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At the library, I came across a book with the arresting title “ Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate” by Brad Warner. How could I resist it ? I didn’t and it was an interesting read. One passage that I found particularly striking was this:

” Those who hope for purity and righteousness always try and destroy that which disturbs them. They think the disturbance comes from outside themselves. This is a serious problem. Wars, suicide bombings and all sorts of nasty things start from the premise that we can destroy ” evil’ outside ourselves without dealing with the evil within.”

How true. The example that leaps to mind is the societies of the Middle East where men try to avoid temptation by forcing women to cover themselves from head to toe. It is a custom that is doomed to fail. One Western visitor noticed that in Kabul, young men hang around hoping for a glimpse of an ankle as women raise their chadors or burqas  when stepping over a high roadside curb. Enough said.

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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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If a picture is worth a thousand words, the book 100 Photographs : The Most Influential Images of Our Time is worth more than a hundred thousand. A Time publication, it offers readers a valuable retrospective of our lives and times. Many of the photographs we have seen before; I myself recall seeing at least 80 of them at one time or another and being deeply impressed by them. You too will remember many, if not most, of them.

The format of the book is simple. The photographs are on the right hand pages and opposite each, on the left hand page, is a description of the circumstances in which it was taken, its historical significance and its back story. While the photographs are rivetting, the stories behind them  are no less interesting. This is a book to be read, not merely looked at.

The photographs themselves are divided into three broad categories _ Icons, Evidence and Innovation. Under Icons, there are such memorable images as ” Lunch Atop a Skyscraper”. It shows 11 construction workers casually eating lunch or reading newspapers while perched on the narrow beam of a skyscraper under construction, their legs dangling over 800 feet of air. Just looking at the photo gives me vertigo. Other photos in this category include Winston Churchill’s portrait by Karsh of Ottawa, Betty Grable’s saucy pinup pose which gladdened the hearts of GIs during WWII, Flag Raising on Iwo Jima and Babe Ruth’s farewell appearance at Yankee Stadium. Under Evidence, we have searing images such as Burning Monk ( the self immolation of a Buddhist Monk protesting the Vietnam war), Jewish Boy surrenders in Warsaw, Saigon Execution and A Man on the Moon. Some of these in Somalia, Biafra, Iran, Vietnam and Iraq are so disturbing that I had to quickly turn the page. In the last category, Innovation, there are pictures of Salvador Dali’s hijinks, an X-Ray of the Hand of Mrs. William Rontgen, the First Cell Phone picture and the Oscars selfie. While I understand the iconic nature of the photographs in this section, I found them less compelling than the others.

All hundred photos though are ” important”, chronicling as they do important moments in the human experience. The photographers who took them constitute a virtual Who’s Who of photography. They include Margaret Bourke White, Robert Capa, Karsh of Ottawa, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Dorothea Lange, Alfred Stieglitz, Richard Avedon and Edward Steichen.

The book is notable not only for the photographs but for their back stories and the feelings and emotions that they evoke. For instance, ” Country Doctor” shows Dr. Ernest Ceriani of Kremmling, CO walking home through a weed strewn lot after a hard day of home visits.  Looking at the stark photograph, you can see how bone-tired the doctor is, sense his dedication and innate goodness. You know that no matter how exhausted he is, he will be making his rounds again tomorrow. This is a man who loves what he does; he is not in it for the money.” VJ Day in Times Square” shows a sailor who has grabbed a nurse, bending her back and planting a passionate kiss on her lips. The moment captures perfectly the sense of exuberance and relief that the war was at long last over.

Sometimes the descriptions correct long held impressions. ” Saigon Execution” shows the South Vietnamese chief of police firing a bullet through the head of a bound prisoner. The photo symbolized the brutality of war and galvanized American public opinion against the Vietnam war. What I did not know, and what the book reveals, was that the prisoner was the leader of a terrorist squad that that had just killed the family of one of the police chief’s friends. This is not to excuse the chief’s action but it provides the context for it.

Sometimes, my feelings were at variance with widely held views. One such photograph is ” Muhammed Ali vs. Sonny Liston” It shows the 23-year old Ali towering over Liston whom he has just kayoed and taunting him ” Get up and fight, sucker”. As the write-up explains, the ” perfectly composed image captures Ali radiating the strength and poetic brashness that made him the nation’s most beloved and reviled athlete”. True enough, but what I also remember is that there have been persistent rumors that the fight was fixed, that Liston played dead after a phantom blow to the chin. To my mind, the photo also captures Ali’s arrogance and the cruelty he displayed particularly in a later fight with Ernie Terrell.

This book will evoke myriad emotions in its readers… nostalgia, exhilaration, pity, fear, awe, anger, loathing  and disgust. But above all, it will arouse  a feeling of wonder at the vagaries of human behavior.

You can see the entire project at http://www.TIME.com/100photos.

 

 

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When I saw the book” Bamberger’s : New Jersey’s Greatest Store” by Michael J. Lisicky, I knew I had to read it. When my wife and I started married life in Edison, N.J in 1973, Bamberger’s at the nearby Menlo Park Mall was where we shopped. Bamberger’s and Alexander’s were the two bookends of that mall and we spent many hours there. Alexander’s was low-end, Bamberger’s the more classy.

Lisicky who has made a name for himself as a “department store historian”, perhaps the only one in the U.S, has written a fascinating book about a fast vanishing piece of Americana. His book details the history of Bamberger’s from the 1893 opening of its first store at the corner of Market St. and Liberty Street in Newark, through it’s early struggles, the dynamic enlightened leadership of Louis Bamberger, its 1929 sale to R.H. Macy’s, its subsequent spread all over the Garden State and its absorption into Macy’s. Along the way, the reader picks up some interesting tidbits such as the fact that New Jersey’s first escalator was installed in Bamberger’s Newark store way back in 1901. And that the radio station WOR first went on air in 1922 from that same Bamberger’s store.

Reading the book also made me aware of how many of our department stores have vanished. Some of them have been absorbed by others ( notably  by Macy’s) but most have closed their doors for ever. Nationally, the number of these vanished stores is in the hundreds, if not thousands. In New Jersey alone, the list is long  and makes for sad reading. Some of those that I have shopped in, and are now gone, are Alexander’s, S.Klein on the Square, Sterns, McGrory’s Two Guys, Ohrbach’s and Woolworths. Others that are still around but are hanging on by  a thread include Sears, KMart and JCPenney. How long before they too are gone?

In the past year, I think I have gone only twice to a department store, Macy’s, and it was a dispiriting experience each time. Where once the aisles were full with bustling crowds there were only a few desultory shoppers. Or were they merely lookers? Except during the Christmas shopping season, I can’t imagine that the picture changes much.

I suppose that with the rise of big-box stores such as Costco and BJ’s, of discount giants like Walmart and the increasing popularity of Amazon and on-line shopping, the demise of the department store is inevitable. It is so much easier to purchase things online and have them delivered at no extra cost ( thanks to Amazon Prime) than to brave the traffic and actually go to a brick-and- mortar department store.

I was never one to go a store unless I needed to buy something. I was never one for whom ” Shopping” was a hobby. Nor was I one for mall-walking, a popular pastime of retirees, particularly in winter. I also admit that it is much much easier to buy things from Amazon on-line. Still, I will be sorry when the last department store is no more. As it disappears forever, it will also take away a part of my past.

 

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I am not a fan of tomato ketchup. Some brands are better than others but many have a tinny after-taste which I dislike . Trouble is, I can’t remember which are good and which are not. At one time, there was also catsup ( Hunts, I think) but I haven’t seen it in recent years. I used to think catsup tasted different ( and better) but perhaps it was just my imagination and because I liked the word ” catsup” better than ” ketchup”. The ingredients  of both are very similar though some claim that catsup is tangier.

Perhaps my aversion to ketchup is conditioned by the fact that I was brought up on fruit ketchup. In India, tomatoes were relatively expensive and food companies substituted them with cheaper ingredients like bananas or even pumpkin. ” Tomato” was dropped from the product designation and the bottles were labeled just” Ketchup” or , sometimes, ” Fruit Ketchup”. Growing up in India, this is what we had most of the time  and this became the standard. Not surprisingly, it was sweeter than regular ketchup and this accounts for my bias. Fruit Ketchup is also manufactured in other Asian countries, notably the Philippines. One of the popular brands, Jufran, is available at Asian stores in the U.S. Check it out.

A Washington D.C company , Chups, makes fruit ketchup in 6 different flavors ( cranberry, mango, peach plum, blueberry and spicy pineapple) and adventurous home cooks make it in flavors such as tomatillo and sweet cherry. Another company, Blackberry Patch, makes ketchup in three flavors… raspberry Chipotle, Blueberry and Blackberry. These artisanal products sound intriguing but they don’t interest me … they seem far removed from ketchup.

Ketchup has been steadily losing ground in the U.S  because of  demographic shifts. Americans, particularly those on the coasts and the big urban centers, have developed a taste for spicier condiments and about 15 years ago, salsa overtook ketchup both in sales and popularity. Of course, a major reason is that salsa is a dip that goes very well with tortilla chips, a popular munchie at parties. I like salsa but prefer the homemade kind to the bottled variety.

My preferred condiment is hot sauce. I started out with Tabasco and Red Devil but found that their acidity overwhelmed the dishes that I was adding them to. I switched to Asian hot sauces such as Chili paste with garlic, and Sambal Oelek. They were fine but , once I discovered Sriracha, there was no going back. Sriracha has a more rounded taste and it complements whatever it is eaten with. It is amazing to think that the Sriracha company was only founded in 1987 by a Vietnamese immigrant to the U.S. So popular is it that it’s name has become synonymous with hot sauce just as Xerox was once with copiers. Of course, success breeds copycats and competition. Since the name” Sriracha” cannot be copyrighted ( it’s the name of a town in Thailand), Sriracha has spawned a host of imitators, including Texas Pete and Badia. Many of these are quite different and inferior in taste to the original. I make it a point to always buy the original products which can be distinguished by the Rooster logo.

Recently, I was surprised and delighted to find squeeze bottles of Sriracha Hot Chili sauce Ketchup at my local supermarket and it has since become my condiment of choice. I still use the hot sauce regularly but, when I want ketchup, I use the Sriracha Hot Chili Sauce Ketchup. It’s excellent.

Just as Sriracha has expanded into the ketchup business, Heinz has gotten into the hot sauce genre. The company not one but four entries in this category.. Hot Pepper Chili sauce, Sriracha ketchup, Jalapeno Ketchup and Balsamic vinegar ketchup.

I guess turnabout is fair play.

 

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