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Archive for March, 2017

(In a previous post, I had written how Denmark is judged one of the happiest countries in the world, year after year. Last year, in 2016, it was the happiest and this year , in 2017, it is third. I also mentioned  Hygge,( pronounced Hue-gah), the term that Danes use to describe their happy state of mind. It is a word that has no exact equivalent in the English language though ” cozy” comes closest. Hygge is best described in terms of examples: Sitting before a roaring fireplace while it snows outside. Curling up with a good book . Having dinner with family and friends. Enjoying coffee and cake with a loved one).

A Danish friend wrote to tell me of hyggelistic parties for example, a big birthday bash  in a rented hotel ballroom, where one is served the exact same food ( soup, pork roast and ice dessert) to be  enjoyed in the company of the same group of friends as the previous year. The prospect gave me pause. While I understand the comfort that one feels in the familiar, the prospect of attending such parties is not one that appeals to me. No matter how enjoyable an experience, it is not one I care to repeat ad infinitum.

Some thoughts on the subject …

In the nineteen seventies, time-shares were very popular in the U.S. For what seemed a bargain amount, families could spend a week (or two) at their choice of dream destinations. Hawaii, San Diego, Jamaica, Puerto Rico or wherever. However, the prospect of  staying  in the same furnished condo at the same time every year was one that never appealed to us. Why would we want to tie ourselves down, vacation wise, to the same place again and again when they were so many different destinations that we wanted to visit ? ( The time share companies did allow customers to trade their slots with other customers but it was a hassle and the transfer fees were not cheap). We never went in for a time share  and many of our friends who did later regretted their decision. The only  one who didn’t was a chap who lived  in Los Angeles and who purchased a time share at a resort very close to his home. The time share included use of the gym facilities year round  and he was able to enjoy them at less than it would have cost him to join a gym. Besides, during those two weeks every year, he was able to put up friends who were visiting Los Angeles if he didn’t have place for them at home. Smart.

Another example: We used to attend a community picnic at a nearby park on the first Saturday in August. We did it for perhaps fifteen years but each year it became less and less a pleasure. The same people, the same conversations, the same food. It soon began to pall. The picnic still is held in the same place every August but we haven’t been there for the last twenty years.

When it comes to restaurants, one very soon develops a list of favorites that one goes to again and again but even here we take care never to order the same dishes every time. Some of the dishes we order are tried and true favorites but each time we make sure to try something new. If it’s a flop, we won’t order it again but if it’s good it is added to our list of favorites. The same goes for the dinner parties we have at our home. Neither the menu nor the guest list is ever exactly the same.

Coziness is fine, familiarity is good… but, in my case,only up to a point.  After a while, the prospect of the new eclipses the charm of the tried and true. How is it with you?

 

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Last week, I  published a post ( The Happy Society) about the happiest countries in the world in 2016 as per a U.N poll. The top 5 countries in that poll were ( in order) Denmark, Switzerland, Iceland, Norway and Finland. Well, the 2017 poll results are out and it is not surprising that the same countries are at the top. The 2017 poll toppers are : Switzerland, Iceland, Denmark, Norway and Canada. The first four were in the top four spots last year, though the order was different, and Finland which was in fifth place is till in the Top 10 this year.

At the bottom of the list: Togo, a small West African country beset by lawlessness, large scale ivory poaching and corruption. Only slightly better than it are Burundi, Syria, Benin, and Rwanda, all of which suffer from civil war/genocide, power struggles, poverty and corruption.

To get back to the Swiss:Why are they so happy? One article gives 19 reasons, several of which seem to be facetious: the scenery, Swiss chocolate, Swiss cheese, coolest sportsman ( Roger Federer), high IQ ( most Nobel laureates/ capita) and trains that run on time. Others make more sense: Neutrality ( no fear of wars or invasion), true democracy ( even ordinary citizens can propose changes to the constitution; cantons have great autonomy), livable cities and multilingualism ( perhaps it instills a world view).However, the reason that stands out most ( to me) is universal healthcare which has resulted in one of the lowest obesity rates in the world and a sense of security. It is noteworthy that this is a feature of all the top countries on that list. Of all developed countries, the United States is the only one that does not have a single payer system that guarantees its citizens affordable healthcare.

Last year, the United States was 13th on the list; this year it has fallen one place to 14th. Among the reasons cited by poll respondents: rising income inequality, a drop in social support systems and a rise in mortality rates. How I wish our politicians ( Republicans and  Democrats) would open their eyes as to what is happening ! Unfortunately, our new administration seems to have a blinkered view and its initiatives bid fair to make the situation worse instead of better. How far will the U.S fall in the 2018 poll? We’ll have to wait and see.

P.S  It’s not that I like everything about Switzerland. For one thing the Swiss seem to live under a very restrictive set of rules. I was amused to learn that in Switzerland there is an ” approved” list of baby names, and that it is illegal to flush toilets after ten pm.

Ten pm – c’mon!

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Remember Sidney Poitier? The groundbreaking black actor who won an Oscar for Best actor for his role in the 1968 film ” Lilies of the Field” ?  He was handsome, charismatic, polished and urbane, effortlessly projecting an air of refinement and class. I recently read that, until he was ten years old, he never saw his face in a mirror, never knew what he looked like. His parents were Bahamian tomato farmers who had traveled to Miami to sell their crop when his mother went into premature labor. Sidney was born and immediately became an American citizen. He spent the first ten years of his life on Cat Island in the Bahamas, a sun-drenched Caribbean paradise without glass doors, windows or storefronts. Without man-made reflections, young Sidney had no idea what he looked like.

This anecdote started me thinking….

We look at ourselves in the mirror daily, many times daily. We know exactly what we look like or, at least, what we think we look like. We are familiar with our facial features even if we subconsciously alter our perceptions and think ourselves younger and better looking than we really are.

How do we appear to others? People meeting us for the first time assess us, our character, our personality by what they see in our faces. Their first impressions, based on their reading of our faces are, more often than not, correct and are borne out by continued interactions.

In fact, there are face-readers who claim to see our past, even our future from what they see on our visages. They are to be found mostly in India and China and usually combine face reading with palmistry and astrology. Now I can understand that they can read our past based on face-reading, the experiences of the past may have left their mark on our faces, but how can they possible foretell the future? I never believed this possible until the amazing experience of a friend of mine. My engineering colleague “Albert”, unhappy with his future prospects, decided to sign a three year contract to work in Saudi Arabia and make some real money. However, before he signed on the dotted line he decided to consult a face reader and I went with him to New York’s Chinatown. The face reader was an elderly man, poorly clad and unprepossessing, who had set up shop on the pavement. I was unimpressed by him and felt he was a charlatan. He looked long and carefully at Albert’s face before making his prediction; Albert translated his words for me as we walked back to the office. Apparently, after correctly telling Albert about some incidents that had already happened, the man said flatly that Albert would not be going to Saudi Arabia, that he would remain in New York for the  forseeable future. Albert was unconvinced and decided to go head with his plans. What next happened is still difficult for me to believe. That very night Albert got a call from Taiwan telling him that his father was desperately ill and was not expected to survive. Al immediately took compassionate leave and flew back to be at his father’s bedside. He remained there for the next three weeks as his father made a miraculous recovery but in that time Albert’s window to sign the contract expired. Just as the face reader had predicted, Al stayed on in New York for several years more.

We ordinary folk can’t be face readers, at least in the sense that we cannot predict the future. However, it may be instructive for us  to take a closer look at ourselves in the mirror. Tomorrow, when you look in the mirror, look a little deeper. Not just whether your hair is combed or if your lipstick is on just right. Look deeper, at the person behind the mask, under the skin. What do you see? What do you think others will see?

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After Roger Federer’s victory over Stan Wawrinka  in the BNP -Paribas final at Indian Wells yesterday, John Isner tweeted ” Is Roger Federer really from Planet Earth ?” A good question because at age 35, Federer seems to have regained his youth and is playing better than ever. At a time when his arch-rival Rafael Nadal seems to have lost a step, at a time when Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic, currently # 1 and # 2 in the rankings, seem to have lost their mojo and are nursing injuries, Federer looks once again like the player he was in his vintage years. At the later stages in their careers, most players slow down physically, their court coverage suffers and they gradually, imperceptibly adopt a defensive mindset. At Indian Wells yesterday and at the Australian Open earlier in the year, Federer moved as well as he ever has and he was very aggressive throughout. He was  going for shots, hitting the sidelines, and advancing to the net at every opportunity. Once again, we fans were treated to a master-class in tennis… fluid, graceful, seemingly effortless, and yet lethal. Poor Stan Wawrinka. He played as well as he could , as well as he was allowed to, but he always looked like he was fighting an uphill battle. A great player in his own right, a late bloomer who has always been in Roger’s shadow, it is good to see Stan come into his own. Against anyone else but Roger, I root for him.

Federer’s victory yesterday has understandably delighted his legion of fans, of whom I am one. It was painful to watch him struggle last year and we are all euphoric to see him re-born. However, let us be realistic. It is wishful thinking to think that he will win at the French Open and at Wimbledon and get his 19th and 20th Grand slams. Roger’s game plan now is to keep the rallies short and conserve his energy.; he is , after all, thirty-five. (Actually, he is closer to 36). Even he cannot afford to play long five setters and still play at his peak over the two weeks of a Grand Slam. I know he did it in the semi-final and final at Melbourne but that was a very fast surface and he had a favorable draw that enabled him to get more rest than Nadal before their epic final. Indian wells too was a fast surface and it was a best of three format. I know that Federer will be playing at Miami where the absence of Murray and Djokovic should help him improve his ranking and get into the top 8 and a favorable seeding in the upcoming Grand Slams but I would be very surprised if he plays the French Open.  Skipping it would let conserve his energy and get ready for the grass courts of Wimbledon where he is a real threat. But that is still a couple of months away. In the meantime, let’s see what happens with him at Miami. Win or lose, he is a delight to watch .

 

 

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I was really looking forward to the quarter final clash between Roger Federer and Nick Kyrgios at the BNP- Paribas Masters tournament in Indian Wells. Roger Federer is my favorite player, now mounting a fairytale comeback at age 35, and Nick Kyrgios, the enfant terrible of tennis, is playing at the top of his game. Kyrgios upset Novak Djokovic in his previous match ( his second win over the Serbian in the last two weeks) while unleashing serves of up to 141 mph. I mentioned my hopes to a fellow sports fan when I called him in Las Vegas on Thursday. ” Don’t get your hopes up” he said, ” anything is possible with Kyrgios. You never know which Kyrgios will show up.” Prophetic words indeed, but even my friend never envisioned that Kyrgios would not show up at all; he pulled out just before the match, citing food poisoning and saying he did not want to play a great champion like Federer  when he was at less than his best. I suppose his explanation could be true but his bratty behavior in the past makes his every action suspect.

Whatever be the reasons for Kyrgios’ withdrawal, it is a pity that he forfeited the match. Both players were playing extra-ordinary tennis and it would have been great to watch them go at each other. In addition to everything else, this was a stark contrast in characters: the ultimate good guy- bad guy confrontation. A morality play of sorts. Federer is unquestionably the most  loved player of all time and Nick Kyrgios the most despised one in a long time. His atrocious on-court behavior which culminated in his tanking a match has earned him repeated fines and suspensions. Boasting a 6′-4″ physique and equipped with all the shots, he has beaten all the top players at one time or another. He has also followed  notable victories with an inexplicable loss while appearing to play as if he didn’t care. Tennis commentator and tennis great John McEnroe  has even called him a disgrace and called on him to quit tennis. McEnroe himself was no saint in his playing days but he managed to keep his emotions ( somewhat) in check and went on to have a great career. It remains to be seen whether Kyrgios can do the same; the clock is ticking.

BTW, after the Australian Open Federer, Grigor Dmitrovic  and Tommy Haas accompanied by David Foster on the piano, made a video of an off-key rendition of ” Hard to say I’m sorry”, the 80’s hit by the rock group Chicago. The trio styling themselves The ( one-handed) Backhand Boys must have been practicing because they’ve just reprised their effort and they are now pretty good. Check it out.

P.S As I was writing, Federer and Wawrinka won their semi-final matches  handily in straight sets and will face each other in Sunday’s final. Should be a good match and I’ll be watching.

 

 

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Last year, Denmark was selected as the happiest country in the world ahead of Switzerland, Iceland, Norway, and Finland. The United States was in 13th place, the U.K 23rd and Japan 53rd.

What is it that accounts for the Danes happiness? Well, it is not about having things. The Danes have a name for their condition ; it is hygge ( pronounced hue-gah). There is no easy one-word  definition of this term but it can be understood to mean creating an atmosphere of warmth and intimacy and enjoying the good things of life with good people. It also means building sanctuary and community and connecting to others whether they be family, friends the community or the earth itself.  And it stresses small pleasures over the pressure to be perfect.

The first part of the definition ( enjoying the good  things of life with good people) is not new and is not unique to the Danes. People in countries the world over are well aware that happiness does not lie in excessive materialism and that it is the small things in life that are important, particularly when enjoyed with other people. Some such pleasures: family get-togethers, tucking into delicious food in the company of good friends, tea served in fine china, curling up with a good book, and a summer afternoon at the beach. These are some of the things that give value and meaning to our every day lives, make us feel at home, generous and content.

It is the second part of the definition ( about living in a society that stresses the importance of community) that is unusual. Danes like living in a society that provides a solid social framework and emphasizes personal contentment instead of status. Some of the features of  Danish society  are trust, a supportive education system and affordable healthcare. I’m sure Danes grumble about the high taxes they pay but they also know what they get in return and are happy with the compact. It allows them to have a good work-life balance and creates a strong foundation for fulfillment.

I can’t help thinking of the United States and the situation we find ourselves in today. Here, we stress individual freedoms to the point where the feeling of community is being undercut. When I speak to older Americans, they longingly remember the sixties as a time when there was a sense of unity, when most of the country was middle class and there was a sense of optimism about the future. None of these are true today. Last year the U.S was 13th on the list of the happiest countries in the world; next year I fear that we will be lower. All we can do to enjoy is to remember hygge … enjoy the little pleasures of life, live completely in the present moment and nurture the relationships that are important to us.

 

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My previous post was about a photographic collection, 100 Photographs that captured important moments in our history. It was a captivating book but many of the photographs were necessarily about tragic events ; few of them were about joyful happenings. When I was going through the book I suddenly recollected The Family of Man, a memorable photographic exhibition from the mid-nineteen fifties.

The Family of Man exhibition was curated by Edward Steichen, Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art. First exhibited at MOMA in 1955, it was subsequently shown in thirty seven countries over the next eight years and is now permanently displayed at Clervaux Castle in Luxembourg. The 503 images in the exhibition were also assembled in a book that sold more than 4 million copies and is still in print. The photographs focused on the ties that bind people the world over and celebrated peace and brotherhood. Some critics felt that they were excessively sentimental  but I myself remember them as being a balanced depiction of the human condition, evoking as they do happiness and joy, horror and sadness in equal measure.

After so many years I remember only a few of those photographs. One that stands out is the image of a drum-major in full regalia, including his shako, practicing his parade moves. Back arched, face upturned to the sky, his front leg out thrust he struts across a yard as, unknown to him, a line of mischievous kids mimics his moves. The photo perfectly captures the moment, the impishness, the naughtiness and the carefree nature of childhood. Looking at it, the viewer cannot but recollect what it was to be a child. Another photo, I seem to remember, showed a Peace Corps worker and a turbaned Punjabi farmer sharing a meal, literally. They are both eating with their hands from the same metal plate, bent over , oblivious to the camera, intent only on the food. To me, that photo encapsulated the brotherhood of mankind, the feeling we are the same under the skin.

One photograph that also occurred in the 100 photographs book was ” Migrant Mother”,Dorothea Lange’s Depression era portrait of a desperate mother and her two children. The family had lost their farm in what had become the Dust Bowl and was journeying from Oklahoma to California. The woman in the photo had just sold the tires of her car to buy food, supplemented with birds killed by the children. Defeated,desperate, worried, resigned to their fate the woman stares past the camera at a future without hope. The photograph brought home to the nation the human cost of the Great Depression and put a face on suffering.

If you wish to see some of these photographs, you can google The Family of Man photos. It will give you some idea of why people like me remember it sixty years later.

 

 

 

 

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