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The director Judd Apatow once bought a home gym. After using it three or four times, he stopped lifting weights and the gym fell into disuse. He didn’t get rid of it, however. It still sits in a corner of his office where it functions as a storage room cum clothes hanger. Apatow tells himself that it could be used one day. As he puts it “ … anything’s possible. All hoarding is hope. You think ” I can’t die because I have to watch that stack of DVDs! Makes you feel immortal, having too much stuff.”

Really? For a moment I thought that Apatow might have hit upon something. But , upon further consideration, my reaction is ” Nah!”

I have a friend who has 5,000 records and CDs. He is retired now and is busy cataloging his collection and , of course, listening to his favorite songs over and over again. Another friend is at once a bibliophile, a film buff  and a music lover. In his house he has a large loft, three walls of which have shelves containing his collection of books ( many of them autographed by the authors) and CDs and DVDs. He admitted to me that there is no way he could possibly read, listen or view his entire collection. Once in a while ,he may dip into this or that but his chief pleasure is in owning that collection and knowing that he can access it whenever he wants. I myself had a large collection of books ( particularly cookbooks) before I gave half of it away to an acquaintance. What remains is still sizeable and I have no illusions that I will read all those books again or cook one tenth, one-hundredth of those recipes. I like having those things around because of the pleasure of possession.

A good friend of mine put it perfectly. He said” I have boxes and boxes of stuff, most of which means something only to me. These things are not valuable but I will never get rid of them. One day, when I am gone, my son and daughter will go through the things in my garage , then call the junk man and have them hauled away. That’s OK but, as along as I’m around, I want them.”

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Two weeks ago, there were three Test series simultaneously in progress: New Zealand- West Indies, India – Sri Lanka and the Ashes Tests between Australia and England. Three of us – all of Indian origin- were following the cricket on TV and all of us plumped for the Ashes over the other two series. Granted this was the most competitive of the three  series but, had it not been so, we would still have preferred to watch it. Why? What is it that makes the Ashes so compelling even when the teams are not evenly matched ?

Part of the charm can be traced to tradition and the regularity of these contests. England and Australia have been competing in these series for more than a hundred years and the prize for which they vie ( the ashes of bails used in a long ago contest) adds to the mystique. Even though, South Africa, India , Pakistan and New Zealand often have strong sides and play good cricket they do not play each other with any regularity; traditions and rivalries have not developed to the same extent. But there is more to it and, in my opinion, these are the reasons:

The pitches and the conditions make for a more even contest between bat and ball. In Australia,  pitches are hard and fast, a paceman’s delight. Speedsters are able to menace batsmen with sheer pace and high bounce. In England, the heavy atmosphere enables the quicker bowlers to move the ball in the air and confound batters. Spinners play a supporting role to fast bowlers but, when they are really good ( Warne/ Laker), are equally a threat to opposing batsmen. And yet,  when batsmen are up to the challenge, it is a delight to watch them master opposing attacks before cutting loose.  In contrast, pitches on the subcontinent are usually batsman-friendly featherbeds on which bowlers ( particularly pacemen) toil without reward. Whether by accident or by nature, the pitches tend to break up in the latter stages of a match so that winning the toss plays a larger part in determining who wins the match. Sometimes , as happened at Nagpur and Pune the past year, the pitches are prepared to be unplayable  minefields where the best batsmen in the world struggle against even ordinary bowlers. In either case, it is an unfair contest and not as interesting to watch –  unless you are one of those ” fans” who wants your team to win at all costs.

Because of the nature of the pitches in Ashes tests, the result is often in doubt until late in the match. In the test now being played in Perth, at the end of the first day’s play, England were in a great position at 305 for 4.The morning of the second day , Malan and Bairstow carried on where they had left off overnight and took the England total to 368 for 4. A huge total, 500 even 600, seemed likely. Then the unthinkable happened and the last 6 wickets fell for only 35 runs. England were all out for 403, a good total but not formidable. It looked even less daunting at the end of the day’s play with Australia at 203 for 4, and Steve Smith still unbeaten on 92. Suddenly, the Test which had appeared to be in England’s favor was dead even ( perhaps even slightly in Australia’s favor). Considering that Australia have to bat last, it is not possible to say with certainty what will happen next. Either side could win or it could end in a draw. Whatever the outcome, cricket fans will be captivated until the end. In comparison, particularly in matches in the subcontinent, the result is often a foregone conclusion by the second day’s play and, once one side has established an advantage, the result is never in doubt. Most often it is a victory for the side batting first; otherwise, it ends in a tame draw.

In Ashes tests, because the pitches do not deteriorate as fast, it is possible for underdogs to battle for a draw. That too makes for a compelling spectacle. Such tussles which feature dogged resistance and fightbacks against hostile bowling are full of tension. Runs may be slow in coming but that is immaterial. Defending one’s wicket is the order of the day and spectators watch every ball with bated breath. Such draws are different from those mentioned in the earlier paragraph where there was never a chance of a decision.

Finally, the Ashes usually feature good fast bowlers on both sides and, for me, it is a most exciting spectacle. It is thrilling to watch a genuine speed merchant gallop to his mark and hurl a thunderbolt to the crouching batsman. The latter has only a split second to decide whether to play the ball, duck or sway out of its path or leave it to thud into the gloves of the wicketkeeper. Every delivery is an adventure. Spectators feel a frisson of excitement because of the element of danger; a slight misjudgment on the part of the batsman could result in a catch or an lbw shout or , God forbid, injury. Helmets and pads provide some protection but a 145 kph delivery thudding into the ribs can cause severe damage.

And those are the reasons why I like to watch the Ashes.

P.S Some of the reasons I mention are, of course, generalizations. They are not always true. South Africa often has a good pace attack, Indian groundsmen sometimes prepare sporting pitches and Ashes contests sometimes result in 5-0 whitewashes. On the whole, however, my reasons hold good. At least I think so.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Passionate Sports Fans

Some years ago, when we were in Siena, Italy our guide told us about pro basketball as it is played in Italy. He described a match between Bologna and Siena played on the latter’s home court before 6,000 frenzied fans. Before spectators could enter the arena, they were searched for concealed weapons. Just before the game started, five busloads of Bolognese fans were escorted into the stadium by policemen in riot gear. They took their places in the visitors section – a virtual cage surrounded by metal bars. This was for their own protection as soon  became apparent. When the home team took the court, the visiting fans played drums and trumpets , then turned around as one, dropped their trousers and mooned the home fans. This resulted in an outpouring of rage as Sienese fans stormed the cage , throwing missiles, cursing and spitting through the bars of the cage. This set the tone for the rest of the proceedings which featured rude chants, constant drumming, taunting and frequent stoppages of play due to court invasions. When the visiting team won the game on a last second three pointer, there was a full scale riot during which the police were overwhelmed and dozens of fans wound up in hospital. I wish I could give you more details of the game but will not do so because I cannot do so without bursting into gales of laughter. It really was too funny though not to the participants. For them , these basketball games are deadly serious: a re-enactment of past struggles when city states were bitter enemies that fought constant wars over territory.

In comparison, American sports fans are well mannered and civilized. But, only in comparison. There are certain rivalries in American sports which generate the worst in people. One of them is that between the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox, two baseball teams many of whose fans hate each other with a passion. In the Bronx, there are certain bars which are for Yankee fans, others which cater to Red Sox fans. Woe betide the unwary fan who strays into the wrong bar. I remember reading about a fan wearing a Red Sox  journey who was walking home from a game at Yankee Stadium. As the fan passed a ” Yankee” bar, another fan came out and challenged the former to a fistfight. What blew my mind was that both fans- the Red Sox fan and the Yankee fan- were women ! Yes, women fans can be passionate too.

Too my mind, football and ice hockey attract the most aggressive fans because of the nature of the games and because more drinking goes on during these contests. My acquaintance Steve told me about a game between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Detroit Lions that he attended in Philadelphia. He was not a particular fan of either team but when a Lions receiver made a spectacular catch he applauded . At the time the Eagles were leading 38-9 and the game was not in doubt. However, an Eagles fan took umbrage and started directing obscene comments and threats at Steve. Steve took it quietly for some time but it finally got to be too much. He was there with his young son and did not want to give him the impression that he was a wimp. When the Eagles fan went too far, Steve got up and challenged him to a fight. Luckily, cooler heads prevailed and the other guy backed down. This is not to criticize Eagles fans; Giants fans, Jets fans are just as bad.

There was a time when visiting fans clad in their team’s colors could sit anywhere in the stadium, in the midst of home fans. They would have no fears for their safety. Both sets of fans would watch the game without fear of violence. This is still mostly the case but increasingly I read of altercations between fans of opposing teams. This is a pity because I fear such people are missing out on the real beauty of the contest they are watching. They may call themselves sports fans but what they really are fans of a particular team, not of sport.

My friend Arnie used to support all the New York teams at a time when none of them was doing well. Towards the end of the basketball season, as soon as the Knicks were mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, he would say ” OK. Game over. Time for hockey.” He would stop following basketball and switch to reading about hockey.A month later, the scenario would be repeated . ” Time for baseball”. And so on. It’s OK to root for a team but when you identify so closely with its successes and failures, you open yourself to disappointment.

 

 

Tipping or service charges are so much a part of eating out in America that it is strange to be in an environment where tipping is not the norm. Five years ago, on a trip to Tokyo, we were taken aback to find that tips were not expected, where they were politely returned to us. We learned quickly and did not repeat our mistake. It was a practice that I wish existed elsewhere.

Though I always add tips when paying restaurant tabs, it is something that leaves me feeling either foolish or parsimonious. Did I tip too little or too much? Sometimes, I am not sure. Years ago, 15% was the standard tip, then it became 18%. Now , we are told it should be 20%, even 25% for exceptional service. Why? Why do these standards keep changing, always going up? Also, initially, the percentage was supposed to be calculated on the food and beverage cost; then it switched to a percentage of the entire bill, including tax. Finally, with the hefty markup on wines and drinks, the expected tip increases out of all proportion to the service being provided.

Tips were supposed to be optional, not mandatory. Now, they are expected as a right. They are even suggested and encouraged where they should not be. At the coffee shop where I pick up a bagel and coffee, there is a tip jar on the counter. What exactly is the tip for in this instance? For ringing up my order and handing it to me? I don’t buy it.

Service charges are not the answer. They merely mean a mandatory tip, whether the service is good or not and just take the guesswork out of figuring out what is appropriate. Besides, one has way of knowing how much of the service charge actually goes to the wait-staff and how much is skimmed off by the management, something I suspect happens a lot.

By not including the service in the basic cost of the meal, restaurants are doing what the airlines do. Keeping the stated price low and then socking customers with extras. Airlines do it to hide the true cost of a flight; restaurant owners do it to pass on the cost to diners and to avoid paying employees a living wage.

I’m glad therefore glad to read that some restaurants ( many of them owned by Danny Meyer) in New York City have abolished the practice of tipping. The prices listed on the menu ( plus tax) are the total cost of the meal. No hidden charges. This way, I can look at the prices on the online menu and decide whether a particular restaurant is worthwhile or whether it is too rich for my blood.

P.S The above might make me seem a curmudgeon but I don’t think I am. I am careful to tip ( and quite generously too) at ordinary restaurants. At low end restaurants, I tip more because I know the servers don’t make much. What gets my goat is the outsize charge for service at the upper end restaurants that I occasionally eat at.

For many years now, I have been talking about starting a Conversation Club. Generally,  at parties, the men and women form two separate groups and converse on the same old topics. The men talk politics, sport and money; the women about families, children and fashions. It’s all very predictable and boring, particularly the political discussions which never lead to anything ; nothing is going to be solved by us armchair experts but still we plow on.

I had read about The Socrates Club,  impromptu gatherings in public places, open to anyone who wishes to attend, at which attendees explore a topic announced shortly in advance. By exchanging views and asking questions, people from different backgrounds learn more about the subject and become more tolerant of each other’s views. There are now more than 600 such clubs all over the world. Sample topics: ” What is good art?” and  ” What does love of country mean?”

My idea for the Conversation Club was slightly different because my objective was different. The topics discussed at the Socrates Cafes, interesting though they were, appeared to me to be too highbrow for my friends’ tastes. Neither did I feel qualified to lead the discussions on such subjects.  I wanted to have a small group of friends meet regularly and discuss topics from our everyday lives, the idea being to cement our friendships by knowing more about each other, our likes and dislikes, our experiences. Sample topics: ” How do you feel about New York City? Do you go there often, seldom or not at all?” and ” Is winter just another season to be enjoyed or does the cold weather depress you? What do you do to avoid the winter blues?” or ” Hamburgers or Hot Dogs? Which do you prefer and why?” Follow-up questions would enable a thorough exploration of the subject and a better understanding of ourselves and each other.

I never did start a Conversation Club but I have used the approach in putting together a column, ” Your Turn”, that is published in the monthly newsletter of our Active Adult community. Each month I ask five different members of our community a question,( like the ones above) and add my own thoughts  to theirs. I started out interviewing my friends and neighbors, then the acquaintances from the different groups I am a part of and have now progressed to buttonholing people I meet in the clubhouse or on my walks. The answers are always interesting and sometimes surprising . It has also made me some new friends.

I am now thinking of starting — I will be starting – – a Movie Viewing club. The idea came to me after the Sunday Afternoon Cinema Screening of ” Monsoon Wedding” for which I was the moderator. ( See last post). Watching the movie in a group and discussing our reactions to it was not only a highly enjoyable experience but it created bonds between those who participated in the experience. I want to do it on a smaller scale at home. My idea: Invite two couples and show a video either borrowed from the library or from Netflix streaming services and then discuss it in a relaxed home setting fueled by coffee and snacks. Of course, the movie must be a meaningful one, perhaps ” Queen Of Katwe’, a Mira Nair film about a 12 year old girl from the slums of Uganda who becomes a chess prodigy and transforms her life. There are several talking points about the movie which would make for an interesting discussion. Now, I have to find out who among my friends and acquaintances, would like such a movie and be prepared to discuss it. Since I want to keep the viewing audience small, I want to take my time and be very selective in who I invite. It should be fun.

 

 

 

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Once a month , on a Sunday afternoon,  our Active Adult community shows a movie at the clubhouse. There is no charge. Attendees bring snacks for general consumption and the club provides coffee and tea. A moderator introduces the movie and, after the screening, leads a discussion on it. Yesterday, the club screened Mira Nair’s 2001 hit ” Monsoon Wedding” and I was the moderator. Everything went well,  it was an interesting experience and I came away with some fresh ideas on how best to enjoy a movie.

My wife and I saw ” Monsoon Wedding” when it first came out 16 years ago ( It really doesn’t seem that long ago). We saw it at a theater in Westfield, N.J and  were surprised by the reaction of the audience at movie’s end. When the lights came on, there was a sustained burst of applause and they then remained seated for a full five minutes  as if stunned.

I remembered the main points of the film but had long forgotten the details. So, the week before the screening at the clubhouse, I watched a video of ” Monsoon Wedding”, not just the movie but the bonus features too. They included a commentary by the director, Mira Nair, that was as long as the movie itself. It was a good thing I did because it cleared up some questions I had besides providing some interesting insights. Watching the movie for the second time was very helpful too. Since I already knew the plotline, I was able to focus my attention on the faces of the characters and appreciate the fine nuances of their acting.  At some points, I replayed the scenes and picked up additional details that I’d not previously noticed. One other thing I did was to read as many online reviews of the movie as I could.

All this prep work came in handy  since it gave the confidence that I could handle most anything that came up at the screening. I kept the introduction short and gave just the barest description of the beginnings of the plot. I mentioned that it was an ensemble drama and that while the movie might seem chaotic in the beginning with lots of characters coming and going, they (the audience) would know every character intimately by the end. I warned them of some graphic language in the movie and re-assured them that this Indian movie at least was not over-long.

After the movie, I began by asking the audience what they thought of the movie, and we were off to the races. Their comments were very perceptive and  one comment led to another. When the conversation seemed likely to flag, I threw out a question of my own. Every now and then, I had to clarify some point about Delhi society and Indian wedding customs and was able to do so without any problems. All in all, a most enjoyable experience because of this sharing of views. I was most impressed by the depth of understanding and the broadmindedness of the views expressed by the audience members

So.. what did I learn about how to watch a movie? Well, if you like the movie and want to know more , watch the bonus features, particularly the director’s commentary. It will give you fresh ideas about the plotting and how the director translated the script into the action on the screen. If you still want to know more, read what some of the well known film critics have to say about the film. Don’t just take their opinions as gospel but examine them and see whether  or not your own views are in agreement. This may sound like a lot of work but it really isn’t because you doing something you like. It’s  fun too because, once in a while, there is an “Aha!” moment when you stumble upon some the answer for some obscure point and then discover that it was what the director intended. In time, these practices will make you a much more discerning viewer and bring you much enjoyment besides.

Next post: Starting a Movie Viewing Club

 

In my previous post, I had written about tasting menus and their shortcomings: expensive, marathons with too many dishes, too many flavors and not enough food. There is, however, a simple alternative that diners can use to taste many dishes at a lower cost.

No, it is not the buffet. Generally, buffets are available only in low- end ethnic restaurants and there is often the suspicion that the food is left-over from the previous day. It doesn’t compare with the a la carte dishes at the same restaurant. This is not a blanket statement about ALL buffets but it is true of most of them.

Instead, why not try ordering family style? At most restaurants, that’s what we do. We each select a dish and share it with the others. This way, each diner gets to try everything and no one is stuck with a bad choice. If we find that a particular dish is a winner then ,on a return trip to the same restaurant, we order a double serving of that dish along with singles of the ” new” entrees. By ordering family style, we are able to try all the dishes we want on the menu within two or three visits to the restaurant.

Two other advantages of ordering family style 1) No meal is the same because we are always trying out new dishes while sticking to old favorites. It’s a combination that can’t be beat. 2) It enables us to be adventurous when trying out new unfamiliar cuisines. I remember how, when I used to lunch in Chinatown, there would sometimes be out of town lunchers at a neighboring table. I could tell they were from out of town , because each person would order only for himself.  They would order the old familiar standbys : fried rice, egg fooyung, chow mein  etc. One would have only the chow mein. Another, only the fooyung. A third, only the chow mein. Meanwhile , my colleagues and I would be sharing dishes like Sauteed Lamb with Basil, Chengdu Chicken, Tea Leaves Smoked Duck, Pork with Special Pickled Radish, Seafood with Pan Fried Noodles and Sizzling Hong Kong Steak.

Family style… It’s the only way to go.

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