and never shook. Now they have become impatient and impulsive. 

When my father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, my family didn’t have any emotional conversations about it; I suppose we were all in shock. One day he was a renowned neurosurgeon with over 25 years experience, and the next day he was asked to see a psychiatrist before returning to the hospital. He hadn’t harmed any of his patients, but there was evidence that he was forgetting things enough for people to be alarmed. And when the psychiatrist asked him what year it was, dad said 1993.

But it was 1997.

My brother spoke with me on the phone shortly after that and told me dad probably had Alzheimer’s disease. I was barely 25. I thought Alzheimer’s was a disease for old people, like really old people, and my dad was just 63. Then the neurologists at Mayo Clinic confirmed our fears.

My father had dementia of the Alzheimer’s type.

As a neurosurgeon, he knew the precise meaning of this, as he and the brain were on intimate terms. What tragic irony. I remember one day, before the official diagnosis had been made, we were both sitting at the kitchen table. It took me several moments to gather the courage to ask him about his forgetfulness at work, but when I did, he responded severely and in no uncertain terms,

I will never forget the brain.

I felt so sad for him, for his tacit acknowledgement of his forgetfulness, and for his utter certainty that he would never forget the brain. Here was a man who was so passionate about the brain that before medical school, he received a Ph.d in zoology based on his study of, what else, frog brains.

But my dad was more than a neurosurgeon. He was a pilot, a photographer, a lover of philosophy, poetry, art, and Indian classical music. I still see him listening to Carnatic records in our 1970s living room. With his head swaying, he would slap his thigh to the beat or snap, sing, whatever; he would just enjoy the hell out of the music. And then there was poetry. He loved it all. John Keats, Omar Khayyam, Tagore, and most especially Malayalam poetry, which he would sing exuberantly, slapping our shoulders or knees at a particularly gusto-filled verse, smiling all the while. There was a silent reverence that people had for him that I understood because I idolized my father in a way, even though we had some rough years together during high school.

As a teenager in the late 80s, I wanted absolute freedom to listen to Pink Floyd, hang out with my friends, smoke pot, and write in my journal. My Indian parents were not only at times embarrassing, but giant roadblocks to that end—the American freedom I desperately craved. My search for identity was a condition rife with confusion for a young Indian-American person, and I made many bad choices. I wish I could tell him now that I knew he was trying his best to raise an Indian kid in an American world. I wish I could tell him that he taught me well.

My dad was not a god. He had faults like everyone else. He was a very intense individual, and that intensity sometimes manifested in harsh ways, but I choose to remember him, overall, as a very loving and generous person.

Sometimes when I hold his hands, I silently convey all of this to him, and somewhere, beyond the brain, I know he understands. 

The early stages of Alzheimer’s disease are the worst. The repeated asking of the same questions can be mind numbingly torturous. Every day, for the first couple of years, he would ask if someone fed the dogs, even though eventually we had only one dog. It was beyond annoying. The question would be asked a hundred times a day, or at least it seemed like that to us, and if we didn’t answer him right away, he got crazy angry. He was plagued by a laundry list of irrational, strange, and sometimes hilarious behaviors. One time he picked up a family member’s 8-month old baby by the leg saying, this is mine, and then proceeded to take the child to his room, placing him on his bed. For my mother, especially, taking care of my dad was a constant practice of patience and selfless service.

Dad doesn’t recognize anyone anymore, except my mom and sometimes not even her. The trauma of the diagnosis and the horror of the first five years have come and gone. The rising action and the climax are over. I anticipate the resolution could drag on for some time.

I have learned many lessons from my father not only from his general character and way of being with people, but through stock phrases he was fond of repeating. Whenever my brother and I fought over something, and my father overheard the inevitable, that’s mine, he would remind us in a stern tone,

There is nothing called yours and mine here.

As we grew older he would say,

What we know is very limited; it is all God’s grace. 

He stopped repeating this particular phrase a year ago; everyone who interacted with him heard it. It was an aphorism his memory held onto tenaciously, until it too had to go.

My dad taught me the importance of what he called, one-pointed focus, and he gave me the freedom to choose my own path. From him I learned real passion. He was deeply interested in his work, and he studied it voraciously throughout his career. He even bought a 3-D television set to watch his surgeries, which he had to use specialized goggles to view. (He was one of the first nerds, I think.) Videotapes of brain surgery were a constant part of my growing up. I couldn’t believe those were my dad’s hands. The same hands that used to help my mom fry our family’s constant supply of plantain chips could also delicately operate on a spinal cord.

My father’s hands are a landscape in and of themselves. Rivers of veins bulging out of fertile earth. They are a perfect union of working man and artist. When I was a child, I would sometimes peek into my parents’ bedroom and see him lying there just staring at his open right palm. And then at his index finger. This practice was a mystery to me then, but now I think I understand.

It was a meditation on oneness, on the unity of things which only appear to be different.

And when I look at my hands now, I see not just our physical similarities, but also some greater connection of consciousness between him and I and all things.

© S.V. Pillay 2012

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Why the KKK monument in Selma, Alabama, must never, ever be built.

In Uncategorized on October 9, 2012 at 11:51 pm

A private group wants to build a monument to honor Confederate Lieutenant General Nathan Bedford Forrest in a public cemetery in Selma, Alabama.

Forrest led the Confederate troops during the Battle of Selma in 1865, one of the final battles of the American Civil War. He lost Selma – badly.

Before the war, Forrest was a slave dealer. He advertised his company with posters like this. Selling human beings had made him a very wealthy man. By God, he was going to defend his way of life – even if he had to die.

Then there’s the Battle of Fort Pillow in which Forrest commanded the massacre of nearly 500 black Union soldiers after they had surrendered. This is how Forrest himself described the massacre:

“The river was dyed with the blood of the slaughtered for two hundred yards. The approximate loss was upward of five hundred killed, but few of the officers escaping. My loss was about twenty killed. It is hoped that these facts will demonstrate to the Northern people that negro soldiers cannot cope with Southerners.”

After the Civil War, Forrest was among a small group of disgruntled Confederate officers who founded the Ku Klux Klan, or KKK. Whether or not Forrest was the first Grand Wizard of the KKK remains unclear, though he was known as The Wizard of the Saddle, so there’s that.

In March, vandals reportedly stole the bust of Forrest from atop its 7-foot base, infuriating the Friends of Forrest, the group funding the new enterprise. Now they want to rebuild and expand the thing and put a fence around it. They also want to install security cameras and L.E.D lights.

You have got to be kidding me.

Last week, the Selma City Council voted to stop all work on the monument – until the courts decide if a private group can own a plot of public land.

This American says no. Public symbols that serve to honor slave owners do not deserve our collective esteem as Americans.

Could Forrest supporters have built this statue in 1865, or even in 1875? The answer is likely no. To put forth such a plan at that time would have been stupid, and possibly treasonous.

I used to visit Selma frequently when I was a teenager. My cousins lived there, and they drove my brother and I around a lot. We drove to the Piggly Wiggly. We drove to the downtown Selma video store. We listened to tapes. We must have passed the Forrest monument a gazillion times during those drives.

Our Selma trips petered out in the early 90s along with cassette tapes, and soon afterwards, I started college. I chose to major in history with a focus on African American studies. Suddenly I understood the importance of Selma in a new and profound way. It was no longer just the backdrop of an Indian American kid’s summer vacation.

It was where the Selma to Montgomery marches of 1965 had taken place. Martin Luther King Jr. led the second of these three historic marches, but it was the first one that earned the name Bloody Sunday.

The Selma to Montgomery marches played a pivotal part in the eventual passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Last week, Michelle Obama called voting rights “the nation’s most important civil rights issue”. The KKK has historically sought to suppress the black vote by using terror tactics. We know all too well about those. There may not have been beheadings, as such, but there were public lynchings that were equally gruesome.

Nathan Forrest was not even from Alabama; he was from Tennessee, the birthplace of the Klan. He has a state park named after him in Eva, Tennessee. His remains are buried in Memphis. He has his very own monument there for people to enjoy if they choose.

But leave Selma alone.

Hate groups have been on a steady and dramatic rise since 2008, the year President Obama took office.

A few weeks ago, residents of a Louisiananeighborhood discovered KKK fliers in their mailboxes. Smartly, people are keeping cool heads.

But in Georgia around the same time, a KKK chapter sued the state because it rejected their application to adopt a stretch of highway.

It is when the barks of hate groups reach the level of litigation that we should all pay attention.

If the Forrest statue in Selma gets approved, it will reignite racial tensions. It will serve as a major recruitment tool and pilgrimage site for the KKK and groups like it. No city needs that kind of press. Especially Selma.

Freedom of speech is one of the sacred laws of our land, but there are rare instances when it must be overridden by concerns of national security. The Union won the Civil War in 1865, so it makes no sense to use its public lands afresh in 2012 to honor an ex-Confederate leader.

Selma should quash this thing before it gets out of hand.

© S.V. Pillay 2012

Facebook’s timeline and our fear of aging.

In Uncategorized on October 9, 2012 at 9:46 pm

I permanently deleted my Facebook account several months ago. I’ve detailed some of my reasons here.

I have not looked back wistfully upon all those awesome hours I spent fucking around on Facebook. I was an avid user for over four years, but it was time to end the relationship. I couldn’t possibly write my novel while being on Facebook. I would venture to say there are many people out there, like I was, who are on Facebook way too much than is healthy.

One of my many reasons for leaving Facebook is the Timeline.

Apparently, the problem with the old format was its bias towards the present, which the timeline rectifies by making a user’s past more accessible.

But here’s the thing: I would like to continue living in the present. I’d like my past to die, at least on Facebook.

I don’t want my friends to be able to revisit things I posted last year or in years prior. Someone who comments on old statuses or photos would yank me right out of the present like a Vaudeville hook. What if I had a slew of bad years that I’d just as soon forget? Like the year I was in that unhealthy relationship. Or all four years of high school, for that matter. Thank God there was no Facebook in the late 80s. I still have traumatic flashbacks of my hair.

The idea of someone scrolling back through my past is unacceptable. Now that I’ve turned 40, I find myself wanting to focus on the present more than ever. There’s a great value in being present. I want to enjoy what’s left of my youth, and the only time to do that is in this moment.

But the timeline is contrary to that goal; furthermore, it will document one’s physical aging process in super pixelated detail for all to see and judge. 

I’m a tad older than the designers of Facebook, so I’d like to share something they may not have considered about the Timeline: We live in a culture that is horrified and downright disgusted by the idea of aging.

Think of that irritating online ad featuring two different versions of the same woman’s face. One face has wrinkles and is frowning; the other face is wrinkle-free and serene. One of the many captions they use for this reprehensible ad reads: 57-year-old woman now looks 27 again! We are, at every turn, urged to fight the signs of aging, restore younger looking skin, etc. Estee Lauder even has an “Ultimate Youth” face cream for $150.00.

One of the worst displays of this obsession to combat aging was a recent interview on Good Morning America. A pageant mom said she administered Botox injections to her eight-year-old daughter. The mom claimed that this practice is common on the child pageant circuit. However, the story turned out to be bullshit. But it’s still out there, a specter on the Internet, where very few people bother about what’s true and what’s not.  I’m sure some idiot will now think it’s okay to poison her child in this way. If anything, the story is just one more niggling thing to amplify our aging fears.

People of a certain age range, women especially, are profoundly uncomfortable with the idea of physical aging. And that “certain age range” appears to be getting younger all the time.

Keeping the specter of physical aging at bay is a fool’s errand. (Insert Vincent Price’s sinister laugh.) Now the Facebook timeline wants to keep us invested in the past, thereby overvaluing it.

It’s bunk.

The Facebook Timeline will make it even harder for people to age gracefully and in a holistic way.

She looked hot back then, what happened? Jeez, this person has aged badly, she has crow’s feet, his face got fat. And so on. The fact that we physically age is not as appalling as our reaction to it, and Facebook is all about reacting to the superficial aspects of a person. There are many wonderful things about aging, but one’s Facebook profile cannot possibly convey the totality and richness of the process.

Facebook’s timeline won’t help to ease our culture’s anxiety about growing old. On the contrary, it will further yoke us to the external aspects of aging and amplify our fears.

The twenty-something developers of Facebook may not understand that I don’t want to be so invested in my looks as I get older. I want to be more than a two-dimensional digital profile to be viewed and judged. And if I do think back with wistful sighs for bygone days, I don’t literally want to see those days on my Facebook timeline. I’d rather remember them, like fragmented and imperfect pieces of glass. I don’t want a precise reflection on a public forum that documents the succession of hairdos and partners in my life.

There’s something beautiful about my own imaginings. I don’t mind the idea of aging among my flesh and blood friends. In fact, I’m excited about entering my 40s, but I’m not interested in chronicling the physical changes up close for all to see on Facebook.

© V.S. Pillay 2012


Pass on the Lorax.

In Uncategorized on October 9, 2012 at 9:43 pm

I was not thrilled when I found out they were making a movie of my favorite Dr. Seuss book, The Lorax.

Nonetheless, I was curious.

If you recall, the story is about a fantastical forest of Truffula trees—pinks, yellows, and oranges popping off the page—and all sorts of curious animals that inhabit this forest, such as Bar-ba-loots, Humming Fish, and Swomee-Swans.

As the story goes, a strange green creature named the Once-ler comes upon the truffula trees. And he sees an opportunity to get rich. A truffula tree’s tufts are “softer than silk and have the sweet smell of fresh butterfly milk.” Such exquisite material excites the Once-ler, so he chops down his first tree and knits what he calls a thneed (thing+need?).

And then the Lorax pops out of the stump. The Lorax is a tiny, sage-like creature who speaks for the trees. But nothing, not even the Lorax, can stop the Once-ler from cutting down the Truffula forest and building factories that spew toxic waste. The message of the book is simple, really: unbridled industrialism fueled by greed mucks up—and eventually destroys—the natural world. The Lorax is not a rosy tale, by any means.

In the movie, however, the simple message of the book is obscured by a stream of sub-plots that are neither in the book nor in the 1972 made for TV movie, which is actually pretty cute (and short).

The Lorax 2012 takes place in a town called Thneedville, a Truman Show-esque walled in community where hidden cameras monitor the citizens. Only plastic trees exist in Thneedville. But the thing is, everyone seems happy. In fact, the movie opens with the whole town singing a song about how great the town is. Everyone is just fine without trees, except for Audrey (Taylor Swift). She is the only one that is interested in seeing a fabled truffula tree. She even has a mural of them in her backyard. Then there’s Ted (Zac Efron). Ted has a crush on Audrey and, above all, wants to make her wish of seeing a truffula tree come true. But this, as the viewer discovers, is a quest fraught with peril.

Thneedville is controlled by a greedy corporation that sells bottled air called O’Hare (am I missing a bad pun here?). The CEO of O’Hare is a two-foot tall Asian man (I’m not kidding). I cringe to think that Mr. O’Hare, with his mafia boss voice, might be a symbol for everything negative we associate with China. Why else would they make him Asian? Maybe I’m overthinking it. I do have an active imagination. As do the writers of this script, apparently.

The bottled air seems more like a luxury item than a necessity, but everyone in Thneedville uses bottled air, ostensibly because there are no trees that can make clean air. This is why Mr. O’Hare is threatened by Ted’s quest. Trees are competition for his business.

Yeah, I need someone to draw me a plot diagram.

Ted’s preteen-hormone-fueled mission to gratify Audrey propels most of the action in the movie. He takes mad physical risks to make it out of Thneedville –which no one has ever done apparently– to find the rumored Once-ler and to hear about the truffula trees.

By the way, it’s Ted’s Grammy (Betty White) who goads him into seeking out the Once-ler. I’d like to know what kind of grandmother encourages her grandchild to pursue such a life threatening goal. Moreover, does she know who this Once-ler is? What if he’s a pedophile?

Ted rides his moped fast and crazy out of town. As I said, Thneedville is walled in, but this twelve-year-old makes it out in no time and with relative ease. Once he’s outside the walls, the landscape is as dreary as the opening pages of the book. Except in the film, Ted has to dodge mechanical swishing axes strategically placed on the side of the road, to escape from, um, being decapitated. This was a major facepalm moment for me.

I don’t remember the Lorax being an adrenaline-fueled extravaganza. Moreover, as a child, I don’t recall ever needing such a rush in my entertainment. Do kids today really need over-the-top action sequences injected so profusely into movies and TV shows? Apparently Hollywood thinks so. Even the Scooby Doo series and the Super Friends cartoons I used to watch after school weren’t this jam packed with excitement. The Lorax movie suffers from overdoing; overdoing the singing, dancing, screaming… overdoing pretty much everything.

And in the midst of all the chaos, Dr. Seuss’s poetic language is but an afterthought.

It is not only the constant stimulation that is unnerving about this film, but also the utter lack of mystery. In the book, the Once-ler is a creature whose face is never shown. But in the film, the Once-ler is a regular human chap, who is actually quite likeable. And in the end, his atrocities are, ultimately, forgivable. Ironically, it is the Once-ler, and not the Lorax, who comes across as sage-like.

Whereas in the book, the Once-ler is really an outcast, suffering the rest of his days in self-imposed solitary confinement. The end of the book gives us only a glimmer of hope. And that hope is entirely based on the last word of the Lorax, “UNLESS.”

Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.

However, in the film, a happy ending is all but assured. In fact, it’s already unfolding. The truffula trees are growing back. What a relief! We can relax now. Nothing more to do here, kids!

I must say, though, the animated truffula trees are a visual delight. They were the best part of my movie experience.

Unfortunately, though, the Lorax (Danny DeVito), comes off as a bumbling buffoon. Yes, he’s cute and somewhat goofy, and no doubt angry (he speaks for the trees!) but he is also a wisdom teacher. The Lorax is no less than a guru, but this movie makes him the butt of a joke.

And to me, that was the ultimate travesty. 

I read The Lorax as a child in the 1970s. In fact, the book and I are just about the same age. Its mystery and message have stayed with me for decades. The movie has no such pull. I’m not even sure what its message is. What’s more, the movie’s marketing ploy is a trainwreck. Today the Lorax is pimping pancakes, SUVs, inkjet printers, and yes, even disposable diapers. Ugh.

I say, take a pass on The Lorax 2012. Instead, dust off your copy of The Lorax 1971, and indulge in a real work of art.

© V.S. Pillay 2012


10 Reasons Why I Deleted my Facebook Account.

In Uncategorized on October 9, 2012 at 9:38 pm

Today I permanently deleted my Facebook account.

I have enjoyed Facebook since 2008, and have been able to reconnect with a few good friends because of it. I once considered myself a fan.

It sounds silly, caring about a social network, someone’s company…but the fact is, it’s become a basic part of millions of lives, as basic as, say, cars and bikes…but I’m not a fan anymore. I have come to view Facebook as an insidious addition to my daily existence, one that has been sucking my lifeblood, drop by precious drop.

The following is a list of 10 reasons why I deleted my Facebook account:

#1 Facebook’s new layout sucks.

I’m glad it’s coming around, though, otherwise I might still be on Facebook. I find the timeline unnecessarily complicated; there is way too much going on at once. I prefer a simple interface. Perhaps, over time, my brain might get used to what I perceive now to be an intrusion, but I find the new layout so distastefully image-centered that I refuse to find out. It’s like watching a commercial of myself. In addition, the idea of delving into the past makes me uncomfortable. Let the past die, I say. There is simply no need to revisit things I said or did last year. Last year was not a good year. Likewise, I’m not interested in what my friends did or said in the past.  I’m interested in now.

#2 I don’t want to hear about someone’s illness or death via Facebook.

Jeez, I don’t want to find out via Facebook that one of my friends is seriously ill or has died.  And I sure as hell don’t want to read the condolences that people will inevitably write on his wall after the fact. I don’t mean to offend people who have done this, or who have taken comfort from doing this, but it’s not for me. I find the whole business bizarre and unsettling. If I died unexpectedly, I would find it ridiculous that people were writing on my Facebook wall. The whole Facebook and death thing is only going to get worse and weirder the more friends I amass.

#3 There is a dearth of insightful interaction on Facebook.

As a once avid Facebook user, I tried to foster meaningful discussions about political or interpersonal topics. These discussions were fun at times, like cocktail party chatter is fun, but they rarely gave me any insight into anything. I longed for these people to be in a room with me with hands waving and passions flaring where they could really let loose. But I kept imagining this nebulous periphery of casual aquaintances sitting in silent judgment of our musings and pontifications, and that freaked me out.

I was continually striving to make Facebook deeper than it was, and I think, fundamentally, that was the roadblock I couldn’t circumnavigate. Even though I delighted in crafting clever status updates and witty retorts, these were not deeply satisfying activities. I found myself craving more profound and actual interactions with my friends, ideas, art, and the like.

For example, I recently visited the Art Institute of Chicago, where I had an amazing time staring at its impressive Monet collection. The effort itself brought me a new kind of pleasure, a subtle and penetrating pleasure. I realized that to see the paintings truly, I had to look at them for a long time and from a distance. I stared at them for almost an hour, and in the process, they became alive and magical to me. There is so much to see within one single painting. And I have since realized that the pleasures that Facebook proffers pale in comparison…wait, what?! Facebook pales in comparison to Monet? I  know, it may seem like an obvious and trite observation, but it’s the simplest things that we tend to miss in our hurry to update our Facebook statuses. To me, this type of attentive interaction is the essence of yoga. Yoga is the ability to maintain an unbroken and profound union with life, with the universe, and with our deepest selves. Facebook can never give me the type of connection I long for with anyone or anything, let alone my deepest Self.

#4 I have ingested too many meaningless things on Facebook.

We are each responsible for what we let through our doors of perception. I no longer want to be careless about the things I allow past that threshold, and there is a glut of useless crap on Facebook. These stupid things get stuck in my brain all the time, and enough is enough. I don’t want to see your Crossfit motivational poster one more time or hear about your kid’s dumb social studies project or read about your crappy lunch. I simply don’t want to let everything in anymore. Even the good stuff on Facebook is not good enough. For instance, I have a friend who regularly posts about Rumi. It’s great. I’d much rather come across her posts than bad photos of someone’s Disney Land vacation or updates about dropped off kids. Nevertheless, even better than reading excerpts from Rumi, is taking my own book of Rumi poems off the shelf and reading one entire poem well. That is the deeper experience, and the one I would like to choose more consistently.

#5 Political action on Facebook is useless.

One of the reasons I enjoyed Facebook was the exchange of political articles and ideas. Initially—naively—I thought I could help affect political change via Facebook, but simply clicking and typing is a waste of time unless there is concrete human action behind it such as a phone call, a letter, or a protest attendance. Furthermore, political passions get watered down on Facebook by snarky, cutesy posts. These posts are cute and often funny, but they don’t do anything to foster actual change. There is no shortcut to live political action. None of my posts or well-intentioned political discourse achieved anything significant.

#6 Facebook offers even more distraction for my distraction-prone mind.

In this age of distractions, I scarcely need another one. Facebook consistently broke my concentration, and I began to resent it. I realized when it was happening, but I simply did not have the discipline to keep myself off it until my work was done. I found myself unconsciously logging on to Facebook throughout the day. That’s how addiction operates. Somehow you end up with that drink in your hand or the pipe in your mouth.

#7 With Facebook, there is less time to manifest my heart’s sincere desires.

There are many things I want to accomplish before I die; some of these I haven’t even discovered yet. And the more time I spend on Facebook, the less time I have to do them. That is a very simple fact. It’s not like these things have to be monumental accomplishments. They could be as simple as writing an essay, taking a class, reading a book, or cooking a dish I’ve always wanted to try. Nothing I do on Facebook could ever be as fulfilling as what I can do in real life.

#8 I don’t need to keep in touch with every person I know via Facebook.

If I see someone’s photos or status updates, it makes me think I know what’s going on with that person, and it quells my desire for deeper communication. However, if I have not heard anything from someone I care about in a long time, I might be more prone to write her an email or perhaps even a handwritten letter. Keeping in touch with people should be an organic process and not like amassing matchbooks from restaurants. Some people are meant to be in our lives only for a short time, while others stick around longer. Either way, we’re all going to kick the bucket and lose touch eventually.

#9 Facebook was making my ego bigger.

I am not an ego-vilifier. I believe the ego has a value, to a certain degree. It’s an excellent and necessary tool. Nevertheless, I’m striving to see myself as more than my body and my “likes.” The more I stay on Facebook, the more I see myself as only “Sunita Pillay.” I have gotten disturbingly attached to my opinions and photos of myself, but this preoccupation with image is bullshit. I want to work on expanding the radius of my Self—capital ‘S’ intended—beyond my ego.

#10 Mystery is a beautiful thing.

Once upon a time I liked to imagine what the people I used to know were currently doing, but Facebook has revealed that mystery to me, and I have to say, my imaginings were in many ways more entertaining. Likewise, I don’t want my life and musings to be a click away anymore. I’d much rather be a wonder away. As in, “I wonder what ever happened to Sunita…”

© V.S. Pillay 2012


12 things to consider before breast implants.

In Uncategorized on October 9, 2012 at 9:35 pm

(1) Going under anesthesia is no joke. You could die. Let me say that again: you could die, even at the hands of a competent, board-certified surgeon. It is rare, but possible. If I found out I had to have major surgery, I would freak out. Do you willingly want to put yourself through that stress? Look in the mirror and ask yourself if you are willing to die for fake tits.

(2) It will hurt. A lot. The intense pain and numbness around your breasts may last for days, weeks, months, years, or forever. Yes, forever. There is no way to predict how your individual body will react to this intrusion. Ouch!

(3) Getting implants is like buying a new car. Cars don’t last forever, and neither do implants. Sometimes you get lucky and get ones that last for several years, but most implants do not last that long, even the expensive ones. Eventually, you will have to go back under the knife and face the risks (and pain) of surgery. Again.

(4) It is going to be ridiculously expensive. Budget out more than one surgery; the doctor may not get it right the first time, or there may be a complication after a few weeks. Also, you may want the implants removed someday, which is an additional cost. Insurance does not cover these costs. In addition, if you are not on a group insurance plan from your job and you are seeking individual insurance coverage post-surgery, you are probably screwed. Health insurance companies look at silicone breast implants as a “pre-existing” condition, and they will put you in the high-risk pool, thereby tripling the cost of your insurance.

(5) You may think people won’t judge you, but they will judge you. Fake boobs are something you will be silently judged for by both men and women. I’m not saying it’s right, but it will happen.

(6) Attitudes change with time. If you are in your 20s, you will grow and mature beyond what you can imagine now when you near the age of 30. This is happening to me (again) as the big 4-0 looms around the corner next year. Attitudes are bound to change.

(7) You will get lots of attention based on your breasts. Duh. This is why you’re considering major surgery. But consider also that you want to be respected for your brilliant mind, too, not just your tits. It will be frustrating when you are perceived as a sex object and little more.

(8) Some implant cases are more understandable than others. If you’ve had a mastectomy or if you have a completely flat chest, like a 12 year old boy, for instance, implants may make you feel more womanly. They may. They may not.

(9) Not all men like fake boobs. In fact, it is a serious turn off for some because it says a lot about a woman’s self-esteem, which appears to be externally derived. You could meet that great guy, but alas, he may not be able to get beyond the idea that your boobs are fake. They feel different to the touch than natural breasts and could very well be a psychological barrier to building intimacy with your partner. Along with that, many guys don’t care about boob size, contrary to how the media portrays them.

(10) Look at your natural breasts, touch them, and try to perceive their beauty. If you are considering implants, you obviously do not see your natural breasts as beautiful. Ultimately, you want to replace them with ones you think will be more pleasing. If you look at images of women’s natural breasts from the past, you can take yourself out of the context of this era and see natural breasts as a thing of beauty and sexiness, regardless of size.

(11) Research by the National Cancer Institute has found that women with breast augmentation are more likely to die of brain cancer or lung cancer compared to other plastic surgery patients. Pretty self-explanatory.

(12) If you can’t stop thinking about fake boobs, consider refocusing your attention. When I find myself obsessing about an aspect of my body, such as my imperfect butt, I am not putting my attention where it needs to be in that moment. I was born and developed in a certain way, specifically designed to do certain work. Work that will save me, repeatedly.

For me, it is writing. Writing gives me the one-pointed focus that calms my mind and centers my thoughts. This focus allows me to produce great writing (sometimes), which actually puts my whole being at ease. This sense of ease emanates from a deep place, beyond the body.

When you consider something like getting breast implants, you are essentially taking your eyes off the prize in life. And you doom yourself to a body-centered existence that will make aging an even more difficult process, and you will constantly strive against it. All bodies age and perish; there is nothing to hold on to, as much as we try by using artificial methods such as breast implants.

What you really want and crave has nothing to do with anything outside of you. It is the source of your own enthusiasm and the pathway to peace on the inside.

© V.S. Pillay 2012


Forget Shorter Showers?

In Uncategorized on October 9, 2012 at 9:32 pm

I don’t think so.

I have been contemplating Derrick Jensen’s article, Forget Shorter Showers, for two years now.

It has been on the back burner of my brain all this time.

Jensen argues that retreating into “entirely personal” environmental solutions is not going to change the dismal global ecological picture, so we can forget taking shorter showers, as the title says. In a nutshell, our little acts of eco-consciousness can’t change the world, and they are, in fact, incongruous to that end. He writes,

WOULD ANY SANE PERSON think dumpster diving would have stopped Hitler, or that composting would have ended slavery or brought about the eight-hour workday, or that chopping wood and carrying water would have gotten people out of Tsarist prisons, or that dancing naked around a fire would have helped put in place the Voting Rights Act of 1957 or the Civil Rights Act of 1964? Then why now, with all the world at stake, do so many people retreat into these entirely personal “solutions”?

It’s a bit of a snarky opening for my taste, but I understand his frustration.

I think the key word here is “entirely,” but one can get lost in the sarcasm. I did at first.

He then goes on to say: sure, live simply, but don’t get any grand illusions that you are actually accomplishing anything by bringing your own bags to the grocery store. His greater point is that “Personal change does not equal political change.” We have all been reduced to consumers, Jensen says. We have been beguiled by the myth that we, as individuals, are each responsible for fouling up the planet. Recall the documentary film An Inconvenient Truth. The myth further tells us that it is we as individuals who need to change it—for instance, by driving less, or (again) by taking shorter showers. Whereas according to Jensen, actions like these are futile.

He alleviates some serious guilt.

So if we don’t need to change the way we live, who needs to change?

Industrial polluters.

They are collectively the biggest polluters on the planet by far.

A certain oil company comes to mind.

So instead of acting the part of powerless consumer sucking on the industrial teat, or the obedient recycler, or bicycler, Jensen calls on individuals to redirect their energy and become activists who work to dismantle massive pollution systems. After all, mega-industries are the ones most responsible for the over-use and devastation of natural resources the globe over. Activists, he says, need to call for political industrial accountability. He delves further into the idea of industrial accountability in his article The Age of Oops.

Ultimately, we the people need to hold industry’s feet to the fire and not merely focus on our own (useless) radius of ecological actions.

Jensen’s work is thought-provoking. It has made me question my own eco-conscious practices and what they mean—or don’t mean.

In one way, my actions are utterly meaningless—but not in the way that Jensen suggests. They are meaningless, of course, because everything is ultimately meaningless. Like any other species, humans will eventually become extinct. Everything is in the process of changing, dying off. However, I am compelled to ask: what if my tiny radius of eco-actions does actuallyaffect the greater whole positively and dramatically?

I am confident that Derrick Jensen, too, wants to see humanity through what Edward O. Wilson calls the Bottleneck—but the only effective method Jensen sees is direct confrontation with agricultural and industrial giants, the prime perpetrators of ecological crimes.

I agree, in part.

However, there is another effective method—inextricably linked to Jensen’s—on the path to ensuring that industries are held accountable for their actions. And that method begins within the individual sphere.

And yet Jensen doesn’t agree with me. He does not think my personal solutions are relevant to the achievement of the goal of industrial accountability. Not only are my actions not valuable to that end, they are utterly futile, according to him. They are, as he argues in the beginning of his article, like using composting to end slavery: a complete disconnect from the greater whole.

I respectfully disagree, and this is where our paths diverge.

In the Book of Genesis it is written, “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’”

This sense of dominion of the natural world has been internalized in Judeo-Christian culture and has now become a global epidemic. There are virtually no new natural frontiers left on earth. Western civilization has unfortunately been guided by a fictional dictum that the world and its creatures have been given to man to dominate. And dominate they have.

I recently saw the documentary film I Am, by the director Tom Shadyac. To me, it is a film (partly) about science catching up with a concept found in Indian psychology (and others) which says that all of creation is a part of one unitive vision. I am no enlightened master, but I don’t have to be a guru in order to realize the truth, at least intellectually.

Carl Sagan realized it when he said, “The earth and every living thing are made of star stuff.” This stuff binds us together; we are it, and it is us. In the unitive vision, my individual radius is intrinsically linked to the greater whole; or, rather, it is the greater whole—quite literally down to the molecules.

But here’s the catch: the star stuff connects me to all creation, regardless of political stripe. So as much as I don’t want to admit it, I am the leviathans of industry, and so is Derrick Jensen.

Yep, these guys are us.

These guys, who are indicative of a Judeo-Christian culture in which the dictum from the Book of Genesis has been acted upon for generations, still seek to dominate and pacify the natural world, whatever of it there is left on earth.

I really want to tell Derrick Jensen that my individual eco-conscious actions are part of a wave of a shifting consciousness. I do not feel especially warm and fuzzy about myself because I do these things; I am just a single cell in a Petri dish—a Petri dish that I share with the likes of the Koch Brothers. I am a changing cell, and I can make sure the paradigm shift within me is complete, and that I fully develop a consciousness of conservation. In a way, this shift actually is what Jensen calls “retreating entirely into personal solutions.”

It’s a kind of vigilant looking inward and then outward to your local surroundings, and then further outward to the world at large and then back inward again. It’s a constant process of expanding and retracting the circle, and one aspect of the process, such as becoming an environmental activist solely focused on the macrocosm, cannot trump any other aspect, as difficult as that is to imagine. We have to be conscious of both the small circle and the large circle all the time.

I am positive Jensen would not dump his used engine oil into a stream, even though technically that small act pales in comparison to the 200 million gallons of BP oil sitting at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico right now. This disparity drives people mad; it drives me mad too. It is not fair that there is next to no accountability on the part of these for-profit polluters.

Sometimes when I compare my own use of water to, say, Coca Cola’s, my blood boils. At least Coca-Cola’s irresponsible use and contamination of the water in my parents’ home state of Kerala in India was not left unchecked. It seems, occasionally (though far too seldom), there is some industrial accountability. The high court of Kerala ruled against Coke and expects it to pay compensation to the victims of its pollution.

Regardless, the CEO of Coca-Cola and I are star stuff.

And once a year I might drink a Coke, but when I go to Kerala, I don’t take more than my share and I don’t take a giant shit in the water like Coke did:

The bill, titled “The Plachimada Coca Cola Victims Relief and Compensation Claims Tribunal Bill 2011,” said the plant had caused environmental and soil degradation and water contamination due to over-extraction of ground water leading to drinking water scarcity and decline in agriculture due to disposal of sludge which contained metals like cadmium, lead and chromium.

Furthermore, simply because Lake Michigan is available for me to drink from does not mean I leave my tap on while I brush my teeth. Or that I take half hour showers. Yet BP recently got the go ahead to dump more ammonia into Lake Michigan, the water I and so many others live on. Despite that great injustice, I still don’t waste water – even though technically I can – because, for one, I have seen middle class people in Mumbai get their water delivered to them.

Of course, I don’t think that my shorter showers are helping these people directly with their water woes, but my sense of conservation makes me value my own easy access to clean water. And it helps me see water as something precious that everyone on the planet is not fortunate to possess with such ease and reliability.

It teaches me empathy toward my fellow human beings.

To become an activist, one has to put the mask on oneself first before attempting to assist other passengers on the planet.

So the question is: do we all pass through this bottleneck with dignity, into a clean, green future? Or does the majority get left behind as the privileged few scurry through?

I hope that humanity can make it through.

But I’m not tied to any hope.

I don’t know what the future holds, but I will still attempt to avoid plastic at every turn. I don’t always succeed, but I try. I take my own grocery bags whenever I go shopping. And I have seen this trend increase in the last three or four years, which is promising. This phenomenon started on the individual level, perhaps with only a few people in different cities and towns across America (and the world) taking reusable bags to the store. Now there are even laws that ban plastic bags in some places.

When we consider one individual act, it can seem miniscule—in fact, meaningless—against the backdrop of environmental atrocities out there.

But maybe one way to speed up the process of change to the collective whole, as with smoking, is to make the action appear out of vogue.

Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian can actually do something with their fame rather than acting like vapid, dolled-up adolescents and publicly eschew plastic to their fans. “Plastic and Styrofoam are, like, not cool, guys,” or something of that nature. We can use Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point as a guide on how to spread the idea that plastic and Styrofoam are bad news. Then, hopefully in a not-too-distant future, if you’re walking around with a plastic bag, you feel a shadow of shame looming over you.

We don’t assume we can smoke in line at the bank or in our airplane seat anymore. Why not? Because that paradigm already shifted! Things have changed. And this can be the case with plastic and Styrofoam.

They are, like, not cool anymore, guys.

Plastic, polyester, carpeting, and so many other things in our lives are made from oil. So as BP, Exxon, Chevron, and others are dumping actual oil into our rivers and oceans, individuals are dumping plastic oil, piece by non-biodegradable piece.

I have seen images of the Pacific Garbage Patch, and I have seen plastic—all sorts of individual-generated plastic like condoms and soda bottles, engine oil containers and straws—floating in the Caribbean, Indian Ocean, and Arabian Sea. In fact, 90% of the trash in the world’s oceans is plastic. That’s not even counting the actual oil and sludge that industry has dumped and continues to dump.

My heart feels compelled not to use plastic because I see how it is destroying the natural world. There is a direct connection between my choice to use a plastic cup and all the plastic pollution out there in the world, and sometimes my small radius is all I can focus on. I cannot take in the entire ugly picture all the time, and it’s not for a lack of effort. There are so many ugly environmental pictures to choose from.

So excuse me, Mr. Jensen, if I retreat into my entirely personal solutions. Because while your notion of targeting the industrial giants is spot-on, so is bringing my own glass to-go container to a restaurant (which I haven’t actually done yet, but I think it’s a great idea).

Seemingly small actions, like using a plastic bag, add up to the Pacific Garbage Patch. And yes, it was individual actions that collectively led to the abolition of slavery. Not composting, like you stated. These individual revolts, as it were, were aligned with the intended result, which was to abolish the evil of slavery. Your statement is simply misaligned. If slaves had composted en masse with the end result of, say, cooperative organic farming, perhaps today small farmers might not have Monsanto’s mafia-like tactics to deal with.

Instead, many individuals revolted—both black and white—against the idea that human beings are chattel, and only after years of their combined efforts did Abraham Lincoln sign the Emancipation Proclamation. And that was just the beginning of the ex-slave’s struggle.

Meanwhile, in the 21st century, all humans are beholden to industrial polluters, whether we drink Coke, use gasoline, or wear polyester pants. But we have the power to shift the unbalanced nature of the relationship using a two-pronged attack.

So let the revolts begin.

© V.S. Pillay 2012


Letter from Judas.

In Uncategorized on October 9, 2012 at 9:28 pm

My Lord,

Tomorrow I betray you.

As you have asked me to do.

It is with heaviness in my heart that I heed my master’s words.

Lord, if only your feet would be here to catch the tears of contrition that will surely fall come the morrow of my death.

Yes, death, my Lord. For I, Judas Iscariot, will never again be what I am today. I will be an empty shell of a man. But for you I will carry the venom that will surely be spat upon me for the rest of my days.

For tomorrow, my Lord, at the behest of my kiss, they will take you.

While you carry the weight of worlds in your heart.

May it come to pass as you said, my Lord. May our God intervene; may the Romans’ beloved torture devices no more besmirch this land.

You said I will be doing God’s work—that I am God’s own instrument.

You touched my cheek.

My Lord, I beseech thee, reconsider the decision you have taken. Surely your wisdom is needed in this world for yet some more time.

Tarry, my Lord.

Lift this burden from my heart.

Though if you remain steadfast in your resolve, know that I am always your brother, ever ready to do your bidding.

Your Humble Servant,

Judas Iscariot

© V.S. Pillay 2012


The Summer of Love: Picasso’s Monumental Gift to the People of Chicago.

In Uncategorized on October 9, 2012 at 8:35 pm

It was the Summer of Love.

1967.

The music was groovy.

Youthful rebellion and idealism were bursting forth from the epicenter, San Francisco, vibrating outward to places like Los Angeles, Seattle, Chicago, Montreal, and cities across Europe. My father had recently arrived in Chicago from South India; he was a 33-year-old neurosurgery resident at Cook County Hospital. I wouldn’t be born for another five years, but the fact that there was a time in our country’s recent past dedicated simply to the idea of love is appealing to me in the 21st century. Looking back, it seems fitting that the Chicago Picasso was unveiled that summer.

In 1967, there was a feeling in the air that things were bad and getting worse. There was an ever widening generation gap, a war that few supported, and an appalling lack of civil rights for African Americans. The Summer of Love was a giant collective pushback of peace and love, clad in flowers, LSD, strange dance moves, and long, flowy dresses. Regardless of what we associate with the word hippie, there is no denying that hippies felt a powerful sense of unity that summer.

It was a season rich with music and expression. The Monterey Pop Festival was held in California; it was the largest rock music festival ever produced up to that time. And in fact, the Beatles kicked off the summer of ‘67 with their first live worldwide televised broadcast of All You Need is Love. What better soundtrack could a Summer of Love ask for? They performed it on a television program called Our World, the first live global satellite program, which also happened to feature the genius of modern art, Pablo Picasso.

At the unveiling of the Chicago Picasso Sculpture on August 15, 1967, there were 50,000 ordinary Chicagoans waiting to see what had been for weeks kept under a giant cloth gown–ostensibly to dissuade naysayers such as one vocal alderman who, up to the moment of the sculpture’s unveiling, proposed the Picasso be “deported” and replaced with a statue of Chicago Cubs First Baseman Ernie Banks. Also milling about the crowd with microphone and tape recorder in hand was legendary historian, author, and broadcaster Studs Terkel, who was conducting interviews with “the man on the street.” I wish my dad could have met Studs. I think they  would have gotten along.

And at the moment of its unveiling, the Mayor of Chicago, Richard J. Daley, declared, “We dedicate this celebrated work this morning with the belief that what is strange to us today will be familiar tomorrow.”

[Sadly, the unveiling video is no longer on youtube.]

In the background, the Chicago Symphony played Beethoven and Bernstein, and soon-to-be Poet Laureate of Illinois, Gwendolyn Brooks, read her poem The Chicago Picasso:

Does man love Art? Man visits Art, but squirms.

Art hurts. Art urges voyages—

and it is easier to stay at home,

the nice beer ready.

In commonrooms

we belch, or sniff, or scratch.

Are raw.

~

But we must cook ourselves and style ourselves for Art, who

is a requiring courtesan.

We squirm.

We do not hug the Mona Lisa.

We

may touch or tolerate

an astounding fountain, or a horse-and-rider.

At most, another Lion.

~

Observe the tall cold of a Flower

which is as innocent and as guilty,

as meaningful and as meaningless as any

other flower in the western field.

Tulips at Daley Plaza

Pablo Picasso, however, was absent from the festivities. As was my dad, who was likely peering through a microscope somewhere a few miles away. He’s gone now, but I wish I had access to his thoughts from that time. I’m sure he did not have a free moment to ponder much beyond the human brain. But if he could, I think he would have appreciated the Chicago Picasso very much. Contrary to my old man, Pablo Picasso never set foot in the United States during his lifetime; however, he did send a simple message from his home in the French Riviera for the occasion of the unveiling: My warmest friendship to Chicago.

But the following year was most certainly not about friendship.

It was 1968.

And the forces of division and darkness had retaken their hold; it was a time I’m sure the I Ching would have called

Darkening of the Light.

The year opened with the Tet Offensive in January, escalating the Vietnam War. The Communist North Vietnamese forces, who had fallaciously agreed to a ceasefire on an important Vietnamese holiday, executed a multi-city attack that took the South Vietnamese and American forces by surprise.

My father in 1967

America’s involvement in Vietnam was about to expand dramatically.

And by 1968 the black neighborhoods of Chicago were bursting at the seams. The majority of black folks were ensconced in an area on the city’s south side called Bronzeville, where Gwendolyn Brooks herself had grown up. However, in order to gain more economic opportunities and housing, black people ventured to move out of overcrowded areas and into nearby white neighborhoods. This seeming encroachment was not  welcome news for many white residents, who, ever since The Great Migration, had pushed hard against integration, often with the complicity of the city’s police.

Then on April 5, 1968, one day after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in Memphis, chaos erupted in cities across America, with some of the worst violence happening on the west side of Chicago. The riots prompted President Lyndon B. Johnson to send in 5,000 National Guard troops to help the city’s outnumbered police force. Mayor Daley issued a curfew and “shoot to kill” orders for any person caught with a Molotov cocktail, and “shoot to maim” orders for any person caught looting.

Later that year, in August, just months after the assassination of Senator Robert F. Kennedy in Los Angeles, Chicago was host to the Democratic National Convention. The mood in the city in 1968 reflected America’s deep anxiety. Inside the convention hall, there were several skirmishes. Meanwhile, outside the hall swarmed thousands of young Vietnam War protestors who clashed violently with (twice as many) police and national guardsmen armed with tear gas and billy-clubs.

Daley had once again stoked the flames of violence by not allowing protestors to rally anywhere near the convention hall – an edict they defied – thus polarizing the city further.

Bloodshed and pandemonium are apt words to describe the Chicago of 1968.

But it was 1967, when the city’s top was still tenuously on, that the Mayor unveiled the Chicago Picasso. He had made a brilliant and unifying decision for all people of Chicago by listening to his trusted advisor, the architect William Hartmann, and green-lighting the Picasso project. Hartmann, along with other Civic Center architects, approached Pablo Picasso with a request to design the sculpture. The artist was well into his eighties but agreed to the project; it had been a long-cherished dream of his to design a monumental sculpture such as the Chicago Picasso.

A Time magazine article from August 1967 recounts how Hartmann had “persuaded the 85-year-old artist to design the sculpture (gratis) for Chicago.” It’s true that Hartmann had gotten Picasso to agree to the sculpture, but Time’s account does not capture a piece of critical information which is that Picasso refused the $100,000 check for his work. After he had completed the maquette (preliminary model) of the sculpture, the artist did not sign the “Formal Acknowledgment and Receipt.” Picasso instead examined the check and placed it back in Hartmann’s pocket. Hartmann may have persuaded him to design the sculpture, but he certainly wasn’t the one to convince him to do it for free, as Time implies.

Instead of accepting the payment, Picasso had the following “Deed of Gift” drawn up on August 21, 1966:

The monumental sculpture portrayed by the maquette pictured above has been expressly created by me, Pablo Picasso, for installation on the plaza of the Civic Center in the City of Chicago, State of Illinois, United States of America. This sculpture was undertaken by me for the Public Building Commission of Chicago at the request of William E. Hartmann, acting on behalf of the Chicago Civic Center architects. I hereby give this work and the right to reproduce it to the Public Building Commission, and I give the maquette to the Art Institute of Chicago, desiring that these gifts shall, through them, belong to the people of Chicago.

The sculpture was Pablo Picasso’s gift to the people of Chicago.

I like to imagine that the artist had premonitions of dark times to come and thought Chicago, more than anything else, needed a strong dose of love. It did. Especially considering the chaos of the following year.

Picasso’s beneficence makes me wonder about the Summer of Love’s energetic vibration. It offered a brief window, like a force field—before the Vietnam War escalated, before the 1968 Democratic National Convention, and before the Chicago riots—for Chicago to capture a bit of that love energy by receiving into its own center the Chicago Picasso, which, to me, is a kind of love creature.

It bothers me a little that the Time article implies that Hartmann persuaded Picasso to design the sculpture free of charge. It is as if the journalist covering the story for Time was trying to make the existence of this “provocative piece of public sculpture” (by an avowed Communist ) palatable to the American public. Anti-Communism had been woven into the fabric of the status quo. For a pro-establishment mayor such as Richard J. Daley to approve a Communist artist’s design of an abstract and bizarre sculpture that, at the time, was considered risky and unprecedented, was certainly a coup. In fact, the Chicago Picasso was the first piece of abstract sculpture to be placed in any city center in America. It has since become the defining piece of public art in this city, but in 1967 Chicagoans had no idea what to make of it. Thankfully Daley had been smart enough to know that he did not know about art, so he trusted William Hartmann implicitly in the matter.

And that’s how we got the Picasso.

The Chicago Picasso (back view)

But that’s not how I got the Picasso.

A friend took me there one night last November, and I gazed upon the 50-foot-tall steel sculpture as if for the first time. In fact, it was the first time I had actually seen it. I have passed it countless times, sure, but never had I given it the appreciation it deserves.

Henry David Thoreau said that “books should be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written.” And of course books are works of art, many of them, and thus shouldn’t his philosophy apply to all types of art?  It’s what I feel Gwendolyn Brooks is saying in her poem; we don’t need to feel any particular way about art, but simply allow ourselves to be in the presence of it—and that in itself is transformative.

I came back to the Picasso again last month, during the day this time. It was a weekday when all the buildings around Daley Plaza were abuzz with business transactions and occupied people. I thought it would be fun to not be occupied and instead just listen to my iPod from inside the sculpture.

So that’s what I did.

I wasn’t thinking about anything in particular; I had no agenda aside from absorbing the energy of the piece and listening to my music. Although the seed of this article was planted back in November, the idea of writing it had not yet taken root. It was a wonderful feeling to be inside the love creature. I felt like one of the children who would pop up occasionally to climb and slide on it; they were my only companions, three and four-year-olds, specifically.

I contemplated my life, the world. I saw an old black man sitting on the concrete platform that holds the sculpture. He had a gray beard and looked utterly downtrodden. There were a few policemen around him, and one of them was issuing some kind of citation to the broken man. I didn’t hear what they were talking about, but I stood around to ensure no harassment was taking place. I wanted to be the man’s witness and tell the police, “Picasso is for the people!”  But nothing happened, and I just stood there.

I walked around the sculpture because I remembered something my friend had told me back during that night in November, which was that a sculpture should be art from all angles. So I took it in from the back and discovered something amazing. When I examined the love creature from the back, it occurred to me that I was looking at its thoracic cavity. Compare the images below. It is plain to see that the creature, whatever it is, protrudes forth from its own heart center! Picasso bestowed his very own heart upon Chicago, and this discovery thrills me to no end.

And when I think about 1967, I wonder how much has actually changed. Chicago is still a segregated city. America is fighting two insanely expensive wars. In Afghanistan right now, soldiers and civilians are getting their limbs and genitals blown off by IEDs. There are at once billionaires and starving people on the planet. Deforestation in the Amazon rainforest – the lungs of our earth – has risen sharply this year. And, and, and…it all seems so hopeless.

It makes me wonder if we can have another Summer of Love—one that isn’t beaten back by the forces of darkness…one that lasts.

But I can’t change anyone but me; and maybe, just maybe, that’s enough.

At least there’s still good music.

I stepped off the sculpture and gave it a last long look before I headed into the bowels of the subway. A police officer was coming up the stairs. I smiled and said, “Have a nice day.”

I wished I had a flower.

© V.S. Pillay 2012


Troy Davis and the Power of Forgiveness.

In Uncategorized on October 9, 2012 at 8:06 pm

Then Jesus said, Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.

Luke 23:34

Troy Davis did not eat his last meal; he refused the Ativan commonly taken by inmates to calm nerves before an execution. Here was a man who went to his death fearlessly, with dignity, and with all of his faculties intact.

Upon being asked if he had any final words, Troy said yes.

He raised his head so he could look at Mark MacPhail Jr., who was an infant when his father was murdered, and William MacPhail, the victim’s brother.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” Davis said to both of them, “The incident that night was not my fault, I did not have a gun…I did not personally kill your son, father, and brother. I am innocent.”

Davis then asked his family and supporters to look deeper into the case so they could find the truth.

And to the prison officials he said,

“For those about to take my life, may God have mercy on your souls. May God bless your souls.”

The lethal cocktail of drugs was then administered, and Troy Anthony Davis lost consciousness; he was dead within 14 minutes.

Troy Davis was not guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, and there was no compelling physical evidence tying him to the shooting murder of Mark MacPhail.

Over a million people from around the world raised their voices and called for clemency, including former President Jimmy Carter, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Pope Benedict XVI. Troy’s execution was an utter failure and an indictment of the U.S. justice system, and one that his attorney referred to as a “legal lynching.”

But before the end of Troy’s life yesterday, he expressed nothing but dignity and forgiveness; he looked at the victim’s family in their eyes. He could have chosen not to say anything, not to look at them at all, but he didn’t.

Regardless of his guilt or innocence, the fact that Troy acknowledged the MacPhail family so intimately and without anger was a powerful act, and one we should not forget so soon. 

If Troy Davis was guilty, I call it a transformation of consciousness that happened to him in prison. The one who killed was not the one in prison. The killer died – just like Ratnakara died. Ratnakara, if you recall, was the former name of Valmiki, the mystic poet and author of the Ramayana, one of India’s ancient and most revered epics. Before his transformation of consciousess, Ratnakara was a petty highway robber who killed his victims.

If the body of Troy Davis indeed committed the murder of Mark MacPhail, surely the Troy Davis that went to his death was not the same person.

But if he was not guilty, as so many people say, and as I myself still wonder after having read the entire case, it was a collective mortal sin on our country – yet another -that mars the American spirit. Haven’t we borne enough?

Contrariwise, in Texas yesterday, another state sanctioned murder took place, but in this case a perpetrator of a grisly crime, Lawrence Brewer, was guilty beyond a doubt. Thirteen years ago, Brewer was one of three white men convicted of chaining James Byrd, a 49-year-old black man, by the ankles to the back of a pick-up truck and dragging him along a bumpy asphalt road to his death. The victim’s blood was found on all three men’s shoes, and his body parts were strewn over three miles of the rural Texas road. In letters introduced as evidence in the case, Brewer bragged that the experience of killing Byrd “was a rush, and I’m still licking my lips for more.”

While in prison, he joined a white supremacist group. Since the murder, Brewer had remained unrepentant, claiming his innocence by saying he was simply along for a ride with friends.

Brewer’s last meal, which he ordered but did not eat, consisted of two chicken fried steaks smothered in gravy with sliced onions, a triple meat bacon cheeseburger with fixings on the side, a cheese omelet with ground beef, tomatoes, onions, bell peppers and jalapenos, a large bowl of fried okra with ketchup, one pound of barbecue with half a loaf of white bread, three fajitas with fixings, a meat lovers pizza, three root beers, one pint of Blue Bell vanilla ice cream, and a slab of peanut butter fudge with crushed peanuts.

At the time of his death, Lawrence Brewer had no final statement to make. He reportedly tearfully glanced at his parents and family, who were viewing the execution through a nearby window, took several deep breaths, and closed his eyes. I can only imagine his parents’ pain.

And at the vigil yesterday held by Byrd’s family members, his eldest daughter, Renee Mullins, had this to say, “The execution doesn’t mean that much to me because it doesn’t bring my father back. I want the world to know that I have forgiven him (Brewer) and I don’t hate him.”

The victim’s son, Ross Byrd, further stated,

“You can’t fight murder with murder. Life in prison would have been fine. I know he can’t hurt my daddy anymore. I wish the state would take in mind that this isn’t what we want.”

The type of forgiveness exhibited by James Byrd’s children reminds me of a remarkable woman in Rwanda by the name of Iphigenia Mukantabana, who was able to forgive a former member of the Hutu militia that hacked and clubbed her husband and five children to death during the 1994 Rwandan Genocide. Not only did she come to forgive him, she weaves baskets with his wife and calls her a friend; she shares meals with the two of them. Iphigenia’s capacity to forgive is staggering, and it is a shining example of what it is to call oneself a Christian.

Recall in 2007, the Amish school shooting in Pennsylvania. A gunman burst into a one-room schoolhouse and shot ten young girls, five of whom died from their wounds. He shot himself shortly afterwards. Amazingly, the gestures of forgiveness from the Amish community began almost immediately after the shooting. Nothing could have been more Christ-like. Several members of the community, some of whom had only buried their daughters the day before, went to the killer’s burial service and hugged his widow and other members of his family.

I’m not sure if I would be capable of such magnanimity towards someone who murdered my loved ones. All I know is that these people are just ordinary people who exhibited extraordinary forgiveness—forgiveness in the truest Christian sense. Forgiveness that is severely lacking in our country right now. I recalled these acts of forgiveness because of Troy Davis’s execution last night, which touched my heart and continues to bring tears to my eyes as I type these words. And yet I hear American politicians proudly calling themselves Christians while simultaneously supporting a policy that goes against the teachings of Jesus Christ.

America cannot call itself a Christian nation if it embraces capital punishment. Rick Perry, the death penalty zealot who never loses sleep over any execution that happens in Texas, certainly is no Christian. And neither is Barack Obama, even if his stance isn’t nearly as extreme.

The death penalty is a broken and racist system that needs to be abandoned permanently. The execution of Troy Davis was a travesty of justice, and just one example in a long line of injustices incurred by this nation since its inception.

If the Troy Davis’s of our country can die based on zero physical evidence, then American justice is no better than the Taliban’s.

Jesus, the ultimate man of peace, love, and revolution, as we know him through the gospels, forgave his crucifiers. Likewise, I imagine he would have been appalled by the execution of Troy Davis.

I urge all Americans to start a dialogue about the death penalty starting with this question:

How do pro-death penalty Christians handle the disparity between the teachings of Jesus Christ and their belief that capital punishment is a morally sound practice?

Please ask your pro-death penalty friends and family members how they reconcile these two beliefs. Ask them earnestly; ask them now.

And then keep the dialogue going.

© V.S. Pillay 2012